SPIDER-MANDATE: The Lowe-down on "Secret Wars," Tie-Ins and Stacey Lee
I don’t really know how to talk about Black Hole. For a comic that feels like the unholy lovechild of Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Lynch’s Lost Highway, there’s a certain coherency in it with regards to basic human emotions, specifically love, fear, and hatred. Despite being focused around self-centered (and sometimes super obnoxious) high-schoolers, Black Hole really knows the human condition. But this isn’t a feel good story in any way. It dredges up the worst of humanity by illustrating the way we treat people who are marked as different than us. There are moments of amazing intimacy, but they are tinged with a very sharp pain.
Okay, so for those possibly uninitiated to Charles Burns’s Black Hole: it’s a story about teenagers who contract a certain disease whenever they have sex with somebody who is infected. So, essentially, it’s a story about STDs that manifest as elements of the grotesque: your skin can molt, you can grow a tail or extra mouths, or have your entire skin become reformed and unrecognizable. Just to name a few. And as comes as no surprise, people who are not afflicted with this disease reject and ostracize those who are known to be infected. At its core, Black Hole shows us the horror involved in our treatment of people we view as unhealthy (and immoral because of so).
As others have noted, the context for Black Hole’s original pub date of the mid-1990s is important to understanding what Burns’s grotesque tale is doing. (The original four issues are also missing from the collected edition but for the purposes of this article I’m just focusing on the elements that were included in the collection.) Set in the 70s, but written in the 90s, Black Hole’s context is one explicitly about our changing attitudes towards sexuality and STDs, specifically AIDS. So Black Hole effectively becomes a visual treatment of how we, as a society on a whole, view and treat those who are ill. We are not always compassionate. We are a species governed and motivated, in a large part, by fear.
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I often find myself in arguments about Catwoman: who played the best Selina Kyle in movies and who writes her the best in comics. I talk about her a lot. I mean, a lot. I’ve developed a really deep love for her as a character because she has never been easily pinned down or definable. She holds a special place for me because as a female character, she holds a lot of power for progressive and offensive representation and thought. She is not easily definable as good or bad, and this tension provides the room for her to become something more than just Batman’s love interest or Gotham’s ultimate femme fatale.
While I’ve felt this way about Catwoman in many different instances, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Catwoman: When In Rome really hits the nail on the head for me. It raises — whether intentionally or not — all these questions about Selina’s identity, but also the role of Catwoman as a feminist character in a world rife with problems when it comes to writing and representing women. Warning, I’m absolutely going to be spoiling the heck out of this run.
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There are so many reasons I love Image Comic’s Dancer. I’m a sucker for international thrillers with spies and hitmen (throw in a little sci-fi action and we’re golden), I always wished I could be a ballerina despite my complete lack of coordination, and Nic Klein’s art is incredibly breath-taking and both inspires me as an artist and makes me feel incredibly inept (which is the highest compliment I can pay). So needless to say, I was hooked from the first page, but I honestly wasn’t entirely sure why. The story wasn’t exactly groundbreaking in originality, and the character types were all pretty familiar and straightforward. The script was thrilling, so maybe that was it?
Then I started thinking about Dancer in terms of its identity politics and what it’s actually saying about who we are, who we want to be, and more importantly, who we can be or become under the right circumstances. As The Fox says, “It’s time to stop thinking that you are what you are not, Alan.” As much as it’s about escaping near-certain death, it is about Alan’s struggle with his own identity as a hitman, facing down his own barbarism, brutality, strength, and tenacity…in the form of his clone. His younger self is a pitch-perfect stereotype of the hitman character: he’s strong, relentless, intelligent, and always seems to have the upper hand. The hitman/spy is a pretty standard trope of masculinity, where masculinity has typically been figured in terms of embodied violence and strength. It is monstrous and brutal, a technology of murder that is cold and calculated.
What Dancer manages to do is take two typically gendered binary constructs – ballet and being a gun for hire – and parallels them to reveal the performativity lurking behind said stereotypes.
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.
Contropussy, written by Emma Caulfield (Buffy’s own Anya) and Camilla Outzen Rantsen and with art by Christian Meesey, is a very weird and incredibly exciting read. Contropussy follows the life of a cat: a housecat called Sonnet by day and a femme fatale by the name of Contropussy at night. Make no mistake, Contropussy is a contemporary embodiment of the attitude of exploitation films and underground comix of the ‘60s and 70s. Double O, a dog and the main love interest of Contropussy, appears exactly like Booga, TG’s Kangaroo love interest, in the exploitation-style comic Tank Girl, and this homage brings to the forefront the controversy surrounding sexuality and sexual partners inherent in both comics. Because if Contropussy is sending any sort of political message, it’s about who can do what with their sexuality, nay-sayers be damned.
Contropussy is brazen in its talk of sexuality, as the first introduction to the titular heroine involves her monologue about masturbation, having a one-night stand with a stray cat, and reminiscing about her break up with her partner, Double O. True to any spy-thriller, the story itself focuses on Contropussy’s own adventures and mishaps, involving rescuing her friend from a cat brothel, international abductions, mind-control and the excitement and dangers of falling in love. Contropussy pushes the limits, in an often slightly-uncomfortable, maybe-don’t-read-this-book-in-a-café kinda way. While it does hold back on explicit depictions of sex, it makes no qualms about what Contropussy gets up to (or who she gets down with) on her late night prowls.
While Contropussy is very true to form in imitating the comix style of an unapologetic “what can I get away with?” mindstate it is taking place in 2013 and not 1970, and the cultural implications of the gender dynamics and overt sexuality are at the forefront. Indeed, in Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature Charlies Hatfield describes Robert Crumb’s “originality [as laying] in his use of such figures to express a vision at once self-regarding, almost solipsistic, yet socially aware, satirical, even politically astute.” Comix, in their refusal to be censored or limited, create the perfect avenue for political play.
While Contropussy can absolutely be enjoyed for the animal-centric sexploitation romp it is, it is also hitting at some poignant issues surrounding the depiction of female sexuality. There is no escaping the reverberations of inverting and playing with typical gender dynamics, especially when using the James Bond spy-thriller genre as a framing device. This is where the exploitation element comes in: Caulfield and Rantsen show Contropussy getting down and dirty constantly, consistently and unapologetically.
The punning name “Contropussy” is a clear homage to the most famous Bond Girl names, such as Pussygalore and Octopussy. She is the hero of this tale, oozing sex appeal and commanding respect, while Double O is relegated to the position of a (fairly one-note) sex object. Sadly, the Double O character doesn’t receive any in-depth characterization to flesh out this parody: throughout the narrative he remains the sex object, love interest and sometimes ally/sidekick for Contropussy. Despite this, towards the end of the graphic novel, Double O does provide one of the best laugh-out-loud situations when he attacks Todd Akin, who is spouting his infamous “legitimate rape” line, ultimately aligning Double O on the feminist side of the female sexuality debate. This isn’t a question of what men can do with their sexuality, because they haven’t faced the same shaming as women have. We admire James Bond, and slut-shame the Bond Girls. What Contropussy is wrangling with is inverting this to give the same level of respect to the feline and feminine version of Bond. It’s exploitation at its finest: show Contropussy doing what Bond does, unabashedly and rather awesomely.
In exploitation genres, the brazenness that Contropussy embodies is what works. For example, in the 1970’s exploitation movie TNT Jackson there is a great scene where the villain attempts to intimidate and torture TNT by threatening to burn her exposed breasts with a cigarette. The fact that the villain violently rips off her blouse shows this act is supposed to give him the power over her via controlling/threatening her sexuality. What follows is TNT handily defeating all the henchmen, wearing only panties. This scene is great and works so well in the exploitation genre because it shows TNT taking back the power that was being lorded over her: now she’s showing that she can take these goons on despite being stripped, robbing the attempt of using her sexuality against her of any of its power. You get both: exposed breasts for titillation, but also a scene latent with a feminist backbone.
Contropussy achieves this same effect throughout the narrative. Caulfield offers Contropussy, a very sexualized character, who makes references and jokes about her preference for certain types of bondage, as a way to illustrate that sexual liberation is entirely different from sexual exploitation. Early on in the graphic novel, Contropussy saves her friends from a cat brothel (by defeating her arch-nemesis Evil Rabbit in a grindhouse-level-of-gross/in-your-face-kung-fu battle), showing that there is a difference between embodying sexuality and having that sexuality controlled, used and exploited (as further cemented through Double O’s attacking of Todd Akin for his “legitimate rape” comments). Contropussy is very smart and works the exploitation/homage to the comix scene incredibly well. Caulfield and Rantsen lets Contropussy run rampant, showing that overt sexuality isn’t shameful.
Beyond just the exploitation-style politics, Contropussy reads like an old-school film noir (another beloved genre the narrative is paying homage to while simultaneously inverting). For example, Contropussy describes a character who “walks across the street like a slow, slow drag off a cigarette after a really long day.” Contropussy parodies typical spy-thrillers like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, offering a narrative that shifts the power from women in spy-thrillers as just fetishized sex object to the sexy main protagonist. By inverting typical dynamics found in spy genres, and by using the exploitation style of the underground comix scene, Contropussy is designed to shock and delight. And if the name itself isn’t a giveaway, there are plenty of shocks and boundaries being pushed. The use of animals works on an allergorical level, illustrating tensions found in the sexual relationships being exhibited, but it also provides shocks and laughs on a basic, literal level.
The stylized art is pitch-perfect for all of the intents of the narrative. Both realistic and exaggerated, Meesey’s art evokes the glamour of thriller movies, while presenting raw, unapologetic visuals at home in comix. Rather than offering a structured narrative that centres around one achievable goal, Contropussy reads episodically, due to its origins as webcomic, where we get scenes and stories that are bound together through the reader’s devotion to the characters, rather than a defining storyline. But this works, because it’s not necessarily the story that matters, but how Caulfield and Rantsen are inverting typical gender dynamics and paying homage to the genres that have paved the way for anti-censorship in comics and films.
Sections of this post originally appeared on NerdSpan by Kaitlin Tremblay.
As a die-hard Catwoman fan, I’ve never given Harley Quinn a fair shake. For starters, that voice. I like my villains sultry, dignified and more solemn than ridiculous, and for me, Harley was never any of these things. But then I started reading the Gotham City Sirens, and have been introduced to a side of Harley I never knew existed.
After reading Gotham City Sirens: Union, I went on to read a dedicated Harley trade: Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes by Karl Kesel, Terry Dodson and Rachel Dodson. I had a hard time getting into it, at first. The art is a little more goofy than I typically like, and it was difficult for me to sympathize with Harley in the first story when she is just hopelessly devoted to the Joker, despite his attempt to kill her (watch He’s Just Not That Into You, girl!). But with the second and third story, where Harley works for Two-Face and then throws her bad-girls-only slumber party, I noticed there was something much deeper happening than just Harley being heartbroken, pissed off and trying to find new friends.
Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes is about redefining Harley in a way that liberates her from being Joker’s gal Friday, but not totally reinventing her from the ground up. It is the working through of her change, complete with downfalls and triumphs. With each new story in the trade, we get a death and rebirth of Harley: she begins with a conception of herself (she is Joker’s gal, she is Two-Face’s right hand, she is one of the DC bad girls, et cetera), and by the end, this definition becomes shaken and Harley establishes a new status quo for herself — which will once again become shaken, then re-evaluated, and re-established.
It is a process of definition that is reminiscent of the carnivalesque, but which operates more fully in a realm of slapstick comedy. In Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes we see Harley trying to define herself apart from Joker. The first narrative arc in the trade is about her still fighting for Joker’s respect– as he is trying to kill her, though. The conversations Joker has with his henchmen behind Harley’s back illustrate Joker’s view of her: he is in a position of power over her, as both her boss and lover, and looks down on her as less than his equal. She is the side-kick, the love interest, but during the events of Prelude and Knock-Knock Jokes, we see Harley stepping farther and farther away from this. Traditional structures of power are dissolved to become more inclusive. She proves herself time and time again of being able to hold her own with Joker and his henchmen. Harley can be seen as a serious villain if how we think of villains is being shaken up. This is done through humour (and if the name wasn’t a dead give away, Preludes is filled with great one-liners), to show that within these realms, what we know of power positions are social constructs, rather than innate ones.
The first two stories show Harley going through the motions of previous power dynamics: she was Joker’s girl, now she’s not, so she tries to repeat the experience working for Two-Face. This fails, and leads to the turning point in Preludes: the bad girls of DC slumber party. These are voices that are normally on the back-burner, or relegated to a sidekick/love-interest position taking over to establish a new, if temporary, order. It is in this new space where all typical structures are levelled that Harley can test the new idea of herself as an independent woman: not as the Joker’s lover or as Two-Face’s number two, but as her own woman operating for her own desires. It’s not fully the carnivalesque, because it is focused on creating a new, lasting Harley, but if we use this lens, we can see how the slumber party story partially operates as the chaotic carnival realm where Harley’s whole world, and self-conception, is entirely shifted and shaken, allowing for her final death and rebirth.
Beyond that, so much of what happens during Preludes is mobilized through Harley’s own insistent humour. In the last story, we see Harley and her Quinntets attempting to rob Wayne Manor. At the same time as the Riddler and his henchmen are trying to discover the secret passage that has been rumoured to exist in the Manor. Oracle, unable to signal any of the usual Bat-family, sends out an SOS to anybody, and, true to the slapstick nature of Preludes, Big Barda comes to the rescue. The whole situation is constructed to make us laugh, with Harley and her henchmen squaring off against Riddler and his henchmen, and telling ridiculous one-liners and riddles.
But here’s the kicker: even Big Barda is getting in on the jokes, showing that despite the fact that Harley, her Quinntets, the Riddler, his lackeys and Barda are all working against each other, they’re also all fighting on the same terms. No one — whether a god, henchman or person with a body ramped up by Poison’s Ivy special concoction — is put in a more privileged position than any others. Harley only triumphs by working alongside Barda. It is a moment of inclusivity that allows for the terms of existing in this realm to be changed: Harley isn’t just the fool. Not any more. She’s become a major player on her own terms.
The point is to show that Harley can hold her own with any of the Bat-villains, but also that nobody in Gotham is exempt from becoming such a nefarious foe. The final story, with the showdown between Harley, the Riddler and Barda, shows that while these individuals are exceptional in their own infamous ways, they are also not entirely unique in Gotham. As Harley’s old professor says, “This is Gotham, after all — where even the Sisters of St. Jude’s carry concealed weapons.”
If we stretch the carnivalesque lens a little bit farther, it seems like this is the underlying sentiment behind Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes: it’s not just Harley who can redefine herself, but anybody in Gotham is capable of rising up to the challenge. As we can see when Harley is being hauled off to her cell in Arkham Asylum in a flashback during Preludes, she shouts “ONE OF US,” rallying all the inmates to join in the chant.
And they do, and ultimately, this exposes the real fear of living in Gotham city. Not the villains or inmates of Arkham Asylum, but the fact that anybody can rise up and become an infamous Bat-villain. Gotham City is the site of the literal carnival, after all, where Dick was able to join the ranks of Gotham’s finest heroes. And for me, this is what we can see happening underneath all the drama and jokes of Preludes: Gotham City is the only place where such a process of redefinition for Harley — or anybody — can occur.
(Here’s a piece by Kaitlin Tremblay that originally appeared on her site That Monster. Kaitlin’s a really interesting writer and she’ll be posting/cross-posting some pieces here going forward. – BC)
It’s no secret how much I love Fatale by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. I’ve talked before about how Phillips’ art is one of my all-time favourites, because technique-wise it’s very good and creates the perfect atmosphere for a supernatural noir style narrative. But like any film noir, the story would be incomplete with the dazzling, mysterious and dangerous heroine. But Jo isn’t just the just the femme fatale; she also embodies a lot of what Barbara Creed discusses as the monstrous feminine, while at the same time reversing this typical association and marking the men in the narrative as abject and monstrous.
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