One literary genre that has often attempted to cross into the comics medium is the Gothic tradition. Gothic often evokes images of castles, ghosts, supernatural occurrences, doomed romances, and for probably a large portion of comics readers, the work of Neil Gaiman in Sandman, in which his character Death has often been cited as being a “goth girl.”
What one may not know is that the Gothic tradition in literature was one for the first major popular literary movements that women found access and success with. This access was one in which women of the 18th century found an avenue of expression—a way to express themselves metaphorically while commenting upon societal problems from the perspective of a woman. As critic Jacqueline Howard argues in her book Reading Gothic Fiction : A Bakhtinian Approach (1994), “As novelists, women appropriated discourses about sensibility and ‘original genius’ to bring the Gothic romance to the position of dominance in the 1790’s” (p.5). The Gothic Romantic period women writers were providing a liberation for themselves through the work they produced, while simultaneously providing positive modeling for other women, both young and old, even if the rest of society dismissed the writing as cheap fictions with no real literary merit, thereby not thinking twice about women writing such things (Howard, 1994; Spooner & McEvoy, 2007). Unfortunately, while the literary world has continued to work and grow past such biases, the world of mainstream comics, while still in its infancy really when compared to printed fiction, still struggles to allow not only women characters to get a wider representation, but the industry still has not allowed for an influx of women creators to put monthly books on the shelf as compared with the overwhelmingly male creative teams. But there are always exceptions that pop up, and when they do, a great series has the ability to open doors. I believe one such series is currently on shelves.
The book I speak of is a new miniseries, Alabaster: Wolves, in which the author of the original short stories (Caitlin R. Kiernan) introduces the reader to the journey of her heroine, Dancy Flammarion. Alabaster: Wolves’s transference from literary prose into a new medium such as comics provides readers with an opportunity to examine how female protagonists are portrayed and can carry a title while simultaneously promoting women creators exhibiting their talent and viewpoints in a medium which continues to stratify. First, that categorization, Gothic, needs some delineation.
But isn’t Gothic just…well, Gothic??
No. Gothic has a wide and highly debated literary tradition most often centering on representation and archetypes. Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy point out that difficulty in pinning down Gothic in their The Routlegde Companion to Gothic (2007), discussing how Gothic has been defined according to its emphasis on the returning past (Baldick 1992, Mighall 1999), its dual interest in transgression and decay (McGrath 1997) its commitment to exploring the aesthetics of fear (Punter 1980) and its cross-contamination of reality and fantasy (Jackson 1981). Alternate traditions of male and female (or perhaps more correctly, masculine and feminine) Gothic have been identified (Moers 1976, Sedgwick 1985, Ellis 1989), with their focus on the respective psychologies of the villain (who is not necessarily gendered male) and the heroine (or, occasionally, a male hysteric) (p.1).
What that multi-tiered definition indicates is that Gothic, much like any foundational literary genre or ideas explored in literature, has malleability based on how it is placed within a historical and social context. Therefore, the malleability allows for an extension into a completely different medium, in this case comics.
So what does this mean for comics as a medium exactly? To even compare comics with literature is in itself a futile effort, as the two mediums share certain structural elements but are wholly separate and unique. Kiernan’s adaptation of her own literary work represents instead a reshaping of the female archetype originating from the Gothic literary tradition (i.e., Gothic Romance, Victorian Gothic, American Gothic), one so heavily influenced by women, for comics. Alabaster: Wolves represents for comics not so much an essentializing or othering in opposition to traditional masculine comics, or even masculine comics that are supposedly crafted in some sort of Gothic tradition, rather Alabaster: Wolves is participating in creating for comics a Gothic story that functions as a “dialogic because of its indeterminacy or its open structure” (Howard 1994 p.16) with a new idea of the Gothic heroine; Just as this is not to say that one form (i.e. Gothic versus Superhero narrative) is better, or that men write better than women, rather, what Alabaster: Wolves as any other title created by women does is offer a choice. The problem is that there is not enough choice on the shelves, especially for women who are probably really not that into superheroine narrative (e.g. Wonder Woman, Supergirl, She-Hulk, etc), or the continually criminally scantily clad titles by a number of publishers often written and drawn by men for most likely a male audience. This audience is of course the one you always read about that is the only supposed audience in comics, which I will from now until the end of days will challenge. Here is an anecdote to think about:
My sixteen year old niece and her mother stopped by last year to visit, and as she looked over my monthly comics titles I had from a number of weeks sitting out she asked, “Got anything else?”. I was puzzled and asked her exactly what she meant. She kind of cooked her head at me sideways and plainly stated, “I don’t like super-heroes—they are lame and overplayed. Got anything like The Hunger Games, ya know, with like a really kick-ass girl? Catniss is the bomb.” I retorted that I thought she didn’t even like comics, but she got really offended, and said “I do like comics, me and my friends really like Manga and all that stuff, and I sketch all the time. There is just nothing ever for me when I want to get something else.” I didn’t have that something else or really anything for her at that moment, but her words stuck with me. So as I now sit at the halfway point of this year with Alabaster: Wolves, now two issues from being done (and I have been sending her the issues in the mail, along with an e-copy of the original short story collection Alabaster), thanks to Caitlin R. Kiernan and her team, I have something else for my teenage niece and her friends, and really all of my friends and colleagues, to get into. In comics. My only hope now is after the series wraps in August that there is more on the way, as rightly it should be.