Grrl Scouts (Oni Press, 1999)
Written and Drawn by Jim Mahfood.
Back in high school in the mid 90s, you knew who the cool kids were. They spoke their own strange tongue and carried around bootlegged videocassettes of something called Clerks which, to hear them tell it, was about blowjobs and smoking and the Death Star and Berserker, whatever that was. Even though most of us are now far too mature to admit it, Kevin Smith taught a generation how to fuse indie cred with abject nerdistry to produce something approaching an opera of the everyday.
Many comics took note, but few as excitingly or plausibly as Jim Mahfood’s 1999 Grrl Scouts, a series about three female drug dealers who get high, party hard, murder their foes, and collect full runs of Jack Kirby. They are so successful in their business that they run afoul of the Brotherhood of the Cracker, a corporate white supremacist amalgam of religion and capitalism run by Phillip Nykee.
The story, though, of violent and spectacular revenge against Corporate America, isn’t the important thing here. It’s all about characterization and atmosphere. It’s true that our three heroines, Daphne, Rita, and Gwen, have essentially the same voice, but it’s an interesting one, a mixture of brassy self-assuredness and unrestrained profanity in the service of portraying a group of women carving out a decidedly atypical form of femininity.
Mahfood dots the book with a dense array of cultural touchstones, from hidden music track listings to the posters on the walls and the comics lying about on the floor, creating a saturated visual experience for those willing to take the time to sift through each panel. Everything about the book is hyperbolic, a realm of pure Id Unleashed, where the bad guys get raucously butchered, and the good guys do all the drugs, have all the sex, and collect all the comics.
In the painful and slow history of the deVictorianization of comics, Grrl Scouts is an important contribution. It avoids subtlety and understatement at every turn, giving us instead women with as many failings as virtues, all papered over by an instinctual swagger that pushes them forward for better and worse. They often do stupid things for terrible reasons, and that’s half of being human, a half that had been denied female characters for far too long under the Overbearing Nag or Virginal Paragon models that had ruled comics before.
Grrl Scouts proceeds from the idea that, sometimes, and actually often, people are not particularly subtle or introspective. They are violent and cocky and impulsive and greedy, women as well as men. It takes that idea and goes precisely where you’d expect, and along the way it creates a camaraderie of the New Scum (to borrow Ellis’s apt phrase) unfamiliar and fascinating and plausible.
Hide the stuff, man. It’s a Power Meter.
Fierce: 9: Yeah, the Grrl Scouts are pretty fierce. They undergo a training sequence and everything. They are Ids incarnate, who solve their problems with gratuitous murder and shrooms, and that’s a bit of a different thing to see.
Smart: 3: None of the characters is shown doing anything requiring any particular knowledge. These are three women trying to maintain their lifestyle by selling drugs in cookie boxes. So, yeah, not much room for pondering Chaucer or building cyclotrons.
Funny: 9: If you like Kevin Smith films still (and, come on, you do. You’re not supposed to, but you secretly do anyway), then you’ll fit right in with the humor here. If you don’t, you are going to find this book intolerable.
Art: 9: Mahfood, as both writer and artist, weds the art flawlessly to the story. It’s all that black and white, heavy lined, zine style art that aimed to save comics from its own excesses in the 90s, and mostly succeeded. The panels are cluttered and raw, and that’s also how it should be for characters whose lives are a bit of a raw clutter.
ApocalyptiGirl (Dark Horse, 2015)
Written and Drawn by Andrew MacLean
Balance in comics is often most notable in its absence. When a writer has the perfect ratio of grand scale to personal narrative, the experience is so seamless and engrossing, you don’t even notice the carefully wrought skeleton of the story. But when that ratio is off, uneasiness sets in, and the whole comic tends to unfold like a grand exercise in Something Here Definitely Ain’t Right.
Such is ApocalyptiGirl, a slim graphic novel put out by Dark Horse earlier this year by Andrew MacLean, about a girl and her cat looking for Something in a post-apocalyptic world. The premise is interesting, but we aren’t let into what the story is actually about, and where the girl actually comes from, until the final pages, when the reveal isn’t enough to save the skewed balance of what came before.
The majority of the book features our heroine running about, fixing robots, and following some unspecified signal, interspersed with some fighting and some narration balloons which attempt to jam the universe creation in around the scenes at hand. There are ways to set up a universe organically within the context of a character’s personal growth, but MacLean opts instead to pair background narration with repetitious scenes of no particular interest, which is to coat cardboard with asphalt. Here is a fine example of some backstory being told around the crucially important image of the heroine sitting on something:
And here it continues, to the riveting scene of her turning on a switch inside that something:
And here it continues yet further after two more pages of similar content, with her leaving the thing she was sitting on after it turned out to do nothing after all:
There’s an aria leitmotif that weaves through the story that doesn’t do anything in particular except serve as an excuse for peacockish author notes. We all get tempted to do things like that to show how Very Clever we are, how “We’re not just comic writers, we’ve got culture too. Let me tell you about the Latin root of the word aria…” but usually somebody comes along and shows us how transparent and unnecessary those little moments are, and we quietly excise them before the public can roll its eyes at our foibles.
The heroine herself is a gamble. MacLean has decided to save all the significance of her story for an end reveal, hoping that it will retroactively fill in her character’s odd behaviors. And yes, it explains a number of things that were random and disjointed before, but explaining actions isn’t the same as establishing character, and by the time we finally figure out who she is, it’s hard to muster too much retroactive enthusiasm. She’s on a quest that we’re not told about even though Everything Else about this world is explained in overbearing and unnecessary detail. She likes her cat very much. She can kill people when she needs to. She’s frustrated about something for some reason. That’s the character we have to follow to the end, through self-same set pieces that culminate in a random reprieve for Existence.
It’s got a fun style artistically, but MacLean has let his central character get crushed by his need to jam as much universe creation into his graphic novel as possible, and the result is a book which might have been something if given the time to grow over twenty or thirty issues of an ongoing title, but that compressed into a graphic novel is necessarily cramped and unsatisfying. We all want more stories about awesome, gadget-savvy women surviving in an apocalyptic mad-scape. But not this way. Not this way.
Time to Drive Around Some More, It’s a Power Meter:
Fierce: 5: She’s independent and handy with a blade, but to be truly fierce you have to have a character that makes sense from the standpoint of their motivations and goals. To pull off his big surprise ending, MacLean kept these in the dark, with the result that she seems more arbitrary than fierce.
Smart: 6: The heroine is shown attempting to fix giant scrap robots, a nod to some nascent engineering ability, but once we find out who she is, it opens up a rather larger question of why she wasn’t able to do more.
Funny: 3: There are legitimately amusing moments, but the oppressive narration casts such a pall over the proceedings that they feel more like angular authorial impositions than natural outgrowths of the story.
Storytelling: 3: Narratively, this book is a hot mess. The scale is never worked out. The other inhabitants of the world are excuses for fights and nothing much more. The incidents are poorly chosen and repetitious. The pay off isn’t enough to justify the cramped motivations that were required to make it happen. To be fair, the cat is good looking.