Graphic Content: An Occult Doctor and One Hot Witch

Trigger warning: discussion of sexual assault.


Witch Doctor: The Resuscitation is the second miniseries by Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner featuring the adventures of Dr. Vincent Morrow, occult physician extraordinaire. Imagine a character who is one part Sherlock Holmes, one part House, and one part John Constantine. His assistants are a friendly blonde paramedic and a teenage girl named Penny Dreadful whose fingers turn into anesthetizing needles. His scalpel is a huge bastard sword with a bright red blade. This comic is exactly the kind of fun, fast-paced mystery-adventure story that originally got me into reading, period.

In fact, the first time I read it through, I enjoyed it immensely. Dr. Morrow has a wonderful dry sense of humor and his facial expressions and body language are dynamic and entertaining. The occult twists on standard medical technologies — the “oculus occultus” in the place of an X-ray machine, a mystical history instead of a medical history — are clever and very aware of their own absurdity. At one point, one of Morrow’s assistants even protests asking a patient about his family history of curses because it “sounds so ridiculous when you say it out loud.” The comic climaxes in a fight scene against the resurrected spirit of Osiris, whose mummified kidney has been placed into the body of an unwitting layman. There’s even a charming romantic sub-plot between Morrow and his primary antagonist this issue, the pathologist-necromancer Catrina Macabrey.

On a second reading though (as fun as that reading was), I realized this comic was rife with highly problematic genre-based gender portrayals. Take for example the two panels above. Morrow is in a magic-induced paralysis and cannot move; Macabrey is making obvious sexual advances on him. The trope of the brilliant, sexy villainess taking advantage of the incapacitated hero is fairly prevalent in film, television and comics, and usually played for comedy instead of as a serious problem. However, imagine the scenario above played out with the genders reversed: now a man is forcing himself on a physically helpless woman, and it becomes obvious what this situation really is – the lead-up to sexual assault. While I do not think that the creators of this comic are trying to make light of sexual assault, they are unconsciously affirming the notion that men cannot be victims and that women cannot be perpetrators. This is based off the obviously untrue idea that men always want sex, and that if they claim they do not, they are either lying or not masculine enough; that women are powerless and could not pose any sort of serious threat to a man.

A few pages later, Macabrey is disempowered in another common trope: no matter how strong a female character is at the beginning, she is ultimately wrong and needs the male protagonist to save her. Macabrey has managed to revive a millennia-dead Egyptian god all on her own, but as soon as Morrow comes into her life, her magic is suddenly rendered useless and only his brains and his team can save the day. I understand that in the context of him as the hero and her as the naïve enabler of an ancient evil, the narrative necessitates that her actions be wrong. But viewed in the wider context of science fiction, fantasy and action film, television and comics, this is simply another reiteration of the idea that even if a woman is powerful and independent, she is ultimately helpless without a man.

Now recall what I titled this column. It’s clever because I used “witch” as a stand-in for “bitch,” but it’s mostly just offensive because I thought it was okay to use the word “bitch” instead of “woman.” I did it to prove a point. Subtle (or not-so-subtle) instances of misogyny permeate media, so common that they go unquestioned, insidiously perpetuating damaging ideas and archetypes.

I originally decided to write on this comic because I thought it would be light-hearted and fun, but genre works intended as entertainment often bring with them unquestioned deeply-held societal assumptions. I still enjoy this comic immensely, and I am not advocating the boycott of all genre media. This is what I’m advocating: don’t forget to question.


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2 comments

  1. 0
    Christopher Rice says:

    Comics are ripe with the degradation and stereotype of women. However, the roles of women in comics will only change as more strong women writers come forward and write comics. If you left it up to me the not so average make writer, Lara Croft would fight every battle in a bikini or nighty.

    1. 0
      Some implications... says:

      Great column, Joan. Thanks.

      Chris, while I agree that it would be nice to see more strong women writers bringing anti-misogynistic messages to the medium, I’m concerned by the idea that the only thing wrong with the graphic novel industry in terms of gendered output is that women don’t bother to engage with and fix it. There are a few assumptions that I’d like to push on there.

      These are:

      1) When skilled women decide to engage with the graphic novel industry, their contributions are accepted at a level commensurate with (or even close to) the level of their male peers. Basically, the idea here is that the problem is supply-side.

      I have reservations about that view. People make what sells, and it strikes me that graphic novels with strong female characters tend to be sold as part of niche markets (or, as in the case of the recent popularity of lesbian characters, a whole different kind of awkward fetishization. My guess is that a good chunk of the people who are now suddenly interested in Spiderwoman care much less about queer rights than they do about seeing ‘girl-on-girl action’).

      Looking into comic book stores, what I most often notice is that the main racks (haa pun) are full of pictures of submissive-looking women with breasts at least as big as their heads, often “covered” by slips of cloth that barely obscure the nipple. You yourself regretfully noted this in your comment. You can find more positive representations of women, but almost never among the top sellers.

      There’s debate about whether this is because the main consumers of graphic novels are men who seek out and enjoy disempowering representations of women or because women just don’t have any interest in the medium. The fact that non-sexualized female characters exist but have trouble pushing into the mainstream gives me a hint as to which it might be. Basically, I disagree with your argument that this is entirely supply-side: Why isn’t Tank Girl a major graphic novel character? Not because she’s not well drawn, but because she’s not easily sexualized.

      2) As long as no women comes forward to fix the industry, men can comfortably continue making Lara Croft “fight every battle in a bikini.”

      Seems to me that you’re saying that this is a women’s issue, which only women can fix. A lot of things get called women’s issues these days, including abortion, contraception, and even rape of women by men. I feel very uncomfortable about the fact that it’s more common to call on victims to defend themselves than on perpetrators to control themselves. Obviously there’s a big difference between women’s representations in graphic novels and rape, and I’m not trying to straw-man you or put your statements on the same scale. Instead, I would challenge you and other well-meaning, intelligent, and capable individuals like you to see actions (by either gender) that perpetuate gender inequality oppression as everyone’s issue, that everyone needs to deal with.

      Luckily, already there are a good number of male graphic artists that are creating strong female characters, such as the creators of Tank Girl. There are plenty of men out there now that recognize that gender-inequality isn’t all on women’s shoulders.

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