“Honesty is such a lonely word.”
Billy Joel, Honesty
What we believe and what we know is so blurred that they are only distinct concepts when we want to prove something. Generated by the pain of ignorance or failing, we conflate knowledge and belief, simultaneously conflating freewill with an exceptionally high expectation – sometimes culturally, sometimes personally – of self-control. Christine Norrie’s Cheat has some amazing blurbs on the back, but, Jose Villarrubia’s, “Judge this book by its cover,” is the most apt. Cheat is not a comic about deceit, but a comic about what we know.
by Travis Hedge Coke
Comics are wonderfully suited to lies and misinterpretations, as the permanence of words and images on the page allows for more immediate contradiction than prose or visual alone, and for more time to recognize contradictions than the fleeting imagery or dialogue in a movie. Gene Ha speaks of a hypothetical Frankenstein where the telling of the tale is one thread, but the visual discontinuity, another. For all we have become accustomed to treating Victor Frankenstein as a doctor and scientist, he is a dropout with minimal formal higher education, and his creation? Received wisdom is that the monster is not the monster, poor abandoned child-thing, but for all the protestations of heroism, Victor’s son murders who? Children and maids. Maids borrowed from De Sade, which should hammer in how little Justine of Frankenstein ever deserved her fate.
Comics, too, can afford to show lie, misinterpretation, and truth with the same pen strokes, the same outlines or hatch in the same style. You can flag it with black and white or different styles and idiom, as cinema has developed to a near-requirement. Or, sublimate it into the words, alone. But, there is less need to.
What is a drawback is that, as so much of anglophone comics is continuing serials or continuing characters, memories of previous series, previous use of characters or title affect how we read uses. Adriana Melo and Cecil Castellucci’s Female Furies, set primarily on Apokalips and featuring the evil gods of that planet and their supposed-opposite number from New Genesis, is concerned largely with toxic masculinity and gaslighting culture as it spreads from men into internalized misogyny and big lies. The lies too big to disbelieve.
Female Furies is brutal. It is not a laugh comic. And, it does revisit scenes and eras from earlier comics by the characters’ creator, Jack Kirby. And, this has unsettled some readers/speculators, outside of the Gaters who are just hating on it pro forma. That it adds a level of sexual abuse to a Jack Kirby story that, despite good intentions, really did infantilize a particular character beyond her male counterparts, has truly sat wrong with some people.
But, I would remind, Kirby himself, used those Fourth World books that introduced these characters, to overturn old stories, to rejig old myths. And, he went from there to The Eternals and Devil Dinosaur where he did so even more, including turning the story of Eve and Adam into one where men, doing the telling and enforcing of the tell, erased, among other things, sexual violence, replacing rape with a narrative of loving submission.
I think this is why Mek failed to catch an audience the way Red did, despite sharing a writer, in Warren Ellis. With Steve Rolston on art, Mek is about personal knowledge, things you know but feel little need to share. It’s realizations are largely packed to the back of the three issues, while Red (drawn by Cully Hamner), places its big reveals in the earliest pages. We are not famed for our exceptional patience, comics-readers, nor even comics intellectuals.
Cheat, by placing that promise in its title, sets us up, between our two focus couples, for an affair. It takes two to cheat, may sound about right, but it is as flawed as Homer Simpson’s, “It takes two to lie, Marge. One to lie, and the other to listen.”
While this is our protagonist’s first time cheating, and it only happens the once, her partner in violation is a serial cheater, and his partner knows and is not pleased but is also not saying anything aloud until things fully explode and end. What is culpability? Is culpability physical action, social interaction, lack of fair warning, needing a “fair warning”?
In Felicia Day’s Tink, which features a variety of artists illustrating various personal stories an online role-player has told various people she plays with, the truth each character can accept is different from what another will believe. The stories Tink tells them are engineered for them, but the parts they latch onto reveal some of the lies they also tell themselves. It is painted weirdly harmless, but would a serial liar not?
There was a good ten to twenty years, there, where collective internet culture made a pretense of the freedom that being unsure of others’ true identities was freeing. Steven Shaviro’s beautiful Doom Patrols delves into this floatation more than once, if anyone wants a refresher of how excited folks were.
Some of you may recall there was a lot of, “Cybersex isn’t cheating,” around in those years, as well.
I find myself speculating that the displeasure some readers have at Female Furies bringing to light sexual abuse, gendered intimidation, systemic and cultural sexism and abuse, is that making scenes of it affects them, it emotionally hurts them in ways that cold statistics or just knowing, pushing it out to everyone knows territory does not hurt.
Mek, to thread back, is about an old, institution person, just as Red. Red concerns an old man motivated to action by a young woman. He is past retirement age. He is played, in the film adaptation, by Bruce Willis, who did genuinely seem to spend a few years highlighting that he is an older guy now. On the other hand, Mek is about a woman spurred to revisit her old haunts by the death of a man of her own generation, a man she left behind. She is old at about thirty. Women are old at thirty. Any anglophone culture you can name, this is how we are.
Bruce Willis, in the film, Sin City? He is playing an explicitly old man, who is hunting a child rapist who is hunting him, while a woman he thinks of as a child, because he met her as a child and she is still much younger than him, crushes on him, throws herself at him. This is the frisson and the moral morass of That Yellow Bastard. The film version plays with less distrust from the audience, because it is a film, because it is Bruce Willis, but we would have given Clint Eastwood the same leeway. Or, just, white men who chew their teeth.
So, how much of that is me, not true?
Return to Crime Alley, a short comic by Denny O’Neil, Steve Epting, and Elizabeth Breitweiser, did something amazing about a month ago in Detective Comics #1000. It criticized Batman, first panel to the last. It is impossible to tell whether the writer, artist, colorist are on Batman’s side or Dr Leslie Thompkins’, but she is given the first and last words and Batman, the character, does not offer much of an argument against. Not a verbal argument, at least. He does, despite her protestations, use violence to save her from being hurt by some muggers. Even, Batman’s words, are close to being a criticism or critique of himself, including shouting at a criminal, “You think you can hide behind that mask?”
One of the background textures, presumably laid down by the colorist, Breitweiser, evokes a thumbprint or a whirlpool. We know that thumbprints have information. We are taught as kids that everyone has their own set of prints, we can be identified by them, and of course, there is all manner of speculation as to what can be divined from the ridges of a finger or the lines of a palm. Whirlpools seem a steady prevailing motion, an almost-shape. It is a background that invites affect and speculation.
I cringe, because I am prepared to be disappointed if I look online or if I ask a comics discussion group about Return to Crime Alley. The same way, I do not want to engage too much, with a general comics audience about Female Furies, or even about Cheat, if I thought they would recognize Cheat. Cheat does not have enough superheroes. That is not a slight against superheroes or superhero comics, but what, in our anglophone communities, we call comics discussion boards or a general comics audience is, is the superhero audience, regardless of whether readership or sales numbers always make that a reasonable assumption.
You learn what to not talk about, or how and how far you can talk about certain comics, certain scenes or issues. Even terms like issues, tropes, representation or access have become warped in our subculture(s) and can set off upset, disdain, or pure shittiness. You can code-switch (and be attacked for it) or shut up (and risk being attacked for it), but even if you are entirely in earnest, you cannot ask. Which can turn your assumptions, themselves, septic and closer to obfuscation or excuse. Abuse begets abuse, lying encourages lying, and communication is always a two-way channel. Or, open to more senders and receivers than that. The moment you put something out there, and honestly expect something back, treat what will return with decent respect, you lose control of what can be sent your way.
The moral of a very old story is that you should shoot the messenger. What we believe and what we know is so blurred that they are only distinct concepts when we want to prove something. The anger that arises when a thing is named, the truths that will not stand up under scrutiny; internalizing these and their entrenchment in the unacknowledged bedrock, beneath but supporting the surface creates an opiate for socialization and social negotiation, but to confuse that opiate with a cure-all or panacea is to be drunk on snake oil enough that you forget there are snakes.
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