Friday, April 29, 2005

Gender politics in comics; or, will chicks like Filler?

I wasn't privileged enough to receive an advance copy of AiT/Planet Lar's publication Filler like these people were), and that makes me sad (not really, but I had you going there for a minute, didn't I?). It's worth the money, however, and continues the company's good track record. So go buy it! I'd like to look at it in two ways - one as a simple review, and then as whether it is a statement on gender roles and misogyny in comics. Bear with me!

Unlike others, I will not be comparing this book to Sin City. Oh sure, the comparison is there, but the people above have done it, so I won't. I will say that I really liked this book, despite the contention (again, by some of the people above) that it never rises above a simple crime fable. So what, and, really? It is well constructed, well written, well drawn (it's not perfectly drawn, but it's nice and rough and fits the story), and has enough twists to keep everything moving. I actually wasn't reminded of Sin City, I was reminded of Goldfish and Jinx. It's much more naturalistic than Sin City, for example. The reason it is successful, I think, is because it plays on our natural stereotypes about this kind of story, and tries to turn them on their heads. Without giving too much away (that's for the second part of the post), it involves a man named John Dough ("D'oh!") who goes through life donating blood and standing in line-ups for money, hence the title. He's an extra from central casting. In an old episode of Dr. Katz (what a funny show that was!), one of the comedians was talking about "extras in his movie of life," and that's what John Dough is. That is, until a hooker (Debra Cross) walks into his life, and he gets caught up in her drama.

Rick Spears and Rob G, the creators of Filler, do a wonderful job evoking the pathetic existence of their main character. There's nothing redeeming about John, and even when he becomes involved in Debra's life, it's not like he becomes a tough guy hero savior. When he comes up with his big plan, he has to get help to come up with it, and although it's clever, it's not too clever, and we believe someone like John and his friend could pull it off. John, in many ways, is us - all of us, and that's what makes the story accessible and also a little disconcerting. The thing John lacks that many of us don't is self-confidence - he knows he's a bit player in the grand scheme of life, and when, over halfway through the book, he realizes that he's "stuck as the main character in someone else's story," he rebels against it, because he doesn't want to stick out, he doesn't want to be the star. Carrying a picture is tough work, and John doesn't want to have anything to do with it. His plan involves becoming less noticed, actually, whereas a traditional noir hero (like, say, Marv) would come up with something that would get him more noticed. This is where Filler breaks from its predecessors and becomes something more interesting than a typical noir yarn. Most noir is remote from us, because it's artificial by design - tough guys, tough dames, tough gangsters, tough streets lit by hazy streetlamps and washed with rain. John Dough is not a hero, and his journey, though alien to someone like me (although I did give a hitchhiking hooker a ride once - keep your mind out of the gutter, you scalawags, it was just a car ride, and I didn't know she was a hooker, but that's a story for another day), is one we can appreciate, because it's not about revenge for the murdered whore, it's about a man trying to return to what he considers his "normal" life.

Okay, that's the recommendation. Now, SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!

As I was reading Filler, I wondered what a woman's reaction to it would be. Johanna linked to all of those bloggers above, but she apparently has not read it. I wonder what her reaction to it would be, or what Rose's reaction to it would be, especially in light of her recent excellent essay. I'm not saying that women can't enjoy this book, but I wonder if, as a man, I have a totally different reaction to it. Debra is the real villain of the book, and I felt gratified that she didn't succeed in screwing John over and got her just desserts. This is probably a common thought among men with regards to entertainment (I said "probably" because I could be totally wrong): we cheer when female villains are brought down a peg, perhaps moreso than when male villains are. The question is: does this indicate misogyny on our part, a latent hatred we can't express in real life because it's totally inappropriate? Is Debra simply a worthy villain who deserves to be led away by the cops, and we should be happy that justice is done and not worry about her gender? Have we gone past the point where gender in our villains matter? I would say no, since part of the surprise of Filler is that Debra is not the stereotypical "hooker with a heart of gold" but a coldly manipulative woman who plays on John's (and our) sympathy to get what she wants - her pimp dead and someone else framed for the murder. Is this progress? Do we admire Spears and Rob G more for making Debra a villain instead of either a woman who needs to be rescued (like Nancy in Sin City, to use a recent cinematic example) or a woman who can kick ass and take names just like a man (too many examples leap immediately to mind). Debra is manipulative, true, but she still needs a fall guy, and uses her feminine wiles to get a man to do her dirty work and take the fall for her. She is like a classic noir femme fatale in this regard, but what makes Filler different, I think, is that the man ultimately triumphs, unlike standard noir fare, where the man usually goes down in a hail of bullets. Can we deal with the "black widow" aspect of the femme fatale more easily when both characters die? I like Filler, but is it because I'm a man? That's what I wonder. Ladies, help me out!

This all goes back to the way women are portrayed in a male-dominated industry. Which is better - the Jean Loring/Sue Dibny way, as in victim-or-crazed-murderer dialectic, or the Debra Cross way, as in manipulative but humbled in the end? You can say neither, because there should be more choices, but I am truly interested in whether one of these portrayals offends women more, or if neither do, or if both do, or if women don't care because they have more important things to worry about. Just a thought.


Blogger Shaenon said...

As a woman, I'm still hypnotized by that Rob Liefeld drawing of Wonder Girl.

4/30/2005 02:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

None of the reviews I've read (including this one) have convinced me I'd find much to like in Filler, so I think I'll be spending my money elsewhere.

But beyond that, I don't really think I can speak for most women or even most women who read comics, so I'm not sure I'd have a useful response anyway.

After reading this post, I'm most curious about whether many men do have this response to female villains and in what contexts. I tried to think of movies and stories with this sort of scenario and didn't come up with a lot. Do you have more examples?


4/30/2005 09:11:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Rose, the closest parallel in movies I could think of was Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction, an excellent movie by any stretch of the imagination. She does not get her "just desserts" like Debra Cross, but she uses her sexuality to screw over any number of men. It's a great movie, but it still makes me uncomfortable, and I think it has to do with the fact that although I don't like male characters screwing over women that they sleep with, it's more expected, so when Linda does it, it's kind of weird. I feel as if she should be above that sort of thing, and then I think, "Well, all these men she screws - both literally and figuratively - deserve it in some way, so it's okay." I'm trying to think of more female villains, but the ones I think of are in popcorn movies where they MUST be killed by the female heroine, which doesn't really figure into the equation. I'm curious, though, too, about men's reactions to female villains. When Wanda went nuts in Avengers, someone pointed out that we don't have many good, solid, female villains in comics who aren't defined by their children or their men. I'd like to see it.

4/30/2005 10:13:00 PM  
Anonymous GreyGlobe said...

Who cares? Coming from a man that said the heartwarming tales contained in OWLY, look awful, awful, awful, I will only say to you that you must have no heart at all. There is more story and commentary on humanity and the kindness it can show in the simplicity of OWLY then in all of these gritty, grim "realistic" comics. From reading your other blogs, I see that you have a child, Greg. Please melt that cold heart and accept kindness into your harsh world before it is too late for her as well. If you CAN tell a story like OWLY and as you state, draw as well as it, then DO IT and I personally will buy it!

5/01/2005 05:01:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Ah, GreyGlobe, keeping me honest. Okay - since we now have a steady cash flow, I will go buy the universally acclaimed Owly. Perhaps I will love it. Then I can speak freely on the subject. Sound good?

5/01/2005 05:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey greg, i just came upon this review you wrote years ago, but i would like to just say that you really have delvded deeply into what we were trying to say with this book. we really wanted to portray debra as a genuinely dangerous villian, and that she could hang with any man in that field. her sex has nothing to do with it aside from the fact that she uses what she has to get what she wants, there's no shame in that. one of my all time favorite villains in any medium, is that of mona in "romeo is bleeding" played by lena olin. she is the perfect female villain, she uses her wiles to get the job done and is absolutely ruthless, moreso than most male villians i think. i don't think this says anything derogatory towards women but quite the opposite. thanks for the overall good review and for really looking deeper than the noir trappings.

--rob g

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