Swords of Sorrow: Dressing Dejah and Inventing Irene with Leah Moore
Leah Moore (writer), Francesco Manna (artist), Jay Ancleto (cover)
Dynamite Entertainment (July 2015)
(Note: This review contains some light spoilers and is based on an advance copy from Dynamite Entertainment.)
Welcome back to WWAC’s coverage of the Swords of Sorrow event! A few weeks ago, we (Wendy Browne and Amanda Vail) introduced you to Dejah Thoris and Irene Adler when we reviewed the first of their three-part story arc. The second installment of Swords of Sorrow: Dejah Thoris & Irene Adler finds Dejah dealing with London rain (and gawkers) and Irene sniffing out an adversary on Barsoom.
We’re not entirely certain of where the Swords of Sorrow stories are going. Thus far, we’ve seen little more than popular characters being tossed together to fight each other with very little reason. The end game is unclear—not because it’s a great big mystery to intrigue the reader, but because nothing seems to be moving forward beyond these little introductory skirmishes. What we are pleased with so far is writer Leah Moore’s development of Dejah and Irene into characters that go far beyond the moulds they have been slotted into for so long, without losing their heart and soul.
How will these two strong women handle being dropped onto an alien planet? Will they grow and change? Let’s talk about it with Leah!
In our last article, we touched on how we each met Dejah Thoris and Irene Adler. Now we get to find out how Leah came to meet them!
LEAH: I arrived late to the party with both characters, actually. I only read “A Scandal in Bohemia” when we were reading the great big annotated Holmes volumes while researching our first Holmes graphic novel for Dynamite. I loved the story of course, there is so much intrigue and playfulness and character in the very minimal glimpses we get of Irene. She is instantly the most interesting character in the Holmes world: a racy female who doesn’t play by the rules. The fact that Holmes is impressed is neither here nor there. Of course he’s impressed, she’s in a class of her own!
[pullquote][I] found [Dejah] to be a really interesting, principled character with much more to her than you might expect from pulp hero arm candy.[/pullquote]Dejah Thoris I knew of from the classic painted art that adorns the Barsoom books, but to my shame I hadn’t read any! I’d also seen the stories from Dynamite, but didn’t get the backstory on her. I did some catching up while I was plotting this series and found her to be a really interesting, principled character with much more to her than you might expect from pulp hero arm candy. The way she talks to John Carter is very fresh, she’s clearly not hanging on his every word, and at times you think she’s baffled by the weird little earthman.
AMANDA: In our article on the first installment of Swords of Sorrow: Dejah Thoris & Irene Adler, I said that, “Moore’s Irene is more fully developed than [Sir Arthur Conan] Doyle’s, and she’s finally—finally—given agency of her own.” A friend and I got into a social media debate about that, with the end result ultimately being that we’re going to have to agree to disagree. He made some very good points, though, one of which I’ll relay here: he feels that in Doyle’s “A Scandal In Bohemia,” the King shows only his own arrogance by assuming Irene wanted to stop his wedding and that her motives were actually more complex. I went back to the story and found that there is indeed a hint of this in Irene’s final letter to Holmes, in which she says, “As to the photography, your client may rest in peace. I love and am loved by a better man than he. The King may do what he will without hindrance from one whom he has cruelly wronged.” My friend’s right: this definitely suggests that there’s more to the story than the King lets on.
Ultimately, however, Doyle’s story is still about Holmes (as it should be, naturally!) and Irene remains an intriguing, but ultimately undeveloped character. Doyle drops in tantalizing details about how awesome she is—she has many talents, she’s bold enough to dress as a man, and she’s intelligent enough to catch Holmes at his game—but her motivations remain foggy, and as far as we know, they’re within the “lady’s realm” (love and revenge for love wronged seem to be her main motivations). I still maintain that Irene is appreciated mainly for the fact that she can best Holmes.
Irene is effectively placed on a pedestal as “the woman,” removed from all other women. This doesn’t add to her character. In fact, I feel that placing any person on a pedestal takes away from their humanity, and in this case, it hides everything else about Irene. Dr. Watson, Doyle’s narrator, doesn’t ever speak with her directly, and so the only time Irene’s own words make it into the story are a couple of overheard sentences and in that final letter I quoted above.
Thus, modern incarnations of Irene have written in additional depth and motivations, adding layers to the character that Doyle sketched out. In Swords of Sorrow, Moore has done the same. She has invented a new Irene.
[pullquote]What I wanted was to do the opposite of what the Sherlock TV series did with her, which made her strength and her beauty into just an excuse to have Benedict Cumberbatch being all confounded and nude and make viewers dash off for a shower[/pullquote]LEAH: What I wanted was to do the opposite of what the Sherlock TV series did with her, which made her strength and her beauty into just an excuse to have Benedict Cumberbatch being all confounded and nude and make viewers dash off for a shower. Irene Adler is not a love interest for Holmes just because he deems her worthy. Does she deem him worthy? Did anybody ask her before writing her into a corset and sultry eyeshadow and have her intent on getting into Holmes’s matching tweed underpants? There is a trap that writers fall into with great female characters which is to work out immediately who gets her in the end. Is it the jock? The preppy rich kid? Or the geek that nobody suspects is totally a stud? I’m sorry, but if I have to watch another beautiful clever character suddenly develop the hots for yet another bland creep, I might vomit. I want women characters who might actually not be dating right now. They might have jobs, or just a great book they are engrossed in. Is that too much to ask?
WENDY: In my research about Dejah Thoris for our last post, I realized that the current state of the Princess of Mars in comics is not what she was meant to be. Edgar Rice Burroughs presented us with a strikingly handsome woman adorned only in jewels to cover her lady bits, not simply because he wanted to write about breasts. In fact, beyond her first appearance, where he likewise points out that all the inhabitants of Mars are sparsely dressed, her physical features and her attire no longer feature prominently in the story. Current Dejah Thoris comics sexualize Dejah, opting for porn-worthy poses, but with issue #2 of Swords of Sorrow: Dejah Thoris & Irene Adler, I felt that the princess was, for the first time since her creation, truly sexy. Not just because Francesco Manna’s art avoids the gratuitous, spine-defying poses, but because Leah Moore writes her as a woman who is unashamed of who she is and where she comes from and expects respect and will grant it, no matter what one is wearing.
In issue #2, the princess confidently confronts the lewd comments of a man on the streets, calling out the spectators for condoning such disrespect with laughter and cowardice. Most notably, Moore doesn’t feel the need to reveal exactly what offensive comments were made (because we’ve heard them all by now, right?). She also allows Dejah to get dressed—not to “slut shame” her, but for simple, practical reasons: the climate in London is vastly different from that of Barsoom.
LEAH: Yes, I really wanted to have Dejah address this head on. She is almost nude, like a Brazilian carnival dancer in the east end of Victorian London, but she doesn’t feel ashamed to be that way, it’s not in her to be ashamed about it. She’s a princess, that’s her royal dress, end of story. There is something so wonderful in her taking ownership of her appearance and not feeling stranded or alone. People are just people, and if they are rude, call ’em out on it.
Since Leah got the chance to play a bit of dress up with Dejah Thoris in issue #2, we thought we’d all try our hand at designing some modern looks for Dejah’s next visit to London.
In issue #2 of Swords of Sorrow: Dejah Thoris & Irene Adler, the snappy dialogue and quick pace of the first issue continue seamlessly. Having switched places, Dejah and Irene have also switched problems. Irene offers to help the Barsoomians locate the mysterious assailant who’s been shooting at the city walls, and Dejah begins to track down the Barsoomian monster that’s killing people all over London. While Irene makes good use of her wits and her fists, both Dejah’s confidence and sword skills come in handy, particularly when she runs into London’s most famous detective. As with the first issue, the best part of SoS: Dejah & Irene is that both of these characters really shine. They’re strong, smart, and sharp as tacks, and it’s just plain fun to experience their adventures. Onward to the third and final issue of this arc!