Zenescope and Capsule Comfort
by Travis Hedge Coke
A comfort is not necessarily healthy, is not necessarily good in overindulgence or exclusive use. A comfort has only to comfort to be a comfort.
True Lies and Ever After have comparable runtimes, but I know which one feels much shorter and much brisker to me. This may be why it is difficult for me to reread Greg Rucka or Ed Brubaker’s Batman, who was in constant conflict with ethnic criminal empires, being very mysteriously ethnic, and so simple for me to pick back up a Zenescope scary fairytale in modern dress drag.
I have read at least eighty different Zenescope comics. I have never actively disliked one, to memory, but none stand out as something I love or deliberately seek back out. Zenescope is an impulse buy, an impulse read. It is not that the racial politics or the gender particulars are healthier or smarter, only that for those they do the job, they do the job. Like a pack of gum or gas station hotdog, most of us probably grab when the mood strikes.
Zenescope began its overlapping shared universe by crafting quick-read, easily-digestible comics based on familiar fairytales or classic genre stories and children’s prose. Cinderella. Little Red Riding Hood. Peter Pan. Many of their early comics retell those stories in a hyper-violent (yet un-intense), hyper-sexual (yet, un-sensorial) modern day setting. Many of them, to this day, eighteen years ago, center around rape threats or domestic abuse. Protagonists are frequently young women in over their heads or men who have done something brutal without thinking through to consequences and then, inevitably, facing those consequences in the poetic fashion set down by traditions of urban legends, instructional stories, and early 20th Century EC Comics.
In a Zenescope comic, a horde of zombies either leaves you post-traumatically incapacitated, dead, or relatively unharmed. Sex is rape ideation, sapphic nearness, maybe domesticity. The amount you bleed will not correlate to how permanent or severe an injury is.
The line between empowering strong character and Empowering Strong Character: A Porn Parody can be thin enough to be purely (puerilely?) theoretical.
Zenescope is, in its way, the inheritor of the EC tradition. Bloody, but not emotionally decimating. Sexy, but in a very abstracted, formalist way. Comics to make kids feel adult and make adults feel the twinge of genuine – which means curious and frightening and exciting – childhood.
Zenescope comics are more frequently credited to multiple writers or artists, plotters and designers, than most American comics, always a group production, a unit production. Zenescope, founded to make movies, and veering early to comic books, makes comics using people. Zenescope is an agreement, as well as a production company.
Does it come down to Samuel Arkoff’s ARKOFF Formula? A for Action. R for Revolution (controversial themes), K for Killing, O for snappy patter and awesome speeches? One F for playing out Fantasies commonly held (in private thoughts) by the audience and one F for Fornication (from the hardcore to safer titillations)?
As Zenescope moved towards more superhero and adventure hero stories, the sexualized, glam riffs on Snow White or Van Helsing took on the aesthetics of a kid’s math notebook’s doodled marginalia. As pseudosexual as psychosexual.
Made mostly by men, it has been received wisdom since 2005 that much of Zenescope’s fandom was non-male. Perceptual bias or verifiable, who is to say? I cannot. It always feels a bit of a promotions tactic, a little self-justifying for someone at a checkout register they do not want to be at. Reading it for the articles.
Like the moral causality of their comics, the zinger punishments at the end of a streak of poorly-considered violence or intimidation, it feels correct, feels natural or appropriate that Zenescope would look as they do, play the way they do, and attract women, enbies, and other genders, and that, probably, men looking for something we have stereotyped onto men, might be disappointed and not find what they were looking for.
“This is not just for men,” or proving an audience reaches beyond is rarely really about whether it appeals to women or markets to nonbinary people, but like, “not just for women,” or “not just for kids,” it is an acknowledgment of strongly vocal secondary audiences., secondary revenues who can tweet, go to conventions, and buy alternative streams of swag.
The ultimate aim of a Zenescope comic, as a mass-produced, mass-marketed group project, seems to be entertainment. As Andrew WK would say of most pop albums, these comics are “produced in the spirit of commerce.” If that seems more mechanistic there than in the illusory Marvel Bullpen of six guys hanging out in a small office while one woman is there smiling or the notion that comics are produced by singular auteurs and deeply connected pairs, that colorists are wives and… hopefully even laying this out here, you can see these, too, are mechanistic and marketing, often indulging sexist anticipations of their marketed audience, which also, sometimes, do reflect the genuine working relationships and dynamics of collaborators on a comic.
Like the comics’ stories, our expectations of audience or reception are painted by lessons we learned and likely learned very young. Truisms and consequences feel like bedrock foundation, when they are really the second story and we have never been to the ground floor.
It can be good, when we are young, and especially when we are not, to visit familiarities, especially if we do not dwell there. We do not need to be reassured or to be told mean people will always be stopped on a consistent basis, and on too consistent a basis, this is territory which reifies bigotries we often learned as children, or can slide us into adult toxicities.
It seems, to me, to help if these reassurances are framed as fairytales, as retellings; explicitly as stories.
Movies of dubious moral awareness, like any James Bond, most Rob Reiner, the recent entertaining but sociopolitically disastrous Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Contemporary Superman comics’ dives into the politics of chattel slavery or the unreflecting worship of military service. Our simplest, or most direct, our most fairytale-like concatenations might feel like pure expressions and carry with them a dose of toxicity. An overload of even the most cleanly moralistic Zenescope reworkings of a fairytale, with its twists which are not too twist, the ends almost immediately after the beginnings, can reaffirm too strongly anxieties and blames which are not healthy to have stoked so intensely.
We all get a little more nervous about the front door’s locks and pipes groaning in the night after a couple horror movies. A glut of romantic comedies can make us feel like throwing a little more caution to the wind.
Like Zenescope’s output, this kind of quick causal moralizing, the crime and punishment pipeline, have a freedom to move lateral from consequence and be emotive, to free our emotions and this works better without our having to agree for nearly three hours that, even though the United States (and France) are responsible for two nations having a bizarrely ground-troop war in the ocean, the States (and France) should face no consequences or blame. If someone had morning breath, the shits, and genuine regret after a scene in a romcom, it just stops being a Romantic Comedy and becomes a romantic comedy (or worse, a raunchy romantic comedy).
People right now still watch True Lies and do not see any ethical problems of portrayal from racial to gender. ¯\_(?)_/¯
That is, perhaps in self-fulfilling prophesy, why we need the short doses of Cinderella horror or the daughter of the Jabberwock stabbing up Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass royalty. And, the less there is aimed to an audience, to a niche and a moment, the more capsule it will seem, the more direct, the purer.
Zenescope and Capsule Comfort
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