Monday, February 20, 2012

A touching moment with Sarah Rainmaker...

She tries her best not to look...

I’ve been re-reading the original Gen13 series from Image.  It’s one of my guilty pleasures, thoroughly enjoyable in a stoopid way—sort of like Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” video.  Because it's a cheesecake-heavy comic very much of the 1990s,  it has me thinking a lot about the male gaze, without which there probably wouldn’t have been a Gen13 in the first place.  It emphasizes ogling its female characters to the point where the Gen13 Zine (1996) informs us their measurements are the same as those of Elle McPherson, Stephanie Seymour and Natalie Portman.  Wow!  Readers know exactly what they're looking at.  That’s a level of objectification that’s breathtaking in its specificity.  

 The regular creative team tosses in a running joke in which Caitlin Fairchild, the red-haired, highly intellectual muscle of the team, ends up unclothed at various points in practically every issue and sometimes comments on it in a metatastically ironic way.  In Gen13 #3 (July, 1995), when Fairchild washes up half-naked-- her lower half, naturally-- on a tropical island, the moment involves breaking the fourth wall, with Fairchild covering her genitals from the readers in an embarrassed way as if she's aware of the artist functioning as an imaginary camera eye.  It’s a kind of “Aren't we the cutest?  Can you believe what we’re getting away with here?” nudging of the readers.  Come on, it’s all in good fun!  Even Fairchild can see the humor in it!

My favorite version of this joke comes in Adam Hughes’s two-part Gen13:  Ordinary Heroes (February/July 1996), which he also wrote.  The characterizations are sharper and the inciting element is smarter than anything found around the same time in monthly magazine.  Fairchild-- Hughes gives her an appropriately heroic physique rather than base her on a willowy swimsuit model-- goes back to her old university to pick up some junk, then the Gen13 team shows up in a sci-fi rocket ship to take her on an adventure.  As Sarah Rainmaker provides useful exposition, Hughes has Fairchild undress all the way down to implied nudity-- we don't get to see that, but given her costume's configuration, there's no way she's wearing anything under it, at least not the undies Hughes shows Sarah and the reader-- so she can put on her superhero costume.  

... while Caitlin remains clueless.
The two girls are alone together and the sight of Fairchild revealed proves too much for poor Rainmaker.  In the Hughes version, you’re invited to ogle Fairchild as per usual—but in order to do so, you have to mask yourself as, or at the very least identify with, the team’s resident lesbian.  This is accomplished first by a series of panels focusing on Rainmaker's face, ending on the first page with a circular panel with a background in a complementary color scheme (opposites on the color wheel; this creates emphasis) compared to the more traditional rectangular panels that come before it.

This stands out in my mind because I recently read a Facebook post from Bob McLeod where he touches on using circular panels.  I can't find the comment and his exact wording escapes me (it may have had something to do with an editor he worked with on a job for the European market not liking them), but as you can see a circular panel really stands out.  It's something that has to be used sparingly as a result.

It’s funny to see Rainmaker give into the same sort of sexually admiring stare the regular monthly book usually gives over to its male characters—most frequently the team’s good-natured horndog Grunge.  Grunge all but salivates each time Fairchild either disrobes herself or due to circumstances beyond her control.  As Fairchild's first person narration takes over from Rainmakers's expository dialogue, the humor becomes more about Fairchild's obliviousness about the source of her teammate's discomfort.  Oh, she's aware enough that Rainmaker's voice keeps trailing off, but assumes it's because of her emotional response to the disturbing story she's telling.

Rainmaker personifies the 90s fan.
However, Hughes takes the gaze one step further-- to its logical conclusion-- when he hints both visually and in dialogue that Rainmaker is actually going to masturbate as a result.  Finally dressed in her costume, Fairchild goes to join the rest of her teammates and asks Rainmaker—who on this page is suggestively depicted with her hands between her thighs— if she's coming.  Rainmaker responds in a way that creates a double entendre: “In a minute.”

By this point, the gaze has returned to its more customary form, as Rainmaker recedes into the background and even loses her head and face in favor of a panel-breaking image of Fairchild zipping up her costume.  The Gen13 status quo is largely restored and we're all smirking as required, but Hughes is a smart storyteller so it's subtler than Grunge with his tongue hanging out and Freefall reacting jealously.

In the next issue, Hughes gives Rainmaker one more moment of glory.  In the monthly, at least under the original creative team, Rainmaker functions as another element of comedic relief:  a shrill, politically-correct killjoy and college-age feminist caricature whose sexuality is largely played as a tease or as a kind of Girls Gone Wild or YouTube party video same-sex kissing thing aimed largely at hetero males.  At her best, when sensitively portrayed, Rainmaker functions as the team's conscience, with Fairchild as the intellect in a kind of absent-minded professorial way, a la Reed Richards.  Which I suppose makes Grunge the id.  And Freefall and Burnout simply along for the ride.

Smarts, huh?
Here, Burnout has said something characteristically asinine and Sarah swiftly destroys him.  Hughes doesn't play this as a comedic moment where the readers are supposed to chuckle at Rainmaker's mindless recitation of some lefty or environmentalist talking point.  Oh yeah, Rainmaker is pretty harsh with Burnout and reduces him to tears, but she alone among her teammates has shown complete understanding of the situation and the enemy they face.  She alone among them has guessed team mentor Lynch's motivations and she's not afraid to confront him with this knowledge.  As she slams Burnout, Hughes breaks the panel borders with a sober portrait of a deadly serious Rainmaker, nothing cheeky or mocking about the moment.  Burnout's tearful reaction is pretty apt.  Rainmaker lays his hollow center bare for all to see and because he's basically a decent kind of guy, it hurts.

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