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Dragon Con was a blast and I felt like the DC Comics and Cultural Studies panel went well. I’ve had a few requests so I’ve posted my paper “Discipline & Punish: Michel Foucault & the Suicide Squad” here. Hopefully I’ll get around to posting my paper from last year some time soon, but until then, enjoy this one.

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The Suicide Squad have been in the news a lot lately, especially since the release of the trailer for the 2016 film. As I put together my presentation for this year’s Comics and Popular Arts Conference, I’m becoming more and more entrenched in the lives of Task Force X as my presentation tries to place the Suicide Squad within the timeline of modern discipline and punishment as put forth in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. As I go through the source material, I’m also reading a lot of what people are writing online about the upcoming movie and I notice a dearth of articles written about the movie by people who have much experience with the actual comics. In an attempt to bring comic books back into the discussion of comic book movies, I thought I’d put together a few interesting tidbits about the Suicide Squad as they appeared in the comics.

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1. The Suicide Squad is older than the Justice League…sort of.

When the Suicide Squad first appeared in DC Comics The Brave and The Bold #25, they weren’t a chain gang of super-villains, but rather of a state-sponsored group of everyday heroes having not-so-everyday adventures. None of them had any superpowers and none of them had criminal notoriety. In many ways, they barely resemble the Suicide Squad in the comics today or the Suicide Squad as its been portrayed in popular media (Smallville; Batman: Assault on Arkham; the upcoming Suicide Squad film). What connects the original Squad to the contemporary Squad are the memberships of Rick Flag- a character who hasn’t been on the Squad in the comics for a long time- and Karin Grace- a character that, excepts for a few issues in the first revival of the Squad, has largely been lost to comic book history. Still, that old Suicide Squad of scrappy superpowerless do-gooders appeared in the pages of The Brave and The Bold before the Justice League, which made its debut in The Brave and The Bold #28.

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2. Those thugs were first assembled to defeat Darkseid.

While the Suicide Squad mostly goes on sketchy espionage missions to serve the interests of A.R.G.U.S. or Checkmate, they were first brought together to defend the planet against the terrible tourist from Apokolips, Darkseid. In his usual fashion, Darkseid has attacked the Earth on many fronts- physical, social, and psychological- which has made ordinary folks despise ‘heroes.’ Superheroes become unable to perform their basic function and villains are brought in to do the hero work. This may remind readers of how Lex Luthor, Captain Cold, and others came to perform heroic feats in the recent Forever Evil storyline when the Justice League was incapacitated by being locked up in the ever-unstable Firestorm matrix motel.

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3. They are a group of predominantly white super-powered convicts being bossed around by a high-ranking government official, an out-of-shape and overweight black woman.

In the United States, we haven’t had a black female president yet. We haven’t had a female president and it’s arguable that we’ve only had half of a black president. In our most female-filled congress of all-time, only 20% of the elected officials serving in the legislative branch are women. Only half of the fifty United States have ever elected a black person to the House of Representatives. There’s only been nine black senators ever and only one of them was a woman. Still, overseeing the Suicide Squad isn’t really the responsibility of an elected official, so we can assume Amanda Waller wouldn’t have to campaign for votes. Well… no CIA director has ever been black nor female. The same is true regarding directors of the NSA, FBI, and ONI. Carolyn Payton was black and a woman, but she was just served as the Director of the US Peace Corps which seems like a job that would bore Amanda Waller. Growing up in poverty, it seems strange that Amanda Waller would also have the social connections to end up in such a position. Likewise, it’s not until Amanda Waller is skinnied up in the New 52 that she has any real military experience as part of her background. Sure, the US  government is racially biased against black women in terms of promotion and Amanda Waller lacks the necessary background and physical fitness to perform her job, but we find Amanda Waller directing the affairs of the Suicide Squad, literally holding their lives in her hands- such is the unlikely magic of fiction.

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Are we finished with ways that the Suicide Squad narrative does not accurately reflect the way racial tribes manifest their power through our social institutions? Worry not, because despite the fact that nearly half (1 million) of the entire US prison population (2.3 million)  is black, nearly all of the members of the Suicide Squad are not black or were not black during at least part of their history- Bronze Tiger, for example, or Deadshot who has never been black until the casting of Will Smith. While short-time Squad member Black Adam has black in his name and is literally African, he’s got lighter skin than Betty White. While blacks and other ethnic minorities account for significantly less than whites in Suicide Squad membership, such disparity is not uncommon among super-teams as the superhero genre suffers famously for its lack of diversity. On the other hand, women consistently make up a larger percentage of the Suicide Squad than most super-teams (looking at you, Justice League/Avengers….), which is a little odd since men make up over 90% of the US prison population.  As statistically unlikely as the Suicide Squad’s roster would be in the real world, it is essential to the dynamic of Suicide Squad because who is the Suicide Squad?

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4. Amanda Waller is the Suicide Squad.

The Wall wasn’t part of the original Suicide Squad from the B&B days- there weren’t a lot of black female characters in 1950s comic books. She didn’t arrive on the scene until the Legends mini-series that introduced the world to the Suicide Squad as we understand them today and she’s been with them ever since. While the Squad certainly has its usual suspects (Captain Boomerang, Deadshot, Bronze Tiger, Enchantress, Plastique, King Shark, Killer Frost, Count Vertigo- to name a few), the only constant is Amanda Waller. As a character, Amanda Waller remained pretty consistent during her tenure in the DC universe. She’s operates from some shadowy government organization (Checkmate, ARGUS), monitoring and managing the world’s ugliest secrets. She doesn’t take shit from anybody, even presidents. Her existence is kept somewhat a secret, but she’s got connections everywhere. Physically, she’s short and heavy-set. Her figure distinguishes her from the bombshells that make up most female characters in the superhero genre. Her weapons include the power of persuasion and the ability to circumvent bureaucracy.

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Following in the 2011 film Green Lantern, Amanda Waller is portrayed by the lovely Angela Bassett- a casting decision that would have significant effects on the character. While the actress retained Waller’s authoritarian attitude, she did nothing to portray the character’s physical attributes and turned Amanda Waller not only into a sex symbol, but a much more physically violent character. Bassett’s portrayal heavily informed the way Amanda Waller would appear in the New 52, the company-wide overhaul that occurred in September 2011, the same year that the Green Lantern movie came out. In the New 52, Amanda Waller is a former member of Team 7 and actually joins the Suicide Squad in punching up the bad guys. The military background, weapons mastery, and martial arts expertise give Amanda Waller new strength, but at the cost of the original character. While I miss the original Amanda Waller character, I must admit I really enjoyed the New 52 Suicide Squad. The storylines related Waller’s past came across as very fresh, but I wonder if they couldn’t have created a different character- one skinny ex-military bad-ass and Amanda Waller instead of one skinny ex-military bad-ass as Amanda Waller.

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5. Belle Reve is the official Suicide Squad prison.

The inductees of the Suicide Squad Hall of Fame come from the halls of Belle Reve prison in Louisiana. Amanda Waller is the on-again off-again warden. The prison first appeared in Suicide Squad #1 back in 1987. It shares the same name of Blanche Dubois’s lost estate in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and translates roughly as “beautiful dream.”

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The cosplay phenomenon manifested itself, mostly at a grassroots level, from the collision of social forces old and new. Equal parts post-modern hyper-consumerism and ancient ritual, cosplay combines humanity’s celebration of its own imagination and a refusal to accept its natural limits. Like mating dances and funeral marches, it is inherently sexual with its multiple sexual identities decided by its multiple audiences. Through cosplay, the cosplayer rejects their reality in favor of a reality augmented by a fantasy element. The act is both self-destructive and self-affirming. It is both personal and social. During the act, the cosplayer is constantly engaging the character being recreated and through this process, an intimacy is created. For fans of those character, observing others in the cosplay act can stimulate their own feelings of intimacy will the character, exponentially increasing the Barthesian experience of an author losing control of their work while the audience creates its own text from its own understanding of the work. People are attracted to the cosplay community because of the orgy of it all, the give and take of cerebral and sexual signs that compel visceral responses from the intellectual and physiological self.

Cosplay is real people, but it isn’t. The characters are generally more professional than the actors. Cosplay succeeds when it blurs the lines between its multiple realities in interesting ways. Lex Luthor is obvious in the Prometheus suit, but what about his birthday suit? Craftsmanship, creativity, and courage are characteristics that greatly benefit a cosplayer. Veidt.com is a unique voice in the cosplayer universe. Describing themselves as “a stupid little fansite celebrating alt cosplay, post-human culture, and parody,” Veidt offers what a lot of people are looking for in their cosplay- nudity. Veidt is not a pornographic site, but it will likely stir a few of those feelings you discovered during puberty. In addition to its erotic character, Veidt maintains a minimalist aesthetic more John Waters than Andrew Blake, punker than it is pretty.

Additionally, Veidt stands on the merits of its own street credibility or rather its geekdom authenticity. Named after the ozziest of the Watchmen, Veidt demonstrates flawlessly a genuine interest and understanding of comics’ rich culture without the need to boast Comic-Book-Guy-style about its own authority. At a time when an embarrassing number of males in the sci-fi community are attacking females in the community under the ridiculous charge of being fake nerds, Veidt is a site maintained by women that are real nerds- I mean that as a compliment, of course. Sure, you will find Supergirl and Catwoman on their site, but also several Green Lanterns (even a pre-Red Lantern Green Lantern), characters from independent comics, characters of their own creation, and other characters of varying obscurity.

Anyway, I spoke with some of the ladies at Veidt.com and did a few Wayne Xiao Long interpretations of some of their photos. I encourage you to check out their site to see what it is these remarkable women do.

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INTERVIEW WITH THE WOMEN OF VEIDT.COM

WXL: Who are you?

VEIDT.COM: I’m the concept artist behind the alt cosplay site Veidt.com, which encompasses pretty much everything on there, except for the part that actually matters- wearing the costumes.

WXL: You maintain a site that features pop culture news and your opinions, but is mainly known for featuring beautiful and beautifully tattooed women dressed as characters from video games, comic books, and your own imagination. Unlike many other cosplay sites, yours sometimes offers a more intimate look at the bodies of the cosplay models. It’s a very popular site that doesn’t generate income, right? So, my question is, why do you do it?

VEIDT.COM: This was never intended as a for-profit venture, it’s a silly little art project that’s somehow developed a following. There are very definitely real costs to the stuff we do, but have been quite fortunate that whenever we put up a crowdfunding campaign to keep going, the audience has responded. I’m so grateful for their interest and support, which has allowed us to continue growing.

That’s not to suggest there’s anything wrong with generating revenue. I’m very much a fan of capitalism, and will do other things, but I’d like to keep Veidt as freely available as I can, for the foreseeable.

WXL: Your site gives the impression that all of you are friends. How did you meet each other?

VEIDT.COM: There’s definitely a couple of interesting stories there.

People seem to have a lot of distinct impressions about the site and I kinda like that it’s open to interpretation. As long as they know the shoots are very much a collaboration, and that the best ideas often aren’t coming from me, they can think whatever they like.

I am working right now on a story that combines some of the history and experiences of the site, as a foundation for some radical leaps of imagination, to do something I haven’t seen in comics. Ideally, would love to find the right artist to work with, and make it an open-ended one-off comic book. But if not, I suppose it will go out at some point as a prose piece, with supplemental sketches and photos.

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WXL: Two characters your site is particularly fond of recreating are the Green Lantern characters Star Sapphire and Arisia Rrab. These are both characters under the thumb of Hal Jordan in pretty demeaning ways. By becoming Star Sapphire, any of Carol Ferris’s personality other than her love for Hal ceases to exist, revealing a very outdated perception of women. Arisia Rrab is Hal Jordan’s thirteen year-old girlfriend that alters her appearance to allow Hal to continue his pedophilia when they return to Earth. These women surrender control and even meaning over their lives to a man so easily and yet the models on your site seem to have taken a great deal of control over how they use their bodies and they allow themselves to be publicly represented. Was this a conscious choice to use such characters? More generally, what are your intellectual objectives with the site? How do you define the feminist components of your work? What is your contribution to our collective and your individual struggles with gender?

VEIDT.COM: It’s even weirder, as Hal Jordan doesn’t really mean anything to me. The first DC series I devoured, outside of some Batman books, was Grant Morrison’s JLA, which had Kyle Rayner. That lead me to track down the Keith Giffen run, which came highly recommended, and that’s wall to wall Guy Gardener. And then the JL cartoon was John Stewart…all of those characters had great moments, and strong personalities, so when all of the focus seemed to suddenly shift to Hal Jordan, I didn’t get it. I have no idea what’s supposed to make him better than these other guys, and in fact my biggest exposure to Hal was the pacifist fighter pilot nonsense in the beginning of The New Frontier, and that almost made me stop reading- fortunately, I persevered through…it is an exceptional story.

Very aware of the back-stories of Arisia and Star Sapphire, and would love to go off on a screed about Arisia, in particular, but I’ve actually channeled my reactions to and fascination with that character into the more fictional aspect of the story I mentioned working on. Don’t want to spoil that, but I hope it makes for an interesting / alternate / unexpected take on an utterly absurd, yet compelling character.

As for our cosplay shoots inspired by these characters, there’s definitely a degree of satire by exaggeration behind them. Also, one of the motivations for the images was to try to channel some of the comic book, post-human world into our mundane reality. I don’t think I’ve succeeded at conveying that, as the most consistent criticism is of things like power outlets and light switches in the background. That was kind of the point, and I guess I fail at subtext for having to come out and explain it.

And while I appreciate the question on intellectual objectives, I haven’t earned that. I got accepted to CalArts after hs, but didn’t get to go (parents wouldn’t pay for art school.), made and maintained friendships with some people there, though, and because I had an outsider perspective, was able to see how uncomfortable it could get when people spoke way too much about their process. Not taking your work too seriously, I think that’s actually admirable, and can be an asset. But radically overestimating the audience’s interest in the people behind the work, or being an obv try-hard at personal brand building, is just…*shudder.*

I’ve gotten some fascinating feedback from all kinds of people, who’ve noted many things that were, and many that definitely weren’t, intentional. I appreciate getting people’s responses to this stuff.

WXL: Your site celebrates women in comic books and satisfies a desire than many people have. Most people that search for my site end up here because they were looking for naked pictures of Zatanna or some other comic book femme. It’s great they have your site for stuff like that. Are there any male comic book characters that you like to create costumes for and shoot pictures of?

VEIDT.COM: Well, I’m not short on volunteers, which is nice.

We actually did one this year, a Namor shoot for April Fool’s. A friend of mine has achieved some real fame in a particular niche, and he’s got the classic olympic swimmer’s build, so we did this…intending it to be a joke, but it actually turned out kind of amazing. Rarely look at my stuff and think, there’s a shot that could actually sell as a print, or something, but this set had one.

Sadly, someone close to him didn’t appreciate it, and I was asked to sit on them. That’s happened before, someone asking not to run certain pictures, which is fine, but this one kinda hurt.

If I don’t get the okay to use them soon, I’ll try reshooting it with someone else, as the costume and location really worked, and I’m curious to see what kind of reaction the pics might get on the site. We’ve gotten positive feedback from a pretty diverse array of people, so I’m hopeful some might be open to it.

Either way, there’s at least one other idea I has incorporating a male character; will get that done this summer, too.

WXL: Many of your shoots are in rather public locations. Could you share some interesting encounters with or reactions from the general population? Anyone cast a hex or proposition you?

VEIDT.COM: My favorite thing in the world is going hiking, really late at night. Running up and down hills, climbing and jumping like an idiot, it’s very effective for stimulating introspection and creative thought. Started doing it at night because when I’d go during the day, would occasionally run into another hiker, and that took me out of the moment, and tended to made me self-conscious. I bring this up to sort-of convey that I try to avoid people, generally, no matter what I’m doing. [And should the updates on the site abruptly stop, I’m likely dead somewhere in the Santa Monica mountains, or thereabouts. Hiking at night is very fun, but also dangerous and dumb. It’s cool, though, I will have gone out doing what I loved.

So yeah,  we have used public locations, but I’ve studied them in advance, and felt confident we could work there without running into anyone. It doesn’t always work out that way, though. We were shooting on a fire escape, once, and gradually became aware of this squat little guy masturbating from his window in the adjacent building, with a big smile on his face. We waved, and quickly went elsewhere.

It was a little surreal going into a comic store in LA, not long ago, and a couple people were looking at the Post-Human Pin-Up ebook on an iPad. They were going through it, occasionally talking about it, and I’m 3 feet away listening intently, having that comic book moment where Peter Parker has the imaginary half Spider-Man mask on his face, or Bruce Wayne’s shadow suddenly has bat ears, or whatever.

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WXL: I’m guessing that all of the models on your site have thought about this question before. Which comic book character do you think you personally could portray best on screen?

MARNIE: Cassie Hack, mofo!
HAN:  We just did Ravager, she’s the character i most wanted to do. Please, somebody, just make a Titans movie.

WXL: GL fan to GL fan, what do you think is the number one problem with the movie? Don’t say the costume- that’s a cop-out answer for a cosplayer!

VEIDT.COM: Number one problem? Radical over-reliance on ugly CG, and the costume is part of that, but so are the uninspired designs for Oa, Kilowog Potatohead, Parallax, and so many other elements.

But even if you somehow fixed all that, you still have the choice of Hector Hammond as a villain, the charisma vacuum that is Peter Sarsgaard, casting Blake Lively in a role that screamed out for Eva Green, the implausibility of Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, and Sarsgaard as a peer group with a long history, things like the GL oath and Kilowog saying,”Poozer”, which read fine on a comic page, but should probably never be spoken aloud in a film. Why was Tim Robbins in this movie? Bland music that made no impression. Also, no Arisia and no fleeting glimpse of Ferris as her future alter ego.

What it did right is a much shorter list: Ryan Reynolds wasn’t bad casting; at least someone thought to start hinting at a larger shared universe by bringing in Amanda Waller; and Mark Strong was pretty good. Happy we got to see him in Sinestro Corps mode for a few seconds.

GO VISIT VEIDT.COM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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