A guest column by Colin Smith of Too Busy Thinking About My Comics
I can’t say that I’ve any grasp clear grasp of what “Shakara: Avenger” is about. We’re three episodes into the strip’s run by now, and to this reader new to “Shakara”, who’s bemused and somewhat alienated by the fact that each new chapter appears to be describing a different property, it all seems more trouble than it’s worth. Certainly, “Shakara” is yet another example of a 2000ad strip which has apparently been produced for an established hardcore of readers rather than with an eye upon a less knowledgeable and genre-dedicated audience.
Chapter three seems to star one “Eva Procopio”, a character described in this week’s prog as an “Anti-hierarchy terrorist”, whatever that might be; it certainly sounds as she’s a rebellious protagonist who’s very much in possession of a noble cause. She has a face which appears to be hideously mutilated, though it may well be that she’s an alien whose species have evolved to look like Donatella Versace immediately after a further bout of plastic surgery, an experience which has removed her nose but left some very broad stitches still in place. Or perhaps she’s been tortured, or perhaps her appearance is a deliberate and controlled lifestyle choice rather than an accidental botch-up. Who knows, if all they have is these three dense chapters to go by? Perhaps I missed the key information after I mislaid my will to read on. As I’ve tried to intimate, it’s a hard strip to be able to engage with, which means that it’s a hard strip to want to engage with.
But, though I can tell you little of her character, or purpose, I can report that she is built like a surgically-enhanced porn star, and that she wears a tight, cut off, stripy t-shirt which strongly accentuates her ferociously large and yet pertly upward-turning, breasts, while leaving her midriff and much of her thighs apparently quite naked .Her legs are wrapped in the same material as her breasts are, and these leggings rather suspiciously terminate just where a pair of suspenders hired along with a party nurse uniform would. And between the bottom of her breasts and the top of these leggings, where an earlier age might have imagined a need for modesty? Why, nothing except the very skimpiest of strips of material, super-string thin and yet insubstantial enough to make a thong appear to be an artifact from the age of Victorian overdressing.
The final chapter of “Slaine: Mercenary” could almost have been created as a classroom aid for a Media Studies lesson on the contents and priorities of boy’s comics. Out of a total of 12 pages at hand, 10 are given over to an extended and largely plotless brawl between a gang of sportsmad barbarians. Severed heads are kicked into the air, as they have been for what seems like months now, our hero transforms into a fearsome monster, and whatever logic had remained in the story collapses into convenience. It all passes without providing any good or even partially convincing reason why the reader should’ve paid for all this unreconstructed mayhem, or at least it does if the same reader should happen to be one who doesn’t find the sight of very big men hurting each other time after time after time to be particularly interesting in itself.
Yet there is a sombre if not particularly moving ending to the tale, with the reader being presented with a full page closing splash of poor lonesome Slaine staring into a snowstorm, having had his offer of a – shall we say? – relationship rejected by Raven, a Celtic maiden saved from decapitation by our exceedingly manly hero. Oh, that sad, lonely, wordless barbarian man carrying his very big axe. 10 pages of violence, 1 page of desperate self-pity: can you see what I mean about a Media Studies teaching aid?
And that rejection of Slaine by Raven, which is quite literally crushed into less than half of a single page, is the only substantial emotional moment that we’re provided with in this whole story. To the credit of Mr Mills, his script does have Nest turn down her uncouth saviour’s offer, which leaves her retaining a measure of dignity and autonomy where other tales might follow tradition and have her safely and admiringly tucked up under the hero’s arm. But it’s such a shame that such a potentially moving scene is over after just one row and four tiny panels of it having begun. Elsewhere in the chapter, where the obviously more important business of repetitious violence is concerned, there’s a maximum of 6 panels to be found on each page. In essence, scenes of gratuitous slaughter take up more than 80% of this chapter, and the conversation between Slaine and Raven about the rest of their lives takes up about 3% of panel-time.
It’s the perfect example of how relatively unimportant recognisable human emotions beyond bloodlust, greed and fear are in “Slaine”. And that’s why the strip is, for anyone largely uninterested in muscular hairy men constantly hitting each other, extremely tedious. It’s not because the text is largely empty of women that this is so, though it surely doesn’t help, but, rather, because the work itself is largely absent of the kind of emotional meaning that might snare a reader who wants something more than weeks and weeks of Murderball to read about. And I suspect that the first point, namely the absence of women, is rather closely related to the second, namely the absence of emotional meaning beyond machismo and manly despair. Because if the focus is on men being manly to men in a violent fashion, then the possibility for stories which evoke more thoughtful and moving responses than “ugh!” and “argh!” must surely recede from the consciousness of all involved. Perhaps remembering that women do after all make up a greater percentage of the human race than men might allow creators to recall that there are other possibilities for stories which might compliment all that violence and all the laughing about violence too.
Just because “Slaine” exists in the genre that it does doesn’t mean that it’s a strip that’s not capable of being more in part touching, and thought provoking, and, as a consequence, interesting and moving. And I can’t help but believe that placing Slaine into a world that contains more recognisable human beings of all and any genders might just make the strip into something that’s more than one big, seemingly endless, wearisome throwdown.
“Kingdom” is a strip which does co-star a strong and able female protagonist, one Clara Bow. She’s handy in a fight, which is a plus, and she’s fully dressed, which is another, though she’s ultimately reliant, it seems, upon her male and dogly companion, and given to fearful despair rather than stoicism when faced with death, which, for the only female protagonist in this week’s 2000ad not dressed as a porn star, is a shame. For if that same role were to have been given to a male character in “Slaine”, for example, the lack of emotional restraint and the desire for a cuddle at their end would have been a marker more of weakness than character, and so it is for Clara too.
But it ought to said that if we’re just taking a snapshot of some of the gender roles present in this month’s 2000ad, then “Kingdom” is a somewhat more progressive strip than most. And if it were surrounded by other features which recognised the fundamental issues of social justice more readily, and which as a consequence had more fully clothed women placed as protagonists in their narratives, then no one could blink an eye at Clara’s role in “Kingdom”. Instead, Clara could be an example of a human being with individual strengths and weakness rather than a role model. But since she’s alone in performing as a female heroic lead in the pages of 2000ad, the fact that she’s not as brave as her male companion when death seems to be calling stands against her character, and seems to say that woman, when the worst arrives, need reassurance and holding far more than men do.
And so, Clara Bow seems rather unremarkable and unimpressive as a female heroic lead. That’s a doubly unfortunate business, because she also appears to be quite unremarkable as an individual too. In three episodes, there’s been little sign of any recognisable personality attached to her actions beyond the broadest of responses to her companion and their mutual adventure. She’s not really a person, or even a two-dimensional comic-book character. She’s at best a type. And “Kingdom” as a whole reads as if it were the preliminary storyboards for an initial conference concerning a proposal for a computer game. For in common with so much in 2000ad these past few months, “Kingdom” doesn’t read as if it’s a story about people, but rather as if it’s a tale about fighting, and different levels of challenge, and enemies, and action. So far, it’s a quest game in two-dimensional form, and it’s hard to see why anyone would want to produce a strip which is so unconcerned with people while so apparently happy to place before the reader the most familiar of plots and the least interesting and moving of challenges.
And because “Kingdom” is so flat, and so unconcerned – so far – with anything other than the conventions of the genre it inhabits, it doesn’t really matter what gender its leads belong to. For the characters it gives us don’t convince either as people or as metaphors for particular human characteristics except in the very broadest of terms. We’re now 15 pages into the story, and we’re 3 chapters down, and if this were television, or the movies, or a novel, I suspect that someone with an editorial responsibility might have recommended giving the audience something to associate their emotions with beyond a succession of running-chasing-fighting-looking-around-running-chasing-fighting.
If 2000 ad truly wants to provide an alternative to what editor Matt Smith implied was the male-centric product of Mark Millar’s “Clint”, then it needs to do something more than present men and women as cut from fundamentally the same grey cloth while being put into service as one-dimensional game-pieces. In certain strips it does just that, such as in “The Chief Judge’s Speech” in the Christmas special, where the reader was given an adventure story, and political satire, and social comment, and a loathing for the powers-that-be, and a series of good long belly laughs too. In fact, so grounded in a recognisably human situation was “The Chief Judge’s Speech” that it almost didn’t matter that it was a story lacking even one substantial role for a single recognisably female character at all. It was a story that was strong on the business of what it is to inhabit a corrupt society at a time of debased celebration, and so it’s perfectly understandable that the specific issue of gender might not be a priority. After all, short stories using established characters can’t possibly attend to every social dilemma that might be considered important. The problem of a lack of meaning exists not when a strip has attended to one human, social problem rather than another, but when creators engage with no human problems at all except for those tenuously concerned with laser guns and monsters and their like.
And so, when matters of social justice and human interaction aren’t a priority, the old male-centric narratives seem to re-emerge unchallenged, because, in truth, they far too rarely have been challenged, and so they’ve never been truly put to bed.
What is “Kingdom” about beyond the most standard-issue of adventure yarns, and why should the reader care?
In “Necrophim”, as best as I can understand, for it’s another strip which has apparently been written without an excess of care for the reader who’s new to its world and its key players and events, there is but a single female character, a succubus, who uses her sexual powers and her utter ruthlessness in an attempt to attain her will. Beyond her scheming presence, “Necrophim” appears to stand quite empty of any other female characters at all. Still, in terms of the presence of significant speaking roles held by women, this does put “Necrophim” ahead of quite 50% of the stories in 2000ad’s 100 page Christmas special, but that’s the smallest of mercies.
To have but a single woman in “Necrophim”, and to associate her with the role of the evil sexual seductress come to power, and to then provide no-one else of her gender as a point of contrast even where the business of wickedness is concerned, is surely more than just a touch insensitive, and surely a mark of a lack of ambition where the whole matter of sex and gender is concerned.
Did no one notice there was but one woman in the whole of “Necrophim”? Did no-one care?