Sunday, February 10, 2019

Review: Female Furies #1

When DC Comics first announced Female Furies, a six-issue mini-series featuring a group of characters from Jack Kirby’s sprawling 1970-1973 saga about a mythic war between twin planets populated by superheroes and supervillains, there was little indication that writer Cecil Castellucci had anything out of the ordinary in mind.

Here is how the first issue was solicited to retailers and readers, back in November:
All their lives the Female Furies have been raised to be the meanest, most cunning and most ruthless fighting force on all of Apokolips. So why are Granny Goodness' girls left behind every time the men go to war? With the might of New Genesis hanging over the planet, and the Forever People making mincemeat out of Darkseid’s army, Granny thinks it's about time that changed...And so, Big Barda, Aurelie, Mad Harriet, Lashina, Bernadeth and Stompa set out to beat the boys at their own game. Little do they know the game is rigged—and one accidental murder could spell disaster for them all!
If this was going to be a feminist reading of the characters and their place in the traditional Apokolips vs. New Genesis story, if there was any telegraphing in the announcement at all, it seemed to be of a rather standard, current pop culture, safe level--women are just as good as men, or, specific to this setting, just as good at being bad as men.

That is, in large part, what makes this issue so surprising, if not shocking: Castellucci and artist Adriana Melo have turned a story about a half-dozen female super-warriors, each with a particular gimmick or power reflected in their often childish name--Lashina, Stompa, Bernadeth, etc--into a #MeToo-era superhero comic exploring and eviscerating all of the types and degrees of sexism women are subjected to on a daily basis in a world where men hold all of the power.

If you’re unfamiliar with what has become known as Kirby’s Fourth World story, here are the basics. Red-eyed, stone-skinned god of evil Darkseid rules the industrialized hell-scape planet Apokolips with an iron, dictatorial grip, his high court helping him keep the population down while he quests for The Anti-Life Equation, which will allow him to crush all free will and subject all sentient life in the universe to his will. He is opposed by the white-haired, white-bearded Highfather, ruler of Apopolips' utopian sister planet New Genesis, whose heroes all seem like your typical superheroes, albeit it cut with pop culture hippie-ism and New Age philosophy.

The two rulers traded sons once upon a time as part of a peace deal, so that Highfather’s son Scott Free was raised on Apokolips, eventually growing up to be the super-escape artist Mister Miracle, husband of Big Barda, one of the Female Furies, while Darkseid’s son Orion was raised on New Genesis, struggling to repress his bestial nature while fighting for the side of good against his own evil father.

In that story, the Female Furies have always been among the more colorful of Darkseid’s "name" soldiers, standing out from the crowd of winged Parademons and giant dog-riding warriors; they are the elite squad serving directly under Granny Goodness, a short, stocky hag in green chainmail who is in Darkseid’s inner circle and is charged with raising the population’s orphans, like Barda and Scott.

Female Furies opens in the distant past, the night that Darkseid takes control of his planet, in order to better catalog the indignities Granny Goodness suffered in her career. On that night, she wasn’t yet "Granny," but is just the ironically named Goodness--Big, tall, strong and young. It is she that defeats and strangles Darkseid’s mother Heggra for him, although she gets a last minute assist from Desaad, who immediately takes credit for her accomplishment.
After the battle, Darkseid corners her and propositions her: "Battle makes me hungry for what food cannot fill," he intones, grabbing her. She resists long enough to let readers know she doesn't reciprocate Darkseid's lust, but reluctantly obeys when he makes it clear her "career" depends on it. "Do as I say and rise higher than anyone else," he says. "Refuse and find yourself back with the lowest of the low."

While her obedience doesn't hurt her career, it doesn't seem to help much, either; she's given a less-than-desirable post, while the male members of Darkseid’s court all grumble at the fact that she gets "special" treatment from their god-king. The treatment she receives will sound familiar, as the Apokolips bros call her hysterical, suggest she be less emotional, comment on her looks and how she uses sex to get what she wants.

In the present, the cycle begins anew, as she presents her new Furies to Darkseid and her co-workers, but they seem more interested in the women's looks than their fighting abilities. After Darkseid refuses to let the Furies join the males in his armies--some of the arguments sounding quite familiar to anyone who has followed arguments of the integration of our own armed forces over the years--one of his circle, Willik, offers to give one of the Furies, Aurelie, private martial arts lessons.

She refuses, but is eventually convinced by Goodness, and during the training, Willik repeatedly gropes her, making a threat similar to that Darkseid gave to Goodness years ago. Aurelie is similarly punished by her peers, who chide her for using her looks to her advantage, for taking so long with Willlik and, not knowing what happened, Barda scolds her: "Stop complaining...Any of us would trade places with you in a heartbeat to get private instruction from Protector Willik."
Double standards, objectification, gaslighting, sexual harassment, sexual assault--in just the first 22 pages of the series, Castellucci covers a lot of ground, little of which has been previously covered in the almost 50 years of tellings and retellings of characters' stories, and little of which seems to contradict or take away from any of those previous tellings.

The genius of using these particular characters for such a story isn't merely that they are among the only female characters in the male dominated story cycle--in much the same way that Castellucci and Melo still stand out as rare in the male-dominated superhero comic market*--or that they are demonstrably better at fighting and killing than their male peers, the vast bulk of which don’t even have names, but that their home setting has always been the most cartoonishly evil place in comics, this side of hell.

Of course working with the god of evil, ruler of a planet of evil, who is intent on subjugating all life is a hostile work environment. Darkseid coercing a henchwoman into sex, or his other underlings sexually harassing her, might not be something we have seen in their past appearances, but it's certainly well within conceivable behavior for them. The trick of writing comics starring supervillains is to always pit them against worst villains, and next to Darkseid and his court, the Furies can’t help but seem heroic--even were it not for the presence of Barda, whom we know ultimately rebels against Apokolips and fights for New Genesis at some point after this series concludes.

There's also the matter that, while these characters are, like seemingly all superhero characters these days, fodder for cartoons, TV shows and even have a movie in the works, they are minor enough in the grand scheme of things that Castellucci and Melo can make the bad guys particularly repugnant without worrying too much about making them unmarketable, in the way DC might have worried if someone proposed a comic book in which, say, Lex Luthor, Brainiac and The Joker sexually harass Cheetah or Giganta in The Legion of Doom headquarters or something.

While Castellucci’s first issue chronicles all this supremely toxic male behavior, that;s not all there is to it. It's complicated, as the difference between Goodness' and her Furies' reactions, and Goodness' reaction to their reaction reflect generational tensions and differences that have arisen in the wake of Weinstein and #MeToo, and, well, this is still a story. Near the end of the first issue, immediately after being groped by Willik, Aurelie hears one of the male soldiers offering to torture a victim less of she kisses him, and she responds by slitting his throat, forcing Barda to help her hide the body and keep it a secret. With five more issues and about 100 pages to go, clearly it won’t remain a secret.

It's also funny. There is some humor in the juxtaposition, and in the discomfort that juxtaposition causes in readers, who might laugh nervously at the chutzpah of the book, but Castellucci includes scenes clearly meant to be read as funny, as in the second stage of the Furies' demonstration of their martial abilities to Darkseid and his court, which is basically just a 20th century beauty pageant transported into space, complete with a bake-off and evening gown and swimsuit competition (the latter renamed a "smile competition").
Humorous, yes, but blackly so.

It's always difficult to review a comic book series by its first issue, particularly a limited one like this, when one knows it will completed and republished in a new and complete form in a half-year's time, but it can be worthwhile when an easy to overlook comic delivers so much more than is expected. How successful Female Furies will ultimately be as a story remains to be seen, of course, but the first issue reveals that it is one well worth reading to see: Sharp, funny, relevant and ambitious, it's the too-rare superhero comic book with a point to make.

*I counted 58 serial issues of comics slated for release by DC into the direct market for this month, only three of which have both a female writer and a female pencil artist/primary artist listed among the creators, but it's always possible I miscounted a book or two.

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