Sunday, August 27, 2006

Cheesecake Complex

Two issues of DC's The Next (written by Tad Williams) have appeared so far, and though I've tried hard not to like the book, I have to admit that I've been won over and plan to keep reading.

The story centers upon four inter-dimensional time travelers who have escaped from their universe's murderous overlords, (an unsavory outfit called the Iron Ring). As they catapult through time, they collide with a disaffected California teen-ager named Monikka Wong, with near-disastrous results. Monikka barely survives the encounter, and when the future-nauts slow down to undo the damage, they introduce a rip into the space-time continuum. The Ring has dispatched a Very Bad Entity called the Sion to retrieve the escapees (so that they can be tortured to death). Although they should be on their way, there's a major problem: if they pack up and leave, Monikka will die.

On the positive side, Superman is working on the torn continuum problem. The travellers inform him that since they're far-future versions of us, he should help them confront Sion. Meanwhile, dinosaurs, buffaloes, and pirates roam the streets.

Dietrich Smith's art on the book is inventive, detailed, and complex; each of the travellers also sports a distinctive design. Able to acquire information about the mores of our space and time, they've selected bodies and clothing that (they think) allow them to blend in with the locals.

— Ben, the intellectual problem-solver, looks like a younger, less toxic version of Desolation Jones. (Goggles included.)

— Cindy Cindy Cindy (call her Cindy Cindy), the group's practical "people person," dresses like a 50s air hostess.

— Tweet, the creative force, looks like a present-day hipster doofus.

— Poetry Slam, the crew's destructive force (a polite term for ass-kicker), appears to have studied a wide selection of 70s blaxploitation movies and fetish porn to derive her look. (She could easily have borrowed her outfit from Emma Frost.) Slam has red skin, white hair, and sports an impressively mountainous 'fro.

On one level, Slam is every fanboy's wet-dream. But there's something else going on here, too. The Next is satirizing superheroes, their costumes, and the readers who follow (or ogle) their exploits. Slam cluelessly believes that what she is wearing is not a costume at all, but rather normal attire for a woman on earth.

And what's interesting is that Slam's enlightened companions never cast a sexualized gaze in her direction. Neither does Superman. In fact, the only character in the book who does so is Jorge (Monikka's mom's loathsome live-in boyfriend), and here's how that encounter played itself out:

There's no denying that Slam is true to her name, and she gives Superman a run for his money when they go toe-to-toe (after he noisily barges into the apartment building where Monikka has set up a a safe-house for her companions).

Until Williams developed the character, Slam's outré costume gave me some pause. However, what's important to the narrative is not (so much) how Slam is dressed, but the way she carries herself and wields her power. Slam is fighting for a just cause; she unthinkingly acts to defend her friends at all times; and she endangers herself to protect the innocent.

And by the end of issue #2, Slam's no-questions-asked bad assery has inspired Monikka to overcome her awe of the Man of Steel and pull on his cape to get his attention during the heat of the battle. (Since Sion looks to be a formidable opponent, Monikka's intervention here is crucial.)

If there is such as thing as cheesecake with a complex purpose, I'd argue that Williams' Poetry Slam certainly fits the bill. Though The Next takes place outside of the mainstream continuity, the introduction of a strong positive female character (who can trade blows with Superman) actually serves to shine a light upon how women characters are written, drawn, and perceived throughout the wider DCU.

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