Where I've Been and What I've Been Doing

O faithful blog reader, I welcome thee to this place so long abandoned, so cold and full of digital dust, born of a wish to add narrative structure to a life pulled in too many directions. Such joy ambition finds. 

Which is to say that I haven't written a blog post in five months. I've checked in once or twice and even added a few drafts to remind myself to write in the future, but looking at them now, they're like a grocery list in someone else's handwriting. I get what they're telling me to do, but the lack of specifics makes me nervous, like I'll make a bunch of small mistakes that will result in something wholly unappetizing. And so we're starting over. But not really. 

The big news is that I passed my prelims! I am a doctoral candidate now, which is a bizarre thing to wake up knowing. I still feel like someone has made a mistake, like I couldn't have actually accomplished what I did, like when I get to my office next week, there will be a letter from the department chair telling me to clean out my desk, it's time to go, I don't belong here. But apparently I do, so I'm learning to live with that. 

I went to two conferences, one in Knoxville and the other in Columbus. I drank with many fine people and learned from them all. 

I'm still working at the bookstore and still enjoying what I do there. 

Marge is still the best cat.

I almost went on a date with another human being but canceled the day before and felt so relieved and have no desire to do that sort of thing again any time soon.

I'm full of ideas and too many at once. Dangerous ideas that explode out of one another and hover unformed where I can only grasp them in the car or in the shower when I can't write them down.

I went to the movies with a friend. I played video games all day and didn't feel guilty. I bought a [supplementary] paycheck's worth of groceries and cooked because I wanted to and because I had time. I read a work of fiction that was written less than 500 years ago--but to be fair, it was about Medea, so maybe I am still in transition.

In short, I feel like myself again, if only for a moment. It's cold outside and Marge is splayed out on my chest. Things are good. 

A New Plan

Reading for prelims and prepping two new courses while teaching another course and working a retail job to pay your bills and trying (and failing) to regularly write a blog is hard. Like, dark-night-of-the-soul hard. Like, quit-academia hard.

So in the coming weeks, I'm going to begin prepping my Medieval Lit and/or History of Text Technologies lessons, which will serve two purposes: 1.) I will crystallize some of my reading into Things I Know (TM) for my upcoming prelims and 2.) I will finally have some new content on this here barren ol' blog.

I'm excited by this prospect. Check back soon. 

The Zoo

I got home Sunday evening from my third Kalamazoo--more properly, the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies, held annually in Kalamazoo, MI. It's always something of an ordeal for me to go up to Michigan from Florida, long drives and long flights compounding one another into a time-sucking logistical nightmare, but it's something I look forward to at the end of the school year: ~3,000 students and professors of medieval studies gathering to share their ideas over staggering amounts of free boxed wine.

WHERE WERE THE SWANS??

WHERE WERE THE SWANS??

It felt different for me this year, a sentiment I learned from Twitter was widely felt. I attributed this to the construction blocking the central pond, the translocation of the nightly wine hour, and my own (relative) abstinence from the revelry.

#MedievalTwitter has already produced several great responses on this score. David Hadbawnik's travel itinerary put mine in Scipionian perspective, and Shyama Rajendran has drawn attention to issues of diversity and inclusion that we as medievalists need to address moving forward. Gabrielle M. W. Bychowski has written powerfully about the controversy surrounding the papers of this year's meeting of the Pseudo Society, and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has raised some important questions about the way we tend to drink at conferences--which slightly rankled me at first before working their way into my heart and affecting my experience for the better.

I went to some excellent panels and came away with a clearer understanding of what I will write in my forthcoming dissertation. Each year gets better because I know more about the field, more people in the field, and more about what I actually find interesting. The Lollard Society's session on "What Do We Mean By Devotion?" introduced me to Michelle Karnes of Stanford, whose paper, "Devotion: Medieval and Modern," assured me that other people are interested in the fragile binary of "literary" and "devotional" texts, an idea Jessica Brantley of Yale confronted head on. Similarly, Princeton's Program in Medieval Studies organized an excellent session on the idea of the self in the Middle Ages, which, as many readers may know, is part and parcel of my studies. Amy Conwell of the University of Toronto and Elise Wang of Princeton's papers on Marguerite Porete and Julian of Norwich, respectively, were truly inspiring. My favorite moment of this latter panel occurred in the Q&A, when someone in the audience asked an interesting question about medieval women's tendency to assert their personal identity in their written texts while their male counterparts favored anonymity. Wang responded: "Is there any evidence that The Cloud of Unknowing was written by a man?"

#SWAG

#SWAG

One of my other favorite moments was at the business meeting for the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship when someone proposed a session on the misappropriation of the medieval in antifeminist rhetoric, which was met with unanimous support from the Society. Buttons reading "Embrace the #femfog," in reference to Allen Frantzen's recent misogynistic comments about the state of academia, were worn proudly and pinned on tote bags depicting Christine de Pizan at her writing desk alongside the words "This is what a medieval feminist looks like." (For further reading on #femfog, read Cohen, among countless others--Frantzen's original post has been removed.)

Things were different this year. I sadly missed the #MedievalDonut reception and the BABEL gathering at Bell's Eccentric Café. There are many things we can work on improving, including issues of accessibility in the dorms and shuttles, how we respond to difference, and what to do when we feel abandoned by senior scholars. But if what I saw is any indication, there is so much hope for the future of medieval studies. In the immediate wake of ICMS, #MedievalTwitter came out in force to stand behind @chevalier_cygne, who delivered a #sick #burn that turned into #SwanGate, a loose movement calling out racism in attitudes toward medievalist media. The Pseudo Society has formally apologized for their session and promised to do better in the future. The SMFS business meeting was so full, chairs and standing room totally occupied, that dozens of members had to stand in the hallway outside the conference room. We're moving forward, and I'm excited for the future.

NB: Someone said I resemble Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Dylan, and I'm still smiling.

I'm Not There: Autofiction and the Art of Personal Revision

In 1521, Henry Pepwell printed a compilation of seven English contemplative texts called together The Cell of Self-Knowledge, comprising writings by Walter Hilton, Catherine of Siena, Richard of St. Victor, and a self-described “shorte treatyse of contemplacyon taught by our lorde Jhesu cryst /or taken out of the boke of Margery kempe ancresse of lynn.” This Shorte Treatyse, as I’ll call it, is indeed short—just 1800 words across seven quarto pages—and was apparently composed some 20 years earlier for a booklet printed by Wynken de Worde. These two extant printed texts are nearly identical except for some minor spelling variations and Pepwell’s notable inclusion of the word “ancresse” where de Worde names only “Margerie kempe of lynn.” Pepwell repeats this appellation in the explicit of his Shorte Treatyse, which reads, “Here endeth a shorte treatyse of a deuoute ancres called Margery kempe of Lynne.” Margery Kempe, of course, as recorded in the 1440 manuscript now bearing her name, was many things, a brewer, a miller, a pilgrim, the imagined bride of God the Father, but never an anchoress. Her very public devotion is, in fact, the soul of her book.

Often dubiously called the first autobiography in English, The Book of Margery Kempe is, in many respects, a book of and about self-creation—what we might, in some sense, call autofiction—and though Kempe and her scribes certainly cast the Margery character as vocationally fluid, “anchoress” is not a part of her legend until decades after her death. It is a misremembering, and while the heavily condensed printed text can be read as a potentially antifeminist erasure of the voice and body of the Book’s protagonist, recent findings open up a more nuanced approach to this revisionism in view of the historical Margery Kempe and the authorship of both her Book and personal legend. There is much to be said about Margery in dialogue with 21st century fan culture, but in the spirit of this session, I would like to revisit a figure from the 1960s, the living embodiment of the autofictive personal legend.

In October of 1963, Walter Eldot of the Duluth News-Tribute, asked a question about one of Duluth’s native sons that decades since have proven has no stable answer: “Who and what is Bob Dylan?” Eldot’s skeptical hometown article, titled “My Son, the Folknik,” was penned in the early days of Dylan’s stardom on the eve of his debut at Carnegie Hall when he was being hailed as the Messiah of folk music, the Second Coming of Woody Guthrie. “There’s an unwritten code in show business,” Eldot writes, “that people like to be deceived. Performers, therefore, must be legendized and molded into a public image that is often quite different from what they used to be.” The reporting that follows exposes the early life of Bobby Zimmerman, the middle-class teenager who would become Bob Dylan. Through interviews with family and friends, Eldot reminds his local readers that Zimmerman was “a fairly ordinary youth from a respectable family, perhaps a bit peculiar in his ways, but bearing little resemblance to the show business character he is today.” He dismisses the many and varied circulating Dylan origin stories as “imaginative biographies” and quotes a local record store owner, who says, “I ordered a dozen albums but even his relatives won’t buy them.” Truly a prophet has no honor in his hometown.

Eldot answers his initial question by saying, “Dylan is essentially a self-made creation,” but he is quick to follow that up with the qualification that Dylan’s affected surname is directly borrowed from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. The question, “Who and what is Bob Dylan?” is incisive and powerfully phrased, but Eldot seeks his answer in that most prosaic of interpretive mines, personal biography, referring to Dylan continually by his “real” name, Bobby, and drawing attention again and again to the fact that he “stems from a middle-class background in which much emphasis is placed on education and conformity and plans for a respectable career,” as if to demystify the man and deconstruct the Bob Dylan narrative for the amusement of his Minnesotan audience. When he calls Dylan a “self-made creation,” he does not intend it as a compliment but as an accusation of inauthenticity—of artifice, of fraud. When a similar article by Emily Coleman appeared months later in Newsweek, the stakes were considerably higher. The “freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” of the American imagination—the man of constant sorrow, the rural orphan brought up by the Sioux or by carnival performers, the anointed savior of folk music—was exposed to the nation as the son of a hardware store owner from Hibbing, MN. The image of Dylan as an earnest, hardscrabble protest singer was tarnished, if not obliterated, by the revelation of his firmly middle-class upbringing as Bobby Zimmerman, but by June of the same year, during the recording of the aptly named Another Side of Bob Dylan, Dylan was beginning to explore the notion of his self-made identity in greater depth, doubling down, as it were, on the very idea of its artifice and questioning the presumed “inauthenticity” that must result. Just a year after the Newsweek exposé, Dylan famously stated in an interview with In-Beat, “All I can do is be me—whoever that is.”

Eldot and Coleman’s assertion is that this kind of performative persona is false and thereby deceptive. America in the early ‘60s was still haunted in some sense by the specter of Joseph McCarthy, suspicious of anything that might not be what it claimed. The result was a mild obsession with the pseudo-existential concept of personal authenticity. An artist’s use of the I-voice, according to this view, must accurately reflect his or her life, and so Dylan’s various “self-made creation” myths were treated by these reporters not as stages on which the character of Bob Dylan was being performed, but as a wholesale fleecing of his listeners. This interpretation arises from the conflation of author and persona, of life and art, a constant concern in the interpretation of The Book of Margery Kempe because of its murky authorship, genre, and intention.

Even a straightforward reading of the Book as autobiography, an anachronistic and reductive label, to be sure, must take stock of how Margery models aspects of her identity on scenes from saints’ lives. In one of many episodes involving her weeping, Margery encounters a friar who preaches a sermon against her, “not expressyng hir name, but so he expleyteyd hys conseytys that men undirstod wel that he ment hir.” After a short time, however, this friar reads about Marie of Oignies, whose tears were also condemned by a priest before he was visited with tears of devotion himself and concluded that “God gaf hys grace to whom he wolde.” Margery’s friar then comes to love and trust her weeping through the hagiographic example of Marie of Oignies, believing it is a genuine gift of God. In this same passage, Margery is also compared to Elizabeth of Hungary, whose tears and loud voice form a key element of her legend as well. Margery as implied narrator (or Kempe as implied author) legitimates her experience in this passage by recording one of her detractors reevaluating his opinion of her through contemplation of a saint’s vita, thereby positioning her story parallel to the hagiographic tradition.

Bob Dylan, likewise, in a 1965 interview with the Village Voice placed himself among Hank Williams, Marlon Brando, Clark Kent, and Captain Marvel—the latter a 1940s Fawcett Comics character, a 12-year-old boy named Billy Batson who has the power to physically transform into the adult superhuman hero (and blatant Superman knock-off) Captain Marvel by uttering the word “Shazam.” This positioning affirms Dylan’s cognizance of and commitment to his shifting personal artifice by comparing himself directly to the magically granted half of a child’s dual identity alongside the assumed human identity of the Kryptonian Superman and the archetype of 1950s American rebellion, acclaimed performer Marlon Brando. Dylan and Margery behave here, in these instances and many others, like existential magpies, collecting attractive scraps of other people’s identities and appropriating them as part of their own. Both intentionally construct a grandiose persona, in Eldot’s terms, “legendizing” themselves. The intention is not to deceive their respective audiences but to root their lives in the fertile tradition of their heroes instead of their prosaic middle-class homes. Margery’s Book further complicates this matter, however, when one considers the ambiguity of its authorship.

The Book begins with a proem describing its composition, how it was begun by an English scribe who had been living in Prussia, where he married and had a child. He returns to England with his wife, living with Margery and recording as much of her life as she is able to tell him before he dies shortly after his arrival. The second part of the book introduces Margery’s son, working for a prominent merchant in Lynn but failing his mother’s somewhat oppressive moral standards. She insists that he “leeuyn þe worlde,” and he, in turn, runs away into a life of sexual sin before finally returning home to seek his mother’s blessing. After this, he moves to Danzig and marries a German-speaking woman, with whom he has a daughter, before returning home years later to a skeptical Margery, who eventually recognizes his conversion as authentic and inspires in him an urge to go on “many pilgrimagys to Rome & to many oþer holy placys” before returning to his wife and daughter. His wife is so moved by his account of Margery that she insists on traveling back to Lynn with their daughter to meet her mother-in-law. A storm delays their sea journey, however, so they travel by land, leaving their daughter with friends. Upon arriving in Lynn, with his wife and his goods, the son falls ill and, after being bedridden for about a month, dies. The comparison between Margery’s son and the first scribe is readily apparent, Englishmen living in Prussia who return to Lynn with their Prussian wives and die shortly thereafter, but Sebastian Sobecki’s recent article in Studies in the Age of Chaucer seems to finally confirm the longheld theory that Margery’s son and the first scribe are one and the same.

The portion of the Book recording the son’s story dates itself to 1438, but scholars, including Allen, Meech, and Windeatt, date his death to 1431. Sobecki cites a letter found in the National Archives in Gdańsk, written in Latin and dated June 12, 1431, as historical evidence of the son’s second journey to England. The letter directs English authorities to assist one John Kempe in the collection of 15 Prussian marks from one Robert Prinart. Given that the Book establishes Kempe’s son as a merchant in Danzig at this time and given that “John Kempe” is the name of both Margery’s husband and father-in-law, it is reasonable to conclude that the John Kempe of the letter, his travel coinciding as it does with the events of the Book, is, in fact, Margery’s son, which further matches exactly the description of the first scribe found in the proem.  The second scribe dates the beginning of his transcription as taking place in 1436, “iiii yer or ellys mor” after the first scribe’s death. “Thus,” Sobecki claims, “the deaths of the son and the first scribe took place at the same time,” and we may believe with some confidence that they were the same person.

Yet the narration of the Book itself appears to go out of its way not to make this clarification, to intentionally create confusion by providing two very similar accounts and not linking them, a problem only compounded by the introduction of the second scribe. Lynn Staley influentially argued that the second scribe was a clever fiction of Kempe’s own devising to lend authority to her story, a narrative persona in its own right, but Sobecki returns to Sue Ellen Holbrook’s likewise influential theory that the identity of the second scribe is Robert Spryngolde, Margery’s priest-confessor who appears advising her throughout the Book. A hitherto unknown 1430 Common Pleas roll lists Spryngolde as co-executor in the will of Robert Brunhman, Kempe’s older brother, which, Sobecki argues, makes even more clear his strong social and economic ties with Kempe’s influential family. While I accept Sobecki’s theory and am thereby forced to somewhat reluctantly abandon Staley’s, the scribe’s historical reality does not necessarily negate Kempe’s ultimate authorship of the Book. Rather, the ambiguity of the second scribe’s proem regarding his own identity and that of the deceased first scribe appears intentional, not unlike Bob Dylan’s omission of his life as Bobby Zimmerman.

If Spryngolde, as appears likely, was indeed the second scribe, this anonymizing tendency begins to make a world of sense. As Sobecki explains, “Spryngolde’s proximity not just to Kempe but also the Brunhams draws attention away from her saintly life, instead embedding the protagonist in a specific local history that enhances the visibility of one of Lynn’s most prominent families. If Kempe’s book was to extend its reach beyond Norfolk, her written life had to be her own.” And so we see only scattered representation of Margery’s home and family: her father’s prominent social standing is separated from his name by dozens of pages; her evidently powerful brother, mayor of Lynn like his father, is never mentioned at all, nor are thirteen of her fourteen children; even her own name is usually foregone in favor of “creatur”—we don’t learn her maiden name until chapter 45 or her married name until the end of the second book! This distancing is not a function of the autobiographical genre and thus may not be evaluated by any criterion of authenticity; it rather serves to maximize potential readership by ensuring that the spiritual story of a woman’s life would not be overshadowed by the reputation of her friends, family, and associates. If the Book was to function as “a schort tretys and a comfortabyl for synful wrecchys,” a purpose declared in its proem, its author and scribes needed to universalize the experience of its protagonist so as not to mire it in the local politics of Lynn, hence the conspicuous removal of many distinguishing features. One can imagine the inhabitants of Lynn receiving The Book of Margery Kempe much like the citizens of Hibbing, MN received Bob Dylan, remembering her as “a fairly ordinary youth from a respectable family, perhaps a bit peculiar in [her] ways,” the 15th-century equivalent of the record store owner lamenting, “I ordered a dozen albums but even [her] relatives won’t buy them.” Her legend needed to reach further.

If the existence of de Worde and Pepwell’s printed texts is any indication, Kempe and her scribes succeeded in this goal—though in perhaps somewhat Pyrrhic victory. Margery’s legend made it to London, where it was mass-produced and billed as having been taught to a devout anchoress by Christ himself. But Margery’s life, journeys, and even her visions, the distinguishing features of her written narrative, have been removed, leaving only a very short treatise on contemplation—taken out of the Book, yes, but mutilated in the process. Yet perhaps there is a more positive nuance in the wreck, a reading in which Margery’s legend has been, in a sense, fully realized. She is no longer the daughter of John Brunham or the wife of John Kempe or the penitent of Robert Spryngolde; she is presented instead as an individual holy woman, recipient of the direct teaching of Christ, her work collected alongside that of a legitimate saint. It reads, in effect, like someone trying to compile her greatest hits without actually listening to her back catalogue. The Devout Anchoress of Lynn as a title is certainly not authentic in the sense that it is factually representative of the historical life of Margery Kempe, and it is lamentable that more of her distinctive voice is not present in the printed excerpts, but the Book itself as we have it is an exercise par excellence in such personal revision. If the goal of Kempe and her scribes was to maximize the Book’s audience by removing their particular personal histories, to erase their middle-class context and create in its place a fiction by which to comfort sinful wretches, then the Shorte Treatys of 1521 must be regarded as an unequivocal success. 

Anxiety of Influence

While I was writing my paper on Bob Dylan and Margery Kempe for the upcoming International Congress on Medieval Studies this afternoon, I came across an interview snippet that made me do a double-take.

It's at this point in our program that I should admit to modeling my own personal style heavily on '64-'67 Bob Dylan. Photo by Jerry Schatzberg.

It's at this point in our program that I should admit to modeling my own personal style heavily on '64-'67 Bob Dylan. Photo by Jerry Schatzberg.

March 25, 1965, Village Voice
VV: How about Hank Williams? Do you consider him an influence?
Dylan: Hey, look, I consider Hank Williams, Captain Marvel, Marlon Brando, the Tennessee Stud, Clark Kent, Walter Cronkite, and J. Carrol Naish all influences.

I'm going to let you play detective on all the other references and spend my time zeroing in on the one that interests me. Not Clark Kent. That's right. Captain Marvel. The first millisecond of brain activity I had was a playground full of ecstatic children shrieking, "CAROL!" But I knew that was wrong before I even finished the thought. No, even Mar-Vell wasn't around until 1967, which left only one possibility, who, confusingly, has never even been a Marvel property: Billy Batson.

In 1939, following the success of National Comics (later DC) properties Superman and Batman, Fawcett Publications created its own comics division and banner hero Captain Marvel. He was by all accounts a total Superman ripoff with one major change: circulation director Roscoe Kent Fawcett is said to have told his staff, "Give me a Superman, only have his other identity be a 10- or 12-year-old boy rather than a man."

Whiz Comics #2, art by C. C. Beck

Whiz Comics #2, art by C. C. Beck

The origin story, as told in Whiz Comics #2, tells of young Billy Batson, who is led onto an abandoned subway platform by a mysterious stranger, who in turn introduces him to a wizard named Shazam. This wizard has been watching Billy and decides to grant him phenomenal cosmic power because he's lived a rough life. All he has to do is say the wizard's name ("Shazam!"), and he will be transformed by a magic lightning bolt into the adult hero, Captain Marvel, who possesses the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the endurance of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the invulnerability of Achillesand the speed of Mercury. Repeating "Shazam" will change him back into tiny baby Billy Batson. The wizard is then promptly killed by a falling boulder.

(I wish I were making any of that up. NB: This story really reminds of me of this comic from the Perry Bible Fellowship, and I'm sorry.)

Based on book sales, Captain Marvel was far and away the most popular superhero of the 1940s, outselling both Superman and Batman. He was also the first character from comics to be adapted into film, the 1941 serial Adventures of Captain Marvel, but Fawcett stopped publishing Captain Marvel in 1953, in part because of a copyright infringement suit from DC Comics alleging that Captain Marvel was a bald-faced copy of Superman, which was, y'know, pretty fair, all things considered. DC licensed the character in 1972, but not before Marvel created its own Captain Marvel, the Kree warrior Mar-Vell in 1967, leading to lots of trademark conflicts for four decades until DC finally rebranded Billy Batson as Shazam in 2011.

New information that I learned today: Bob Dylan read Captain Marvel--or, more accurately, Whiz Comics--as a child and was familiar enough with the story of Billy Batson to intelligently name-drop him in a Village Voice interview in 1965 among expected cultural icons like Hank Williams and Marlon Brando. 

What's striking to me is that I came across this snippet while I was writing a paper on Dylan's artfully constructed artistic persona. A 1963 article in the Duluth News-Tribune and a larger 1964 Newsweek article were the first to bring attention to the fact that the artist known as "Bob Dylan" was born Robert Allen Zimmerman to Abe and Beatty Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota. He wasn't an orphan, raised by the Sioux or a troupe of circus performers, and he wasn't a hardscrabble protest singer--not by birth, anyway; he was a typical middle-class midwestern kid, the son of a hardware store owner. My paper (which I'll post here when I'm finished) begins by questioning the early-'60s assumption that Dylan's "inauthentic" brand identity was necessarily a bad thing. I mean, aren't all personal identities somewhat artificially constructed?

There was a pernicious cloud of post-McCarthy suspicion hanging around in the early 1960s of everything and everyone that wasn't exactly what it claimed to be, but this is a particularly problematic attitude when it comes to the arts because, well, performance is almost entirely about being something other than what the performer claims to be. Dylan's persona was no more false or constructed than most other artists of his day (witness Ramblin' Jack Elliott, born Elliot Charles Adnopoz), but he was singled out because he had so recently been crowned the Folk Messiah, the living embodiment within the American imagination of earnest social progress.

Whiz Comics #22, art by C. C. Beck

Whiz Comics #22, art by C. C. Beck

And so for Dylan, after all of this "Zimmerman Letter" fiasco had gone down a year earlier, to single out Captain Marvel--a child who, speaking a magic word, is transformed into an adult hero, a totally separate personage--as an influence appears to confirm every intuition I've ever had listening to Highway 61 Revisted on repeat in my car. Dylan aligns himself with a character displaying multiple identities, but not in a dissociative way. Rather, Billy Batson may become Captain Marvel at will and vice versa just as Bobby Zimmerman became Bob Dylan as a conscious choice and has intentionally changed what "Bob Dylan" means (to himself and to his listeners) dozens of times over a storied career. 

It's worth unpacking Clark Kent here, too, because it's telling that Dylan doesn't list Superman. The one thing that really does interest me about the Superman mythos is that Clark Kent is the somewhat false identity of Kal-El, Superman, a god pretending to be human. Different from Bruce Wayne, who puts on a costume and lives a double life as Batman, Superman's costume is his human clothes. The identity Dylan lists as an influence in the case of both Captain Marvel and Clark Kent is the assumed one, the "false" one, the costume. 

In 1963, reporter Walter Eldot asked, "Who and what is Bob Dylan?" He went on to answer his own question, reminding his Minnesotan readers that "Bob Dylan" was none other than their own Bobby Zimmerman, the hardware store owner's son. "Bob Dylan" was a false face, an act, a fraud. But is that so wrong? Is Captain Marvel any less Captain Marvel because he is also Billy Batson? Or does the whole story hinge on that duality?

No Rest (Media Diet, April 17 - 24)

The new season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt premiered last weekend, and I watched it in two sittings. I think I need to watch it again before I have anything worthwhile to say about it other than: 1.) Carol Kane is magnificent as Lillian and I'm so glad they upped her screen time this season, and 2.) I'm ecstatic that they're finally dealing with the fact that Kimmy has PTSD--y'know, from being locked in a bunker for most of her life. The longer I'm around and able to map what I like and am interested in, the more I realize I have a lot to say about trauma and grief. Like, no one remembers that Holden Caulfield's brother died in Catcher in the Rye. I feel another blog post coming on. I also solidified my angle on my Margery Kempe/Bob Dylan argument for this year's International Congress on Medieval Studies, which I'll be writing about later this week as I draft my paper.

4-17-16
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, season 2, episodes 6 - 13
Sobecki, "Margery Kempe's Son and the Authorship of her Boook"
Bunn, Uncanny X-Men #1 - 6
Gilmore Girls, season 4, episodes 10 - 12

"I wish I knew how to quit you." Oh. Now there's an idea for a Sabretooth story. Hmmmmmm.

"I wish I knew how to quit you." Oh. Now there's an idea for a Sabretooth story. Hmmmmmm.

On Monday I read homilies and comic books, and on Tuesday, I wrote a blog post about Brian Michael Bendis and my kind of "meh" feeling about his run on Avengers in the lead-up to the AvX event. I'm currently reading through AvX, and after looking at my media log, I realize that I got onto an X-Men kick after catching up on Cullen Bunn's ongoing Uncanny X-Men series on Sunday. I brought this upon myself with my misplaced affection for Sabretooth.

4-18-16
Bendis, Avengers, vol. 4, #1 - 21
Gilmore Girls, season 4, episodes 13 - 17
Vercelli homilies VI - IX

4-19-16
Bendis, Avengers, vol. 4, #22- 24
Vercelli homilies X - XI
Gilmore Girls, season 4, episodes 18 - 24
Loeb, Avengers: X-Sanction #1

On Wednesday, I worked at the Bookshelf, which involved getting up by 8 to leave by 9 to get to the store by 10. There were lots of deliveries and lots of unpacking product and lots of phone calls placed to customers waiting for their special orders. I left a little after 6, so I got home at 7, and I had made plans to meet a friend for drinks at 9, which means I had about 90 minutes to cook something and eat (while watching Gilmore Girls). I got home from drinks at 11:45 and went immediately to bed, reading one comic before succumbing to social exhaustion. 

4-20-16
Lore, "Tampered"
Alice isn't Dead, episode 4
This American Life, "Middle School"
Gilmore Girls, season 5, episode 1
Loeb, Avengers: X-Sanction #2

On Thursday, I went to campus to finish screening Ex Machina for my students and to collect their final papers. I noticed that a student was missing from my second class, but I didn't think too much about it, assuming she had a late night and would bring me her paper during my office hours. I was right. Sort of. But her problem was a little more involved than a late night. All I can really say is that I left campus two hours later than I was planning to. I went to my comics shop to pick up my physical copies for the week, but it was closed, presumably so the owner could pick up his son from school. I ran some errands and came back, but by the time I got home, I didn't have time to read what I'd bought because I had a meeting at 6, incidentally in the same bar I had visited the night before, and only had an hour to cook and eat something (while watching an episode of Gilmore Girls). After the meeting, I stayed to play trivia with some friends and, again, didn't get home until after 11, at which point I pretty immediately went to bed.

4-21-16
Ex Machina
Loeb, Avengers: X-Sanction #3 - 4
Gilmore Girls, season 5, episode 2

On Friday, I had a staff meeting at the Bookshelf, which involved getting up by 7 to leave by 8 to get to the store by 9. It was a very strange day after the meeting because none of us were ever in the store with anyone else due to the podcast recording schedule. Because Annie and I are going to be gone the next several Fridays, we recorded three episodes back to back to back. When I got home at 7, I immediately disrobed and read all of the comics I'd bought the day before. I didn't have dinner until 11. 

4-22-16
This American Life, "When the Beasts Come Marching In"
Jamison, "In Defense of Saccharin(e)"
Gilmore Girls, season 5, episodes 3 - 4
Asmus, All-New Inhumans #6
Zdarsky and North, Howard the Duck #6
Ellis, Karnak #3
Thompson, Silk #7 (AKA Spider-Women #3)
Aaron, Mighty Thor #6
Soule, Uncanny Inhumans #7
Waid, All-New, All-Different Avengers #8
Ewing, New Avengers #10

On Saturday, I stayed in bed until 11 and started in earnest on AvX before driving to campus to grade final papers for a while. At 6, I went to take pictures for a surprise 60th birthday party. When I got home, I resumed comics.

4-23-16
Bendis, Avengers #24.1
Bendis and Aaron, AvX #0
Waid, AvX infinite comic
Aaron, Wolverine and the X-Men #9
Bendis, AvX #1
Bendis, New Avengers, vol. 2, #24
Gilmore Girls, season 5, episodes 5 - 6
Aaron, AvX #2
Bendis, Avengers #25
Aaron and Immonen, AvX Vs. #1
Gillen, Uncanny X-Men #11
Brubaker, AvX #3

And today is Sunday. I slept in and stayed in bed reading comics before making lunch and writing a final exam for my students while watching Gilmore Girls. Now that I've written this post, I can resume work on the exam and make some more edits to my doctoral reading list before sending it off to my committee tomorrow. 

It's been a long week. I am very tired, but I have ample time in the next few days to finish grading, do some more research, and finish my conference paper and its blog analogue (anablogue?). And after I get back on May 15, I will have whole oceans of time and beautiful weather in which to read, read, read.

 

On Lazy Storytelling

A disclaimer: In this post, I'll be critiquing five-year-old comic books. Getting with the times is tough. Catching up on things is not for the faint of heart.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was reading the second volume of Brian Michael Bendis's New Avengers from 2010 last week until I dropped it for lack of Jessica Drew. As much as I like other characters in the book, like Luke Cage, Dr. Stange, and Ben Grimm, its storyline just wasn't that interesting to me, and I realized that by the time the second volume came around, after the Siege event, New Avengers was no longer the flagship Marvel book. That honor went back to the plain ol' Avengers book, the first of its name in several years. I knew Jessica Drew was in the book. I knew it was the important team book of the "Heroic Age," as it was branded. But I looked at some of the covers, didn't care that much about any of them, and decided not to bother. 

I was working this weekend, plugging away at 10th-century homilies, and I thought, for some ungodly reason, I've read almost all of the major Marvel events of the past 15 years, but I've never read AvX. AvX, of course, is Avengers vs. X-Men, a massive Marvel crossover from 2012 that, as its title suggests, pitted the Avengers against the X-Men. I haven't read it yet. Because leading into the event are the first 24 issues of Bendis's Avengers, the book I said on Sunday that I didn't care about reading.

Reader, I read all of them yesterday. 

And was it worth it? Did I gain a new understanding of my favorite characters and their situation leading up to this big event? The short answer is no. The long answer follows.

(Before I begin panning Brian Michael Bendis, I'd like to offer several books he has written that I very much enjoy: Ultimate Spider-ManNew Avengers volume 1, and Invincible Iron Man, among others. I don't think he's a bad writer, but Avengers was clearly not his best work.)

Bendis's 2010 - 2012 run on The Avengers is not a horrible comic book. I'm tempted to think I was let down because it was sandwiched between Bendis's own well-regarded 2005 - 2010 New/Mighty/Dark Avengers triptych (plus a maddening number of crossover events) and Jonathan Hickman's stellar run on Avengers and New Avengers from 2012 - 2015. Anything on either side of Hickman's masterpiece will pale in comparison (witness the current Avengers books, which I'm enjoying, but...), but this run starting with the Heroic Age and ending with Norman Osborn transformed into a Super-Adaptoid was mediocre from start to finish, and here's why: it is lazy.

"What's the deal with airline food?" photo by Luigi Novi

"What's the deal with airline food?"
photo by Luigi Novi

Brian Michael Bendis is a divisive figure in comics. He's been one of the main architects of the Marvel universe for the past 15 years, starting with the Avengers Disassembled story that more or less kicked off the team- and event-centric Marvel model as we know it in 2004. He's undoubtedly one of the most influential writers in comics today, but he's written so much that he's beginning to be considered passé, overrated, out of touch--look no further than virtually any review of his recent run(s) on Guardians of the Galaxy. He's also often criticized for his dialogue, written to make his characters have rapport as if they're real people who know each other, which often ends up sounding like a conversation from Seinfeld:

Character A: You ever notice Bendis's dialogue thing?
Character B: Bendis has a dialogue thing?
Character A: Big time dialogue thing.
Character B: I didn't know he had a dialogue thing. What's his dialogue thing?
Character A: Repetition. 

Personally, I've never had a problem with it. I didn't even notice it until someone pointed it out to me, but after I saw it, I couldn't stop seeing it. It's there. It's a pattern. And it mostly works, except when it doesn't. What happens is that a lot of the characters start to have the same voice, and in an effort to make the characters engaging and entertaining, many of them end up sounding uncannily like Spider-Man, Bendis's clear favorite character. But that's not the problem with Avengers. The problem is that it plays like Bendis's Greatest Hits.

The first arc features Kang the Conqueror, a dystopian future, and Ultron. It's clear that this is where the book wants to go: toward Ultron, and I know from having read Age of Ultron that it does, eventually, end up there--to the detriment of comic book storytelling in general. (For good Ultron stories, see Annihilation: Conquest, the Rage of Ultron graphic novel, and the Ultron Forever miniseries.)

GET REKT. Avengers, vol. 4, #12 art by John Romita, Jr.

GET REKT.
Avengers, vol. 4, #12
art by John Romita, Jr.

The second arc is actually, I think, the most interesting, featuring Parker Robbins, the Hood, assembling Infinity Gems in an attempt to regain the power he had in one of the better New Avengers stories about five years previous. The problem here is that it's the microwave version of a story not even five years old at the time of its publication. The Infinity Gems feel inconsequential, sprinkled on like poorly chosen seasoning and ultimately not amounting to much other than a satisfying panel featuring the Red Hulk smashing Robbins with the Power Gem. I enjoyed reading this arc because I like the Hood and Red Hulk, and seeing Queen Medusa filling in for Black Bolt with the Illuminati made me smile a lot a lot a lot, but the storyline was still frozen in the middle. It was mostly filler, and only the last couple of pages had any real consequence going forward, reestablishing the Illuminati with the inclusion of Steve Rogers--important for Hickman's Avengers/New Avengers books later.

Avengers, vol. 4, #15 art by Chris Bachalo

Avengers, vol. 4, #15
art by Chris Bachalo

Bendis's larger story gets interrupted in the middle by the company-wide Fear Itself event and its Shattered Heroes follow-up, but not before a sort of Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. (also by Bendis) crossover that culminates in another hint at the Ultron to come. The Fear Itself tie-ins are largely Jessica Drew-centric and are thus my favorites of the series. Each is written as a set of one-on-one interviews with the Avengers interspersed with scenes from the event story. The interviews and accompanying flashbacks get into the characters' personal lives, showing some of Jess's friendship with Carol Danvers and her budding romance with the newly divorced Clint Barton. Their early interactions here are adorable, though I am admittedly a sucker for playful antagonism. But these issues showcase exactly the problems with Bendis's dialogue: the characters begin to sound so much alike that they bleed into one another across interview panels and carry on a conversation with one another despite not being in the room together. On TV, it would be brilliant editing. In comics, it's lazy and borders on disrespecting the characters. (That said, I really do like the way Bendis writes Spider-Woman. The romance with Hawkeye... not so much, at least beyond their initial flirting. Too soon.)

The real problem I have with this book comes after Fear Itself when Bendis's story picks up again. Without going into too much detail, it's a mashup of Civil War (Captain America vs. Iron Man), Dark Reign, and Siege (Norman Osborn in charge of national security and leading his own team of Avengers), events that hadn't been in the ground long enough to be rehashed the way they were here. There's a way to revisit old work and make it tread new ground. This does none of that, though it does force a strange alliance among Hydra, Osborn's H.A.M.M.E.R., and the Hand, who, despite being featured on several covers in this arc, don't actually appear at all until Osborn inexplicably summons dozens of ninjas in the last issue--all of whom are dispatched by one attack from Iron Man on the next page. 

Avengers, vol. 4, #24 art by Daniel Acuña

Avengers, vol. 4, #24
art by Daniel Acuña

The worst part of it all, though, is Osborn's transformation. He doesn't want to be Green Goblin or Iron Patriot. Instead, a rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist has stolen genetic material from the Avengers and... somehow... given Osborn the powers of a Super-Adaptoid, which is to say he permanently mimics the powers of anyone he makes contact with. Red Hulk punches him, and he becomes a hulk, etc. But if his scientist had genetic samples from all of the Avengers, shouldn't he have all of their powers the first time he sets foot on the page? Why wait until the final issue in the storyline to give him powers and then have him immediately overloaded by a group hug? (I wish I were joking.) There are undertones of the infamous X-Men Origins: Wolverine depiction of Deadpool, a bizarre conglomeration of powers that ultimately amounts to... what exactly? All of this compounded with the smug meta-textual commentary on the business of comic book movies when Osborn wonders who will play him in the inevitable movie depicting this event in his life. It's probably a harmless joke, but it comes across as Bendis being so sure of his own genius that even the characters he's writing know that they're the most interesting versions of themselves. (For the record: Yes to an eventual Dark Reign movie, please. But let's leave the power-nabbing where it belongs in the ashes of the first timeline of the Fox franchise.)

Avengers, vol. 4, #24 art by Daniel Acuña

Avengers, vol. 4, #24
art by Daniel Acuña

Osborn ends up disintegrating at the end, and the story to this point has not led me even a little bit toward what I know to be the plot of Avengers vs. X-Men, which, I'll remind you, was the point of reading this book for me. Was it worth spending the whole day reading a decidedly lukewarm comic book? Kinda. Romita, Bachalo, and Acuña's art is beautiful across the board, so the visuals largely made up for the story. There were some gratifying moments involving some of my favorite characters, like Spider-Woman, Medusa, and Red Hulk. There was a fun Thanos fake-out in the middle. And I ultimately learned what not to do when I tell stories, especially if I end up writing a comic some day.

(Okay, but seriously, the fact that this mess is going on at the same time as Hickman's Fantastic Four, easily the pinnacle of that franchise, is just kind of shameful.)

I've been teaching my students about adaptation with various versions of the Blue Beard folk tale, and if we've decided on anything at all, it's that out of all a story's concrete elements, the least important (in terms of adapting one story into another) is plot. The same plot with different characters or setting is a different story. Witness all of Joseph Campbell/George Lucas/Dan Harmon's kind of batshit theories on how story works. Stories are nearly always familiar in some sense and have various elements in common with one another, but chicken cordon bleu is not nearly the same as chicken tikka masala despite having the same base ingredient. Maybe this is what Bendis is missing here, and a lot of other writers, in comics or otherwise, with him. It's the same characters in the same situations over and over again, and the readership is ready for change.

So who's ready for Civil War II this summer?

Media Diet, April 10 - 16

One of the regular features I'd like to do here is to report what I've been reading, watching, and listening to during the week. This will either become Share with me in what I love or Shame me for watching so much television, and I'm ready for both possibilities. This is my log for the week:


4-10-16
North, Dinosaur Comics #32 - 49
Gilmore Girls, season 3, episodes 15 - 16
Bendis, New Avengers, vol. 2, #7

4-11-16
Bendis, New Avengers, vol. 2, #8 - 9
North, Dinosaur Comics #50 - 81
Gilmore Girls, season 3, episodes 17 - 24

4-12-16
Yu, "Never Trust a Poem that Begins with a Dream"
Yu, "Narcissist Revises Tidal Theory"
North, Dinosaur Comics #82 - 101
Vercelli Homilies I - IV
Gilmore Girls, season 4, episodes 1 - 3
Agents of SHIELD, season 4, episode 16

4-13-16
This American Life, "For Your Reconsideration"
Strangers, "Altruism"
Gilmore Girls, season 4, episodes 4 - 6
Bendis, Invincible Iron Man #8
Lemire, Moon Knight #1

4-14-16
Hicks, "Bluebeard's Daughter"
Vercelli Homily V
Wendig, Hyperion #1
Robinson, Squadron Supreme #1 - 5
Gilmore Girls, season 4, episodes 7 - 9
Hopeless, All-New X-Men #7 - 8
Latour, Spider-Gwen #7 (AKA Spider-Women #2)
Lemire, Old Man Logan #4

4-15-16
North, Dinosaur Comics #102
Nerdist, "Patrick Stewart #3"
Welcome to Night Vale, "Standing and Breathing"
Beauregard, The Whale, chapters 1 - 5

4-16-16
---
(I worked an event this morning and listened to the Rent soundtrack on the way, but I don't generally record music in this log because it would be completely overwhelming to catalogue.)


You'll notice a lot of Dinosaur Comics by the inimitable Ryan North. Tuesday through Friday is my real workweek this semester, teaching on Tuesday and Thursday and working at the bookstore on Wednesday and Friday. I embarked last week on a Dinosaur Comics odyssey, from the very beginning, and decided to read as many as I can every morning while I'm drinking my coffee before I leave for work, which usually gives me between ten and thirty minutes depending on how difficult it was for me to get out of bed. It's thus far been an excellent way to start my day.

The other mainstay of this week is Gilmore Girls, which I've been watching through for the past couple of weeks when I get home and am too tired to do much else. Expect a full post about this in the coming week.

The very serious graduate student work this week has been on the Vercelli Homilies, a collection of 23 Anglo-Saxon prose sermons from the 10th century, which I never expected to enjoy as much as I have. I'm actually very excited to continue reading those tomorrow when I start working again. Expect a full post on these soon as well.

Hyperion, vol. 1, #1 cover by Emanuela Lupacchino and Jason Keith

Hyperion, vol. 1, #1
cover by Emanuela Lupacchino and Jason Keith

Wednesday is, of course, the day when new comics are released, which explains the 13th and 14th. In addition to the new releases and the older books I've been reading digitally (e.g., Bendis's New Avengers, vol. 2, which I stopped following due to lack of Jessica Drew), I got an opportunity to catch up on the current Squadron Supreme comic and its spin-off, Hyperion. I very much enjoyed Hyperion's first issue, but Squadron Supreme itself was pretty underwhelming. The next issue has Black Bolt on the cover, though, so I may have to give it one more shot.  

Wednesday and Friday mornings and evenings are also generally when I listen to podcasts on the way to and from the Bookshelf. I listen to This American LifeLoreWelcome to Night Vale, and Nerdist, and Alice isn't Dead and Strangers have been pretty recent additions to my lineup while I anxiously await the return of Mystery Show

Finally, I picked up an advanced reader copy (ARC) of Mark Beauregard's The Whale (out June 1 from Viking Books) yesterday and read the first few chapters. It's a thoroughly researched historical fiction about Herman Melville and his big ol' crush on Nathaniel Hawthorne, which I'm pretty sure was written specifically for me. Keep an eye out for a post on this, too, probably after the book is released.

Having typed all that out, I now realize that these weekly media recaps are probably going to give me a good idea of what to write about in the coming week, which is great because I'll have "someone" to talk to about all the very disparate things I'm consuming and will maybe then be able to make sense of it all.

See you soon.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Goo

I use stock photos with their watermarks because I am classy.

I use stock photos with their watermarks because I am classy.

When you bite into a still-warm brownie, slightly undercooked in the middle, what word do you use to describe that?

Or melted cheese in, say, a grilled cheese sandwich or a fried mozzarella stick. What adjectives come to mind?

Seriously, think about it. Because if any of the words you came up with include the word "goo," kindly jump off a [relatively low] bridge. 

Why why why do people insist on describing warm desserts or hot cheese as "gooey," a word synonymous with "slime," "sludge," and "muck"? This is food, glorious food that you're putting into your mouth, not something gross you scrape off of a windshield after spraying it with Goo B Gone. As Ina Garten might say, How appetizing is that?

Worse still is "ooey-gooey." What goes through a person's mind when they actively try to cutesy up "goo" with a rhyme? There's no saving it, no putting a lacy bow on it. It's goo. Gum on the sidewalk, mud on your shoe, goo. Whether or not it fits the denotation of "gooey" ("soft and sticky"), describing a warm dessert as having the consistency of sludge should not encourage anyone to actually consume said dessert. (Honestly, if someone--say, a Food Network personality--tells you that their fudge is gooey, and you start salivating, ask yourself what it was, exactly, that produced that response.) In the same way that the foam on top of a beer isn't "scum," even though it is literally "the layer of froth on the surface of a liquid," the middle of your brownie is not "goo."

I've been on a one-man crusade to stop the food establishment from continuing this trend, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, dates back at least to the 1960s. Every time the official Food Network Twitter account tweets a description that includes the word "gooey," I respond asking why. It's shouting into the void, I know, but I hold out hope that I can at least have some effect on the intern writing their tweets, who might, in turn, pass it on to a producer, and so on until it gets to Susie Fogelson, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Brand Strategy for Food Network and Cooking Channel, who will issue a company-wide ban on the word.

But every time I think I'm making even an inch of progress, reality strikes. A picture of baked mozzarella sticks posted this week was accompanied by a caption describing them as "oozy." Oozy. Ooze is a Power Rangers villain. Ooze is the substance that transforms pet store turtles into teenage mutant ninjas. Ooze is not a word with which to describe melted cheese.

Thus I have a problem because I have no idea how to replace these words. I can provide no acceptable alternative, and so I turn to you, dear reader. Will you join in my crusade? Will you be strong and stand with me? Will you at least help me think of any other adjective to describe warm, glutinous food? Let me know. 

Jessica Drew, Where Are You!

Several weeks ago now, the much anticipated Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice arrived in theaters and disappointed nearly everyone. After reading some of the harshest reviews, I lowered my expectations to what I thought was rock bottom. The movie drilled deep, well past my imagined zero limit, and came to rest at a level of disappointment I did not know existed but have come to call Absolute Zero. If Man of Steel was my 0 Celsius, the freezing point for my appreciation of superhero movies, then BvS became my -273.

I'm admittedly not a Superman guy. I like Batman just like everyone else, enjoying Nolan, Burton, and The Animated Series just fine, but I'm overall just not a fan of the DC Comics universe and never have been. I like Teen Titans and Teen Titans Go! I like Young Justice. But I'm just not nearly as invested or interested in any of DC's characters as I am in Marvel's.

I'm sorry that it has to be partisan. I truly am. My brain wants to love both, but the heart wants what it wants. So make mine Marvel.

I have no intention of attempting to justify my preference. I don't think one is inherently better than the other, especially since I don't think I've ever actually read a DC comic book. I know there are wonderful creators making good things there. I've been told Tom King, who writes one of my current favorite Marvel books, The Vision, has been doing great work with Grayson--good enough that he signed an exclusive contract with DC that will unfortunately take him off The Vision sooner than I'd like. Marvel just has the characters I like and am interested in.

As you've probably picked up from the titles I've listed above, my exposure to comic book culture comes largely from related media: movies and TV shows. The X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons of the '90s were staples of my childhood media diet, and the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was woven together while I was in college--Iron  Man a month before my high school graduation in 2008 and The Avengers just days before my college graduation in 2012. The quality and proliferation of Marvel's non-comics media is honestly probably the root of my preference. Teen Titans, while I liked it a lot, didn't speak to me as a teenager the same way X-Men: Evolution did.

I'd be lying if I said I've been reading comics my whole life. I haven't. I've only been doing that for a little more than a year, but in that time, I feel like I've really gotten up to speed. (Probably to the detriment of my graduate studies.) The character who first intrigued me, mostly from talking to a friend who did devoutly read comic books at the time, was Carol Danvers--Captain Marvel. I bought the trades of Kelly Sue DeConnick's run for my birthday and, while I didn't love them the way I wanted to, I got hooked. I wanted to know everything about everyone who appeared, and the character I attached myself to was Carol's best friend, Jessica Drew, AKA Spider-Woman. 

Spider-Woman, vol. 5, #5 cover by Javier Rodriguez

Spider-Woman, vol. 5, #5
cover by Javier Rodriguez

This was just about the time that Dennis Hopeless's run on her book was beginning (and incidentally the controversial Milo Manara variant cover, which came up a lot of times in my Twitter feed), so that was my first exposure. I loved it. (Not the variant cover.) I loved the energy of the book, the complexity and motivations of the character, the new costume design--everything. I also picked up Alex Kot's Secret Avengers, which featured my now dear Jess in her more traditional spy role. In the intervening year, I've read through the various Bendis sagas of the aughts and come back to Hopeless to join Jess on her adventure as a new and single mom. It's all so exciting for my little spider-loving heart. 

But there's something else beyond just my admittedly emotional fandom. I haven't quite placed my finger on it yet, which is something I was really hoping would happen by this point in this post. 

What is it that draws me to Spider-Woman? The incredible long-term growth of her character emerging from a variety of childhood traumas to become an accomplished spy, Avenger, private detective, and now mother? Her fun-loving and still completely badass attitude? The inconsistency of her power set? (Can she fly or just glide, if it's just gliding, it's just part of the suit, yeah? How strong are her venom blasts? What happened to all of her pheromone powers in the past few years? She used them in Spider-Verse, but...) Her origin as a copyright grab in the '70s and then as a pretty solid attempt at a superheroine in the wake of second-wave feminism?

Given that I'm working on a Ph. D. in medieval literature, often [completely erroneously] viewed as the stodgiest field of English literature, I think some of my colleagues look down on my comics fandom, or are at least surprised by it. It's somehow "beneath me" or whatever, which is utterly false. If the fact that Atlantic correspondent and National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing the new Black Panther series, the first issue of which came out just last week, is any indication, comics are playing an important role in our cultural conversations, which should be obvious looking at the spate of superhero movies in our cinemas. Pop culture is no longer "low culture," if it ever has been, especially given the "platinum era" of television in which we're living. 

All-New Ultimates, vol. 1, #2 cover by David Nakayama

All-New Ultimates, vol. 1, #2
cover by David Nakayama

And thinking about all those movies, I have to wonder: Who will play Jess if and when she makes it to the Marvel Cinematic Universe? I don't even have suggestions, though Daisy Ridley crossed my mind for a hot second before I decided she's too British and wandered across the pond to Olivia Wilde. Marvel's casting to date has been uniformly excellent, so if and when she does show up on screen, I'm sure I won't be disappointed. The problem is the waiting. While I think the upcoming Captain Marvel movie would be a perfect opportunity to introduce her, perhaps as a turncoat Hydra agent, I worry that because of her name, Spider-Woman, she'll be too closely associated with Spider-Man, to whom she has little to no connection in the main 616 Marvel universe, to be a viable character given our collective cultural hangover from too man Spider-Man movies. Even her Ultimate universe counterpart, Black Widow, has a name already taken by Natasha Romanova in the films. Then again, if the goal is to replace the bulk of the Avengers cast in the aftermath of Infinity War, maybe Captain Marvel, set in between the two Infinity War movies, is the perfect time to introduce Jess to the MCU so that she can take up Black Widow's mantle and stay true to her secret agent roots.

As if I don't have enough irons in the fire, I now can't stop myself from imagining what I would do if given the opportunity to write Jessica Drew. Put me in, Marvel! I've got ideas! For now, though, the trick will be to convince myself that such an opportunity is waiting for me when I finish what's in front of me. 

Now back to the Vercelli Book. And believe me: I will know if you start googling "spider-woman butt."