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Wednesday: Meanwhile, Stuart is turning into a caricature of himself. Or possibly into Mo. In many respects, those things are identical.

[From DTWOF #482.][From Dykes To Watch Out For #482, "Flash Back". Warning: a nipple is exposed in the context of attempted sexual congress. Click for nipple.]

This is too easy. Never mind that Cynthia's studying to join the CIA, not the FBI.

Alison Bechdel's decision to incorporate a sympathetic young conservative into the main cast was long overdue. She'd used teenaged characters as interns, and we've seen some children grow up, but there was nothing like this. Cynthia, as she's started to experiment and question herself, has been resonant and intriguing. Most of the DTWOF cast skews to various lefty flavours, some more idealistic than others (although burnout's now endemic), and all of them are well past the point of discomfort with their orientations. Even when they shift identities (say, Sparrow to bi-dyke, Lois to genderqueer), the rough spots smooth out in pretty short order.

Bechdel gives an entirely different sort of change-based friction and tension to most of her characters. It's taken about a decade to build up to Toni and Gloria's mutual affair, the foundation for which has been in place almost as long as the series itself. Lois's drag king identity is the latest in a constant progression of dyke sexual taboo-breakers, all of which have been contentious at some point for their levels of (real or perceived) male energy. Madwimmin Books fought market forces for years and years to stay afloat, only just recently succumbing. DTWOF is nothing if not all about the slow burn -- almost a necessity for a biweekly comic, let alone one that embraces so much deep processing.

Regardless, consistency often trumps flaring conflict. The very occasional traitor, like Sparrow's ex June, usually vanished into cameo land. Sydney began to subvert that through ironic detachment and academic obfuscation, but she couldn't do it all herself. But Cynthia has been trying to keep a set of values which seem inconsistent with her perception of a lesbian lifestyle, often dramatically so, and doing an admirable job.

So, if her conflict with with Ashley is less argument-as-flirtation and more a convenient excuse, what we have is a long-term fakeout. If her cover's blown, we lose her (possibly completely) and an awful lot of vital chemistry. More to the point, we're quite likely losing one of the most relevant characters this comic has to offer its younger audience now. Worse still, status quo gets reinforced in the process, and the slow fire just goes out.

If it's not a cover job, though, and Ashley's jumping to conclusions, this could become either a crisis for Cynthia or a very cheap stunt. Impetuous and militant as Ashley is, the suddenness won't work if it only serves to send Cynthia out for reassurance. Ashley's not doing so well with the virginity pledge concept. It's outside her paradigm. She doesn't get it, and she's grasping at straws to make this work. Ashley needs to make Cynthia miserable, and to do so with the stubborn tenacity which fuels so much college-age activism. These two are opposite sides of the same babydyke coin, and they need to do more than spark and flare to clash properly.

Because of this, the issue feels forced.

This is too easy. That worries me. That probably means it's not too easy. That also worries me.

I don't like to spin my wheels like this. It doesn't do the completed work justice.

I'm bad about cliffhangers. We've established this. I don't enjoy suspense, because, all too often, it keeps me from having a clear head about whether or not the thing I'm reading or watching is actually any good. Outcome has no bearing on quality of craft in this scenario. Conscious suspense summons unwarranted reaction, makes one yammer without foundation, and generally occupies mental cycles best conserved until the end. As a result, speculation-eaten brain often makes for bad writing. "Will X take place according to Y expectations...or Z? It will be a tedious amusement park ride metaphor! I shall emphasize my anticipation with...ellipses!" Of course I'm looking forward to further information. Otherwise, I'd leave.

Worse, I don't enjoy having the awareness of suspense thrust upon me. It makes me feel manipulated, or as though a manipulation attempt is in process. If I know I'm supposed to have a given reaction, it tends to backfire. Some of that is defensive, but I think a lot of it is the sense that someone skilled at evoking reaction shouldn't need to tell us what to expect.

Conversely, flagging the expected reactions ahead of time is frequently a sign that those goals haven't been met, and the audience needs to be prepped in advance. You say your story's interesting and subtle, with a twist ending we won't expect? Congratulations: you've just set me up to expect a non sequitur ending, and oversold your efforts. You say you're trying to make people think, and you want to be provocative? Chances are you're just trying to stir shit, and you're more interested in reaction than real change. Variations on show, don't tell, people.

I hit this realization about nine years ago, while working at an independently-owned copy / shipping / desktop publishing shop. It was coming up on Pride, and a perfectly nice and jovial woman popped in to get some copies of her zine made and stapled up. "You like cartoons, Wednesday; you'd enjoy this," said one of my bosses. "Go collate these."

Basically, it was a bunch of rough-hewn, "Adam and Steve in the garden of Eden"-grade, gag panels. Queer Lockhorns via Bic doodles. This might not necessarily be something you can envision. So, imagine the most poorly rendered gamer comic you can, full of quippy postadolescents reacting disproportionately to upcoming console releases. They are camping full years ahead of schedule. It is entirely possible that the console will be made into a robot of some sort. Perhaps their girlfriends will stop by, causing terminal breast paralysis. Not that you'll be able to tell through any means but the dialogue, because the breasts will look like pudding.

Yeah. This was the crappy gamer strip of gay minicomics. And, in any other universe? I would have just been able to smile and nod, then let it pass over me like so much angel of death. Alas, my door was bloodless and the cover was done. There, a title:

REALLY FUNNY GAY COMICS!!!

Y'know, goth music is more subtle than that.

Cliffhangers have a similar effect. I know I'm supposed to be on tenterhooks, and it's being pushed in my face. I realize that the effect is meant to resemble being teased and dangled over the edge, but it's often more like randomly stopping the stimulus about five minutes before climax, doing something completely different out of rhythm for ten seconds, and going for a snack. The mood dies, and not hauling out the spoiler massager to take care of things just makes for bitchiness on top of that.

Waiting between episodes is acceptable if I don't feel that I'm being pushed to want more. I want to want more because the underpinnings are worth staying around for. It's not that I don't appreciate a longform, episodic, well-crafted story. I appreciate the tease as much as anyone.

I just don't want my attention called disproportionately to the gaps. And, I admit, I read (or reread) DTWOF mainly in print collections because of that. (Think it's bad waiting two weeks for a comic? Try waiting until you can find a contiguous set of publications which are running it, which has happened more than once in several moves. Thank goodness it's online now.)

So I'm hoping that this isn't what it looks like. I'd like to read this as the kind of ridiculous thing an overenthusiastic activist-type comes up with when she's been repeatedly frustrated. Ashley's in a not dissimilar position here; she's having her own attention drawn to the complete lack of resolution. She's on tenterhooks. I'm hoping that this is just an insult out of nowhere.

Bechdel is the master of the slow tease. I want to have faith that she hasn't dropped the wand.

Posted by Wednesday Burns-White at February 20, 2006 11:17 PM

Comments

Comment from: Bo Lindbergh [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2006 12:33 PM

(Off topic: This snark's timestamp seems to be fluctuating wildly, making it jump around in the various chronological lists. Are you tinkering with things, WW?)

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2006 12:34 PM

There's been some weirdness with the timestamp on this entry. It's roughly accurate, now. ;)

Comment from: RMG [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2006 12:38 PM

Honestly, it hadn't even occured to me that Ashley's accusation was true. If Cynthia turns out to be some dastardly agent of the government conspiracy, that would be too lame for words.

Comment from: Wednesday White [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2006 12:55 PM

I don't think it's very likely that it's true, but it's not outside the realm of possibility. More likely it's a way for Ashley to stir some very, very obvious shit. There are too many characters in this strip with extensive activist histories for this not to go horribly wrong and give us tenterhook syndrome for a couplefew episodes. Heck, "how do we know you're NOT a spook?" can go on pretty much indefinitely.

Comment from: Wednesday White [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2006 12:56 PM

Oh, *god*. And if that plant is Ashley... even *lamer*.

Comment from: Tangent [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2006 1:14 PM

Is bi-weekly twice a week, or every other week? (So I get confuzzled easily...)

Comment from: Wednesday White [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2006 1:21 PM

Every two weeks.

Not only is this a legacy of the papers DTWOF tended to appear in, Bechdel's style is incredibly labour-intensive. Those inks might work once a week with no other projects in the hopper (which, AFAIK, hasn't been the case for years and certainly hasn't been recently), but twice would be a great way to kill the hand.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2006 2:27 PM

Right. Twice a week is "semi-weekly." For the record.

...I spend all my time alone with facts no one else needs to know...

Comment from: Shaenon [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2006 2:29 PM

Damn, this is what I get for waiting to read DTWOF in the print collections. Now I'm going to spend the next two years wondering how the PETA spy thing played out.

Cynthia and Janis, the two major young characters (aside from Raffi, who's mostly shown in the context of his family), are an interesting contrast, aren't they? Together, they suggest the extreme opposite directions in which modern American society is pulled: ultraconservative puritanism on one end, superfluid genderqueering on the other. And Cynthia, the conservative, is the politically active one who gets off on debate, whereas Janis, the liberal, is apathetic about political issues except where they directly concern *her*. Bechdel's set up some very interesting stuff here.

Comment from: Wednesday White [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2006 3:04 PM

Did Janis settle on Janis as a name? There was a space where she was changing her mind about as often as her outfit on that one.

Janis is also an interesting contrast with Raffi, who's starting to pick up his meema's enthusiasm and leanings; one wonders if he'll snap and go Cynthia-conservative, or rebel and become more like Janis.

Comment from: siwangmu [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2006 3:19 PM

Important disclaimer: my knowledge of these characters is based solely on what is available online, which I hopehopehope I'll be remedying soonish.

Plus, this is a pretty minor point, but would you really call Janis an example of superfluidity? From the little I've seen, she's pretty rigid in her feeling female, more a "there are two and I'm that other one" than a "there is no gender." Probably the more fair recap would lie somewhere in "to the extent that there are two I think I'm that other one," but this is muddy enough as it is.
I still think she and Cynthia form intriguing poles and you meke a cool point, but as regards the exact phrasing of the opposites I'm not sure I get the kind of genderqueering vibe from her that I've gotten from Mo (and can I mention again how little reference I'm working with? I may be completely wrong about these representations).

I'm also probably just posting this because I couldn't post this morning and must compensate by saying something or other.

Comment from: PatMan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2006 4:40 PM

You want to know the worst case of cliffhanger ever?

Warning: Captain Britain spoilers from the distant past!

The Captain Britain story, "Graveyard Shift", which was printed in Marvel Super Heroes issue 3888 in August 1982. It ends with Captain Britain being blasted into ashes by the Fury. The box at the bottom of the last page reads, "Next ish: A Rag, a Bone, a Hank of Hair". But the comic ended up being cancelled that issue, and the next story didn't run until The Daredevils issue 1 in January of 1983, 4-5 months later. So you had to wait four months to figure out how the good Captain came back from that defeat.

Wait, they did that on Buffy, too. How about the Uncanny X-Men issue 209, where Phoenix is lured into a trap by Spiral. This plot thread was supposed to be continued in a 4 issue series titled Phoenix, but the series kept getting delayed to the point where it was just thrown out and the story relegated to flashback fodder for Excalibur, which debuted about one and a half years later.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2006 7:16 PM

You want to know the worst case of cliffhanger ever?

How about Saga of the Swamp Thing #19?

Comment from: Robert Hutchinson [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2006 9:21 PM

On this topic, I am completely out of my league. However!

Cliffhangers have a similar effect. I know I'm supposed to be on tenterhooks, and it's being pushed in my face. I realize that the effect is meant to resemble being teased and dangled over the edge, but it's often more like randomly stopping the stimulus about five minutes before climax, doing something completely different out of rhythm for ten seconds, and going for a snack. The mood dies, and not hauling out the spoiler massager to take care of things just makes for bitchiness on top of that.

Best extended, intentionally mixed metaphor EVER.

Comment from: Shaenon [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 21, 2006 9:51 PM

It's true that Janis identifies very strongly and solidly as female, but her approach to it -- trying on names and identities like fashions, coming home from summer camp with a boifriend -- suggests a fluid, playful relationship with gender that goes beyond the definition of "queer" represented by the older characters. Out of the elder dyke cast, only Lois has been totally accepting of Janis' gender identity, and some of the others have been downright uncomfortable with it. Janis represents the next generation of queer: she's always known and been comfortable with who she is, and as she grows up she has the freedom to craft a specific identity that suits her.

And then there's Cynthia, who's having more trouble with the basic process of admitting that she likes girls than the old dyke guard had thirty years ago. It's like they're from different galaxies.

Comment from: MrPerson [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 24, 2006 6:27 PM

A really good cliffhanger isn't one of the old-fashioned sort, i.e. how will our intrepid heroes get out of this situation (see: the '60s Batman show, which, when they showed it on Norwegian television in the '80s, in my early childhood, all but gave me nightmares by tying Batman and Robin to a conveyor belt which was headed towards an umbrella burner, and then saying 'continued next episode', and my god I need to learn to punctuate properly). No, a good cliffhanger is one that makes you -need- to read on, for one reason or another. Transmetropolitan has a couple of good examples of this:

(TRANSMETROPOLITAN SPOILERS START!)

One is the point at the end of one of the later books, when Spider, who never once before that book fears for his life, goes so far as make an audio note to Yelena about what she needs to do if he dies too soon.

Another one is the anti-cliffhanger at the end of the penultimate book, when Spider's story gets out on The Hole right as the Smiler's making a speech about the city going under martial law, and one of the higher-profile reporters in the press conference reads this. The last page is the president's face as he gets the question about transient hookers thrown at him. How is this a cliffhanger? It is because from now on, the fight's stepped up a notch. The last few pages are tense, and upon reading the very last page, the reader goes, "YES! ... Okay, what now? Gimme more!"

(Transmetropolitan spoilers end!)

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