Wayward Sisters: An Anthology of Monstrous Women
Allison O’Toole and M. Blankier (editors)
Most women already know how it feels to be made monstrous. If we can tell what most frightens a society from what form its monsters take and what they threaten, the very ideas governing what societies and people will be frightened of have stemmed from ideologies of gender in connection with race, age, sexuality, disability and the body. Folklore, myth and horror around the world provide bestiaries of monstrous women. Yet so, according to cultural imagination, does everyday life.
The mixture of terror and enticement behind many of the most enduring female monsters beckons from Alise Gluškova’s cover for Allison O’Toole and M. Blankier’s collection for TO Comix Press, Wayward Sisters: An Anthology of Monstrous Women, funded via Kickstarter in 2017. Half-submerged among pink lotus leaves and flowers, a woman with pointed ears and trailing fair hair is calling the onlooker forward, with bright green eyes gazing straight ahead. Her hand and the top half of her head, the image of conventional white fae femininity, are divided by the water’s surface from the grinning skeletal figure she casts underneath. The sight compels a closer look that reveals her piercing green eyes and the sharpness of her nails, and invites transgressive wonder: what does she want you to do, what does she want you to become, beneath the water?
O’Toole (who wrote for WWAC several times in 2016–17 and has been interviewed about the book), Blankier and the other 38 contributors to Wayward Sisters are the latest creators to join the rich feminist tradition of reimagining the figure of the monstrous woman—to which comics have frequently contributed, from the mutant titles to Monstress. The tales in this anthology, which coincidentally shares a title with the recently-announced female-led spinoff of demon-hunting family drama Supernatural, see the monster as marginalized and excluded, feared, mistreated and misunderstood. For every Zira, the wandering, clumsy orc of Katie Shanahan’s “Zira and the Little Fire” who learns to lower her defences and make friends with the baby fire-spirit she awakens on the road (with fast-paced, friendly art that still knows how to linger on the characters’ emotional lows and highs), there is a Xiao Yan, the human musician of Janice Liu’s “The Wife’s Shadow” who escapes her domineering mother-in-law by transforming into the bat-woman she encounters in a supernatural—yet strangely soothing—vision overnight. By placing women’s experiences of loneliness and isolation at the centre of the story, they also try to question whether outward appearance or inner character play more part in determining what we think monsters are.
The personal psychological sense of feeling monstrous emerge from this anthology especially strongly, as Faith Erin Hicks’s foreword suggests they should. Hicks’ reminiscences of when, as a young reader, she began to identify with the monster not the princess frame a short essay celebrating ‘the writers and artists who might be a little more sympathetic to monstrous creatures than the original fairy tales were.’
For Hicks, this moment of identification came in high school—the setting of many of her own comics about supernatural creatures—when her awkward teenage body stopped her from being able to, “look in the mirror and say with the confidence of the very young, ‘I am the protagonist. I am the princess in this story. I will survive and live happily ever after.’” If identification with Disney’s Belle and the beauty that made her the heroine of her story suddenly felt out of reach, then Marrow from Uncanny X-Men—one of a group of mutant Morlocks driven underground because their powers have made their bodies feared rather than beautiful, whose anger turns her uncontrollable bone spines into a weapon—fulfilled the wish that Hicks’s mirror had started to instill instead.
And yet this testimony of identifying with the monster surely poses a question to any project reimagining monsters/women today: what does the figure of the monster mean to those who have never been able to call themselves the protagonist and princess even with “the confidence of the very young”, because racism, queerphobia or cultural fears of disability have already made them believe in early childhood that their destiny will not be in the happy home, but outside where the monsters belong?
Wayward Sisters does offer its readers a wide range of ways to imagine what a “monstrous woman” might be, and what kinds of women are or can be monsters—or even, since monsters are identification points too, what kinds of women get to be. Many of its stories are about classic mythological, fairy tale, or Hollywood monsters: the majority come from Western traditions, with several more from East and South-East Asia and from South America, though none of the (North or South) American monsters seem to position themselves within indigenous mythologies. Consistently, its narrative device is sympathy: even the darker stories such as Aimee Lim and Sam Beck’s opener “Love and Fury,” where three demon sisters charged with punishing the wicked turn on each other after their 6,000 years of bickering boil over into violence in their Chinese apartment (through panels filled with blood, shadow and smoke), permit their monsters some sensuality and joy.
Sympathy itself, of course, is both an object and a force of politics, where the question of “Who counts as human?” comes down in the eyes of feminists like Judith Butler to “Who is allowed to be the object of sympathy?:” it is valid, and necessary, to read an anthology of reimaginings like this and ask who is being invited to feel sympathy for whom.
Throughout the book, there is much sympathy to feel. We sympathise with Isadora Lopez, the werewolf of O’Toole and Emmanuelle Chateauneuf’s “Tinseltown,” in her quest for revenge (told through a neo-noir palette of black, white and red, where monsters’ and abusers’ bodies both spill out of their frames) against the Hollywood producer who first whitewashed her niece Maria as “Mary Lewis,” then cast her aside her niece Maria (having first whitewashed her as ‘Mary Lewis’) after the aspiring film star secretly gave birth. We sympathise with the unnamed black girl in Rachel Simon and K. Guillory’s “Solid Shadows,” whose sadness and invisibility in a park full of children at play is deftly conveyed by how Guillory blurs out her body for four wordless pages until a girl drawing pictures on the sidewalk sees her, looks up, and hands her a piece of chalk. We sympathise with (and might well want to play a game set in the town of) the lonely and over-enthusiastic apprentice witch of Mandy James’s “The Purrrfect Solution,” who rains down thunder-fried frogs’ legs on the local butcher then saves herself from the superstitious shopkeepers by conjuring up a cloud of cats (who happily like nothing better than lounging around a witch’s house, and have an inexhaustible appetite for frog’s legs).
It does not take claws or scales to have experienced the reactions these monsters do. The haste with which Kelly, the bisexual purple T. rex of Allison Bannister, Ronnie Ritchie and Meaghan Carter’s “Date Night,” apologises for potentially misrepresenting herself on an online dating app is about as near as any of these stories come to coding a character as transfeminine, despite how Sandy Stone and Susan Stryker turned Donna Haraway’s thoughts on monsters into reclamatory transfeminist manifestos more than two decades ago (likewise, few characters are explicitly disabled in human terms). Cassandra Khaw turns her reputation for capturing the sensuousness of food and eating into plotting rather than language to provide the emotional turning point of “Bad Hair Day,” her collaboration with C. Ann Gordon. In this story, the reclusive Soo Ying starts to believe she might not have to listen to the overpowering inner voice telling her she is “worthless … a freak … a waste of meat and space” when the bashful co-worker whose date she’s cancelled comes to her apartment with a bag of teriyaki chicken bento. The voice of depression manifests for Soo Ying as a second mouth gaping out of her head like a futakuchi-onna’s, covered by her unruly black hair, but many readers will have had their heads tell them the same.
The range of approaches Wayward Sisters’s artists take to representing the monstrous woman’s body range from the horrific to the gentle. gillian blekkenhorst depicts their protagonist Genevieve’s psychological disintegration inside the creepy house she has reluctantly moved into with her lover Mira with panels and lettering that become as boundaryless as its characters’ human bodies (revealed to be replaceable hosts for other, horrifically formed things). One of the most original is also the most serene, Lorena Torres Loaiza, Sabaa Bismil and Nikki Powers’s “The Way Home.” Miss Barichara lives bundled-up in a warm Spanish-speaking harbour town, with her exposed skin emanating soft but dazzling light (rendered as a pastel yellow glow around her face and hands, the only uncovered parts of her body) as she hurries through the market. “Our beloved Miss Barichara” attracts fascination rather than hatred, even the admiration of visiting tourists after she walks the wrong way past a guide. But even affection calls attention to her difference, and she only feels comfortable taking off her thick cloak and letting her fat body shine inside her tower home, where her turret room with its wide seaward window turns out to be the lighthouse for the town. Indeed, read beside a story like “Tinseltown,” Torres Loiaza’s subtle grasp of the complimentary, not just pejorative, nature of exoticism could speak about the racialised fantasies of beauty projected on to women like Mary/Maria in the entertainment world.
The home, in fact, is almost as common a trope in Wayward Sisters as the body. The monster, as fought by Beowulf in the shape of Grendel and then Grendel’s mother, is the unassimilable force of destruction and otherness that menaces the hall and hearth. “From terrorizing small villages to bringing down the man,” declaims the presenter of Stephanie Cooke and Cara McGee’s monstrous beauty pageant, “these potential Miss Monsters have come here to win,” and possibly to slay: but when the village stands for the patriarchal hearth as an institution, as feminist reinventions of Grendel’s mother like Maria Dahvana Headley’s forthcoming The Mere Wife tell us, terrorizing small villages is already bringing down the man.
Almost half the stories begin inside a home, several more in gardens, and often they show us how the monsters themselves live their everyday lives—from Saffron Aurora’s Frankie, the hipster Igorina piecing work and study together in the gig economy, to Xia Gordon’s Eve, the succubus sex worker controlling her murderous instincts (even towards the client who telephones to ask ‘Are you the black one?’) by doing her work over the phone, or H. Pueyo and Dante L.’s exhausted, disillusioned factory worker who makes a deal with the devil to fulfill her dream of becoming a fortune-teller in exchange for her human head, becoming the crocodile-headed witch Cuca of Brazilian folklore and children’s literature (and, in 2017, an online meme). Emily, Michelle Gruppetta and Fleur Sciortino’s horned smoke-demon, travels through the steam of a thurible-shaped tea-kettle to be with her grandmother during her last night alive.
Other stories cross over with the gothic convention of the spooky house – most intertextually in the hands of M. Blankier and Helen Robinson, whose “Low Tide” blends H. P. Lovecraft, Jane Eyre and Rebecca in the story of a young Victorian governess called Clara, escaping as far as possible from London after “Foul notions concerning me had taken deep root in the heart of the town.” We might well infer these relate to sexuality, especially if we have ever been the subject of the same. A different kind of unchecked sexual desire, heavily implied to have been rape, accounts for the condition of the seriously ill girl whom Clara has been hired to mind: her father, the overbearing Mr. R—, is lord of the manor in a town wreathed in practically acidic mist, giving the faces of the manor’s staff a greenish, squamous cast that prepares us from the very first page for a tale of wronged women longing to return to the sea.
Even distance, it seems, has something to do with whether a monster is a monster. Perhaps the most artistically innovative story in the anthology might be Zoe Maeve’s ‘Leon’s Return’, which uses the animals and lettering of medieval European manuscripts to tell the story of Leon, a non-binary lion going back (with the gift of their leopard partner’s favourite nightie, to “look very metropolitan”) from the big city to their home aspen grove.
A different kind of displacement affects the sisters at the centre of Laura Neubert, Lea Shepherd and Nikki Powers’s “Either/Or,” adopted by a white celebrity filming in the Philippines. At the beginning, their adoptive mother is more interested in promoting her new fruitarian and pseudo-Filipino cookbook than indulging Gia and Tala’s fascination with Filipino monsters or tasting the cooking of their nurse Maria.
Overhearing this white saviour figure order the food taken away, a horse-headed tikbalang and “Grandpa Forest” conspire to turn her into a manananggal, who must subsist on a diet of unborn babies and blood. The girls use their knowledge of mythology to restore some of her humanity and reattach her legs by feeding her Maria’s igado, balut (duck embryo) and dinuguan (pork blood stew). The mother returns to LA and opens her ‘all-new, all-meat’ Filipino restaurant, with a happy resolution for the family of three (Maria, with her baby in a sling, appears to be the restaurant’s chef but is still in the kitchen outside the structural resolution point of the last panel). Still wearing the manananggal’s vampiric smile, she utters the reconciliatory statement that “Girls, monsters are like families … they work a lot of different ways.”
The real monster of this tale of cultural appropriation, we might think, is the white woman; but this is an anthology where the emotion most channeled towards the monstrous woman is sympathy. If instead the story reads as that of a white celebrity conquering her guilt about interracial adoption and cultural appropriation, even defending her right to do so against Filipino resistance, some readers may feel the manananggal itself has come close to the same fate as the idlis of Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s essay “A Short Description of Cultural Appropriation for Non-Believers,” which ‘Bob and Rita’ appropriate from a south Asian grandmother’s table for an Indian street-food chain.
Perhaps this is a lot of political weight to project on to a story about a monster that has been less well represented in genre fiction than it deserves, with all its potential for gendered body horror. Yet the very concept of an anthology like Wayward Sisters is inviting readers to think about what stories about gender people use stories about monsters to tell, and those stories about gender are or should be inseparable from stories about power, culture, and race. The collection does, at least, let readers find their own answer through its final story, Cassandra Grullon’s “Moonless Sea.” Grullon’s monsters are sirens that have started to be caught and sold at another Spanish-speaking town’s ailing fish market, and she focuses especially on the siren whom the master of the market is keeping in his bath, feeding her fresh pork to soften her skin.
Assuming one has read the stories sequentially, multiple harbours and multiple fish-creatures now start to resound. This siren would rather still be scaled (scarcely any of the Wayward Sisters simply want their otherness to disappear), and remembers trying to swim away from the harpoons with her younger sister Nadia, before the market-master captured her because she resembled his dead wife in siren form. “Am I such a monster?,” he asks when he enters the bathroom, “I saved you.” The sequential reader will not miss the resonances with the husband of “Low Tide,” who almost certainly raped his aquatic bride, before the panels turn red (the colour of the flashback panels and speech-bubbles which have retold her abuse), the siren snaps, and finally walks naked back towards the sea. Do sirens, one might ask by paraphrasing Lila Abu-Lughod’s famous essay on Muslim women’s human rights, really need saving? Whereas the sympathetic monster of “Either/Or” is the white woman who has done the saving, here the sympathetic monster she is the woman whom the man has selfishly saved.
The glimpses into the intimate lives of monsters that Wayward Sisters shows us are, from cauldron-sniffing cats to ominous gothic eaves, embedded in a politics of sympathy that also informs how the world outside the book has divided people’s bodies into “‘monster”’ and “‘human.”’. “‘Maybe,”’ says the foreword, “‘the monster knocking over the village watershed just needs a friend who understands her”’—but reimagining the monstrous woman means more than that. Maybe she needs, too, not to have had her monstrousness projected on to her by the fantasies of patriarchy and colonialism; maybe she needs to have been told with the emphasis on female agency and the “‘absence of cultural fetishization”’ that Kelly Kanayama praises in Monstress. Comics can reproduce the sympathies we absorb from the structures that surround us, but they can also reconfigure them: and, at its best, that is what Wayward Sisters strives to do.