7/4/10 — Question for Alan Moore fans.
5/25/09 — MAJOR, MAJOR UDPATE.
5/26/09 — Post script:
Here were some things that didn’t occur to me before writing the following post:
1. That anyone beyond 30-odd friends, family and acquaintances would read it.
2. That even among that group of 30-odd, some might not appreciate having one of their artistic icons trashed on highly subjective grounds.
3. That I am not an expert authority on comic books, Alan Moore or sexism.
4. That comic book readers are deeply passionate, intelligent and thoughtful people.
5. That anyone I know who reads Alan Moore’s work and has an opinion on it is a wonderful human being.
6. That in social media as in the financial world, swans sometimes turn black.
7. That I was therefore in danger of pulling a Sasha-Frere Jones.
8. That a more honest and straightforward way to broach the subject would have been to say, “Hey, I’ve been catching up on a bunch of comics lately, including LXG, and I don’t know everything about what Alan Moore intended here, and for idiosyncratic reasons I’m not sure what to make of the violence involving Mina Murray. Can anyone help me out, before I go off half-cocked and incur the ire of a healthy cross-section of Alan Moore fans home on Memorial Day? Because I would feel bad if I inadvertently attacked a mature subculture.”
9. That possibly what I should have said was nothing.
10. That I am behind on other projects and should really be focusing on them instead of making trouble for myself.
And so, without further ado…
5/25/09 — Maybe you remember when I questioned the themes expressed in Alan Moore’s seminal comic book, Watchmen, back when the film version was in theatres? Something I could have made more hay over was the book’s brutality against women. There’s a graphic scene in which the Comedian beats and tries to rape Silk Spectre; later we learn Spectre’s daughter, Laurie, herself a superhero, was the product of a second, successful rape attempt. And more subtly, a female employee of Adrian Veidt’s is shot up in a staged attempt on his life.
I’ve since wondered if maybe I was being unfair to Moore’s project, to wit, the portrayal of how sick you’d have to be to want to become an actual superhero. As it turns out, no, Moore really does have a strong misogynistic streak. I became convinced the other day as I was flipping through one of his more recent works, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (LXG) Volume 2, where there’s another one of those scenes that makes you realize you’re watching some heavy duty psychoanalytic shit play out in comic form.
Those who saw LXG the movie (a piece of shite) will recall the story is about a “dream team” of characters assembled from Victorian era genre literature: Allan Quatermain, Mina Murray (née Harker; of Dracula), Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin (the invisible man) and Mr. Hyde. In volume 2, the league battles the Martians from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, who, after being attacked by characters from Gulliver of Mars, make a brake for Earth, where they torch people alive with heat rays and threaten to sack London from atop tripod-limbed war machines.
The invisible Griffin, for one, welcomes our new tentacly-brain-looking overlords, providing them details about English military fortifications in return for a privileged place in the new Martian order. The “rape scene” occurs when Griffin, his treason discovered by Mina Murray, proceeds to beat the shit out of her. For two full pages – 18 panels, set 3 by 3 on the page – Murray is bloodied, thrown down, beaten until she vomits, then made to grovel before being allowed to rest in her own puke. Only Griffin is invisible the whole time, so there’s nothing impinging our view of Murray being beaten and degraded. (If you’ve got the stomach, here’s the end of the scene.) Not quite as fun as when invisible Buffy diddled Spike.
Exrapolating from Watchmen, I gather that what LXG is “really about” is how fucked up Victorian genre heroes – the superheroes of their day – really were, and therefore how fucked up we are*. Wikipedia claims Moore was originally going to call the book The League of Extraordinary Gentlefolk but changed it to Gentlemen “to better reflect the inherently sexist attitudes of the Victorian era.” Zing, Victorian era!
It’s a clever concept. But it doesn’t explain why Murray needs to get her shit knocked around in graphic detail. Even as a shock tactic, it’s rather ham-fisted, and we’re too far removed from that era for it to be meaningful to us anyway. The simplest explanation (and I’m not the first to have caught on to it) is this: Alan Moore likes scripting violence against women. The fact that it may “work” in context doesn’t change anything. In fact, it allows Moore to get off twice, first by creating it and second by implicitly daring us to call him on it and expose ourselves as exactly the kind of insufferable prigs who are too stupid to be reading his books in the first place. Well, as this Moore-hater says, fuck that.
It’s not like I think Moore or his works are bad, because what does that mean? I enjoyed LXG as a comic, and I’ll get around to reading his other stuff eventually. He tells a good story. But as much as Moore gripes about movie producers and other toads focusing on the wrong parts of his stories, his very act of constructing a highly stylized reality in order to satirize it invites exactly the type of exploitation Moore bemoans. When David Chappelle, a smarter, more relevant social critic than Moore has ever been, saw his comedy being taken the wrong way, he stopped doing the Chappelle Show. (Ostensibly, anyway.)
Moore talks a good game – the old pushing boundaries shtick. Here he is interviewed about Lost Girls, his porno comic. And he’s got plausible deniability about his sexual politics: he and his wife Phyllis have a “lover,” Deborah Delano, and together the three of them published an anthology to drum up support against British anti-homosexual legislation.
The question is more one of legacy. Some comic book creators are aware of their medium’s unfriendliness to female characters. But they’re up against an audience – you can guess the demographic – that continues to valorize the less sophisticated creator, and that is exactly the type Moore will have emboldened.
Look at Garth Ennis’s book The Boys, a modern day Watchmen that follows a group of CIA-backed super-types who assassinate other supers who’ve gotten out of control. Ennis wants to complicate Moore’s moral universe: The main character, modeled on Simon Pegg (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead) is supposed to be the kind of nice, normal guy who would never want to wield horrific power. But Ennis immediately borrows from Moore’s worst tropes. The Pegg character joins the group after his girlfriend is ripped apart by an out of control super – in one panel the couple is holding hands on a date, in the next Pegg is holding her severed arm. Later, three male supers, members of the top dog superhero group, sodomize a new female recruit as part of her initiation.
In short, there’s a reason why the only “graphic novels” I’ve recommended to my girlfriend are We3, about escaped animal cyber-weapons (and super cute, at that), and Achewood, which properly speaking is a comic strip and is therefore outside the superhero tradition. (I’ve never read Blankets, so I can’t comment on it.)
My bottom line: If popular culture is a form of group psychotherapy, then comics like Watchmen, LXG and The Boys appeal to guys because we’re working through our ambivalence for the old-style masculine ideal. If women in comics are treated inhumanely, it’s because the men writing and reading those comics still don’t know what to do in a world of women as partners and competitors. And that’s something that could change.
The floor is now open to discussion.
Addendum: Shit, I really need to go back and read Volume 1, don’t I?
Addendum 2: I’m getting owned in comments for a) lack of research and b) rehashing a played out argument.
Comments are now closed. Thanks for sharing your opinions.