SPIDER-GWEN by Jason Latour, Robbi Rodriguez, and Rico Renzi

I can’t pretend to be comic-book-fluent. In fact, part of what has kept me away from comics is my fear of being irrevocably behind in the years-spanning series, the multiple universes and iterations, the story arcs that have spawned and re-spawned. But even though I haven’t delved much into the comic books themselves, I’ve always had a soft spot for Spider-Man. My younger brother and I watched Spider-Man television shows, played Spider-Man video games, and bought Spider-Man action figures. The 2002 movie starring Tobey Maguire was a staple of our childhood (I know, I know, I’m young–if it helps, I don’t feel it). I watched many versions of Peter Parker’s origin story and became acquainted with the cast of heroes and villains around him, from Norman Osborn to Black Cat to Venom. I was thrilled when I was able to adventure with Spider-Man in a simulator attraction at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. At the risk of attracting the ire of Internet gate-keepers, I consider myself a Spider-Man fan.

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So, when I heard the buzz about the Spider-Gwen comic books, I was completely intrigued. Gwen Stacy is a beloved Spider-Man character who, to put it lightly, gets a pretty bad break in the original story. The Spider-Gwen arc follows an alternate Spider-Man universe in which Gwen Stacy, rather than Peter Parker, is bitten by the radioactive spider and gets the spider powers. In this universe, Peter Parker becomes the Lizard (a villain of the original Spider-Man universe). The chemicals that Peter uses to transform himself end up killing him in a battle with Gwen, and the public blames her for his death. The Spider-Gwen comics pick up from there: Gwen is trying to restore her reputation and use her powers for good, but is struggling with guilt over Peter’s death. Both villains and the police are after the Spider-Woman, but Gwen is having enough trouble figuring out how to be herself again after everything she’s been through.

The most striking thing about this series is the art style. In a note at the end of the first issue, the editor Nick Lowe credits artist Robbi Rodriguez for the “Lion’s share” of Spider-Gwen’s popularity, noting in particular “the killer costume design that he did that resonated so incredibly with all of you.” This was certainly one of the things that drew me in. Pictures of Spider-Gwen’s unique costume flooded my Instagram page upon the release of these issues, and the striking minimalism, unexpected pops of color, and hoodie-style mask were hard to ignore. The whole comic feels infused with a sort of punk-girl pastiche. Gwen is a drummer in a band with Mary Jane Watson (Felicia Hardy also makes a fun appearance in the music scene, in a great interpretation of the Black Cat character). The art style matches Gwen’s attitude. She’s a bit of a reluctant hero, often snappy and sarcastic, often slouchy and exhausted. There are echoes of the original puns and quips that Spider-Man is known for, and seeing the Spider-Man character interpreted in this original way was such a joy.

Of course, despite my hopes, I did feel a bit lost throughout. The backstory of Gwen that I provided above came not from the issues themselves, but from Wikipedia, since Spider-Gwen first appears as a side-character in the The Edge of Spider-Verse #2, a story arc in which multiple versions of Spider-Man (from their respective multiple universes) appear together. Sometimes, my lack of grounding in this multiverse left me a little reeling in the plot points. (At one point, Gwen hallucinates the presence of the only version of Peter Parker that doesn’t leave her wracked with guilt–the anthropomorphic pig Spider-Ham from a parody version of the Spider-Man story. While I’m all for having fun with these characters, the appearance of Peter Porker [his real name] was perhaps a bit jarring.) In addition, the story, which ends at issue 5, isn’t as conclusive as I was expecting. Spider-Gwen’s saga continues in Secret Wars, another multiverse arc that brings together parallel-universe versions of a variety of Marvel characters, including the Spider-Man multiverse. If your head’s spinning a little from so much “-verse,” rest assured you’re not alone.

But at the end of the day, truth be completely told, I didn’t care. As I was reading these issues, I was reminded of the childhood I spent with the Spider-Man characters. Specifically, I remembered being a girl with a brother, the two of us equally enamored with the story of underdog Peter Parker, a young kid whose persona is as much about sacrifice and love as it is about heroics and humor. I remembered the both of us trying to enjoy Spider-Man together, and I remember the only action figure I’d ever found of a girl character was one of Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane from the 2002 Spider-Man movie. This action figure came with a balcony that collapsed underneath her: literally, the only girl action figure I had in the Spider-Man universe existed only to be rescued. And today I got to read about smart, savvy, punk-rock Gwen Stacy, navigating through the same themes I have always admired about the Spider-Man mythos–the sacrifice and heroism and love, and the discovery of self amidst it all.

And sure, you can say I was always permitted to see myself in Spider-Man, to pick up any of the male character action figures and jump in–and believe me, I did both. But to be able to dismiss the value of seeing this re-invented character is to be lucky enough to have never experienced a Mary-Jane-action-figure disaster for yourself, to have always seen, on the screen and the page, myriad possibilities for yourself as the main character of the story, the hero. The lack of female childhood action heroes had a genuine impact on me. It’s the same reason I smiled so broadly and uncontrollably while watching the slow-motion fight sequences of the new Ghostbusters movie (which I completely adored, by the way): the experience was new for me, and so, so wonderful. It may seem superficial, and it’s hard to really articulate the tear-jerking, gut-wrenching reality of it, but trust me: representation matters. Spider-Gwen matters. And I’m so glad it’s here.

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THE ARGONAUTS by Maggie Nelson

One of the things I miss most about college is the opportunity to be in a room with someone–to hear them speak–about a subject that they have studied so thoroughly, have so many ideas about, and, most importantly, feel passionately connected to. I certainly enjoyed participating (enthusiastically) in discussions, but there was such joy in allowing someone to just render me awash in their expertise. It’s a feeling that made me voracious for knowledge, made me want to read everything. In case you haven’t guessed by now, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson is the book form of such an experience, a nonfiction text unlike literally any I have ever read.

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The Argonauts is, as described by Google Books, a work of “autotheory,” perhaps the best singular word to pinpoint this genre-defying text. Nelson moves through memoir and critical theory with effortless fluidity to explore some big, fascinating questions. What does it mean to “be” (or not be) a gender? What does it mean to be queer? What does it mean to be a queer family? Where are the lines between “normative” and “radical”? Can we escape such definitions, or, are we ever in such definitions? What does it mean to love? And, perhaps at the heart of the text, can words ever adequately help us move through these questions? To move away from the more abstract for a moment, this is a book about Nelson’s family: her relationship with her partner (who fluidly moves among genders within the text) and their children. Nelson interrogates the experience of putting their family together, detailing moments from falling in love (and exploring her sexuality) with her partner, to becoming the stepmother to her partner’s first child, to her own pregnancy and motherhood. Through it all, Nelson calls upon the scholars and writers that have helped her think about her life and these questions, creating a text that is difficult to categorize ABOUT the difficulty of categories. (If that sentence doesn’t tickle your nerd fancy, I don’t know what will.) As Nelson writes in the first few paragraphs of the book, “I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained–inexpressibly!–in the expressed. […] Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.”

Like most successful memoirists, Nelson gazes unflinchingly into the inner life, examining her own sexuality, her feelings on motherhood, and her relationship to her partner. Nelson explores her emotions with depth and clarity, and the results are often surprisingly intimate. The thing that makes this book so unique, though, is the way Nelson buoys her emotional realities with scholarship and criticism. These elements blend together so fluidly, making the book one of the most honest portrayals of a mind at work I’ve ever seen on the page. Memories, experiences, and emotions do not exist in a vacuum from the things we’ve read and the external ideas we’re thinking about. Nelson perfectly captures this internal process: not so much a dialogue as a constant simmer, the words rolling and bubbling up. The text engages your mind in the same way; the experience was a complete pleasure. Nelson also plays with boundaries in the way she engages with the reader. She fluidly switches between first, second, and third person: sometimes she’s writing about her experiences from her point of view, sometimes she’s relaying scholarship to a more general audience, and sometimes she is writing directly to her partner. This only adds to the book’s feeling of a genuine thinking process, rather than a lecture or treatise: just as abstractions and concepts don’t exist in a vacuum separate from emotions, the act of thought isn’t usually directed towards one imagined recipient.

As someone who has always been interested in the blurring of boundaries, I am so glad to have read this book. Genre, gender, and sexuality all have their boundaries teased and tested, and the result is a provocative and thrilling work.

CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC by Claudia Rankine

It’s another day, and there has been another black man killed by police officers. I did not intend for this review to coincide with Alton Sterling’s death, but here we are. Here I am hoping that literature can do something.

Citizen: An American Lyric is an award-winning book of poetry by Claudia Rankine that grapples with the experience of being black in America. Both in content and in form, this book defies boundaries. Rankine reaches into memory, criticism, popular culture, and history to navigate the day-to-day realities of inhabiting a black body, realities that, it seems, are always surrounded by these contexts. The subject matter ranges from micro-aggressions to historical violence, and Rankine uses poetry, artwork, and essays to move through these layers, making this book as multi-textual as it is multi-dimensional. The book is both thorough and deeply, achingly specific as the narrator of the poems reflects on what she experiences both in the news and in daily life. It’s eye-opening, sobering, and essential.

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Rankine’s poems are often unsettlingly intimate. Through many of them, she explores micro-aggressions, little moments in the daily life of the poem’s subject that add up, in the course of each turned page, to a hostile world: small instances of great violence, that probably went unnoticed by most observers. Rankine further emphasizes the intimacy of these moments by speaking in the second person. This rude comment, this condescending argument, this shove on the subway, is continuously directed at you, the reader. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s meant to be. It forces the reader to imagine navigating situations like this day after day, and it becomes exhausting not only in its pointed aggression but in its sheer volume. For readers like me, who do not experience this daily, it’s disturbing and enlightening. For other readers, it must be all too familiar.

Rankine also writes about broader culture and history. One essay/poem explores the coverage of Serena Williams, the way she is understood as a celebrity and an athlete compared to her peers. Other pieces explore police brutality. Of course, in the book, as in life, the broader subjects are inextricably intertwined with the personal, and the form of the book captures this theme so well. It’s a difficult book to define, to simplify. The images used throughout the book work in this aim, as well. The artwork and photographs found amidst the poems are striking and resonant. Perhaps the most obvious example is the image used on the cover, an art piece which becomes tragically layered in its relevance and importance. At the time of this book’s publication, I saw the cover and immediately assumed it was in reference to Trayvon Martin: actually, the photograph is of an art piece entitled In The Hood by David Hammons, created in 1993. Of all the themes and questions this art piece raises, it has clearly also touched on an image of prejudice and fear that has long been with us, one that remains with us still.

It’s been difficult to write this review, and it was difficult to read this book. I have to hope that by reading and sharing books like this, by trying to learn and understand, we can begin to increase our empathy; I have to hope we can begin to change the narrative found within these pages. Perhaps the most haunting poem of the book begins with a list of names:

“In Memory of Jordan Russel Davis
In Memory of Eric Garner
In Memory of John Crawford
In Memory of Michael Brown […]”

This list, devastatingly, goes on, but halfway through the page the names stop. As the text itself lightens like a wisp of smoke, Rankine has filled the bottom of the poem with ready-made “In Memory” tags; the poem anticipates the next names, just waiting to be written by the next headline.

In Memory of Alton Sterling. May we please, someday, stop filling in this page.