Co-Created & Written: Kelly Bender, Co-Created & Illustrated: Ryan Downing, Inks: Ivan Miranda, Colors: Alan Bay , Letters: Micah Myers, Publisher: Insane Comics
Since the dawn of comics there has been one common rule. Women are sexy. Even the ones that go about fully clothed (rare as they are in comics) have curves, are smooth skinned, eyes you could get lost in and as I once saw it described in a book regarding comic book character design, “pleasing” lips. And despite the rapid growth of comics as a medium and the embracing of neo and magical realism writing styles like that of Alan Moore’s classics Watchmen and V For Vendetta, people seem to have missed the fact that women can be strong and confident and even sexy without needing to parade around in what can only be described as a glorified bikini. It’s unrealistic, archaic and quite frankly insulting to the psyche, and to first-wave feminism.
Death Rattler, written by Kelly Bender is a sci-fi western which is a rare genre in the media these days, with the only other prominent work within it being Firefly by Joss Whedon. The story is about a woman named “Dawson” who is on a revenge mission against the infamous “Devil’s Cross” gang for the murder and subsequent death of her older brother via a snake-bite. Adopting the snake as an alter ego Dawson has grown up to become the bounty hunter “Death Rattler”, whose trademark killing method is two bullet wounds to the heart with bullets that inject snake venom.
The thing that is most likeable about Death Rattler is its art. It’s smooth, easy to read, immaculately drawn and well composed. The pictures are easy to look at and transition well from panel-to-panel. Unfortunately, this is where my compliments end.
The very first thing that’s noticeable about Death Rattler is its portrayal of women. I opened up the digital comic to the cover and saw a nude woman, holding a gun, in a cowboy hat, crossing her legs and covering her breasts rather conveniently with her hair. I was disheartened already. I like sexy women as much as the next guy, but sex without context is just a cheap selling tactic. “Chin up Seeka” I thought, my inner optimist desperate to avail. “Maybe it’s like Elfen Lied where they’re using nudity to contrast against the sheer power of the character and portray her raw, emotional vulnerability.” …I hate my inner optimist. See after getting through the first few pages of the comic (which consists of a nightmare revealing Death Rattler’s origin story), the viewer is treated to the image of Death Rattler throwing herself into a sitting up position in bed, with the blankets somehow conveniently covering her breasts and vagina, weaving their way around her naughty parts like a snake…or just a cheaply placed blanket in order to increase sex appeal. The fact that her hair is PERFECT leads me to believe the latter. Death Rattler then goes behind a screen, gets changed (all the while showing off her curvy body and her nipples which are so pointy they not only are extremely obvious in silhouette, but manage to stay constantly on high-beam through her skimpy- clothing throughout the entire comic) and shoots the man she just tricked into having sex with her so she could kill him.
This pseudo-feminist use of nudity to portray strength in women is archaic and hypocritical. There is an abundance of strong women in media who are strong because of their character, and not because they aren’t afraid to be seen naked for a few seconds. Granted, being seen nude by someone you don’t want seeing you vulnerable is a position no one wants to be in, but being able to endure that in a life-and-death circumstance alone does not make for a strong character.
I guess that’s my main beef with Death Rattler is that the titular character is incredibly one-sided. I wrote recently about strong female characters. Women heroes who kick ass are by-far my favourite kind of character, both to write and read about. But no one is that one-dimensional that ass-kicking is all they do, and when the only other thing they do is get their boobs out, it makes it difficult to like them. A strong woman character needs the same thing strong male characters need to be good, dimension. Without personality any character comes across as bland, and seeing as the only thing Death Rattler has going for her is her skill with guns and her impossibly large breasts, she’s not an easy character to relate to. Even the loss of her family feels insipid and unemotional.
This is true with….ALL of the women portrayed. Every single one of them has large breasts, tiny waists, big hips, and with a ton of exposed skin. If there was ever a comic guilty of objectifying women, it’s Death Rattler, and yet, somehow because those women are attempting to kill men, or each other it’s somehow okay.
The constant objectification of women could almost be forgiven if the writing was better. It’s not bad, it’s just predictable. Witty one-liners that…aren’t…really all that witty. Threats which more than anything else state the obvious, stalling techniques that are so weak you can’t feel any tinge of glory or regret when their victim falls for them, and a recycled revenge story that has been told a thousand times before. Only this time a bikini and chaps wearing, gun-toting woman is the protagonist, so it’s groundbreaking, right? Wrong.
The dialogue is clunky and plain from the very start. A man from the Devil’s Cross gang rides into Dawson’s childhood home. Her father pleads with the man to leave them alone as he’s no longer a member of the gang. The man says:
“You know the motto better than I do. Hell you practically wrote it. ‘Once a Devil’s Cross Gang member…the only way out is death.’ ”
They must’ve stayed up all night thinking of that one. Sadly this bit of dialogue drudgery is typical of all the dialogue in the comic. It’s overly simplistic, and doesn’t deliver on the bad-assery that we’re supposed to be getting from the characters. And why is it that whenever someone references the Devil’s Cross Gang their full gang name must be used? Why not just “Devil’s Cross” or “The Cross”? No one repeats themselves that much, if anything we live in an age where the fewer syllables in a sentence, the better. The constant repetition of the gang’s full name adds to the slow and stiff reading. Not to mention the utter lack of tone of everyone in the comic. Everyone just feels completely bored and as a result, the reader is bored. Even Death Rattler waking up from the nightmare of her family dying, her waking scream is type out “AHHHHH…”. Where’s the exclamation marks? Where’s the speech bubble taking up 90% of the splash panel? Where’s the genuinely frightened exclamation at waking up from the nightmare/flashback OF YOUR FAMILY’S DEATH!? An event which, apparently, gets Death Rattler’s nerves so shot that she needs to take one immediately upon waking. And yet her initial reaction to the dream was written so plain and boring that it’s just difficult to feel anything with her.
And that’s another thing, there’s no real sense of what is supposed to be normal in this world. The first time we see the Devil’s Cross Gang is when Death Rattler is still a small child, and now she’s in her late teens-early twenties and they’re still around. And really, apart from killing her family, there’s no real evidence that the DCG have done anything else to anyone else. The three members we do see face-to-face in the gang are extremely easily killed, and so the gang doesn’t feel like a threat…like…at all. What is normal life in this comic? Is the DCG a tyrannical gang extorting money from innocent shop keepers in return for “protection”? Are they looters and rapists that attack small outposts? Are they a network of thieves? Assassins? What, WHAT ARE THEY!? Because so far all they seem to be, is a bunch of inept guys with no brains. I’m shivering in my space cowboy boots.
While sporting a well-defined and pleasing-to-look-at art style, and expanding into a genre not frequently visited, Death Rattler ultimately suffers from a lack of originality in the form of a revenge story that’s been told throughout the ages and does nothing differently. It’s bland and unemotional to the point of pure cynicism. It’s treatment of women is incredibly ill-conceived, with all the female characters either being whores or warriors dressed very similarly to whores, and with constant nudity leaving the bitter taste of fan-service in my mouth. Bland and flat dialogue is uninspired and offers no immersion into the world that Bender has attempted to build, and the shallow characterization of everyone inside the comic left me uninterested in the story.
The comic feels like it came from the sexpolitation movement within cinema in the 60’s. It doesn’t matter whether getting freaky or shooting a Devil’s Cross Gang member, the women are all presented as eye candy all the time, and not only is it unrealistic, old-fashioned and offensive, but it lowers the overall value of the comic, and hurts the verisimilitude of the comic’s world.
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