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Weird Sisters

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Untitled by Andrew Pannell

In this unjust world, even righteous people must eventually reach a breaking point where they’ll capitulate to the occult and underhanded. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather makes this case in its gently devastating opening monologue. A law-abiding immigrant undertaker, stark with passion in the mafioso’s tenebrous audience, lays bare his final straw: his teenage daughter was gang-raped, and her assailants were arrested, tried, and convicted, but they still walk free, their sentences suspended. Societally-condoned channels having failed him, his only recourse now is to appeal to the forces of darkness. “For justice,” he admits, “we must go to Don Corleone.”

The Godfather here acts as a sort of fairy-tale witch. His abdication of the laws of mankind allows him to function as a scapegoat, taking on the sins of otherwise decent people, so that they may return to society untainted by ignoble acts they willed but did not commit. The witch is a consummate outsider, gleefully embracing all that the upstanding world rejects: she eats black foods, makes her home in rotting wilderness, befriends vermin, kisses the devil’s fetid asshole, probes the future. This sacramental headlong rush into the repugnant grants her supernatural powers, because after willingly consigning her soul to hell, there is nothing more on earth she need fear. In a chaotic and terrible universe governed only nominally by principle, her chaotic intervention, her voluntary embodiment of chaos, is not just helpful but necessary to maintain order. We can allow ourselves continued contact with the evil world by choosing to believe the evil is a person we can avoid.

Andrew Pannell’s untitled comic, written in response to a one-word prompt from a reader (“crazy”), presents a young man reluctantly seeking a witch’s intervention. He visits a therapist to satisfy his worried parents, but he doesn’t really want to be cured: “I don’t think it’s unreasonable,” he explains, “for me to be scared of this scary world.” He thinks he’s dismissing her, but he’s actually speaking the witch’s language—the scary world is the entire reason she exists, and his protests, like an incantation, unlock her true form. Her glasses turn opaque, her teeth grow jagged. She whips a black pointed hat from a high shelf, dons it and jams her index finger into his forehead, calling forth a tangled mass of steaming, throbbing neurosis, as the young man drools and his eyes go white.

The purgative ritual leaves him exhausted; sweating, he claims he doesn’t feel any better. It’s a familiar feeling in talk therapy: catharsis heals by harrowing. Back to her therapist guise, the now-bareheaded witch is inscrutable, taking notes, again offering nothing beyond the minimal closed-mouth comment “mhm.” The only obvious change is that her dialogue is no longer rendered in clinical Courier New, but in her patient’s uneven handwriting. This elicits a suspicious glare from the young man, and the comic closes here, on the revelation that the witch has fulfilled her role. Not only has she removed the evil obstruction, but she has done so by consuming it, allowing her patient to remain within the bounds of decent society by disavowing even his desire for her help.

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“A Happy Death” by Cathy G. Johnson

Like the glowing negative afterimage that lingers behind a high-contrast photograph, evil can only be discerned within a climate of strict rules about what is proper and good. Evil has no definition of its own, it is only that which opposes what a culture has deemed desirable, and so, without desires, without a culture, evil does not exist. In a sense, a culture is defined more by what it rejects than what it accepts, since the fear of contamination is more poignant and more actionable than the yearning for perfection. Where there is belief in evil forces, there is also rigid intolerance of any possible source of their influence, and rituals of purification to seal them out once they have been identified and purged. We reaffirm our alignment with righteousness through the sacrament of exorcism.

Evil is all the more loathsome when it shares superficial similarities with good. The much-decried infighting observed among activists is anything but petty, considering the repugnance of witnessing acts you abhor performed in your name, with your face. A creature almost like you, but somehow not of you, calls for the most strenuous rejection of all, not mere avoidance but a genuine auto-da-fé, a public ritual to sever once and for all your association with the heretical other, a pittura infamante to make sure the whole town knows. Cathy G. Johnson’s comic “A Happy Death,” written for the punk comics anthology series As You Were, documents the weary horror of discovering such an uncanny-valley creature in your orbit, and the comic itself is the purgative ritual and image.

Cathy, the protagonist, begins the story armed with some aesthetic prohibitions: immediately rejecting the possibility of friendship with the “Polo-wearing jocks” in her class, dismissing her friend’s favorite “power grind” song by comparing it to the Power Rangers theme song, she’s already aloof and defensive, but these strictures fallaciously attribute philosophical qualities to traits which are inherently superficial. What’s wrong with Polo? What’s wrong with Power Rangers? Nothing, of course, but it’s hard to blame Cathy for her caution when you can see by her posture how uncomfortable her friend’s casual interest in train hopping makes her. What she dreads is dilettantism, inauthenticity,  nihilism, and she’s willing to throw some babies out with the bathwater.

It’s not as if she doesn’t give the guy a chance. Spectacled and smug, he resembles Enid’s grating friend John Ellis in Ghost World (their interests overlap just enough for her to find him uniquely appalling) as he mansplains Camus and “real” punk music. Gamely, Cathy reads The Stranger and attends his druggy house party. Even after he stands by a classmate’s defense of female genital mutilation, chiding Cathy for prioritizing individuals over the abstract ideal of cultural relativism—and his hyperbolically condescending monologue lays Cathy the author’s unilateral sympathies uncomfortably bare—she brings him along to a friend’s show that night. They still both like punk music, don’t they? But he won’t dance, and her stringent aesthetics are piqued again. Soon they’re arguing about a Minor Threat song’s racist subtext. “GOD, you’re so PC!” he laments, but she’s proud to be so: to her it would be better if the band had never existed. And it would be better if he never existed, so she rebukes him with a passionate vade retro. A more authentic punk friend, manning the door and visibly at home in the scene, voices approval, but expelling the demon isn’t enough for Cathy. He had his arm around her and his stink is still on her. Only a public repudiation will scrub her clean of evil.

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“Semi-Vivi” by GG

Vampire mythology has always been about the fear of the attractive outrage. Early vampires, clad in rotten winding-sheets, engorged and ruddy with their former loved ones’ blood, grotesquely satirized the familial affection that had structured their human lives. The gothic Dracula and Varney are gaunt, vain aristocrats, not handsome in the traditional sense yet palpably magnetic, even as they shamelessly prey on the peasantry they should be protecting. They also show unmistakable signs of gender transgression—Dracula cements his bond with Mina by force-feeding her from his breast.  Female vampires, like Lilith, prefer the blood of babies and small children, which suggests that the cultures which created these demonesses value women primarily as mothers: to feed ona child, rather than to feed it, is the ultimate feminine betrayal. Where women’s sexual agency is considered obscene, as in Victoriana, female vampires are also aggressively seductive, incapacitating their adult victims with a mixture of overwhelming desire and disgust. A vampire is whatever a proper person of its milieu ought not to be.

Yet there is no longer widespread consensus about what constitutes propriety, and for this reason the contemporary vampire languishes, fangs dulled on easy prey. Even worse, among an ever-growing counterculture, the transgression of propriety is often considered laudable for its own sake. So we’re stuck, in recent literature, with a coven of Edward Cullens, sulking for no clear reason over what actually appears to have been a pretty lucky break. Unable to horrify an audience that has little experience-based dread of death, therefore relieved of the bloat and stench that marked them as living corpses, vampires as figures of fear are largely obsolete, acting out their living death by taking advantage of the mortal folly from which they, by their nature, are exempt, to the applause of mortals who long to be exempt from folly.

A sort of living death seems to be the cursed state of the protagonist of “Semi-Vivi,” a 14-page comic created by artist GG for the 2014 Comics Workbook Composition Competition. (It won second place.) The title, of course, is a pun combining the main character’s name (Violet, nicknamed Vivi) and her stalled-out existence (half-alive, which is to say, also half-dead). Vampirishly, she’s effortlessly lovely, androgynous, and deceptively youthful. We first see her watching YouTube videos about hand-drill fire-starting: like Marie Antoinette on her dairy farm, in her leisure, Vivi fantasizes about a life that’s less easy and more “real.” She flees from real-world obligations, ignoring her landlord/brother’s reminder to move out of the house he just sold, impulsively destroying her expensive smartphone in a fit of pique against a friend (Olivia) who inexplicably but persistently invites her out. She hides at the park, indulging in maudlin daydreams about freedom and birds in flight, until an actual child demands to use the swing set. Picking at a slice of pie, Vivi side-eyes the square diner patrons: a rowdy young family, a Bluetoothed workaholic, a flirtatious milkshake-sipping hedonist. Finally a dream sequence spells out her disdain: she tosses the hedonist (now a mustached infant), smashes up a cubicle workstation, and rides naked on a bird until, snatched from the sky by friendly, mortal Olivia, Vivi drowns in darkness. That’s a lot of self-pity for a woman with so few troubles.

The penultimate page of the comic offers a glimpse of Vivi’s interior life at last. Her possessions, packed in her absence by the responsible brother, include two books: The Song of Enlightenment (a Buddhist tract), and Franny and Zooey. Clearly we’re meant to understand that a spiritual crisis is at the heart of all this ennui. But unlike weeping, fainting, obsessively praying Franny Glass, Vivi is emotionally inert, seeming to feel little beyond a Cullenesque revulsion at the quotidian humanity around her. She’s willing to live in their houses, eat their pie, loiter in their playgrounds, and take advantage of their movers, but her parasitic contact with the human race doesn’t extend all the way to endorsement. Using her newly-acquired survivalist skill, she burns the boxes (and presumably her brother’s newly-sold house, against which the boxes are stacked), and for the first time, like a monster, reveling in her attack on the status quo, we see her smile.

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One Response to Weird Sisters

  1. great article! really good insights on the ideas “witch”, “vampire”, and “evil”. JG is a great writer and her column rules.

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