Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Memoirs of an Occasional Superheroine

Valerie D'Orazio began this book as a series of entries on a blog, called "Goodbye to Comics." She expanded and revised these to the book Memoirs of an Occasional Superheroine, which is also the title of a blog she writes. The book is a memoir, so it's about her life, but it's also about superheroes, the comics industry, and sex--not just the kind of sex you have, but the kind that's part of your biology. The part that informs but doesn't define your gender, if that makes sense.

You might not get that from the cover, which features a perky young woman with bright red hair and a cape. It looks innocent. The story inside is anything but. This is about D'Orazio's life in all its difficulties. This makes it a hard book to review, since I'm the last person to know anything about the issues with which the author has had to contend throughout her life. It begins with a childhood of abuse by her bodybuilder father and moves through a series of rejections, sexual harassments, drug difficulties.

Scholars don't like to deal directly with such things. They're difficult topics, so most of us abstract the material to make it more comfortable. It would be easy to just write about the parts where D'Orazio discusses Superman and other superheroes and be done with it. But that would do the book a disservice. It's a good book, and deserves to be addressed on its own terms.

There may be more thorough accounts of the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of sexual harassment that occur in the work place, but I haven't read them. In this book, D'Orazio writes about what it was like to deal with harassment in all of its forms at DC Comics in New York, and it's horrific. I can't imagine it. I'm a man, and men's bodies don't display their sexuality in the way that women's bodies do--whether they want to or not. They have to try to hide it. I sympathize when D'Orazio writes about this, though I cannot empathize. I don't have the experience or the mindset. Men do these sorts of things to women every day--the staring, the offhand comments, the innuendo, the "innocent" requests for dinner, the denial of impropriety, and whatnot. The stress is immeasurable, since the harassment saturates every aspect of the woman's life and work. Is she really being passed up for a promotion because she's not good at her job, or is it because she won't agree to have dinner with the supervisor? No one should have to ask themselves that question. D'Orazio refers to it as unprofessional, when it's actually criminal.

There's a whole lot more to this story. That level of interaction with men follows her throughout her life. She doesn't flinch from describing it, nor from describing herself in less than flattering terms. She does things that, well, aren't so smart. She's the first to admit it, and she often uses a line from a Wonder Woman comic to drive home the point. She has a "fuckitup" button.

And this is where the story gets interesting for me as a scholar who's writing about the uses to which people put the stories that are important to them. She tells her tale, the story of her life, in terms of superheroes. Not merely comic books, either. She refers to Wonder Woman a lot, and Catwoman. D'Orazio has internalized these characters, as well as others such as Superman and Batman. There's a story of Phoenix, from Uncanny X-Men 207, that's also very important to her. Memoirs of an Occasional Superheroine is the story of a woman's life as read through superheroes. In this, it is extremely valuable for me.

I much of this--of the reading of her life in terms of comic book charactes--actually occurred at the time and how much of it is part of the process of writing the Memoirs?

If anyone wants to really demonstrate the power of literature in a person's life, all they need to do is point to this book. If one were cynical, one might also use it to demonstrate the negative impact of comics, but to do so would require a gross misreading of the book and the people who populate it--not to mention comics themselves. Comics aren't the problem, instead they provide D'Orazio with a way to understand herself and her troubles. And wow, she's got some troubles. Or had. There's a happy ending.

I've been following her blog, so that wasn't a surprise to me. What was a surprise is the "Second Self" that D'Orazio develops first as a defense mechanism against abuse but that later becomes her conscience, her shadow self, her failures, and ultimately, it seems, her salvation. She rejects the second self (she never refers to it as her secret identity or alter-ego, as one might have expected, and I think it's a wise choice; to do so would be to force us to read it as acomic book trope, which would reduce it in ways that I don't think are appropriate, especially considering how the book ends) at first, which seems to be a bad idea. But this is not a book about love, or self-love, or anything like that. It's more about acceptance: of her problems as things she can't ignore, of herself as a person who has troubles but can overcome them, of the imperfection of the world and the ability to change parts of it--including herself.

It's also about telling her story. She's told not to so often, and listens, that the few times she does tell it early on (about the abuse and harassment), it's basically too late. She needs to tell her whole story in order for it to be an effective strategy in her life, and that's what this book is (well, as much of the whole as anyone can ever tell).

Her blog has changed recently, reflecting that the phase of her life chronicled here is well past. It's more about archetypes, symbolism, and specific superheroes now than anything else. Still interesting, though, just like the book. But the picture from the cover of the book that used to be the masthead of the blog, that's gone.

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