For those of you who missed yesterday’s entry (and are too damn lazy to scroll down and read it) (and I did write it yesterday, it’s just that Blogger was down for about 10 hours last night, and I needs my beauty sleep, dammit), we were talking about writers injecting politics into their stories, or writing “issue-driven” stories. I opined that it was possible to do these stories right, but far more common to do them wrong. Then, I promised that today’s entry would give an example of how to do them wrong.
That was a bit of a cheat, because I’d already read the new comics for this week, and knew what I’d be writing about today.
Spider-Man/Black Cat has been something of a joke in comicdom for the past few years. That’s largely because the first three issues shipped a few years ago, and issue four shipped last December. Writer Kevin Smith has been excoriated, by many, and rightfully so, for completely blowing this deadline. Regardless, the plot was pretty easy to follow through 1-3, so a brief recap was all that was needed.
In a nutshell: Both Peter Parker and Felicia Hardy (the Black Cat) were investigating the mysterious deaths of acquaintances of theirs, both found dead of a heroin overdose, but with no obvious signs of injection. Their search eventually led them to Garrison Klum, a “legitimate businessman” whose business was providing high-profile celebrities with an untraceable fix. How did he do this? Well, in issue 3, Cat confronted him alone, and learned that Klum was a very low-level teleporter, who used his powers to transmit the drugs directly into his clients’ bloodstreams. Unfortunately, she learned this when he did the same thing to her. Issue 3 ended with Klum perched over a paralyzed Cat, undoing his pants.
And then things got weird…
Issue 4 opened with Cat in jail pending charges for Klum’s murder. Seems the cops found him dead on top of her, ripped apart, with his pants down. Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, had been hired by Peter to represent her, and wanted to go with a self-defense plea, claiming Felicia killed Klum to stop him from raping her. Only problem was, she insisted she hadn’t been raped. Undaunted, Spider-Man and Daredevil went to plan B, which was “Break Cat out of Rykers.” Which worked pretty well, until Spidey and DD started beating each other up, and Klum’s brother, Francis, showed up and teleported Felicia out.
Issue 5 was mostly exposition, as Francis explained to Cat why and how he killed Garrison. How was by teleporting himself into Garrison’s body and exploding it from the inside out. Why was more complicated, but boiled down to the fact that Garrison had been exploiting Francis’s teleportation and telekinetic powers for years, and sexually abusing him since childhood. The issue ended with Felicia confiding to Francis that Garrison hadn’t raped her… but someone else once had.
And thus begins the after-school special known as Spider-Man/Black Cat 6.
Why is this a bad “issue” story? I’ll tell you. First, because the story grinds to a halt while Felicia reveals, in flashback, the sordid details. And this is some very heavy-handed stuff, so heavy-handed that I kept looking for bored high schoolers sitting on gymnasium bleachers talking about how they're going to get high after study hall. Seriously, this is "Please God, I'm Only Seventeen" level dialogue.
We start with red herring one, her father. That possibility is thankfully wiped out very quickly, as we move to Felicia as a freshman in college, accosted by a drunk at a frat party. That’s red herring #2; instead, our villain is Ryan, the guy who saves her from the drunk, charms her, becomes her boyfriend, and, several months later, doesn’t take no for an answer. I pray to God, I honestly pray to God, that Smith doesn’t consider this clever plotting. I saw every “twist” coming a mile away. For that reason alone, this story drips into the banal.
But it goes on. Felicia decides to cope by murdering Ryan. Not what I expected, but I’m willing to allow it. She trains herself for quite a while (and I sense that she pretty much stops going to class, effectively ending her college career right there), and, just as she's about to sneak into the dorm to have her revenge, she hears that Ryan's been killed in a car crash. Left with all that pent-up rage and nowhere to put it, Felicia decides to be a jewel thief. No, really, she sees an ad in the paper that says "Diamonds are a girl's best friend," and decides to vent her frustration by robbing rich people. I should point out for the uninitiated that Felicia's dad was a notorious jewel thief himself, which certainly played a role in her decision, but still, what the hell? Does that mean if he had been an accountant, she'd have started beating up people who cheated on their taxes?
Now, you're free to disagree with me on this, but from where I'm sitting, it looks like Smith is redefining Felicia's entire rationale for at least the first several years of her continuity, and not in a good way. Consider her early years: She showed up as a cat burglar, fought Spider-Man, pretended to be his stalker to get out of jail on an insanity plea, played the good little girl in the nuthouse, and got out. When she did, she tried to be Spider-Man's crime fighting partner, while also trying to enlist him in jewel robberies on the side. After faking her own death, she resurfaced, apparently genuinely interested in a relationship with him, but not with Peter Parker. They dated, she got superpowers from the Kingpin that backfired, ended up in the hospital for several months, and when she got out, Peter was married to Mary Jane, so she decided to get revenge by stringing along Flash Thompson, but eventually fell in love with him, only to leave him because she was afraid he was in love with the Black Cat, and not Felicia Hardy. Now, ignoring that that was a horrible string of run-on sentences, that initially showed a complex character arc, as she started capricious and selfish, slowly started to develop a social conscience, got too addicted to thrill-seeking, made a mistake, compounded it with another one, but came out of it a wiser and more-adjusted person (for all the 1994 miniseries sucked, it showed Felicia as a woman in charge of her own life for the first time since her debut).
But now, in light of this revelation, it all looks… different. It can be read, especially with Smith's depiction of how she instinctively trusted Spider-Man upon meeting him, that Felicia has spent every moment of her life since her rape reacting to it, never escaping its shadow. She attached herself to Spider-Man because he could protect her, but scorned Peter Parker because he was too normal, too ordinary, to fulfill that role (and maybe because he reminded her too much of Ryan, all nice and normal as he seemed). She got superpowers because she was afraid Peter would leave her, and when she lost them, and that was confirmed, she went after not just one of his friends, but the stereotypical alpha-male jock. (And what does it say that she left Flash while he was in the hospital after getting beaten up by Tombstone.) The more I think about it, the more I see Smith's depiction of Felicia as defining herself entirely by her relationship to Peter. Even now, in this series, she's been all over him, physically and verbally, holding him up as the ideal man.
And this would all work for me, if not for the insinuation the story makes that this is a right and proper attitude for Felicia to have. Women: raped by someone you trusted? Your life as a self-determinate being is over. For the rest of your life, you'll be defining yourself by the penises you take into your body (or the ones you don't). Felicia even describes herself as a "rape survivor," an apt term, perhaps, but one that here has the same disturbing connotations as "Vietnam veteran." It makes her sound like someone with a deformity that will never quite heal. Now, this may indeed be accurate for many who have been raped, but what does it say that not even superheroes can offer a hope for something better?
And then it just gets insulting in the denouement, as, by startling coincidence, Felicia has been pouring her heart out to Francis on top of the very bridge where the Green Goblin killed Gwen Stacy all those years ago. Cliché well in hand, things go badly, and Francis teleports away. The last scene of the book, which made me groan in disbelief, has Francis buying the gear of the deceased Mysterio from the Kingpin and swearing vengeance on Black Cat, Spider-Man, Daredevil, and I think the Yancy Street Gang. So that pretty much kills the credibility right there. Two out of two "rape survivors" become supervillains? Yeah, thanks for that insight there, Kev.
When it's not preachy, it's creepy. When it's not creepy, it's inept. (Actually, it's often creepy and inept at the same time.) And I find myself wondering, what was the impetus for this? Did Smith do a change-up during the break as a reaction to Infinite Crisis? Was someone he knows raped? Did he watch a very special episode of Degrassi Junior High with Jason Mewes and then go immediately to his word processor?
I wasn't expecting much from the end of this story, but I was expecting better than ham-fisted soapboxing. The guy who gave us "Clerks" has somehow morphed into the guys who gave us "Don't Copy That Floppy," and that's something you should be talking about.