Saturday, December 16, 2017

Barbarella #1 Review and Spoilers

Dangerous Women

Written by: Mike Carey
Art by: Kenan Yarar
Colours by: Mohan
Letters by: Crank!
Published by: Dynamite Entertainment
Price: $3.99

Mature Readers Only (no, really!)
I guess I’m fairly typical in that I know the character of Barbarella almost entirely because of the eponymous movie starring Jane Fonda and directed by her then-husband Roger Vadim. While I’m aware of the character’s comic book roots, I’m a little ashamed to admit that this is the first time I’ve encountered her in her original format. I might be this comic book’s ideal reader, actually: aware of the character enough to be interested in picking the comic up; not sufficiently familiar with her previous comic book appearances to get worked up about whether her portrayal here is faithful or not. So, given that I don’t have much in the way of expectations, how does Mike Carey and Kenan Yarar’s first issue with the character hold up? Let’s find out…

We open with a space battle that establishes both the setting and the themes of this issue very clearly. A flight of Terran fighter ships materialises in orbit around the planet of Parosia whose leaders send out their technologically superior ships in response, a rousing hymn to the “seven” - the planet’s pantheon - ringing in their crews’ ears. The Parosian ships make short work of the Terrans (we later find out that they’re unmanned drones) and, in the battle’s aftermath, Barbarella makes her appearance in her little lilac spaceship and is duly picked up by a Parosian vessel.

What follows is a none-too-subtle introduction to our Parosian bad guys, religious fundamentalists whose abhorrence of the squishier, more pleasurable aspects of human experience has, in a time of advanced technology, prompted them to do away with sex altogether and the sex organs that are the prerequisites for it. This includes Barbarella’s vagina and other connected reproductive organs, which, when found by a scandalized Parosian functionary’s scanning device, are quickly dispensed with through the power of the Parosian genetic looms. We’re in The Handmaid’s Tale territory, in some respects - although with less terror, less subtlety (Barbarella is arrested, imprisoned and branded a harlot just for the ‘crime’ of possessing a fully-functioning reproductive system) and more laughs. All of which is very 2017, I suppose. 

In this age of Republican ascendancy, Carey’s script wears its progressive and feminist allegiances fairly clearly, but it’s to the writer’s credit that Parosian society, though clearly contemptible, is nevertheless presented as a coherent and really rather interesting one. I particularly like the idea of the ‘conceptual rifle’, a weapon that shoots ideas and information directly into your brain, along with a polite message to “like this content if it brings you grace and/or enlightenment”. Similarly, Carey does a grand job with the various Parosian characters he introduces during Barbarella’s disturbing treatment. The doctor who performs the ‘weaving’ procedure on her is a great case in point - on the one hand, excited to be operating on a grown woman with “fully developed organs” (a clever line that hints at the routine horror of the Parosian treatment of children), while, on the other hand, telling Barbarella that her consent to the procedure “was not required” with chilling finality once it’s been completed.

The second half of the book deals with Barbarella’s incarceration in a Parosian female prison which allows Carey to indulge in - and subvert - some prison exploitation tropes rather deftly. The predictable moments of lesbian passion are here presented not for the male gaze, but as celebrations of feminine defiance. Barbarella hooks up with Quire, an Earth agent, whose pink mohawk and more cynical attitude (Barbarella won’t even ‘kill’ robots) make her an effective foil for our title character. The story ends with their escape attempt running into real trouble, a genuine ‘how are they going to get out of that one?’ moment that leaves this reader, at least, keen to read next month’s issue.

If you like your science-fiction quirky, unpredictable and politically engaged, this is a book for you. While its Parosian villains may be a little two stereotypical for some, the story’s main characters are well-rounded and it’s hard not to be taken with Barbarella’s determination, dignity and clear sense of right and wrong. Kenan Yarar’s art is interesting - a little raw in parts (and certainly not quite as slick as that Kenneth Rocafort cover), but his character and setting designs are for the most part pleasingly unusual, and there’s a vitality to the action that does really involve the reader in the story. Carey’s script is slyly funny at times, while at others it displays a touching earnestness that is almost naive. In introducing both a believable, coherent world (albeit one that is mostly satirical in purpose) and making his main characters so engaging, he’s pulled off the two main tasks of an opening issue pretty well. I’m very interested to see where we head from here.

Bits and Pieces:

A futuristic fable with clear feminist influences, this issue is considerably more entertaining than I’ve just made it sound! Yarar’s art is expressive and exciting, while Carey’s story rattles along at a fair pace, but never confuses. Barbarella has proven herself to be a character worth resurrecting and, if this issue is anything to go by, Dynamite is equal to the task.


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