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Wednesday, 27 February 2013

LGBT History month - Deathwish


Writer: Adam Blaustein, later known as Maddie Blaustein
Plot Assist: Yves Fezzani
Penciller: J H William III
Inker: Jimmy Palmiotti
Painted colour: J. Brown
Letterer: Joseph Daniello
Publisher: Milestone (an imprint of DC comics)

What's it about?
Marisa Rahm is a transgender cop in Dakota, America.  There's a serial killer, the Deathwish of the title, out there murdering trans women and Rahm is determined to bring him in. Rahm has been chasing Deathwish for years.  Her singlemindedness is all encompassing - she lives, breathes and eats the case.  Predictably, this is affecting her relationship with her girlfriend, Dini.
As Rahm gets closer to Deathwish he starts manipulating her, messing with her mind, and then it becomes unclear who is the hero and who isn't.

This is a four issue miniseries published under DC's Milestone imprint in the 1990s.  It has never been collected into a trade but it can be found in places such as Ebay.  Unfortunately I only have issues two, three and four of this series, but it's importance for trans comics characters means I am determined to review and promote it.

What's good about it?
On first glance, the cover and inside art would lead you to believe this was a standard violent cop killer story, brimming with machismo and glorifying guns and murder.  Exactly the sort of thing I normally keep away from.  However, once you start reading you realise the books have greater depth and intelligence than you normally see in these sort of stories.
The lead character, Marisa Rahm, is female, so this instantly subverts the standard narrative.  Rahm works in a very masculine environment - she's been a cop for several years, starting before she transitioned so they all know her history.  As you'd expect they aren't exactly supportive and she gets a lot of crap from them.  She's tough as anything, mouthy and can land a mean punch when pushed.  If you've read and enjoyed Gotham Central (briefly mentioned here), or any other books with Renee Montoya in, you will probably like this.  Marisa Rahm is in a similar mold.  I for one strongly believe that we could do with more tough lady cops in comics.

This book is also about being transgender (or perhaps I should say transsexual, as that is what Rahm identifies as), but not in an introspective, self reflective journey from one gender to the other type of story, because the lead character is trans.  This series is a snapshot of Rahm's life, and given the nature of the case and her life story, it therefore is automatically a story of being trans.  Her gender identity isn't the force behind the story, but does impact upon it quite significantly.  Her fellow cops harass and mock her.  She is chasing a killer targeting trans sex workers.  Her girlfriend is also trans.
I would like to issue a trigger warning for the violence in the book, and also for a dream sequence that makes for uncomfortable reading.  This sequence has an adult Rahm confronting her male persona, and is a bit upsetting.

The writer is Maddie Blaustein, credited as Adam Blaustein, who herself is trans.  This makes the narrative feel natural in a way in which I suspect a cis-gendered person couldn't.  Cop stories, especially violent ones, don't often interest me.  This one does because of the unconventional characters and relationships between them.  I have a soft spot for tough butch women and Marisa Rahm fills the bill nicely.  She is everything I am not.  Where I am shy, socially inept, awkward and inarticulate, she fears nothing and no one.  She is confident, in control and always owns the room.  She's my new hero.

Lastly, these comics all have letter columns in the back.  It's a pleasure to read fan feedback from before the internet and see how well this series was received and the impact it had on people's lives.

What's bad about it?
Shakespearean poetry features in each issue as a narrative tool.  I am afraid the meaning is lost on me.  Perhaps this is because I don't have issue one or perhaps it is because I am not very good with poetry.

Some readers may take issue with the books clarifying the genitalia of the characters.  I'm not sure we really need to know whether Marisa and Dini are pre- or post-op.  Focusing on this is something the modern trans rights movement discourages, because not only is it reductionist but it is almost never necessary*. Similarly,  modern activists criticise depictions of trans women as sex workers.  It's a common stereotype which serves to sexualise and dehumanise trans people.

On the other hand, focusing on sex and genitals (and violence, and grittiness) may just be a convention for this type of story.  I don't know enough about the genre to say one way or the other.

It is worth bearing in mind that the writer of this series is herself trans.   So the story comes from her perspective and, while it may have its faults, it is not sensationalising the characters.

What's the art like?
For the first time in a long while I think it's worth breaking down the individual artists' work.
Pencils are delivered by J.H.Williams III who later in his career would draw Promethea and Batwoman.  In these books he would gain fame for his imaginative and symmetrical layouts.  However in Deathwish there is only a small hint as to what he would later achieve.  Mind you, these issues do show his talent for perspective and the figures and motion are all depicted well.  It's not spectacular, but it is memorable.  The examples just above and below are the most visually interesting pages.

Jimmy Palmiotti does inks.  Later in his career he did inks for books such as Secret Six, Manhunter and Two Face/Scarecrow Year One.  He has also written Power Girl, Terra and Ame-Comi Girls.  He is a very accomplished inker and his shading and lines really give life and depth to Williams' pencils.

J. Brown is credited with painted colours.  I really do think that she/he has the strongest talent of the artists.  This comic was before the age of digital colouring; consequently the colours have an old fashioned, richer feel to them. They exude warmth and provide a depth to the books that makes the ink seem less stark.
The best letterers deliver the dialogue in a seamless manner, giving each character a different voice and framing the tone of the panels.  If the letters jar, if they do not distinguish the characters or match the mood, the book fails.  Daniello does a good job here.  It is clear who is speaking or narrating and the dialogue bubbles (along with the art) provide the emotion of the work.

More information
These issues aren't collected as a trade but can usually be found on Ebay or Amazon, or perhaps in the back issue box of your local comic shop.  I would happily pay ten or fifteen pounds for all four issues, but you can probably get them for cheaper than that.

I believe that Deathwish also cropped up in another series called Hardware.  Maddie Blaustein later went on to work as a voice actress on properties such as Pokemon, Sonic the Hedgehog and Yu-Gi-Oh!.

* The only time I can think of it being necessary would be if you were writing an article or story about an operation.  Even then, given the amount of discrimination trans people face, I would question why you would be choosing to tell that particular story.

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