The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 235 | On the heels of controversy: Escher Girls, Randy Queen, and Shoes

Leaving Proof 235 | On the heels of controversy: Escher Girls, Randy Queen, and Shoes
Published on Monday, August 11, 2014 by
In this week’s Leaving Proof: We discuss the Randy Queen/Escher Girls incident. ALSO: What does shoe design have to do with any of this? Maybe nothing, but that’s not going to stop us from trying to look for a connection between the two topics!

One of the bigger comics news stories last week was the case of artist Randy Queen threatening legal action against Ami Angelwings, the person behind the Escher Girls blog. For those unfamiliar with Escher Girls, the blog is dedicated to showing examples of how female characters are posed and drawn in ridiculous and bizarre ways in popular art and entertainment, often in a manner that is overtly sexualized and makes little sense in a storytelling context. The “Escher” in Escher Girls is, of course, a reference to M.C. Escher, the Dutch artist whose most famous works, like the lithograph Relativity, featured physics-defying impossible constructions.

Darkchyldeissue1

Darkchylde #1 (June, 1996), originally published by Rob Liefeld’s Maximum Press.

Queen, whose illustrations on the 1990s Darkchylde comic were subjected to criticism on a number of Escher Girls blog posts, exploited the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) to stop the Tumblr-hosted blog from using scans of his comics work as examples of poorly-considered female depictions in comics art. Queen sent DMCA takedown notices to Tumblr, claiming that Escher Girls‘ use of scans of his art were in violation of copyright law. Despite the blog’s use of his work very clearly falling under any common sense definition of “fair use,” Tumblr elected to take down not just the scans of Queen’s art, but entire posts critical of Queen’s art, although some of the content was later restored after the online community began raising a stink over what was a cut-and-dried case of unwarranted censorship. In a classic example of the so-called “Streisand effect,” Queen’s clumsy efforts to stifle criticism of his old work actually had the exact opposite result once word spread of the DMCA takedown: It’s possible that more people have seen and discussed Darkchylde in connection with “bad comics art” this past week than at any other point in time since its publication because of the story circulating not just in the usual comics news channels and discussion spaces, but also on widely-read technology-focused websites like Ars Technica and Techdirt keying in on the incident’s important implications on online censorship and Internet discourse.

After a few more days of public back-and-forth that saw Queen attempt to spin the whole affair as a case of defamation, the artist eventually issued a public apology for his outburst (he cited some recent personal crises as precipitating factors in his behavior) and withdrew his legal threats against Ami Angelwings, Tumblr restored the deleted content in their entirety, and I suppose this is where this whole affair thankfully ends.

Among the blog posts taken down by Tumblr in response to Queen's DMCA complaint was one critical of the above cover image.

Among the blog posts taken down by Tumblr in response to Queen’s DMCA complaint was one critical of the above cover image.

It’s been interesting to watch the whole thing unfold online. Queen’s actions this past week and their effect on the Escher Girls blog—with Tumblr complying with the DMCA takedown notice and scrubbing the blog of the content in question—presents a crystal-clear case of how current copyright laws can be abused by those with the intent to suppress legitimate criticism and comment on the Internet. This is scary, scary stuff for anybody who dares to post a negative review or disparaging comment online regarding a piece of copyrighted popular entertainment and media. Time and again, history has shown that many blog hosting services and Internet service providers would rather play it safe and acquiesce to DMCA takedown notices instead of defending fair use doctrine on the web.

Tumblr’s official story is that it took down Escher Girls‘ commentary by accident and that it only meant to take down the scans of Queen’s art in response to a valid DMCA complaint, but that explanation does little to reassure me as a Tumblr user that the company won’t sacrifice legitimate user content like reviews and critical commentary in the face of DMCA-backed threats with dubious legal merit and questionable moral or ethical force from litigious content owners who aren’t happy with how someone on the Internet perceives and talks about their work.

At the same time, I can sort of sympathize with Queen’s frustration. Nobody wants something from their past—whether it’s old work or some stupid MySpace picture from middle school or whatever—dragged out for all the Internet to ridicule, especially if that person feels that the thing is no longer representative of his or her current self. Of course, as a published artist, Queen should have realized that having his work, past or present, criticized in a public forum comes with the territory.

Now, let me preface the next few sentences by saying that I fully support what Ami Angelwings is trying to do with Escher Girls, and that is to improve the overall quality of comics art by pointing out specific cases where female figures are so ridiculously distorted and hypersexualized so as to detract from the storytelling intent. That’s something any fan of the medium and the industry can get behind. Judging by some of the comments I’ve read in the blog’s comments section and some of the examples of comics art submitted by readers to the blog for criticism however, I do wonder if some Escher Girls readers aren’t getting that message and are instead coming away with the idea that any and all depictions in comics that emphasize female secondary sex characteristics are bad, regardless of technique/stylization concerns and narrative, genre, and audience context.

Certain legitimate storytelling situations will require the artist to highlight the female form through a sexual filter—Rumiko Takahashi playing this up to hilarious effect in her breakthrough gender-bending romantic comedy manga hit Ranma ½, is one example, Adam Warren satirizing and subverting the hypersexualization of women in superhero comics and manga in Empowered is another. Avoiding depictions of sexuality when the narrative calls for it is just another example of bad storytelling. There’s certainly a way to reconcile storytelling demands, sensible character design, and the celebration of the idealized human body that is part of the tradition of representative art—this is what the best comics artists do—and I think it is important that we do not forget this as the comics community continues to strive towards more equitable depictions of women in comics.

On the current state of “zero-drop” and minimalist shoe design

Empowered_highheels

Adam Warren pokes fun at high heels and other commom elements of female superhero costume design in Empowered.

All this talk of “Escher girls” and exaggerated, physics-defying poses in comics art has me thinking about how the modern comics ideal of the “sexy pose”—chest thrust forward, shoulders pulled back, butt stuck out—can be tied to the image of the woman in high-heeled shoes. Many of the images cited in the Escher Girls blog for displaying women in overtly sexualized poses feature superheroes and other action hero types wearing high heeled footwear.

As the Wikipedia article on the subject of high-heeled footwear notes, among their “pros” are the accentuation of the calves and changing the wearer’s posture so as to require a “more upright carriage” and making the gait “more seductive.” If part of the subconscious (or conscious, even) impetus behind a female superhero or action hero’s design is to make her an object of male (or even female) sexual desire, then it is no surprise that high-heeled boots have joined other bizarre and impractical female comics costume design elements like the chain-mail bikini, the itty-bitty miniskirt, the belly shirt, the “boob window” leotard, the corset, and the ever-popular “pants-less look” as staples of female superhero/action hero design.

highheelheaven

Even then, I think it is possible to defend the use of these elements in comics character design, depending on context. It makes sense (a crazy comic book sense, but a somewhat internally consistent one) for a character who wields her sexuality as a tool for the manipulation of others like the Hellfire Club’s Black Queen (circa the Dark Phoenix Saga) to dress in nothing more than a cape, a corset, panties, opera gloves, and high-heeled boots, for instance. Even the much-maligned 1990s development where the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Woman traded her standard jumpsuit for a one-piece bikini with cutouts revealing her cleavage and belly and thigh-high boots makes sense in view of the ongoing plot at the time: It was later revealed that she was being controlled by the evil Malice persona first created in her mind by the villainous Psycho-Man. (Whether the story was any good is a different debate altogether.)

Wearers compensate for high-heeled footwear in three different ways. The spine and pelvic distortions seen in the second and fourth images above are associated with a “more upright carriage” that is supposedly more attractive.

Wearers compensate for high-heeled footwear in three different ways. The spine and pelvic distortions seen in the second and fourth images above are associated with a “more upright carriage” that is supposedly more attractive.

In the real world however, the medical community has spent years compiling irrefutable evidence of the ill effects the regular wearing of high-heeled shoes can have on health. The theory is that the human foot evolved to rest flat on the ground, without a so-called “heel lift” carrying the heel higher than the rest of the foot, which can be associated with all sorts of physical problems that extend beyond the foot. The health drawbacks of wearing high-heeled shoes are many and varied, ranging from relatively minor issues like calluses, corns, “hammer toe,” and neuromas to more serious problems like Achilles tendinitis, chronic lower back pain, degenerative joint disease (particularly of the knee), pelvic destabilization, and the weakening of abdominal muscles over time.

That high-heeled shoes can and do negatively impact the wearer’s health isn’t a controversial contention. The idea that is meeting some resistance in the mainstream, however, is the one that says that even the relatively modest heel-to-toe height differential found in traditional, non-high heeled footwear worn by women and men can similarly lead to all sorts of chronic health issues—including recurring knee pain and problems with the hips, lower back, and even the thoracic spine—although perhaps to a less severe degree.

There is growing support for the idea that even the modest heel heights found in traditional, non-high heeled footwear like running shoes may still negatively impact the wearer's health in significant ways.

There is growing support for the idea that even the modest heel heights found in traditional, non-high heeled footwear like running shoes may still negatively impact the wearer’s health in significant ways.

For the better part of the past two years, I’ve been running and training almost exclusively in what are known as “zero-drop” shoes—footwear with no appreciable height differential between the thickness of the the material under the heel and the forefoot. The design conceit, in a nutshell, is that the zero-drop platform positions the foot in a more natural orientation than that seen with more traditional shoes, which usually lift the heel anywhere between twelve to twenty millimeters higher than the forefoot.

Major shoe manufacturers like Nike, Adidas, Asics, Puma, Saucony, Skechers, and Mizuno, perhaps wary that zero-drop shoes may just be a passing fad, have yet to get fully behind the movement in athletic shoe design although in recent years, they’ve put out shoes with what can be classed as “moderate drop” differentials—the latest generation of the popular Nike Free running and crosstraining shoes, for example, comes in four, six, and eight millimeter drop versions—and even the rare zero-drop model like the Saucony Virrata, the Skechers GoBionic, the Mizuno Wave EVO Levitas, and the Puma Faas 100 R. For the most part however, it’s been companies like Merrell and New Balance as well as specialist shoe manufacturers like Vibram, Inov-8, Altra, VivoBarefoot, and Skora that have filled the zero-drop athletic shoe market niche with a (sometimes confusing) variety of different models.

These days, the market for zero-drop shoes is perhaps slightly smaller than it was a year ago. Part of that is just the novelty wearing off and the market stabilizing around a more sustainable consumer base. But a big part of that also seems to be consumer backlash. As with just about every modern health and fitness trend, many of zero-drop shoe design’s less informed and/or more marketing-minded proponents ended up overstating its benefits and minimizing its potential drawbacks, something that was exacerbated by the fact that when they were first introduced and marketed as such, many zero-drop shoes were also constructed with reduced structural support elements and little to no foam cushioning in the midsole. The combination of zero-drop design, reduced structural support, and little or no foam cushioning gave us what are called “minimalist shoes” (also known by the contradictory term “barefoot shoes”).

Many formerly traditionally-shod runners who did not make the appropriate changes to their running form and mileage when they switched to minimalist shoes did not see a major reduction in their injury rates as many minimalist running shoe supporters claimed would happen. Instead, what many observed was a displacement of the location of their injuries, with the knee injuries associated with traditional running shoes being replaced by stress injuries in the foot. As it turns out, minimalist shoes weren’t the panacea many thought they were. Like just about every fitness consumer product, minimalist shoes are tools that work best within a specific exercise context, and for many people, that context is building leg and foot strength through running short and medium distances, not as a replacement for more cushioned shoes in long-distance running.

The Merrell Ascend Glove

The Merrell Ascend Glove

Anyway, that long-winded preamble hopefully does a sufficient job of explaining the presumptive thinking behind the design of Merrell’s cushioned, zero-drop, road-to-trail running shoe, the Ascend Glove, a pair of which I picked up last week. The shoe is basically a slightly heavier, less flexible, more cushioned version of the minimalist Trail Glove, which is my current “go-to shoe” for running and training. The Ascend Glove, with its six millimeters of midsole foam and built-in arch support, straddles the line between minimalist shoes and traditional running shoes. (By contrast, the Trail Glove has four millimeters of foam cushioning and its footbed is pancake flat apart from the non-supportive “midfoot wrap” produced by the mesh fabric pulling up on the sides of the sole.) The most fanatical minimalist runners will look at the Ascend Glove as a design compromise and a concession to the market, but I think the more sensible ones will see it as a zero-drop platform more suitable for longer distances than a shoe like the Trail Glove or the Road Glove.

The Merrell Trail Glove 2

The Merrell Trail Glove 2

That extra two millimeters of cushioning in the Ascend Glove makes a huge difference. Even with almost two years of “minimalist running” experience under my belt, I haven’t yet gotten to the point where I can run more than ten kilometers at my best speeds with just the Trail Glove’s four millimeters of foam cushion and thin Vibram rubber outsole separating the bottom of my feet from the pavement or crushed gravel trail, even when my cardio and lower leg strength are still holding up. Injury-free running with minimalist shoes requires a change in form that results in shorter strides and a reduction of the amount of force one applies on the ground on impact, and that can lead to a decrease in running speeds.  It’s still possible for me to run at a heightened pace while wearing minimalist shoes, of course, but maintaining that pace over longer distances becomes dicey because of the potential for stress injuries to the foot.

I broke in my Ascend Glove with a quick eight kilometer workout that featured a mix of easy running on pavement, moderately fast running on groomed trails, several hill sprints at close to maximum effort, and a mid-run break for burpees. Through it all, I felt no sole discomfort, even when driving my feet down hard on the ground while doing speedwork. It’s not just a matter of cushioning. Because of the added structural elements, the Ascend Glove is a stiffer platform than the Trail Glove—there’s no way I can ball up the former in my hand the way I could the latter—making it a more “responsive” shoe. What that means is that pushing off the ground feels easier with the Ascend Glove, making it a comparatively decent speed trainer in a pinch, although it’s obviously no replacement for a real speed training/racing shoe like, say, the Mizuno Wave Universe or the New Balance RC5000.

None of this counts as a surprise. The same features that make the Trail Glove an excellent shoe for strengthening the foot and lower leg—the extreme flexibility, the minimal cushioning, the excellent ground-feel—make it somewhat less than ideal as a distance trainer. The Ascend Glove—a more cushioned and structured shoe—is a better choice for workouts that emphasize distance on a greater variety of running surfaces. That makes the Trail Glove and the Ascend Glove a perfect complementary pair in function (as well as looks—notice the complementary color schemes if you haven’t already).

Digressions

  • I finally managed to finish Season One of Knights of Sidonia, the first Netflix original anime series. It’s a great show, mixing elements of high school romantic comedy with high-stakes space mecha action and an intriguing sci-fi mystery. I might be pilloried by anime fans for saying this, but I think Knights of Sidonia, at least based on this first season, trumps Attack on Titan, even as they explore some similar themes. The characterizations in the former don’t suffer from the more overt “shōnen-isms” that plague the latter. The show has gotten me so intrigued  that I’m actually thinking of picking up the original Knights of Sidonia manga by Tsutomu Nihei (the English editions are published in North America by Vertical, Inc.) while waiting for Season Two.

  • Those among you reading this who are fans of mixed martial arts and related disciplines likely already know that UFC heavyweight Josh Barnett pulled off an impressive feat over the weekend when he submitted two-time ADCC Submission Wrestling gold medalist Dean Lister with a hybrid choke/neck crank (from the scarf position) during their BJJ (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) match at the Metamoris 4 event held in Los Angeles. It was the first time Lister has been submitted in competition in 16 years! What a lot of you guys probably don’t know is that the 36 year-old professional fighter is also a high-level Magic: The Gathering player. No foolin’. Here’s Barnett as the featured guest on a recent episode of Spellslingers:


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