So, this blog post is motivated by my recent reading of Garth Ennis’s THE BOYS Vol. 1: The Name of the Game (graphic novel, compiling issues 1-6 of the comic book), and something crystallizing that writer Hal Duncan said on Twitter regarding his “subtextual beef with certain noir/horror misery porn, e.g. Sin City. Just chanced on: Degeneracy Theory.”
Yes, that was the tweet that crystallized a bunch of stuff in my head, not only about why I have been gnawing at what seems “wrong” with THE BOYS for days now, but about the general rising level of discontent I’ve been having with my media consumption these days, swept along in the firehose of both fandom enthusiasms and social justice rants that is social media. (Tumblr in particular, but Twitter, LJ, and other places, too.)
There’s a tension between two poles of the same magnet here: fandom evangelism at one end and social justice hooliganism at the other, and yes, I use both the words “evangelism” and “hooliganism” in their negative connotations. But I believe these two “polar opposites” really are on the SAME BALL OF WAX. People at the squeeing end hate it when the people at the ranting end harsh their squee, people at the ranting end hate it when the evangelists dismiss their concerns. You’ve seen it before. “I love this movie and it changed my life it’s that good!” “You deserve to die in a fire because the lead actor is a racist.” “OMG this book! I’m naming my children after these characters!” “You should be stabbed in the uterus because misogynist portrayals are the scourge of the universe.” Et cetera. The vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle of the ball of wax and not at either extreme.
You *could* label that all just a lot of bad behavior by people on the Internet, or use it to make a case against any form of extremism, but that’s not my point here. My point here is that this is the polarized environment in which fannish Netizens like myself create and consume media. So that’s the backdrop for this discussion. Is there space in the middle for actual critical discussion of stories, art, movies, books, etc…? Let’s face it: stories are told by people. People are not perfect saints of politically correct perfection. (And if there was a writer who was a perfect saint of politically correct perfection, I expect their books would be boring as shit.) So I think I had better accept there is always going to be problematic art in a problematic world. This essay is my attempt to wrestle with a piece of media I found problematic, and to attempt to apply some critical thinking to it rather than either pretending I did’t read it or that it’s simply not a problem, or telling the writer/fans of the work to die in a fire.
Ahem. Now that the throat clearing is over, I feel I had better establish my cred for this analysis. I’m a dyed-in-the-organic-wool liberal who is pro-choice, pro-gay, pro-sexual liberation, and pro-free speech. I’m a polyamorous, bisexual BDSM practitioner. I am an erotica writer by trade. Heck, I’m not even considered white most places in the world (Chinese-filipino/Irish/Welsh, why do you ask?) I’m about as “alternative” as you can get.
I am also a longtime comic book reader, going back into the 1970s when I bought single issues at the newsstand with my allowance. Once I got to college (1985) I started the weekly pilgrimage to the comic book specialty store. In 1992, when I started grad school in writing, not coincidentally when the bottom fell out of the specialty store market, I switched to buying graphic novels instead. In recent years my focus has shifted to web comics (and then buying the compilation graphic novels of those.)
In those early days of the mid-eighties I was there, every week, being part of the revolution that was taking place in comics. What had been essentially all superheroes all the time, produced by the Big Two (Marvel and DC), was being cracked open by independent artists and companies. “Alternative” was a word getting thrown around a lot then, not just for comics, but for music as well. “Alternative” to what? “Alternative” to the thing defined as “mainstream,” that’s all. Whatever “mainstream” rock and roll was, for example, “alternative” was anything but. The result was that when alternative music acts finally began outselling the mainstream ones so much that it could no longer be ignored by the corporate gatekeepers that we eventually, in the late nineties, reached the stage where alternative WAS mainstream!
But the music industry argument is for another blog (probably for Daron’s Guitar Chronicles…) on another day. Of course we also have the “alternative lifestyles”, where the mainstream is outwardly-appearing vanilla monogamous heterosexual, and everything that isn’t, is labeled “alternative.” Of course the truth is that many couples are not as vanilla, nor monogamous, nor strictly heterosexual as they appear, but the fact that they maintain that appearance is what reinforces the mainstream! So you see, “alternative” comics in the mid-eighties were very exciting for a young 19-year-old like myself, knowing that I was likely headed for living an “alternative lifestyle” (queer, poly, kinky…). No, it’s not a coincidence that the word “alternative” keeps cropping up.
Recall that in 1985, when I started on my weekly comic-book buying habit:
– Mainstream science fiction had “recovered” from its brief foray into (“new wave”) sexuality in the seventies (viz: Samuel R. Delany) and was staunchly “clean.” Gay characters? So few and far between as to be easily labeled the exception (the “alternative”). Sex on the page? None. Oh, except maybe in the case of rape. Of course. More on that later.
– Comic books were still self-censored by the Comics Code Authority. Imagine if the people who give movies G, PG, R, and NC-17 ratings also did comic books, except they only allowed G and PG comics to be published. Anything that would be at the “R” level wasn’t even allowed to be published.
– HIV had just been identified, and a public health crisis was happening. Yet many television programs including newscasts refused to use the word “condom” on the air. Many of these a few years earlier wouldn’t have even allowed the word “gay” to be uttered. Now they uttered it in the context of AIDS and the “gay plague.” Not exactly an improvement, but just one more thing cracking open the lid that the mainstream clamped down on top of the “alternative.”
Into this environment came comics like Chester Brown’s YUMMY FUR, in which a sort-of joke cartoon panel (“The Man who Couldn’t Stop Shitting”) eventually turns into an epic in which his ass is the gateway from another universe and the only way to stop it would be to plug him up… On top of that, somehow Ronald Reagan’s talking head ends up on the end of another guy’s penis… Cue massive anal sex anxiety/analogy because no sane man would allow something up his bum even if it would save the universe, right?) Alan Moore’s Watchmen came in 1986, and not only had “mature themes” in it, its actual subject matter was the dark underbelly of superheroism! Watchmen not only broke all the mainstream rules of comic books artistically (closed rather than open story line, issues with sequential art set up as a palindrome [!], etc) it was deconstructing the superhero mythos. Watchmen demanded that you question the very bedrock of utopian escapist fantasy that the comic book industry in the US was built on. More on that in a bit.
HELLBLAZER, which spun off from Alan Moore’s run as a writer on Swamp Thing, was another of the first “alternative” comics to come from a mainstream publisher. DC Comics. You knew it was “alternative” because it said so RIGHT ON THE LABEL: “Suggested for Mature Readers.” That was the equivalent of a “R” rating on a movie. Hellblazer launched in 1988. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman came shortly after that (January 1989). A ton of these “alternative, but from the mainstream corporations” titles were written by British or U.K.-based writers. Hellblazer’s initial writer was Jamie Delano. I think it was the equivalent of how so many of the “alternative” music acts that led the new wave in music were from the U.K. The Police and U2 on the vanguard of those with massive commercial success in the U.S. (Is it a coincidence that John Constantine, the protagonist of Hellblazer, is supposed to be Sting? Look at the Swamp Thing panel where he first appears and it is essentially lifted right from a Police album cover image. Don’t believe me? See it here: http://scans-daily.dreamwidth.org/1442945.html. Or Google “John Constantine is Sting” and look at the Images results.)
Anyway. Fast forward to the next wave of Brit-alternative comic book writers. After Moore, Gaiman, Delano, and Grant Morrison came others. In particular the two who leap to mind for me are Garth Ennis (N. Irish) and Warren Ellis. Ellis has done a ton of stuff but I still feel his masterpiece is Transmetropolitan (1997), about a violent foul-mouthed journalist pitted against a neatly groomed politician (The Smiler, whom Mitt Romney bore an uncanny resemblance to…). Spider Jerusalem (the journalist) is the distillation of an “alternative” antihero. Covered in tattoos, he’s basically if you crossed Johnny Rotten with Hunter S. Thompson, while The Smiler of course is the mainstream, the suit-and-tie “face.” Set in a futuristic world that is so corrupt that there is a cannibalistic fast food chain (Long Pig) and pornographic sex muppets. (Trust me, it was before YouTube, and the idea of sex muppets was radical at the time. YouTube wasn’t created until 2005.)
Not incidentally, the artist on Transmetropolitan was Darick Robertson. Along with the import of U.K. writing talent came a slew of artists, too. I can speak much less knowledgeably about art and the artist’s role in the comic book creation/collaboration process. Be aware that it’s there.
And this brings me, at long last, to the collaboration between Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson on a series called THE BOYS. Ennis is the writer of Preacher, a series I highly enjoyed, and which is, not surprisingly, another title packed with satirical hijinks, hyperviolence, and social commentary, and somewhat defies easy description, though I’ll try: Preacher Jesse Custer is possessed by a supernatural force and goes on a quest to literally find God and bring him to account, accompanied across the USA by his (ex-)girlfriend Tulip and a “hard-drinking Irish vampire named Cassidy.” (That’s how he’s described on the back of the book.) Let’s not forget international Vatican conspiracy to hide the truth, a rock star named Arseface… you get the idea. “Alternative” as hell and quite a romp.
I picked up THE BOYS curious to see what Ennis was up to next. I like comic books. I even like comic books with hyperviolence and protagonists with questionable moral stances. And THE BOYS seemed yet another postmodern superhero deconstruction, along the lines of Watchmen. But when I finished the graphic novel that collects the first 6 issues, I was left with a nagging sense of dislike. That’s putting it mildly. In my exchange with Hal on Twitter I said that THE BOYS felt to me like “a flat out multi-course meal of misogyny with a side of homophobia.”
So why am I still thinking about it instead of chucking it on the slag heap? I felt I needed to untangle whether it was that the problematic things in the work were too damn problematic OR whether by calling “misogyny!” what I was actually doing was succumbing to the peer pressure of all the social justice ranting. I get it. I’m a crusader and an activist, but I dislike mob justice for many reasons, not the least of which because that’s what a lynch mob is. Ahem. And I don’t like peer pressure when applied blindly and without critical self-examination. I might decide to go along with everyone eventually, but in this case I wanted to give Ennis at least a little shred of benefit of the doubt and think deeper about whether what seems on the surface like rampant, genre-commonplace misogyny and homophobia is actually a deeper commentary. After all, maybe I’m missing something.
Then this morning Hal’s tweet, and something clicked.
Spoilers here to illustrate why the misogyny feels so relentless in this book. Serious spoilers. Let’s see. One of two main characters is an everyman named Hughie whom we first meet in an idyllic “I love you” moment with his girlfriend. Two seconds later she’s dead, killed by the actions of a superhero who punched a supervillian at supersonic speeds. Girlfriend is collateral damage, crushed as if by a freight train. (Did it have to be girlfriend? Could it have been brother?) Our other main character, Butcher, is some kind of shadow operative who used to run a secret team for the government to keep the heroes in check. When we meet him, he’s meeting the female head of the C.I.A. The only reason this character is female seems to be so she and Butcher can have a hate-sex relationship, where every time he sees her he fucks her doggy style while they spout insults at each other: it’s implied this is the only way she can get off. (Could the CIA director have been male with the same hangup? Or would that be bad because it would make Butcher look gay/bi?) Plot device: Butcher’s getting the band back together and our everyman is of course recruited to join up. There’s one female member of the team. She is referred to only as The Female, as in The Female of the Species. She’s a psychotic killer who never speaks, and whom they aim at enemies whose heads she literally rips from their bodies berserker-fashion.
I don’t know if I really even have to try to explain why it might be seen as problematic that the only female in the group has no name and doesn’t speak… HOWEVER, what if it’s actually a conscious commentary on the fact that so many superhero groups have a single female member (hello Pink Power Ranger, Wonder Woman, etc…) whose only function is to give the artist a chance to draw boobs? It’s possible. The Female, as drawn in The Boys (holy crow, is the title even meant to be exclusionary or a commentary on how exclusionary the genre is??) is covered head to toe, wearing a black trench coat, with even her face hidden by her hair. Hmm. So I think she probably is supposed to be a comment on the way female characters are usually portrayed. But…
Contrast her with another female character we meet, a hero who has been called up to the big leagues from her midwestern, American Christian hero group to THE SEVEN (think The Justice League, the ruling, top-tier hero group) to replace a missing member. In the first panel where we see her, the leader hero “Homelander” (think Superman, but blond), is giving her a tour of their Hall of Justice. In that very first panel, I thought, oh, how predictable: now he’s going to rape her. Ennis! What are you doing? Watchmen already did this, and did it better! Sadly, I was right. It’s so telegraphed as she goes on and on telling him, all gushy and starry-eyed, how her hero boyfriend back home and she have decided “to wait.” So she’s a Christian virgin, too! When he finally drops spandex trou and tells her to suck him (maybe preserving her virginity) she recoils in horror, of course. She thinks he’s being mind-controlled by some evil villain. Then some other heroes show up, she think she is saved, but no, they’re there to join in the dick-sucking party. Cut to her puking in the restroom later, where she meets the other female hero, who we learn is a jaded bitch who drinks too much. Later, we see our poor heroine being introduced as a new member of the group and they’ve also redone her superhero outfit to be super-revealing and slutty looking to boot. Okay, I get it, that’s got to be a commentary on the ridiculous slutty costumes superheroines are always given in the genre, right? I don’t know. It felt a little like, welp, someone’s look has to get sexed up. Let’s have a visual representation of how this character is being exploited! In other words… let’s exploit her!
Throw in scenes of a punky “alternative” superhero group having wild sex in a specialty brothel where the whores have to snort a special drug in order to avoid the “women of Kleenex problem.” Oh yeah, the reason Butcher has a vendetta against superheroes? His wife got raped by one. And then the superhuman fetus killed her by chewing its way out.
That’s a pretty big buffet of misogyny and I haven’t even started in on the side dish of homophobia. It’s basically more of the same, in which I strongly felt that sex and sexuality was used in the plot as a big heaping dash of “edgy! alternative! for mature readers!” rather than as a mature exploration of the subject. Or even as a commentary on the lack of mature exploration of the subject elsewhere in the genre.
That’s the thing. I know Ennis is smart. I know he writes multilayered works. But even though I was exhausted by the relentlessness of the misogyny I was hoping to find some subtext to explain to me what was going on with it.
And that’s part of what clicked for me about Hal’s tweet about his “subtextual beef with certain noir/horror misery porn, e.g. Sin City. Just chanced on: Degeneracy Theory.”
“Misery porn,” he called it. Hm. Sounds right. I wrote back about The Boys and he added, “Sorta prudish prurience in squalor?” Yep, that pretty much describes what I got out of The Boys. I then Googled “Degeneracy Theory.” Wikipedia came up:
“As an early illustration, a minority of the French Enlightenment philosophes assumed that the human species might be overtaken by a better adapted species. Degeneration theory presented a pessimistic outlook for the future of western civilization…”
Well, that is certainly The Boys in a nutshell! Humans fear that the superhumans are going to take over, so the human governments indulge them so they can remain in power themselves. Meanwhile, pessimistic outlook for western civilization is pretty much the thread that runs through ALL the “alternative” post-Watchmen comics. Mainstream superheroes are on the utopian end, so the alternative is dystopia. Hello, Spider Jerusalem, et al.
Okay, so, imagine that Garth Ennis has crafted The Boys as a huge artistic commentary on misogyny in the “mature” comics genre. The problem is that even if it is meant to be a commentary, it still exists as an example of the thing itself. Ultimately it comes off as something like the Victorian double-meaning books in reverse, like the pocket booklet you could get that was a listing of all the brothels in New York City that one was supposedly carrying as a way to know what places to AVOID. Riiiiight. And degeneracy theory is a very Victorian concept, too, and the justification for why people need to be saved from themselves. Hal again: “I suspect [The Boys] inherits Victorian morals via the lurid kicks of pulp.” Aha, yes.
Recall that I am an erotica writer for a living. I am affected directly by the fact that there is a kind of prudishness inherent in prurience. This is what I’ve been fighting against my whole life. One of the main reasons why I started writing erotic science fiction back in 1991….well, to be fair, I started WRITING it back when I was a teenager… I have scenes in notebooks going all the way back to junior high school circa 1980… Okay, start over, the reason I started PUBLISHING erotic science fiction in 1991 and founded Circlet Press in 1992 was because I wanted sex scenes in sf/f to EXIST. In particular I wanted sex scenes that were NOT rape scenes to exist.
SPOILERS AHEAD (but you’ve all read it already, haven’t you? It’s been roaming wild on the Internet since 1992, and has been reprinted dozens of times, and was in three books of my own…! If you haven’t read it, I’m sure you can track down an archive of it somewhere so you won’t have to pay for the ebook if all you want is to see what I’m talking about…) … however, Telepaths also has a flat-out rape scene in it. No one has ever called me out on it. No one has ever pointed a finger at me and said I was anti-feminist or a bad BDSM activist or what have you because I included a non-consensual scene in it. I think the reason why is because the whole point of the story that people easily get is that it illustrates the huge difference between the consensual and non-consensual. Also the rapist gets his comeuppance so people (correctly) felt the strong moral message I was sending, that rape is wrong and that even if a pretty “slave girl” is paraded in front of you at a sex party, that doesn’t give you the right to touch her without HER permission.
Yes, social media is a place where the anti-rape messages are a refrain you hear over and over again. (Rape is caused by rapists, not by girls drinking, wearing short skirts, or ANYTHING ELSE. Etc.) Should I be amazed that the basic message of my BDSM story from 1991 is being shouted from the rooftops, or saddened that two decades later we still have to shout it? Steubenville, San Diego’s disgraced mayor, etc etc? That’s part of the social media soup we’re soaking in, too.
The thing people don’t talk about very much is whether the rape scene in Telepaths was just as arousing for the readers as the consensual scenes. In fact, they don’t talk about it EVER. I will tell you that one of the underlying messages of the story, for me, was that rape fantasies are okay. But I don’t think most people gave that much thought to the fact that I, as a writer, was just as turned on writing the rape scene as I was writing the consensual scenes. (Don’t tell me you’re shocked to learn erotica writers are turned on by writing. Seriously.) I felt that in order to write and publish an arousing rape scene, though, I had to counterbalance it with a very strong pro-consensuality message.
I know. Not everyone these days feels that need. Some, like 50 Shades of Grey, put their BDSM in a wrapper that says it’s okay to be aroused by the scenes because it’s NOT normal, and the love of a good woman will fix that damaged-by-abuse-himself Christian Grey right up! Such that by the end of the 50 Shades series, they’re married and he’s thrown away the key to the Red Room of Pain. Sigh. I probably don’t have to tell you what a damaging and “mainstream” message that is, in a book that is otherwise dressed up and marketed as “alternative.” (This was why I wrote and published Slow Surrender with a major press, because if someone’s going to cash in on the post-50 “what to read next” wave, it may as well be a BDSM activist–me–who doesn’t portray BDSM as something only “sickos” do. For fuck’s sake.)
But this goes way beyond 50 Shades. The flap last week was that U.K. retailer W.H. Smith shut down its entire ebook site in order to purge certain classes of pornographic works. In particular they were going after (supposedly) father-daughter rape porn that was being tagged (supposedly nefariously by unscrupulous publishers) as “children’s books.” I don’t know if this was some kind of algorithm glitch that they decided to blame on the “filthy pornographers” when it was actually something technical on their end, or if that was just a handy, barely-believable excuse to have a new chorus of “But we must protect the children!” I do know there is a hell of a lot of very depraved stuff being published out there AND that there’s an audience for it. Do I like that the entire erotica industry is suddenly being hurt by the resulting flip-out about the existence of father-daughter rape porn? (Kobo yanked thousands of titles, Amazon has been redflagging, etc…) No. I believe fantasies are fantasies and free speech is an actual right.
(And no, I do not believe what Andrea Dworkin said when she pointed at pornography as the CAUSE of all social ills, including misogyny and actual rape. Dworkin has, thankfully, been largely discredited these days as a brilliant thinker who just really really hated sex, and lived at a time when there was zero support for the choices she would have had to make to be a healthy, happy human being. When she formed alliances with the pro-life movement, her “anti-porn, pro-woman” stance was pretty well exposed as a merely “anti-porn” and not pro-anything, I feel.)
Anyway, back to Garth Ennis. Do I believe he has the right to portray all the rapes and crazywomen and CIA directors who like to take it up the ass that he wants? Yes. He absolutely has that right. Do I believe that writers can portray rape in a way that’s arousing and titillating to the reader and STILL send a strong anti-rape message? Yes. I’ve done it.
The question is, do I believe that’s what Ennis is doing in The Boys? Do I believe he’s laying on the misogyny so thick, so heavy-handedly, that is must be part of some kind of ultimate anti-misogynist message?
Unfortunately, no. What I believe is that I want to believe that. But what I actually see isn’t an effective medium for that message, if it’s meant to be there. The serial nature of the work, the fact that readers only see an issue or a few collected ones at a time, means any such message, which would have to be brought in for a landing in the ending, is being lost along the journey. And I’m too sick and tired of how thick he’s laying it on to keep reading. I’m not going to make it to the end to find out if there’s a redemptive message. Ultimately it feels too much like what’s actually going on here instead is a titillating “ooh, lookie that! so horrible! oh yes, oh yes, terribly reprehensible, tut tut, must shake our heads and wag our fingers and that, oh how terrible, there goes another one, tsk tsk” flavor of Victorian prurience rather than the buildup to a redemptive message.
It’s exactly that prurience that leads to both the audience of guilty-pleasures readers who buy the father-daughter porn books in droves AND to the sudden purging backlashes against its existence. And thus, I see no good there.