Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Do You Read Comics? Why or Why Not? And a Comics History Course!

Today is New Comics Wednesday, so after I picked my daughter up from Summer Camp, we'll be heading over to my local shop once again to pick up my pull-list, chat with the folks we see there every week, and talk about current comic stories, TV shows, and movies. My daughter will also get to go through the kids comics and find all of the "new" comics that came out today based on signs all over the store.

I've written before about my on-again, off-again relationship with comics. But today, I really want to hear your stories. I'm curious about those of you out there who do read comics, but I'm also really interested in those of you who don't read comics. Here are a few questions to get your started. I'll post my own answers to these questions later.

  1. Have you ever read a comic book?
    1. If not, why not?
  2. Roughly how old were you when you read your first comic (if you've ever read one)?
  3. Do you currently read comics? 
    1. If not, why not? 
  4. If you're into (or were into) comics, list three of your favorite stories/arcs/etc. to share with my followers, and why you like them.
  5. What other things do you read (e.g., fiction, non-fiction, specific types of genres, etc.)?
  6. Do you like the Marvel Cinematic Universe? 
    1. If so, does it make you interested in wanting to read more stories about the characters?
  7. Do you like the DC Cinematic Universe? 
    1. Similarly to the above - would you be interested in reading more? 
  8. For you role-players out there, have you ever used a story, character, or other concept from a comic book in one of your games? 

On a related note, I recently participated in an online course developed by Stan Lee and Michael Uslan (producer of every Batman movie including the Burton, Schumacher, and Nolan versions, as well as the first person to ever teach a course of comics back in the 1970s) in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution. The course was part of "EdX" which is an online learning platform developed by MIT and Harvard that features free courses.

Yes, this course was free! It was called "The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture." It was "taught" through a series of videos, text, and images that covered all of the main periods of comics culture, from the Golden Age, the Silver Age, and up through the Modern Age. In each section, Michael Uslan (who is the main instructor) talks about what was happening in the world at that time (e.g., World War Two, the Civil Rights Movement, Viet Nam, etc.) and helps to put the events happening in the comics into context of how they reflected what was happening in society. He also interviews Stan Lee in each section in a series of videos where Stan provides his memories and recollections, which is very cool because he's one of the only people still around who was there all the way back near the beginning of the Golden Age and who is still active and involved in the community today.

As this is a free course, it's graded on a pass-fail basis only. You pass the course be completing some "homework" each week. The homework was based around designing a new superhero, ideally using your own culture's mythology as inspiration. I chose to look to my Scottish and Irish heritage and then designed a female superhero, her alter ego (civilian identity), her origin, and of course her main nemesis - a supervillain. The course lays all of this out so you do it little by little, and at each stage, you provide your reason for the choices that you made. There are also sections for providing illustrations of your character, but they understand that not every is an artist, so there are forums and social media sites for the course where you can partner with an artist to collaborate on your hero. They also give links to online sites such as HeroMachine where you can design your hero yourself with an online template (which is what I did).

I'll talk more about this in coming weeks, but even without the hero-designing aspect of the course, I found it very interesting and informative to learn about the various ages of the comics and how the creators of those time periods were trying to reflect what they saw happening in the world around them. If you're at all interested in comics, or history, or better yet, comics history, I encourage you to check out the course. You can learn more here. They are going to offer the course again based on the feedback they received from the inaugural course that wrapped up at the end of June.

Don't forget to drop your comments below to answer my questions about your experience with comics!

Hanging: home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "How's Your Life - Alix Alvarez Mix" by Tortured Soul (link is for Spotify)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Of Girls, Princess Leia, and Wonder Woman

I had many goals for myself when I started out this blog. I wanted to share my gaming experiences dating back to the early 1980's all the way up through today. I wanted to chat about comics and also science-fiction and fantasy books, TV shows, and movies. I wanted to provide some unique gaming inspirations and mechanics.

But ultimately my main goal was to document my experiences as a "geek dad" who is raising a young girl and trying to share with her the things I'm so passionate about while also trying to encourage her to have her own sense of self and develop a passion for things that she likes.

A new Wonder Woman Dress for Joy
My daughter, Joy, turned six last week. It was with no small sense of pride that I smiled at her approvingly when she chose to have sushi for her birthday dinner - partly because I'm tired and didn't want to cook again, but also because we've really been trying to expose her to different styles of food. We do this mainly out of laziness, because neither my wife nor I have the patience nor the desire to have to cook two different meals at dinner time. We've adopted a "you eat what we make" type of policy, but fortunately it's worked out quite well for us. Joy eats pretty much anything, although like most kids she has random aversions to certain foods for pretty much no good reason.

For her party this year, Joy originally announced that she wanted a small tea party, with only three or four friends, and her mom and I were very much on board with this, because ultimately it meant less work for us! However, over time, the party theme changed - first to Superheroes, and then to Star Wars, and then briefly to "Star Wars Superheroes" at which point her mom and I put our collective feet down and said, "Star Wars it is!"

(Note that there are some spoilers below if you've never seen the original three Star Wars films, but I'm not sure why you'd be reading my blog if you haven't seen them).

Some of the home-made wrapping I did
because we couldn't find Star Wars
wrapping paper
One of our first actions was to make sure that Joy saw the original three Star Wars films prior to her party, mostly out of my fear that someone would "spoil" the surprises at the party, assuming that she had already seen them. So, starting back on May the 4th a couple of months ago, we re-watched "Episode IV" (which she'd seen once, back in September 2014, but which she didn't have much memory of). Then after school let out in early June, we watched "Empire Strikes Back" and finally "Return of the Jedi" just this past Sunday, July 5th. At this point, Joy declared that she'd seen "all the Star Wars movies" and then asked me, just to make sure. With a deep sigh, I finally relented and let her know that, in fact, there are some other movies that take place before the movies she'd just watched, but that they end up spoiling all of the surprises. One of my favorite parts of watching "Empire Strikes Back" with Joy was her debating with her self and trying to convince me that Darth Vader could not be Luke Skywalker's father because he's a bad guy and "bad guys lie, Daddy." I remember as a young nine year-old boy having many of the same thoughts and having to wait three years for confirmation that Darth was, in fact, Luke's father.

We then began searching for decorations for the party, and that actually leads to the main purpose of this post, other than to wish my daughter a very happy birthday.

My kitchen chalkboard decoration
and a REBEL Rouser Double IPA.
Get it? REBEL!?
With Disney having acquired Lucasfilm and the Star Wars properties, we figured that Star Wars decorations for the party would be easily obtained. We could not have been more wrong. We went everywhere you could think of - Target, Walgreen's, Rite Aid, Party City, and even searched online. We searched the Disney stores both online and at Disneyland. The only thing I could find was one (ONE!) plastic outdoor tablecloth, decorated with characters from the new Star Wars Rebels animated series. No cards. No gift bags. No wrapping paper. No cake decorations. We couldn't find anything. Later we came to understand that it's because the stores are culling down their existing stock while they wait for the new movie to come out later this year, so most of them won't have any new items in until September. I guess it makes some sense, but when Joy picked "Star Wars" as a theme, it never occurred to us that we were going to have to hand-make pretty much all of her decorations.

Next my wife bought Joy a really cool Princess Leia costume dress (the classic one from Episode IV) to wear at the party, but thinking ahead, I knew it would be hot outside and after awhile the dress would not be comfortable, so I decided to get my daughter a Princess Leia t-shirt.

Jedi Joy's Force-Push in her new Princess Leia t-shirt
Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find a Princess Leia t-shirt for a girl (not a grown-up woman, but a young 6-year-old girl)? I advise you not to try to look unless you have a lot of time, and patience, on your hands. I finally ended up having to buy her a custom-made t-shirt on Etsy, which admittedly is pretty cute but also which took me about 45 minutes to find via Internet searches.

 Maybe it has something to do with the new movie coming out, but seeing as how there were plenty of young boy-sized t-shirts with all of the other characters on them, I don't think that's the case. There's been a lot of stories in the press lately about how entertainment companies are doing a horrible job marketing "geek" culture like superheroes and comics to young girls, but I always felt like Star Wars was one of those "exceptions that proves the rule" type of properties. But as I searched for a Princess Leia t-shirt for Joy, I began to realize that the corporate mentality that "girls don't like that stuff" coupled with "boys won't wear a shirt with a girl on it" and "boys won't play with a girl action figure" has permeated even my favorite childhood fantasy, Star Wars.

As my wife and I were working on trying to figure out decorations and accessories for Joy's party, I began to really take notice of the almost total lack of female superhero, fantasy, and science-fiction characters. And interestingly, my daughter also took notice - in fact, she began to call it out to me before I had really paid attention.

"Daddy, how come the Avengers t-shirt doesn't have Black Widow on it?" 

This is from directly in front -
you can see that Wonder Woman is cut-off
One of her friends from Kindergarten had a superhero themed birthday party a few weeks ago and there was a huge bounce-house at the park, decorated with DC Superheroes. My daughter knows her heroes, so as we approached, I asked her if she could name them all.

"Flash. Green Lantern. Batman. Superman..." 

She paused for a minute, which I thought was odd, because the last remaining character is her absolute favorite."

"Daddy? Why is Wonder Woman off on the side? Is it because she's not as important as the boys?"

As I looked at the bounce-house through the eyes of my daughter, I saw what she must have been seeing every day and yet I'd never really paid that much attention. Wonder Woman was off to the side - in fact, so much so that she was nearly wrapped around the corner so that only about 2/3 of her are visible. All of the "boy" characters are shown nearly full-figured. And then there's Wonder Woman, pushed off to the side so she nearly falls off.

I guess Black Widow doesn't get cavities
The very next day at the grocery store, we were shopping for some fluoride rinse for Joy. Normally she uses the "Frozen" branded rinse, but this time I happened to spy a different bottle.

"Look, Joy! They have an Avengers rinse! You should get that one!"

Joy looked at it for less than two seconds and then announced, "No... Black Window isn't on it. How come she's not on the bottle, Daddy?"

About a week or so later, we went to Disneyland for the 4th of July to see the fireworks. While there, we decided to let Joy get a pin or two for the lanyard she wears with her annual pass. For those not in the know, Disney has literally hundreds, if not thousands, of these pin designs depicting everything from the attractions at the theme parks to the restaurants to characters from the history of Disney and of course the other entertainment properties it has acquired, including Marvel Comics and Star Wars. So as we went through the pins, Joy searched and searched but we could find no Black Widow or Princess Leia pins. There were plenty of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Spider-Man and Doc Ock pins. There were also plenty of Boba Fett, Darth Vader, Stormtrooper, R2D2, C-3PO, and Chewbacca pins. And yet two main characters from their respective franchises were ignored.

By this time, Joy had gotten very quiet and was no longer interested in getting a new pin. And I, at this point, was getting as frustrated as I'd ever been. I grew up with Star Wars and superhero comics, and I've been sharing my love for them with Joy ever since she was a newborn. I take her with me to the comic book shop every Wednesday to get our comics, I play the Star Wars score for Joy in the car while we're driving, we wear superhero and Star Wars t-shirts together, draw pictures together, read the stories, and are planning to see the new Star Wars film when it comes out in theaters later this year. And yet at this point, none of that mattered. I was ready to give up and try to find something else fun to share with Joy that's more inclusive.

Things look better when you have cake
But the thing is - I shouldn't have to give up, and neither should Joy. She does love these things - when we can find a fun Wonder Woman book, shirt, or toy, she loves it. She loves playing Jedi and using her force-push. She loves listening to the music and identifying what scene of the movie is being depicted.

While telling my frustrating story today at work, one of my clients said, "I think your daughter is going to grow up to be a big force of change for the that kind of stuff and fight for girls' rights for superheroes."

That's a nice compliment, but ultimately I'd rather that by the time Joy is old enough to do that, that things have changed enough so that she no longer has to do that.

Any parents out there want to share your experiences? Please drop me a comment below. 

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: sparkling water
Listening: "Circles" by Soul Coughing

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