A real super-heroine: a review of The She-Hulk Diaries

The She-Hulk DiariesEarlier this year, I expressed skepticism toward The She-Hulk Diaries and Rogue Touch — specifically, about authors scribbling down superhero adventures without the pretty pictures to match and, more importantly, with what seemed like a “romantic” spin (that turned out to be false).

I love comics, and removing their visual element would be like neutering them. The physical prowess of female superheroes, especially, is what grabs your attention; it’s the artist’s job to convey that. Then the writer steps in and uses that moment to communicate their emotional and mental strength as well. These three traits complement one another. I wondered if a novel could properly re-create that power. Since so much of a superhero’s identity is rooted in action and visuals — perhaps even more than words — would these characters even translate well into novel protagonists? Or would She-Hulk and Rogue become shallow versions of themselves?

The answer is different than what I expected — at least in She-Hulk’s case (I have yet to get around to Rogue). After reading Marta Acosta’s fun and very juicy The She-Hulk Diaries (out today), I decided that a) yes, superheroes have enough thoughts buzzing around in their heads to fill a novel but b) the whole superhero action thing is what comes across poorly.

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Lost in type: She-Hulk author Marta Acosta talks miscommunication, genre confusion, and sexism

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Marta Acosta is frustrated. In our emails, she half-jokingly said that she was considering writing “I don’t write romance novels” at the top of her blog. I don’t blame her.

It’s an understatement to say the media overreacted to publishers Marvel and Hyperion’s announcement of a new line of prose novels, starting with The She-Hulk Diaries and Rogue Touch. They called it romance; it’s not. Others, like me, reacted to the overreaction and wondered whether this was the best way to portray these superheroines. The whole thing spun out of hand.

I wanted to share Marta’s story because she was caught in the middle. As a journalist, I want to stand up for those who have been treated unfairly or whose voice has been lost in a sea of others. As a blogger, I want to say that a lot of this was an honest misunderstanding — it’s hard to be a feminist (although it’s easy to be one in today’s world) and not overreact once in a while. But even mistakes like these can prompt discussion about bigger issues, like genre and the way we portray women in writing. Marta and I talked about the mishap from these angles and more.

Don’t forget to check out Marta’s guest blog post from yesterday.

Misprinted Pages: Marta, I’m mortified that the Internet has gotten She-Hulk so wrong. Fans fell for it; I fell for it. That’s why I feel so compelled to get the truth out there. Let’s start at the beginning, when Marvel and Hyperion had just made the announcement. What all happened that led to The She-Hulk Diaries and Rogue Touch getting mislabeled as romance novels?

Marta Acosta 3Marta Acosta: Hi, Stephanie, and thanks for having me here to talk about my next book! My fantastic editor Elisabeth Dyssegaard made the announcement about the She-Hulk and Rogue novels. First off, it’s great to have an accomplished woman editor at the helm of these new Marvel projects. Some publications and some bloggers cherry-picked words either looking for a reaction or outrage. So “traditional women’s novels” was twisted as meaning novels in which a female character is weak and subjugated to men. All the positive points about the characters were ignored, and “romance” was presented as meaning a romance novel, which is a separate genre with its own genre conventions.

While I don’t write romance novels — defined as having a love interest as the central theme — I’m always a little stunned at the nasty disdain the genre receives. There are great and crappy novels in any genre you can name, including literary fiction, and I can’t help but think that romance is a target because it’s predominantly written by women for women and it celebrates their emotional life and sexuality.

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Guest blog: Marta Acosta on the close calls of writing

Editor’s Note: Please welcome Marta Acosta, the author of the upcoming book The She-Hulk Diaries, releasing in June. We recently talked about the big misunderstanding and public relations nightmare that erupted in response to her book and another, Rogue Touch, in Marvel’s new line of superheroine fiction, falsely dubbed “romance novels.” Here’s what she had to say about writing and her career — in a sassy satirical piece. Take it away, Marta!

Marta AcostaLike most people, I love being labeled because it saves me the time and trouble of defining myself and explaining really boorrring stuff like, oh, that my name isn’t Maria and that I’m not really exotic since I’m from Oakland, or that I don’t write magical realism or romance. Basically, I don’t like to do anything that requires actual effort, thus the writing career. Which is not to say that I don’t make terrible missteps. For example, my first book, Happy Hour at Casa Dracula, was written as a spoof of genre conventions with vampires as a metaphor for being “other” in society. I know — what was I thinking? So when people introduce me with something helpful like, “Our exotic friend Maria writes magical realism slash vampire romance with a hot tamale heroine!” I just smile with relief and say, “¡Si!”

I was pretty pleased to have this routine down pat when I made another terrible misstep. I wrote a modern gothic, Dark Companion, as an homage to Jane Eyre with a theme of social disparities and exploitation. The book’s tone is set by Paulette Jiles’s classic feminist “Paper Matches” as the epigraph. It almost makes me question the wisdom of starting each day with a dozen Sudafed and a tumbler of Tanqueray because my appalling pretentiousness is in direct inverse relation to my, uhm, cheerfulness. Luckily, readers quickly assumed that I’d merely written a really bad teen romance. Whew, that was a close call!

The She-Hulk DiariesLike most messy thinkers … er, I mean writers, I was looking for another way to keep from getting a real job … I mean, another fantastic writing project. When I got the She-Hulk gig, I did that whole failing-to-learn-from-history thing and wrote a lively comedy about Jennifer Walters, an accomplished attorney, who gets a new job at a powerful law firm while trying to have time for friends and activities and also handling her She-Hulk responsibilities. She’d like to have a healthy relationship with a considerate man and a professional wardrobe that isn’t destroyed every time she hulks out.

I felt pretty comfortable writing this story since I’ve been a lifelong fan of speculative stories. Was I a geek in high school? I think it’s like the ’60s: if you remember them, you weren’t there. I.e., as a teenager, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with spending all my free time with my best friend reading science fiction novels and discussing the possibility of alien life, interplanetary travel, and Asimov’s laws of robotics. We went to science fiction conventions and were the only girls there. We thought physics class was fun.

And I wore glasses. The realization that I’d actually written a funny geeky novel struck me too damn late, and I was in a desperate state, upping my Sudafed/gin intake and despairing about my days of hanging out at home … I mean, my writing career. I was rescued by headlines like the Hollywood Reporter’s “Marvel Comics Goes ‘Fifty Shades’ With New Line of Romance Novels.” I wanted to send the journalist a gift of those delicious brandy chocolates, but I was terrified he’d ask questions I couldn’t answer with a simple and enthusiastic “¡Si!”

My fretting was unnecessary, however, because no one bothered to find out that I’ve written tedious diatribes about gender, race/ethnicity, and class throughout my career. I think I’m safe, so long as actual romance writers and fans don’t explain that most romance readers and writers are fierce feminists.

I’m already working on my next book, which is inspired by the “diaries” part of my title. It’s a tribute to “Diary of a Mad Housewife” with robots and machinery as a metaphor for the rote and inhumane effect of sexism on society. I’m sure that Diary of a Mad Fembot will cement my place in the robot/diary fiction canon, which is all I’ve ever really wanted.

Click here to read my interview with Marta.

Call for questions: Ask the author of the Marvel book She-Hulk

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Update at 12:03 p.m. EST: Out of fairness, I’ve removed the word “romance” from the headline. What happened is this: Marvel/Hyperion didn’t explicitly state that these were romance novels — but most websites did. That created some confusion and, probably, much of the backlash.

Genre confusion is something Marta and I will be discussing in our interview, but I wasn’t aware of the incorrect labeling at the time of this post. That kind of got muddled, and I haven’t seen these websites issue corrections.

So, remember when I wrote about Marvel and Hyperion’s new line of novels that is starting with Rogue Touch and The She-Hulk Diaries? I took issue with the marketing message and expressed concern that the publishers were dropping these female superheroes into what they called “traditional women’s novels.”

Well, I’ve actually been talking to the She-Hulk author, Marta Acosta. We’re working on getting her a guest slot here on the blog, but I’ll also be asking her some questions. And I want to hear yours!

Worried about her approach to the character? Confused about what makes “good” romance/chick-lit/women’s fiction? Or maybe you just want to know more about the author. Whatever you’re wondering about, post your questions below, and I’ll be sure to get them to her.

Marvel puts superheroines into ‘traditional women’s’ roles with a touch of rouge and green lipstick

Rogue TouchRogue and She-Hulk fight hard to beat the bad guys and restore justice to the world, all while struggling for equal rights in the workplace. But now Marvel and Hyperion Books are shuffling them off to romance novels. They’re a real girl’s supergirls, but here, their fists and intelligence are better served for putting on makeup and picking out purses — that’s how we can teach young girls about empowerment, apparently.

The problem is, young girls are going read these books and identity “superheroine” with romantic success.

Now, maybe the writers on this new line of romance novels (Christine Woodward and Marta Acosta) won’t have the characters swooning like helpless damsels before men — because there are plenty of “hip” Marvel comics that deal with teenage relationships and gender roles that don’t turn the characters into complete brainless airheads — but I can easily see these turning out just awfully. In comic books, at least, the gigantic muscles and dramatic facial expressions tell you that these are powerful women, not to be messed with. They could toss a human man over the moon if they wanted to, for goodness sake.

I can’t help but feel like the focus on writing alone — and not any accompanying visuals — will translate these strong female characters into silly little girls. Can we trust these novels to “showcase strong, smart heroines seeking happiness and love while battling cosmic evil”?

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