Review: Voodoo Vol. 1: What Lies Beneath trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, November 19, 2012

The DC Comics New 52 book Voodoo: What Lies Beneath is an interesting read headed by an uncomfortable prologue. Voodoo and Grifter are essentially two sides of the same New 52 storyline, but whereas Grifter Cole Cash is a slick con man, Voodoo Priscilla Kitaen is a stripper. To writer Ron Marz's credit, Voodoo's activities strongly reflect the themes of the book, and Voodoo's stripping was an aspect of the character from her creation ten years ago in WildCATS under the Wildstorm imprint. Like Grifter, Voodoo is a conspiracy-laden action comic, such that the latter issues are fairly enjoyable, but the first issue makes it hard to embrace the series entirely.

[Review contains spoilers]

One could (and many have) write a detailed review solely on the first chapter of Voodoo: What Lies Beneath. Voodoo, a covert human/alien hybrid spy for the alien Daemonites, reads minds through close contact; she performs two stripping routines for a male FBI agent who's been following her, and then kills him when she sees images of alien autopsies in his mind. Meanwhile, the agent's female partner beats up a gang of men who try to assault her.

Voodoo's stripping routines are somewhat graphic, the kind of thing that would raise more eyebrows in mixed company than an average Superman page. It's hard not to see the stripping scenes as objectifying Voodoo or pandering to an audience that might objectify women. This would seem to be in dialogue with Voodoo's revenge at the end or Agent Fallon beating up the group of men -- men who are overeager to see Voodoo strip, i.e. the very denominator the Voodoo comic panders to. In essence, Voodoo attempts to titillate and then shames its audience for any titillation it may have caused.

This is a strange sort of shaming, however. Artist Sami Basri is good at toeing the line between attractive but not-too-sexually-gratuitous women, most recently on DC's Power Girl series, and to have Basri draw sexual situations and then wag a finger at the reader for looking at them smacks of hypocrisy; the comic ignores its own role in presenting the sexual situations in the first place.

As well, Fallon's fight with the men has no story relevance; it's all message, making its inclusion feel clumsy. If Voodoo spoke more strongly on one side or the other -- if it did not objectify Voodoo and advocated empowerment, like Duane Swierczynski's Birds of Prey, or even if it did objectify Voodoo unapologetically as part of its story, as Judd Winick's Catwoman does -- then the first issue could be lauded for having something to say. Instead, the first issue of Voodoo does seem sexually gratuitous, and then silly for trying to lay the blame elsewhere.

This can't be laid solely at the feet of Marz, given that Voodoo's occupation has historical precedence. In fact, Marz perhaps uses Voodoo's occupation better than it has been before, since Voodoo's job (which was incidental in her Wildstorm appearances) is now meant to provide the hybrid greater insight into men, Earth, and Earth's heroes (though perhaps a government job would've been more direct). Stripping ties into the book's overall themes of identity, as even Voodoo's bare exterior hides her true interior (and as she finds, Voodoo isn't even who she herself thinks she is).

The greater difficulty is that after the first issue, Voodoo abandons stripping entirely, and by the end could just as easily have been an insurance salesman as a stripper. If the first chapter of Voodoo were uncomfortable to read but influenced the rest of the book, as in Judd Winick's aforementioned Catwoman: The Game, this would be one thing -- there's nothing wrong with comics being edgy when done well -- but in the end Voodoo doesn't make anything of the controversy it creates.

This is unfortunate because the latter parts of What Lies Beneath are, like Grifter: Most Wanted, rather engaging. Whereas Grifter represents the human side of the hybrids (experimented on against his will and working against the Daemonites), Voodoo represents the Daemonite side, a loyal soldier struggling to understand humanity. Voodoo comes to find the Daemonite plan isn't what she thought and that she's not so accepted by the Daemonites as she believed, leading to her inevitable turn against her masters. Marz creates a sympathetic character in Voodoo when she begins to fall in love with Agent Fallon, and the twist where Voodoo is attacked by a fellow Daemonite in the fifth issue, by writer Josh Williamson, was especially surprising.

Indeed Williamson replaces Marz in the last two issues (and Williamson's Voodoo is itself cancelled after the next volume). Williamson succeeds in that there's no great shift in tone between the two writers, though Voodoo is on a buried spaceship in one issue and the ship is in space in the next. More controversial is that Williamson suggests "our" Voodoo is a clone and that the "real" Voodoo has been a government prisoner this entire time. Should Williamson switch protagonists, as it were, in the next volume, thereby burying Voodoo's time as a stripper for good, this will mark a strange end to an equally strange direction for this title.

The spy-conspiracy aesthetic of the Daemonite storyline running through the DC New 52 offers much to recommend, but with Voodoo cancelled and recently Grifter, too, it remains to be seen whether another title will pick up the Daemonite plot or if it'll be forgotten. That may largely factor into whether some readers will pick up Voodoo: What Lies Beneath or not -- it's either the rough start of a title with major reach in the New 52 DC Universe, or a footnote in the launch of the New 52 that never came to fruition.

[Includes original covers plus one unused cover and sketchbook section by Sami Basri]

Later this week, Doug Glassman's Transformers "Trans-giving" and a review of Tales of the Batman: Gene Colan by guest reviewer Greg Elias. Next week, I'm back with a review of the New 52 Green Lantern Corps: Fearsome.
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4 comments:

  1. I'll admit it--when the first issue of "Voodoo" came out, I opened it to the first page, called my friend Larry over and said, "This page gives away the entire plot."

    It's a full page of Voodoo stripping.

    Good to know that it got a lot better from there; Marz is a good writer.

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  2. Basri's gorgeous art is what kept me reading the series until the end, but I thought the writing was pretty decent throughout, even after Williamson replaced Marz.

    I'm just curious to know what Marz's original plans for the book were. Since the whole clone thing came out of nowhere, I guess the editors suddenly got cold feet about a book starring a remorseless villain, so they decided to introduce the other Priscilla Kitaen as a counterpoint.

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  3. Yeah, issue 1 had a mixed reception, but most reviews regarding Voodoo after said issue, have been really positive.

    I just wish DC would give Ron Marz more projects. Every since his 8-year run on Kyle Rayner as Green Lantern, the man can write some long and compelling stories. Him and Kurt Busiek need more propjects.

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  4. When I read all the #1 issues, I was wondering if the Daemonite invasion story and the Vampire uprising (from I, Vampire) would cross over into the entire New 52. I decided to take a wait-and-see attitude, and so didn't continue with those books. So on the one hand I'm glad that I didn't invest the time and money into getting in on the ground floor of some potential big crossovers, while on the other hand I feel like it could have been wasted potential.

    I feel kind of similar with this new Phantom Stranger series; I haven't checked it out yet, but considering the big hints in that Free Comic Book Day special earlier this year, plus the Pandora character appearing in Flashpoint and all the #1 issues, and now in this Phantom Stranger series, and it's written by Dan DiDio who obviously would know what's coming down the pipes at DC...I almost feel like I HAVE to read it, while recognizing that THAT'S WHAT THEY WANT ME TO THINK! One big advantage (among others) of trade-waiting is that while you sacrifice the "surprise" factor of the monthlies, you gain that 20/20 hindsight. By the time I get to Phantom Stranger in my reading, Trinity War could be done, and only then will it be known if Phantom Stranger was "important" or not.

    Regarding Voodoo and Grifter, I would think that if the Daemonite thing was going to be "big", they would have pulled the trigger on it by now, before these books got cancelled!

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