Steve Morris wants to know “What’s so funny about funny books?” So each week in Killing Jokes he’ll be examining humor in comics, from titles that are meant to be funny to jokes inserted in otherwise completely serious books.
Once you finish this week’s Killing Jokes, scroll back up to re-read the title and realise how offensive it might be. Sorry! Couldn’t help it . . .
While comic books are typically written by people we call ‘professionals;’ that does necessarily mean every joke ever written is going to be a success. Every funny comic series will have, somewhere, a joke that doesn’t work and bombs right there on the page. Normally when a joke dies and fails to get anything from the readers, it’s fine and can be skipped right over. Real-life conversations are filled with dud gags, so mirroring that in comics only adds to a sense of realism. That seems to be the main purpose of Brian Michael Bendis’ work on Avengers – the characters are all so different that only a few of them share a similar sense of humor and many of the quick-fire jokes garner no reaction from the rest of the cast.
But every so often, something happens with a joke that drastically changes the tone of a story. Or, in this case, tars a character in a thorough coat of worrying subtext. This week, I want to talk about a scene from Peter David’s X-Factor. A noir detective series, which every so often forgets its roots and goes off on a yearlong tangent, has proven massively popular amongst fans, at least online. The people who get David’s unique, reference-heavy banter absolutely love the book, while anybody not interested in Star Trek jokes tends to completely ignore it. As such, it’s entered that top level of cult books like Young Avengers (which it recently had a semi-crossover with) wherein the readership are so devoted to the characters that they skip right past some of the iffier subtext. A few years ago the X-Men line was involved in a mini-event called ‘Utopia’ in which the main team were forced to flee from an attack by The Dark Avengers and Norman Osborn, and moved to live on a tiny island off the San Fran coast. X-Factor normally takes pride in not taking part in big Marvel events and standing off to the side – but for once David decided he had a story to tell and so brought his cast onto Utopia for a one-shot special.
This reunited two characters who’ve had a long history together: Dazzler and Longshot. Formerly a couple with a baby on the way, they were split up via the wonders of reader apathy and years in limbo, so upon their return the baby had mysteriously vanished and they were no longer together. Dazzler rejoined the Uncanny X-Men, while Longshot wandered into X-Factor. Their return was due to create a few sparks, and David was more than willing to live up to that. Within a few panels, they’ve decided to hook up again for old times’ sake, and race off to the bedroom. They then exchange a bit of pillow talk, wink to the readers, and pull the covers back over once more. It’s a cute touch for long-term readers, who’ve been wondering what happened to the relationship.
But the jokey dialogue also contains some horrific subtext.
Longshot’s powers of luck mean that most women around him fall in lust with him. Like the former Avenger and woman-enthralling villain Starfox (whom Dan Slott memorably deconstructed during his She-Hulk run) Longshot’s powers are more than a little bit creepy. He gets good luck, which means he gets lucky. There’s never been a discussion about how much control these women have over their actions, and David’s decision to stage this particular hook-up as an in-joke means a second idea creeps into the picture: Longshot is using his powers to rob Dazzler of her right to object. He’s possibly raping her.
Take a look at the panels again. In the first instance, Longshot’s innocently-asked question “shall we have sex again for old time’s sake?” is a silly subversion of the expected. Nobody just goes over to a woman and puts things that bluntly, do they? It’s a spit-take moment so unexpected that many readers will look straight past Dazzler’s response, which is to turn him down. There’s a pause, his eye flashes (suggesting he’s using his powers), and she immediately reverses her decision. That’s . . . really unnerving, isn’t it? Sure, you can take this to suggest Dazzler is just being flighty, and the story is too light-hearted for something like rape to be read into it. David himself has addressed this online, declaring that he never intended for this to be construed as rape. But just look at the panels. Dazzler refuses to have sex with him, then changes her mind in an instant. And in both cases, Longshot then gives a satisfied, smug grin to the readers. We’re meant to be pleased for him, but it’s so incredibly easy to instead see him as a creepy villain.
David’s never been afraid to go online and challenge what he sees as misreadings of his work, and a far more recent issue of X-Factor actually had Longshot mention that he and Dazzler had been sexting. Sexting suggests Longshot can’t possibly be using his powers on The Glittery One, because they’re living so far apart his powers can’t reach her. Unluckily for Longshot, David has already asserted that there is no subtext that can’t be read into a comic, so long as somebody can back it up with evidence and intelligence. Prior to this issue, David brought Shatterstar into the book and launched him into a cute homosexual relationship with another member of the cast, Rictor. Shatterstar’s creator, Rob Liefeld, objected, saying he never intended Shatterstar to be gay. David responded by saying that the subtext had always been there (and it was, much of it placed by Fabian Nicieza), and he was simply picking up on something everybody else had been aware of for years. So now we’ve noticed that Longshot’s jokey, childish innocence could well be a front for a rapist. What if somebody else picks up on that, and runs with it in a future story? What was intended to be a joke has now become an element of subtext, which could well be used against Longshot in the long term.
You can choose to go along with the joke, or read something entirely more sinister into the story. Your choice…