Review: Female Furies trade paperback (DC Comics)

Sunday, March 05, 2023

It’s a co-review! Zach King of The Cinema King and Dr. King’s Comics and I review Cecil Castellucci’s Female Furies. Enjoy!

Zach King: There came a time when the New Gods died — and were reborn, and died again. Here we are, two reboots hence from Walt Simonson’s Orion, and so we return and begin again. We were in the DC Rebirth era and on our way to Dark Nights: Death Metal’s “everything happened” when Cecil Castellucci’s Female Furies debuted in early 2019 — past the halfway point on Heroes in Crisis, the so-called “New Age of DC Heroes” was winding down, and Darkseid was palling around with Justice League Odyssey. Meanwhile, Tom King’s Mister Miracle had only just wrapped, and Castellucci had come off Young Animal’s Shade the Changing Woman the previous year.

I’ve gone on and on about my devotion to the New Gods, among the weirdest and most robust in Kirby’s catalog, but CE, what’s your take on these deities?

Collected Editions: I have great affection for the “technicalities” of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World. That is, I did a full reading of Kirby’s original Fourth World stories — I wanted to say it was not all that long ago, but it was actually over a decade ago, which is probably why what still sticks out to me are the “technical” aspects, how “The Pact” revelation in New Gods #7 shoots a lightning bolt through the Mister Miracle series, even as the two don’t yet meet. I’m a sucker for a continuity bump, and that one’s brilliantly subtle-but-shocking, setting the bar for writers to come.

What drew me to reading Kirby’s original work was a want to experience the first iteration of what’s become cliche. The long history of the DC Universe means anything we’ve seen once, we’ve seen two or three times or more, but with the Fourth World that seems doubly so, and particularly given the thin barriers between using the Fourth World well (Final Crisis) and using it poorly (Countdown to Final Crisis and Death of the New Gods). So to an extent my good feelings for what the Fourth World was have given way to my misgivings over what the Fourth World has become.

ZK: There was certainly some consternation online about Female Furies. Castellucci was unapologetically rewriting Kirby here — made all the more apparent by the trade’s reprinting of Mister Miracle #9, the debut of Aurelie and Willik — and she was doing it in an overtly polemical way. With chapter titles like “Nevertheless, She Persisted” and a deathbed soliloquy that transcribes Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 confirmation hearing, Castellucci is unflinching in a way that brings out the worst in bad faith critics. For me, these time capsule moments work fine, even five years later, but I don’t know that the Fourth World is the right fit for them. I much prefer the heightened prose of Kirby and Byrne, for example, over a New God stooping to lament, “You’re a nasty woman.”

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

CE: A reinterpretation of Kirby’s Fourth World through a feminist lens is one of those great ideas that seems obvious in retrospect, and especially when the list of notable Fourth World creators lacks not for ability, but certainly for gender and racial diversity. I agree Castellucci’s story is on-the-nose, leaning indeed much more toward a Mark Russell-style political piece than an actual story itself. I quickly felt Castellucci was hitting the point too hard — we’re at one-to-two instances of sexual harassment or assault per page in the first 12 pages — but indeed I think stacking things up to the point of absurdity is an ingredient of the satire (as when the Furies are ultimately compelled to a bake-off, evening gown competition, and “smile contest”). Further, I’ve never been victim of the real-life harassment that plague the Furies here, so I’d less confidently call this “too much” when others might say Castellucci depicts it just right.

I’d have ventured Castellucci made up Aurelie and Willik, including the book’s most horrific moment of Willik torturing Aurelie to death, until I reached that issue of the original Mister Miracle in the end and saw just how much of that was built from the original Fourth World comics. Castellucci is welcome to her take on the Fourth World mythos irrespective, but it’s all the stronger for building on Kirby’s foundation. Castellucci’s Furies follows in the long literary tradition of reclaiming female figures from the Bible, Shakespeare, and others into new works.

ZK: If there’s an opposite of reclamation, though, it’s whatever Castellucci is doing with Darkseid. It’s probably very tough to get him right, to strike a balance between master conspirator and Kirby’s own poetic yet surprisingly chatty “tiger-force at the core of all things.” In Female Furies, Darkseid is a casualty of Castellucci’s allegory, and he comes off surprisingly petty for a literal god of evil. In several sequences, we see him cast a wandering eye at Granny Goodness, while in another, he obligingly sits to judge that ersatz beauty pageant. In short, I believe Darkseid ought to be so much worse than an avatar for toxic masculinity. Then again, lest we forget, Darkseid was Kirby’s amalgamation of Hitler and Nixon — so perhaps it’s natural that he should serve as a sliding signifier for any given generation’s worst impulses.

CE: It’s a tough question. Bluntly, we see Darkseid here threaten Granny Goodness' standing unless she sleeps with him — that in Castellucci’s tale, Darkseid is a rapist. Part of my reaction there, like yours, was to think the Darkseid character should be above such things — that Darkseid was conceived as such a demonic evil force that fleshly concerns should be beyond his realm of interest. But first, Darkseid’s assault on Granny is of course not about sexuality so much as power, and second, given my own limited scope, I’m in no position to say what Darkseid does to Granny is any less demonic than any other form of tyranny.

Put another way, in our estimation of these fictional characters, should we view Apokolips' evil New Gods as dystopic and world-conquering, but ultimately evolved more than mere Earthlings as to have at least eliminated gender inequality? Or else do we come to the conclusion that Apokolips, given how bad it is, of course they have sexual harassment, and we were just too blind to realize so before?

ZK: It’s an interesting point to probe, and I did always wonder about the juxtaposition of Darkseid’s brutish male brawlers (Kalibak, Steppenwolf) compared to an all-female elite fighting squad. Castellucci just floats that subtext to the surface level. The amazing thing about Kirby’s Female Furies — and indeed of his Fourth World writ large — is that everyone looks like they belong in a different comic book, yet they somehow coalesce into a unified aesthetic. I can’t imagine an Apokoliptian tailor coming up with Stompa, Lashina, Mad Harriet, and Bernadeth all on the same day, but Adriana Melo’s art puts it together nicely. While her artwork can verge on the side of cheesecake, here she knows when to restrain those impulses while still emphasizing the leery male gaze of Darkseid’s lieutenants.

But the book also does the Furies justice by providing a credible emotional journey to explain their reformation. In the Kirby books, Scott Free and Big Barda strong-armed the Female Furies into seeing the rightness of their cause, and the Furies' heel turn never struck me as Kirby’s most organic plot point. However, he invited them to Scott and Barda’s wedding, and Tom King put them in the waiting room for the birth of Barda’s son Jacob. And mentioning Barda’s baby, we see that Beautiful Dreamer gives Barda a dream of a life with Scott and a child; is Barda dreaming King’s Mister Miracle?

CE: I do think Barda is dreaming King’s Mister Miracle, the benefit of a “prequel” book written after the fact, though personally I no more expect mainstream DC continuity to reflect Female Furies than I do for it to reflect King’s Mister Miracle or Tom Taylor’s DCeased (which has a foot in King’s “Miracle-verse”). In DC’s post-Dark Nights: Death Metal “everything happened” era, I don’t think DC is doing a particularly good job helping readers know what “happened” or not. Batman: White Knight and DC vs. Vampires are different enough that of course they’re not “happening,” but Batman: The Detective or Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow leave some room for debate. We used to call them Elseworlds, but the cynic in me thinks DC would just as soon have a reader be unsure a book’s status, buy it, and figure it out later.

So while I’d be happy to see the Lysistratan “New Apokolips” (Terrific! - ZK) appear again in another miniseries by Castellucci (it would be awfully brave of DC to ignore the critics and double-down on this title), I’ve no concerns about this being a radical rewrite of Fourth World continuity (whatever its status right now) that needs to be reconciled with the common wisdom.

ZK: I’d always assumed King’s Mister Miracle took place within the dreamscape of The Lump, but Castellucci’s Lump is infinitely more horrifying - Aurelie’s aborted fetus, melded with the DNA of Darkseid and a host of others. It’s so grotesque that I wonder what the King would have made of it. At a point, Kirby had intended Barda and the Furies to lead their own book, and he wasn’t convinced he should be its author. I imagine that Kirby would have admired Castellucci’s chutzpah in reshaping the Female Furies into feminist firebrands, though he might have objected on principle to rewriting his story. Kirby was always about pushing the characters in new directions, and Aurelie’s original death was in service to the inherent hopelessness of Apokolips; ultimately, I’m not sure if the Fourth World Saga is better with Himon or Barda delivering the killing blow to Willik.

The fact that you can spin a six-issue miniseries out of a few pages of Kirby, though, is testament enough to the lasting power of the Fourth World Saga. Back in January, commenter Daniel suggested that a Fourth World prequel might be a hit, exploring the blank spaces and backstories between Kirby’s tales; Female Furies is proof that it’s still fertile ground, but I think I prefer my New Gods a little more reverential to the King.

CE: I think Cecil Castellucci wisely (and correctly) recognized harassment in viewing Aurelie and Willik through modern sensibilities (there’s an odd spelling difference, Aurelie and Auralie, in the new book vs. the Kirby issue). Again, I did find Female Furies a bit heavy-handed, though that doesn’t lessen my belief in the experience it relates. I liked Furies better than some Batgirl stories that Castellucci wrote in the same vein, making me think out-of-continuity in this way is a better venue; of Castellucci’s DC work, the “new character” book Shade, the Changing Girl still ranks for me highest of all.

ZK: Thanks, CE! This was fun. The best part of comics is talking about them with people who love this medium just as much.

CE: For me, too! Let’s do it again some time.

[Includes original and variant covers, character designs, pencils]

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1 comment:

  1. I always enjoy your takes on the Kirby mythos, thank you for this. The Female Furies book - though a worthy effort in exploring Kirby's rich tapestry - always felt too on the nose for me, it never seems to hit the right balance between seriousness and lightness, an essential mix that's very precarious. The story and character developments were shaped a bit too much with a blunt hammer.
    Friendly greetings & enjoy your week

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