So I’ve spent a lot of time writing about work-for-hire super hero comics lately. Which is fine. They were books I enjoyed discussing, and lord knows any post about Batman or the latest Corporate Spandex Reboot ™ gives me a spike in readership. But now the stack of unreviewed comics next to my desk has gotten so tall that things are sliding off the top. Which tells me that I’ve neglected it for far too long.
But looking through the stack, I realize there are also too many to properly discuss. So I need a hook. A theme. Something that ties a bunch of them together and lets me pick out a reasonable number. And luckily, there is such a thing: I’ve been reading an awful lot of funnybooks starring women here lately. Actually, that’s been the case for quite some time. I just hadn’t made particular note of it til now. But I’m pleased with the trend. Comics have been a male-dominated affair for far too long, but maybe things are, however slowly, changing. Now, I do notice that there’s only one female writer and two female artists on the books I’m about to discuss. So there’s still a long way to go in terms of gender parity in the funnybook business. But it’s a start…
Pretty Deadly 9 & 10
by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Emma Rios
Sometimes I find it hard to get into this book’s rhythm. But I like its aims quite a bit. DeConnick and Rios are building a unique mythology here, built around a young girl who becomes the personification of Death, serviced by Reapers representing various aspects of human life. The book’s face character, for instance, Deathface Ginny, is the Reaper of Vengeance. It’s a fascinating cosmology, morbid and beautiful and strangely positive all at the same time, and DeConnick and Rios are developing it in a poetic manner, presenting the reader with ideas and imagery and letting the rest speak for itself. It’s not quite like anything else out there. And that, in theory, is right up my alley. But sometimes, like I said… I can’t quite catch the rhythm of it.
That’s not the book’s fault, mind you. It’s mine. My funnybook reading is often made up of things concerned with a concrete reality. Series like Lazarus or East of West, both of which have constructed worlds so complex that they’ve published guide books for them. Even the mythological side of East of West, concerned with similar themes and informed just as much by Westerns as Pretty Deadly, is rather concrete in its mysticism. And while the trippier aspects of Grant Morrison’s work are more difficult and esoteric on the whole, there’s generally a clear narrative demarcation point for the psychedelic stuff. So I’ve trained myself to expect those signals, and Pretty Deadly‘s really not concerned with them all that much.
No, in this book, the concrete and the esoteric are often one and the same, and Emma Rios’ artwork reflects that. Take, for example, the fight between Deathface Ginny and the Reaper of War in issue 10.
That’s a pretty clear action page for this book, but in most it would be a daring break from panel grids. That’s just how Rios puts a page together, though. To see her get really out there, you have to go to a two-page spread like the one at the end of that fight:
At first glance, I thought that was a beautiful mess. Pretty to look at, but conveying no truly useful information. Then I looked at it again, and realized that her storytelling here is actually top-notch, leading your eye around the page in just the manner it should. It’s not a spread that reads at a glance, though. You have to slow down, and let it take you there.
You start in the upper left, as you should. Then the vertical figure of Coyote (and the well-placed word balloon) take your eye down to the next vertical figure of Ginny riding Fear. Now, Fear is a Reaper who is a horse, but as he himself becomes more afraid, his figure flows and changes like some kind of liquid cubist display. It does so here, leading your eye up and to the right, past the looming figure of War as Ginny charges on the attack. Then Fear stops short and falls down through the panel border made up of the veiny tangles of Death’s own unraveling form, throwing Ginny off into another unraveling red mass that in turn draws your eye back down to the bottom left corner. There, War has reformed into a sort of stringy death’s-head mass, the two gaping eye holes mirroring the eye of Fear in the tier above, and flowing off to the right again, as Fear’s terrified shape flows off to lead us out of the page.
It’s astounding work, barely representational at all and yet still telling the story the way it needs to. You just have to sink into it and let it take you along. And that’s the way Pretty Deadly works in general. There’s a flow to both the story and the art that’s almost dreamlike. There’s more underlying logic to it than that, but it still works best if you just go along with it. Surrender to it. Let yourself fall into its rhythm, rather than trying to impose your own.
There’s still a story being told here, of course, but it’s more folktale than fiction, if you follow my meaning. The story is simple, and the characters represent types moreso than they represent real flesh-and-blood people. This isn’t a criticism, mind you. Folktales are powerful, and this is the stuff of folktales. The characters aren’t deep, but they serve their purpose, which is to give a human face to the larger issues, which are represented by the Reapers.
So you get The World-Weary Frenchman and The Young American Soldier Who Dies Before His Life’s Even Really Begun, who Bravely Die Trying to Save Each Other in the Trenches. We’ve seen them both a million times, but their fates illustrate the battle between the Reapers. The Reaper of War has gone into business for himself, subjugating the Reaper of Fear. So to defeat War, Ginny and the other Reapers first have to free Fear. Only then can War be defeated, and men can stop dying by letting their courage overcome their good sense.
(That story about the mutinous German crew is true, by the way. It was a turning point in World War I, an incident some see as the beginning of the end of that particular conflict.)
At any rate. Pretty Deadly is fine mythic storytelling with a nice poetic tone. But if you don’t get into its rhythms, if you don’t let it take you where it wants you to go… It’s apt to seem a little shallow. If you do get into its peculiar groove, though, it blossoms into something much better than the sum of its parts.
But, hey. As long as we’re talking Kelly Sue DeConnick, her other book’s been putting out issues of late as well…
Bitch Planet 7 & 8
by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro
Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that Pretty Deadly and Bitch Planet are written by the same woman. Whereas the former is all about its own peculiar airy flow, this book is about as earthy as you can get, a biting, angry, violent social satire, set on a prison planet, sending up “women in cages” movies, and aimed squarely at the balls of the patriarchy.
The current arc, as you can see, is called “President Bitch.” It continues the book’s on-going story, with the father of murdered inmate Meiko Maki arriving on the prison planet, while former guard Whitney has been chosen to take the fall for Meiko’s death, and is tossed in a cell with Kam, immediately putting a crimp in Kam’s plans to find out what happened to her sister.
None of which, you might notice, would seem to involve this Eleanor Doane, the ostensible President Bitch of the title. And it doesn’t. We don’t get to Eleanor til the very end of the second part of the story, as the prison is plunged into chaos by events I won’t spoil here. Reference is made to her earlier in the issue, as we see what appears to be a clandestine meeting of her followers, who seem to be rebels against the patriarchal system ruling Earth.
But I’m reading between the lines a bit there. Mostly, these issues deal with old plot, which I presume will inform the new as we move forward. There’s also the introduction of the transgender wing of the prison. We’re introduced to the trans prisoners through one of the series’ patented exploitation-avoiding nude scenes. Gratuitous nude scenes are, of course, a staple of the “women in cages” movies that inspired Bitch Planet, and DeConnick and Valentine subvert those scenes by exposing plenty of flesh, but doing so in a way that mostly avoids titillation. In this issue, for instance, they use nudity to wordlessly get across exactly what kind of people are being held in this newly-revealed part of the prison.
It’s a bit of a shock, as such scenes should be. But it’s also effective storytelling, really punching the reader in the face with the enormity of what’s just been revealed: all these trans-gender women are in prison for… well… for being trans-gendered. In the eyes of the ruling patriarchy, it seems, “gender falsification” is a crime. I like this slow expansion of the government’s crimes. We’ve been shown how thoroughly (and brutally) they’ve enforced laws to make women second-class citizens. Now we’re seeing who else has gotten the boot.
That rounds out the book for me at a point where such rounding out was needed. I had feared that the series might become repetitive toward the end of the last arc, but now those fears have been quelled, and my interest is once again piqued. Bitch Planet is a book with a lot to say, and it’s saying it rather well.
by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark
Any discussion of comics with female leads would have to include Greg Rucka. His protagonists are always women, after all, and Lazarus is no exception. There is an ensemble cast here, but Forever Carlyle is the real lead character, and when I think back on the series, I realize that her sister Johanna has really always been secondary lead. Or maybe antagonist. Hmm. It’s a hard call. Johanna’s… complicated, and the story’s been on a slow enough burn that she could still flip either way.
I mean, she’s spent most of the run scheming and looking out for number one to the exclusion of all other cares. It’s her fault, ultimately, that the world’s falling apart the way it is. If she hadn’t schemed for power in the earliest issues, after all, her brother wouldn’t have fallen into the hands of their enemies, and those enemies wouldn’t have been able to get a good enough genetic sample to so successfully poison their father and start a war. So while she may be on the side of her family now, that’s really only because she was able to seize the reins of power. And she’s turned out to be a good wartime leader, too. But she’s not subtle, and still tends to see everyone who’s not her as a tool more than anything else.
Hmm. I don’t know why it’s only just occurred to me now, but as the Families go to war, Lazarus is really becoming sort of a sci-fi version of Game of Thrones. Just, you know, with a lot less rape and gratuitous nudity. Otherwise, though, we’ve got backstabbing, political machinations, and sibling rivalry. We’ve got outcast children rising to power, hesitant youth coming of age, and corrupt characters finding salvation while maybe not changing as much as you’d like to think. And, of course, we’ve got outright war between powerful ruling families as the system that’s kept them at peace for so long falls to pieces.
It’s wide-ranging stuff that’s opening up the world and making the series exciting in a way it hasn’t always been in the past. This is not to knock previous issues, mind you. They’ve been smart and often thrilling. Fun to read in their own right. But now it feels like the story’s kicked into high gear, and I’m really eating it up. Too bad Forever’s out of action for it.
Yeah, Our Hero’s in rough shape after the events of recent issues. The loss of her leg is especially upsetting. I mean, with her family’s advanced medical science and the enhancements that have been bred into her, that’s hardly a permanent loss. But, still. We’ve gotten used to the idea that Forever is, if not unkillable, tough enough to withstand just about anything. So seeing her laid out like that really drives home the point of how bad things have gotten.
Aaanndd… I don’t want to say too much more about this issue, because I’d swiftly get into spoilers. So let’s just say that this is the most exciting the book’s been thus far, and I can’t wait for more. That should be enough, I think.
Dept. H 3
by Matt and Sharlene Kindt
I wish I liked this book more. It has lots of stuff I dig, after all: murder, mystery, danger, crazy people, cool weird costume designs… Last issue even had a giant squid attack! It should be right up my alley. But there’s something just a little too… normal? …about it. It’s a pretty straightforward mystery adventure, without much in the way of narrative inventiveness or bizarre happenings to keep my interest. It’s perfectly okay, in other words. It just doesn’t excite my imagination as much as I’d like. Or rather, it didn’t prior to this issue. But then this guy showed up…
…and he makes me want to read more.
That’s right. Give me the ghostly apparition of a deep sea diver, apparently, and I’m all yours…
Aaaaannnddd… I think that’s all for now. I did read more than four comics with female leads this month (Stray Bullets, Velvet, The Wicked + The Divine, etc), but I’ve run out of space to discuss them in any depth. So we’ll leave it at that.