Friday, November 14, 2008

Ms Marvel #32: Torture Porn in Comics

My husband and I have been serious comics collectors for years. We collect a wide range of titles, from mainstream superhero books to foreign titles and more “arty” fare. Like many collectors, we have our local comics store (Comics Outpost on Ocean Avenue, a great store and community) set certain titles aside for us every month. I’ve enjoyed the Marvel House of MCivil WarSecret Invasion trajectory, so I’ve been following many of the titles that have supporting roles in these company-wide crossover stories, like Ms. Marvel.

Ms. Marvel has historically been an uneven title. Unable to solidify her character, writers have often used her adventures (or misadventures) to serve as convenient plot twists in support of more popular characters. The Ms. Marvel/Carol Danvers character seemed to find more definition a couple years ago after the events of House of M and the launch of the New Avengers, and aside from the occasional inane plot line has been fairly readable. Last week I sat down with our latest stack of Marvel comics, and discovered that I had somehow wound up with the Ms. Marvel torture porn issue.

It’s no secret that extreme things happen to characters in comics, both male and female. I can deal with a couple tough pages in the context of the story. In the case of dark, tormented characters like Moon Knight, Batman, the Darkness and Wolverine, overcoming extremes of violence and degradation is part of the character’s development. After collecting Wolverine for several years, I finally dropped it after one particularly heinous story (#56) - Wolverine, a practically indestructible character that can regenerate, was trapped in a pit and shot at with machine guns around the clock; he gets out by playing on the psyche of one of the gunners, then slaughters everyone. On top of being disgusted by this story, I realized that the writers had no where left to go with this long-running and over-exposed character, and it was unlikely anything really interesting would ever happen again.

Ms. Marvel is not generally portrayed as a brooding anti-hero and in this case, her captivity is related to a shady government conspiracy. The context of her story may be different, but the same bankruptcy of original thought haunts Ms. Marvel #32. At the end of #30, Carol confronts a man from her past about a secret weapons program called Ascension (in #32, we see he was the one who tortured her). Issue #31 is a detour to visit her estranged family, including her emotionally distant father, now dying of cancer. At the beginning of #32, a flashback story written by Brian Reed, Carol ( before she acquires super powers) is a hot shot Air Force test pilot. She meets billionaire weapons manufacturer Tony Stark (aka Iron Man, her future colleague/boss) on the airstrip as she is about to take a test flight in a plane that Stark designed. The plane is shot down over a fictional middle eastern country occupied by the Taliban. She crashes and is held and tortured by the men that find her. When she finally makes her harrowing escape, she discovers that the men that tortured her are somehow connected to the CIA and a program called Ascension. With her broken arm and leg shrouded in a burka-like outfit, she fades into a crowd in the last panel. As of this writing, #33 isn’t out yet, but it seems a logical progression that Stark will reappear to be involved in her recovery, and that this is likely to be a bonding experience that helps establish strong feelings of mutual loyalty and respect between them.

You might be asking, what is unique about this story? If you follow comics, you probably recognize this as the type of plot line feminist comics writer Gail Simone pointed out in her well-known 1999 work Women in Refrigerators, in which female characters undergo extremes of emotional or physical trauma often to further the development of a better known male character. Ms. Marvel #32 should “rise” to #1 on this top ten list of worst offenders. Visually, it’s a startling piece of work. Carol (the busty, blond, tough talking pilot) has a broken leg from the plane crash, is stripped to her underwear, electrocuted, her nails pulled out, has a finger cut off with garden shears, and finally her arm is crushed by a blow with a sledgehammer. Out of 23 pages of story, 11 pages depict misery and torture. Every assault and reaction is skillfully and sensuously portrayed in great detail by penciler Paulo Siqueira and inker Amilton Santos, much like Brian Bolland’s famously cinematic depiction of the shooting of Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke.

In the context of this story arc, the authors may feel that showing the details of the torture and how Carol fought back helps to establish credibility for this long misused character. I’m sure it’s the fantasy of abused people everywhere to magically obtain superpowers and then beat the crap out of their abuser (I know it would be mine). Perhaps one could stretch this thinly veiled S&M fantasy into a critical comment on the medieval policies of the Bush Administration, with a female American military officer on the receiving end of the kind of treatment the US dished out at Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. When confronted with this bleak imagery in the actual book, it’s hard to visualize a plot line that justifies this kind of blatant pandering. Unfortunately, torture as entertainment has become such a common theme in contemporary media that nobody really questions it anymore. I imagine this Ms. Marvel story is intended to visually appeal to the fans of films like Saw and Hostel, or the cynical “torture someone, it’s sweeps week” attitude of a TV series like 24 or La Femme Nikita. Although there seem to be endless rationalizations and analyses of why people enjoy watching graphic depictions of torture, and I have to admit that on an emotional level the fascination with torture porn is still a total mystery to me. Any thoughts?

Addendum 9/09. Well, it turns out that this story didn’t go quite in the direction I thought it would, and good for the writers, although this was still a disgusting issue, and I haven’t followed Ms. Marvel regularly since. Deepening the mystery (as far as I'm concerned anyway) Entertainment Weekly (7/31/09 issue) ran an article by Christine Spines entitled Horror Films and the Women That Love Them. The article claims that a huge percentage of the audience for slasher horror films is female. This is probably no surprise to those of you who watch movies like this and notice the make-up of the audience in attendance, but I was really surprised. I admit that I am still puzzled and intrigued by this cultural phenomenon.