Thursday, March 15, 2007

Jim Mahfood's Grrl Scouts #3

Jim Mahfood's Grrl Scouts #3, September 1999, Oni Press
by Jim Mahfood
letterer: Jack Gray
editors: Jamie S. Rich with Bob Schreck

I know what you're thinking. "A Comic A Day made such a big deal about Halloween, Christmas, and Black History Month . . . Don't you know March is Women's History Month? Where's your love for the ladies?" Simmer down, toots. I got your love right here. See, respectable women in comics is still something of a commodity these days; mainstream super chicks like Wonder Woman and Catwoman are still essentially crime-fighting strippers, their only real meta-ability of note being the ability to keep those skimpy costumes on, not to mention most of their anatomy in. (The latest incarnation of Wonder Woman appears somewhat more modest, but then again, the writer is a woman, so I presume the effort is more editorially chivalrous than story-based.) On the flip side, while female characters like the girls from Ghost World boast a smoldering sophistication, sexual issues are unavoidable and in fact more blatantly explored in these seemingly more visually conservative works. Simply put, if women in comics aren't unwittingly flaunting it, their intentionally discussing it, none of which strikes me as a problem, mind, except for its incredibly underrated narrow-mindedness. So, no, although I haven't reviewed Wonder Woman or She-Hulk yet, I wasn't going to give in to temptation just because it's Women's History Month. Thank you very much.

Then I stumbled onto Jim Mahfood's Grrl Scouts #3, the first of two comics I found with the feminist "grrl" riff in the title (the other soon to come, I assure you). First of all, ever since Mahfood's Felt I've been a fan, though I haven't proactively sought his work. In a tangent that best fits last month's theme, frankly, I'm intimidated by Mahfood's library; his work is best classified as "urban," with a subversive street style I'm surprised we don't see more often in mainstream material. Only Damien Scott and Brian Wood come to mind in this regard, in my experience. As a straight-edge white guy, I don't feel like Mahfood's target audience, but in fact his crisp, clean line work is visually accessible by all -- perhaps a conscious invitation for a general readership to explore material they might otherwise avoid. Really, and unlike me, I bought Felt to look at the pretty pictures and found myself enjoying its graphic hip hop inspirations, and on a base level, Grrl Scouts offers a similar experience. Starring three she-hipsters on the run, laced with overtones of racism and drug culture, Grrl Scouts may not appeal to everyone, but its open for anyone.

The first page of this issue captured me instantly, which may have been the point. At the head of her class, Gwen was often the victim of bullying and name-calling, seemingly assured by her mother that she's smart enough to do whatever she wants with her life, that she's a natural leader . . . then, when you turn the page, you see Gwen some fifteen years later, laying low with friends in a dingy garage. It's a fine use of visual contrast, of using that page turn and the impact of a two page splash effectively to establish character with just a few images that other writers might have attempted with several captions. In the following pages, those of us that haven't read the previous issues become familiar with the grrls' plight, as they first crash with Daphne's aunt and surprisingly white husband, then with Rita's dad, who tells his story of oppression at the hands of a former associate, a secret agent of the Brotherhood of the Cracker. You read that right, the Brotherhood of the Cracker. The Brotherhood honed in on the grrls when their drug peddling potentially threatened their underground business, unknown to the grrls of course, at which time Rita's dad began keeping tabs on them. The rest of this issue features the grrls' training in preparation for battle, and with the heavy artillery strapped to Gwen's back when she buys a lemonade from some local wide-eyed girls, you can tell they aren't fooling. If her victimization captured me on page one, her empowerment keeps its grip on me in the end.

Perhaps the most controversial element of this issue, aside from the themes of racism and sexism, is the flagrant, frequent, and condoned use of drugs, particularly the provision of mushrooms by Rita's dad to prepare the grrls mentally for their mission. Mahfood cuts loose with the ink to reveal their 'shroom trip a bit, and the following morning, the grrls are indeed ready to fight. No one's puking on the lawn or anything, and we're led to believe through their earlier means of living that our heroes are avid drug users. While a few of the readers' letters voice some concern about this subtext, the feedback essentially amounts to gentile whining: "Ah, I'm a little uncomfortable with the drugs, but I love your work and I'll keep buying your book!" It's just enough to make you shift in your seat, but not enough to keep you there when the book comes out again next month, eh? Though I often lament the medium's abandonment of the younger audience for which it was originally intended, Oni is a company distributed primarily to specialty comic shops, and Mahfood's work is usually sought exclusively by older readers, so I find my reaction to this stuff a little more liberal than usual. The Grrl Scouts, even by name, exist in exaggeration, through circumstances that highlight yet accentuate societal norms and injustices. They aren't role models, just as characters like the Punisher aren't models; they're simply conduits for compelling fiction . . . which can be an addiction in itself, if you aren't careful. As this blog attests.

I mentioned that scene in which Gwen buys lemonade from some wide-eyed little girls while wearing a golf bag full of weapons, the very image Mahfood decided to use for this issue's cover. I wonder, was this his way of bringing Gwen's childhood plight full circle. Was Gwen telling these little girls, via the weaponry on her back, that weakness is in the eye of the beholder? That strength is an easily achieved commodity, no matter where you come from or who you are? Perhaps Gwen was being that leader her mother said she could be. Or maybe, in the context of Women's History Month, I'm reading too much into that sequence. That's what the women do to you, man!

So, in contrast to Wonder Woman and the Black Cat and the like, are the Grrl Scouts better representatives of the modern woman? Perhaps. In the midst of any controversial means, Mahfood is simply attempting to tell a coming of age story, a tale of three young women seeking their identity. In a medium that varies from bikini clad heroines to hooded sweatshirt wearing goth chicks, all of whom tout strength yet vulnerability, I'd say it's a fair assessment.

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