This is the bad place.
– Eleanor Shellstrop, The Good Place Season 1, Episode 9
Riding high off the renewed interest in the Fourth World generated by Mister Miracle’s success — and armed with the industry’s foremost talent in deconstructing the gendering of our bodies and experiences of them in Cecil Castellucci — the six issue Female Furies mini-series felt like a sure bet. After three issues, that potential has lapsed into the replication of old patterns with predictable results.
As with many similar situations, the intent was clear: Female Furies had its heart set on delivering a fine grain performance and analysis of patterns of abuse and harassment that women face in the workplace, set against the mythic backdrop of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World to provide the scopophilic spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
Instead of offering the expected medicine along with the sugar, Female Furies replicates the disease, painting a portrait of abuse and exploitation that simply reiterates the historically banal misogynist violence of super-hero comics without problematizing or challenging it in any meaningful way. As uniquely shocking as this instance is, it’s one in a long chain of bungled attempts to do justice to complex social issues that is ultimately more reflective of the ambivalent state of the industry and its institutions than the talents of any individual creator.
A recurring theme of my writing over the last couple years has been about how the pace of technology and world events has impacted the way in which writers formulate the future. The focus has largely been on science fiction writers like Warren Ellis, Bruce Sterling, and William Gibson who have been frequently looked at as forecasters for the future, whether they’ve intended or even wanted to be seen that way. In a certain sense, that predicament has resolved itself thanks to the bleak political and ecological realities we’re facing in the here and now.
But there’s a lot more than just our ability to conceive of a progressive view of the future being impacted by the speed and fluidity of world events in the present moment. Our conceptions of vital social issues are being challenged and litigated with an unprecedented speed and intensity, one of many under examined consequences of Sterling’s belief that we have, for the first time, reached the ability to see history being manufactured as it happens.
One significant byproduct of this has been a sharp increase in a vocal desire for comics to not just reflect the social and political values of the readership, but articulate them as well. It’s an understandable impulse given the chaotic state of the world, but it’s a desire that the established order of the industry is ill-equipped to meet, despite both the demand and the apparent eagerness for creators to indulge in it.
The desire to tackle social justice issues like intimate partner violence goes all the way back to Siegel and Schuster’s original take on Superman, but how these issues get addressed on the page had changed remarkably over the years. One of the best references point for how these issues are currently approached in comics is Judd Winick and Dale Eaglesham’s 2002 “Brother’s Keeper” arc of Green Lantern, in which Kyle Rayner was confronted by a hate crime perpetrated against a gay co-worker in his civilian job.
There’s plenty that can be critiqued over a decade later, but the story was a groundbreaking critical and commercial success informed by Winick’s deeply held beliefs about advocating for the LBGTQIA community. Winick was a unique creator for the pre-social media era because of how public and well known his journey to being an ally was. Winick famously befriended Pedro Zamora, who was both gay and HIV-positive, during their time together on the MTV reality show The Real World: San Francisco.
Following Zamora’s death, Winick dedicated himself to continuing his friend’s activism. That spirit emerged in Winick’s autobiographical Pedro and Me, and continued into his Green Lantern work and beyond.
Because it was implicitly understood that Winick was speaking directly through Kyle on a topic that had touched him personally, there was an intimacy to his work that wasn’t possible for Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ “Hard Traveling Heroes” approach of having people periodically yell at Hal Jordan for being a racist. It was also a significant departure from the habit of using the X-Men to simulate the experiences of marginalized groups through questionable extensions of the mutant metaphor like using the Legacy Virus as a stand in for HIV/AIDS.
The hate crime issue depicting a gay bashing attack against Terry was published four years after the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, an act of homophobic violence that reached international attention and underscored the critical need for allyship, especially given that it was downplayed as dispute over a drug debt for years afterwards. Winick distinguished himself as a straight man who could talk to other straight men about the process of making space for gay peers in their lives while remaining realistic about the contestation of that space and the work that needed to be done in order to sustain it from violent attack.
As much of a landmark achievement as it was for DC’s willingness to tackle these issues head on, it has remained the de facto approach for how violence against marginalized groups is portrayed for over a decade. Despite the exceptional nature of Winick’s personal history, it further entrenched the established practice for mostly straight, white, male creators to depict mostly straight, white, male heroes responding to bigoted violence against a marginalized secondary character.
The critique of that dynamic found a popular voice in Gail Simone’s 1999 Women in Refrigerators polemic, which was, ironically, named after the incident in which Major Force murdered Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend Alex DeWitt and stuffed her in Rayner’s fridge, originally published in 1994.
While WiR catalogued a long list of individual incidences of violence against women in superhero comics that happened under a wide range of circumstances, it also identified the specific pattern that we now know as “fridging,” whenever a woman is beaten, raped, or killed in order to motivate or elicit an emotional response from a male hero.
As that critique took hold and encouraged broader critical analysis, the legacy of “Brother’s Keeper” became much more ambivalent. Despite Terry’s gender, hate crime came under renewed scrutiny because the violence that he suffered was instrumentalized for Kyle’s heroic reaction to it. The fact that Kyle is, by some estimates, the worst offender among male superheroes for having dead girlfriends, added to the way that gay men are universally feminized by patriarchy did nothing to help the case.
One of the more substantive critiques that evolved out of WiR was that the fundamental issue of fridging was that the female characters subjected to it lacked agency over the violence and its aftermath, should they live. To many, the fact of women being subjected to violence was not necessarily objectionable. The fact that their perspective was not considered or centered in the experience of it was, along with its ubiquity, the primary sticking point. A point of contention that was echoed for racialized violence and violence targeting LBGTQIA characters like Terry.
Thus “Brother’s Keeper” will likely never be looked at with an unblemished record, but will hopefully always carry with it the understanding that it transformed superhero comics’ ability to speak to social issues in a badly needed way, even if the primacy of its example has remained for far too long.
Female Furies presents a very different set of concerns around what are fundamentally the same issues confronting “Brother’s Keeper” and what we now call “fridging.” At its outset, Female Furies focused on Aurelie, one of the titular unit of women under Granny Goodness’ command, ultimately in service to Darkseid. The ruler of Apokolips and the living embodiment of entropy.
The general framework of Female Furies, its promotion, and the critical reception to it all firmly place it within a spectrum of comics addressing the types of abuse and harassment emphasized by the Me Too movement begun by Tarana Burke in 2006 and reaching international recognition in 2017 from its use in relation to allegations against Harvey Weinstein.
As such, the bulk of the first three issues focus on Aurelie being groomed by Willik for a horrific scope of abuse in the guise of special attention and training that includes rape resulting in an unwanted pregnancy. The procession of what’s perpetrated against Aurelie is a carefully researched depiction of workplace harassment and abuse that mirror patterns evident in reporting on high profile incidents since the 2017 watershed moment of Ronan Farrow’s reporting on Harvey Weinstein.
Where things truly take a turn is the climax of issue #3 in which Aurelie is brutally murdered by her abuser and dies in the arms of Big Barda, who cradles the dying Aurelie in an imitation of the Pieta and screams into the air. All of this in an issue that dovetailed Aurelie’s escalating abuse with the budding romance between Barda and Scott Free, who will eventually escape Apokolips together.
So what we’re left with in this shift in perspective is Aurelie’s death being used to further Barda’s radicalization the same way that Alex DeWitt’s death or Terry’s beating motivated Kyle Rayner. This presents us with an opportunity for a finer grain analysis of how this type of violence is portrayed given that the gendered dynamics interrogated by WiR are not reproduced between Aurelie and Barda, and neither is there another prominent gap in social location between the two as there was between Kyle and Terry.
At the same time, Aurelie does occupy a distinct subject position as a victim of abuse, which needs to be considered in its own right. The question that really needs asking is what the value of the depiction of Aurelie’s abuse is, who it benefits, and at whose expense it comes. One of the outcomes of the pattern of violence described by WiR is that the woman suffering the abuse lacks a voice or agency, which reproduces the way that this kind of violence is treated in real life.
While Aurelie’s abuse is framed largely from her own perspective in the first two issues, the same does not hold true for the third. Thanks to a bizarre plot hatched by Granny Goodness, Aurelie gets a vision of what an escape from her abuse could look like from Beautiful Dreamer and even manages a brief reprieve at Himon’s Refuge before being dragged back by her fellow Furies, resulting in her murder. It’s a very accurate allegory for both how women are expected to enforce the patriarchal order on each other and how women in abusive situations are at the highest risk of murder in the lead up to and early days of leaving.
That said, Aurelie’s brief escape and her window of seeing a better life is calculated to maximize the emotional impact of her murder and is also how the shift in perspective is executed, making Barda’s complicity in retrieving Aurelie and the ensuing guilt over her murder the focus of the issue’s climax. As “realistic” as it is, the portrayal still objectifies Aurelie’s abuse and puts it in service to Barda’s backstory the same way that we’ve seen it done for male protagonists time and time again.
It disempowers Aurelie and sends a deeply ambivalent message to survivors among the readership. It definitely gives voice to the experience of not being believed or understood as a victim, but it also reduces that pain down to a teaching tool for someone else’s personal development rather than charting the kind of journey into healing and recovery of self that, outside of Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner’s work on Harley Quinn, we so rarely see centered in mainstream comics.
The question to me then, both about Female Furies and female-led superhero comics more broadly, is are we satisfied with this kind of recursive parity with male heroic journeys in superhero comics? Do we simply want to eliminate difference or do we want to tear down the existing structures to build something that reflects a distinct set of values and desires?
In a sense, it leads back to Kierkegaard’s critique of the sacrifice of Isaac and the idea of interrogating a model that gets has been repeated into banality to re-emphasize the dynamics at play. Not least because Aurelie’s death and its implications for Barda aren’t new, they’re the restaging of a classic Fourth World story.
Kierkegaard wryly played out a scenario where a priest recounting the sacrifice of Isaac would be forced into action if one of his congregants took it upon himself to murder his own son in imitation of Abraham. The priest’s motivation in recounting the story is not, after all, to encourage people to go out and do it for themselves. So why, Kierkegaard asks, do we value this story in the way it’s told?
If we look at Aurelie’s death as the same kind of sacrifice, then we can ask what greater purpose it serves, what covenant — if any — it honors, and what “god” it’s in service to. The same questions that Scott and Barda had to contemplate in negotiating with Darkseid over the fate of their son in Mister Miracle. In that comic, Scott and Barda decided that the cost was too high and Jake’s life too precious so they upended the entire order of the Fourth World by assassinating Darkseid instead.
I think that’s the calculus that we should be bringing to this kind of storytelling because while the violence in a comic book is definitely simulated, it can still cheapen and degrade the discourses it allegorizes. We have to ask ourselves: are we just feeding bodies into the wood-chipper because it’s an expedient, allegedly time honored way to get attention, or is it truly merited?
In the context of Female Furies, Aurelie’s life is sold far too cheaply and serves to reinforce conventional belief rather than further a systemic or institutional critique. The primary problem is that the abusive individuals and institutions shielding them, both directly on the page and who they are allegorized to represent in the real world are already understood as such for the comic’s audience.
Apokolips is cosmically, congenitally evil. It’s the literal embodiment of entropy, degradation, and torture. Everyone on Apokolips is dedicated to being evil and doing evil in a way that lacks the self rationalizing nature of humanity. They represent a consensus view of evil. Their leadership is nakedly fascist, built on Hitler encouraging infighting and destructive competition within his cabinet to prevent challenges to his power.
Because of that, there are no surprises or opportunities for reflection on the abusive dynamics in play that don’t reinforce conventional, pedestrian thinking. The idea that Darkseid would sexually manipulate Granny Goodness is hardly surprising and the idea that she would internalize that experience and take it out on the women she’s responsible for is almost a foregone conclusion. The overall framing makes it more difficult to properly appreciate and understand Aurelie’s ordeal because it’s entirely in line with the values of the space she inhabits.
The political subtext of the series only serves to further undermine its discourse around harassment and abuse. As Monita Mohan pointed out in her thoughts on Female Furies, the idea of there being beauty pageants on Apokolips is dissonant and there’s a point to that dissonance. It’s the same general idea as Highfather and Scott discussing the Anti=Life Equation using the vocabulary of nuclear weapons and DeSaad talking about inspections as if he were representing Iraq, North Korea, or Iran rather than Apokolips in Mister Miracle. It creates a specific, explicit political context to consider the story within.
Beauty pageants are a patriarchal ritual, but they also have very specific associations with the current President and his treatment of women. So does the phrase “nasty woman,” uttered by Aurelie’s abuser shortly before her murder. These references are meant to connect the ideology of Apokolips to that of the President, but as Monita points out, this isn’t going to be news to anyone picking up a six-issue mini-series starring niche characters with an overwhelmingly female fan base.
I absolutely agree with Monita that the dynamics explored in Female Furies need to be articulated in titles with much wider circulation with more general audiences like Batman and Superman. That’s a big part of the calculus for me in contemplating how dearly we should sell the lives of characters like Aurelie and the simulated violence that goes along with it. But I would also take it further by critiquing the fact that no matter what happens in the last three issues, Female Furies will have been almost entirely about women bearing the violence and also the responsibility for their proximity to it.
I think we do need to interrogate those dynamics, especially how Granny Goodness perpetuates a similar kind of inter-generational trauma onto Aurelie and the other Furies to what King and Gerads examined in Scott’s relationship with Highfather in Mister Miracle. I think there’s a lot of value in those conversations, but stories about women interrogating their proximity and complicity in each others’ abuse is not where the focus on these issues needs to be for DC Comics right now.
Leaving aside how niche Female Furies is, the fact that all of the institutions represented either directly or subtextually suffer no love lost for hosting the abuse depicted fails to recognize why so much of the readership is seeking catharsis in this kind of storytelling from both DC Comics in specific and mass media in general. It’s easy enough to recognize that Granny Goodness and the Furies were indoctrinated into the social order of Apokolips to the point that suffering a loss of faith in it and their sense of purpose within it is a traumatic experience, but its status as an Evil Place of Evil makes it impossible to empathize with that loss.
Which is a significant issue because a loss of faith in a number of institutions and individuals has been the most collectively felt collateral damage of the rolling wave of abuse allegations reaching the national media since Harvey Weinstein’s outing. Contemplating public attachment to the innocence of R Kelly is a very different undertaking than doing the same for Michael Jackson. The ramifications of a culture of abuse and impunity at Fox News are very different than those of Matt Lauer’s documented behavior.
It’s especially relevant to the climate in comics in the context of what the last five years of disclosures about abuse and harassment has revealed about the dysfunction within a number of publishers and related institutions, DC itself among them. Eddie Berganza’s behavior was public knowledge framed as an open secret and described euphemistically until his continued retention was considered too much to bear when Shelly Bond left the company. The euphemisms and asterices disappeared. Berganza’s name was hurled back at the company like a Molotov cocktail and his presence was considered an open provocation by many until the sea change in media coverage brought on by the Weinstein revelations swept him out the door.
Anger about Berganza’s apparent impunity had simmered for a long time, but Bond’s departure was a flashpoint for anger and a lever to pry at the inequity. Replaying Aurelie’s death as a motivator for Barda offers no catharsis or opportunity for reconciliation because there’s no equivalent exchange, there’s no forthcoming effigy in compensation. There’s no reciprocity to acknowledge her worth, just another body to agonize over.
DC’s reconciliation with Berganza’s legacy in a material way will be a long process of improving hiring and HR practices that will be necessarily opaque to readers and the industry at large, but there’s an equivalent desire for this reconciliation to be simultaneously enacted through the comics themselves. It isn’t enough to kill Aurelie again in the context of a consensus driven political allegory in which women put up all the collateral and bear all of the consequences.
Scott and Barda refused to hand Jake over to Darkseid because they were tired of perpetuating the same cycle while getting back nothing but more grief, war, and self recrimination at their own complicity. Killing Aurelie all over again like this is just more of the same, and part of why I think Monita’s observation that these dynamics need to reach a broader audience in the pages of DC’s flagship titles is so important.
No one is asking for Superman to be portrayed as rapist, but we are asking for some equivalent exchange, an extension of the same kind of risk that Judd Winick and Dale Eaglesham were allowed to take in “Brother’s Keeper.” But we can’t be comforted into thinking that these behaviors and the mechanisms used to excuse and hide them only happen in places we already dislike or distrust.
We need to witness the same loss of faith in the institutions of the DCU as we’ve borne in real life.
It’s not unprecedented. There were wave after wave of super-hero comics published in an attempt to make meaning out of the existential crisis of Watergate and the loss of the Vietnam war. Ta-Nehisi Coates is currently engaged in an allegorical reckoning with the traumatic political and material effects of Trump’s election masked by the events of Secret Empire. Captain America: The Winter Soldier remains a seminal moment for the MCU because of the moral courage shown in Steve’s willingness to tear down SHIELD.
In some respects, we’ve already seen something remarkably similar in the second volume of Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette’s Wonder Woman Earth One. The story is fundamentally about the risks and rewards of the vulnerability that goes along with trust, how Hippolyta is eventually murdered by the Nazi that she dedicated herself to deradicalizing and Diana falling prey to a version of Doctor Psycho who presented himself publicly as a feminist ally while privately espousing all of the worst traits of pick up artists and “men’s rights activists.”
Earth One Volume Two wasn’t about losing faith in righteous institutions as a result of abuse, but what it did do was allow Diana to be portrayed as being vulnerable to Doctor Psycho’s depredations in an attempt to cut through the stigma of being victimized in that way by allowing a character essentialized as a feminist role model and pillar of strength to be compromised in that way. The comic offered up a powerful parable about the pitfalls of wanting to believe the best in people without giving in to cynicism or self defeat, but at the same time, that portrayal was enabled by Morrison’s personal prestige and its status as a self contained story.
Of course the courage it takes to ask for those kind of stories and the impulse to create them comes with the familiarity of being in Aurelie’s position or, by extension, Isaac’s. There’s an argument to be made that the most revolutionary aspect of Derrida’s interrogation of the sacrifice of Isaac was to explore the aftermath of the event from Isaac’s perspective and represent it as a sacrifice of ethics to obligation, the confirmation of Abraham’s commitment to God coming at the expense of Abraham’s relationship with Isaac, which they both have to live with.
What made Mister Miracle so powerful is that Scott approached the role of Abraham after having grown up as Isaac, one of the ways in which King and Gerads’ vision of him started to bridge the gap in understanding how men become the collateral damage of patriarchy. Women, LBGTQIA people, and people of color are well acquainted with the role of Isaac. They understand the experience of being made subaltern and sacrificed to preserve the hegemonic order.
In a contemporary political frame, Aurelie as a manifestation of Isaac is easily understood in the example of Christine Blasey Ford or Anita Hill sacrificing significant parts of themselves in service to political processes that became empty spectacles of public ridicule rather than the exercise of transparency in appointing justices to the most powerful court in the nation.
There are intra-feminist dimensions to this as well, like the long overdue reckoning for how Monica Lewinsky was sacrificed by leading feminists of the period as part of the political calculus that Bill Clinton could not be forced out of office at the risk of losing progress on women’s reproductive rights, but as we’ve seen in Female Furies and elsewhere, there will always be a bigger appetite on the part of the establishment for disputes or self criticism on the part of the subaltern than challenges to the established order.
As much as there is a need for laying out the dynamics of abuse and drawing attention to the ways that women are made complicit in each others’ oppression, pointing out the mechanics of oppression doesn’t constitute praxis. If DC or any of the other major publishers want to rise to the demands of the present moment, it’s going to take a lot more than inside baseball for a narrow feminist readership. It’s going to require commissioning work that makes the publisher more vulnerable than the creators or the readers.