Comics, Critique, Essays, Feminism, Gender, Opinion, Sexuality

Fumetti Nightmares: Is Ulula #2 Sadistic or Masochistic?

As a warning, this article is most certainly not safe for work. The comic discussed here includes explicit sex and violence, including a graphic portrayal of rape that some readers may find uncomfortable or upsetting.

This is my second article for Women Write About Comics on the Italian erotic-horror comic Ulula, which began in 1981, and I would like to make a quick note about the background of the series before I go on.

As I said in my previous Ulula article, the comic’s creators are uncredited. However, I am now happy to confirm that at least some of the series was illustrated by Giovanni Romanini, who has a few illustrations from Ulula in his online portfolio. I am unsure exactly how much of the comic he worked on during its run—his initials do not appear until issue 8—but I recognise panels from the first issue on his website. Judging by the overall stylistic consistency, it seems likely that Romanini also drew issue 2.

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Once again, the cover art does not beat around the bush. As with issue #1, the figure of the werewolf anti-heroine is front and centre, clearly eroticised but rather more hairy on the limbs than your typical female sex symbol. The main difference from last time is that she has lost the strange wolf-headed look, her appearance now consistent with the comic’s interior art. Unlike the first, this cover shows a second female character: a naked blonde woman who fits the stereotypical role of sexualised victim, seen on many a horror poster or paperback cover. In the background, an elderly man (established in the first issue as Ulula’s uncle) reclines on the bed, twirling his moustache as he looks on with voyeuristic approval.

The first issue of Ulula ended in the middle of an extended flashback to the protagonist’s origin story explaining how she went from the model Ulla to the werewolf Ulula (Italian for “howling”). The second issue’s story, entitled “Incesto,” picks up right where the first left off.

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Ulla’s uncle Wilfred is having sex with the beautiful young Countess Ilona. Wilfred himself is a rather curious piece of character design: in his first appearance he resembled a stereotyped elderly scientist—and yet, when he gets his lab-coat off, he turns out to be a veritable Chippendale from the neck down.

Wilfred and Ilona do not realise that they are being watched by Ulla who, for the first time in her life, is transforming into her werewolf alter-ego Ulula.

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Ulula gives Ilona a nasty, but non-fatal bite on the shoulder, sending her into a faint. Wilfred responds by whacking his transformed niece over the head with his cane, and succeeds in knocking her unconscious.

After hastily shooing away the partygoers downstairs and sending his manservant on holiday, Wilfred tends to Ilona’s wound. As for Ulla, he has something slightly different in store:

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Well, the story is called “Incesto.”

When Ilona comes round, Wilfred initially tries to convince her that the werewolf attack was just a nightmare, but she has none of it. Reluctantly, the scientist spills the beans and admits that he had turned Ulla into a lycanthrope by giving her an infusion of wolf blood. “I’m leaving,” remarks Ilona, “But before I go, I’m reporting her to the police!”

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Exactly what she plans to report to the police is unclear; her only tangible evidence is the wound on her shoulder, which would logically look more like an animal bite than anything inflicted by the pearly whites of a supermodel. Nevertheless, Wilfred and Ulla find Ilona’s threat credible enough to warrant desperate measures.

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Ulla watches with grim determination as her uncle blocks Ilona’s departing car by dropping the castle portcullis causing the countess to bash her head against the windscreen. Wilfred then takes the unconscious woman into his laboratory and announces his plan to “give Ilona an injection of strychnine and then bury her in the crypt.”

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Ilona comes round in time to hear this, and tries to escape. Ulla apprehends her and throws her into a wolf’s cage. “Here’s a nice bit of food, brother!” quips our anti-heroine.

“Ulla is hard-hearted, even when she’s not a werewolf,” thinks Wilfred to himself, and the reader will find it difficult to disagree. We have seen Ulla wracked with self-pity about the curse that haunts her (Sigh! Sigh!), but she shows not a shred of sympathy for Ilona.

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This scene contains a remarkable lapse in continuity. When Ilona is first taken into the laboratory, she is fully clothed; indeed, an earlier scene took pains to show her dressing herself from the lingerie upwards prior to her fateful car trip. And yet, by the time she regains consciousness, she is completely naked.

Presumably, she was undressed by Wilfred between panels. But while he is clearly a man of perverse sexual appetites, it is seems curious that he would take the time and effort to get his jollies at such a tense moment.

Ilona’s nudity can only be explained by way of genre convention. Ulula and other erotic-horror fumetti often portray sex and death as two sides of the coin, so there is a kind of thematic sense in how Ilona inexplicably becomes naked in time for her death scene.

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The depiction of the still-sexualised Ilona being torn apart is open to criticism, of course, but I am reluctant to label Ulula a specifically misogynistic comic. Let us not forget that the first issue showed Ulula tearing off and eating a hunky naked man’s penis in an identical mixture of sex and violence.

After committing this murder, Ulla retires to bed. While she sleeps, Wilfred sneaks out for another grope, only to accidentally wake her.

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Undeterred, he proceeds to rape her. She struggles against him, but when he holds her by the neck and threatens her with death, she gives up hope. The moment of penetration is accompanied by a truly chilling narrative caption that reads simply “…and Ulla loses her virginity.”

Depiction of rape in comics has been something of a hot-button issue for a while now, with Mark Millar and Alan Moore two of the creators whose names tend to come up in the debate. Both writers have defended the portrayals of sexual violence in their comics: Millar has said that rape is simply a way of showing how evil a character is, while Moore argues that—since murder is widely depicted in popular fiction—it makes sense to also depict rape, a more common crime.

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For me, the key factor when judging the rape in “Incesto” is the question of how the audience is expected to react. Was the scene included for the arousal of a presumed male reader, so that he can imagine himself as the rapist Wilfred?

I honestly do not think so.

Horror, by its nature, relies on a conflict of emotions from its audience. Yes, it titillates us with transgression. But at the same time, it pushes us to look away. It strives to make us uncomfortable through atmosphere or—at a more basic level—physical disgust, while simultaneously keeping us so captivated that we cannot look away.

At its most sophisticated, horror is a delicate balancing act that must both attract and repulse its audience. Even the cruder works in the field operate on the same basic principle, albeit in a less refined form. This is why I disagree with the argument that Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) glorify torture: the audience is meant to find the scenes of violence a trial to sit through, even as they are caught up in the narratives of the films. (I am rather more concerned about the likes of 24 which, while less graphic, deliberately place us on the sides of the torturers.)

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Ulula is scarcely an example of sophisticated horror, but we can see—if only in crude terms—the same basic combination of the pleasurable and the repugnant. We may find aesthetic appeal in the two fine figures on display, but at the same time, we are appalled by Wilfred’s actions. Uncomfortable, certainly, but this is to be expected from horror.

Enthusiastic concent...? Agnes Ayres and Rudolph Valentino in the 1921 film of The Sheik.

Enthusiastic consent…? Agnes Ayres and Rudolph Valentino in the 1921 film of The Sheik.

Another factor that should be taken into account is the question of audience demographics. In a comment on my previous Ulula article, reader Ciccio (who owns an entire blog devoted to the heroines of erotic fumetti) provided some insight into exactly who was reading these comics:

What was peculiar about Italian erotic fumetti (from the most beautiful to the most sordid) is that they were not aimed at your average heterosexual male … there were a lot of women reading those comics, most of all in the 70’s, when the sex was still softcore. It’s pretty obvious why: the sexual revolution was on and Lucifera, Jacula and Zora were strong, independent women enjoying their sexual freedom, a kind of character women were attracted to.

With this in mind, I think it is possible to read Ulula #2 as part of the “bodice-ripping” tradition. For generations, women reading such novels as E. M. Hull’s The Sheik (1919) and E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) have imagined themselves in the garters of female protagonists with abusive but irresistible male partners. For generations, too, feminist critics have held these narratives up to the light and been thoroughly unimpressed with what they see.

Whatever objections we may have to the rape scene in “Incesto,” we will have to acknowledge that—to a large extent—it is repackaging the kinds of illicit fantasies that have long been created by and for women.

That said, there is one moment in which I would argue that the comic has crossed a line.

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Towards the end of the scene, Ulla is given a thought balloon that reads “My body is beginning to feel pleasure, but I cannot let him have the satisfaction of knowing it.” Right afterwards, a narrative caption tells us that “the girl’s intentions are not in accordance with the exuberance of her sex” (presumably this refers to the act of sex, although the word used—“sesso”—can also denote gender). As Ulla reaches orgasm, she yells “Yessss … I’m coming! Again! Again!”

What are we supposed to infer from this? My own interpretation is that Ulla’s exclamations are meant to be read as coming from biological impulse and not as representing her intellectual or long-term emotional response to the rape.

“Quite simply, our bodies respond to sex,” says science writer Jenny Morber. “Orgasm during rape isn’t an example of an expression of pleasure. It’s an example of a physical response whether the mind’s on board or not, like breathing, sweating, or an adrenaline rush.” Morber goes on to compare this to tickling: “During that unpleasant experience, amid calls to stop, the one being tickled will continue laughing. They just can’t help it.”

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Morder goes on to discuss the confusion and shame felt by rape survivors who have had this experience. “Incesto,” however, shows no interest in exploring the impact of the rape upon Ulla’s psyche.

Because of this, it is quite easy to go away with the impression that Ulla had come to genuinely enjoy the rape. The utterly monstrous implication of this is that, if a woman resists a man’s sexual advances, he merely needs to knock her around until she sits back and goes along with the ride—she’ll like it really, deep down.

I doubt that the anonymous author of Ulula intended to convey this message. Nevertheless, it is a message that can be readily inferred. I do not share the point of view that rape should be verboten in popular fiction, but “Incesto” is a pretty clear demonstration of how things can go seriously wrong when such a touchy subject is depicted in the broad strokes of pulp.

Somewhat predictably, Ulla then transforms into Ulula and slaughters her uncle.

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In exploitation films, one tried-and-true sub-genre is the rape-revenge story. Classic examples of this cycle include Last House on the Left (in which rapists are brutally murdered by the parents of one of their victims) and I Spit on Your Grave (in which the victim herself hunts down and murders her rapists), both of which were made in the 1970s and would have been part of the general trash-horror scene when Ulula was published. “Incesto” follows the lead of I Spit on your Grave, with the poetic justice of a rapist being killed by his own victim.

Not, however, that the comic is entirely clear on whether or not Wilfred’s fate is meant to be read as just.

Narrating the story, Ulla tells states that “I realised that I had committed a horrendous crime.” It seems strange that Ulla, who just hours beforehand had knowingly and cold-bloodedly murdered an innocent person purely to save her own skin, feels any remorse for unintentionally killing a man who raped her. Once again, we have the subtext that raping a woman is no big deal.

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After Ulla feeds her uncle’s body to those ever-convenient wolves, the flashback ends and Ulla is exchanging merry banter with her manager Jo. “Thanks, Jo,” she says. “You’re a true friend! You deserve a prize … if you want!” Jo, gay, replies that “for me, that would be a punishment! You know my tastes!”

“Incesto” ends with Ulla collecting the inheritance money left by her dead uncle. It would appear that she is not too torn up about his death, after all: having wiped away her crocodile tears, she decides to go on holiday with Jo.

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I found Incesto a disquieting read, not for its uncomfortable subject matter (horror is, as I have argued, the ideal genre for uncomfortable subject matter), but from the implications of the narrative. While sexual violence towards both men and women is part and parcel of the Ulula series, this particular issue takes things a step too far by offering a story in which rape is normalised—if, perhaps, unintentionally on the parts of the creators.

Despite this, I feel that the comic’s gender politics are more complex than might first be assumed.

While the first issue cast Ulla as a hapless (if sexually liberated) victim of circumstances, “Incesto” gives her a little more agency—albeit only when she has to clean up the mistakes made by her alter ego. Her coldly pragmatic murder of Ilona marks her as something of a picaresque heroine, one who will use whatever tricks she must to get by—no matter who is harmed along the way.

In English-language discussions of horror fumetti, the Gothic movies of Hammer Film Productions are often brought up. But to me, a more interesting comparison point would be another British studio that made its name with popular melodramas: Gainsborough. In her 2006 Rough Guide to Chick Flicks, Samantha Cook sums up the appeal of Gainsborough’s films:

While critics tut-tutted at their visual excess and cheeky flamboyance, [Gainsborough movies] offered thrilling adventures that appealed hugely to deprived female audiences going through the major cultural, social and economic disruptions of World War II.

Cook goes on to analyse Gainsborough’s best-remembered film—The Wicked Lady (1945), in which scheming aristocrat Barbara Skelton escapes from the boredom of her married life by committing highway robberies:

You can’t help but root for the dynamic, beautiful Barbara—“I’ve got brains and looks and personality! I want to use them!”—above goody-goodies like Ralph, Caroline and Kit. And while she may get the comeuppance that the plot demands, she at least gets to have some wicked fun—and wear some truly wicked outfits—along the way.

Films like The Wicked Lady did for female audiences what the gangster movies of the same period did for male filmgoers: they offered wish-fulfilment fantasies of breaking the rules and living for the moment, while still showing the social order patched up and the miscreant punished before the end credits rolled

A similar ethos can be found in certain exploitation and horror films. The blood-drinking lesbian in The Vampire Lovers (1970) and patriarchy-hating nun in Flavia the Heretic (Flavia, la monaca musulmana, 1974) may be framed as dangerous transgressors by their narratives, but they are in many respects more sympathetic than the authority figures tasked with slaying them.

From a feminist point of view, Ulula raises an intriguing question: how much is Ulla the hypersexualised fuck-doll of male fantasy, and how much is she the liberated rule-breaker of female fantasy?

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