Revenge, Horror, and Censorship: Avatar Press’s Crossed
True to Avatar’s willingness to let their creative teams do whatever they want, Crossed fully explores the limits of an utmost hedonistic-rage-inspired apocalypse. It takes a long hard look at the worst of human qualities and magnifies them to such an extent as to completely shock and horrify. The point is that we needn’t be afraid of people turning into zombies and taking over the world: there already exist sociopathic humans who are far worse than zombies ever could be. The world of Crossed explores what it would be like if instead of being bitten and turned into zombies, humans got bitten and turned into the lovechild of Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy.
Where Crossed gets fascinating for me and moves away from just slasher-movie violence and torture porn explicit images is in David Lapham’s first run with the series, Family Values. What I want to talk about is a specific scene in Family Values: where the mother willingly crosses herself so that she can have the power and capability to enact her revenge on her husband for the horrible wrongs he committed against herself and her daughters. It is the only moment in the entire series where the ultimate evil is used to get revenge for some of the most atrocious acts a person could ever commit. It feels reminiscent of rape-revenge exploitation films like I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and Last House On The Left (1972), where violence becomes a form of vigilante-style justice.
The point of rape-revenge exploitation stories are to give power back to the victim by letting them enact an instance of revenge that is just as horrifying and terrible as the pain inflicted on them in the first. An eye for an eye, except we cheer for the vigilante victim because their acts of violence are motivated out of a sense of justice. Carol J. Clover talks about these films, especially I Spit On Your Grave (1978) as possessing feminist qualities in that they have the woman stand up for themselves, rather than letting a system try and do this (a system which usually fails them). The girls in Family Values signify this: they are stuck in a position that they cannot easily escape from. They are victimized, brutalized, and largely powerless against it. Becoming crossed offers the one medium for the mother to become strong enough to finally take revenge for her family.
Common critiques levied against rape-revenge narratives are that by depicting the violence against the victim in such length and detail actually depowers them. But what these instances are doing are forcing the audience to align with and see the full extent of what these victims are put through: you can’t ignore it, you can’t pretend it’s not as terrible as it really is, and you can’t quickly forget about it. Arguably, this is being achieved in Crossed: Family Values. All the scenes of violence against the daughters combine to make us happy when the mother crosses herself. It’s a weird feeling, I know. It’s not even a comfortable feeling. But it’s effective.
Now, that scene from Family Values is the only instance of this that I can pinpoint in the Crossed series that works explicitly as rape-revenge exploitation. And while this scene is a fleeting moment, and the rest of Family Values reverts back to its gorey glory, that’s fine. The point is that the world and the system Crossed has created allows for this type of vigilante justice to be appropriately metted out. It evens the playing field in an incredibly terrifying way. (To quote Bender: “We’re boned.” All of us.) The violent exploitation elements of Crossed depict intense graphic violence to get under our skin and creep us out/disgust us/make us never want to trust another human being ever again, but to also show that these elements already exist and that’s the real fear.
Garth Ennis’s first crack at the dented in and disgusting can that is Crossed is a very well told story, that is both narratively well-constructed and intensely horrifying to read. Ennis takes what we think we know of apocalyptic stories, and ups the ante beyond any conceivable measure. In an age where we dare to be scared by something truly horrifying — when we have to resort to Saw and Hostel level of slasher gore to considered ourselves scared – Ennis gives us exactly what we are asking for. And a whole lot more. It’s violence exploitation, but it’s also using the apocalyptic-narrative that is so popular nowadays to heighten it’s terror: if you think the world simply ending is bad enough, you’re wrong. This is much, much worse. (Can we call this apocalypse-exploitation now?) Crossed very effectively shows us the worst possible facets of human beings: the sociopaths who feel no remorse, no restrictions, and do unthinkable things. And then fills the world with them. What’s scarier than that?
Also, the fact that Crossed exists is a nice testament to where horror comics have ended up, after their near-destruction from the Comics Code in the 50s that saw the complete censorship of the medium. Crossed not only denies any sort of censorship, but actively tops itself in its exploitation genre level of violence and torture-porn aspects. We don’t have to celebrate Crossed’s content, but we should celebrate the fact that Crossed is allowed to exist. Because sometimes there are certain stories that can only be told in certain ways. And Family Values is definitely one of those.