home
writings
illustrations
comics
career
miscellany

Dirk Deppey's Twitter page
Dirk Deppey's Facebook page
rss feed
The New New Mainstream, Part Two:
Sex, Subtext and Consequences

Fair warning: In the following article, we'll be talking about (among other things) how sex is depicted for the purpose of adult fiction in a visual medium, and a few of the chosen illustrations will reflect this.

In part one of our look at the potential "new new mainstream" of graphic novels intended for the larger bookbuying public, we examined works written with the television storytelling structure in mind, books that attempted to provide familiar entertainment tropes in a new-to-the-reader format. Some of them even worked as such.

This time out, we'll be taking a look at five more volumes, this time books with the potential to appeal to an audience long thought to have vanished from the potential comics-buying audience: women.

Three of the five books under scrutiny are based on already-existing book series written by female authors, while the other two are adaptations of a book that, while written by a male author, features one of the most prominent and successful female protagonists in recent memory. Four of the five books were adapted for the medium by female scriptwriters, and two were illustrated by female artists.

All of the books under review spotlight sex as a major theme in one form or other. Perhaps most interesting, however — at least, to me, if no one else — the first three books we'll be examining are gothic fantasies, a prominent theme in any number of modern graphic novels both for teenage girls and adult women. Starting with...

 

Interview with the Vampire:
Claudia's Story

Based on the novel by Anne Rice; adapted and drawn by Ashley Marie Witter
Yen Press
224-page hardcover, $19.99
ISBN: 9780316176361

"Only when the hunger subsided did the world begin to come into focus."

While both opening and closing with the two most sexually complex adaptations under discussion, let us begin with the cleverest and most subtle depiction of romantic and erotic longing disguised as horror fiction. Interview with the Vampire: Claudia's Story contains all the pageantry and complexity of a memorable seduction, but uses a clever take on the vampire mythos to short-circuit the sexual climax usually at the core of such things. Our heroine, you see, is a grown woman — and a dead one at that — trapped in the body of a pre-pubescent child, living with a gay couple who, like her, are incapable of carnal desire but who nonetheless fight over her.

As with most vampire stories, blood substitutes for other bodily fluids, but in the world of Anne Rice, the vampiric couple who serve as foils for our seemingly underage heroine also play the roles of incestuous family stand-ins. The particular genius of Rice's tale lies in adding the illusion of perversion to the vampire metaphor, while still remaining true to the non-sexual figleaves provided by the genre trappings. Claudia's Story both is and isn't about sex, a near-genius level attempt to have one's cake and eat it, too.

It's also the tale of a young girl turned sexual predator — again, carefully structured so as to avoid the actual complications of sex. This separates Claudia's Story from your average boys-love manga tale, insofar as the Japanese gay-male-romance-for-women genre is supposed to allow readers to view male attraction and lust from a safe, voyeuristic distance. Instead, our heroine enters the scenario and becomes the active catalyst in a romantic triangle. This is the story of how Claudia comes to steal and possess the vampire Lestat's uke, and what happens after her conquest.

 

Lestat turns Claudia and sets the tale in motion. Page from Interview with the Vampire: Claudia's Story; text ©2012 Anne O'Brien Rice and the Stanley Travis Rice, Jr. Testamentary Trust; illustrations ©2012 Hachette Book Group, Inc.

 

Claudia's Story begins with the few memories Claudia retains of her transition from human to vampire, as Lestat invites the dying child that was Claudia to drink from his vein and attain immortality. From the beginning, Lestat is remote and regal, immaculately dressed in aristocratic drag, while his paramour Louis is gentler, more human, less likely to be dolled up in princely garb. Having brought her into their world, Lestat briefly takes Claudia under his wing, but quickly tires of her, and leaves the actual child-rearing to Louis. It quickly becomes apparent that the young girl is merely a new front in Lestat's ongoing domination of his mate: The elder vampire uses Claudia principally as a weapon against Louis' lingering sense of morality.

Through the first third of the book, Claudia grows mentally and emotionally, but not physically — she learns to hunt, learns to see herself as above her mortal prey. Soon she's a scheming undead monster, just like her guardians, albeit one still in the body of a seven-year-old-girl. As she matures, Claudia naturally begins to contemplate her independence, and hatches a plan to kill Lestat and keep the more pliable Louis for herself.

Throughout it all, the horror elements are prominently used as a backdrop for romantic intrigue, and seldom allowed to supercede it. This may be a vampire drama, but the ugly, biological underpinnings of death, decay and gore are hinted at rather than made explicit. When Claudia murders a neighborhood mother and daughter, we see only the symbolism, then the aftermath — not the killings themselves. To do otherwise would be to extinguish the fantasy. De Sade would have snorted in contempt, of course, but we're here for the thrill of animal impulses safely depicted, not the truth behind animal brutality. The dark trappings are just that: trappings, meant to flavor the sublimated, unconsummated romance and ensure that the proceedings are never allowed to become too explicit in their sexuality. Indeed, there's a brief flash of nudity toward the end of the book that actually manages to seem shocking precisely because it's so unexpected. Weirdly, it's the only time that sex ever makes its presence felt.

 

Artist Ashley Marie Witter cleverly uses design to augment the tale's atmosphere; sequence from Interview with the Vampire: Claudia's Story.

 

Ashley Marie Witter has a delicate line and sense of page composition, and a manga professional's flair for pacing. Her art is masterful, a joy to drink in, and she has the language of comics down cold, using the illusion of torn pages to frame actions within scenes and making sparing, masterful use of deep-red blood to punctuate sepia-toned pages in dramatic fashion.

Likewise, Witter is careful in her adaptation of Anne Rice's novel, telling as much of the story visually as possible and limiting the number of words on the page with ruthless efficiency. Captions are kept separate from art and text through design. When information dumps are required, they're pared down, put to page and dispensed with as curtly and quickly as possible. Witter is fully aware that such things are poisonous to story flow, and treats them as the necessary evil that they happen to be.

As with the Castle volumes discussed in the first half of our survey, Interview with the Vampire: Claudia's Story is a satisfying transfer of the source material to a new medium. The story is masterfully told, thanks to a cartoonist making full use of her skills to scrupulously maintain the setting and atmosphere, revelling in a dark, complex dance of quasi-erotic longing without ever allowing biology to get in the way. One could argue that the emotional core of the book is little more than inhuman artifice because of this... but then, one could also argue that "inhuman artifice" is the book's purpose to begin with. Claudia's Story may ultimately be soulless, but under the circumstances, that's more a feature than a bug.

 

Blood Crime
Written by Kim Harrison; illustrated by Gemma Magno; color by Katrina Mae Hao
Del Rey Books
168-page hardcover, $25.00
ISBN: 9780345521026

Ivy and Rachael are partners in the Inderland Security police force, but this in no mere buddy-cop drama: Ivy is a "living vampire," under the thrall of an powerful creature of the night named Piscary but not quite turned herself, just yet. Rachael, meanwhile, is a witch, a crafter of potions and amulets useful in the battle against supernatural threats. Together, they chase a mobster named Kalamack, who deals in a drug called brimstone.

The story begins in media res and ends on a cliffhanger, and virtually all of it revolves around Piscary's attempt to turn Ivy into his perfect vampire mate, someone independent enough to amuse him but still under his thumb. And then there's Rachael...

Blood Crime is author Kim Harrison's second graphic-novel adaptation of her own Hollows prose-novel series, and like both Claudia's Story and the next book on our list, it's a supernatural-tinged tale of sex and adventure with a primarily female audience in mind.

 

Piscary's ongoing seduction of Ivy, framed in spirit form. Panel from Blood Crime, ©2012 Cold Toast Writings, LLC.

 

The story plays like a police procedural on the surface, but the sexual undertones are always lurking and in play, while the vampire mythos blends effortlessly into the drama. As with most fantasy realms, there's an almost fetishistic level of back story to absorb, and it's to Harrison and Magno's credit that the book nonetheless flows as well as it does.

Like Claudia's Story, vampirism serves as a metaphor for sex, but unlike the former, the metaphor here is more directly applied — at one point, drinking the blood of humans is referred to as "blood rape." One of the more clever graphic elements in this story involves the use of "spirit forms" hovering behind the undead characters which vampires can see and interact with but are invisible to humans. These elements can thus personify the metaphors that drive the story without necessarily interfering with it.

Likewise, the fantasy setting serves as stimuli for homosexual longing, only in Blood Crime the gay men are dispensed with as distancing devices. Here, our vampire heroine directly lusts after her partner on the police force. Harrison's principal characters are arranged in a triangle of desire, for personal domination as well as sexual conquest: Piscary wants to complete Ivy's transformation into his perfect plaything; Ivy, desperately attempting to avoid her enthralled lust for Piscary, wants to possess her partner Rachael's body as well as drink her blood, and works in stoic fashion to deny herself both; Ivy, in turn, is ostensibly heterosexual and completely ignorant of Ivy's desires. The result is a state of perpetual unfulfilled longing on Ivy's part, all for the edification of Kim Harrison's readership.

 

Ivy's ongoing lust for her partner Rachael, framed in spirit form. Panel from Blood Crime.

 

Against such a backdrop, the actual plot of the book seems almost an afterthought, doesn't it? Piscary is working to murder Rachael through a vampire proxy, hoping that the death of Ivy's lust object will drive her into his arms. Unbeknownst to him, however, said proxy has a vampire underling of his own, and she's working to murder Ivy, hoping that the resulting mayhem will lead to her freedom.

Harrison juggles the plotlines with well-honed skill, balancing the action arising from the plots against Ivy and her partner with the steamy attempts of various characters to either fulfill or deny their erotic longings, as required by the story. It's a polished exercise in reader manipulation — the romantic elements carry enough of a charge that the story need never become sexually explicit in order to convey the hefty undercurrent of erotic frenzy in which Harrison traffics. Blood Crime sells the sizzle, not the steak (to steal an advertising cliché), but does so to a surprisingly satisfying degree.

 

Kim Harrison's supernatural soap opera, framed in action-adventure form. Sequence from Blood Crime.

 

As the artist charged with illustrating all of this, Gemma Magno acquits herself well. A graduate of the DeviantArt fan-art scene, Magno has a solid grasp of the quasi-manga drawing style of modern fantasy, rendering her characters first and foremost as characters, keeping the moods and personalities of her protagonists in the spotlight while still checking all the other necessary boxes of an adventure-comics cartoonist. Publishers looking to sell graphic novels to women would do well to keep her resumé handy.

There's nothing novel or innovative about any of this, of course. Blood Crime plays variations on well-worn themes, but does so with enough skill and imagination to surmount the level of cliché in which it traffics and delivers a solid chunk of romantic friction for the enjoyment of its readers. The people to whom this sort of thing appeals will get their money's worth, which is exactly what a mainstream publisher wants to see. Mission accomplished.

 

Fever Moon
Story by Karen Marie Moning; adapted by David Lawrence; illustrated by Al Rio, Cliff Richards, Julia Pinto, Joe Pimentel and Dan Borgones; color by Katrina Mae Hao and Rainier Beredo
Del Rey Books
184-page hardcover, $25.00
ISBN: 9780345525482

Let's start with the bit that's going to get me in trouble.

At some point during my run as a blogger for The Comics Journal, I stumbled across a Japanese-language comics sequence that attempted to demonstrate the difference between how men's manga depicted eroticism and how women's manga dealt with the same subject. It's fairly graphic. In it, a man is shown fingering a woman's privates, seemingly at the moment that she succumbs to his advances. Quick, read each page from right to left and see if you can guess which is which:

 

 

Let's step lightly — for the moment — over the deeply problematic sexual politics behind the above images. Instead, take a moment and ponder first, the visual mechanics of each page and second, what said mechanics say about each page's assumed readership.

The page on the left is almost stupidly hentai, which is the Japanese term for "perverted" and, more precisely, a very male definition of the pornographically erotic. The woman in question pretty much defines "sex object," the man touching her little more than a pervert in possession of a single hand worth mentioning. Moreover, his touch seems to have reduced her to helpless spasms of desire far in excess of anything that anyone actually familiar with the sexual act would recognize as likely, under the circumstances, given the look of surprise on her face in the second panel. Seriously, even given full consent and desire (which seems like less than a given), in what universe does foreplay work that effectively, that quickly? This is clearly an image produced for the express purpose of helping a male reader masturbate, its connection to reality flattered by the very term "connection to reality."

I suppose you could say that at first glance, the page on the right depicts the same scene. The thing is, even at first glance, you're clearly looking through an entirely different set of eyes. The woman in question is the subject, not object, of the depicted scene. Her blouse is open but her breasts are still covered (and are generally of less boobtastic proportions), and there's clearly less need to depict her thighs as being quite so far apart — this scene has no need of little black censor stripes. The man in question has a boyish look to him, and the devilish smile on display in the third panel is almost charismatic. He could well be the romantic lead of the story, for all we know. Above all else, this page conveys the same information, but from the woman's perspective and with the arousal of female readers in mind. There's a subtlety at work, an attempt to convey more information through context and emotional resonance that's entirely absent from the example at left.

Men and women perceive sex differently: This shouldn't be news to anyone. Because they do, art depicting sex that attempts to appeal to women will have differing emphases, differing storytelling values, than art attempting to titillate men. Or so you'd think.

So how should a critic deal with a work that clearly doesn't?

 

Ooof — looks like rape fantasy to me. Sequence from Fever Moon, ©2012 Karen Marie Moning, LLC.

 

If it weren't for the need to keep things to a PG-13 level of explicitness, you could almost declare Fever Moon to have stepped straight out of one of Nancy Friday's pseudo-academic surveys of sexual fantasy. We're now close to the polar-opposite end of Interview with a Vampire: Claudia's Story. Whereas Anne Rice's work uses a hint of violence to hint at sex, this book wallows shamelessly in both sex and violence without ever getting quite as explicit as its authors' desires seem to indicate.

Based on a series of novels by Karen Marie Moning, Fever Moon might not be a fair point of entry in the larger storyline. In her introduction to the book, Moning describes writing a 21,000-word synopsis of the story, and dutifully chronicles the process as the book passes from chosen writer to penciler to inker, colorist and letterer, giving every indication along the way that she has guided and approved the results. The problem is, every person in the process not named Karen Marie Moning is a man, and the work clearly shows it.

As with the previous two works under consideration, we're firmly in gothic-horror territory. Mackayla Lane is a woman in tight-fitting clothes, fighting demonic creatures known as "the Unseelie" in modern-day Dublin. We're given the basic set-up in a seven-page prologue, complete with a "fantasy rape as an excuse to enjoy it without being a slut" sequence that really could've come straight from a Nancy Friday book. Right from the start, Fever Moon announces that sex is among the thrills it wants to deliver.

Essentially: Sex with Unseelie demons leaves the survivors addicted to sex with Unseelie demons. Dublin has been overrun by the Unseelie, and among the city's first lines of defense is kickass sex-with-Unseelie survivor Mackayla Lane. Everything looks and sounds like a fantasy-tinged Cinemax flick at one in the morning, except that we're not allowed to see nipples, for some strange reason. All caught up? C'mon, it's time to Fever Moon, everybody!

 

...and then there's the violence. Panel from Fever Moon.

 

I've spent the last hour trying to figure out how to summarize the contents of this book without sounding like an idiot, and I'll be damned if I can do it. There's this guy, who wears a tixedo and top hat but has a green, swirling vortex for a face, who steals your — well, supposedly your voice but actually your word balloon — and puts it in his hat, and if he does he also gets part of your face and you fall into a coma. After he does this to a mom out shopping with her two young children, Mackayla's friend Dani brings the children to what is either Mac's mansion of the mansion of her handsome, buff demonic-overlord pal and antagonist Barrons. Yes, his name is plural. And it's a good thing she did, too, because Mac and Barrons were attempting some sort of love-me-hate-you frenemy banter like in those Trouble Maker books we looked at in part one except even worse and anytime you interrupt something like that it's a good thing.

I sound like an idiot, don't I?

A bunch of stuff happens as our heroes chase the Thing With No Face across town while it steals parts of other people's faces in order to build one for itself, and it's all cobbled together into a psychosexual heap from the spare parts of other fantasy series and it's all patently ridiculous. There's superpowers and our heroes have them, and they visit monster nightclubs in search of information, and Mac has a hat covered in lightbulbs so the Unseelie can't use darkness powers against her and monster fights break out in the street with less than no reason or explanation: You just turn a page and there it is, a monster fight. How'd that happen?

Seriously, Del Rey Books published this and everything.

Man, the writing is just awful. This must be some of that "hot mess" that I was hearing the Internet talk about, a year or two back. To be honest, Fever Moon is actually kind of fun reading in a so-bad-it's-good, Mystery Science Theater 3000 sort of way. Joel and the bots would've had a field day with this one...

 

...and then there's the cheesecake, because woman author! Sequence from Fever Moon.

 

Here's the thing: I could well see a prose-novel series of this book having a sizeable female audience, one big enough to convince a reputable book publisher to give a graphic-novel version of said series a try. There are sexy ladies having monster sex with hot demon dudes, and it's all demanded by various plot contrivances that provide the excuses needed for none of this to make you the sort of Slutty McSlutslut that your friends all gossip about, which means you can have your sexycake and eat it too. Am I right?

(As an aside, I realize that a lot of my readers are undoubtedly rolling their eyes at this whole "pseudo-rape fantasies where you're magicked into enjoying it" as any kind of legitimate storytelling device for women's reading pleasure. And I get it, I really do, but have you ever read a trashy, one-step-below-Harlequin romance novel? Whole forests of trees have been destroyed for their publication, and this has been going on for decades. I'm gay and the owner of a penis, so I'm not even going to attempt to explain why any of this is so, but there's no denying that it is so.)

Anyway, I can see all of this as being some sort of sane publishing strategy. What I can't see is any of this actually working to satisfy a significant female readership, not with artwork from a cheesecake artist like the late Al Rio. Remember those two manga examples I inflicted on you at the start of all of this? From start to finish, Fever Moon looks and reads like the goofiest example of Fanboy Erotica you'll ever find in a comic-book shop. You have to squint really hard at these pages not to see wank material for the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.

There must have been some point midway through production, when some editorial assistant looked at these pages, went into the editor's office and said, "Boss? I'm confused. Isn't this supposed to be based on books for women? 'Cause I'm looking at this stuff, and it looks like stroke material from Heavy Metal Magazine to me. This can't be right, can it...?"

 

I said "Mac has a hat covered in lightbulbs so the Unseelie can't use darkness powers against her" and I meant it! Sequence from Fever Moon.

 

I cannot overstate how ludicrous is all this. Please tell me that Bob Burden is secretly behind this book, as some sort of elaborate put-on. Can you imagine Flaming Carrot showing up in the second volume of the series? Because having read the first book, I must say: I can absolutely see it.

 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Books One and Two
Based on the novel by Stieg Larsson; adapter by Denise Mina; illustrated by Leonardo Manco and Andrea Muti; color by Giula Brusco and Patricia Mulvihill
Vertigo/DC Comics
160-page hardcovers, $19.99 each
Book One ISBN: 9781401235574
Book Two ISBN: 9781401235581

Up to this point, we've seen sex and violence kept strictly in the realm of fantasy, where the thrill of action and danger is used to simulate the thrill of sexual activity — and vice-versa — in combinations ranging from the mannered and restrained to the loopy-beyond-words, from Victorian sensibilities to a work that reads like a female gothic/sex fantasy in name only. And that's all fine. Fantasy is fine, but if we're going to discuss the mingling of sex and violence, even in fictional form, it seems wrong to end without discussing the real-world consequences of such a thing.

Hence: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I think it's a given that a Swedish crime novel, written by a man, with the original title Men Who Hate Women would probably need a strong female protagonist to justify its existence.

I read Stieg Larrson's book eight years ago or thereabouts, and found it fairly pedestrian save for the character of Lisbeth Salander, who was prickly, emotionally defensive and bisexual — pretty much everything I look for in a protagonist. She was interesting enough that I sought out the Swedish-language film adaptation, with Noomi Rapace filling out Lisbeth's surly self-reliance better than one could've possibly hoped. I still haven't seen the David Fincher version. With three films' worth of Noomi in the role she was seemingly born to play, why would I bother?

Yes, I am a gay man.

Niels Arden Oplev's cinematic adaptation was faithful to the spirit of Larrson's novel, while cleaning up a few of the stupider bits of the book and otherwise streamlining the plot to fit everything into a two-and-a-half hour movie, so it should come as no surprise that Scottish mystery writer Denise Mina has likewise taken a few liberties in her script for the DC Comics graphic-novel adaptation. Unfortunately, while Oplev worked to fit the novel into an absorbing film, Mina worked to fit the novel into a Guardian editorial.

 

Flaw number one: Lisbeth looking down at the paper, rather than staring Mister Executive squarely in the eye. Sequence from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Book One, ©2013 Moggliden AB.

 

As I said, it's been the better part of a decade since I read the book, so I forget whether Larsson's original story opened on quite such a... comic-book opening as does its comic-book equivalent. A maid walks into the study of wealthy corporate cheiftain Henrik Vanger, gives him a package and apologizes. Opening the wrapping to find a framed flower inside, Vanger calls retired detective Morell so that he can apologize to Vanger as well.

"They are taunting me to my grave..." says Vanger, "...it's so cruel."

"You don't have to open them," Morell replies.

"You know I do, Morell. You of all people know that."

"Harriet haunts me too. Happy birthday, friend."

I remember the wordless opening of the film version much more clearly, which handled the scene with more subtlety and didn't throw away the "seemingly dead relative keeps mailing flowers" gimmick, adding drama by saving the big reveal for midway through the scene in which journalist Mikael Blomkvist first meets Vanger and learns of the mystery that he'll be asked to unravel. For all I know, therefore, Mina's actually being faithful to the book, rather than extemporaneously doing what she does throughout these two volumes: beating her readers over the head in as obvious a fashion as possible with what the story's trying to tell us anyway.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The story is this: Swedish journalist Blomkvist, fresh from having been convicted of slander by a rather clever (and thoroughly corrupt) industrialist, is hired by the industrialist Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance and presumed death of his niece, Harriet, some forty years ago. In the course of his investigation, Blomkvist will find himself working with the seemingly autistic, genius-level hacker Lisbeth Salander as the two uncover a series of grisly murders and their connections to both Harriet and her extended family.

 

Does the novel's middle-aged journalist protagonist really need to be depicted as a younger, square-jawed blonde? Sequence from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Book One.

 

As you can probably guess — assuming you haven't already encountered it in one medium or other in the past decade or so — this story will get far uglier before it's done. In addition to being selfish corporate assholes, by and large, the Vanger family also has some rather unsavory Nazi ties, as several members were collaborators during World War II. Blomkvist and Salander's investigations will slowly but surely peel the Vanger clan apart like an onion, revealing torture and murder on an epic scale.

Likewise, Lisbeth Salander's tough, no-bullshit demeanor is both a mask protecting the trauma she carries inside, and armor against a world that seemingly exists just to drag her through hell. Early in the first book, we discover that our heroine has been under legal guardianship and considered to be a risk to herself in vague, hazily-defined ways. Her previous guardian was kind and left her to her own devices, but her new one is a sadistic pig, a pervert and a rapist — seriously, the sadistic pig rapes her in fairly short order, and she'll carve those words onto his chest when she later stops by to take revenge and extricate herself from his "guardianship."

Revenge, it turns out is a talent for which Salander is quite gifted. As the book progresses, her actions make increasingly clear that in both the digital sphere and the real world, Lisbeth Salander is a force to be reckoned with. She does much of the legwork in solving the mystery of Harriet's disappearance, and gradually begins to overshadow Blomkvist as protagonist... not surprising, when you think about it, as she's the title character and all.

 

Lisbeth Salander, caring and dutiful daughter. Sequence from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Book One.

 

Given the actual contents of the story, Denise Mina's annoying attempts to beat her audience over the head with political lectures is overkill, and works solely to pull readers out of a plotline that makes the same points without resorting to grand elaborations of the bleeding obvious. Corporations don't act with the little people in mind? Really, you don't say? The media sexes up mass murder by making celebrities out of killers? That's the first time I've heard that one. Next thing you know, you'll be telling me in declarative sentences that rape is a bad thing that traumatizes its victims, despite having just shown me that in unflinching detail... hey, wait, you did that, too! In fact, you've been scattering sexual-assault statistics illustrated with full-page panels throughout these two books!

Stopping the flow of the story to ensure that the underlying message is spelled out for the audience in simplistic, sloganeering terms is the act of a writer who doesn't trust her readers to pick up on what they've just read. It's trading literature for mere propaganda, the hallmark of an ideological hack who mistakes the people around her for "sheeple." Writers who want their audience to appreciate their efforts shouldn't go out of their way to insult said audience's intelligence.

But for me, that's not the biggest error that Mina commits. Throughout these two books, Mina works overtime to correct what she appears to consider the source material's biggest flaw: that Lisbeth Salander is an emotionally-scarred human being struggling to overcome her many obstacles despite carrying an enormous amount of damage, rather than a goddamned Mary Sue who personifies the proper, middle-class definition of a Confident Young Woman.

Part of this is the fault of the artists. Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti are capable of realism in character design when drawing the older men and women who populate the story, but still insist on drawing Salander as a baby-faced supermodel in goth drag. But Mina doesn't help, even in something as simple as dialogue. Far from the laconic protagonist who made The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo an international bestseller, these books' version of Lisbeth Salander comes across all too often as a mildly darker version of Sara Gilbert's character, Darlene, from the 1990s sitcom Roseanne.

Worse, Mina feels the need to make Salander's sexual make-up more acceptable. In the original novel, Lisbeth Salander is a complicated character with a sexuality to match. Her relationship with girlfriend Mimmi carries both a certain amount of emotional distance, as well as a distinct taste for top/bottom domination play. After working in close quarters with Blomkvist for an extended period of time, she jumps his bones more out of irritation that he hasn't noticed her than anything else. Then, having done so, Salander cools to him sexually even as she begins to warm toward him as a person — to the point of considering telling Blomkvist at the end of the book that she has feelings for him, before finding herself put off by his relationship with his editor, Erika.

Mina puts a stop to all that. Salander isn't just her protagonist, she's her gay protagonist, and that means that a More Positive Portrayal of Homosexuality Must Be Presented. Out goes the role-playing with Mimmi: Lesbian sexuality apparently means lounging around in bed together in your panties. Hell, we see Salander smiling and disco-dancing with Mimmi at a bar! In what other version of this story does that happen? And while The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo clearly calls for Lisbeth to sleep with Blomkvist, it isn't allowed to mean anything more than that. Remember, folks: Sexual orientation is a sharp dividing line between two groups of people, straight and gay, all of whom are Born That Way — and definitely not a long, strange and twisty continuum of many kinds of sexuality, consistent with our status as individuals. Bisexuality? What's that?

 

Hey, Guardian reader! You got "politically correct" wrong! Denise Mina screws up her protagonist in the name of politics, in this sequence from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Book Two.

 

Look, I get that writers aren't given the chance to reimagine bestselling novels every day. I get that opportunities to speak your mind to large audiences don't exactly grow on trees. Hell, I even get that discussing matters of sexuality, matters in which you have definite ideas, can lead you into a minefield — click here and scroll down to the last comment at the bottom of the page, to see me be accused of pretty much exactly what I just accused Denise Mina of doing, not one paragraph ago.

Nonetheless, when you're telling a story, your first duty is to the story you're telling. Fail that, and you've failed the job, and best intentions be damned.

 

Back to comics-review listings

 

All site contents ©2016-2020 Dirk Deppey, save where noted.