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Yes, Maybe, No: Three Comics

2011 May 31

So, here are three recent-ish comics, one good, one with potential but some issues, and one of them so eye-meltingly bad that quite possibly I am a worse person for having read it.

So, let’s start with the bad, because that’s where the fun is, right? Right.

Neonomicon – Alan Moore

Cover of issue 1 of Alan Moore's comic series Neonomicon. Published by Avatar Press

A four part mini-series that wrapped up just recently, Neonomicon was… well, it was, as much as we might wish it hadn’t been. A modern spin on Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos, Neonomicon actually looked like it had potential to start with. A good Mythos tale lures you in with mundane normality and then – bam! – unspeakable eldritch abomination and the creeping madness behind your eyes. In a similar way, Neonomicon lures you in with a clever enough idea and characters and then – bam! – racism and gang rape. We’ll get to that in a moment.

So, that acceptable start we mentioned. We’re given a pair of FBI agents investigating some strange goings on that very quickly become Mythos related. And hey, we think, the two lead characters are not square jawed white guys. We’ve got a female lead and a black male lead, nice to see some variety in character design for a change. Sure, some of the Lovecraft references are a bit heavy handed, but that’s okay.

And then the second issue happens. Our two agents have followed the lead to a Mythos sex shop in a quiet New England town. It’s not sure whether it wants to be creepy or played for laughs with some of the novelty items visible in the background. One thing leads to another, and they’re infiltrating a sex cult and… oh, now the guy has been shot, and the racial slurs are flowing freely. And now it’s gang rape time for the female agent. Thanks for that, Alan Moore.

Now, Moore did say (there’s a quote in this interview here) that when he was writing this he thought (paraphrased): “…let’s put all of the unpleasant racial stuff back in, let’s put sex back in.” And that could have been interesting, handled differently. It could have been a chance to tackle some of the issues with Lovecraft, to look at the fact that Lovecraft was a bit of a terrible racist and misogynist. But that isn’t what happens here. This isn’t a story that uses sex and racism to raise questions and make a point. It’s just a story full of non-consensual sex and racism. Or, as a friend put it: “If God were to look down upon this benighted planet in judgement, he’d probably think the place worthy of a second chance. Until he read Neonomicon. Then he’d remember why he commissioned the Book of Revelation in the first place.”

Carbon Grey – Hoan Nguyen

Cover of issue 1 of Hoan Nguyen's comic Carbon Grey. Published by Image Comics

Carbon Grey is our “has potential, but also issues”. Let’s look at the potential first.

Set in a slightly steampunky spin on First World War-era Europe, the story follows the Sisters Grey. Each generation, we’re told, see three sisters born to the Grey family, hereditary defenders of the Kaiser. Three sisters, one for strength, one for grace, one for wisdom. Except in this generation, where the youngest sister has a twin, a fourth Grey, a sister for revolution.

What does this get us? It gets us explosions, and action, and the four very deadly Sisters Grey kicking ass and changing the face of politics in Mitteleuropa. It gets us spies and assassins and clever dialogue. And did I mention the ass-kicking? In the opening sequence of the first issue the youngest Grey pulls off more awesome action stuff than can be found in an entire Die Hard marathon.

The issues, then? Well, mostly it revolves around one thing: the art (which for the most part is very, very pretty, as long as you don’t mind the manga influences). With one notable exception in the form of a background character with no lines, all the female characters have essentially the same body type. It’s that improbable superhero-woman build, all gravity defying breasts and waist lines that surely don’t leave enough room for internal organs. The Queen of Germany lounges around in a scrap of white fabric that’d make Emma Frost blush.

The intro arc has just wrapped up, so now’s a good time to get in on the main story of Carbon Grey, if you can look past the art problems.

And now, on to the good.

Scarlet – Brian Michael Bendis

Cover for issue 5 of Brian Michael Bendis' comic, Scarlet. Published by Icon.

Bendis is a lot better on his creator-owned work than he is when he’s writing superheroes for Marvel, and Scarlet is among the best of his creator-owned stuff. The first plot arc just finished, so now’s as good a time as any to get started here.

Scarlet was a regular hipster kid in Portland, just generally existing. Then things went wrong and she learnt a harsh lesson in how messed up the world is. Now she’s running a grass-roots revolution. That’s the basic gist of the series. Oh, and she wants your help and is telling the whole story via fourth-wall breaking narration. Between some excellent lines and a fantastic snapshot life sketch in the first issue, we get Scarlet as a nicely well-developed character, someone we can accept as real.

It’s an interesting look at what it takes to shake someone out of their comfortable middle-class white comfort zone, and what they do next. And with everything being told to us via Scarlet, who very definitely has an agenda, we get to see how bias colours perception. The police and politicians aren’t all corrupt and evil, but seen through Scarlet’s eyes they become significantly darker. These aren’t events as they are, they’re events as one person believes they are. And I’m a sucker for an unreliable narrator.

The art serves as a distinct counterpoint to Carbon Grey’s over-the-top women and frequently absurd costumes. Scarlet, and the people she interacts with, look like real people. They dress, move and talk like real people. This is perhaps not surprising, given that (long-time Bendis collaborator and fantastic artist) Alex Maleev does a hell of a lot of photo referencing, to the point where it’s almost a comic equivalent of a rotoscoped film like A Scanner Darkly. It’s definitely nice to see, though.

So there you go. Go read Scarlet, consider Carbon Grey, and bin any spare copies of Neonomicon you find, before Judgement Day rolls around.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Hazel permalink
    May 31, 2011

    I like the tags for this. Scarlet sounds great.

  2. Russell permalink
    May 31, 2011

    I’ve been meaning to pick up Scarlet for a while.

    I don’t think Alan Moore has done anything worthwhile for a number of years. He seems to do nothing these days but sit and moan about mainstream comics, the success of films (often of his own creator owned comics), and ask to have his name taken off things. Neonomicon only serves to prove that. I read an issue myself. I didn’t go back for more.

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    May 31, 2011

    While H P Lovecraft most certainly held racist views, I don’t believe that he was a misogynist. As far as his fiction goes, I can’t express the place of women better than Morgana LaVine (in Crypt of Cthulhu 8… by coincidence, I re-read this article recently and the magazine is conveniently to hand):

    “As for Lovecraft and the female gender role — it does not exist in HPL. Female characters are described in less detail and have a smaller role to play than the furniture. Their major role is to give birth to later characters. Asenath Waite of “The Thing on the Doorstep” turn out to be no exception, since this character is actually Ephraim Waite, possessing the body of his daughter.”

    The absence of female characters seems to preclude misogyny (as such) in Lovecraft’s fiction. I’ve read many of Lovecraft’s letters, and a proportion of his essays, and can’t recall his expressing any overtly sexist view, let alone misogyny. His letters to women betray no sign of his holding them in lower regard than his male correspondents. Nor do the reminiscences of his female friends and acquaintances raise any complaint against him in this regard. And he certainly encouraged a significant number of women in their literary endeavours. Regarding Lovecraft as a misogynist seems to me even more absurd than viewing him as a feminist.

    • Russell permalink
      June 1, 2011

      I heard that Lovecraft was essentially asexual; given the social conditions of the time he lived in, this may have led him to believe (ignorantly) that women simply weren’t worth writing about, since he himself had no interest in them. On the other hand, as you said, he did encourage female writers.

      The problem with Lovecraft is, and this is by no means a defence of him, that he very often descends into self-parody, sometimes for commercial reasons or even simply for his own amusement. It’s often very difficult to determine where he is actually expressing a view, and where he is actually parodying his own earlier work and holding it up to ridicule. Of course, being offensive ironically is probably worse than being offensive ignorantly, but he is a very difficult writer to analyse, in my opinion.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        June 1, 2011

        The evidence (I think) is that Lovecraft had a minimal sex-drive. I have wondered sometimes whether he was a deeply repressed gay man. (It is, for example, interesting that he appointed a young gay man [Robert Barlow] as his literary executor… I doubt whether Lovecraft was consciously aware that Barlow was gay, but…) Lovecraft was married for a while. Sonia, his wife, said that he was (I quote from memory) “a moderately adequate lover” — which struck me as damning with faint praise.

        The absence of women in Lovecraft’s writings may be because he felt that he didn’t understand women very well. For the opposite reason, there are not many men in my fiction (although more than the women in Lovecraft’s).

        The male gender role in Lovecraft’s fiction is, in itself, peculiar.

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          June 2, 2011

          Checking, I find that Sonia actually wrote:

          “As a married man, he was an adequately excellent lover, but refused to show his feelings in the presence of others.”
          — “The Arkham Collector” #4 p116; reprinted in “Lovecraft Remembered” p275.

          That’s a bit better than my mis-remembered version, but still strikes me as rather faint praise.

  4. Googam son of Goom permalink
    October 22, 2011

    Nullifying an entire gender from an active role in the world could certainly be seen as misogynistic. Whatever the case he clearly chose not to have women as active characters in his world. Given that he was terrified of sexuality and procreation I suppose it doesn’t matter what the label is that you attach to that. We all fear the other and for Lovecraft that was other races, cultures and sexuality.

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