Monday, March 27, 2006
Quien es Macho? Siryn es Macho!
When I said in my earlier post that there was a lot was going on in X-Factor #5, what I really meant was that my reactions to the issue have been all over the place.
Because what actually happens in the comic is that Siryn (who, just to fill you in, was beaten to within an inch of her life at the close of the previous issue) is held captive in a theater by Dr. Leery, a former mutant who is mightily pissed off over the loss of his powers. (Leery stumbled upon the heroine as she lay unconscious; her attacker had left her for dead.) It's the villain's belief that those mutants such as Siryn who have retained their powers after "The Decimation" are secretly in league with whoever is responsible for the event.
The good news: the villain has treated several of Siryn's more severe wounds. The bad: he intends to mutilate his captive in order to send body-part messages to her buddies at X-Factor Investigations. Adding to the suspense is the fact that the investigator following Siryn's trail is Rictor, the firm's sole de-powered member.
I have to admit that the comic was hard to read in places. In addition to the images that I previously posted, there are also quite a few unpleasant panels like these:
Standard damsel-in-distress imagery, right? Clearly we're going to have to bide our time and patiently await the arrival of a more competent male hero to save the day. But just when my angry brain began to think this, the creators provided more salutary imagery, like this:
(I should add that Leery re-set several of his captive's broken bones, one of which was her right leg. Poetic justice!)
Although she spends most of the issue under someone else's power, the creators do work to redeem Siryn as a viable modern superheroine. Even after Rictor arrives on the scene, she gathers her strength and makes a major contribution to the take-down of the villain:
While it's clear that Peter A. David wants to subvert the sexist trope of the woman who needs a man to deliver her from a dangerous situation, does he succeed?
My answer: yes, just barely. (And I'd have major reservations if this storyline were dragged out into another issue.) Here's my thinking:
I understand that this is a comic book, and that a title gets boring fast if the heroine is constantly kicking people's asses, and never can get her own ass kicked by anyone. I also get that X-Factor is giving off a noirish vibe. Bogart, Robert Mitchum, and Alan Ladd were constantly getting their asses handed to them by minor gunsels and cretinous henchmen in the middle reels of their respective noir movies. And, although the "message" of noir is that the hero can never destroy the interconnected webs of corruption in which he's ensnared, the viewer is at the very least assured that by the final reel the hero will have administered compensatory beat-downs to any of the players who were stupid enough to have laid a hand on him. The comic works then, and doesn't offend, if we accept that Siryn is a noirish or Bogart-ian heroine. Final confirmation of this line of interpretation will come if David actually shows us how Siryn finds and "re-pays" her original assailant in future issues.
Rather than a weak-damsel story, Peter David wants us to read X-Factor #5 as if it were an episode in the comic-book version of the Saturday Night Live gameshow Quien Es Mas Macho? (Who is More Macho?) And I'm pleased to report that, in the match-up of Siryn vs. Dr. Leery, Siryn es mas macho. She proves herself to be, indeed, muy muy macho.
And, by his own admission, Siryn's got Rictor beat, too.
I agree that he just barely succeeds. I'm not sure beating a woman for a whole book just so she can kick the captor's ass in one panel makes for good social commentary. I think I'm feeling jaded because I feel that I've seen this type of story before. I actually prefer the part where she kicks ass the entire time. ;)
I think this type of storyline is uniquely faced by heroines, and used as a way to prove their strength. I have to think there are other ways to do this.
Then again, I haven't read the book. :)
I definitely hear what you're saying about your preference for the wall-to-wall ass-kicking approach. I've grudgingly come to accept that comics are locked in to multi-issue story-arcs these days, and in S.'s case I will need to see certain plot and character developments in future issues in order for me to justify the problematic approach taken with her here.
I think that Peter David (or an astute editor) was clearly anticipating your criticisms. It's hard to imagine, but the depiction could have been worse. The reader is never actually shown S. getting severely beaten (bones broken, etc.); that takes place "off panel" at the end of the previous issue. And there's also a second "distancing" element to the disturbing situation: the wounds that S. carries here were almost entirely meted out by the "mystery assailant" in the previous issue, rather than by S.'s present captor. (Though, it must be said, Dr. Leery has no compunction against adding to S.'s injuries.)
Now, while subliminal bondage and sexualized violence are no stranger to either gender of superhero, I think X-Factor's tone and the accompanying art make this one especially hard on the reader. I could tell what PAD was headed for, but I still put down the book promising myself not to read or analyze it again.
(I'm sure I'll break this promise sooner or later, but for now.. Nah.)
The same goes for "It's not when it happens to heroines just because it happens to heroes". At some point, if females characters are to be treated as equals to males, they will have to be treated equally. Even if precedent makes the treatment seem unequal. Yes, there is a long history of violence towards women in comics. But Syrin was not raped, did not lose an eye, and did not end up in a fridge to provide emotional gravitas for a revenge driven male. She got beat up, she did some beating, and a (weaker) member of the opposite sex allowed for some witty reparte as she leaves to heal up. She is equal to Bogey, Mitchum, Gibson, and Willis in every way.
As for whether or not a superpowered individual can truly be a Noir protagonist, that I may have to agree. Certainly superheroes have fought any number of villains who are "untouchable" for legal reasons. And the "revolving jail door" of corporate comics certainly gives a sense of Noir futility to their actions. But in the end, the genre is at it's best when it says that one man can make a difference, and that fighting the good fight has purpose. Two things that Noir cannot admit.
So, ultimately failure as Noir. But within that context, two great strides - heroism and survival - for women in comics.
I almost got the feeling if given a little longer, Siryn could have escaped completely on her own.
It seems to me that P.A. David's choice to subject a female character in a neo-noir comic book to a "testing" convention reserved for male film noir heroes is, at the very least, noteworthy. The fact that David's Siryn "passes" the test is notable, too.
Ragnell: I definitely take your point on the problematic, sexual imagery in the book. I meant it when I said that David barely succeeded.
Christopher: Noir films were fairly intense for their time. After taking a beating in Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep, Bogart spends an entire scene tied up and laying/sitting on the floor with a bruise on his jaw. He comes to, gets in an argument with a villainous woman, and she angrily throws her drink in his face. Lauren Bacall ultimately has to untie and free him. (Now, X-Factor #5 was way more graphic, but my point is only that the situations were similar.)
David: I hear what you're saying about male and female heroes in comics, and what equality of experience might look like in this (sometimes problematic) medium. On your last point, though, I do think that film noir can "admit that fighting the good fight has purpose." At the end of The Maltese Falcon, Bogart sends Mary Astor down the river (even though he loves her) because, in his character's own words, "when somebody kills your partner, you're supposed to do something about it." Not a grand purpose, perhaps, but a purpose nonetheless.
Now in no way do I think that I, as the artist of the book in question (or the writer either) would be the DEFINITIVE voice in this discussion, I will say that it wasn't my perception that this story, at least as visually depicted by me, was particularly violent, unless you count the scene when leery effectively ends his own life (albeit unintentionally). The idea of a noir hero (or heroin) "taking a beating" as a rite of passage was on my mind, but I believe we presented it more as "suffering" than actual violence, and even in the one scene where Sir gets smacked around, I was careful to focus on Leery, because, to me anyway, he was the tragic figure that represented (however effectively) what the loss of a mutant power could do to someone already on the edge. My two cents. Anybody interested in seeing some pure b&w's, please visit my website. www.denniscalero.com
As I said in my response to Nida's comment, on one level I do see the distinction between acts of violence that an artist chooses to depict in the comic's pages, and those which she might have a character endure off-panel.
However, just because someone other than Leery inflicted most of S.'s injuries, and she's primarily "suffering" from their effects in issue #5, doesn't make the comic book any less violent in my eyes. (In my case it didn't make it that much easier to read, either.)
I will grant that your depiction is less graphic than it might have been, but when one considers S.'s captivity and bondage, I see the general situation as violent to the extent that adjectives like "very," or "mildly" don't actually help in describing the character's situation.