Women Warriors – Katana: Soultaker

Women Warriors

The second installment of this discussion group at Cleveland Public Library, hosted by Valentino Zullo on March 19, focused on the DC Comics trade paperback Katana: Soultaker, a 10-issue series written by Ann Nocenti.

Katana Soultaker

Although there were less people who showed up for the group discussion, they were all faces familiar from the first meeting and our talk focused more on the book itself. At the meeting focused on Ms. Marvel, the conversation often strayed away from the book and although some worthwhile topics came up, they were broader ideas that didn’t cleave to the reason for the meeting. Valentino did a fine job of circling back to Ms. Marvel, but we wound up talking a lot about just comics in general.

When it came to Katana: Soultaker, the general consensus was that overall no one really enjoyed the book all that much. That itself was a poignant thing though, as Valentino mentioned that while he didn’t enjoy the story a whole lot himself, it was one of the few examples he could find of a female superhero who also fit the mold of intersecting qualities – in this case gender and race.

Katana: Soultaker follows what the group agreed was a disjointedly told journey of the titular hero through a revenge story. This narrative structure was itself one of the drawbacks to the book, which offered an example of a common trap for female heroines in that it makes the character a passive participant in their own story. In Katana’s case, she is motivated only by revenge for the murder of her husband, and in these sorts of stories, the revenge seeker has no real inherent drive of their own – their actions are spurred on only by the quest for revenge itself. This became particularly problematic for this story, too, after a major plot point is revealed towards the end of the series.

Following a similar path through the book is the supporting character Shun, who is first presented as an intriguing character with an important role in Katana’s journey. But as the story progresses, she too falls into a revenge cycle that by the end of the book finds her essentially just a bland, cliche-spouting engine of violence. However, because of the aforementioned plot point, and the actions she takes as well as those perpetrated upon her, she ultimately becomes more interesting than the main character.

Much of the book’s flaw stem from the storytelling, which was just straight-up messy. Scenes break at awkward times consistently throughout, and one of the group’s participants succinctly described the story’s execution by likening it to “that feeling you get when you waited until the night before your homework is due, and you just rush through it.”

The other big flaw in the book is that, while the core of the story is really not that bad, Katana’s character becomes irrelevant. In fact, her “real” identity and name were something the group had to refer back to the book just to remember. In contrast, the Ms. Marvel book’s Kamala Khan is vital to the story, her non-superhero identity a critical factor to understanding and appreciating her journey.

Overall, the book was just plain disappointing in many ways. As a tale of a Japanese warrior woman, it was riddled with just about every cultural cliche and stereotype that comes to mind. Packed with Yakuza, samurai, ancient clans, drunken masters, ninja stars, and all the accompanying cheesy dialogue you might find in a dubbed kung-fu flick. Mind you, i love those old kung-fu movies, but i can’t imagine that was the vibe they were going for in this book.

Katana’s actions and reactions to things were very often nonsensical, with her switching allegiances and allies several times, and even her goals were bewildering. At the book’s start, she’s trying to, i think, put an end to this large underworld syndicate. But also get revenge for her husband’s murder. And take over the syndicate. And stop some prophecy. And end some ghost’s curse. And stop The Creeper, who for some reason is nothing like The Creeper and instead is like an Oni spirit…?

This is The Creeper. i don't know what the heck was in Katana: Soultaker

This is The Creeper. i don’t know what the heck was in Katana: Soultaker

In the course of her quest, she returns to the same places over and over, getting in lots of fights where she barely escapes, then collapses from injuries or exhaustion, and then wakes up safely somewhere else. At the climax of the book, it’s not even her actions that bring triumph and a conclusion to her quest, but the spirit of her dead husband. This occurs so quickly and in so few panels that, as a group, we all had to refer to the book just to piece together what happened.

And then there’s a single splash page to wrap it up, conclude the story AND the series as a whole.

Despite all the bad things about this book, the group discussion was terrific. Although we ran out of time, we thought it might be interesting after the discussion series is over to talk about what we learned about what makes a great female hero and perhaps even try to come up with our own character, based in Cleveland, who possesses intersecting traits. i hope we stick with this proposal, which sounds like a lot of fun.

Coming up this Thursday, April 2 is the next discussion group, and i’m really looking forward to this one because the topic is Batwoman: Hydrology. Batwoman is a fantastic character, and i’m hoping for a lively conversation. Not only is she a relatively new character with staying power, her comic has been one of the most enjoyable ones i’ve read in the last few years due in no small part to the stunning artwork.

It’s also worth noting that Cleveland Public Library makes a great effort to have plenty of copies of the books discussed in this group for readers to check out. The graphic novel, comics and trade paperback section of the library is frankly enormous. Because of the Ohio Center for the Book, which has been around since 2003 thanks to an initiative by the Library of Congress to promote literacy, they are able to offer these sorts of programs and books in the community. Initially, there was only the National Center for the Book, but it was expanded to a state level where they can highlight each state’s authors and writers.

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Week in Geek 3.6.15

Week in Geek – a roundup of science, technology and pop culture news with commentary each Friday

Talkin’ ‘Bout Comics

One of the best developments that came out of Wizard World Cleveland was a chance meeting with Valentino Zullo, who introduced himself before a panel discussion. We hit it off, both sharing an appreciation for similar sorts of comic books and the deeper contextual substance they present as literature.

Valentino currently studies at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at CWRU. Mentored and taught by Dr. Vera Camden at the Cleveland Psychoanalytic Center, he credits her for inspiring his emerging work. Dr. Camden herself is part of a speaker series at the Cleveland Public Library, and will be part of a lecture there on March 14. Get Graphic! A Graphic Novel Speaker Series features scholars and comics industry professionals exploring the world of comic books. The lecture series is free to attend, and other guest speakers like Tony Isabella, Marc Sumerak and Brad Ricca are involved – definitely worth checking out.

Ms. Marvel: No Normal was the topic of discussion for the March 5 meeting

Ms. Marvel: No Normal was the topic of discussion for the March 5 meeting

In addition to the lecture series, Valentino hosts a bi-monthly discussion group at the Cleveland Public Library which uses comic book graphic novels as a springboard for conversations about social issues. On Thursday, March 5 a new series began called Women Warriors, which asks the question “what does it mean to be a female superhero?” As a big fan of female heroes myself, i was really looking forward to this meeting and was not disappointed by the experience.

“The whole group came about last March,” Valentino said of the Get Graphic! series. “I went to a book club at the library, when I was working in a domestic violence unit for my field placement when I was in social work school. One of the social workers was going to the library, and I said I’d go along. I asked if they ever do anything on comics. They said no, but they have this huge collection but they don’t have anyone who’s a specialist or who knows a lot about comics. So I jokingly said I could do it if they want. They said ‘do you really want to?’ So that’s how it happened. It was a joke at first; I wanted to do it, but I was kind of kidding. But they said if I wanted to, I totally could. That’s how it happened.”

The library does indeed have an impressive collection of comics and graphic novels in the 2nd floor literature section, and after the group i learned that they make every effort to stock enough of whatever book is the focus of the discussion, so there are plenty of copies to check out.

Valentino, who believes in literature, social justice and the superhero way, hopes to continue growing the group and bringing in more speakers. It’s really about creating a space for people to come and talk about comics, and more than that, to promote literacy in the community – a goal that comes from his efforts as a social worker.

Valentino Zullo hosts the Get Graphic! series at Cleveland Public Library. The March 5 meeting focused on the graphic novel Ms. Marvel: No Normal

Valentino Zullo hosts the Get Graphic! series at Cleveland Public Library. The March 5 meeting focused on the graphic novel Ms. Marvel: No Normal

“Even when people don’t show up (to the discussion group), all the books get checked out,” he said. “So it seems that people are reading the books, even if they’re not showing up to the discussion series.”

Organizing the discussions around social issues is important to Valentino, who said he’s interested in comics for lots of reasons simply as a fan of the genre as well. But his professional training led him to center the topics within a real-world context to explore things like feminism, racial diversity and equality, and the nature of evil.

He is happy to note that the groups have grown in attendance since the program started, with the lecture series typically seeing a larger number of people.

“I think it’s going well,” he said. “Yesterday during the introductions, a few people were very nice and thanked me. It seems like they’re learning a lot.”

The group of 12 on March 5 comprised men and women of all ages and cultural backgrounds, who gathered for the first installment of the Women Warriors series to discuss Marvel Comics Ms. Marvel: No Normal graphic novel. Valentino started the discussion with some research he did into the character. He went back to the well-established character’s roots in her original 1977 incarnation, noting that in the letters columns of those books, readers made the same sorts of comments we hear today about a lack of strong female heroes.

“Now, we’re seeing lots of female heroes emerging,” he told the group, pointing out the trend in comics of offering more than the typical white male superheroes. “Let’s see if they stick.”

What drives Valentino’s exploration of these issues in his interest in intersections. He explained that by looking at characters through intersections of characteristics like gender, class, race and sexuality, we can find solidarity in our differences. Using himself as an example, identifying as an Iranian gay man, he segued into the focused discussion on Ms. Marvel and the importance of this sort of book.

“Kamala is the perfect example of the new sort of comic that can teach us a lot about the world we live in,” he said of Kamala Khan, the Pakistani teenager who takes on the superhero identity of Ms. Marvel.

Although the discussion strayed organically from talking about No Normal specifically into a broader talk, the input from the group offered insightful perspectives on comics in general and the impact they’ve had for everyone gathered.

“A superhero is just a symbol for what we can wrought in our own lives,” said one of the women in the group.

When the conversation drifted away from the focus, Valentino was very good at bringing it back to the book, bringing the group’s attention to particular panels and story beats that he felt are important to the issue. He particularly liked how, early in the story, Kamala masterfully deconstructs the typical female superhero costume and how long hair, high heels and skin-tight spandex don’t really make for ideal crimefighting attire.

“It is sometimes difficult, because people really get inspired to talk about different things – which is a good thing in some ways,” he said of discussions come about. “But we don’t get that far into the book sometimes.

“In some ways it’s really good, that they’re finding ways to connect this to their every day lives, which is excellent. I do find sometimes that it’s difficult to keep on topic, but we’re usually within the scene.”

One of the things Valentino most enjoys about the discussions is what he learns from them, too. For example, the Evil and Empathy series evolved from an earlier discussion. After reading a comic about The Joker, one of the participants said that he kind of felt bad for the character, experiencing a bit of empathy in understanding what happened to him.

“They (group participants) make me think about these things in ways I haven’t before, which is really great,” Valentino said. “I just like the fact that these people are connecting after the discussion. People don’t want to just go, and they’ll sit around talking with other people from the group.

“I’ve learned that all these people have an investment in comics, and in social welfare, that I didn’t know about.”

Perhaps the overarching theme of the March 5 discussion centered on the diversity of comic book readers, who generally want to identify with the characters in the books. Several of the group’s female participants noted that they’d faced situations where people told them comics weren’t for girls. One of them, a black woman, in particular told about how when she was younger, she was drawn to Spider-Man. She enjoyed reading about not only his personal struggles, but the action in the book. She liked that, despite all his problems, he was still strong enough to do what was right and fight the bad guys.

This led the group into a broader talk about identifying with heroes, and most agreed that Marvel Comics does a great job of offering a wide range of characters that readers can relate to. In that regard, i think the Ms. Marvel book itself is a great example of this. Bearing the name of the publisher, i wonder if this is a subtle move on Marvel’s part to play into the idea that their characters have always represented the idea that the audience can put themselves in the heroes place.

Marvel has a long-standing tradition of humanizing their characters, giving them real-world problems outside of facing supervillainous threats. What i found very exciting through the discussion group was that the road goes both ways. What i mean is that, the same as how an adult black woman can relate to a teenaged white male hero like Spider-Man, it’s not a character’s race, gender, sexuality or other characteristic that draws readers in. Comic fans identify with the intangible qualities that superheroes represent, like selflessness and the strength to persevere against incredible adversity. That’s what allows for people like me, a middle-aged white man, to relate to a teenaged Pakistani girl like Ms. Marvel.

While doing my own research into the character, i came across the “I am Ms. Marvel” trend where readers take photos of themselves holding issue #1 up to their faces to show how they identify with the character. There’s a Twitter hashtag #iammsmarvel where a bunch of people shared their photos that’s definitely worth checking out.

Anyone can be Ms. Marvel

Anyone can be Ms. Marvel

If you enjoy superhero comics and want to meet up with others who share your passion, Cleveland Public Library’s Get Graphic! series is certainly worth a visit. The Women Warriors series will continue every other Thursday through May. Here’s the schedule and the books each meeting will focus on:

  • March 19: Katana: Soultaker by Ann Nocenti & Alex Sanchez
  • April 2: Batwoman: Hydrology by J.H. Williams III & W. Haden Blackman
  • April 16: Storm: Make it Rain by Greg Pak, Victor Ibanez & Matteo Buffagni
  • May 7: Huntress: Crossbow at the Crossroads by Paul Levitz & Guillem March
  • May 21: Ms. Marvel: Generation Why by G. Willow Wilson, Jacob Wyatt & Adrian Alphona

Thanks to Valentino Zullo for introducing himself at Wizard World, and for hosting this great discussion series. It was great to meet new comics fans and talk about real issues through the context of superheroes. If you’re at any of the discussion groups, please feel free to say hi – i’d love to meet you!

While at the library…

Admittedly, i haven’t been to Cleveland Public Library in years, and that was only when i crept in so i could spy on the Captain America: Winter Soldier set from the stairwell while covering it for The Cleveland Stater. Prior to that, i couldn’t even guess when i was there last.

The building itself is phenomenal, an edifice to knowledge with wonderful architecture. While wandering the halls, i came across TechCentral in the Louis Stokes Wing so you know i had to check that out. This technology and learning center has a computer lab, cloud computing resources, 3D printing and a Tech Toybox for lending out iPads and laptops.

In addition to those resources, TechCentral offers many courses (for free i think) on all sorts of tech-related stuff like digital photography, 3D maker labs and coding, as well as various computer courses. They also have job search resources like workshops on improving your search, and resume and cover letter assistance.

TechCentral in Cleveland Public Library's Louis Stokes wing

TechCentral in Cleveland Public Library’s Louis Stokes wing

Most assuredly i will be exploring more about this place for a future Week in Geek.

Another thing i passed in the hallway was this large display called “Before I Die.” It’s a global public art project that invites people to share their aspirations. According to the display at Cleveland Public Library, there are over 100 of these walls in more than 10 languages located in over 30 countries.

Cleveland Public Library's "Before I Die" global art installation

Cleveland Public Library’s “Before I Die” global art installation

All in all, a great geeky week and it all took place at Cleveland Public Library.

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Thanks for reading the latest edition of  Week in Geek in addition to visiting The Long Shot. Of course, there were many more exciting things that happened in the world of science, technology and pop culture this week…but these are the ones that most caught my attention! If you have any news you’d like to share, drop me a line and let me know – i try to keep up with stuff but i can’t read everything!

If you would like some further reading, about some science, technology and pop culture stuff that happened this week, here’s a few links i hope you find as interesting as i did:

Follow @longshotist on Twitter for frequent shares of related articles and (hopefully) humorous nonsequiters.

Week in Geek will be back next Friday, March 13 and i’d love to see you here!

Remember – if you would like to contribute to The Long Shot, i’d be happy to make that happen!

Week in Geek also appears alongside other great blogs at The News-Herald Blogs (click the logo at the top right of the page for the main site).

Check out the articles i’ve written for The News-Herald.

Thanks for reading!