Trading Outpost: Pan(demonium) et Circenses

Editor’s note: This installation of The Trades is comedically late, through no fault of your delightful host’s. Look for another Trades soon–and forgive a poor editor her trespasses.

It’s The Trading Outpost, an extension of The Trades, with your friend, me, FST. The Trades is me and Aaron doing a podcast where we talk about comics and our lives and sometimes other things, but only sometimes, not always. The podcast is here, and previous installments are here and here. So, let’s talk comics!

Have y’all ever wanted to read about the sexual awakening of some dude comic book makers via another comic book maker’s soft core illustrations? Me neither, but you can and I did. Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose name I think I mispronounce the entire podcast, and Milo Manara’s The Borgias is maybe less interesting for itself than for the pomp and gloss of its hardcover edition from Dark Horse.1 How many introductions do you need for a book that’s mainly about how orgies and murders are an inefficient system of government? At least two.2

The one I mostly objected to, and spent far more time thinking about than I spent thinking about the rest of the comic, is by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, who make very beautiful comics together and with other people. In this particular introduction, they write about how formative Manara’s drawings of women were for them as tweens, when a “family friend” decided it was a good idea to buy two horned up youths some Manara comics to look at. Moon and Ba at first explicitly reject the idea that they read Click! as an “introduction to the world of women” which, first of all, sounds like a theme park.3 However, the accolades they give Manara as an artist and as an observer of women, culminating in a weird rhapsody about meeting a hypothetical woman like a Manara drawing in real life, suggest they do consider Manara a valuable guide to forming an adult relationship with womanhood.

Their extremely risible paean to “Manara women” details how much time said women spend using their mouths expressively and how deep Manara’s understanding of naturalistic gesture must be to draw a bunch of women putting their lips on things.

“Manara’s subtleness is without parallel, and that becomes clear when we go back to the girl biting her own lip, a gesture that in real life goes by unnoticed or gets misinterpreted, let alone gets drawn in a story, but that in Manara’s skillful hands works in such a powerful way that you, the reader, begin to wonder, to daydream, and secretly to wish that one day you might come across a girl who will bite her lower lip right in front of you, and look you straight in the eyes, and then you’ll know you’re lost.”

Okay. Let’s break it down. The girl performs these actions in front of you–she is in a position of to-be-looked-at-ness. She communicates, but not as a speech act, and therefor she needs masculine decoding to be understood. Understanding her is not what she says, but what she might offer to do. You’ll be lost, however, a disavowal of control. Under this system of interpretation the female, inarticulate but telling, is the witch who ensorcels, as well as an animal with a primitive communication system who “you, the reader” presumed male, presumed cis-het, need to Jane Goodall your way into understanding.4  This claim of womankind’s bewitching power is basically that the female is a kind of primitive. She is powerful, but unlikely or unable to engage in the kind of communication men prize as representing the attainment of civilized values and educated skills. Rather than enunciating, women are suggestive.

The Borgias, Jodorowsky and Manara, Dark Horse Comics,
“Sensuous, juicy, never too big, never nonexistent” is a normal, not-sexist thing to say about girl-character’s lips. Not saying it about these dudes is clearly just an oversight.

This supposed problem of representing women’s communication places men in power. Describing lip-biting as “a gesture that in real life goes by unnoticed or gets misinterpreted” as well as saying Manara is a genius of making clear what it is that women feel5, grants the power to read and write women’s motivations to “skilled” men. Women’s feelings are not communicated by women saying them, but Manara drawing them. I probably agree with criticisms of Mulvey’s notion of cinematic gaze, which say it makes the medium too commanding and the spectator too passive. I think the desire to control women through sight, or through a masculine spectator writing a sexual narrative over their actions, is an extremely useful notion for reading this particular introduction and for understanding how women are drawn to be looked at in The Borgias. No similar attention is given by Moon and Ba to the expressive lips of the male characters, so it’s definitely a gender and sex thing.

Just a chill time with some skele-friends
Just a chill time with some skele-friends

Okay, but what about the actual comic? Aside from your concerning interest in claiming an absolute separation between the paratexts and the text, imaginary reader, you’re right! Let’s talk about the comic. It’s skillfully drawn and skillfully colored; it’s also goddamn ridiculous.

Jodorowsky’s own preface emphasizes the moral aspect of the story. comparing the Borgias to lotuses growing from the mud, because they love art and also murders. How, then as now, those in power have orgies like, all the time, and that’s bad, because the rest of us barely have any orgies at all. The 1% are having 99% of the orgies and doing 99% of the murders. The rich wallow in iniquity while the rest of us must settle for unemployment. The content of the comic is mostly tits and murders, like bread and circuses, but not, which I guess we learn a very valuable lesson from, e.g., if people around you are getting their tits out that’s fine, but if they get their tits out AND do murders you should invest in real estate somewhere else. At one point, someone has sex with a woman on an erupting volcano.

Now THAT'S what I call 'unparalleled subtlety'
Now THAT’S what I call “unparalleled subtlety”

 This book strikes me as pseudo-pious, in that it shows how sordid and vile these incestuous murder-popes are, but also it sure spends a lot of time lavishly detailing the actions of these incestuous murder-popes so that people can enjoy looking at incest and murders. If they hadn’t felt the need to proclaim how important, dualistic, and intelligent the work was, I wouldn’t have felt the need to complain about it on a podcast and now here, because it’s basically fine as far as tedious bacchanals in comics form go. The drawings are skillful, the delicate color washes are pleasant on the eye, and an occasionally amusing contrast to the, again, incestuous murder-popes. Leonardo DaVinci invents the helicopter in exchange for one day’s worth of gay sex, so, you know, it’s got something for everyone.6

Cover to hardback of Bendis and Maleev's Scarlet, featuring an unfortunate novelty bra, every woman's priority when leading a revolution.
Cover to hardback of Bendis and Maleev’s Scarlet, featuring an unfortunate novelty bra, every woman’s priority when leading a revolution.

After I finally get finished complaining about a comic I read, it’s time for me to complain about a comic Aaron read! He likes Scarlet, and I’m glad Aaron’s having a nice time, that’s what counts.7 As he summarizes, Scarlet is a lady in Portland who’s boyfriend gets murdered by the police, so she decides to fight the cops. “It’s a revenge story, and I love those, because someday, I would like some revenge,” says Aaron, probably getting us put on a list of some kind.

Predictably, I find the promotional images off-putting, because why is she taking her shirt off in the middle of fighting the cops. Some people will find that useful or empowering. Some people relate to expressing power through sexiness. We’ve established, I think, that this is overdone in comics, but I respect people who find this useful. I don’t. I’m always gonna be alienated by it. I’m never gonna find it relatable. Especially as written and drawn by men. I may, some day, in a different media landscape, find it possible to overlook it, to sort of accept it’s use-value to some folks without taking it personally. But not while “a bustier means empowered” still governs how we dress female “power” fantasies. Not while “seduce him” is still the distraction of choice for every female character. Do all women in comics-land have broken wrists so they can’t pull a fire alarm? Have SO MANY women pulled the old fire alarm trick that no man in a position of power trusts fire alarms? If so, why have men not realized seduction is always a trap? I think it’s important to ask the tough questions. Like, “Why’s she playing tic tac toe, but on her boobs,” and, “Why’s a white woman leading this hyperviolent quest for justice against violent policing when in real life women of color and especially black women are absolutely at the forefront of the movement to end police brutality as well as being disproportionately targeted for police violence.” Really makes you think.

Speaking of Bend it like Bendis, Aaron and I both wish more black people were hired to write black heroes, but new Iron Man seems cool. This is the least negative we have ever been about big two comics on an episode, and it’s only because I spent the preceding 30-ish minutes being negative about other comics.

Aaron tries to explain his mixed feelings about a horror comic he’s been reading, and I interrupt him approximately a billion times to say how good it sounds, because I am willing to suspend all critical judgement for the sake of people getting murdered or near-murdered. Aaron’s takeaway on Survivors’ Club,10 “It’s like look at all this blood, look at this dude getting born out of a cicada … It’s alright.” FST on the ’80s as the golden age of horror: “We just can’t murder as many teens in the 2010s. Lord knows we’ve tried!” Anyway that’s all for this time, come back next month for more of the same, but different!

(1) The Borgias, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Milo Manara, published by Dark Horse, as part of the Manara Library. Collected from issues originally published in French. I can’t do paginated citations this time, because I read it at the library and then someone checked it out between when I did the podcast and started writing this, which means I learned a very valuable lesson about hubris from this book, despite the text and also myself.

(2) Technically the second one is a preface.

(3) The World of Women! Get cat-called on the teacups! Get objectified on the tilt-a-whirl! Ride the Ferris wheel with a man who won’t stop telling you about his dad! The man who takes your photo on the log flume calls you his muses, posts it on Instagram, and congratulates himself for having the integrity of vision and keenness of mind to recognize what’s worthwhile about you. He gets more likes than any of your selfies. Later, when you don’t answer his texts right away, he tells everyone in line for the bumper cars that you aren’t even that pretty, anyway. Plus funnel cakes!

(4)  Sleeping with.

(5) From the introduction, “(Manara’s) genius is in showing us,  through those lines on the page, what his characters are feeling as they do whatever it is they’re doing” as opposed to all those other comics where women walk around with rigid masks of death, presumably because their lips aren’t juicy enough and/or they don’t bite them, the only known way of communicating with a woman.

(6) Note: I did not say “the whole family,” although I could have. You’re welcome.

(7) Brian Michael Bendis8 and Alex Maleev, published by Icon.

(8) More like Brian Michael Bend-I-Guess9

(9) This is not a reflection of any kind of WWAC sanctioned opinion of Mr. Bendis, nor even my own. I just liked the pun.

(10) Survivors’ Club, Lauren Beukes, David Halvorson and Ryan Kelly, published by Vertigo.

F. Stewart Taylor

F. Stewart Taylor

F. Stewart-Taylor is a comics thinker-abouter, who is 50% of The Trades podcast and 100% cat furniture.