Monday, March 26, 2007

Book Review: Little White Mouse, with Comments on Women in Comics

Lost in Space meets...meets...meets one of those spunky teen dramas I don't watch so can't name.

Little White Mouse Omnibus Edition by Paul Sizer. Cafe Digital Studios, Kalamazoo, MI: 2006. ISBN 0-9768565-5-7.

Comic books and graphic novels are an artform that has recently come into its own. In some ways, that's good because it means seriously talented writers and artists are exploring the medium and telling big stories that previously were not part of the genre. It's also bad because a number of artists have filled the medium full of raunchy stories or pictures. Ironically, or perhaps expectedly, coming into the modern age and current literary scene has made comics, in the words of Paul Smith, illustrator of the comic Leave It to Chance, "dark, misogynist, convoluted" (in the introduction to Leave It To Chance Vol. 1: Shaman's Rain).

I know of two, maybe three, comics that have noticed the ugly trends and have specifically addressed them. One is the aforementioned Leave It to Chance, a fine comic about Chance Falconer, a tomboyish teenage girl who hunts for ghosts and zombies and does it in coveralls, trench coat, and work gloves rather than tights. Another such comic is (possibly) Bone by Jeff Smith, which bucks the trends of depicting women as vampy battle babes, though Smith's interviews indicate it was probably not a conscious rebellion. The third comic, which does consciously attempt to redefine the way comics depict women, is Little White Mouse. As I will explain, I think it is a failure, but its noble attempt makes it worth your look. Think twice before handing it to its intended age group of 10 and up, though. Maybe 14 and up.

The story follows 16-year-old Loo Th'eng, youngest daughter (of seven) of a powerful corporate magnate. Loo and her older sister P'heng are on their way to a big science academy when their intergalactic spaceliner malfunctions. Loo's and P'heng's escape pods smash into an automated mining satellite, and P'heng dies in the crash, leaving Loo alone with a limited amount of time to get off the satellite before its life support system shuts down. She makes friends in the form of two finicky robots named Boris and Dieter and the mysterious ghost of one of the satellite's dead crew members.

Complicating matters, P'heng had been trying an experiment during which she uploaded her brainwave patterns to her lifepod's computer system. Now, in addition to getting off the satellite, Loo is determined to use her engineering know-how to construct an android body to house her sister's digitized personality. That requires her to scavenge the satellite for parts: Her adventures for machines and computer components put Loo frequently in mortal danger, and the satellite's central computer repeatedly dispatches killer robots to eliminate her.

Librarian Kevin A. R. King, who wrote the foreword to Little White Mouse's fourth book, sums up the underlying purpose of the comic. He says, " can't tell me that the leather halter-top and bikini bottoms are practical garb when staring down a pack of zombie ninjas! Girl power is a great concept, one I fully endorse, but the female comic characters of the 1990's seemed a little too one-dimensional to say the least." Hear, hear.

King proposes that the vixens who normally make up the female population of comics are the product of fear of strong women. Interesting hypothesis, but I disagree. If everyone were afraid of strong women, female characters in comics would be barefoot in the kitchen, not fighting zombies in bronze bikinis. The problem is authors and artists who don't know what strong femininity looks like, so they resort to cardboard characters who use sex as a weapon against male enemies and as an attraction to male readers. Busty babes on the covers of comics are an insult to women, but they're also an insult to men's intelligence. If your story can't hold me, a curvy figure can't, either.

King proudly points out that Loo, heroine of Little White Mouse, has a well-developed personality, which she does, and dresses practically, which she does: coveralls, vest, baseball cap, sneakers, and a funky set of knee/shin guards. She's intelligent, resourceful, and a lot of fun to read about, too.

In its second half, however, Little White Mouse loses its way. Loo begins eschewing modest clothes for form-fitting spandex and miniskirts. Even worse, there's a creepy love story between Loo and a much older muscle-bound biker who looks like he could be in his forties. It reminded me of a community theater production of N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker in which a teenager played Lizzie and a forty-plus bodybuilder played Bill Starbuck. During the romantic scene, both actors and audience were clearly uncomfortable. Though there's no actual sex, Little White Mouse becomes fixated on the lead character's sexuality and produces similar discomfort on certain pages.

At the same time, Little White Mouse upholds family values, generally speaking, though they are sometimes poorly defined. In one subplot (not with the biker), Loo is tempted to a sexual relationship but chooses to abstain. Her reasons for this, however, are weak, though they are believable for an immature character. Parents who let their children or teens read this comic will want to discuss that chapter, as it is inadequate for exploring the issue of sexual ethics and may be misleading.

On the plus side, Loo's large family is consistently depicted positively. Loo learns to be independent not by rejecting her parents' moral standards, but by rediscovering them. Now there's a refreshing plot twist.

The three comics discussed here all have strong female protagonists who buck ugly trends. Between the three, Little White Mouse and Leave It to Chance forgo the stereotypical vixens in favor of tomboys, whereas Bone depicts a more iconic coming-of-age fantasy heroine. Of the two tomboys, only the heroine of Little White Mouse is a fully developed character, though Chance is entertaining enough. Between the three comics, only Leave It to Chance feels no need to put its protagonist in tight or revealing clothing. Having said that, I will add that neither Little White Mouse nor Bone appears to be intentionally using sex to attract male readership.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Little White Mouse Omnibus Edition:

Myth Level: Medium (basic idea of individual surviving alone is a classic theme)

Quality: Medium/High (good characters, generally good art, some strained plot points)

Religion/Ethics: Medium (families depicted positively, no sex, mild language, creepy minor/adult romance)

Update: Factual Error Corrected; quote in first paragraph was originally mistakely attributed to James Robinson (author) and slightly misstated. The Sci Fi Catholic regrets the error, but we guarantee we got more where that came from.
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