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The Crow: Flesh & Blood

Introduction by Nancy A. Collins

I grew up reading comics. That, in and of itself, wouldn't surprise anyone. However, the fact that I am a woman and say that often does. One of my earliest memories is of pawing through my older cousin's stash of dogeared funny books, glomming onto such titles as Herbie, Little Lulu, Super Goof, and Fantastic Four. I was always something of a tomboy, but once I got past a certain age I was discouraged from climbing trees, investigating abandoned barns, and fishing for crawdads in the bayou and encouraged to engage in more "suitable" activities like ballet class, Girl Scouts and Future Homemakers of America meetings. Needless to say, that's when I began reading comic books in earnest, desperate, as most young readers are, for some action-filled adventure to project myself into to alleviate my boredom. Unfortunately, being female, I found precious little to identify with.

The comic books of my youth were populated by all kinds of strange manner of beings boasting various powers and abilities beyond those of mortal man. These heroes were invariably dedicated to bringing justice to an unjust world, saving humanity from destruction threatened by one menace or another, whether terrestrial or alien in origin, or simply foiling jewelry heists. But few of these role models were women. As I continued to read, I became gradually aware of the inequity between the sexes, at least in the four-color world.

     

Bluntly put, the male superheroes had all the cool powers. They were superstrong, invulnerable, they could fly, they had superspeed, and force beams that shot out their rings or eyes or hands. The females, with the sole exception of Wonder Woman, had really lame powers. Mostly they seemed to involve shrinking to insignificance, becoming intangible or using abilities that didn't involve genuine physical strength, like telepathy or sonics or force fields. While boys had characters like Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Green Lantern, Flash and The Thing to project their self-images onto, all I had were the likes of the Invisible Girl, Marvel Girl, Scarlet Witch, Phantom Lass, Saturn Girl, The Wasp, Shrinking Violet, and Black Canary. While the male members of their teams were knocking down brick walls or deflecting laser blasts, they were whining about how hard it was to levitate a pair of scissors. Playing Fantastic Four with my cousins meant I always ended up being Sue Storm, in which I spent the entire time running around with my hands over my eyes yelling, "You can't see me! I'm Invisible!"

The few female superheroes that did exist that had anything in the way of legit powers were usually pallid distaff versions of more popular male characters, such as Supergirl, Hawk Girl, and Batgirl. But for the most part the only women on display in comics were girlfriends, mothers, aged aunties, and long-suffering fiancees' window dressing to be threatened by that issue's villain and rescued by their appointed champion by the end of the installment. And when they weren't serving as damsels in distress, they were catfighting amongst themselves over who was the hero in question's love interest or plotting harebrained schemes to test their super-beau's true feelings. Lois Lane, who was supposed to be a crackerjack investigative reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, seemed to spend her every waking moment preoccupied with Superman's secret identity and spent her nights dreaming weird jealousy-inspired marriage scenarios between Kal-El and everything from her own robot double to a mermaid. Granted, comics were not the only entertainment industry lacking engaging role models. Apart from Mrs. Peel, all women on TV did was bake cookies, get in wacky situations involving conveyor belts and chocolates, and open hailing frequencies.

Things finally began to change during the early 70s when there was an attempt to reflect the Women's Liberation Movement by debuting several new female characters or giving the existing ones makeovers. But since most of the scripting was still being done by the same men who thought Batgirl would be more worried about the run in her stockings than the imminent death of the Dynamic Duo, instead of being brash, assertive, and self-assured, most came across as either castrating bitches or diesel dykes. A few characters, like Black Widow, Big Barda, and Red Sonja, actually worked. However, even if they were powerful, intelligent, and capable warrior-women, they still had to wear their undies in public. It would be another decade or more before strong female characters would come into their own, but with the subtext that where women were concerned, where there was great power there came great instability, often leading to mental breakdown and succumbing to the dark side. It seemed all very unfair to me.

 

 

 

 
There's no man alive who spends his days at work fantasizing about merely being a breadwinner and husband. Why should women be denied the chance to cast themselves in the role of something besides sex object and nurturer? Who in the pop culture industry decided that the distribution of justice and the punishment of evil was solely a masculine province? After all, the ancients repeatedly linked the concept of justice and, more importantly, righteous vengeance to the feminine element. Then again, it's not really that strange to see women in the role of crime-busters. After all, who is it that maintains the status quo and metes out punishment on a day-to-day basis in the family? The hand that rocks the cradle is also the one that comes after you with a house shoe when you've been playing stickball in the front parlor.
     

 

 

 

Skehmet, the lioness-headed war goddess of Egypt, served as the dispenser of divine punishment against those mortals who rebelled against Ra. The Greeks showed a great deal of reverence for - and fear of - the feminine mystique by clothing the concepts of truth, law, justice, wisdom, courage, vengeance, and righteousness in the flesh of women. The Horae were the personification of law and justice; the Poena represented retaliation; the Erinyes, whom the Romans renamed Furies, punished murderers who had escaped discovery and judgment; Ate, a daughter of Eris, the goddess of discord, was an avenger of evil deeds and inflictor of just punishment; the Praxidicae were a trinity of goddesses who made sure justice was done in the mortal world; while Nemesis, a child of the Titans, was the goddess of retribution, punishing those who did evil and bringing down those who had benefited from the suffering of others. One of the most important members of the pantheon was Athena, the virgin warrior-woman, who was hailed as the giver of wisdom, courage, and skill at arms. And when those who fell under her protection were gravely wronged, she appeared in her aspect as Avenger, Athena Axiopoenos, with her helmet, spear and shield at ready - and a crow riding her shoulder. The crow also appears as a symbol of revenge and death in the Celtic myths, where the war goddess Morrigan appears as the crone Babd, goddess of vengeance, whose name literally means "crow." Which brings us, in roundabout version, the The Crow: Flesh & Blood.

It has only been in the last decade that the echoes of these mythic weird sisters and punishing mothers have finally started to appear in popular culture, ranging from the hypercompetent female assassins of the Hong Kong cinema to the overinflated balloon-animals known as "Bad Girls." Even I have an entry in the postfeminist empowerment derby in the form of my combination punk vampire/vampire-slayer Sonja Blue. Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Most of the female characters in existence today were not created by women, nor are they aimed at women readers. And I sure as hell wouldn't want young girls eager for role models to take the likes of Lady Death as their template. But there are a few out there that portray women in active, decisive roles that are neither exploitative nor misogynist, and the protagonist of The Crow: Flesh & Blood is one of them.

The character of Iris Shaw, the first female Crow, did not and could not have existed when I was a teenaged geek in search of strong female role models. But I knew someday, somehow, she would appear; emerging, as Athena once did, from the brow of some future creator. So, in its own way, what you hold in your hands right now is the fruit of seeds sown over twenty years ago, but only now coming to flower.

Iris Shaw is not the first take-no-prisoners female to appear in comics, nor will she be the last, but as the first woman to become an incarnation of The Crow - at least that we're aware of so far - she has her own unique berth in the history of contemporary pop culture. Unlike many of the so-called "Bad Girls" that have proliferated like a yeast infection over the last few years, Iris does not kill for kicks or pay. She is motivated by far more personal and primal reasons. Like the Furies, she is driven by the need to exact blood payment for a life (or lives, in the case of her unborn child) unjustly ended and unavenged. And like Nemesis, her retribution is inevitable but not indiscriminate. Her wrath does not consume the sense of right and wrong that was so much a part of her character when she was alive, allowing her to pursue her vendetta without scourging the innocent along with the guilty. There is still mercy and humanity left in Iris, even if she has to keep her girlish figure intact with a staplegun and spackle. I'd like to see Naomi Campbell try that.

 

   

Nancy A. Collins

Lancaster, Pennsylvania

2/16/97

 


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