Backstagers 1

backstagers 1

Today, Patrick and Ryan M. are discussing Backstagers 1, originally released August 17, 2016. 

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Patrick: Earlier this month, The Atlantic published an article by Angelica Jade Bastién titled “Hollywood Has Ruined Method Acting”Bastién’s article responds directly to the marketing hype surrounding Jared Leto’s performance as Joker in Suicide Squad, but the piece is quick to point out that physical hardship is too frequently tied to performances that the culture deems impressive. Leonardo DiCaprio won an Academy Award because he put himself through discomfort, pain and real danger in order to achieve his performance in The Revenant. Does that actually mean that his acting was any better? Bastién argues that DiCaprio’s workman-like suffering creates the illusion that he’s doing something more substantial — and pointedly, more masculine — than merely acting. The implication, of course, being that acting is a soft skill, too feminine to be respected without being amplified by eating a buffalo heart or loosing a bunch of weight or something. James Tynion IV and Rian Sygh’s Backstagers 1 sets up a similar paradigm, elevating one art form over another by projecting mythological hardship on top of it. For a series so in-tune with nuances in teenage homosexuality, its disappointing to see such a regressive view of gendered activities and behaviors.

Part of that may be because we don’t actually have any female perspectives in this book. We follow the first-day-in-drama-club adventures of Jory, a new kid at St. Genesius Prepatory High School. St. Genesius is an all-boys school, which has poor Jory all stressed out, but it’s kind of left up to the readers’ imagination as to why. The explanation he offers to the unseen voice on the other end of the phone is trite – specific to the point of nonspecificity.

farting

Farting is a smokescreen. Sygh makes a point to draw this buff-ass bro lifting up his shirt and revealing his chiseled abs at the exact moment Jory says “boys are scary.” He’s intimidated by the boys because he’s attracted to them, right? To Tynion’s credit, the issue itself never asks any of those questions about any of these characters – from the second page, when Jory enters the Auditorium, we can be reasonably well assured that everyone is gay.

I’m normally okay with the “everyone is gay” assumption as a reversal of the all too common “everyone is straight” assumption. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen it applied to a work of art that is so profoundly not about being gay. The L Word, Queer as Folk, Looking – these shows all make a point of exploring the gay experience. The missing piece here may be that all those shows I mentioned explore gayness through intensely adult lenses, while the characters in The Backstagers are children. They don’t have questions about relationships or sex or their roles in cultures still struggling against oppression. So their gayness is expressed in one of the more trite ways imaginable: through a love of the theatre.

I was a queer theatre-rat myself in high school, so maybe the stereotypes feel lazier to me than they will to people who didn’t discover themselves sexually during a run of The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940. The most transparent stereotypes in the issue are the villainous McQueen twins, who seem to express both their villainy and the homosexuality in the same breath.

McQueen Twins

They are actors, faffing about on stage, melodramatically soaking up all the attention in the room. It’s a crummy gay stereotype, and one that hits so much closer to home with that Les Miserables knock-off. There’s also the weird insinuation of incest in that second panel that feels incredibly gross. And fine, fine: they’re the villains – they snivel and sneer and are mean to Jory. The problem is that the thing that separates them from the honest, hard working homos backstage is the difference between being an artist and being a craftsman.

Not only do the Backstagers literally ply their craft in some kind of magical realm, Sygh pulls out all the Escherian stops and blends geometric paneling with the topsy-turvy world backstage.

escherian hallways

This is an undeniably exciting layout, and totally sells what’s special and strange about this world. But notice how much of it is still tied up in the butcher tasks related to the theatre. Gone are the colorful gels and Les Miz jokes – this has been replaced with Dudes Hauling Lumber. We’re still a couple pages away from meeting Hunter, a paragon of tech-crew manliness. Hunter wears a tool belt, he always wields a reversible drill, and his worst fear in the world is that he’ll have to have a conversation with those effete actors. The character might be quick to flirt with Jory, but he’s a quintessentially heteronormative masculine figure. Hunter’s monologue sheds a little light on his perceived difference between the actors as the techies:

“There’s a magic to the stage. Everyone who’s ever been on one knows that… but backstage… that’s where the real stuff is. The raw stuff that nobody ever thinks about. […] It’s our job to bring all of that magic to life. The backstage is full of secrets and weirdness, but it’s also the only place where we’ve ever felt at home. “

The backstage crew’s magic is more legitimate, more “real,” than the actors. He’s expressing the same thing that Bastién identified in her article: we place more value on a more masculine discipline.

I know there’s a lot of interesting storytelling happening in this issue, and the over all message seems to be one of inclusion, but I just can’t get past this little wrinkle. Hell, I’m not even sure why the series needs villains. It seems like it’d be more fun if the actors were mundies (to borrow a useful term from Fables) and the stage crew had exciting adventures no one else knew about. Then there wouldn’t be the dichotomy set up between two obviously-gendered activities.

As usual, I’m prepared to be met with the criticism that I am full of shit — my understanding is that this book has been particularly well-received by theatre kids. Ryan, I know you’ve got experience on both sides of the stage; how did this issue sit with you? Also, why an all-boys school? Doesn’t that just restrict the possible diversity of the cast for no reason? Sorry: let’s start with a positive question. If you had a tool mouse running around your apartment, what would be sticking out of his back?
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Ryan M.: A tool mouse at Chez Mogge would be a vehicle for knitting needles and wooden spoons, as I am a simple craftsman. It’s probably my inner “maker” that led me to be a bit more lenient on the issue than you, Patrick. I am pre-disposed to believe that the stagecrew weirdos are the clique to join. In re-examining the issue in light of your critique on the sexual/gender politics at play, the book does reinforce the idea that there is a “right way” to be a boy.

Tynion’s choice to set this story at an all-boys school helps make the gay default that you mentioned earlier simpler. It also forces Jory to interact with boys, challenging him. Based on that first page, we can assume that Jory has been friends with girls up until this point. Pretty much all we know about Jory we have to assume. Jory is a passive protagonist for much of this issue. He chooses Drama Club, but we are given no insight as to why he is attracted to the stage. Without knowing his motivation, his turn to choose the Backstagers lacks any emotional resonance. The plot of the story can be simplified to: new kid at school meets some snobs and then a group of friendly people and decides to hang out with the friendlies. If we don’t have any reason for Jory to want to be with the actors, there are no stakes to his decision. It’s a shame, because Singh gives us a pretty cool visual representation of Jory’s realization that he belongs with the weirdos.

decision time

The stark white background lends itself to Jory’s knowledge in the moment that he is not where he belongs. That the friends he may have hoped to make amoung the actors are not his people. Instead his tribe is in the bowels of the backstage.

Patrick, I’m so glad you brought up whether an “Us vs. Them” paradigm is necessary for this book. Jory’s mom tells him that “when it’s right, you’ll know.” Finding your tribe isn’t about picking a side in an ongoing conflict. Rather, it is about being around people that make you more yourself, that support and challenge you. The Backstagers clearly offer that to Jory. Meanwhile, the actors’ behavior isn’t particularly villainous. They are quite snobby and ego-driven, but the hierarchies they reinforce are inherent to their form. The twins may be aggressively affected, but they are teen actors. Of course, they over-do it. Jory’s ultimate choice to go backstage needn’t be a condemnation of the actors.

Perhaps the most damning thing about the Twins is the hero worship they engender from their peers. The Backstagers aren’t immune to the same kind of deference. Look at the way Hunter is introduced.

hunter

Hunter is surrounded by glowing stars that represent his charisma. By the last panel, Sasha is acting as his back up dancer, surrounded by sparks himself. For the most part, the character design in this book is a delight. Characters come in a variety of shapes, styles and colors. Hunter’s design has a nasty side-effect. With his pompadour and large belly, he looks more like a 32-year-old who looks are starting to fade than a teen that I want to see flirting with freshly pubescent Jory. It’s not clear if Hunter is just a boy who looks like a man, a senior who really likes bagels, or the adult supervisor to the Backstagers. The flirting of the latter is a bit off-putting.

Given that this is a first issue, it makes sense that Tynion spends the issue setting up the premise. We have to get Jory into the Backstagers by the last page. Now, the adventures can begin in earnest, hopefully by celebrating the weirdos and not at the expense of the “others.”

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For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?

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11 comments on “Backstagers 1

  1. I was also unnerved by Hunter’s design. That belly definitely makes him look like he’s an older dude, never mind the fact that he’s like twice as tall as all the other characters.

    • I just think he’s a big dude. I’m not super tall, but as someone who’s been a little fat for as long as he can remember, I really appreciated the big, visibly chubby character being the “stud”/”hero” character of the book.

      (and, I mean, Sasha looks like he’s five, but they all go to the same school)

      • When I was in high school, we had one student who had a beard in freshmen year, and I mean a FULL beard, and another one of my classmates who was well above six feet the entire four years BUT ALSO very stocky — he literally, no joke, broke at least one desk each year. I mean, they’d just fall apart as he was sitting in them.

        At the same time, we had a student who I don’t even know if he was over five foot, probably not over 100 pounds. Another kid who wasn’t much taller for our first few years (he eventually ended up about my height though) who we literally nicknamed “Keebler” for a while because he was like an elf.

        I guess what I’m saying is, their appearances don’t strike me as that unusual, all things considered.

      • I don’t mind that he’s bigger – I think that’s totally a type that we can see a high school student – but that beefy-with-a-belly combo looks very “dad” to me. Like, he’s got a beer belly. It’s not hard to compare this book to The Woods, and I think Dialynas does a MUCH BETTER job of selling the different body types of high school students AS high school students. Obvi, they’re drawing in different styles (Sygh’s work is undeniably more cartoony) and Hunter is really the one character that sticks in my brain, so I don’t want to harp on it too much. Just enough to let Ryan know that I saw it too.

  2. I promised Patrick a rebuttal, but the best I’ve got at this point is a “well, yeah, BUT”

    Anyway, I really enjoyed this issue, but I can’t say that I fully disagree with Patrick and Ryan’s points. Even on my own read of this issue, I found the treatment of the actors to be vaguely unsettling. I didn’t necessarily notice the gendered stuff, but for a book that’s supposed to be about embracing outsiders, it sure did a good job of smearing characters who, in almost any other title, would most definitely BE the outsiders.

    But honestly, that message is what I loved most about the Backstagers. Cause I mean, there’s a whole world of (quite literal) magic that exists in that school, and nobody thinks to look for it. It’s an undesirable job and the people doing it are “nobodies” so nobody even gives them a second glance, but by doing so, they’re missing out on so much cool stuff. And it’s a crying shame. So I think that’s the message of the Backstagers. There’s magic to be found in the people you may otherwise overlook — don’t write off anyone without getting to know them.

    And to be fair, Jory got to know the actors and they sucked — but yeah, I’m not going to argue with Patrick and Ryan that they’re not handled well and do some minor undermining of the whole message. I honestly hope that we either don’t see much of them from now on (I wouldn’t be surprised) or that they’re handled better in future issues, but otherwise, I thought this was a really strong first issue, and I really dug it. I already have voices for all these characters in my head, and that doesn’t always happen for me when I’m reading a comic — it takes some really good character work to get to that point.

    (I can’t quite pinpoint all the characters, but Sasha’s voice for me is pretty much just a variation of TK from the first season of Digimon)

    • That’s interesting that you mention the character work. I guess I agree that the supporting cast seems pretty well articulated. I know the McQueen brothers, Hunter, Sasha and Aziz well enough to have remembered their names and personalities without having to give it a second thought. But Jory’s a little bit of a mystery to me. Ryan pointed it out above, but we don’t really have any insight into why he’d be interested in the theatre at all – let alone whether acting would have been in his wheelhouse to begin with.

      I will definitely be coming back for a second (and probably 3rd and 4th) issue of this series. A lot of that is on the strength of Sygh’s storytelling ability – I don’t want to miss out on more pages like the trippy backstage errand I posted in my write-up. Also, I love Veronica Fish’s cover for the issue – I’d love to see her do a fill-in for Sygh down the line.

  3. While the gender dynamic of the method acting/acting-backstage dynamics is so true (here’s something you miss. Woman aren’t allowed to be method actors. Imagine a woman doing some of the stuff Leto did), there is another major criticism of such fetishication of a particular activity like this. It is ultimately judging by the methods, not the results (which ties into ‘this is better because it is masculine’). To say being a backstager is better than being an actor is ultimately reductive, stripping people of identities to place them in boxes (which doesn’t fit the coming of age story this seems to be. Coming of Age should be about creating something new). Such a dynamic being so central is disappointing in a book I was interested in, especially when ‘joins the unromantic backstage crew only to realize how magical it really is’ would be fantastic.

    But the real tragedy of pushing the ‘this is better because it is more masculine’ is how dishonest it is. Jared Leto sexually harrasing his costars fora performance that was ultimately random emphases on syllables may have shown the emperor had no clothes (thereis no understating how terrible his performance is. There is literally not a single choice that actually serves the scene. Beyond awful, and I say this as a guy who kind of likes the Suicide Squad movie (though only because it is very obvious what it originally was before it was recut to hell)), but everyone’s obsession with method acting had already proven to be fundamentally dishonest.
    When someone like Daniel Day Lewis method acts, you get astonishing performances. But that is because he knows that is the best way for him to get results (and in fact he is quite self depreciating about his need for the technique). But compare that to The Revenant. DiCaprio, a great actor with many amazing performances, gives a really shitty performance simply because he is too cold to act. The firein his eyes, the fury that is supposed to keeping him moving simply isn’t there. DiCaprio simply create a character in those conditions, and instead you just watch a man crawl. Meanwhile, the only scene where DiCaprio actually is on a set, when he has completed his crawl, everything missing from his performance is there. The one scene where he isn’t method acting is the one scene where he gives a good performance. Meanwhile, Tom Hardy, who got much less abuse, is a captivating presence throughout and the only good thing in the movie (though this is not to say Tom Hardy didn’t suffer. Inarittu’s incompetence created a truly hellish working environment and may have single handedly fucked the Georgia film industry through no fault of their own. There is a reason that Tom Hardy, wh went through another truly hellish shoot with Mad Max Fury Road, left Mad Max calling George Miller a genius and physically assaulted Inarittu, then gave the entire crew t shirts of him doing so.)
    Ultimately, treating anything, whether it is method acting and working back stage, with such meaning is pretentious – and I say that as a guy who tries to avoid using that word. Any meaning from the activity itself, divorced of context, is false. And that falseness won’t hold up. In the you’ll get the response you got here. A grand ‘meh’

    • Oh, yes – that point about there being no method actresses is well-made in Bastien’s article. A woman would simply be dubbed “difficult” and then no one would ever work with her again.

      But, Matt, your second point is also (probably not surprisingly) 100% how I feel. I don’t really care whether it’s difficult to achieve what’s happening on screen, I’m only concerned with a film’s (or a performance’s) ability to have an impact on its audience. I’m not watching a movie to witness the physical hardship of actual human beings, y’know? I’d almost argue that the opposite is true: that the art is better when the artist is relaxed and comfortable do their shit well. I suppose there’s some novelty in watching someone struggle, but that necessarily takes you out of the experience. Sudddenly, you’re thinking about how Christian Bale lost all that weight and now you’re not thinking about the characters in the world of The Fighter.

      • I read that article weeks ago, so didn’t reread it and forgot that that was one of the pieces mentioning how a woman would never get away with it.

        When I mentioned that Daniel Day Lewis is actually self depreciating about his method acting, the line is, I believe, ‘I method act because am not a good enough actor to do it any other way’. Ultimately, there is no single way to act. It isn’t about going full method, nor is it about being relaxed and comfortable. It is about doing a strategy that gives the best performance. And that’s all.
        Maybe that comes from going method. Maybe that comes from forming a good repartee with the other actors. Maybe it comes from precisely deciding how you wish to approach each word. (I admit to not being an expert on how to act). But ultimately, do what creates the best result from everyone. And that is the important thing. Christian Bale’s ability to shed and gain weight is fantastic in how it lets him do all sorts of roles, but that’s it. It has nothing to do with the quality of his acting, and in the end, I am going to judge Christian Bale on the final results.

        The one thing I keep thinking about is what it must have been like for Margot Robbie. Margot Robbie’s performance in Suicide Squad was truly amazing (I love the scene of her throwing away the Puddin’ Choker. Truly astonishing work, even if it makes no sense after the helicopter scene was so completely changed in reshoots). But what would it have been like for her to act alongside Jared Leto? Would she actually feel safe? Because at the end of the day, safety is important. How is she supposed to put her all in, when she has to act opposite the guy sending her used condoms and dead rats. Because making a movie is a team effort, and it is not just about doing your best, but helping others achieve their best. And you don’t do that by making them feel unsafe around you.
        The really sad thing is that ultimately, the people hurt the most by the antics of Jared Leto/Inarittu are Robbie and DiCaprio. Robbie’s performance didn’t seem to suffer, but DiCaprio’s certainly did

        I have to say, I love this article
        http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2015/12/28/i-dont-care-how-hard-it-was-to-make-the-revenant
        Ultimately, I don’t care how much weight Christian Bale lost, or whether DiCaprio really ate a bison heart, or exactly how Jared Leto sexually harassed his costars. I care about a good movie. And when we exalt the exact method over the final product, we forget what it was always supposed to be about in the first place. Making great art

        • I think a big part of the problem is that most people don’t have a good understanding of what acting actually is. They assume it’s about giving naturalistic performances, so commend techniques that encourage actors to “be” the character, ignoring that those characters would probably be terrible actors in movies. (Matt’s point about Leto’s choices never serving the scene illustrates this perfectly — an actor would worry about how the performance fits in the scene or the film as a whole; a psychopath just emphasizes random syllables.) I think the truly great so-called method actors are actually pretty aware of the mechanics that go into actual performances (hitting their mark, playing to the camera, etc), but talk up their method techniques as a marketing ploy to appeal to audiences. It’s the lesser actors that come along wanting to emulate Brando and Day-Lewis that buy into method whole-hog, and their performances demonstrate how valuable those fundamentals actually are, after all.

        • Yeah. That is basically perfect, Drew. Got everything in one. There is literally nothing I disagree with. And the real tragedy is that too many of the people who should be authorities don’t even have that good understanding. That the people we trust to tell us whose the best actors know as little as we do, while the real experts are ignored

          There’s a whole lot of stuff I want to say, but honestly it is expanding one exactly what you just said, Drew. You’ve got it

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