Thursday, 24 January 2013

On "Diosamante" by Alexandro Jodorowsky and Jean-Claude Gal:- Masters Of Misogyny

      
The more we learn of the editorial shenanigans going on at DC, the easier it is to believe that artistic control inevitably inspires the best from creators. But if ever there was an example of how that isn't necessarily so, then it's Jodorowsky and Gal's Diosamante. More than that, it's yet more proof - as if any more proof was needed - that all the talent, skill, application and ambition in the world can't guarantee that a story will be worth the reading. For all the love and respect that the two creators display for old-school tales of sword and sorcery, and for all their apparently sincere commitment to a profoundly reactionary set of ideals, Diosamante is an experience that's as wearisome and unconvincing as it's unpleasant.

It may seem unfair to complain that Diosamante contains neither characters or conflict in anything other than the broadest, interest-sapping sense. After all, Jodorowsky obviously set out to produce a spiritual allegory peopled by types who are moved through simplistic ethical dilemmas with a maximum of seriousness and a minimum of subtlety. But the steps to moral enlightenment that he offers are nothing but crass and banal and chauvinistic, and all the supposedly spectacular moments and all the self-satisfied excess of cant can't compensate for the enervating absence of drama. In portraying the supposed path towards self-awareness and grace that's taken by Diosamante, Queen Of Arhas, Jodorowsky could almost be presenting an on-the-nail satire of the kind of po-faced, hyper-violent, and disturbingly sexualised muscles'n' magic yarn associated with the worst of Heavy Metal. Yet his script shows no sign at all of the joyful contempt which the best of satires express. Shockingly, Jodorowsky appears to expect that his tale of a once-mighty woman striving for a pseudo-Buddhist state of worthiness through torture and powerlessness should be taken entirely seriously. That the qualities he associates with her rebirth are synonymous with a misogynistic ideal of womanhood seems to have passed him by entirely.

      
That even the late Jean-Claude Gal's meticulous world-building fails to bring this dubious, threadbare narrative alive is a mark of how boorish and unpleasant Jodorowsky's didactic script is. With the lack of anything of personality in the script for Diosamante beyond the looming self-regard and bigotry of its author, Gal's tendency towards a measure of stiffness in his figurework becomes all the more obvious. Unable to compensate for the characters' absence of feeling or the asinine obviousness of the plot, Gal's work struggles to shine beyond a few grand architectural set-pieces. The aerial view of the coastal city of Daibath, for example, is unquestionably a beautifully designed and rendered experience, while the South-East Asian influences which inform the book's second and third chapters in particular add a degree of fascination to the by-the-numbers narrative.

Yet Gal's literal-minded reading of the script not only fails to bring its types and events to life. It also thoroughly reinforces Jodorowsky's seemingly fanatical misogyny, with the overwhelming obviousness of the artist's choices ensuring that the project never seems any the less ill-judged and disturbing. Put simply, Gal seems to have wholeheartedly bought into Jodorowsky’s reactionary ideals, and there’s been no apparent effort made in the art to counter-point the unpleasantness of the tale's meaning with anything of irony, or even good humour. Even if both men thought their piously cod-philosophising might excuse, or even legitimise, the aggressive sexism of their work, Diosamante is so unremittingly unpleasant that any possible good intentions become quite irrelevant. When metaphors for mystical development are indistinguishable from violent, women-loathing porn, the creators are, by accident or design, peddling thoroughly pernicious trash.

It's not just that the Queen herself is inspired through cosmic truth to abandon her throne in order to become worthy of a perfect King, or that her fate when she wins him is to churn out children while decoratively playing a harp in the royal palace as he plays at being perfect ruler. It's not even that Diosamante’s proven skill with a sword is discounted when time comes for the realm to be abandoned by the women and the children in the face of a barbarian invasion. The very idea that a woman’s essential interest can only be served by abandoning every trace of independence and power in order to fulfil the most traditional of gender roles is offensive enough. But far, far worse than even that is the use of rape not just as a regular threat and a repeated occurrence, but as a tool of spiritual enlightenment.
          
Wed by a cadre of noble super-monks to a "Vile, filthy beast" of an ape who first urinates upon her before settling into a nightly routine of rape, Diosamante is shown meekly learning to accept her place in the cosmos through a brutalising cycle of years-long sexual abuse and childbirth. So successful is her education, we're told, that the eventual murder of the "monkey-man" by invaders - who also inflict their own round of rape on her, of course - brings with it a night of sorrowful howling from Diosamante at her loss. Worse yet, it’s a sequence of events that's followed not by her taking vengeance on the monks who’d sentenced her to this fate, but to her rebuilding their temple and respectfully joining their mass meditation. A respectful capitulation is, we're told, the woman's road to truth. (Tellingly, no man is shown undergoing the repeated violations that she has to.) The "Monkey-man", it seems, "taught her to love like an animal" and helped mark her with "holiness". (The beast's rape of her is presented as a peaceful and almost tender business, with Diosamante submitting as an admirably patient pilgrim.) It's just one of a sequence of impossibly cruel and hateful scenes which are ladled out as mystical truths, with neither Jodorowsky or Gal having apparently noticed how their esoteric guide to a truer life for women was occupying the same ground as common-and-garden rape fantasies.
 
The loathing of women that's expressed in Diosamante is astonishingly unguarded, chauvinism cloaked in allegorical worthiness and fantasy cliches. In fact, the whole purpose of the tale appears to be to show exactly what a woman’s role should, and that’s one that's little more than obedience, sexual availability, motherhood, and glum-faced harping . As such, I can only recommend that everyone hunts down a copy of the newly-published and handsome hardbacked copy of the tale by Humanoids, which is produced to the admirable standards that we’d associate with the publishers. It's the first printing in English of Diosamante, and it contains notes from Jodorowsky and sketches from Gal which describe how the book's sequel would have progressed if not for Gal's untimely death. The sketches are so much more lively and engaging than the finished work for the first volume, although the plot synopsis for what was to come offers no hope of a more humane attitude to sex and gender emerging. Yet both men have undeniably produced important and influential comics work. Even when it represents qualities which inevitably inspire little but anger, despair and contempt in all but reactionaries and the dull-minded, it ought to remain in print. To see such ability applied with remarkable focus and energy to such a baleful, dehumanising cause is a cautionary tale of no little worth and importance in itself. As an example of undoubted talent conspiring to produce both narrative pablum and ethical grime, Diosamante is an essential read. In that context, and in that context only, I heartily recommend it to you.

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23 comments:

  1. Eek, Colin! Something that appears quite enticing on first glance but is excrutiatingly revolting upon closer inspection.

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    1. Hello Fred:- It does indeed seem enticing. Even at Jodorowsky's preface - where he states that he had "decided in my determined watch for something different to create a heroine ... a unique woman who combines wisdom and beauty in her soul - it seems as if he's going to do something about the problems with his representations of women. But this .... this is horrible stuff. No matter what the intentions, when the metaphors for spiritual growth are indistinguishable from rape fantasies, and may even be so given how they're presented, it's dodgy work. Worse yet, even to remove that leaves a book which argues that a perfect woman is a passive, obedient, beautiful wife and mother ... pah, and pah again.

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  2. Oof. I really hope this isn't your first encounter with Jodorowsky's work. Diosamante is my least favorite of his works. I'm not going to defend this work much because it does seem to be his laziest, but sex often plays a role in a lot of his comics and it's often used as a tool for a character's spiritual journey and even Professor Alan Mangel from Madwoman of the Sacred Heart is on the receiving end of some sex that initially starts out as rape, so it's not just a woman thing. I can only speculate, but I suspect that maybe Jodorowsky and Gal knew that Gal's time was short and Jodorowsky rushed with the script, because it does seem like an outline of a story instead of a finished product. Bouncer and Before the Incal are two works that are much more thoughtful and humanistic and they come from both sides of Diosamante, so that's the only reason I could think of for it to come out so sloppy.

    Again, I'm not trying to excuse Diosamante, just trying to give a possible explanation. Then again, I'm a big fan of Jodorowsky's, so maybe I am just coming up with excuses.

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    1. Hello Joe:- I'm limited to The Incal, Metabarons and Diosamnte where Jodorowsky's work is concerned. The first I've not read in a good while; I'll put that right as soon as I can. The second is powerful and yet clearly sexist. The third is a vile, vile example of misogyny. I understand what you're arguing, but I can't see how any amount of rush could excuse it. The very fundamentals of the book are misogynistic, and they're worked through with such constancy that it's hard to imagine that anyone could have made so many excessive misjudgments in such a way. Surely some part of his mind could've recognised that reducing a strong, powerful women to a TGR through love for a superior man and constant rapes is a dodgy, dodgy business.

      I have fond memories and a huge regard for the Incal. I can recognise the power of Metabarons and its worth as a classic of space opera even given the sexism, though that remains an important issue. But to me, Diosamante is as toxic, toxic text.

      But, as always, that's always "for me". I read every review of it I could find before writing the above and none of them - none! - raised a problem with its ethics. One vaguely hinted at it by saying it was a Red Sonya-like tale. One warned readers that it was full of sex, as if the nudity and the acts were important and yet not the context in which it was all presented. Several reviews didn't mention the issue in any way whatsoever.

      I wouldn't want to challenge Jodorowsky's achievements or influence. I certainly wouldn't want to suggest that my opinion should be yours. (I think we've exchanged ideas for long enough that you know that's not my intention.) But for me, Diosamante is - in its own way - as wretched a book as Holy Terror is. Which will tell you how I feel about it!

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    2. I haven't seen any other reviews of the text besides yours, but I clearly see where you're coming from with Diosamante. But the reason I use it being rushed as a sort of excuse is I believe that most books with a great deal of effort put into it can be redeemed with its literary value. As you said, Metabarons is a classic and powerful space opera despite its sexist elements. Faulkner includes a lot of troublesome material in his works, yet because of the care he puts into the craft, he's still considered an important part of the American literary canon. So, I do believe that honey can be found in the midst of poisonous texts.

      In Bouncer with Francois Boucq, a strong woman is overpowered during some rough sex with the protagonist and later she finds out has goals opposite to hers but as she put it, "You've pleasured me some, but if you get between me and my vengeance, I'll kill you!" Mind you, it isn't perfect, but the women in it are surely stronger than many other comics I've read whether they're cruel or courageous.

      The reason I bring all this up is Jodorowsky has produced better texts, both with more progressive messages in mind and some, like Metabarons and Madwoman, that do include these more troubling aspects. But I'll also admit that his status as my favorite author will make me biased towards Jodorowsky will cause me to defend his work as a whole and make excuses for what I consider his lesser works. And don't worry, Colin, I'm well aware that you'd never actively press your opinions on others for the purpose of discrediting another's. Just as you know I'd never come in here and tell you you're flat out wrong. But I won't shy away from defending my opinions just as I don't expect you to shy away from yours. ;) Which is great, because that's a large part in why this is my favorite blog!

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    3. Hello Joe:- Well said, sir, from beginning to end. I'm certainly not going to deny that there are pleasures and virtues to be found even in some of the most reprehensible texts. My feeling about this one is that the pleasures are few because of the structural problems I mentioned; it lacks character and drama and functions as a lecture; when the lecture is so - to my mind - appalling, the hope of the book as a whole appealling on any level collapses. I don't dislike the narrative because of the sub-text it's serving - it's not very "sub", is it? - but because the whole comic depends upon the "spiritual" meaning hitting home. If it doesn't, there's little else to fall back upon. As such, there's little, as you call it, "honey" to be found here. By contrast, and as you say, Metabarons does have the sense of the brutalising passing of the generations, the scale of the conflict, the visual imagination, and so on.

      And I promise you that I wouldn't damn a creator's work as a whole because of particularly unpleasant aspects of it. The Incal has problems of its own, but it doesn't suddenly become for me a thing to be disregarded because of Diosamte. It is without doubt both important and repeatedly enjoyable. Since I used Frank Miller as a point of comparison earlier, I think it's appropriate to say that Holy Terror doesn't make Born Again or Batman Year One any less wonderful. And Holy Terror's content doesn't mean that there aren't moments which are aesthetically notable even as they tend to be ethically vile.

      But they're few and far between. There does seem to be a relationship between the explicitness of a radical, out-there, apparently obsessional purpose and artistic value. The more the likes of Islamophobia or Misogny become the central concern of a text, the more things like plot and character are likely to be ignored. It's not always so, but as a general rule .... It's something which seemed to be true for the later Cerebus issues too, although such was the sexism there that I couldn't hang around to be sure that was so.

      I don't think we're very far from each other here :) But even if we were, I'd still appreciate the chance to debate and work ideas through with you. Thanks for your generous words, and I'll try later in the year to pick out an example of Jodorowsky's work that I can write far more kindly of.

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  3. I cannot really judge this, since the only things that I have read by Jodorowsky, have been done with Moebius, and he was pretty decent there. However, if you've ever read Madwoman of the Sacred Heart, I suppose that I can understand the misogyny.

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    1. Hello Sally:- You're the second commentor to mention Madwoman Of The Sacred Heart. I must say, I can't help but be curious ...

      But for the while, I'm going to re-read the Incal and hopefully discover that my fondness for that wasn't in any way misplaced :)

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    2. Oh, the Incal is lots and lots of fun.

      And speaking of Moebius...have you read Lt. Blueberry? I LOVE those!

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    3. Hello Sally:- I'm a huge fan of Blueberry. It's a tragedy of comics that there's so much of the work of Moebius that's out of print.

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    4. There's a petition on Facebook to get his work available in English:
      http://www.facebook.com/MoebiusUsaPetition
      Bleeding Cool ran a piece about it as well:
      http://www.bleedingcool.com/2013/01/27/unblocking-moebius/

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    5. Hello Joe:- Thanks for the nudge. It's a good cause. Let's hope that it pays dividends.

      But then, there's so much of the very best of world comics that aren't in print over here. A shame, that there's not the demand for, say, a monthly - just a monthly - publication of World Classics. A Hermann now, an Otomo next month, a Moebius in March, and so on ...

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  4. I do not believe I will be reading this book.

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  5. My oh my... I almost bought a copy of this, based solely on my enjoyment of Jodorowsky's work with Moebius, and it looks like I really dodged a bullet there by picking up Ware's Building Stories instead. There's no further condemnation of Jodorowsky's misogyny that I could add without repeating your words or sentiments - but it does make me wonder whether Moebius had a positive, restraining influence on the worst of his tendencies when they worked together.

    SallyP and Joe both mentioned Madwoman of the Sacred Heart (Jodorowsky + misogyny + spiritual quest = a clear association between the books) and it's what immediately came to my mind while reading your piece above. There's undoubtedly a lot of - *ahem* - questionable content in MotSH but it's no more focused on the women than the men and (if I recall correctly) the female characters are the most active players in the narrative while the male protagonist is often a mere passenger to their agenda. MotSH also differs from Diosamante in that most of its characters are clearly deranged and (again, assuming I recall correctly) the egregious, violent or less-than-consensual sexuality isn't portrayed as morally correct or somehow redeeming. The subtext of the ending seems to suggest a loving, family-oriented middle ground between monastic asceticism and physical indulgence (also between intellectual reason and irrational spirituality) is the optimum path.

    Perhaps Moebius' often-understated ability to infuse humour and pathos into his characters was crucial in the Jodo/Mobo collaborations. There's certainly nothing heroic about his portrayal of Alan Mangel's back-and-forth fluctuation from pretence and pomposity to many varied depravities in MotSH.

    Then again, perhaps I should re-examine MotSH in the light of Diosamante...

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    1. Hello Joe:- Or, of course, I could have simply missed the point where Diosamante is concerned. I don't think I did, but, shall we say, it has been known ... :-(

      You certainly raise some typically interesting points which also make me want to go away and rethink things. We only have the completed first book of Diosamante, so perhaps its writer was intending to cast a light backwards on the work from the perspective of later chapters. Yet, there's no sign of that in the summaries he's had printed in the collected edition, and it would have to be an arrogant man who'd publish that first book on its own with its reprehensible content and feel comfortable that he'd be putting it all right later.

      Obvious MotSH is essential reading and I must go and acquire a copy ASAP. How I wish that all of what you call "Jodo/Mobo" work - :) - was available in affordable editions. And that's go with the books they created away from each other too. All of them. The idea that there's all of that vital work that we English-speakers just can't access ...

      There's also a need for a fine biography of Moebius in English too. From that, we might learn a great deal, and that includes about the Jodo/Mobo collaborations. Mind you, I suspect that it couldn't be a small book that's a small read, but then, I'd be there on the day of publication to buy it.

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    2. I actually took the Jodo/Mobo thing from some of the little signature boxes I've seen on Moebius' pages from The Incal - so I can't claim any credit there!

      It's incredible that such an important body of work as Moebius left us with isn't, for the most part, easily available in English. It's not just him either - there's not nearly enough translation of European comics. We can only hope that the rising sales and mainstream appreciation of graphic novels will lead to more publishers like Humanoids or Self Made Heroes (who did my wonderful copy of The Incal) taking a punt on such a remarkably valuable yet scarcely tapped literary resource.

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  6. Okay? So the first time Jodo subjects a woman to all the horrors he normally reserves for men, he's suddenly a misogynist? Come on! In a majority of Jodo's work, The Incal, Metabarons, Borgia, Juan Solo, Showman Killer, Megalex etc the male protagonist always plays the Tarot-role of the Fool, while the female equivalent is the sage. The bringer of wisdom and balance. The violence and humiliations that the males are subjected to are easily as obscene as what the women get. Frankly Colin and with all due respect, these kind of books is perhaps not your cup of tea. They are violent and ugly, but in my humble opinion they are also beautiful and humanistic with positive gender roles. To the point that I actually at times feel that he's going a bit out of his way to portray proactive female roles. In fact, I for once applaud if he doesn't. Apart from them being iconic, but that's what all his characters are, taken from his occult beliefs, they usually have the same consistent roles in book after book. Men (especially heroes) - idiots (I can't argue, really). Women - Reason and harmony. I over-simplify, since Borgia and Technoperes are full of diverging gender roles. The women in those, as well as Ogregod are as horrible as the men. In Le Pape Terrible or Le Llama Blanc there are few women at all, but since it's basically about monks and popes, there isn't much to do about that.

    Sorry for the rant. It's not a personal attack in any way. I just think that branding Jodorowsky as a flaming misogynist is quite unfair. If we're going to have a go at misogynists I humbly suggest that we go straight for the motherlode. John Byrne and Frank Miller. From what I've read of The Walking Dead and Invincible, you can throw in Kirkman there as well. Good riddance, really.

    Or if you want a European name, I'd mention Hermann, as a writer mind you, since all his women are either callous opportunists, whores or children.

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  7. I think the main problem here is that since serious critique of comics is relatively new and still quite minor in the cultural sphere, there hasn't been a genre division of labour. What we have here is the same kind of state as the music criticism used to be in twenty years ago, when fans of Alanis Morisette tried to give a review of death metal bands like Deicide or Morbid Angel. There's just no way that that would work. How could it? They're not even speaking the same kind of language or have any similar social points of reference. There's a huge gap between the subculture and the mainstream and that will always lead to subculture culture being ridiculed, marginalised, demonized or misinterpreted.

    As for getting raped and then grading your predator's performance, is a pretty bitching way to remove someone's physical and emotional advantage, if you ask me. Transferring the power back to the victim. Like being shot by an assailant out for revenge and before dying telling him or her: "Oh, thank you. I am dying of ebola, so you did me a favour."

    That's how I read it anyway.

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    1. Hello CJ:- I think you're making an assumption about what I'm saying here that they evidence doesn't bear out. For example, you say;

      "Frankly Colin and with all due respect, these kind of books is perhaps not your cup of tea."

      But I'm not talking about a class of books. I'm not talking about any other books except for this one. This is a review of Diosamante. I'm not attacking anything else by Jodorowsky, for example. Nor am I criticising anyone else's work at all. I'm reviewing one specific book, and that book is, according to my own beliefs, a wretchedly sexist text.

      Now, you suggest that in the context of Jodorsky's work, my analysis is unfair. Well, we might argue about that. Even from my limited experience of the man's work, there are more than a few examples of dubious representations of gender, sex and sexuality. By the same token, there are also places where I can see that opposing readings are very much more than possible. But I'm not discussing the broader career. This is a specific review designed to discuss a specific text. At no point do I EVER say that ALL of the writer's work is sexist. Ever. I encourage you to go back and re-read what's there. You'll find no such comment. However, I will certainly repeat my belief that this is a terribly unpleasant text, and it does certainly reflect badly upon those who created it. Or at least, it does from where I'm standing.

      The second problem I have with your criticism of what I've written is your suggestion that only those who "speak the same language" as that represented in a text should be reviewing it. Or, to put it another way, those who like it are the only people who deserve to have their opinions of it taken seriously. This is surely an absurd argument. It defines any view that isn't fundamentally sympathetic as being wrong. The critic hasn't understood, the critic doesn't get it, the critic can't possibly have anything of value to say. That's a profoundly dangerous way of approaching the discussion of culture. It suggests that there cannot be a debate, since the individual who doesn't agree is by the very fact of their disagreement ignorant.

      To suggest that I can't understand where Jodorowsky is coming from is to suggest that there's some kind of astonishingly specific sub-cultural knowledge that I need on order to be able to grasp what's going on. Well, I'm 51, CJ. I've spent my life reading fantasy of all sorts and 20 years of it teaching the social sciences too. I readily admit that you'll have a huge degree of knowledge that I don't share. But how that disqualifies me from having a valid opinion of this single book escapes me.

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    2. cont;

      In that, I would suggest that you're confusing your opinion with fact, and confusing somebody who disagrees with somebody who has no right to speak. And I simply don't believe in that view of culture or criticism. If I had said that representations of women which the PC viewpoint wouldn't approve of should be banned, or that all of Jodorowsky's work is immoral, or that only one world-view should ever be put across in art, then I'd understand your response. But, again, I didn't.

      Indeed, I never once had a go at anything else the man has written. Nor did I mention any broader collection of artists and art. I simply think this specific book is brutally misogynistic. To me, it's an appalling text. I can turn to other examples of the genre and enjoy them thoroughly. My objection is not to the writer, to the individual text or to any kind of sub-culture. It's to a crass representation of women as I perceived it in Diosamante.

      Now, if we're going to discuss Metabarons for example, I will agree with you that there's real moments of beauty as well as yet more moments of sexism. If we're to go to the Incal, then I see the beautiful aspects of the text predominating while the sexism there often - though not exclusively - seems far less dubious.

      I don't have a "kind of thing", CJ. I take texts as I find them. On this one we disagree. But what I don't want you to believe is that I've thrown out an entire range of art, and that I judge everything from it in the same negative way.

      Because that isn't so. If I wanted to dismiss anything other than one single graphic novel, I would have done so.

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