20 November 2011

My first publication! "The Victorian Crisis of Faith in Australian Utopian Literature, 1870-1900"

Last week Colloquy, a Monash University peer-reviewed academic journal, published (electronically) an article I wrote on religion in late-nineteenth-century Australian utopian literature. The article, titled "The Victorian Crisis of Faith in Australian Utopian Literature, 1870-1900," can be found in issue 21 of the journal, which also collects some of the other papers presented at Monash University's Changing the Climate conference on utopia, dystopia and climate change, held in August 2010. I wrote about my utopias research a few times on my old blog - see the post "Researching nineteenth-century Australian utopian literature." Some of the other papers from the conference, including Kim Stanley Robinson's keynote address, have been collected in a book published by arena.

08 October 2011

The changing Cinderella in Fables, Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love, and Cinderella: Fables are Forever

I recently co-authored a paper with Dr Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario titled "Fairy Tale Heroine or Fables Superspy? Finding the Real Cinderella," looking at the changing representation of the Cinderella character in early fairy tales and the Fables comic book series. Rebecca and I co-presented the paper at Tights and Tiaras: Female Superheroes and Media Cultures, a recent conference run at Monash University by the Sidhe Literary Collective. Most of the material I contributed to the paper concerned the representation of Cinderella in Fables, and I had originally intended it to be a predominantly positive discussion of the character's evolution in the main Fables title, with brief mention of Cinderella's first spin-off miniseries, titled Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love. However, with the publication of the character's second miniseries, Cinderella: Fables are Forever, which published its sixth and final issue only weeks before the conference, the paper had to take on an entirely different flavour. Although it is our intention to work the conference paper into a proper article, I wanted to write a short rant on my thoughts concerning Cinderella's recent representation in Fables and the problems that surround her second miniseries. Oh, and spoilers abound in the tirade below...

Covers for Fables #22 and Fables #51

The ongoing comic book series Fables, created by Bill Willingham in 2002, tells the story of a community of fairy tale characters, or 'fables', living in a spell-protected area of New York City called Fabletown (although non-human fables live further out of the city in The Farm). Cinderella's first brief appearance is in issue 2, where she's seen taking sword-fighting lessons from the nefarious Bluebeard. We discover that she's a spy for Fabletown when she returns to take center-stage in issue 22, titled "Cinderella Libertine". Although she plays the part of a self-pitying princess who lives a carefree life as the owner of the Fabletown shoe store The Glass Slipper, she is in fact a spy working for Fabletown's sheriff, Bigby (the Big Bad Wolf in human form). Unfortunately, Cinderella's role in this story isn't terribly empowering - she quite heavily sexualised (as you can see on the cover above) and her primary spy skill is seduction (which she uses to test the loyalty of a man named Icarus Crane to Fabletown), with little else in the way of character development. Furthermore, at the end of the issue Bigby tells her to wait in the car while he 'deals with' Crane himself (read: bludgeons him to death). Cinderella's return in issue 51, "Big and Small," sees an important development in the character, as she is portrayed as much more independent, assertive and resourceful as she oversees diplomatic negotiations between Fabletown and the giants of the Cloud Kingdoms.

Covers for Fables #71 and Fables #72

The height of Cinderella's portrayal by Willingham, however, comes in issues 70 and 71 of Fables, in the two-part story "Skulduggery." In this story, Cinderella must rescue Pinnochio from the clutches of the evil Adversary and return him safely to Fabletown. Throughout "Skulduggery" we find a more resourceful and ruthless Cinderella, one who's not afraid to get her hands dirty and doesn't need anyone else to come along and deal with matters for her. The focus on fashion and shoes in these issues harks back to her popular fairy tale and does not come at the expense of her being a fantastic, kick-ass superspy. The character's super-human strength and endurability combine with her centuries of spy training to solidify her status as a true superhero. Her iconic slipper also becomes something of a chevron for Cinderella, appearing on all of her outfits. It was these issues, written by Willingham and illustrated by the ever-brilliant Mark Buckingham, that saw me come to love this character - a true comic book superheroine.

Covers for Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love #1 and Cinderella: Fables are Forever #1

Cinderella has since received two spin-off miniseries, each comprising six issues written by Chris Roberson and illustrated by Shawn McManus. The first of these, Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love (2010) was quite a decent spy story, although it lacked some of the awesome ass-kickery of "Skulduggery". The character also appears much less 'superheroic', with little reference to her super-human strength and endurance, and her slipper chevron nowhere to be seen. Roberson's influence clearly comes more from Bond films than a desire to modernise a fairy tale heroine or create a great female superhero, with the witch Frau Totenkinder becoming Cinderella's Q, and the handsome prince Aladdin becoming the equivalent of a Bond Girl (and Cinderella's love interest).

The real problems come in the second miniseries, Cinderella: Fables are Forever (2011). As though the cover of the first issue (above) wasn’t bad enough, Cinderella spends a large portion of the first few issues in some state of undress, reducing many of her appearances to mere fan service. The series’ big bad is Dorothy Gale (of Wizard of Oz fame), a deadly assassin with a longstanding rivalry with Cinderella. In the pursuit of Dorothy, Cinderella allies with Ivan Durak, an old acquaintance, who ends up saving her life time and time again. Cinderella herself is remarkably inactive for a lot of the series (she spends most of the present-day storyline in issues 4-6 tied up) and at times is even incompetent (such as standing dumbstruck in the line-of-fire of a deadly monster in issue 3). Even her final defeat of Dorothy is due as much to luck as anything else. I could go on, ranting about things like Cinderella's constant references to Bigby and his rules of combat, apparently asking herself "what would Bigby do?" at every turn, but I have to get on to the biggest problem in this series...

The absolute low point of the series comes in issue 5: first, Ivan (whom the readers now know to be evil) gives Cinderella large quantities of wine laced with drugs. Ivan and Cinderella then have sex, after which Cinderella loses consciousness, later waking to find herself bound to a chair. Dorothy then appears and reveals that she was Ivan all along, a transformation she achieved using her magic silver slippers, and which she did with the sole intention of 'tricking' Cinderella into sleeping with her. Needless to say, Dorothy's impersonation of Cinderella's acquaintance in order to deceive her into sex, not to mention the use of alcohol and date-rape drugs, is rape on multiple levels (being both date rape and rape by fraud). To make matters worse, in issue 6 Dorothy repeatedly boasts over 'having her way' with Cinderella, taunting her mercilessly (and sickeningly). Dorothy’s acts, however, are never acknowledged as rape in the series, and are instead treated so casually that it becomes little more than a joke or 'plot twist'. Roberson drastically fails to deal with the horrific rape and abuse of Cinderella in a serious way. Aside from a couple of references to not wanting to think about it and feeling a little ill, Cinderella just seems to brush off the events of the previous night and has almost forgotten them by the end of the issue.

Dorothy taunts Cinderella in Cinderella: Fables are Forever #6

In our paper, Rebecca and I concluded that the same problems seem to permeate representations of Cinderella in both fairy tales and the Fables universe. The Grimm brothers, Perrault, and eventually Disney, all took a character who was active, resourceful, intelligent and self-sufficient in her early fairy tale representations (see Basile's "Cenerentola" and D'Aulnoy's "Finette Cendron") and turned her into a passive princess – a damsel in distress. Unfortunately we find the same patriarchal trappings creep into the character’s recent comic book incarnation as well. Cinderella goes from being a powerful and independent superspy in issues 70 and 71 of Fables, to a rather average spy in her second miniseries - a depiction only worsened by Roberson’s flippant portrayal of sexual abuse.

Looking to the future, perhaps we can find a glimmer of hope in the upcoming Fables spin-off, Fairest, which will comprise a series of story arcs focusing on different female characters of the Fables universe, with each arc having different writers and artists. Hopefully Fairest ends up portraying women better than the latest Cinderella miniseries (although Cinderella's arcs will apparently be written by Roberson again, so I'm not holding out much hope for those stories). Whatever happens, surely it couldn’t be much worse than Willingham’s other Fables spin-off series, Jack of Fables, with its intolerably chauvinistic protagonist (side note: in a humorous moment in the series, the fourth Wall sister notes that if you remove the spaces from the title it becomes jackoffables). Hopefully Fairest will follow in the footsteps of "Skulduggery" and instead of presenting the female fables as passive damsels, return to the core of some of their earlier fairy tales and turn them into the powerful women – the superheroes – they ought to be.

16 August 2011

Tights and Tiaras - conference success!

For the last two years, the feminist reading group my wife and I are part of, the Sídhe Literary Collective, has been organising a conference on female superheroes. Our many months of planning finally came to fruition last weekend, with Tights and Tiaras: Female Superheroes and Media Cultures. The conference ran at Monash University on 12 & 13 August 2011 and was sponsored by the university's School of English, Communications and Performance Studies, and the Centre for the Book. In the lead up to the conference, we even got some media interest:

My wife was also interviewed on the ABC Radio (Melbourne) Drive program (several of my coworkers mentioned hearing her interview as they drove home!). After this media attention even the University itself took notice and ran a news feature on "Tights and Tiaras". There may also be more media coverage in coming weeks.

The conference itself ran even better than we'd hoped - some fascinating papers were presented and some great discussions took place; the catering was great and the conference dinner on the first night was very enjoyable.

Karen's keynote, which opened the conference, did a wonderful job of contextualising the conference and discussing some of the issues pervading the representation of women in comics. Another highlight was the 'authors and artists' panel, which featured Karen (who recently received an Aurealis Award for her YA novel Guardian of the Dead), Alison Goodman (author of Eon and Eona and also an Aurealis Award winner), and JKB Fletcher (whose superhero-themed paintings I thought were absolutely brilliant). My paper on Cinderella in Fables (co-written with Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario) was well received, as was my wife's paper on The Powerpuff Girls (the editor of the Dark Matter fanzine called hearing an academic paper on The Powerpuff Girls a "surreal experience").

So, I think it's time to unwind for a little - to chill out and read some comics - before facing the masters study I'm now lagging behind on...

08 August 2011

Upcoming paper: "Fairy Tale Heroine or Fables Superspy? Finding the Real Cinderella"

In four days (eep!) I'll be co-presenting a paper I've co-authored at a conference I've co-organised (with many other organisers that have done far more work than me). This Friday and Saturday is Monash University's Tights and Tiaras: Female Superheroes and Media Cultures, a conference put together by the Sidhe Literary Collective, the feminist reading group I've been part of for the last few years. The keynote speaker will be Karen Healey, an award-winning author of young adult fiction who has been very active in the feminist criticism of comic books. We've got a stack of amazing-sounding papers lined up, and I can't wait!

Below is the abstract of my paper, which I co-wrote with Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario, an academic from Monash's School of English, Communications and Performance Studies. It's titled "Fairy Tale Heroine or Fables Superspy? Finding the Real Cinderella" and we'll be looking at the evolution of the character of Cinderella from fairy tale to comic book.

Fairy Tale Heroine or Fables Superspy? Finding the Real Cinderella
Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario & Zachary Kendal

The superspy Cinderella is an important character of Bill Willingham’s ongoing Fables comic book series, and has even earned two spin-off miniseries of her own, written by Chris Roberson. In this incarnation of Cinderella, the fairy tale heroine pursues a career of international espionage, undertaking dangerous missions for the good of her fellow fables, all the while parading as a simple shoe-store owner pining over the breakdown of her marriage to Prince Charming.

The tales of Perrault, the Grimms and Disney have shaped the contemporary popularity of Cinderella, emphasising the heroine’s journey from ashes and housework to tiaras and handsome princes. These popular tales, problematised by easy misogyny and patriarchal expectations, have overshadowed earlier versions of the Cinderella story, in which the heroine attacks her despised stepmother and beheads ogresses. By examining some of the early cunning and feisty incarnations of Cinderella, including Basile’s “The Cat Cinderella” and D’Aulnoy’s “Finette Cendron,” this paper will examine how the fairy tales’ interests in costume, masquerade and general sneakery have been readily absorbed into the comic book medium. It will also consider Cinderella’s portrayal in the Fables series and the two Cinderella miniseries, and the high and low points of her depiction at the hands of the creative teams behind these comic books.

Durand and Leigh call superhero stories “the next step in the fairy tale tradition,” and once we strip the patriarchal trappings from the early tales of Cinderella, the character can bridge this transition and sit as easily upon the shelves in a comic book store as upon Mother Goose’s tongue.

[Abstract for a paper to be presented at Tights and Tiaras: Female Superheroes and Media Cultures on 12 August 2011]

28 June 2011

Awesome People Reading & Bookshelfporn

I love reading. So I was excited to come across a great Tumblr feed called Awesome People Reading, which has photos Boris Karloff, Buster KeatonAlfred Hitchcock, and others (oh, and a portrait of the poet Charles Baudelaire).

Boris Karloff reads.

My other favourite Tumblr feed is Bookshelfporn, and I can spend ages ogling the incredible libraries and bookcases featured there.

Interior of the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County “Old Main” Building.
Photographer unknown, 1874.

Updated 29/6/11:
Awesome People Reading has just uploaded their awesomest photo yet (awesomest is a word, right?): Johnny Cash reading. I love Johnny Cash, which is weird, because I'm not much of a fan of country music otherwise.
Johnny Cash reads.

12 June 2011

these are unfashioned creatures...

Almost two years ago, when beginning work on my Bachelor of Arts honours thesis, I started a blog called silk for caldé. The title was a reference to Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, on which I wrote my thesis, and the blog itself was created as a space for me to work through some ideas and write about Wolfe's work. However, there have been times when I've wanted to post on something not Wolfe related, and doing so on the aforementioned blog has led to inordinate amounts of guilt: I felt as though I was diluting an otherwise fairly scholarly blog with random nonsense. Instead of widening the focus of silk for caldé (which is listed on some great Wolfe websites, including Ultan's Library), I have decided to create a separate blog for non-Wolfe related posts.

The title of this blog, unfashioned creatures, is from the following quote from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (one of my favourite books of all time):
We are unfashioned creatures, but half made up, if one wiser, better, dearer than ourselves — such a friend ought to be — do not lend his aid to perfectionate our weak and faulty natures.
 – Dr. Frankenstein, as recorded by Robert Walton (Letter 4)
Of course, the posts on this blog are themselves unfashioned creatures, of a sort, and will probably be less serious and polished than those on my other blog. I will continue to maintain and update silk for caldé - I've still got posts to write on The Knight and Home Fires, and I plan to read through Letters Home and post about that as soon as I have some more time free - but this will be the new location for everything else.

Frontispiece to the revised 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
Steel engraving; T. Holst, del. & W. Chevalier, sculp.