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