February 4, 2014

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Grindhouse Doors Open at Midnight 3-4

[Editor's Note: There's adult themes in these comics, so there's adult themes in this review. You've been warned.]

Written by Alex de Campi
Illustrated by Simon Fraser, Victoria Lau (3), and Gary Caldwell (4)
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Men want to reach the stars but don't have the stomach for the sacrifice, so they "recruit" female prisoners to do it for them, carrying out a longstanding tradition. But the Warden of the Prison Ship Antares has ideas of her own that make the killers she supervises look like Mother Theresa in a violent two-part story that makes up the second arc in the Grindhouse series from Alex de Campi and a variety of artists.

It still boggles my mind a bit that de Campi can switch between this and the incredibly cute My Little Pony issue she scripted, but that's just showing her incredible range. This comic is absolutely brutal from start to finish, whether it's the Warden's pouring acid on one of the prisoners or chopping an underling in half for cowardice. Alex takes no prisoners, if you'll pardon the pun, in showing just how horrific the situation is that these women find themselves in. They're killers, sure, but in at least two of the cases, their crimes were self-defense against men who wanted to torture and abuse them, making the reader wonder whether this batch of criminals are truly horrible people or if they were sent away for their real crime--not knuckling under to the male establishment.

It's touches like that which show Alex's desire to infuse these stories with an empowering feminism. From the opening which drips with sarcasm to the ending scenes in which the women refuse to just allow men to run things even if that means risking death, de Campi makes it clear that at every opportunity, she's going to undermine the status quo of most science fiction stories. (We even get a transgendered character and a Japanese woman who challenges the stereotypes presented to her.) There are parts of this that are rough as hell to read, including the threat of a glass-laden dildo, but if you can make it through the violence and potential triggers, the story itself is incredibly strong. This is more than just blood, gore, violence, and scantily clad women--though there's plenty of that, too. It's also a story about agency and control, and Alex manages it without feeling ham-handed, which is why this works so well. The plot comes first, and the message comes along with the plot, and that's just how it should be.

Meanwhile, Simon Fraser, along with colorists Victoria Lau and Gary Caldwell, match de Campi step for step across the two issues. I was incredibly impressed by Fraser's ability to be suitably lurid (like the two-page shower splash) without being leering. It wouldn't be a Grindhouse-style story without showing naked women and plenty of underwear shots, but even the implied lesbianism isn't done without an eye towards making it feel natural. Do the women--especially the Warden--need to be half-naked for the entire run? Not in a normal plot, but Frasier is working within the style and doing it a lot more respectfully than you might see from another artist.

The other thing about his art on this one that really struck me on the re-read was just how non-sexualized the most brutal scenes are. When the woman make their desperate bid for escape, some of them aren't clothed. But instead of focusing on their nakedness, Fraser instead highlights their ferocity and drive to free themselves from the sadistic Warden. They are primal, raw, and care only about freedom. The fact that they're barely clothed is secondary to them (and part of the misdirection for escape) so it's secondary to Fraser, who focuses instead on showing their attack in all its forms, whether it's using gardening tools or just biting at the necks of the male clones who hold them in check.

The last piece of this that puts it all together is the coloring work from Fraser, Lau, and Caldwell. So many little details get highlighted thanks to the coloring, whether it's the red blood dripping down the Warden's face, the turquoise handles on the garden tools or the pastel purple of the guards. One woman's tattoos jump out from her skin because of their vibrant tones. The acid-killed prisoner's horrific look is significantly enhanced by the colors used to portray it. Best of all, the women themselves are of all colors, showing a range of prisoners instead of either white-washing or over colorizing them.

Grindhouse 3-4 was great work from start to finish, and is highly recommended, especially for those looking forward to Kelly Sue DeConnick's similarly themed Bitch Planet. You can probably still find them at a comic store, or at Dark Horse Digital. Issue 5, starting a new arc, is out tomorrow in comic shops and Dark Horse Digital.