Magen Cubed is a novelist and comics critic. Her superhero/SFF series THE CRASHERS is coming soon from Booktrope.
Image Comics is home to some of the most compelling female-centred content in comics and our Magen Cubed is here to take a deep dive into their latest offerings.
There has been a great deal of discussion in the last few years about the role available to women in comic books, their representation and how creative teams address women’s experiences. Mainstream comics has been grappling with such issues, making great strides in some cases and falling flat on their faces in others. But beyond how scripting, artwork, and the corporate culture help to shape how women are presented on the page, there is another critical component to affects these characters: the worlds in which they operate.
This week, Image Comics released two titles whose issues tackle these topics in different, interesting and important ways. 8House: Arclight #2 comes to us from writer Brandon Graham and artist Marian Churchland; The Wicked + The Divine #13 from writer Kieron Gillen and guest artist Tula Lotay. These issues are illustrated by female artists, penciling scripts by male writers. The topics these issues and their women protagonists touch on are difficult: identity, self, and the loss of the body, whether by force or outside pressures. It’s important to have women’s’ perspectives involved in these stories; an all-male creative team, no matter how talented and thoughtful, may come off as disingenuous.
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8House: Arclight #2 is a celebration of the feminine. Its androgynous character designs, elaborate couture fashion, and appreciation of the natural world eschews the traditionally masculine pretense of western science fiction-fantasy narrative. The sweeping open world Graham and Churchland have designed is one steeped in intrigue and magic, an ethereal space constructed of loose gestural lines and organic shapes. There are no hard edges to be found in 8House. Everything from the Baroque costuming to the intricately detailed interior spaces is soft and inviting to the eye, contrasting the quiet and austere settings with unsaturated pastel color palettes.
Male characters like Arclight are unabashedly genderqueer. They wear dramatic makeup, have precisely styled hair, and relish in stereotypically feminine fashion. Likewise, women like Lady Kinga are afforded the opportunity to explore more masculine features and characterization, never bound by traditional gender expectations. Lady Kinga’s journey to reclaim her stolen body is complex. It invites ample danger, complete with unnerving creatures and blood magic, as she deals with her ongoing loss of self. She is never a noblewoman awaiting rescue, nor is Arclight in any way devalued as a knight for his appearance. There are other, more traditionally masculine men present throughout the book, but there’s no tension or pressure to adhere to western gender performance. Such expectations simply don’t apply.
Furthermore, the abundance of feminine, gender fluid imagery never allows an exploitative gaze to penetrate the page or influence its presentation. 8House deliberately refuses to allow its characters to be objectified. Blood, with its symbolic connections to fertility and female reproduction, provides a thematic undercurrent that explores how it can be used to unite bodies as well as harm them. Graham and Churchland don’t fear sex, sexuality, or bodily experiences, but they take measured steps to keep these themes from limiting their characters. The body is idealized to some extent, after all. It’s the source of Lady Kinga’s struggles as she means to take her body back from the alien that stole it. Her body is hers; nothing and no one can take that from her. The world of 8House explicitly gives her this power, and it’s refreshing to see.
The Wicked + The Divine #13 presents a very different view of female experience. Tara, the issue’s protagonist, has been tormented by social expectations of women and feminine bodies. A lifetime of harassment and unwanted sexual attention forced her to hide her face, an aspiring singer relegated to performing music behind a mask. As a woman of color, her identity has been defined through threats of rape and violence by men who wish render her into an object of their pleasure and ridicule. As a goddess, she is the target of the world’s indiscriminate ire, whether by her entitled fans or the anonymous mobs of social media, torn down for the egregious act of being a woman. It’s a familiar story, one shared by many women.
Gillen and Lotay unwind Tara’s tragic story through the narrative provided by her suicide note. Tara’s tale is one of objectification. By the age of eleven she was told that her body wasn’t hers, subject to the expectations of society and male appetites. She must hide herself behind masks and clothing to avoid unwanted stares, comments, and contact. Once deified by Ananke, Tara’s body becomes an instrument, a sexualized product for public consumption, now gifted with the power to entrance others with her face. Her body is her burden, a tool used against her by others to devalue, mock, and shame. It was never really hers to begin with, and she has always been powerless in the face of larger culture to stop it.
Unlike 8House, which refuses to allow the reader to objectify its characters, The Wicked + The Divine begins by offering Tara’s body as a sexual object. First inviting the reader to gaze upon her ample breasts, lidded eyes, and pouty mouth, Gillen and Lotay subvert the pleasure of viewing Tara by presenting the entire uncomfortable and invasive scene from her perspective. They trick you into looking, then make you sorry that you did.
Lotay’s lush, deeply saturated artwork uses the thickness of line and the inviting warmth of lighting effects to create an emotionally loaded narrative. Tara’s masked face and timid presence stands in contrast to the elaborate flowing lines of her hair and clothing, poignantly forming the sad, frightened woman inside the theatrical artifice. This juxtaposition between Lotay’s welcoming artwork and the underlying tragedy of the narrative is at its most elegant in the issue’s closing pages. Social media invades Tara’s world in pages of abusive and degrading Tweets. Using the sterility of technology and the mechanical cruelty of the internet itself to visually contextualize Tara’s suffering, the reader is finally brought into her world, confronted by the cruelty that has dogged her for years.
As Tara resolves to end her life, she exercises agency in all matters of the physical. She takes the control away from those who mean to destroy her by doing it for herself, ending her pain on her own terms. While tragic, there is real and meaningful power in this act of defiance. By taking back what has been stolen by the world, she truly owns her body for the first, and final, time. Gillen and Lotay allow this to unfold without pomp or circumstance, leaving the reader to be haunted by these pages long after the book is over.
This week, both 8House: Arclight #2 and The Wicked and The Divine #13 address several similar themes. While their narratives and genre conventions differ greatly, each of these issues explore female identity and experience. One does so without the pressures of gender performance, offering an intriguing world absent of heteronormative gender roles; the other examines the crushing weight of these social expectations, telling a far-too-common story. Both successfully appeal to complicated ideas of self and autonomy, and both give their characters power in their own rights. Because, couched within traditionally masculine ideas of power, there are a myriad of complicated, nuanced, and deeply personal ways for one to exercise it.
In the end, Lady Kinga and Tara both exercise this power, exploring how each of their very different worlds operate, and providing unique women for readers to engage with.
Magen Cubed is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter: @MagenCubed