Marvel's Voices: Pride #1: The Grey Ladies
London, circa 1900. Irene Adler is playing a chess game that could put her public life at risk. Is it really such a dangerous game? And for whom?
Even if Mystique doesn’t shapeshift within this story, Tini Howard is playing a game of layers, of form and of mirrors with the reader. One that every time you read its pages reveals itself more complex than you’d imagine. The plot itself could be easily summed up: the villain, James, tries to blackmail Irene Adler, Destiny, into a forced marriage, weaponizing his proof of the relationship between her and Raven Därkholme, Mystique. Irene plays fool, and Raven shows up to attack the snooty nobleman. As they embrace, they acknowledge their fight never ends.
All of that is beautifully, emotively, closely looked at by the glasses of Samantha Dodge’s delicate art that turns brutal, corrosive, heartrending with the help of Brittany Peer’s colors when it needs to, and Ariana Maher’s letters constantly guiding you towards the emotional peaks of each phrase, like a dance that ends in the lovers’ kiss. But these pages require a couple of closer looks, an investigation, an open case.
A Dialogue With History
The late 19th century was an era marked by the solidification of social homophobia, that can be exemplified by the trial of Oscar Wilde for “gross indecency” when he was found having sex with another man. Even if sexual and romantic relationships between women were not formally illegalized or persecuted in the United Kingdom, this is the era where “inversion” as a stigmatizing social concept for same-gender attraction was created (in William James’ Principles of Psychology). It was also a particularly oppressive era for working class women, who were relegated to domestic spaces. Romantic and sexual relationships between women of higher classes were common but they were conceptualized as close friendships in the public sphere, and they were assumed to be in a stage prior to marriage with men.
Doctor Mo… James, in this story, exemplifies a social attitude towards gayness that Howard is facing opposite to our protagonists. He’s ready to weaponize the growing seed of social homophobia against Irene, and offers her no escape from a life revolving around men. He takes a step further, pointing out Mystique’s mutanthood, here seen as a type of utter non-conformity with society itself (more on that later), beyond just “their inversion”. Western history’s homophobia would only get more difficult for queer women with time, and Howard’s choice of place and time gets rounded up by Destiny’s premonition of even harder crimes to come, of an ongoing war that she can’t see an end to.
A Dialogue With Literature
Who is the man Irene faces? It’s very easy to pick up if you know who Destiny was based on, another fictional character, possibly based on a real person, another detective, another Irene Adler. The man Mystique kills is no other than Moriarty.
From the noir tone of the art and the somber tones to the dressing code to the mysterious setting and the tense dialogue, this story speaks Sherlock Holmes, bringing the historical with a dose of the fictional within it. It is kind of badass Howard decided to introduce this specific character, an established villain, a killer, in such a subtle way, and have Raven and Irene make justice of him. A way of anti-heroing them further. I have to say I’m a bit confused by the chess game metaphor, in the sense that it’s certainly not a Sherlock Holmes reference. And a bit on the nose, but I’m gonna forgive Howard for that cause everything else in these 5 pages works so perfectly to establish them as anti-heroes with the help of one Conan Doyle, and too many things more. Which many things?
A Dialogue Within Us
There’s an specific way in which ‘The Grey Ladies’ is tracing its queer history. Irene knows the future will get more difficult for her and Raven. In history, she knows it will get more difficult for all queer women. In canon, she knows what mutants are gonna go through. In history, she speaks to us reading her from the future. In canon, she speaks to her inevitable death and the erasure she suffered for years.
Both in history and in canon, Mystique and Destiny’s relationship is powerful for a lot of reasons: they’re together for years, they grow old together (even if Mystique can’t get technically old), they maintain their relationship as core for almost a century, they raise a child together… they do all of that without relying on assimilation to the institutions of marriage or monogamy. Without submitting to which makes us acceptable, palatable, conforming gays. These two women together, even queercoded and villainized, represent some path to liberation, even if they tragically know said liberation is far away from their grasp.
Then there’s the mutanthood, specially Mystique’s one, the visible, the stinging queerness. There’s a specific line of the dialogue that resonates further than any other thing with me: “The woman you proclaim to love is no woman at all. She is a monster with eyes like a snake” within the framework of historical normalization of homophobia and of erasure of the liminality of queerness, Mystique’s non-conformity, formless liminality, defies even categorizing her as a woman.
I think a lot of stories benefit from a trans (specifically a transfeminine) reading of Mystique, except then they go too far into queercoding and make her into a transmisogynystic stereotype, as I wrote more deeply here, but also because we need to acknowledge that and shift that narrative. That’s why this one, with its historical setting and antiheroic background, calls me further to imagine that. To imagine what queer relationships involving trans people would have been a century ago. To wonder how we have existed. And, while this story doesn’t explicitly represent that aspect, it is dialoguing with it, it is asking us what exactly means that we are engaging here with a relationship between two queer women, in which one is no woman at all, according to the man that wants to end them. And to all the other battles that will come against them.
The embracing kiss of the last page takes a new meaning for all historical queer figures that couldn’t be out, that lost themselves in the erasure and genocide that has marked the years from 1900 till now (as transphobic laws knock at our door this very year), that still embraced in a kiss every time they could.
“… let us never waste a moment that we are not at war.”
This comic is a dialogue with queerness through history, literature, emotions, canon, and more. It is a love letter, a time capsule, a powerful tool of imagination.
Examining Mystique and Destiny’s Queer History in ‘The Grey Ladies’
Writing - 10/1010/10
Storyline - 10/1010/10
Art - 10/1010/10
Color - 10/1010/10
Cover Art - 10/1010/10
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