On Christmas Day 2013, my brother gave me a booster pack of random, non-sequential issues from a variety of popular comic book titles that syndicated in the late eighties to mid nineties. The nineties was a time of groundbreaking work in the comic community that gave birth to the age of modern comics. Sometimes, not so much. These are snapshots of the industry at its best and worst. This is Brian’s Comic Book Grab Bag.
Shi: Heaven and Earth Volume 1 #4
Writer – Billy Tucci & Gary Cohn
Penciler – Billy Tucci
Inker – Billy Tucci
Letterer – Joseph Biondi
The dichotomy between “Good Girl Art” and “Bad Girl Art,” how it works, effectively eludes me, even as we venture into the second to last Grab Bag piece. Richard Lupoff, in his book, The Great American Paperback: An Illustrated Tribute to Legends of the Book, sheds light on Good Girl Art as being characterized by “a cover illustration depicting an attractive young woman, usually in skimpy or form-fitting clothing, and designed for erotic stimulation. The term does not apply to the morality of the ‘good girl,’ who is often a gun moll, tough cookie or wicked temptress.” Take note of the second thought advanced by Lupoff. It’ll come in handy…
The enduring fad of Bad Girl Art, if you have no idea what that means, was salient all through the 90s. One only needs to look through any trade paperback put out by Image Comics to confront it. Wikipedia describes these female characters as having “big hair; extremely long legs, often longer than the upper body; breasts bigger than their head; in anatomically improbable or impossible poses; and thighs wider than their waists.” It is reasonable to consider that Bad Girl Art’s sole purpose is aimed at “erotic stimulation,” if not the objectification of women everywhere. How it differs from Good Girl Art is an issue of category more than form. Bad Girl Art is an expression of anatomical apotheosis, where the exploited female form is advanced beyond humanity, becoming an abstraction of physicality. As a married man I can attest to the nuanced and complex order of feminine emotions, but the capacity of “Bad Girls” like Witchblade, Angela, Vampirella, et al to emote, or demonstrate emotional variety, is as limited as their ability to find a carbon fiber mesh bra not retailed in the future. These women are more like men than anything else, demonstrating “might-makes-right” mentality and mirroring physical and emotional traits sexually appealing to men specifically.
Nestled in the creator owned era of bombastic-boob-bonanzas was Billy Tucci, a New Yorker with a pencil and a dream to make comics, who introduced Shi, a star character that would support several comic spin-offs primarily situated in the Marvel and Image universes. The focus of Shi, the self-titled comic, offers a positivistic spin on the history of the introduction of Christianity into Japan. Shi is both a Christian and a warrior monk that doesn’t hesitate to decapitate, stab, wound, etc. anything in her path. This is an over simplified summary of the plot, of course.
The elephant in the room, when it comes to Shi, is the fact that the story is obviously heavily influenced by Christianity and serves as an apologetic for Christians in the particular histories associated with feudal Japan. Crusade Comics, owned by Billy Tucci would be a company relegated to that of an evangelical Christian publisher. I don’t actually take much issue with this reality, as I am Christian, but there are plenty of qualifications when it comes to addressing the ethics and business practices of Christian publishing organizations, which represent a sizable chunk (in the hundred millions) of the publishing market share. There is a difference between Christian publishers and publishing Christians, the former wishing to promote the Christian faith, while the latter is free to pursue larger markets, and could publish for any market they choose.
The difference between the two is realized effectively in both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who were contemporaries of one another. Tolkien’s work, despite the adoration of pagans everywhere, is infused densely with Christian tropes and archetypes demonstrating a muted, but powerful synergy between Nordic language studies and medieval era Christian thought. Many read Tolkien their entire lives and miss this because Tolkien desired at the outset to tell an epic story inspired by the story of God. C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, pursued a more direct approach, more in with evangelical publishers, which aim to boldly proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We know that Aslan is supposed to be Jesus, and that his ceremonial death in place of Edmund represents the substitutionary atonement of Jesus’ death on the cross. Billy Tucci’s Shi takes the route of the latter, demonstrating the cost of following Jesus by literally depicting the death of several characters who die in Shi’s place.
Maybe my aversion to C.S. Lewis’s approach is rooted in the interpretive challenge that I am robbed of as a reader. After seeing a movie on opening weekend, the first question out of everyone’s mouths to one another, more often than not, is “so, what did you think?” What did you think? The inquiry is meant to glean from another their personal perspective of what they just saw. It’s an invitation to interpret what they saw for themselves. Shi, among other works like the recent film God’s Not Dead, are so ham-fisted that they are virtually ineffective at creating a dialogue among post-millennials. Because I am a Christian, I can understand what Billy Tucci is trying to achieve with his work in Shi, to an extent, but even I feel the story demands a multifaceted perspective to at least create a meaningful opposition to the faithful instead of multitudes of straw men waiting to be cut down by Shi’s naginata.
I am not completely convinced, however, that Tucci’s pet project was entirely a devotional. The work’s demonstration of Bad Girl Art throughout the piece is intriguing to me, also confusing. I admire Tucci’s initiative to interact with the cultures that he is trying to minister to, courting the sinful masses with huge, honkin’, cartoony boobs, but I find the concept wanting. For instance, Shi’s timeline is a dual layer experience. Ana Ishikawa’s role as Shi in the modern age is an homage to an earlier holy warrior active during the Shimabara Revolt in 1637, Tora No Shi (though I could find no reference to her in history, at least via a cursory search on the internet). In issue #4, there are no references to any signs of modernity until the comic’s climax, so I was flying blind until I saw a samurai pull a Colt M1991 on his master and kill him. I thought this was a historical study on the development of the underground Japanese Church (Kakure Kirishitan)? Are secret societies of warrior monks still out there in roving gangs, dressed in period feudal armor and waging gratuitous gangland warfare on one another? I must have missed that in my “Visit Japan” brochure. What this dual timeline is meant to confer upon Shi is the imposition of heritage by her family. Does she follow the teachings of Jesus, or wear a leather thong and take sweet femme fatale vengeance on historical representations of Japan’s misogynist culture hegemony? How well this is communicated I can’t say for sure. It’s all very schizophrenic.
The amalgam of Bad Girl Art and Christian apologetics yields some rather compromising situations that demand discussion as well. There are many instances in the comic that feature nearly naked women being crucified on makeshift crosses in both continuities. Yuri Ishikawa (the alter ego of Tora No Shi) is depicted bound by her wrists and feet with cuts and wounds all over her body in a series of panels, as is Catherine Ishikawa, Ana’s mother, in the current timeline. Each attempt to draw parallels between Jesus’ own crucifixion, depicting a person suffering righteously for their faith while being denigrated and humiliated. The problem with Tucci’s portrayal is that the blend of Bad Girl Art with religious iconography yields something more akin to bondage and sadomasochism erotica. Also, just for clarity, in the rare occasion a woman was tried for treason against Rome in 1st Century Palestine, she was offered the option of being crucified facing her cross. This is because the face of a woman in excruciating pain was considered so horrifying and inhumane that it would put off onlookers that came for the spectacle. Tucci also glamorizes the death of the Shimabara revolt leader, Amakusa Shiro, by having him leap to his doom off the castle walls, committing seppuku via gravity, his arms out forming a cross (just in case we didn’t make that connection). He was actually captured and executed as a traitor after the fall of Hara Castle. Later, ala Oliver Cromwell, Shiro’s head was put on tour as a reminder to anyone who wanted to profess the faith of the Europeans.
The story Shi promotes is not actually as bad as it seems, only poorly executed. Despite what I may think of it, the story was quite popular and, according to Tucci’s official page, “over 4 million Shi comics have been sold worldwide, along with a vast array of related merchandise, resulting in gross revenues of over 25 million dollars to date.” (I don’t think that glamorizing one’s ability to make money off the Gospel is right, but that’s just me talking.) The internal struggle Ana demonstrates between her faith and her off the clock hobbies is real, just hammed up. How she deals with conflict is interesting, but I am left wanting in her personality and characterization as a woman waging a centuries old war of male honor. Depicting Shi in line with Image House style confounds me. I’m trying to understand what Tucci had to gain by depicting a very vocally Christian woman as dressed like a stripper, when the women of the Gospels that hung out with Jesus were afforded so much dignity in contrast with the values of the time. (That’s me, again.) Maybe I should read more Flannery O’ Connor and forget that this ever happened? God’s not dead, but apparently Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism is.