Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Rethinking how we view fictional characters

I meant to share this link a few weeks back to an article/review I wrote for Sequart. It focused on one chapter from Deborah E. Whaley's recent book, Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime. I received a review copy from the publisher late last year and I can't recommend the book enough, especially if you're at all interested in how readers or viewers perceive fictional characters. Whaley's book is one of several recent books offering serious critical analyses of comics, comics culture, and other popular culture sites, several of which (including Whaley's book) are coming from university presses. One more reason university presses rock (I'm not biased, I swear).

Whaley does an excellent job of showing just how important it is to recognize that a person's gender, race, economic background, education, etc., can play a huge role in how they perceive fictional characters.
For the article, I focused on the chapter focusing on Catwoman and her various interpretations throughout the years in comics, television, films, and more. If you ask most fans of the character, "Is Catwoman white?" they would likely answer in the affirmative. Whaley presents evidence that it's not such a simple question to answer. Yes, most versions of the character have been white, but did you know that her ethnicity has been revealed as Italian and Latina in the comics? I have no idea if that's still cannon, what with the myriad reboots and relaunches from the publisher DC in recent years, but it's an idea of the character, an interpretation actually, that has resonated with certain readers ever since. To them, Selina Kyle will always be part Latina. In two of her many television and movie appearances, she's been portrayed by black actresses: Eartha Kitt in the 1960s Batman television show and Halle Berry in the Catwoman movie. These portrayals imprinted on some fans as their canonical Catwoman (Catwomen?). It's another example of how the common perception among fans (and, being a white male fan, I'm hazarding a guess that this perception can be attributed to most white, male fans) isn't the only perception out there, and that these other perceptions are just as valid.

Whaley's book, especially her chapter on Catwoman, reinforced something I've known for a long time, which is that fans are just as much a part of the lives of their favorite characters as the writers and artists and directors and producers who bring them to us. If not for the fans and their varied personal (re)interpretations, these characters wouldn't remain as popular as they do. It's these various meanings that creators and fans alike put on them that keeps them fresh and vital. Go read Whaley's book, please. Not only does it contain this thorough analysis of Catwoman, but it also critically examines other important women of color in comics and multimedia—both creators and characters alike.

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