Tuesday, August 31, 2010

You are what you wear

This column originally appeared October 26th, 2009 at ComicBookResources.com.

I love to look at Wonder Woman from a historical point of view. As society changes and progresses, so changes Diana, the amazing Amazon princess. In many ways she is the mirror of American culture and the Women’s Movement. That and she also bashes crime and evil weirdos.

Let’s proceed through decades of publication to see how her identifying costume evolved.

As Wonder Woman, Diana has always dressed for success. The costume that originally saw print back in 1941 was designed by her artist, H.G. Peter, with suggestions from both her creator, William Moulton Marston, and his wife, who reminded them that an active heroine needed to keep her modesty in mind.

Our first impression is: she’s wearing the American flag. Well, one with an eagle clinging to it. Diana was born just as America entered World War II and patriotism was at fever pitch. According to her origin story she was sent to America to help us win the war. (If she’d been sent to France the costume might have been ever so much simpler!)

Diana wore a tiara that signified her position as Amazon princess. Princessery is a powerful idea to young girls especially. Walt Disney has made a fortune out of princess obsession. It’s one of the few ways that girls or women of the early World War II era could fantasize about being able to use their strength of character and body without being derided.

Princessery also carries with it more than a touch of fairy tale. The girls in such stories are almost always princesses, and their rank allows them certain privileges (power), though it also requires them to marry whatever hero shows up for their tale. Luckily, most heroes were dashing, rich, heroic, and quite possibly monogamous.

I’m not going to get into all the doodads of the Wonder Suit, like how you could plug a Mental Radio in to the star/port of the tiara and communicate telepathically with others. That’s fluff. We’re talking symbology here, clothes making the woman.

These days Wonder Woman’s tiara is no longer a tiara because it has no crowning upward-turned point. It is a barbarian warrior’s headband, and reminds us that Diana is, above all, someone who can wield an axe like a master and literally destroy her enemies.

The new headband also looks vaguely Kryptonian. Is this deliberate imagery to further the public’s perception of Wondie as being Superwoman, and thus somehow more legitimate than a magic-based character?

Let’s move along to that strapless bustier. If you can tear your eyes away from the USofA eagle there, you’ll discover that this is the outfit at its most glam. Strapless bodices were and are a staple of high-society evening wear. That a woman as active as Wonder Woman would dare to wear such during her battles with Nazi spies proclaimed her ultimate cool.

Well, to everyone except people like Jules Feiffer, who reported in The Great Comic Book Heroes, “My problem with Wonder Woman was that I could never get myself to believe she was that good. For if she was as strong as they said, why wasn’t she tougher looking? Why wasn’t she bigger? Why was she so flat-chested?”

Taking steroids wasn’t required of her over the next decades. Thankfully, only once or twice has she been portrayed as a hulkish musclewoman. Wondie got big in other ways.

Feiffer would like the modern look. It steps right up to the reader and purrs, “Hello, boys. New in town?” Too many times artists have gone out of their way to make Diana’s bust of legendary proportions. The shrinking bustier over that bust is not about coolness; it is about pandering to a straight male readership.

The famous bullet-deflecting bracelets were extreme symbols of feminism. Narrow and black, these weren’t really bracelets; they were manacles. These were remnants of a time when the Amazons had been enslaved by men. They reminded us that never again would this happen, that the Amazons would always be strong and independent!

In the Modern Age Diana’s bracelets became silver. At first they were a unique sign of the Amazons’ Champion, but now it seems many people are allowed to wear silver bracelets. All of them are quite large and don’t look like manacles at all. In fact, many readers refer to them as “bracers” or “vambraces,” as if a game of “bullets and vambraces” were something we’d want to see. (Since Wonder Woman is pretty much invulnerable these days, there’s really no need for bracelets or bracers at all except for their symbology.)

Some Amazons even wear their hallowed bracelets ornamented with stars as if they were costume jewelry. Some honorary Amazons **cough**Cassie**cough** don’t recognize the sacredness of the bracelets. “Sacrilege,” someone **cough** recently laughed in derision.

Diana originally wore a lasso because another power image of the early Forties was the Cowgirl, that rarely-seen spunky dame who rode side-by-side with her cowboy man and conquered the West. Oh, the comic may have given the Magic Lasso Greek myth roots, but once Diana was in the saddle of a magnificent horse (or kanga), as she often was in those early tales, and twirled that lasso over her head to unfailing catch whatever she needed, we could all see it was really a cowgirl’s handiest accessory.

Cowgirls are out of mode these days unless they’re the teasing employees of “Coyote Ugly” or a sexual position. The lasso not only sits coiled at Diana’s side, but releases in all kinds of artistic abstract loops and angles around her as a decoration.

Diana’s lasso is sometimes seen as S&M. Some readers point to the Golden Age and all its fetishism, but most of that came from spanking, not just Diana tying people up because she had to detain or question them. No one spoke outright about its secondary aspect, and little kids weren’t in on the wink.

Today’s lasso has also recently been made into an offensive weapon. Always before, it was a tool of peace, of quickly gaining information in a non-torturous way. In the past few years Diana has used it to inflict physical pain on people. To her credit, she has also used its vastly increased powers of truth to interfere with sorcerous spells and to (painfully) shock people out of delusions.

The lasso now symbolizes more power available to Diana, but that power is a frightening one.

There was never a printed example during the Golden Age of the bottom half of Diana’s main costume being a skirt. It was a culotte, a split skirt that bears as much relation to a skirt as loose shorts do to a kilt. The culotte rapidly became tighter until it was undeniably what we’d identify today as biker shorts and then shortened to hot pants.

My mother was in high school when Wonder Woman first hit the stands. In gym, she wore a culotte as a part of her gym uniform. It’s what any modern, active girl wore. Thus by wearing these, Wonder Woman of the ancient Amazons was on the cutting edge of practical fashion and proclaiming that she was an athlete. She wasn’t going to one-handedly fight while using the other hand to smooth down a skirt to keep it modestly in place. She was going to stride, to leap, and not have to pay attention to her clothing betraying her!

Today the culotte/shorts are too often reduced to thonglike proportions. Instead of proclaiming Diana’s freedom and strength (with a lot of patriotism thrown in), they now show that she’s advertising for a hot date. With you, baby. Now.

Within the WW book the briefs are often shown to be granny panties. While definitely a better choice than a thong, granny panties are not stylish and take Diana off any “cutting edge” fashion lists. If Diana were to go with modern athletic fashion, she’d probably be wearing track-style “butt huggers,” which show a little of the cheek but keep most things well-covered. They allow the wearer some sense of self-respect. Hot pants would also be a somewhat fashionable alternative that are both sexy and hark back to WW tradition.

Those crazy boots–! She had three variants in those early years: sandals, which reminded us of her ancient Greek background, tight striped boots that placed her squarely in the ranks of superheroes, and a kind of duck-billed, looser boot that was so fancy one had to think they were specially-made cowboy boots. All of this combined to show that on many levels Wonder Woman was someone quite special, someone we could expect fantastic feats from.

These days Diana’s dagged boots certainly aren’t Jimmy Choo’s, but you can’t save the world in Jimmy Choo. They seem standard (if jester-like) superhero fare. Look at many of the Elseworlds/parallel Earth stories and you’ll find these babies changed into Hoochie Mama over-the-knee boots. At least Diana’s boots don’t have heels (this rule does not apply for the hoochie versions) and thus set a good example for others while leaving her arches thankful.

Through the years has the Wondie suit changed for the better? To my eyes the only improvements are possibly (1) the granny panties because they allow greater freedom of movement than the culotte though lessening dignity and (2) the lasso, which has a much more powerful vibe these days, even if that vibe is used in shocking ways.

Does the costume’s evolution reflect society, or does it suggest the attempt to grab and hold an increasingly shrinking market made up primarily of young adult males? Does it boost the popularity of Wonder Woman within the general public? Does it make possible new readers avoid her?

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. What does Wondie’s costume say about her?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Lazy Daze of Cary

Despite me living in this area for so long, I've never been to Cary's Lazy Daze street fair. I usually find out about it the Monday afterward. So this year I made a note on my calendar to hit Lazy Daze, if for no other reason than to do some art marketing research.

I wanted to see what other artists were doing. How they did their booths, how they interacted with their customers, what their prices were.

Temps were supposed to be quite reasonable and humidity low. Guess what? They changed their forecast at the last minute. Like I didn't see THAT coming.

So with the Mapquest directions by my side, I took off for Cary. Cary's a strange city, once you get away from the center of the town, which dates far back, maybe even to the Sixties. Get a few blocks from there and everything starts to look the same. Same corner strip malls, same divided boulevards, same sidewalks.

It's easy to get lost in Cary. One section of the town looks exactly like the others. It's all recent construction, and the condos and homes all look the same. And all look expensive. That's because Cary folks, on average, have a lot of bucks in their bank accounts. They all work (or used to work) in the Research Triangle.

Cary's a very green-looking town. There are lots of trees everywhere. That's how I missed spotting Cary Towne Center, a huge shopping center. Though I passed right by it, there was a thick belt of trees surrounding the place. I knew I must be near because the streets hadn't gone to two laners yet and I knew that if I went any further, I'd be downtown.

So I made a few turns and eventually through the brush spotted a "Cary Towne Center" sign. I turned in. The news had said that a free shuttle would run from the shopping center near Sears every 15 minutes. So I drove, looking for Sears. And drove. And drove. The drive circled around and my sense of direction, which was already uncertain, became completely confused. But there was Sears!

And every darned parking space for miles was taken. Pedestrians were strolling away from Sears, probably toward the tiny shuttle. I figured on a 3-hour wait for the bus.

So I cruised the lot. Finally I spotted a woman with baby carrier heading away from Sears toward the cars. I headed out, down one aisle, and then back in to where she must be targeting her car.

Though the aisles were one-way and clearly marked, I spotted a big-ass SUV turn into the end of the lane against the traffic direction. It stopped feet away from the woman and its turn signal began to blink.

You must be joking. This SUV woman (we'll call her "The B") would have to back into the space once the other woman pulled out, if the other woman could get around her to exit. But the lady was taking her sweet time opening up her trunk, much less seeing to her bags and kid. This looked to be a twenty-minute load-up.

So I gave up on the space. How to get out? There were five cars behind me. WE were all pointed in the correct direction. I waved The B back and she shrugged at me. Then I inched forward. Reluctantly she moved her car over. I inched up. There wasn't enough room to pass her. She shrugged again.

"Idiot!" I bellowed at her, practically nose-to-nose through my closed window (and her open one). She managed to move over a few more inches and I (nearly) scraped by.

I do hope that when the lady with the kid finally got out of her space, that someone behind me would move in and take it, leaving The B sitting there backwards. Rrr!

Anyway, found a spot, found a bathroom in the mall, and then headed for the shuttle bus. Instead of just one, I counted four long tour coaches and two shuttle buses waiting for people. They filled up quickly, ferried us downtown, and disgorged us at the beginning of the fair.

The streets surrounding the site were crammed with parked cars. Every house that had an accessible lawn had cars parked on it. Everyone had their signs out: "Parking: $5.00." One corner across from the beginning of the fair had not only cars parked all over their once-beautiful lawn, but the owner had also put out paintings and plants for sale, along with bottled water for $1. Very enterprising!

Unlike the ridiculous "August is Too Damn Hot to Hold a Street Fair Street Fair" I went to in Mebane a couple weeks previously, a fair that had six tents and perhaps fifty visitors (including the tent holders), Lazy Daze took up, oh, maybe seven or ten blocks. It was crammed on both sides with 10x10' tents. There was a long row of various arts organizations—I had no idea so much was going on there! Then we had block after block of artisans. I think everything was juried, because there were only a couple of clunkers in the entire group.

And there were about fifty million people attending. Check the guy on the left in the pic above, the one with his tongue hanging out. He's right. It was HOT.

Off on side streets were kiddie areas, misting tents, and food vendors. I got a $2 smoothie for $5. Was tempted by a cute silver sugar bowl on a stick (a bird feeder), but didn't feel like paying $35 that I didn't have anyway. Saw some lovely artwork. Left my card at one booth because the artist had stepped away and I wanted to ask her if she gave lessons in watercolor. Gorgeous stuff. She lives in VA, so...

Bonanza! Some guy was selling portraits. He specialized in pastels but also worked in oils, and he had a stack of copies of HIS PRICE SHEET. My portraits are on the same quality level as his, but a good level less expensive. As I walked the fair looking at other paintings similar in quality to mine, I came away with the impression that my stuff is priced right. Yeah, there was the one woman who had $2500 paintings that I'd have charged about $700 for, but she was the exception to the rule.

Saw Chris Hohmann, the weather guy from Channel 11, there as I was registering for a chance to win an iPad. On TV he looks like a, well, regular guy. In person he's TINY!!! Skinny and short, but pleasant-looking all the same. I requested that he desist from standing in front of Efland when he worked the green screen.

Saw a woman painted completely in metallic silver and dressed like a Revolutionary woman soldier (skirt hitting her knees). At least I recall it that way. It was uniform-y, Revolution-y, and yet had a feminine touch, with the overall effect that she was a metal statue. Yeah, I should have taken a pic, but I still had my camera in my purse and the crowd was shoulder-to-shoulder. I think the concept was that every time someone threw money into the pot in front of her, she'd come to life and rattle off a bit on her snare drum. She seemed really good, and I never saw her sweat, though she was standing when I passed her going one direction, and still in position a long time later when I was in retreat mode.

Halfway through, the heat began to get to me. I saw a few people being attended to by aid workers, and was glad I wasn't one of them. Didn't know I had that many sweat glands in my head, though.

Passed a very good Cajun/bluegrass/soft rock band on my way back. Only one couple was dancing, though the band gave a very lively, danceable beat. Stayed to hear three songs from them.

No probs getting the bus on the way back, except that they miscounted and I had to wait a few minutes to grab the next one. At any one time there were usually two or three buses loading. The bus personnel and town volunteers were very polite and helpful all the time.

Hit the mall for a gyro to take home (wasn't about to pay Fair prices for food! I'd only budgeted for the one smoothie) and recalled what the one lady had told me on how to get out of town. Turned out she was right. Zzzzip! Home again, home again.

A very nice street fair. I'll return next year. Now, let's see if we can get Chapel Hill to reinstate Apple Chill Fair...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Getting things done at a reasonable pace without DRIVING MYSELF INSAAAANE

You can tell I have a lot of interests. You might even be able to tell that I'm a lazy procrastinator who likes to make excuses.

But excuses don't get the job done.

I am very happy to report that my two wips have finally reached their close-to-done stage. Hooray! It's been, like, forever! But that doesn't mean I can slack off. The one I can call one quick draft away from completion. The other, well, it's almost at first draft finished stage. Just a hair away. I can see the end of the tunnel so I should bear down all that much more to complete them.

In the meantime I can ask: anyone know a good beta reader? I've gotten 4 volunteers for the one wip (one draft ago), and three wimped out completely, while the fourth... Well, the fourth was unqualified and I should have known that. Mea culpa.

But I do need a good beta reader. The genre is fantasy romance, or sci fi with romantic elements, depending on which wip you're after. You'll have to wait for the second for about a month, but the first should be ready for reading by next Monday.

In the meantime I still have an art business to see to. There are 4 landscapes in particular I've been wanting to get to, so last weekend I sat down and figured out some compositions and value schemes. Those are the pictures at the top of this blog.

What I want to do with these is to pare down my painting process so I'm not dribbing and drabbing cowardly, paper-thin layers of paint onto the canvas. I want to be bold. I want decisive brushstrokes. I want my colors juicy and my compositions exciting. And I don't want it to take a month or more to turn out one painting.

But I still want to turn out the best quality I can.

So I hope you'll stay tuned. I'll be posting my progress in the coming weeks. Just to make things interesting, I've booked a guest blogger for mid-October. She'll be talking about a river that inspired her (by then) just-released novel. I want to have my stream picture... let's see, that's the second one... done just before that blog goes up.

Plus a State Fair painting will be due just a week or so before that. I'm thinking the farm scene, the fourth picture, will be entered there. And if I'm not going totally nuts, I think the first weekend in October is the time I need to change out paintings at the Saratoga Grill in downtown Hillsborough. Have you eaten there lately? I need to eat there soon, because I recall really good food and a reasonable price.

It sure would be nice to arrive at October without having had a nervous breakdown. I had a lightbulb moment the other day. In her fascinating book, Life Before Life, Helen Wambach gives the results of hypnotizing about a thousand people and regressing them to previous lifetimes. Their final hypnotic session involved taking them back before the current lifetime.

The subjects had to answer questionnaires between sessions. Results were tabulated, quantified and compared to actual historical findings. In this volume, Wambach presents just the before-life experiences. Many people reported that they went before a council that decided a physical life/set of circumstances for them. Some people said that they'd been able to choose for themselves. Most choices involved past relationships that needed to be explored more, and returning to life to be with a familiar group of people.

What did I take from this? That this was my lifetime to be an artist and writer. I had to do as much as I could because this would be the only chance I had.

Yet the other weekend it suddenly occurred to me: I'd be one of the folks making my own choice. If I really wanted to be an artist or writer again, I'd choose the right life to do that.

You'd be surprised how much relief there is in that. I have enough time to explore this facet, this artistic side.

The big thing is: I just have to remember that. There's enough time to get things done, if not in this lifetime, then in another. In the meantime, I believe I chose this life for a reason. Perhaps... Just perhaps, mind you... I should enjoy it. Get a kick out of what I dialed myself into. Maybe explore it, find out where its boundaries really are, instead of hiding in the ones I think it holds.

How about you? How's your life going?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Strickly a Book Review

On the Edge
by Ilona Andrews
Ace Fantasy
4 1/2 spangles out of five
Heat: Most people would consider this mild, since there's only one explicit sex scene in the book.

First of all, many thanks to Beth Caudill for loaning me this book! She knew I wanted something good to read, something that wasn't the usual fangs and fur, but had come out recently.

This book is billed as urban fantasy (hey, the term is hot in today's market!), but it's actually set in the Edge, a borderland between the modern world and the magical one, sort of an Appalachia with a few flashes of magic here and there.

The biggest "flasher" of our story is our heroine, Rose. She's poorer than dirt and works her fingers to the bone in the Broken (our world) to support her two young brothers and herself in their Edge shack. The brothers are two of the most appealing facets of this book. You'll never find cuter little guys than these, though they're very little-boy macho with zero saccharine. They're something worth fighting for, and our heroine will have to fight with her all.

Rose can flash, which means she can handle a focused type of powerful magic. Instead of this helping her out, it has become a nightmare for her, and she thinks that newly-arrived Blueblood from the magical world, Declan, Earl of Camarine, is out to do her no good. Declan's flashes are as powerful as Rose's, plus he's a swordsman and, well, magical version of a SEAL or black ops soldier. He's also handsome as all get-out, polite, refined, great at seduction, and has a healthy sense of humor.

Perhaps this is the slight problem I had with Declan. He was too perfect, though very likable. And Rose was just too poor. The reasons given for that didn't quite ring true, especially when we discovered that her little brothers didn't have the same problems as she, though the youngest should have had more.

There are several Bads in the book, leading up to the Big Bad. BB is completely insane, completely powerful, which is okay but not as compelling as he could have been.

This is why the book misses that final half-spangle. If we could have just tamped down the OTT bits I think it would have had much more impact.

As it was, the book's characters are captivating and fairly original. The prose flows beautifully. I was particularly struck by the imagery as well as the dialogue. People have to reveal deep levels of truths to each other in order to work together, and there are some lovely passages of that in the book.

Plus the world-building is just terrific! I loved the concept of the Edge and how it's a step down or step up to its neighboring realms, how it's got laws unto itself when it comes to meting justice. I particularly liked how the more magical elders used Old Magic when needed.

There is a satisfying amount of humor—always a big plus!—and a lot of action. Unfortunately in a few places characters act stupidly with no good reason. I was disappointed to guess how things would end, due to some obvious clue-setting... until things didn't happen that way at all! Still, the final shoot-out, as it were, with Big Bad was not as powerful or menacing as I thought it would be.

But don't let that missing half-spangle keep you from reading this book or following Ms. Andrews' career! She's going places! (Okay, since she's a NYT bestseller, she's probably there already.) You'll find a lot in this book to LOVE, and the non-magical sparks between Rose and Declan will keep your pulse racing. I'm hoping there will be a sequel involving the boys and/or Declan's friend, the shapeshifting wolf. Book 2, Bayou Moon, will be coming out in September, but it seems to concern another family of the Edge. (Which doesn't mean that wolf William can't show up there.) I'll be looking for it!