If you’ve been following either this blog or my message board posting activity over the last several weeks, then you’re probably well aware of my open disdain for Scott Lobdell‘s Red Hood and the Outsiders due to his less-than-flattering portrayal of Starfire, which was rife with unfortunate implications, (unintentionally) sexist undertones, and generous amounts of character derailment, sentiments echoed by numerous reviewers, fans, and posters all across the Internet. This wasn’t the only one of the New 52 to be singled out for its questionable portrayal of women, though: Judd Winick‘s Catwoman received similar flak for not only portraying Selina Kyle as little more than a series of body parts for the first two pages of its premiere issue but also ending with some hot-‘n’-heavy costumed foreplay between her and Batman in the lead up to an actual sexual encounter.
Given the widespread uproar, it comes as absolutely no surprise that Ron Marz‘s Voodoo didn’t escape similar scrutiny, especially since the opening issue largely took place in a gentlemen’s club and featured an exotic dancer as the female protagonist. Yet, as someone who’s actually read all three comics, while I vehemently agreed with the first group of detractors and could see where the second group of critics were coming from, I found myself strangely undecided when it came to the third. Whatever else it may have done, Voodoo had failed to ruffle my proverbial feathers in the same way that it had those of so many other readers. Which raises the inevitable question: why?
After reviewing Voodoo #1 several times, I believe that I’ve figured out the answer. But rather than state my line of reasoning outright, I’ll be breaking down the book into sections, posting panels as well as the occasional entire page (hopefully without violating the spirit of “fair use” too much in the process), and offering comments, observations, and synopses when necessary. To get the most out of this blog post, though, it would probably be in your best interest to grab a copy so that you can follow along. Go ahead, I’ll wait right here.
Before we get started, let’s get two of the most frequently-observed critiques out of the way:
1. Yes, there’s an awful lot of sexual imagery and (conveniently obscured) nudity in this book. However, since most of the story takes place in a strip club, that’s hardly surprising. It’s not exactly the kind of place you visit in order to watch people run around with their clothes on.
2. For those who disapproves of the choice of venue and the occupation of the main character, I’d like to remind you that, when we were originally introduced to Voodoo in the pages of WildC.A.T.s #1 (August 1992)…
…she was also an exotic dancer – and a rather goofily-dressed one at that – so that aspect of her portrayal has an actual precendent in WildStorm Universe continuity (even if that’s one of the few things about her that carried over during the relaunch).
The story is told from the perspectives of three different characters: the eponymous (anti-)heroine Voodoo (Priscilla Kitaen) and the two FBI agents, Tyler Evans and Jessica “Jess” Fallon, who have her under surveillance.
This splash page – one of two found in this issue – caused quite a stir when it first appeared in previews. While the book’s definitely wandering into metafictional territory here – the target audience of the strip club deejay’s dialogue is either the in-universe clientele or the readers sitting just beyond the fourth wall – there’s no avoiding the fact that what we have is a half-naked woman on all fours, surrounded by money and being ogled by a bunch of men: a less-than-empowering depiction if ever there was one. But, as we’ll later see, looks can be deceiving, and even the nature of this image isn’t quite so cut-and-dried.
In a nice little continuity nod, notice how Voodoo’s sporting the same ridiculous furry leg warmers that she originally wore two decades ago in WildC.A.T.s #1.
Our first perspective shift occurs on Page 3, where readers discover that they’ve been watching Voodoo’s act from the point of view of two FBI agents, who conveniently happen to be of different genders (and thus provide equal representation for both halves of the audience).
Based on their friendly exchange, it’s painfully evident that the man, Tyler Evans, is enjoying their “stakeout” more than strictly necessary and isn’t above taking advantage of the situation to enjoy the view. The woman, Jess Fallon, is quick to shoot down every male fantasy that she could possibly be dragged into at this point, neither buying any of the excuses he’s giving to justify his behavior nor entertaining the notion that she might secretly harbor any lesbian tendencies or have the slightest interest in what’s going on onstage. She ultimately takes off in a huff after getting her fill of annoyance and disgust, her feelings likely mirroring those of at least some of the readers who share her gender at this point. So, with the female voice of reason gone, we’re left associating with the male pig. Well, that’s just swell.
Pages 4 and 5
As events continue to unfold from Evans’ viewpoint, the compositional tone of the book shifts dramatically, as if mirroring certain aspects of his established personality: almost every panel on both these pages is either sexually suggestive or involves money in one way or another, with the accompanying “camera angles” seemingly chosen to be as gratuitous and shameless as possible.
Of particular note is the emphasis on the cleavage of the nameless waitress whom Evans strikes up a friendly conversation with, which becomes the focus of no less than four separate panels with increasingly ridiculous vantage points.
See what I mean? To be fair, though, we do get a fair amount of exposition during all this, as Evans manages to charm Voodoo’s first name out of the waitress and we discover that she’s quite popular with the soldiers from the nearby military base (an important plot point which we’ll be picking up on again soon).
Pages 6 to 8
We switch over to Fallon’s perspective as she exits the strip club in a foul mood due to her partner’s immature antics. In the process, she brushes past a group of 17-year-olds attempting to gain illegal entry into the establishment, unintentionally gaining their ire as she knocks the fake ID out of their ringleader’s hand. When the four male teenagers come looking for trouble, she once again has to fend off an unflattering insinuation about her sexual orientation and responds to their leader’s repeated demands for an apology with a counteroffer of her own:
Incidentally, that little cigarette break she’s taking is about as close to sexual innuendo as we get during this entire sequence.
Pages 9 to 11
Our viewpoint shifts to Voodoo as she interacts with the other exotic dancers in the lounge’s dressing room. Naturally, given where we are, there’s a lot of bare skin on display. But, as Page 10 demonstrates, the artwork’s emphasis is markedly different from what it was when we were sharing Evans’ perspective out on the dance floor:
The “camera angles” are more subdued and practical rather than voyeuristic, and the (partial) nudity isn’t being particularly emphasized: it’s simply window dressing. The dialogue not only reflects the behind-the-scenes reality of a strip club – that it’s a business designed to make money by tapping into the fantasies of its clientele and selling the illusion of intimacy and sex rather than the reality – but also portray the strippers as members of an x-rated sorority who watch each others’ backs and help one another out. Moreover, the banter puts decidedly human faces on the dancers, as we discover more about their personal lives and motivations for being there, absolutely none of which have anything to do with sex: one is putting herself through community college; another is trying to earn enough money to open a bar; a single mom named Abby is raising a son named Cody (and trying to find a last minute replacement babysitter); and Voodoo herself is taking advantage of men’s lowered defenses in this seedy environment to learn more about them. (What exactly she means by this will become clear very soon.)
Pages 12 to 15
The first (and last) direct interaction between Voodoo and Evans takes place after the latter specifically requests her for a private dance. And, as the latter returns, so, too, does his narrative point of view: the wacky, sexually exploitative “camera angles” and panels oozing with erotic undertones and innuendo are back with a vengeance, with a hint of bondage thrown in for good measure (a seemingly trivial detail which will prove crucial later on).
As before, in spite of the sexually charged atmosphere, the exposition continues.
It’s at this point that Evans grabs the idiot ball and tries his darndest to score a touchdown by overplaying his hand instead of keeping it close to the vest.
Strangely enough, in spite of his eagerness to call her out on her cover story, a surprising amount of what Voodoo told him is (or may be) technically true: being an alien, she’s most definitely “not from around here” and her original WildStorm Universe incarnation was indeed a “mixed-race kid” (specifically a Daemonite/Kherubim/Human hybrid, though whether this is also the case for her DC Universe counterpart has yet to be determined). As for “her being more than happy to take what (those men stationed at that military base) are offering”, she never explicitly states that it’s their paychecks she’s after rather than the information in their heads; she just phrases things in such a way that normal people who’re not in the know would naturally (and not unreasonably) draw that conclusion.
We catch up with Fallon in her hotel room, where she’s knocking back a few drinks and leaves a voicemail message for her partner after he fails to answer his cell phone. While other writers might’ve used this location as a convenient excuse for showing her in a state of undress, there’s none of that to be found here; the only item of clothing she’s removed in the interim is her jacket. Though she’s been portrayed as a hardass up until now, for the first time, we catch a glimpse of her softer side, as it becomes clear from her dialogue that she’s concerned for her partner’s safety and well-being. There’s also a subtle hint that she and Evans might’ve been in a “friends with benefits” type relationship previously (though we won’t get confirmation of this until the beginning of the second issue).
Back at the strip club, things take a turn for the worse when Evans violates his engagement orders and threatens Voodoo directly in an attempt to get results, evidently not anticipating how an extraterrestrial telepath might react to the idea of vivisection for some reason:
While all perspective shifts thus far have coincided with the scene transitions between pages, this one takes place in mid-page, as the viewpoint baton is passed from Evans to Voodoo after the latter reads his mind.
While the opening page of this book depicted an attractive female character in a submissive cheesecake pose with regard to her male audience, this second and final splash page features a complete reversal of that situation: the male character, Evans, is now in the subordinate position, one hand still bound by the wrist restraint of the chair he’s sitting in, and at the mercy of this boner-killing female example of fan disservice:
Pages 20 and 21
Horrified by the mental image she picked while reading Evans’ mind, Voodoo lashes out in an act of self-preservation and shreds him like so much lettuce before returning to her default human shape, quitting her job as an exotic dancer, and assuming his form in order to meet up with Fallon.
A Brief Analysis
As mentioned previously, the events of this issue unfold through the eyes of Voodoo, Tyler Evans, and Jessica Fallon. What makes this setup interesting is that there’s a noticeable shift in the emphasis and tone of the artwork depending on which one of the three the reader happens to be following at the time: while Evans’ male viewpoint fully embraces sexism, machismo and the strip club fantasy (as evidenced by the use of gratuitous “camera angles” designed to maximize sexual objectification), Fallon and Voodoo’s female perspectives are grounded in reality and depict women in a more balanced and respectful way, regardless of the inherently provocative atmosphere of the locale and the amount of clothing those women are wearing (or not wearing, as the case may be). Equally noteworthy is the fact that, while the female characters are portrayed as powerful and capable throughout, the male ones appear grossly incompetent by comparison. What’s more, the latter end up being suckered by pretty faces and underestimate the “fairer sex” to to their own detriment: the four teenage would-be clubgoers receive a sound ass-kicking from Fallon while Evans dies at Voodoo’s hands as a result of his stupidity and blatant disregard for the rules.
The most important difference, however, is that, while nudity and sexual imagery is plentiful in this book, its presence is well integrated into the plot: there’s a reasonable explanation provided for pretty much everything, from Voodoo’s presence at the strip club (reconnaissance and espionage) to the FBI agents being there (surveillance) to Evans’ asking for a private dance (which, while intended to produce results and convince his target to surrender to the authorities, is admittedly flimsy in the reasoning department). Yet, even while pandering to the audience with copious amounts of fanservice, not only are readers provided with information relevant to the plot, but it occurs in a way that is logical both in-universe and to the readers: the exposition is on par with the visuals rather than being incidental, and the backdrop is not just being used as a flimsy excuse to show as much female flesh and cheescake as possible.
To get a better idea of what I mean, compare and contrast the artwork you’ve just seen with the first page of Catwoman #1:
While there’s a decent enough reason for Selina Kyle to be in running around in her underwear – she’s getting dressed in a hurry and trying to make a break for it before some thugs break down her front door and firebomb her apartment – the entire sequence is pretty shameless: while the “unseen face” may be a well-established convention and storytelling technique in visual media, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that this page is 75% cleavage and underwear shots and contains other suggestive elements (such as her putting her gloves on with her teeth). In addition, aside from her spoken dialogue, none of the other text on this entire page is related to the provocative visuals; Selina’s internal monologue, while informative and insightful as far as establishing her personality is concerned, doesn’t really complement the action at hand. From the buttshot as she heads for a nearby window on Page 2…
…it’s clear that both the main character as well as the tone of the book itself are being set up as sexually mischievous and playful. Even the front cover, where we see a barefoot Catwoman lounging on a rooftop in a reclined, pin-up style pose while suggestively sprinking white diamonds all over her chest…
…that reptilian-looking hand hints at the fact that there’s more to her than meets the eye, so it’s not completely without merit as we’re still being imparted with important information in the form of a visual cue. The following pages from Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, on the other hand…
…demonstrate a near-complete disconnect between words and images. While Starfire‘s narration and Jason Todd and Roy Harper‘s exchange grant us insight into her personality (or what passes for it following Scott Lobdell’s lobotomy of the character) and history, absolutely none of it is relevant to her beachside frolicking in a bikini: the entire scene could’ve just as easily been set in a shopping mall considering how scenario-unspecific both their dialogue and her internal monologue are. Even the picture-snapping underage voyeur, “boy1211”, could’ve obtained more definitive proof of a Tamaranean’s presence on Earth by photographing a truly alien feature of hers, such as her face with its green, pupilless eyes. In fact, not only are these pin-up-style pages pure fanservice for fanservice’s sake, but certain elements in the artwork, such as ripples of water serving as unconventional panel borders, the awkward placement of the “There is a god.” word bubble, and the frame breaks caused by the full body shot of Starfire from the rear are actually somewhat intrusive and either unnecessarily complicate or disrupt the story’s narrative flow.
In a nutshell, the reason that Ron Marz’s Voodoo works for me is because his writing has some actual substance and doesn’t just cater to the lowest common denominator. While there may be far more sexual imagery and nudity present in his book than there is in Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws combined, not only is there a legitimate reason for its presence, but the exclusive association of its more salacious aspects with a male perspective combined with the negative fallout it has on the individual who holds it make the book more subversive than pandering in nature. Most importantly, however, the comic’s use of sexual imagery doesn’t reflect negatively upon or otherwise diminish the female protagonists, which is always a good thing. Not bad for a writer whose most infamous career moments include Hal Jordan going insane and Major Force murdering Kyle Rayner‘s girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, and stuffing her into a refrigerator, the latter of which became the namer for an extremely unfortunate trope. Maybe he’s finally balanced the cosmic scales by introducing the male equivalent of “Women in Refrigerators“: “Men in Stripper Booths”. 😉
Unfortunately, while writing this article, I was disappointed to learn that Ron Marz has been pulled from the title and is being replaced by Joshua Williamson starting with the fifth issue. While I have nothing against the latter and wish him well, if this article of mine has piqued your interest, I encourage you to show your support for the former by picking up the remainder of his run and any back issues of the title that you can find. You won’t be disappointed.
UPDATE (2011.12.01): Just a quick disclaimer: while Ron Marz in no way participated in the writing of this article and all opinions expressed herein are purely my own, a brief exchange we had on Twitter in early November inspired its creation. For your support both then as well as in the tweet you made a few hours ago with a link to this blog entry – which was a pleasant (if unexpected) surprise – you have my sincerest thanks, good sir. 🙂
And, while we’re at it, special thanks to my friends Dedicatedfollower467 and Trina Swank for being objective readers. 😀