By Steve Morris
The male gaze is a term used to show how the typical perspective into a story tends to be the perspective a (white) man brings to it. The way they view the world is the way they view the story, and in a medium where men have so much sway and women aren’t given the same opportunities – like comics – it means that stories often do have inadvertent and, well, vertent male gaze. This extends to the way the female characters are presented, where their importance can often be in relation to the men around them or by their “worth” to others, and tends to focus the heterosexual male’s perspective as being the “primary” or “dominant” perspective. In other words: the girls have to be hot, the men have to be cool, the presentation of the whole needs to be designed for cis men to find enjoyable. Take that in whatever dubious way you like, and you’ll probably be right to do so.
New Gods, then, could certainly be presented as being an inadvertent presentation of the male gaze: full of bravado and feats of power and defiance, the series often sidelines women in favour of exploring the stories of the men around them, relegating women to secondary positions and, when they are shown, establishing how the men around them are important and contribute to their continued existence. This isn’t to say that Jack Kirby was a proactive sexist or that he was misogynist: this is simply to say that the male gaze was and is the established norm, and this is simply how stories are presented. When designing the contemporaries of Darkseid, the harsh core of the Fourth World, Kirby simply centred his own understanding and perspective as a heterosexual white male when approaching the characters. Hence you have a war which centres itself only around the men participating within it.
This is all my means of heading towards this week’s release of Female Furies #1, which sees a female central creative team of Cecil Castellucci and Adriana Melo heading into the fourth world, and immediately, unquestioningly offering a new gaze. Some will refer to it as the female gaze; I’m going to refer to it as the other gaze. In the issue the creative team focus on the female character Granny Goodness, and the Female Furies, who are the soldiers she trains in the art of war. The perspective immediately shifts, with the women being the focused characters – and the importance of the men around them being played into to deliberately show the patriarchal vision of Apokolips. This isn’t a reworking of Kirby’s vision in any way: it’s simply a different perspective.
What’s so stunning about Female Furies is how effortlessly it fits this new gaze into the pre-established ideas and goals of the original comics, and all successive attempts to recapture Kirby’s magic. The creative team don’t change a single thing about the structure of society within Apokolips, nor do they rewrite characters to be unrecognisable: Granny Goodness remains the harsh and sadistic leader, forcing every greater improvements on her charges regardless of the pain and suffering her one-note approach may cause. Desaad remains a sadist. Darkseid remains the pragmatic and forcefully blunt instrument of war. But within those known and cultivated personas, Castellucci is able to find a second undercurrent of cruelty which she places without any subtlety to the fore: patriarchy.
This is a comic where the women are forced to have a swimsuit contest for the attention of Darkseid and his male entourage: it’s not subtle, but the New Gods never were especially. Where Kirby would lead with grand battles and proclamations, Castellucci achieves the same level of interpersonal damage through blatant sexism and misogyny which is pervasive through absolutely every single male character. Not a single man in this issue comes off as anything other than oppressive and single-minded – Kirby’s men came off in the same way, but not for this reason. They still bark off the same orders that they did before, but in this comic we see that every order is baked-in with criticism and disbelief in the role that women are playing. At the start of the issue we see Granny Goodness, as she was first ascending into her role (and just called “Goodness”), as she is tasked with murdering Darkseid’s mother. Darkseid would not harm a woman himself, as they are secondary, and so Goodness has the role instead.
As they fight, she is watched on by Desaad, who criticises her speed, her method, and her ability. He stands back, doing nothing, and hurling bombastic orders at her. When she finally does kill Darkseid’s mother, Desaad claims all credit and there is no further question made. This is exactly the character of Desaad and the character of Goodness as viewed in the original stories, but the new perspective and insertion of misogynistic intent into the dialogue informs the characters and their relationships in deeper and more intricate, fascinating, and harmful ways. The male characters treat the Furies as interchangable, never learning their names or caring which of them is which. They judge them only on their appearance, and without any interest in ever having any of them actually rise to become warriors for Apokalips. They are kept in a prison, essentially, so that the men can feel they have power over someone else. They’re tools for male gratification, or at least this is how the men try to present them.
Every part of the issue is dedicated to carefully dismantling the idea that there is any element of progress or hope in this world. Whereas comics like Mister Miracle focus on dreary and dismal stakes for the tired characters to agonise over, Castellucci and Melo both focus tight on keeping things vibrant, bold, and striking. The Furies are dynamic every time they’re presented in this issue, with one expectation: the page where they are forced to participate in crude, humiliating, and fetishised tasks in order to try and win the approval of the men. My colleague Claire Napier often says there’s nothing more impressive than an artist who can draw the actual ugliness of a woman: here, Melo makes sure that the Furies are miserable, and reduced. They seem smaller, they seem less powerful, they seem unhappy and they seem to be under extreme duress: we know that Apokalyps is a terrible place, but this is a torture far more memorable and powerful than any weaponry devised by previous writers. This is weaponised misogyny, and the creative team are under no impression they have to make this feel anything other than embarrassing and miserable.
The Furies are so often put to one side so men can sneer at them that you constantly feel as though you’re missing out: here are six great designs, and characters who seem like they could have so much potential, but every time they are about to break out and become their own person the men around them pop in to reduce their personality again. It’s not only that sexism is being used to diminish them, it’s that the sexism comes off the page to actively give us all less time with these characters and keep them away from us. They could be vital to Darkseid’s war effort, but he treats them as a sideshow. Likewise they could be the six breakout characters of the year, but the men around them stop us from getting to see them break out in that fashion. But not just the men: Goodness’ role in leading them against each other is the single strongest driving force in this story.
Goodness is a fascinating character in the issue, especially as the creative team see no need in redeeming her. Although she is trapped in a patriarchal system which holds her down, so she cannot question it (at no point does she suggest that she is worthy of anything other than respect: whenever challenged by Darkseid she backs down immediately as to a superior), Goodness also reinforces gender roles in order to achieve her own modicum of power. Her Furies are constantly encouraged not only to train and fight against each other, but to verbally harass and demean each other. Goodness cheers their dissension on, even though their shared struggle for worthiness could probably have seen them rise up in power in some way. Her speeches would almost be triumphant and empowering if they weren’t addressed from a place of internalised and inescapable misogyny. She also refuses to accept any other woman as being trustworthy or equal to her, dismissing advice and offers from several of the other women in the story. Characters like Tigra appear only for Goodness to dismiss them out of hand, showing how her thinking is influenced by the male gaze and the male-orientated systems placed all around her.
She forces Aurelie to take part in “training sessions” with Willik, who uses the time to grope her and harrass her, reminding her constantly that she is a sexually-interesting object to him. His male gaze – perhaps in contrast to the inadvertent gaze of the original stories – is forceful, designed to try and weaken her defences, make her doubt herself, and make her give herself to him. Goodness (and perhaps the other Furies) is almost certainly completely aware of what the “training” comprises of, as in a previous scene we are shown that Darkseid forces her to consent to him, and he sleeps with her. Darkseid’s act is one of self-empowerment, but also to ensure that Goodness is now demeaned in the eyes of everyone around her – everybody immediately knows that she slept with him, and so she is now seen as his “woman”. It isn’t just that Darkseid forces himself on her; it’s that this is then treated by all parties as being her fault and failing, and they act as though this justifies their belief that she is subservient.
This then plays across a second time with Aurelie and Goodness, who specifically says “you must obey me” to her soldier just as Goodness previously said that she would obey Darkseid. The parallel is intentional and powerful: Goodness is reinforcing the gender divide in her actions, and she is both to blame and the victim at the same time because of it. Again, this plays into what we already know of Granny Goodness from the old comics, and builds into her established persona. Female Furies isn’t concerned with changing the past; it simply re-contextualises it from a perspective we haven’t ever been able to see before. All it takes is a change in gaze and suddenly a million aspects of the Fourth World fall into obvious, complete place. This has been the situation for the women of Apokalips ever since the beginning: we just haven’t been allowed to see it before, because by and large we’ve only ever followed this story from the male perspective.
By centring a female or other gaze, Female Furies creates immediate modern-day relevance for one of the most classical comics ever constructed. The character has always been called “Granny” Goodness – but decades later, we finally have a logical and believable reason why that name has stuck around. The scariest thing about the series, and what makes it so captivating and powerful, is that the New Gods make so much sense when you view them through the perspective of a female creative team.
Female Furies #1
Written by Cecil Castellucci
Pencilled by Adriana Melo
Coloured by Hi-Fi
Lettered by Carlos M. Mangual
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.