Transmyscira: The Second Amendment Doesn’t Apply to the Fourth Wall

I can draw a perfect replica of a Desert Eagle handgun from memory, and I’ve been able to do it since before either Snatch or The Matrix came out.

The unique L-shaped slide, the weird, bulbous outline of the barrel that looks like a water balloon held by the knot, the whole thing. I know it like Claude Monet knew his lily pads because Jeff Scott Campbell taught me how to draw one back in 1998, when I picked up my first copy of Danger Girl at age 14.

Even if you haven’t seen Snatch and thus don’t necessarily know the name of the gun, chances are you recognize either the unique slide action or barrel shape. Because the rest of the entertainment world fell in love with the Desert Eagle the same way that Campbell did at roughly the same time, resulting in appearances in 40 TV shows and movies by 1999. The Matrix is a particularly notorious example because of the preponderance of slow motion shots of the matte black versions of it that the Agents carried.

Danger Girl interior art by J. Scott Campbell

In a perverse kind of way, The Wachowski Sisters’ and Campbell’s parallel fixations on the gun illustrate how the distinct visual grammar of comics and film can communicate the same ideas. Campbell, in his own right, did at least as much to communicate the intricacies of the workings of the gun as it was used by series protagonist Abbey Chase.

Danger Girl wasn’t the beginning of my gun education through comics. That happened roughly four years earlier through a dog eared, coverless issue of Punisher War Journal cataloging and describing Frank’s weapons, right down to the relative velocity of the different calibers of bullets he used and how that altered the effects on the human body.

So just to recap, I knew what a hollow point round was and what it does to a person shot with it by age ten. I knew the difference between and MP-5 and an MP-5k by sight before I knew the difference between eyeshadow and eyeliner.

Cover art by J. Scott Campbell

That would be all but expected if I were Tonya Harding or Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Winter’s Bone, but I’m not. I’m the product of a quiet Canadian suburb and the only gun I’ve ever fired was a .22 caliber bolt action rifle on the biathlon range in Canmore, Alberta. Such is the intensity, reach, and pervasiveness of American gun culture.

I mention the spring of 1998 and my interest in Danger Girl stemming from the Cliffhanger feature in that year’s February issue of Wizard Magazine in specific as a pivotal moment. It was just over a year before Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed fifteen people including themselves in the Columbine shooting rampage. The incident whose impact eventually rippled into shattering an entire generation of youth — thanks to right wing misappropriation of the violence intent on masking the basic fact that rational gun policy would have kept the high powered weapons out of the teenagers’ hands.

What’s so interesting about Danger Girl as a formative influence is just how quickly the knowledge gleaned from it and others like it shifted from being completely normalized to a sign of worrying radicalization. The fetishizing and specific detail applied to weapons like the Desert Eagle or Abbey’s co-star Sydney Savage’s Steyr Aug haven’t aged well in the intervening years that have seen the death toll of mass shootings eclipse Columbine. But it’s well worth examining why it seemed so unremarkable in 1998.

Cover art by J. Scott Campbell

The full answer is probably too complicated to fully unpack here, but Danger Girl started out under Jim Lee’s Wildstorm imprint of Image Comics, and like almost all of Image Comics’ output in its first decade of existence, the initial run of Danger Girl was a transparent pastiche of Jeff Scott Campbell and co-creator Alex Garner’s formative influences, chief among them James Bond, Indiana Jones, and G.I. Joe.

The Bond influence is most clearly legible in the early sequence replicating Roger Moore’s game of crocodile hopscotch from Live and Let Die that results in the seat of Abbey’s leggings getting bitten off, baring her butt. Because Danger Girl is nothing if not horny. Which is notable because it’s hard to imagine a franchise that has done more to fetishize a specific gun than the Bond films have for the Walther PPK, drawing a straight line to the significance of Abbey’s signature Desert Eagle.

The G.I. Joe influence isn’t quite as hyper sexual, yet is just as transparent through Agent Zero and his backstory’s debt to Snake Eyes. That half is significant because the G.I. Joe franchise exists in the public consciousness as it exists today, soft selling militarism through toys that come accessorized with assault weapons, thanks to the Reagan administration’s efforts to deregulate advertising to children.

So it’s not hard to see how a lack of self awareness and circumspection on Garner and Campbell’s part lead to inadvertently teaching a fourteen year old kid how to draw a handgun that retails for nearly $2,000 in excruciating detail. What’s harder to understand is how that same lack of awareness has persisted across the comic book industry to the present day.

It’s a question I’ve been pondering in earnest since I was invited to contribute to IDW and DC’s joint Love is Love anthology put together in response to the horrific night club shooting in Orlando, Florida on June 12th, 2016, whose astronomical death toll, the result of a single shooter, was surpassed by another single shooter this past October in Las Vegas.

Love is Love interior art by Alejandra Gutiérrez

At the time I wasn’t thinking about magazine capacity, background checks, or the long term effects of the failure to renew the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, itself put into place partly because of the shooting deaths of 34 children and a teacher in Stockton, California in 1989 by a gunman wielding an AK-47. This is a weapon that seems disturbingly quaint in comparison to the AR-15 and its various modifications that have taken its place in recent years.

I was thinking about the community that was under assault and trying to do justice to the vital space that clubs like Pulse create. Several other contributors were thinking about those things though, expressing a multiplicity of perspectives on the place of guns in American life and the public imagination. One that stuck with me was a simple strip that depicted Deathstroke giving up guns in response to the carnage. I took the sentiment behind it at face value, but I was also well aware that Deathstroke was, at the time, and still is, written by Christopher Priest, a card carrying member of the NRA.

Deathstroke interior art by Denys Cowan

It’s a fact I’ve foregrounded both times that I’ve discussed his seminal issue tackling gun violence in Chicago, and I think it says a lot about the actual politics of the contemporary industry that Priest, as a conservative and NRA member, still had a great deal of pointed and valid observations to make about the racial hypocrisies embedded into the national conversation around gun ownership.

Priest was, in my estimation, absolutely correct in suggesting that incompetent and trigger happy white gun owners can escape culpability for shooting people of color. This was illustrated deftly by a scenario in which the police are initially willing to let a white woman off the hook for shooting three innocent Black people to death by falsely designating the two men as would-be rapists and justifying the child’s death due to his involvement in drug dealing. It’s a phenomenon that manifests itself in real life with sickening regularity from the death of Renisha McBride, which did result in a conviction to that of Colten Boushie, which did not, despite his killer mounting a defense that had “no air of reality.”

Where I think Priest falls short and Tony Isabella has been more daring and thorough in Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands, is in beginning to connect lethal police violence to the over-policing and the withdrawal of public services in communities of color epitomized by his conception of Brick City in Cleveland, Ohio.

Deathstroke interior art by Denys Cowan

The same is also true of David F. Walker’s 2016 Nighthawk miniseries with Ramon Villalobos and Tamra Bonvillain, which similarly dealt with the trafficking of fantastical weapons, although it was more explicit in tying together racist policing and the arming of white supremacist criminals as facets of the same fundamental issue.

While the issue of the NRA functioning as a lobby group to protect the revenue stream of guns as conspicuous consumption is somewhat of an issue all of its own, in my view it ties into a larger framework of white supremacy that lies at the heart of America’s love affair with guns. Gun ownership is, despite all statistical facts to the contrary, supposed to be about protecting hearth and home.

But from what and whom? Well, the notorious Willie Horton ads from the 1988 Presidential campaign and President Trump’s fixation on MS-13 in his first State of the Union address give us the indication that it’s the racialized other, which is a fear that has been consistently stoked as long as the United States has existed as a nation.

The prevailing mythology of the 2nd Amendment is that it was put in place in the event that either England re-invaded the country or that the government became tyrannical. But it seems a lot more likely that it was instituted and defended in order to maintain the necessary force of arms to put down slave revolts, a rationale that evolved to accommodate the needs of segregationists like Bull Connor and George Wallace, ensuring that institutional forms of violence have been bolstered in private. It’s a dynamic that Reagan tipped his hat to in his infamous “States Rights” speech in the environs of where three civil rights workers were shot dead in 1964.

Black Lightning interior art by Clayton Henry

It’s the same fundamental concern that granted Robert Zimmerman heroic status among conservatives as a test case for Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws in his trial for the extrajudicial shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Martin’s innocence was immaterial, Zimmerman acting in defense of white supremacy, in this case “protecting” a gated community, is what prevailed as the heart of the case.

Which leads me to believe that in 1999, just as now, with 17 students of a Florida high school dead at the hands of a former classmate, the victims of the Columbine shooting were considered to be the acceptable collateral damage of the convergence of the white supremacist need to maintain force of arms against the ever evolving category of the racialized other with the capitalist desire to exploit guns as an outlet for conspicuous consumption.

I honestly believe that this is not a difficult or controversial conclusion to reach in 2018 in the context of a President who has stood firm in his belief that the Central Park Five should have been executed for crimes they were exonerated for, pardoned Joe Arpaio, and backed an accused child molester against the prosecutor of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing in a Senate race. President Trump’s predilection for saying the quiet part loud goes far beyond himself to ironically lay bare some of the most uncomfortable truths about America and ought to, and in some cases has, emboldened critics on the left to seize on an unprecedented opportunity to criticize typically subterranean policy goals and personal beliefs.

Black Lightning interior art by Clayton Henry

Despite that fact, in an industry that we’re constantly told is exceptionally liberal, one of the most vocally skeptical voices on the topic of gun ownership is an NRA member. It’s that same supposedly liberal industry that let Ales Kot’s observation that Marvel had licensed the Punisher logo to Clint Eastwood’s glowing biopic of pathological liar Chris Kyle and artist Mitch Gerads (The Punisher, Sheriff of Baghdad, Mister Miracle) being commissioned to produce a patch honoring Kyle go without significant comment. The same logo that had to be removed from east Kentucky police cars because of the character’s association with extrajudicial killings.

So I feel like it’s a reasonable evaluation of facts rather than an expression of abject cynicism to say that I’m not holding my breath for anyone in mainstream comics to radically rethink their casual deployment of gun violence and continued glorification thereof.

It’s why I’ve been skeptical of Where We Live, the forthcoming anthology from Image Comics planned in the wake of the Vegas shooting, above and beyond the fact it appeared to originally have been exploited to grease the wheels for Scott Allie’s comeback, although he is no longer associated with the project post-public outcry.

I’m sure that there are several people involved in the Where We Live anthology who have the best intentions, but I also can’t help but wonder, the Allie swerve aside, whether the reality that Las Vegas is the beating heart of gun tourism will be examined, a spectacle that includes Hello Kitty decorated AK-47s, which are no longer the product of sarcastic design fiction. It’s a possibility that feels particularly remote given that Kick-Ass spinoff character Hit Girl’s new ongoing series at Image is set to ship its first issue on February 21st.

Cover art by Amy Reeder

Sure, Mark Millar certainly didn’t know that his comic book about a little girl who shoots people (and also has a history of spouting misogynist and homophobic slurs) was going to debut a week after a brutal shooting at a high school, but this is a character who has had the gimmick of generating laughs on the basis of being a little girl who shoots people and yells slurs at them since her debut in 2008. This won’t even be the first time that the franchise has run up against a major mass shooting incident.

That happened in 2013, when the second film adaptation came out in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting and Millar found himself defending his franchise built around a little girl who shoots people against co-star Jim Carrey who dropped out of promoting the movie as a result. Millar chastised Carrey at the time, saying that the film had to “do what is says on the tin” and that “our toolbox can’t be sabotaged by curtailing the use of guns in an action movie,” apparently without acknowledging the fundamental issue that he was putting some of those guns in the hands of a child in the wake of a shooting spree that killed several children.

For Image, it’s yet another instance where they seemingly want to maintain their status as being a de facto bespoke printing company that takes a piece of the sales without intervening in the content they publish while also trying to cultivate a brand image associated with progressive causes like access to reproductive healthcare, LGBTQIA rights, and, apparently, maybe, gun control.

Cover art by J.H. Williams

What exactly Where We Live is expected to accomplish when Image has apparently been simultaneously planning to go ahead with a series starring a little girl who shoots people is an open question. It’s a pretty valid line of questioning given that we’re talking about the company that went ahead with publishing a comic that featured free flowing transmisogynist slurs and depicted a trans woman’s testicles “comically” hanging out while she fellated a cisgender man while they exploited rainbow imagery to project an LBGTQIA friendly message in 2015, then, in 2017, put a rainbow hued variant cover benefitting Human Rights Campaign on a comic that featured a violent trans panic sequence.

The punchline, insofar as there could even be one, is that all the ways I described myself at the beginning of this piece, particularly a girl who “knew the difference between and MP-5 and an MP-5k by sight before I knew the difference between eyeshadow and eyeliner,” is the thought process behind Hit-Girl. What if a little girl was given guns instead of Barbies?

Given that my entire life has been shaped by mass shootings from the Columbine massacre in 1999 to the 2016 mass murder of fifty people in Orlando, Florida that directly resulted in my first published comic script, I feel pretty well placed to say it isn’t fucking funny.

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