Transmyscira: The Cat Eats Its Own Tail in MAN-EATERS

We were rooting for you! We were all rooting for you!

– Tyra Banks, America’s Next Top Model Season 4, Episode 7 (2005)


Man-Eaters is, bafflingly, best described as an interesting failure.

The idea seemed like a license to print money when it first got floated. The creative team behind Marvel’s polarizing Mockingbird miniseries: writer Chelsea Cain, artist Kate Niemczyk, and colorist Rachelle Rosenberg re-teaming to do a feminist horror comedy series at Image where they would have the freedom to take it in whatever direction they chose.

The concept is timely, intriguing, and seemed all set to follow up on one of the most interesting tangents of their previous collaboration.

Man-Eaters is the story of a virus called Toxiplasmosis-X transmitted from kitty litter to (cisgender) girls that transforms them into violent werecats during their periods. The outbreak triggers a massive, gendered overreaction by the government in the form of hormones released into public drinking water to suppress menstruation, the effective outlawing of tampons, and the creation of SCAT; a specialized police force dedicated to tracking and apprehending the werecats.

What should have been a sharp and relatable satire in the midst of a fearsome rollback of reproductive rights under the Trump administration has instead proven to be divisive and deflating. The irony of Man-Eaters’ initial reception is that despite the final issue of Mockingbird’s infamous cover, it seemed like no one had actually asked Cain about her feminist manifesto and were taken aback at what Man-Eaters’ debut revealed about it.

The most persistent criticism the series faces is the charge that it furthers a biologically deterministic vision of sex and gender by defining them solely on the basis of sex organs and related biological processes, i.e. menstruation. I empathize with that perspective, but I’m ambivalent about the merits of it. The series absolutely is critical of segregating and stratifying children by sex and bombarding them with messaging enforcing hegemonic gender ideals, but that isn’t quite the full substance of the critique.

Rather, as of the sixth issue, the series has not portrayed the impact of these policies on gender non-conforming children — be they trans, non binary, or genderfluid. Which is where my ambivalence comes in.

Man-Eaters was just never a comic that I ever expected or wanted to see myself as a trans woman portrayed in. Part of that is because when I read about the hormones in the drinking water for the first time, I laughed for five minutes straight, because it would basically result in semi-subsidized hormone replacement therapy for transgender girls and women. Of course, for transgender men and boys, the implications are much darker.

I didn’t need Chelsea Cain to lay that out for me and I don’t really think I would benefit in any meaningful way to see her portrayal of it. Generally speaking, my current perspective on depictions of trans identity and the trans condition by cisgender creators is “don’t make me have to notice you.” It’s a stance that comes from having to deal with far too many dehumanizing depictions from cisgender creators and far too few from actual trans creators. It feels genuinely dystopian that so much of the discourse around trans representation in comics — and in most media, really — revolves around asking to be accounted for in stories and scenarios that were never ever going to center our experiences or uplift our creators.

That said, I also believe that the series has committed a fatal unforced error that could have been avoided through a very basic understanding of currently pressing trans issues.

Body horror associated with puberty is an evergreen topic in comics, especially when you’re coming directly from Marvel Comics, a publisher whose entire center of gravity is a surreal blend of body horror and empowerment tied to puberty. Doubly so when you’re coming off a Marvel series whose entire first arc was dedicated to medical horror and featured an incredibly novel depiction of superpowers as male privilege and the stigmatization of pubescent girls.

The problem is that Man-Eaters appears to be entirely ignorant of the real world analogue to the pitched battle between pumping drinking water full of hormones to stop young girls from ovulating and producing commercial hormone free water to prevent boys from being exposed to them. That analogue is the raging, high stakes debate over the care for gender non-conforming children, access to hormone blockers, and a highly contested concept called Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria or ROGD.

ROGD made national headlines in two articles, one in The Stranger about people who transition and then later detransition, and one in The Atlantic specifically about ROGD in children which, like anything in the contemporary news media, created a domino effect of related pieces. The way that ROGD was reported in those pieces is that there are clusters of teen girls — peer groups — who are coming out as transgender (some as nonbinary, some as male) together. Sometimes requesting hormone blockers to prevent physical changes that would intensify dysphoria.

ROGD suggests that these assertions come out of the clear blue sky with no prior history of gender non-conformity and are thus unlikely to be genuine cases of gender dysphoria and instead the result of a “social contagion” typified by peer pressure and social media exposure. This framing is problematic to say the least and, despite being furthered by major media outlets, doesn’t hold up under much scrutiny.

As biologist and leading author on trans issues Julia Serano discovered, the entire idea of trans identity as a social contagion originated in 2016 at three websites that are skeptical (at best) of trans people. The only study done on the topic so far did its recruitment directly from visitors of those three sites and the families interviewed in The Atlantic piece were also found through one of them. So what appears to have happened is that a very small subset of reluctant parents of transgender children were amplified onto the national stage through questionable journalistic practices and researchers with no prior experience or expertise in trans issues.

Serano has penned a cohesive examination of the development of and reporting on ROGD, but what’s immediately relevant is that there has been a slow rolling panic media over clusters of teens self identifying as trans developing over the last couple of years focused on AFAB (assigned female at birth) children asserting themselves as male or nonbinary. Which makes Man-Eaters’ central plot of teen girls banding together to resist the hormones foisted on them at the risk of becoming homicidal monsters disquieting at best. I don’t think it’s clear whether or not Man-Eaters is sliding towards ROGD-style fear mongering which is a problem in and of itself.

The central anxiety of Man-Eaters doesn’t appear to be that girls are being pressured to not be girls, which is more or less the position of ROGD advocates. It’s that girlhood is being constructed as a threat centered on menstruation coupled with an intensified gendering of public space, making it increasingly uncomfortable to be a girl. Which is a fantastic premise to begin at and the source of the most valuable material that the series has to offer.

It’s almost impossible to stress how hilarious and necessary the opening pages of the debut issue are. Maude playing with a pair of tampons like superhero action figures is a powerful piece of whimsy that works to break down the taboo around tampons in specific and women’s reproductive health in general, for which there’s an undeniably acute need in comics. The opening sequence of the second issue depicting her trying to figure out how to use a tampon on her own is just as brilliant and necessary. The cover to issue six, a presumably tween female hand wearing rainbow nail polish holding up two blood soaked fingers in a peace sign is exactly the kind of provocative art the medium needs.

But the overall execution is chewing up the initial goodwill it earned at an astonishing rate. The advertising imagery that amplifies gendered messaging we already see every day into absurd, sinister parody is fantastic, but it’s long past the point of overwhelming and stymying the story.

An occasional full page “ad” breaking up the comic or dedicating the back cover to in-world advertising works, but making the entirety of the fourth issue a glossy photoshop collage of misogynist propaganda targeted at teen boys is a baffling decision. A back matter supplement, a blog, or dedicated twitter feed would all be great deployments of the material, but interrupting the entire story to ask people to pay cover price for a fake magazine is a gross miscalculation of audience expectations and flexibility.

From a design standpoint, Man-Eaters is in the midst of a death spiral as more and more of the page gets eaten up with these kind of photo collages, silent movie title cards, and other ephemera that hamper the readability and take the focus off Kate Niemczyk’s cartooning, which ought to be centered as the comic’s highest virtue. Instead we get bizarre tangents like a full page of a dead eyed stock photo news reader.

Part of the problem of this is that it makes the reading experience needlessly jarring, but it’s also decompressed the plot progression to the point that after six issues, or five and a supplement, there’s no clear understanding of how anything in the world it presents actually works or just who the comic is trying to speak to.

It’s clearly understood that the government and society in general are exceptionally, dystopically misogynist. They mass disseminate propaganda aimed at framing girls and women as violent threats and responded to a public health crisis with a massive non consensual medical intervention with sweeping effects. Taboos around menstruation have been amplified and access to feminine hygiene products are severely restricted. All of this comes through brilliantly.

But how power operates in this world is muddled and self-sabotaged at every turn. Both of Maude’s parents are tasked with enforcing the status quo, her father as a police detective and her mother as part of the elite SCAT investigative unit tasked with investigating the Big Cat Attacks that happen when someone infected with toxoplasmosis shape-shifts. We get a limited, almost mumbled critique of SCAT by Maude’s father about the lack of transparency of what they do, but nothing about them communicates that this is the enforcement arm of a viciously misogynist regime.

They’re presented as cool people with cool outfits in a giant rolling lab who employ a dozen adorable corgis with twee names. The corgis are great, Cain and Niemczyk working corgis into their comics is one of the great joys in life, but they are so poorly deployed here that it boggles the mind. It’s impossible to appreciate the scope of the danger and repression that a scenario like this needs to communicate when every manifestation of state power is presented as a cutesy gag.

The tone is frequently all over the place, going from brilliant uses of tension, pathos, or whimsy to deflationary tangents. There is honestly only so many times I can take in an entire page of people humming “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens before I want to scream. I also just fundamentally don’t understand how the comic conceptualizes its teen girl characters. I think it’s great and a lot of fun that the comic includes haikus written by actual thirteen year old girls. It’s another important corrective to how the medium sees teen girls and a source of delightful whimsy.

But what I don’t understand and find somewhat alarming is the choice to portray a bunch of thirteen year old girls as Hillary Clinton dead-enders in a comic being published between 2018-19. I get the idea and execution of President Bitch in Bitch Planet, but I really don’t get why the girls in Man-Eaters decorate their hideout in Hillary Clinton posters while all wearing Hillary Clinton shirts because I have no idea what her relevance to this world is. Is she a particularly rebellious or dangerous figure? I have no idea. For a series that invests as much time as it does giving these girls wildly imaginative interiority, it strikes me as square and pandering to a very specific adult worldview to get them hung up on Clinton as a totalizing heroic figure.

A major problem with Man-Eaters seems to be that after leaving the highly structured environment of Marvel Comics, Cain just has not invested in becoming independently fluent in what works and what doesn’t in comics. It’s a hard transition to be sure, going from such a tightly controlled environment to Image Comics where there are no guardrails or support structures. The flaws in Man-Eaters are also symptomatic of a different kind of effect when creators make it out of the big two structures and more daylight gets shone on the ideologies behind their work.

There’s a temptation to stake out comics as a liberal space, to plant a flag in the ground and say that this is a medium and an industry that moves towards progressive values. I think that’s demonstrably false. I’ve certainly argued that there’s a history of anti-fascism in the formative years of superhero comics, but the only requirement for being anti-fascist is not being a fascist. The kind of rhetorical trap that comics finds itself in as a discursive space is that opposing Nazis in either a literal or more fluid sense is not automatically a leftist or progressive stance. It’s just the defense of one specific line in the sand.

A barometer I like to use for how conservative the baseline in superhero comics is that Christopher Priest, a noted conservative and NRA member, has a strikingly productive perspective on the intersection of race, gun violence, and police power. Which is, in real world terms, to the right of Killer Mike. That’s where we are on guns in superhero comics, that Priest sets the pace and Tony Isabella might as well be a leftist radical.

Which is something that I think we should really start taking seriously when the word “feminist” or “feminism” gets thrown around in comics. Do I think Chelsea Cain is a feminist? I think it would be impossible for anyone working on Man-Eaters not to espouse feminist politics of one kind or another, but the thing is that the idea of feminism is a monolithic, totalizing concept within superhero comics because it has absolutely no fucking room to breathe, let alone articulate itself.

The irony is that there was such a blood-curdlingly concerted effort to shout down the idea of the word “feminist” appearing on the cover of a Marvel comic, that there was never an opportunity for Cain to elaborate on just what either hers or Bobbi’s feminist agenda actually was. People gave Beyonce a lot of shit for standing in front of a sign that said “feminist,” but she followed that up with a quote from Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie, which provided all the necessary context for just what Beyonce wanted to articulate as feminist.

When Chelsea Cain wrote Mockingbird, she didn’t have the opportunity to flesh out just what feminism means to her or her characters, but she has all the room in the world to make up for that on Man-Eaters and I’m finding myself left with more questions than answers. Which is especially frustrating in a comic that is focused on topics that are this sensitive and difficult to navigate. It’s not necessarily about constructing a litmus test or expecting her and her creative team to live up to a given ideal that I have for feminism personally, it’s about at least having something concrete to grapple with.

Although I certainly do have concerns about where Man-Eaters could be going, or maybe already has gone that I think are well grounded. Proximity to ROGD aside, it’s always valid and productive to probe at the contours of feminist thought, to seek clarity in what’s being articulated especially given that we have already arrived at a cultural moment where Andrea Dworkin is enjoying a resurgence as brought into sharp focus by Michelle Goldberg’s recent New York Times column.

She argued that Trump has resurrected an appetite for a certain kind of anger from women, one that Dworkin is remembered for by friend and foe alike. I think Goldberg is absolutely correct, and not just because one of my Women’s Studies profs recently suggested that it’s a good time to read Dworkin’s Right Wing Women. When abuse allegations against Border Town writer Eric Esquivel were publicized, blowing up the creative team of my favourite new comic in a long time, I reached for Dworkin because I knew how potent and timely her rage was. I uploaded a YouTube video of a drag performance of a speech of hers addressed to men who wanted to combat rape in the 1980s.

I reached for that Dworkin speech like a loaded gun because that’s precisely what Dworkin’s body of work is. Dworkin’s rage was potent, which makes it alluring and attractive to channel or mimic, but as Laura Kipnis notes in her review of Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, “anger has a way of making people righteous while clouding analysis.” I think she should be recognized as a foundational theorist of rape culture, but that has to be part of a wider recognition of how alienating and damaging her work has been to numerous groups including sex workers and trans women.

But in the case of the posthumous renaissance that Dworkin is currently receiving thanks to the anger unleashed by Trump, righteousness seems to have conquered analysis for the moment. What Goldberg describes isn’t a critical reappraisal, it’s outright hagiography and twee commercialism typified by enamel pins of her likeness.

Goldberg asserts that Dworkin’s new wave of champions reject her “central political commitments” like her alliance with the religious right to outlaw pornography and criminalize sex work. It’s an assertion that rings somewhat hollow given the ongoing collaboration between the far right and a segment of radical feminists to restrict the rights of transgender people and the tug of war within the Democratic party over the decriminalization of sex work.

Which leaves us at a place where ambiguity in feminist motivation and the aims of female rage produce considerable anxiety. Even under the best of circumstances, what I want from art that professes to be feminist isn’t a checklist or a works cited page, but strains of thought that I can tease out of the work and connect back to the foundational thinkers behind it in exciting and revelatory ways. Which we don’t get much of in comics, making Man-Eaters such an exciting opportunity even if the results have been less than stellar so far.

Pretty much no matter where it goes and what it does from here, the landscape of mainstream comics will be much richer for having witnessed Man-Eaters. We absolutely needed it to be affirmed that Bitch Planet wasn’t a black swan event or an aberration and that there is a place in the direct market for genre storytelling explicitly rooted in feminist praxis.

Which, if nothing else, Man-Eaters has done in unforgettable style.

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