Penance: Bad Girls 4ever!! Part 2

*First, new column. On the secret world of used manga. We are all eaters of the dead. Woo.

*Hey, a revival of Punisher: War Journal! And it's written by Matt Fraction! That sounds like something good to purchase. By sheer coincidence, I was looking through one of Jim Lee's issues of the old War Journal in a shop just today. Life trying to foreshadow, I guess.

Seven Soldiers: Bulleteer #4 (of 4)


Very, very strange that I’d read this book so shortly after getting through Vampirella: The Morrison/Millar Collection, that incomplete selection of stories from Grant Morrison and Mark Millar’s late-‘90s work on the famous ‘bad girl’ character. It’s not very good - shining through is a rather distasteful aura of backward sexualization, gore and bondage blown off the charts while pleasurable sexuality or even the simple unveiling of the human form are kept squirreled away, something to trip over your toes avoiding, lest some industry lightning bolt blast you to ash.

And now comes the final issue of Bulleteer (and the third-to-last installment of the Seven Soldiers project as a whole), and it’s even titled ‘Bad Girls.’ Now that it’s all over, I can safely say that this group of issues was very similar to those of Guardian; both are largely straightforward superhero stories, both find their title characters plagued with reluctance, both shunt said title characters off to the role of observer for generous portions of the action, and both conclude with a story that chronicles a supporting cast member’s journey from childish delight into the pits of what passes for ‘realism’ in a superhero universe. The key difference is that Guardian ends up fortified and ready to take on evil more than ever after hearing the story told in his book. Alix, the star of this show, shuts the storyteller up and openly rejects participation in the overarching Seven Soldiers plot. Indeed, unlike anything else in this project so far, the transformed Alix emerges from her journey unhappy with playing the superhero at all - she has learned too much about life on the DCU fringes, and she just wants things to go the hell away.

Indeed, Alix’s special place in this project is playing the role of wild card; she was the lost original seventh soldier, having turned down Vigilante’s offer to join his crew of costumed adventurers. At the end of this issue, the risen Vigilante appears again, and extends the same offer; once again, the Bulleteer is not ready to play the game. Fascinatingly, this leaves the project’s line of transformations arguably incomplete at six (providing that Frankenstein doesn’t experience a similar crisis in a few weeks) - just the number the Sheeda want, involving the same person who broke the number of God last time! Also, it seems that Alix has something to do with the Earth’s first superhero, a plot thread which will presumably be picked up in Seven Soldiers #1, along with ten thousand other things in what’s apparently only 32 pages. Thrilling reading that one will be. UPDATE (3/19/06 7:04 PM): Reader Jamil notes in the comments section below that DC issued a cleverly-disguised update to the page count nearly two weeks ago. Seven Soldiers #1 will now be 48 pages (and $3.99), though DC has declined to put such information up on their official site.

But Alix aside, this issue is Sally Sonic’s story; being an issue of Bulleteer, it’s also loaded with commentary on superhero comics themselves, specifically the roles played by women. Sally was once a bright, good-hearted girl, who teamed up with a living teddy bear in what seems to me as the same kitschy Golden Age as inhabited by the Newsboy Army from Guardian. Much like the Newsboys’ own eternal infant, Sally never physically ‘grows up.’ Unlike Baby Brain, however, Sally does not carry the torch of heroism very far. Instead, she falls prey to the confusion of the legal system (and do note the fact that Sally’s constantly told she’s not old enough to do anything permissible that’s not salacious - little comment there), and the exploitation of super-villains. As usual, writer Morrison busts out some cute genre devices to solidify and illustrate the hazards of the age; just as the evil creator in Guardian sews the Newsboy Army suits of backward, hateful adulthood, Sally’s lover turns her on to Doctor Hyde’s Evil Serum. Cheesy superheroic shorthand? Oh yes, but like the Anti-Life Equation in Mister Miracle, it’s ultimately as much a symbol for a state of mind than anything.

Soon, Sally is performing in those superheroine ‘adult’ films glimpsed in issue #1. And having read all that Vampirella stuff just a little while ago, I couldn’t help but notice how none of the exploitive films as glimpsed here involve actual sex. It’s just women posing in tiny outfits, as bullets enticingly bounce off their half-exposed flesh. Issue #1 made mention of acid bubbling on impervious skin - it’s all violence, and here explicitly positioned as something for viewers in the DCU to service themselves to. It’s very, very much the same as that Bad Girl stuff I read, the stuff of Morrison’s I read; not even a hint of real sex can enter into the masturbatory froth of harm. But it’s clearly portrayed here as being a very unhealthy thing, even as two pretty girls duke it out in their tight costumes. It’s not being said here that attractive women leaping into action is an inherently bad thing - but such things must be matched with an interest in emotions and thoughts, lest it all spiral into adolescence, Eternal Superteens indeed, just like the orgy in Flex Mentallo.

There is a bit of missed opportunity here, however, which I think has to rest on penciler Yanick Paquette and inker Serge LaPointe; the art in this issue gets a little unclear where it really shouldn't be, specifically in regards to Sally's character design. An awful lot of the story here depends on her looking 'underage,' and she simply doesn't, even before she has any superpowers. Part of the 'appeal' of Sally, as specified by the story's villains, is that she's kept physically in a state that appears upon first glace to be below the DCU age of consent - this is also why she's constantly denied regular jobs and self-sufficiency, because she appears to be young. This raises an expectation as to the visuals that Sally actually will appear to be young to the reader, and to me the art team drops the ball. Characters say things in regards to her actually being in her twenties, but such dialogue seems absurd when she looks like that to the reader. I can imagine this issue being a lot more creepy and effective with less physically mature Sally; it's too bad - in all other aspects of this stretch of the project, penciller Paquette (who also worked with inker Michael Bair, himself a vet of Morrison's Vampirella material - oddly, Baer isn't thanked in the end-of-miniseries shoutout section, while LaPointe is) was quite an inspired pick, turning out some good work. But even the action seemed a little off in this issue, stiffness creeping in. I did enjoy the old 'smashed with a fridge, only to climb out the door' gag.

A lot is left unresolved at the end of this one. We've been exposed to plenty of critique throughout this leg of the project, and it appears that Alix has been worn down. But there's a little hope. Her little invincible mouse pal from issue #1 has pulled through. Even as she blows off Vigilante, she's about to rush Sally off to get medical care. Her unironic empathy seems to have no place in the world, but it's left open as to if her arguably negative transformation might yet be changed; as of now, she seems branded over and over as the weak link of the chain.

There's a hell of a lot left on the plate for these last two issues.