A few months back, somebody was interviewing me about my first ever Twine, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before. They had asked me a question, one that seemed fairly simple, but has become more and more complex the more I think about it. Throughout our conversation, which was about how Stop Me was my attempt to illustrate what it’s like living with disordered eating and the mind-frame behind it through body horror. So the question that has stuck with me so intensely is this:
“Did writing Stop Me help you?”
At first, my gut reaction was “yeah, it did.” This was because talking about hating yourself so thoroughly that wanting to starve yourself into non-existence isn’t an easy thing to talk about, even if having the conversation itself is vitally important. So yeah, it helped because it let me talk about something I struggled with on a daily basis and because it reached way more people than I ever thought was possible.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize it’s not that simple. Releasing Stop Me was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. Don’t get me wrong. I am happy and proud as hell that I was able to do it, despite all my inclination to hide because I was convinced that everyone would hate it and think I was being a melodramatic baby. So that’s something. But it also brought a lot of things to the front of my mind that I’ve been able to somewhat safely distance myself from. But before I get to that, there’s one other thing I want to say: there’s the crash. I released Stop Me, people responded positively, I gave a talk on it where even more people responded positively, and it was all able to shut up the voice in the back of my head that said I wasn’t worthy of anything half so good. That’s what I call the “happiness crash” and it’s been a pretty constant part of my depression for the past two or three years now. So that’s a factor.
But there’s something else that comes with writing so personally about something so intimately bound up with you, it might as well be embedded in your bones.
I started writing Stop Me three or so years ago when I was in a really bad place. It was therapeutic then because I was deep in the battle. I was doing my MA and writing conference papers about depictions of anorectic bodies and how we talk about female bodies in everything from films, to fairy tales, to the marketing behind cosmetics. It was a mode of coping: instead of starving and counting calories, I’ll write this, I decided. And it worked then. But things happened and I stepped away from Stop Me for a host of other reasons. But it never went away because it was a story I felt I had to tell.
So I did, and you all know that. I more or less have been able to find a way to buffer the impulse to restrict and the self-loathing thoughts, and I’ve gotten to a place where I can think about lunch without having a massive panic attack. Well, some days. Some times. I haven’t stepped on a scale in three or so years, and moreso, I don’t have any desire to. (Scales deserve a whole ‘nother post, to be honest. I can’t even look at one without being thrown into a massive panic because numbers are just not a thing I can start paying attention to again.)
So I released Stop Me because I am a solid believer in contributing to these conversations because one of the worst things is feeling alone. Reading stories by women who suffered through eating disorders helped me so much (Wasted by Marya Hornbacher is the closest thing to a Bible I’ll ever have). It tells you: you’re not a fuck up, this isn’t your fault, and those are all necessary things to learn and accept. And I wanted to, in whatever way that I could, contribute to this. And for all that, I am proud.
But it’s brought a lot of the bad stuff back. If not the counting, then at least the constant scrutiny of what and when I eat. And some of the panic. Okay, well, a lot of the panic. Here’s the thing, though: this isn’t about food, it’s about feeling insufficient and extreme self-loathing. Food is just the vehicle to counter these feelings. So Stop Me is contradictory for me. It helped me talk about something I wanted to talk about, but it also put me in a place where I can’t ignore those things. It gave them a little bit of power, while at the same time giving me a bit of power. It’s a weird fight, but in the end, I think it’s a fight I’m at least not losing, and that’s just as good as winning.
So the point is this: I am, more or less, okay. “Okay,” is a state I am figuring out, is not necessarily always happy and stable. “Okay” for me is thinking “you’re worthless” and then thinking “well…maybe not?” And writing Stop Me, while throwing a massive monkey wrench in the cogs of my being okay, is also a major part of me realizing that being okay doesn’t mean always being Great and Happy and Rays of Sunshine.
And well, that’s something.
So lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the creation of meaningful choice in games. This question for me arose out of listening to the creators of Kentucky Route Zero discuss how the concept played into the writing of their game. What is meaningful choice? Is it providing in-game options to the players that let their choices dictate the way the rest of the story unfolds, or is it a choice that, while doesn’t impact the narrative flow of the game, reveals more about characterization and the player’s own thoughts and attitudes? (I’m not saying that players who select a violent choice, such as harvesting Little Sisters in BioShock, are inherently violent, but that this choice reflects how the player approaches the game, the choice, and the perceived “right” answer.)
This question really resonated with me, because my first Twine I ever made had very few choices that directly impacted the flow of the narrative and the game play itself. Essentially, in Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before, there was one ending, but you could read it in two ways depending on your choice. So for my second Twine I tried to do the exact opposite: create three different endings that could be achieved by allowing for variability in player’s decisions. So There Are Monsters Under Your Bed arose from an attempt to figure out what “meaningful choice” means to me, essentially.
And I’m thinking about this in every game I play, now. In the Twine game Destroy/Wait, choice is available, but only for a limited time: ultimately, you will be forced to destroy everything that you come across. But this doesn’t diminish the meaning behind each player choice. If you chose to wait, rather than destroy immediately, then you get a bit more of the story, the world unfolds and reveals itself in a different way. In this sense, waiting actually makes destroying that much harder, because what you’re destroying now you know more intimately than if you just simply destroyed it in the first place. What is the worse option? Destroy now, or wait?
So for me, the concept of meaningful choice where the outcome is the same holds a greater appeal. I mean, in everyday life, our choice and the ability to make a choice, even if it won’t affect the outcome, is undeniably important. It’s in our choices that we learn and discover, and I think to consider “choice” merely as a vehicle for constructing different outcomes and paths is thinking of “choice” in a limited capacity. Sure, having different endings and outcomes achieves this as well, but providing choice that highlights and illuminates a story and a scene is just as important, even if these choices all lead to the same ending.
How To Steal A Million (1966), starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, is a wonderful movie about romance, adventure, art, and authenticity. The jokes are well-timed and O’Toole and Hepburn play together so well on-screen it’s a sheer joy to watch. What I like the best about the film though (other than the self-referential jokes about Hepburn’s Givenchy clothes), is that it got me thinking about some really interesting arguments around the issue of authenticity in the art world.
For those of you who have yet to experience the joy and glamour that is How To Steal A Million, here’s a quick plot sum-up: Hepburn’s father, Bonnet, owns a world-class, rare and expensive art collection — that is entirely comprised of fakes that he or his grandfather forged. When he donates his grandfather’s supreme forgery of the Cellini Venus, the museum prepares to perform tests on it to determine its authenticty. In pops resourceful Hepburn, who hires O’Toole (whom she believes to be an art thief) to steal the Venus so that her family’s name is saved from falling into ill-repute in the art-world, because if the Venus were to be determined to be a fake, the Bonnet collection would become a disgrace. A regular comedy of errors with one of the most memorable romantic meetings I’ve ever watched on film.
Aside from that, what the film highlights is that the art world is obsessed with authenticity. I mean, obsessed. Owning an original Van Gogh bestows prestige because it is was touched by Van Gogh himself. It is the original, and everything that follows is just a copy, which cannot have the same prestige as the original. Okay, fair enough.
But here’s the catch: authenticity doesn’t, or shouldn’t, actually matter. In a large part, art has been regarded as a sacred practice, which is why the majority of art history focuses on religious paintings and works steeped in Roman Catholicism. It speaks to a time and a place that we cannot retrieve, while at the same time following Hegel’s idea that true aesthetics attempt to elucidate or evoke the an unattainable essence or quality. Art, in this vein, functions as a road to what we cannot ourselves grasp, and this is the motivating desire behind owning an authentic work of art: it’s a bridge to that artist. That, and it is profoundly vain (bragging rights, any one?)
Now, enter our contemporary society and the fact that we can create a seeming endless amount of copies and prints of any piece of art that ever existed. While this appears to be a sure way to deface the value of art, it actually brings with it complete democracy in criticism and creation. Art is no longer an elitist sacred object; it now belongs to everyone. It’s why we can study video games as art and talk about photography: once we get away from the notion of an art’s sacred aura (to use Benjamin’s word), the playing field becomes leveled. And this is a good thing.
Think about it: the aura of a work is one that we project ourselves anyways. Everyone in the film reacts to the Venus as if it is the real thing. They have the same feelings, feel the same awe. But this would be destroyed if it were found out to be a fake. Why? It still instills the same feelings, inspires the same awe. The only thing that has changed is the perception of the creation. Even knowing it’s a fake, we can still enjoy the craft, the skill, the emotions evoked. Why else do people enjoy having prints of famous paintings in their homes? My mom had many classic Monet prints around the house when I was growing up, and it was because she admired the image and the calm it made her feel.
Also, imitation is impressive. In all my practical studio art courses learning starts with imitation. Same with creative writing courses. And you know what? Forging a competent and believable imitation is a remarkable feat and one that requires an admirable amount of skill. To passably imitate a Van Gogh involves a level of skill, study, and knowledge that is extensive, calculated and rare. Don’t believe me? Think about the practice of restoration. Most of the notable classics have been touched up and restored, meaning another artist has been brought in and added their own element to the work. True authenticity is impossible and a goal we shouldn’t even be trying to achieve. Not anymore. What I love about art is that it can evoke a feeling, a thought, all to move the viewer, and this effect can happen even with prints and imitations. What about literature? We read copies, but that never changes our experience with the text and the sentiments behind it. So why is the visual different from the literary in this sense?
The desire to own authentic pieces comes off as a silly obsession in the film, too. When O’Toole offers to sell the Cellini Venus to Leland after it became public knowledge that it was stolen property, he asks: “Why do you want to own something you can’t ever display?” Leland, with what can only be described as hilariously exaggerated lust in his eyes, says that he wants it to take out and look at by himself, for his own pleasure and knowledge. It is portrayed as a covetous and foolish desire, a desire so profound that Leland calls off his engagement to Hepburn — all because of the idea of the aura of art. What’s notable with this example, too, is that the aura can be falsified: it doesn’t matter that it’s not really Cellini’s Venus, because Leland just has to be told it is to feel so deeply for it. Without any outstanding differences, what’s the damage?
I mean this in all earnest: what is the harm? Yes, Leland is duped, but O’Toole doesn’t actually make him pay for it. All Leland has to do is break off his engagement with Hepburn, which he does all too willingly, showing he’s not even the right kind of husband for her, am I right? Leland gets to bask in the Venus’s aura, which is what he really wants. Literally everyone in the film is happy. But it’s essentially this basking that is proved to be foolish in the film, not the act of forgery itself. Bonnet is portrayed as quite comical also, but we feel sympathy for him: we don’t want him to be exposed, not really.
The movie concludes with O’Toole informing Bonnet that one of them is retiring: either O’Toole is no longer going to expose fakes or Bonnet is going to stop forging and committing fraud in the art world. The father indicates his obligation to quit forging, and contents himself to see his daughter happy and in love. For about three whole minutes. The movie ends with Bonnet receiving a visitor, with the music and the knowing looks exchanged between O’Toole and Hepburn indicating that Bonnet will never give up his tricks. O’Toole seemingly accepts this as he drives off with the love of his life, showing that his pursuit of true authenticity in the art world isn’t worth it to lose love. Because other than basking in the self-perceived aura of the work the idea of authenticity is one predicated on elitism and a false notion of connection between object and creator.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love art galleries and getting to see a Dali painting in person at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow was definitely one of the highlights of my life as an art student. But that was because I was able to see the brush strokes and connect with the painting on a technical level. The emotions, thoughts, and reactions I had to Dali’s work was the same as when I saw his prints. In fact, I actually connect more with prints than I do with originals, because I’m always too caught up in the moment. I fall victim to my own perceptions of the connection with the artist, but I also realize that this all internal and based on my own desires, rather than being inherent to the painting.
Much to the chagrin of my film profs, I’ve always loved campy, over-the-top, plot-hole-riddled “versus” films. As you all know, I am a big fan of monsters, a love I’ve aligned with my feminist politics in gaming before. They’re also just incredible amounts of fun to watch and root for. So it’s only natural that watching monsters square off gladiator-style would win over my heart.
I come from a family with all older brothers, and have developed a mentality of constant competition. Not necessarily for bragging rights (but who doesn’t love those?), but also just for the sheer enjoyment of seeing who would emerge victorious. As a child, my one brother and I would attach all our Marvel action figures to our ceiling fan, then turn it on and take cover: just to see which one of our action figures would “win.” (Spoiler: it was always Thing. His hand grip was the exact same width as one of the fan blades, so when he hung on, it was for good. And if not, that was one heavy toy flying at ridiculous speeds possibly/probably right at your head.)
Versus movies appeal to this competitive/destructive part of my nature. I love lots of characters and monsters, and sometimes all I want to see is which one would emerge victorious if they were put head to head – anyone who has ever argued about the Superman versus Batman fight will know what I’m talking about. Yes, yes, all monsters have their own unique strengths and abilities, but until Godzilla, Mothra, Jason and Supergator become the next crime-fighting team, I want to see who will best the other in one on one combat (weapons are allowed, as well).
In that light, here are my favourite “versus” movies!
5) Freddy Versus Jason (2003)
These were both terrifying monstrous villains who had earned their respective places in the horror canon. I wouldn’t sleep or go camping for fear of being hunted and killed by vengeful and hellish monsters who needed the closest and easiest scapegoat to enact their mommy issues on. While I eventually grew up into a semi-functional human being no longer afraid of homicidal monsters, I couldn’t help feel a certain amount of satisfaction at the prospect of watching two nightmarish figures attempt to kill each other for a change. The basic premise is that Freddy is weakened, but still wants to cause murder-mayhem, so he summons up Jason. Jason, the bloodlusty creature that he is, kills too many people, taking Freddy’s victims (which understandably pisses Freddy off). Loose plot created in order these two to go at it? Check.
Who was I rooting for: Jason. I actually felt bad for Jason. He was a pawn in Freddy’s ill-conceived plan, and was just doing what he was good at: slaughtering the masses.
Who was the victor: Jason. Although Freddy’s playful wink at the end of the movie maybe suggests otherwise.
4) Dinocroc Versus Supergator (2010).
So, quite true to the B-movie creature features that are rampant nowadays (think Sandshark, Sharktopus), the story and acting of Dinocroc Versus Supergator is terrible. This isn’t a good film. It’s not even a particularly enjoyable film, considering it focuses more on the human’s melodrama/trying to survive than on the creatures. But that final showdown between Dinocroc and Supergator is great. For anybody who has ever argued with their friends about which animal is better, a crocodile or alligator, will feel thrilled and validated to watch Dinocroc and Supergator go at it Wrestlemania-style.
Who was I rooting for: Supergator. Here’s the reason I gave my roommate: he’s big, vicious, but he’s low to the ground (low-center of gravity, nothing’s knocking him over). And because Dinocroc looked too good/too much like the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. And nobody likes a show-off.
Who was the victor: Dinocroc, although technically the humans won by defeating both creatures. But when it came down to the ultimate mutated terrifying monstercreatures, Dinocroc did prove victorious over Supergator, by kicking him over and ripping his belly apart. It was gross and it broke my little heart. Turns out the low center of gravity wasn’t an advantage, after all.
3) Dracula Versus Frankenstein (1971)
So, first things first: yes I am talking about the film where Frankenstein’s Monster essentially looks like a mushy version of Leatherface. Now that that’s outta the way. In this film, Dracula is asking to be taken downa peg. He obtains (ie. steals) the Frankenstein Monster’s corpse so he can use it for his own evil purposes, and when the Frankenstein Monster decides he doesn’t want Dracula to kill the innocent woman (he’s standing up for her!) he decides to turn on his new boss. Apparently Freddy Vs. Jason couldn’t think of a plot good enough to justify their showdown, so they just stole the essential plot from this classic movie. But hey, whatever works, right?
Who was I rooting for: Frankenstein. Have we noticed a theme? I tend to go for the slower, larger, less-manipulative monster. The underdog monster, if you will. And because his finisher is a bear hug — that kills you.
Who was the victor: Seeing as how Dracula rips both of the Frankenstein Monster’s arms off and then continues to decapitate him (with his bare hands), Dracula appears to be the victor here. But like any good versus movie, both monsters are left decimated, and because of the Frankenstein Monster’s chasing Dracula away from the castle, Dracula can’t make it back inside before sun rise and he gets reduced to a pile of ash. At least Frankenstein’s Monster had to be disassembled to be defeated, unlike his foe who can’t stand a little vitamin D and some sunshine.
2) Alien Versus Predator (2004)
This is the face-off between two ultimate hunters. I feel like the reward for winning this battle should be: “Okay, so you get to destroy all humans now.” And it makes sense that Predator should win this one because it’s revealed that both humans and facehuggers are only here because the Predators have let us live this long. We are their version of reality TV, essentially. It is revealed that the facehuggers were only on Earth because the Predators needed something disposable and tough to train their young Predators against. And humans were the food to make the aliens all big and strong and scary. Yeah, Predators are the biggest jerks ever.
Who was I rooting for: Predator. Because… I have no justifiable reason. I should be on the Aliens’ side, because they were being bred essentially for horrific murder. I just really like Predator, guys.
Who was the victor: Predator. I’m not proud of this win, since the Predator that defeated the Alien Queen at the end did have the help of the surviving human, Alexa. And, as I’ve previously mentioned, the Predators are just giant assholes. So, it’s not a clean win and it sounds like it should be a disqualification to me, but what can you do?
1) Mothra Versus Godzilla (1964)
There was no other option but for Mothra Versus Godzilla to take first place. Godzilla, and his amazing series of fights against other great monsters began my love of all monsters and campy creature flicks. The political critique inherent in Godzilla flicks elevate these movies from just simply creature features, as well for me. And for monster battles, there really aren’t any done better.
When I first thought of writing this column, I was asked why I chose Godzilla fighting Mothra over Godzilla versus Mechagodzilla, and there are two reasons. One, the Mothra installment of the Godzilla franchise is easily the best. The movie is so weird and the most iconic example of the thrills and excitement of versus movies. Godzilla takes on Mothra and the humans, and does so exceptionally well. Two, what makes the Mothra fight so great to watch is the fact that Godzilla and Mothra are two entirely opposite entities. It’s the ultimate face-off because it’s a fight of two completely different abilities. Watching Godzilla fight a different version of himself is awesome, yes, but watching him square off against a creature entirely unlike himself is pure, unrelenting excitement because there is no telling who will get the upper hand and how. Both have advantages over the other, and it’s about watching them find and exploit their weaknesses. And, admittedly, Godzilla reigns King of the Versus Fights. If you want to experience the best of any monster-mania-match-ups you want to watch a Godzilla flick.
Who was I rooting for: Godzilla. Because moths are gross (and Godzillas are awesome). Doesn’t matter that Mothra was basically just protecting her unborn baby-mothras, I will always root for Godzilla. Because he can melt shit with his atomic breath. And he’s just cranky people keep bothering him and waking him up. Which I can relate to.
Who was the victor: Godzilla. Obviously.
Honourable mention: Now, I suppose I’m limiting myself by saying versus “movies.” I was enjoying the Marvel storyline A v X (because I do not like Captain America, and I really wanted to see Cyclops show him whose boss) and because it held the possibility for some great versus fights. My love of Thing was rewarded when he crushed Namor, but the story itself got really bad really fast (even for a “versus” premise).
Who was I rooting for: Thing.
Who was the victor: as true to my childhood experiences with the ceiling fan, the Thing always wins, because with Ben Grimm, it’s always clobberin’ time.
What are your favourite versus films? Or what are your most desired versus battles?
Contropussy, written by Emma Caulfield (Buffy’s own Anya) and Camilla Outzen Rantsen and with art by Christian Meesey, is a very weird and incredibly exciting read. Contropussy follows the life of a cat: a housecat called Sonnet by day and a femme fatale by the name of Contropussy at night. Make no mistake, Contropussy is a contemporary embodiment of the attitude of exploitation films and underground comix of the ‘60s and 70s. Double O, a dog and the main love interest of Contropussy, appears exactly like Booga, TG’s Kangaroo love interest, in the exploitation-style comic Tank Girl, and this homage brings to the forefront the controversy surrounding sexuality and sexual partners inherent in both comics. Because if Contropussy is sending any sort of political message, it’s about who can do what with their sexuality, nay-sayers be damned.
Contropussy is brazen in its talk of sexuality, as the first introduction to the titular heroine involves her monologue about masturbation, having a one-night stand with a stray cat, and reminiscing about her break up with her partner, Double O. True to any spy-thriller, the story itself focuses on Contropussy’s own adventure, mishaps, involving rescuing her friend from a cat brothel, international abductions, mind-control and the excitement and dangers of falling in love. Contropussy pushes the limits, in an often slightly-uncomfortable, maybe-don’t-read-this-book-in-a-café kinda way. While it does hold back on explicit depictions of sex, it makes no qualms about what Contropussy gets up to (or who she gets down with) on her late night prowls.
While Contropussy is very true to form in imitating the comix style of an unapologetic “what can I get away with?” mindstate it is taking place in 2013 and not 1970, and the cultural implications of the gender dynamics and overt sexuality are at the forefront. Indeed, in Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature Charlies Hatfield describes Robert Crumb’s “originality [as laying] in his use of such figures to express a vision at once self-regarding, almost solipsistic, yet socially aware, satirical, even politically astute.” Comix, in their refusal to be censored or limited, create the perfect avenue for political play.
While Contropussy can absolutely be enjoyed for the animal-centric sexploitation romp it is, it is also hitting at some poignant issues surrounding the depiction of female sexuality. There is no escaping the reverberations of inverting and playing with typical gender dynamics, especially when using the James Bond spy-thriller genre as a framing device. This is where the exploitation element comes in: Caulfield and Rantsen show Contropussy getting down and dirty constantly, consistently and unapologetically.
The punning name “Contropussy” is a clear homage to the most famous Bond Girl names, such as Pussygalore and Octopussy. She is the hero of this tale, oozing sex appeal and commanding respect, while Double O is relegated to the position of a (fairly one-note) sex object. Sadly, the Double O character doesn’t receive any in-depth characterization to flesh out this parody: throughout the narrative he remains the sex object, love interest and sometimes ally/sidekick for Contropussy. Despite this, towards the end of the graphic novel, Double O does provide one of the best laugh-out-loud situations when he attacks Todd Akin, who is spouting his infamous “legitimate rape” line, ultimately aligning Double O on the feminist side of the female sexuality debate. This isn’t a question of what men can do with their sexuality, because they haven’t faced the same shaming as women have. We admire James Bond, and slut-shame the Bond Girls. What Contropussy is wrangling with is inverting this to give the same level of respect to the feline and feminine version of Bond. It’s exploitation at its finest: show Contropussy doing what Bond does, unabashedly and rather awesomely.
In exploitation genres, the brazenness that Contropussy embodies is what works. For example, in the 1970’s exploitation movie TNT Jackson there is a great scene where the villain attempts to intimidate and torture TNT by threatening to burn her exposed breasts with a cigarette. The fact that the villain violently rips off her blouse shows this act is supposed to give him the power over her via controlling/threatening her sexuality. What follows is TNT handily defeating all the henchmen, wearing only panties. This scene is great and works so well in the exploitation genre because it shows TNT taking back the power that was being lorded over her: now she’s showing that she can take these goons on despite being stripped, robbing the attempt of using her sexuality against her of any of its power. You get both: exposed breasts for titillation, but also a scene latent with a feminist backbone.
Contropussy achieves this same effect throughout the narrative. Caulfield offers Contropussy, a very sexualized character, who makes references and jokes about her preference for certain types of bondage, as a way to illustrate that sexual liberation is entirely different from sexual exploitation. Early on in the graphic novel, Contropussy saves her friends from a cat brothel (by defeating her arch-nemesis Evil Rabbit in a grindhouse-level-of-gross/in-your-face-kung-fu battle), showing that there is a difference between embodying sexuality and having that sexuality controlled, used and exploited (as further cemented through Double O’s attacking of Todd Akin for his “legitimate rape” comments). Contropussy is very smart and works the exploitation/homage to the comix scene incredibly well. Caulfield and Rantsen lets Contropussy run rampant, showing that overt sexuality isn’t shameful.
Beyond just the exploitation-style politics, Contropussy reads like an old-school film noir (another beloved genre the narrative is paying homage to while simultaneously inverting). For example, Contropussy describes a character who “walks across the street like a slow, slow drag off a cigarette after a really long day.” Contropussy parodies typical spy-thrillers like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, offering a narrative that shifts the power from women in spy-thrillers as just fetishized sex object to the sexy main protagonist. By inverting typical dynamics found in spy genres, and by using the exploitation style of the underground comix scene, Contropussy is designed to shock and delight. And if the name itself isn’t a giveaway, there are plenty of shocks and boundaries being pushed. The use of animals works on an allergorical level, illustrating tensions found in the sexual relationships being exhibited, but it also provides shocks and laughs on a basic, literal level.
The stylized art is pitch-perfect for all of the intents of the narrative. Both realistic and exaggerated, Meesey’s art evokes the glamour of thriller movies, while presenting raw, unapologetic visuals at home in comix. Rather than offering a structured narrative that centres around one achievable goal, Contropussy reads episodically, due to its origins as webcomic, where we get scenes and stories that are bound together through the reader’s devotion to the characters, rather than a defining storyline. But this works, because it’s not necessarily the story that matters, but how Caulfield and Rantsen are inverting typical gender dynamics and paying homage to the genres that have paved the way for anti-censorship in comics and films.
As a die-hard Catwoman fan, I’ve never given Harley Quinn a fair shake. For starters, that voice. I like my villains sultry, dignified and more solemn than ridiculous, and for me, Harley was never any of these things. But then I started reading the Gotham City Sirens, and have been introduced to a side of Harley I never knew existed.
After reading Gotham City Sirens: Union, I went on to read a dedicated Harley trade: Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes by Karl Kesel, Terry Dodson and Rachel Dodson. I had a hard time getting into it, at first. The art is a little more goofy than I typically like, and it was difficult for me to sympathize with Harley in the first story when she is just hopelessly devoted to the Joker, despite his attempt to kill her (watch He’s Just Not That Into You, girl!). But with the second and third story, where Harley works for Two-Face and then throws her bad-girls-only slumber party, I noticed there was something much deeper happening than just Harley being heartbroken, pissed off and trying to find new friends.
Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes is about redefining Harley in a way that liberates her from being Joker’s gal Friday, but not totally reinventing her from the ground up. It is the working through of her change, complete with downfalls and triumphs. With each new story in the trade, we get a death and rebirth of Harley: she begins with a conception of herself (she is Joker’s gal, she is Two-Face’s right hand, she is one of the DC bad girls, et cetera), and by the end, this definition becomes shaken and Harley establishes a new status quo for herself — which will once again become shaken, then re-evaluated, and re-established.
It is a process of definition that is reminiscent of the carnivalesque, but which operates more fully in a realm of slapstick comedy. In Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes we see Harley trying to define herself apart from Joker. The first narrative arc in the trade is about her still fighting for Joker’s respect– as he is trying to kill her, though. The conversations Joker has with his henchmen behind Harley’s back illustrate Joker’s view of her: he is in a position of power over her, as both her boss and lover, and looks down on her as less than his equal. She is the side-kick, the love interest, but during the events of Prelude and Knock-Knock Jokes, we see Harley stepping farther and farther away from this. Traditional structures of power are dissolved to become more inclusive. She proves herself time and time again of being able to hold her own with Joker and his henchmen. Harley can be seen as a serious villain if how we think of villains is being shaken up. This is done through humour (and if the name wasn’t a dead give away, Preludes is filled with great one-liners), to show that within these realms, what we know of power positions are social constructs, rather than innate ones.
The first two stories show Harley going through the motions of previous power dynamics: she was Joker’s girl, now she’s not, so she tries to repeat the experience working for Two-Face. This fails, and leads to the turning point in Preludes: the bad girls of DC slumber party. These are voices that are normally on the back-burner, or relegated to a sidekick/love-interest position taking over to establish a new, if temporary, order. It is in this new space where all typical structures are levelled that Harley can test the new idea of herself as an independent woman: not as the Joker’s lover or as Two-Face’s number two, but as her own woman operating for her own desires. It’s not fully the carnivalesque, because it is focused on creating a new, lasting Harley, but if we use this lens, we can see how the slumber party story partially operates as the chaotic carnival realm where Harley’s whole world, and self-conception, is entirely shifted and shaken, allowing for her final death and rebirth.
Beyond that, so much of what happens during Preludes is mobilized through Harley’s own insistent humour. In the last story, we see Harley and her Quinntets attempting to rob Wayne Manor. At the same time as the Riddler and his henchmen are trying to discover the secret passage that has been rumoured to exist in the Manor. Oracle, unable to signal any of the usual Bat-family, sends out an SOS to anybody, and, true to the slapstick nature of Preludes, Big Barda comes to the rescue. The whole situation is constructed to make us laugh, with Harley and her henchmen squaring off against Riddler and his henchmen, and telling ridiculous one-liners and riddles.
But here’s the kicker: even Big Barda is getting in on the jokes, showing that despite the fact that Harley, her Quinntets, the Riddler, his lackeys and Barda are all working against each other, they’re also all fighting on the same terms. No one — whether a god, henchman or person with a body ramped up by Poison’s Ivy special concoction — is put in a more privileged position than any others. Harley only triumphs by working alongside Barda. It is a moment of inclusivity that allows for the terms of existing in this realm to be changed: Harley isn’t just the fool. Not any more. She’s become a major player on her own terms.
The point is to show that Harley can hold her own with any of the Bat-villains, but also that nobody in Gotham is exempt from becoming such a nefarious foe. The final story, with the showdown between Harley, the Riddler and Barda, shows that while these individuals are exceptional in their own infamous ways, they are also not entirely unique in Gotham. As Harley’s old professor says, “This is Gotham, after all — where even the Sisters of St. Jude’s carry concealed weapons.”
If we stretch the carnivalesque lens a little bit farther, it seems like this is the underlying sentiment behind Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes: it’s not just Harley who can redefine herself, but anybody in Gotham is capable of rising up to the challenge. As we can see when Harley is being hauled off to her cell in Arkham Asylum in a flashback during Preludes, she shouts “ONE OF US,” rallying all the inmates to join in the chant.
And they do, and ultimately, this exposes the real fear of living in Gotham city. Not the villains or inmates of Arkham Asylum, but the fact that anybody can rise up and become an infamous Bat-villain. Gotham City is the site of the literal carnival, after all, where Dick was able to join the ranks of Gotham’s finest heroes. And for me, this is what we can see happening underneath all the drama and jokes of Preludes: Gotham City is the only place where such a process of redefinition for Harley — or anybody — can occur.
This post was originally published by me on Comics Should Be Good.