Chastity Jack: Judging a Book By Its Variant Covers

Chastity #1

Daniel Maine (artist), Carlos M. Mangual (letterer), Bryan Valenza (colorist), Leah Williams (writer)
September 11, 2019

Chastity Jack is a character who could feel recognizable to anyone: she has creative dreams she can’t quite achieve, she’s frustrated by how slow the NYC subway moves, she doesn’t take attitude from anyone. But unlike most New Yorkers, she’s a half-vampire, half-human former gymnast, who has turned her unique position and athletic abilities into a talent for hunting vampires.

Cover to Chastity #1 featuring Chastity Jack licking her bloodied sword.
Chastity #1 cover by Catherine Nodet, from Dynamite Comics September 2019.

As a first issue, Chastity #1 does a great deal of the work it needs to in order to successfully launch a mini-series. The audience meets Chastity Jack, the titular hero. She discloses her half-vampire, half-human status (even if she doesn’t explain how she became half-vampire to readers new to the character), and gives a list of her resulting powers. A plot emerges, and Chastity’s characterization becomes defined. At the end of this issue, I as a new reader had no question as to who Chastity Jack is. Instead, my biggest lingering question was this: who is the intended audience of this book?

When speaking on media, one of the first, most essential questions to ask is: who is the intended audience? Just like any other type of media, a comic book is conceptualized and created with a target audience in mind, and that shapes the creative decisions made. So who is Chastity’s target audience? Who did Dynamite market this book to?

On Twitter, Dynamite’s release day tweet promoting the book seems to take a clear stance, praising Williams as a good fit to write “a bad girl like Chastity.” As an image, the tweet contains five of the covers available to purchase for this issue. Why is Chastity Jack, a woman using her power to fight predators, who only takes an attitude with people she thinks take an attitude with her first, and who is entrapped this issue by a human trafficking ring, a “bad girl?” Dynamite certainly didn’t advertise its recent Black Terror #1, dealing with similar vigilante violence, as a comic about a “bad boy.” The message Dynamite sends with this word choice, and with the intentional juxtaposition between “bad girl” and the connotations of the name “Chastity,” feels clear.

Now, bear with me for some background on comics marketing—we’ll get to the fun stuff in a minute. In comics, there are two primary forms of advertisement. First, the solicit, which is announced three months in advance of the release of an issue and gives a brief summation of what audiences can expect in that given issue, with the intention of encouraging customers to pre-order it. And secondly, the cover. The old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” doesn’t tend to hold true for comics. Covers are intended to catch eyes on the stand, to attract readers who may know nothing about the solicit, the characters, or the creative team, but are reeled in by the cover art and moved to purchase the issue.

Covers are a huge part of comic sales, not to mention the flawed institution of the variant cover—a conversation for a different article—which essentially functions to sell the comic as a collectible cover, and markets the variant cover as its own discrete product. Increasingly frequently, readers and collectors buy comics based on the cover alone, which means that the cover a comic is packaged in is deeply relevant to any conversation about the comic as a whole.

Comic covers are designed to attract an audience, and every cover is designed with a specific audience in mind. Comic publishers market to the audience the want, just as in any type of advertising. Chastity #1, with a whopping twenty-two variant covers, seems to have a clear target audience: men looking for a pulp comics thrill.

On the covers Chastity poses, contorts into the classic T&A stance that’s haunted comic art for years, and licks blood off a sword. Chastity, in her costume that’s more fishnet than fabric and just as much bare skin, is there to be looked at. Yes, the roster of artists who drew covers for this issue is not exclusively male, but that’s largely irrelevant when you consider that Dynamite’s editorial staff, the people who commission each cover, predominantly is. There is nothing inherently feminist about women being paid by men to participate in the objectification of women; this is not a radical act of reclamation. At the end of the day, it is still making a woman’s body an object for consumption.

Chastity presents a monstrous head impaled on her sword, while twisting into a T&A pose.
Cover to Chastity #1 by Kendrick Lim, from Dynamite Comics, September 2019.

At this point, this review probably reads more like a diatribe against comic covers than a straightforward review of Chastity #1. But why can’t it be both? So, let’s not judge this book only by its twenty-two covers. Let’s act like the interior of a comic exists independent of context, and look at the twenty-two pages in between the front and back covers. Instead of asking who this comic is marketed towards, let’s consider what audience the comic is written and drawn for? Who is the audience that returns for issue #2 going to be?

Artistically, this book has a lot going for it. The art is dynamic and lively, and there is clear artistic craftsmanship. As Chastity chases vampires through subway cars, every panel is alive with motion. High-contrast colors easily set Chastity apart from her surroundings, and allow her to pop on every panel. Chastity is expressive, not just through her character-defining dialogue, but also through her body language, facial expressions and self-presentation. Inside the comic, Chastity Jack is buoyant and action-oriented, always moving towards the next challenge with energy, until the issue hits the halfway mark and the scripted action slows to focus on Chastity in a room full of prospective actresses.

Chastity is an ostensibly feminist hero in the way her monologue is framed: she’s hunting vampires because they prey on NYU students. She wants to follow her dreams in a city that seems determined to thwart her. She kicks ass, kills vampires, and takes names. In her original appearances, before Dynamite gained her publishing rights, Chastity was a seventeen year old from Toledo, Ohio who became a vampire after running away from home fleeing her abusive father, and used the abilities gained from the trauma of her vampiric attack to hunt the predators who had once made her prey. In this new series from Dynamite, she is a character serving as a vehicle for a story about the evils of human trafficking, and in this issue she, herself, becomes a victim of human trafficking.

Clearly, there has been an attempt to use Chastity’s character to tell stories about systemic violence against women, and to criticize these systems is a feminist idea. This is a revenge story, about Chastity taking vengeance on the men who attempted to traffic her through an impressive amount of bloodshed. And there is something uniquely empowering about a feminist revenge story, but for a revenge story to actually be a feminist narrative, I think it needs to go beyond just having a woman exact violence on men who were first violent to her. It needs to tell a story that centers that woman as an actor, not an object to be looked at. Chastity presents Chastity Jack with a very clear mission: rescuing the women who had been taken along with her by killing every man in her way; regaining freedom via brutal revenge, in writing, I don’t think there’s any issue with that as a narrative. But then there is the costume.

In Dynamite’s recent Vampirella reboot, much to-do was made of her costume, with the essential, eventual argument made by writer Priest being that, “If you change the outfit, she’s no longer Vampirella.” While I, personally, don’t agree with that argument, it’s one that exists in the conversation around Dynamite’s heroines, and whether their costuming is objectifying or liberating. Regardless, that argument does not work with a character like Chastity, who is not defined by an iconic costume, and honestly does not exist within the cultural consciousness to a degree that casual fans would even have an idea of a classic costume for her. There is no reason that when redesigning Chastity Jack for this comic her new costume couldn’t have featured a pair of pants that without fishnet windows down each thigh, or a top a little less more practical than a black bralette with fishnet windows on the chest and back.

Chastity Jack shows off her costume in this variant cover by Tyler Kirkham.
Cover to Chastity #1 by Tyler Kirkham, from Dynamite Comics, September 2019.

Chastity is a pulp comics character, so, naturally, her design has classically been pulpy; however, there is a difference between a classically pulpy costume that is aware of the legacy of pulp comics and works to translate that legacy to a modern audience, and a comic which opens on a first panel close up of a woman’s fishnet adorned thigh window.

There is something deeply uncomfortable about a comic that deals with the subject of human trafficking being so willing to objectify its hero. Particularly, in a comic in which that hero herself is subjected to being trafficked. Just as the traffickers in this issue look at Chastity, and the other women entrapped with her, as commodities, as sexual objects for sale, so do the variant covers used to promote and sell this comic.

But, one might try and could argue, Chastity is a hard knock hero who is just as empowered by her choice to wear a sexy costume as much as she is by her tough-as-nails attitude; however, this rhetoric of sex positivity fails us entirely in discussions of comic book characters. Drawings don’t make sartorial choices; the people holding the pens do.

One of multiple versions of this cover by J. Scott Campbell, Chastity Jack poses in a frankly unnecessary position with sketches of other Dynamite characters.
Cover to Chastity #1 by J. Scott Campbell, from Dynamite Comics, September 2019.

Chastity Jack isn’t real, but that’s the point. This is a comic. None of this is real. Every outfit, every close up on a boob window, every fish-netted variant cover are each creative choices. Chastity can’t be any more empowered by her costume than any other fictional woman can—she simply isn’t real. What she wears is not her choice, any more than the decision to relaunch her character with a mini-series in 2019 was her choice. I’m not arguing that this comic is distasteful because a fictional character undergoes trauma, or because violence against women is discussed and shown. I simply think that this comic is the product of a series of intentional choices made by executives and creatives, which align to sell a comic that tells us that while treating a woman as an object via human trafficking is bad, it’s okay if we, as readers, think of the women in Chastity #1’s pages as objects—this comic, and each of its twenty-two variant covers, does too.

I think it’s important to talk about real world violence that impacts very real people in media like comics, but I believe that topics such as human trafficking must always be broached with sensitivity, empathy, and an eye to the impact of the story, rather than just the intent. As this mini-series continues, I plan to keep reading, and hope that the story I read reflects intentional research into the lived experiences of survivors of sex trafficking. A comic that wishes to tell a story about fighting human trafficking must come from a place of knowledge, otherwise it risks falling into the pitfalls of sensationalizing abuse, or turning a serious, often ignored, epidemic of systemic violence against women and girls, particularly women of color, into table dressing for just another comic about action-hero violence. There is no doubt that Chastity will acknowledge that human trafficking is nothing short of horrific, the first issue is already clear on that subject. But the topic requires sensitivity, empathy, and a refusal to sensationalize trauma. I look forward to seeing how the next four issues broach the subject. I just can’t say I’ll be collecting the variants.

Emma Snape

Emma Snape

Emma is an Ohio native who has worked in film production and education, and writes about comics on the side. She loves thinking about the role of visuals in narrative storytelling, both in film and comics, reading comics set in cities she's lived in, and telling people to read X-Force (1991).