Episode 1.04 – Wonder Woman by Greg Rucka (2003 – 2006)

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by Tara Lawson-Harris & Steven Harris

On the fourth episode of the Critically Comics podcast, Tara and Steven discuss Greg Rucka’s first run on Wonder Woman from 2003 to 2006! This episode covers Rucka’s Wonder Woman: Hiketia one-shot, the infamous Eyes of the Gorgan story arc and the controversial neck snap heard around the world. Is Greg Rucka’s first tenure on Wonder Woman the best Wonder Woman run of all time or is corrupted by the forced tie-ins to Infinite Crisis? Join the debate and let us know what you think!

Building Multi-Medial Comic Book Canons

by Steven Harris

After Tara’s explanation of what “canon” means in regards to both literature and this podcast, let’s expand upon what can be considered canon.

While a canon is typically limited to only one medium (i.e. novels or films), with fandoms demanding more content for their favorite franchises, creators are more willing to expand their canon to multi-media platforms. Multi-media adaptions of comic book based intellectual property can never share the same linear canon as their source material due to the never ending nature of comic books. However, due to the strength in the writing of certain adaptions and how widely they’ve been embraced by both the comic community and mainstream audiences, select few multi-media adaptions of comic inspired works can be folded into a particular character’s canon. 

Multi-media canons are not a new phenomena. For example, Star Trek originated as a television show in 1966 and has since become a multi-media franchise that has grown to include five additional television series, thirteen full length feature films, and countless novels and graphic novels. Previously, for a fan to consume everything that existed in the canon of the  Star Trek Universe they would have to consume no less than four different types of media. For a new fan, that much content can be intimidating and lead to struggles in determining what is canon — a debate that is only exacerbated with the inclusion of the dreaded “reboot” phenomena. Reboots often leave fans scratching their heads over what is still in canon  and what is being quietly swept under the rug.

Occasionally, the owners of the intellectual property will descend from their high perch and plainly state for fans what is and isn’t canon. Perhaps the most controversial example of this is when Disney acquired the Star Wars franchise in 2012; after picking up the franchise, Disney firmly stated that from 2012 on only the Star Wars films and Clone Wars animated series would be considered in continuity and that all other stories (video games, comics, novels, etc.) would be considered non-canonical and be retired/rebranded as in-universe “legends”. To further drive home their point, Disney stated they would be creating an entirely new canon that would be established solely by material that they would exclusively oversee. This declaration alienated fans who spent decades enjoying these previously published works because they were being told that the stories they revered were no longer important to the other franchise. This frustration that was all too similar and all too familiar with DC Comics fans who struggled to determine what was in still in continuity after the company wide “New 52” relaunch of 2012.

Sometimes fans themselves are divided about a canon being divided between different mediums. A more recent example of a multi-medial canon is the creation of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  If a fan wishes to complete the full Harry Potter canon that was established with the original novels, they must switch mediums at least three times. J.K. Rowling launched Pottermore, an exclusively online library of short stories and various writings that Rowling has stated are all canonical. In 2016 J.K. Rowling co-wrote Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a stage play that acts as an epilogue to the Harry Potter sage. Furthermore, 2016 saw the launch of the Fantastic Beast series — a five part film saga that canonically takes place sixty years before the first Harry Potter novel and features several characters referenced in the original book series.  The Fantastic Beasts series has been met with a mixed reception with some voicing frustration with J.K. Rowling by comparing her to George Lucas due to her inability to stop tinkering with her previous stories. 

While the previously examples of Star Trek, Star Wars and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter are multimedia canons, they are still linear progressions of the same story.  If a timeline were to be created for any of those franchises, each entry (regardless of medium) could be plotted in a mostly linear path. Comic books and comic books films cannot share the same linear canonical timeline due to the ongoing nature of comic books. At best comic books films can be adaptations of poplar comic book storylines. It would be impossible for comic books films to be anything other than loose adaptations of already pre- existing comic books storylines — film studios would not expect film goers to read the complete 70+ years of superhero comic books before watching a single two hour film. Conversely, it would be just as alienating for a comic book reader to be forced to into a cinema to see how a particular storyline would be resolved.  However, an argument can be be that select pieces of media should have a place in certain character’s individual canon. 

Due to the mass popularity of superhero media, a cross pollination effect has occurred where media outside of comics has started to effect comic books own continuity.  The best example of this is with Batman and how the various forms of multi-medal Batmen have affected the character’s in universe continuity. Without the creative output of Bruce Timm & Paul Dini on B:TAS, there would be no definitive takes on characters such as Ra’s Al Ghul, Mr. Freeze, or the Joker

Unquestionably, the legacy of B:TAS is the creation of Harely Quinn. Harley Quinn first appeared in “Joker’s Favor”, the twenty-second episode of B:TAS’s inaugural season. What could have been an inconsequential throw away character was welcomed by fans with open arms. Quinn made her first published appearance in 1993 in a printed spinoff of B:TAS. Five years after that, Harley officially entered the Batman canon when she was introduced during the No Man’s Land crossover. Within a decade of her appearance on the B:TAS she was given her own solo series in 2001. Since being introduced into the DC Universe, Harely has become a staple in Batman’s canon but has become popular anti-hero and well celebrated LGTBQ icon. Due to fans connecting with the character, she ended up being a lead in 2016’s Suicide Squad feature film where she was portrayed by Margot Robbie.

Another example of outside media having seismic ramifications on the comic book industry is the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In attempts to capitalize on the success of their films, Marvel has made several attempts to streamline the comic book versions of their characters to match what is seen on screen. The biggest example the MCU has had on Marvel Comics is the way that Iron Man/ Tony Stark has been written for the past decade — what is seen on the page is a complete distillation of Robert Downey Jr.’s personality. (We will dive more into the MCU’s effect on Marvel comic books in an ongoing blog series after Avengers: Endgame is released.)

While our podcast will continue to focus on what published comic books can be considered canon worthy, we will be launching a regular blog post series to determine what pieces of comic book inspired media can included in individual characters’ own personal canon. These characters have transcended off the page and established their own non-linear multimedia canons – canons that are not defined by events that add to their overarching story but instead a canon made up of pieces of work that cut to the core aspects of the character.

Mini-Episode 1: Interview with Colorist Rico Renzi

by Steven Harris & Tara-Lawson Harris

Join us for our first episode of the Critically Comics podcast! This past weekend we had the opportunity to comic creator Rico Renzi. Renzi is best known for his work on Image Comics’s Loose Ends, Vertigo Comic’s Goddess Mode, and Marvel’s Spider-Gwen and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. We talk to Renzi about his process, what it means to include people of color in his work, how he felt seeing Spider-Gwen on screen, and what books he would include in the comic book / graphic novel canon.

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Hollaback Squirrel: Other Canon-Worthy Squirrel Girl Comics

by Steven Harris

Earlier this month, we posted the third episode of the Critically Comics podcast. The episode focused on the first volume of Marvel’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe. (The episode can be found here).

In addition to the material we covered, there have been an additional forty-two issues published. Last week saw the publication of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 2 #48 — which marks the character’s 50th solo issue by Ryan North.  While I believe that the material we previously covered has earned The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl a place in the comics canon, I wanted to discuss some additional issues that we did not talk about on the podcast. The following are the top issues that demonstrate how this book deserves a place in the comics canon with its unique and genre-bending storytelling. 

“Animal House” by Ryan North & Erica Henderson and Chip Zdarsky & Joe Quinones – The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 2, #6 &  Howard the Duck vol. 6, #6

“Animal House” is a two part crossover storyline that begins in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 2 #6 by Ryan North and Erica Henderson, and concludes in Howard the Duck vol. 6 , #6 by Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones. In this story, Doreen helps Howard locate a missing cat and ends up getting sucked into a larger adventure where they are hunted for sport.  Shannon Sugarbaker, a southern debutante and the villain of the story, kidnaps Doreen and Howard, along with a menagerie of other animal-themed characters from the Marvel Universe — the X-Men’s Beast, Kraven the Hunter, and Weapon II, a Wolverine inspired squirrel. On the surface, the story serves as a loose adaption of Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game. In addition, the book (albeit comically) raises the issue of legal rights of the “advanced” animals / animal hybrids. When applying an animal studies lens to this story, a wide variety of issues become readily apparent. For example, if animals were to gain human qualities like Howard the Duck, what ethical issues would arise with hunting? At what point would we award the same rights and privileges as humans? This thought exercise is just under the surface of the story, and can be a launchpad for several classroom discussions. Due to inspiring such conversations, “Animal House” is a gem of a story in Ryan North & Erica Henderson’s run on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

“Be The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” by Ryan North & Erica Henderson – The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol. 2 #7

In this issue, Ryan North and Erica Henderson break the streamlined narrative expectations of a typical comic book story. Instead, North and Henderson create a choose your own adventure style story. “Be The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” is less of a title to the issue, but more of a challenge issued to the reader by the omnipotent narrator of the issue, Galactus, who threatens to devour the planet if the readers do not correctly reach the end of the story. By using this creative framing device, North and Henderson place a comedic sense of urgency and duty onto the readers to pick the “correct” path. The sheer nature of a choose your own adventure story requires the reader to physically flip back and forth between pages of the story, an action that requires an extra level of physical engagement with the reader. Additionally, presenting this technique in a comic book format allows the reader to visually follow multiple time lines at the same time all on the same page. Some of the choices readers are faced with ultimately end up merging into the same ending, but North has amusing comments concerning eventuality littered throughout these convergences. Included at the end of the issue is a “secret ending that is only reached through cheating” which is a meta commentary about how often readers “cheat” in choose your own adventure stories by skipping around. While “Be The Unbeatable  Squirrel Girl” could be written off as being too “gimmicky”, it invites readers to physically interact with the issue in a way that 99% of other books take for granted.

In addition, this story gifted the world this incredible panel:

It legitimately might be one of my favorite panels of all time.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol. 2 #11  by Ryan North and Jacob Chabot

Part of what sets Squirrel Girl apart from other heroes in the Marvel Universe is that when she is not fighting crime, she is an active college student. A through line of Ryan North’s tenure on the book has been Doreen Green attempting to obtain a degree in computer science. In this particular issue, Doreen’s knowledge in computer science takes the spotlight. Most of the issue takes place in Doreen’s dreams — a clever twist on the ages old nightmare of showing up to a test you do not feel prepared for. The supernatural villain, Nightmare, tries to take advantage of Doreen’s insecurities as a student and make her doubt her ability to fully understand computer science. However, in true Squirrel Girl fashion, Doreen finds a solution that does not invoke throwing fists; Instead of punching her problems away, Doreen defeats Nightmare by reciting basic computational control flow statements and explains binary by counting to 31 on a single hand. This issue presents convoluted computer science concepts into an easy to follow comic book story. By incorporating practical and educational segments into the story, this issue shows that comic books are more than mere entertainment. 

“The Mighty Mewnir” — The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 2 #15 by Ryan North and Erica Henderson 

While it may not be the highest concept issue, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #15 has enough creative ideas to launch multiple analyses. The traditional storyline of hero versus villain takes a backseat to the less thrilling daily adventures of a common cat. While Squirrel Girl fights the Taskmaster in the background of the story, North & Henderson follow a day  in the life of Mew (Doreen’s roommate, Nancy Whitehead’s, cat). The creative team breaks traditional comic storytelling format to emphasize Mew’s indifference to super heroics by forcing dialogue balloons out of the panel. Instead of watching the Avengers confront Taskmaster, readers are invited into the dreams of Mew as she contemplates what exists beyond the mouse hole in the wall. In the end, it is Mew who actually saves the day by indirectly helping Doreen by giving her the idea to use her tail (a trait Taskmaster can’t copy) to defeat the villain. Applying an animal studies lens to the adventures of Mew opens up discussions of how animals are used in literature, and what value they have in the stories they appear in. What is inarguably a one-off issue demonstrates how much creativity North & Henderson have and how willing they are to bend comic book storytelling norms.

“Special ‘Zine’ Issue” — The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 2 #26 by Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Madeline McGrane, Chip Zdarsky, Tom Fowler, Carla Speed McNeil, Michael Cho, Rahzzzah, Anders Nilsen, Rico Renzi, and Jim Davis

One of the major underlying themes of entire Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series is the emphasis on friendship and collaboration parties. In the publishing world, there is no better example of collaboration than zines. Zines (short for magazine or “fanzine”) are usually the creative work of several contributing writers who come together and self-publish their work in a single volume. While each writer contributes to the content inside, they all assist in compiling, publishing, and distributing the zine. Because zines are typically underground self-publications, they are often to have an inexperienced and unpolished appearance. The Zine issue of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl contains all the hallmarks of a zine: multiple stories within the issue, a rough outer appearance and an emphasis on collaboration (both in the issue itself and the creators whose work are featured in the issue). Taking the time to carefully tune the aesthetic of the issue is indicative of the creative energy North and Henderson carry throughout their run. The emphasis on collaboration and on under-appreciated zine publications in this issue makes this series stand out head-and-shoulders above other modern superhero comics.

Episode 1.03 – Squirrel Girl by Ryan North & Erica Henderson

by Steven Harris & Tara Lawson-Harris

Download and listen through iTunes!

On the third episode of the Critically Comics podcast, Steven and Tara discuss Marvel’s Squirrel Girl by Ryan North and Erica Henderson! This episode covers the first three volumes of the series and the representation of the character in outside media. Will Squirrel Girl be the best comedy series to be introduced into the canon or will it divide the hosts? Join the debate and let us know what you think of the series!

What Is Canon Anyway?

By Tara Lawson-Harris

When I was a freshman in college and first heard people talking about the cannon of literature, I was hopelessly confused. What could great literary works possibly have to do with cannons? Was I supposed to be bombarded with knowledge? Struck with inspiration? Shot dead for my use of bad puns in the presence of actual genius?

Then I saw it written on the board: C-A-N-O-N. I figured that either the professor didn’t know how to spell it right, or the word was not actually a reference to a type of weapon. Fortunately for any student too lazy to look up the word previously in the semester, my professor assigned a reading on canon for homework. Eight years later, and I am still fascinated by the various canons we have in our culture, and the historical trends that led to them. But neither this blog, nor the accompanying podcast, are focused on the history of the literary canon. Both are, however, focused on identifying works that could be included in the comic book and graphic novel canon, which is a subsection of the larger literary canon.

Since understanding the concept of a canon is instrumental in understanding the purpose of our podcast, I wanted to take a moment to explain what canon is, and why we are using it as a framework for our podcast.

Canon is the collection of works that make up the very best of a field. A musical canon would include Bach, Mozart, the Beatles, while an art canon would include Picasso, Warhol, and Banksy. The works recognized as part of the canon are considered authoritative representations of what the field should strive to be. However, there isn’t one long list of all the works that make up the canon– at least, not in most fields. The lack of an authoritative list of what makes up the canon in any field leads to many scholars in the field debating what should and should not be considered canon.

The exception to this rule is in Theological Studies, where the list of canonical works can be found in the Holy Bible. The Bible is largely recognized as the first canon to ever exist. As you may know, there are more works written about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit than there are contained in the Bible. At some point, the most sacred books were chosen and collected in the Bible and the remaining works were cast aside. As a result, the Bible is the authoritative representation of sacred texts written about Christianity– it’s the canon you can have collected in your hands in a single volume.

Most canons extend over many works. For example, the literary canon is so large that it has to be divided into sections– there’s a canon for each century (eighteenth, nineteenth, etc), and for different genres (fantasy or YA). What is normally referred to as “The Literary Canon” are the works that many consider classic. This canon includes works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Anna Karenina, and The Three Musketeers. There’s a comic book canon too.

What is important to note about the comic book canon is that it is substantially less developed than some of the other literary canons. There are several reasons why. One is due to the nature of comic books being a new genre, only formed in the early 1900s. Another is that comics are not considered “literary” by many scholars. Comics are rarely, if ever, taught in grades K-12, and only occasionally taught in college. The works that are taught in college courses are works that are chosen by English professors with training in a literary background. They comprise only a small fraction of comic book readers, and often are only reading a certain type of comic book. As a result, many of the comics considered canon are the ones chosen and taught by college professors, who chose and teach the ones considered canon, and it becomes its own “chicken or egg” situation.

So, for example, if you were to ask a person with only a passing familiarity with comics which books are considered canon, they would likely say Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Maus by Art Spiegelman, or Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. However, if you were to ask the same question of someone who considers themselves a comic book fan, you will probably still get the same answers as the above, but you might also get Y:The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughn, The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, or The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman.

Within the comic community some works spark great debate in regards to whether or not it should be included in the canon. An example of a highly contested work is Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bollard. This work is infamous for it’s problematic and brutal depiction of the assault on Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, by the Joker — an act of violence used only for the purposes of advancing the storylines of two male characters: Batman and Commissioner Gordon. However, many readers praise the book for its novel approach of crafting a possible origin story of the Joker . (I, frankly, despise most works written by Alan Moore, so the previous sentence was written by Steven, and I revised it for flow. I don’t actually know why people like the book. I fully expect that the book will end up on our podcast, and discussion will be brutal). The reason why I say that it is both canon and anti-canon is because I have never seen a book, comic or not, cause this much disagreement in readers. Readers on both sides of the argument will get furious with anyone who disagrees with them, and if you happen to be a reader who thinks “eh, it’s just a book” you have probably learned that it’s best just to keep quiet unless you want to be yelled at by both sides.

In short, the people who are deciding the comic book canon are mostly academics, but they are not always the same people who make up the comic fandom. As a result the canon doesn’t adequately represent the best of comics.     

There is another issue with understanding canon, and it’s due to the fact that there is another definition. Some people say that when something is “in canon” it means that it happened in the story. For example, in 2012 when DC Comics launched their New 52 initiative, almost every character’s backstory was erased — except for Batman and Green Lantern — as the entire DC Universe started over again from square one. Which sounds fine on the surface, but what about when other characters interacted with Batman and Green Lantern? For example, did Wonder Woman really get tested by the entire Justice League when she went blind during Greg Rucka’s run? If you read her solo book or Justice League, the answer would have been a resounding “no”. However, since Batman was there testing and judging her in Eyes of the Gorgon, and his timeline was still intact the answer could have been “yes.” So was the Eyes of the Gorgon storyline canon or not canon in the New 52?  

I am confused by this second definition of canon because I can’t tell if it’s a reaction to fan fiction and multimedia depictions of the same characters, or if it’s because people are saying the word canon without actually knowing what it means. Personally, for clarity’s sake, if I mean something is in the canon, I mean that it is a work that I consider important and authoritative. If I want to refer to something as existing in the comic timeline, I will use the word “continuity” instead– it’s a word that has been used since I started reading comics, and its definition has stayed consistent in the community without causing confusion.

Steven and I are using the canon (meaning authoritative texts) as a framework for our podcast because the comic book and graphic novel canon is new, still underdeveloped, and is still decided by academics and not regular readers. I do have a M.A. in English, and previously taught English to freshman at the university level.  Steven has a J.D. and is a practicing attorney. Even though we are no longer active in academia, we aren’t completely removed from it; we both have over 5 years of higher ed under our belts. In other words, we offer a unique perspective because we have both experiences: that of academic readers and that of passionate comic book fans. It is our hope that our perspectives on comics allows us to give enjoyable analyses of the books we read and discuss on the podcast as we attempt to decipher what books deserve to be in the comic book canon.

Episode 1.02 – Maus by Art Spiegelman

by Steven Harris & Tara Lawson-Harris

Welcome back to the second episode of Critically Comics! This month Tara & Steve discuss the 1992 Pulitzer Prize wining graphic novel, Maus by Art Spiegelman. We discuss the legacy of Maus and how it manages to be more than just a depiction of the Holocaust with cats and mice. Download and listen now! Let us know your thoughts as to whether or not Maus goes into the comics canon!

Listen here or through the Apple iTunes store!