Sunday, October 28, 2012

Judge Dredd Vs. Aliens: Incubus

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 2003 and Progs 1322-1335)

We've got a special guest this week: the extraordinary Laura Hudson, former editor of Comics Alliance, current contributor to the L.A. Times, and star of every karaoke joint she's ever walked into. Before she leaves Portland for her awesome new gig, she agreed to talk about Judge Dredd Vs. Aliens: Incubus. We counterbalance each other's cultural gaps: Laura hasn't read much Dredd before, and I've managed, somehow, to never watch any of the Alien movies, but she's seen them all--and rewatched them all this past summer. Take it away, Laura!

LAURA: There's a nice bit of visual mimicry on the first page of Incubus where we see the power towers extracting energy, structures that just so happen to look an awful lot like Xenomorph mouths, frozen in that iconic moment of toothy, gaping glory, especially when you juxtapose them with the cover.

DOUGLAS: That's a great observation about the Xenomorph-ish power towers. (And beyond that, nearly every single image in the story seems to have teeth... and that shot of Harry Dean Stanton Block on the next-to-last page is very Xenomorphy too.) Henry Flint is absolutely on fire here. He'd drawn most of the best-looking parts of "The Hunting Party" five or six years earlier, but had mostly just done one- and two-part Dredd stories since then; this one, I think, is what cemented him as a first-rank artist for this series. (He's done some fantastic stuff on other 2000 AD series too--I think Zombo might be my favorite of all.) I particularly love the sequence with the alien plunging downward over four skinny vertical panels, then smashing a giant hole into the Undercity.

A couple of things I'd like to point out about Incubus as a whole before we get into specifics: As with the earlier Dredd/Batman crossovers, it's not just in continuity with the rest of the series but integrally in continuity. The Mr. Bones subplot resolves threads from "Out of the Undercity," which had run a few months earlier; the robots who show up at the end are, I believe, the last few survivors of the Mechanismo storyline from the mid-'90s (and I don't think we've seen Mechanismos since). Also, Sanchez, who's introduced here, later shows up again in "Origins."

There are a couple of bits of the story that are slightly recycled, on the other hand. Sanchez's arc--in which she doesn't know if she's cut out for the force, but then she does OK in a tight spot, and Dredd eventually approves of her--is pretty much the same role Judge Castillo had played in "Wilderlands." Castillo had been killed off in "Lawcon" in 2001, though, so perhaps it was time to start that cycle again. And, of course, there had been an Alien homage in Dredd in 1983, "The Starborn Thing," complete with a climax in which it impregnates Dredd. (M-preg ahoy!)

The story's co-written by John Wagner and Andy Diggle--at the time, it had been a good 15 years since Wagner had written collaboratively on a regular basis with anyone, I think, and I don't know if Diggle's ever done much other collaborative writing. I like the result; this has one remarkably complicated plot for what's essentially a chase-and-fight premise, and it's got a lot of sharp character moments.

LAURA: In that opening scene, where Dredd gets called in to disperse a demonstration against the power tower by the Earth Mothers, the Judges' "dispersal" tactics are pretty brutal. It's a bit funny to me that my immediate thought was "fascism," while my second thought was, "hey, is this really that different from many of the police responses to the Occupy movement?"

DOUGLAS: Yeah, the brutal tactics and fascist overtones are very deliberate; the scene where the Mechanismos are announcing "You creeps are breaking the law!... You've brought this on yourselves!" while blasting the bugs is pretty funny. One of the things I enjoy about Dredd as a series is that it's always messing with the reader's sympathies--whenever you find yourself admiring the Judges, it reminds you that they're actually kind of awful, and vice versa.

So here's a question for you: One thing that this story has to do as a crossover is introduce the premises of both of the series that go into it, as well as serve (and not talk down to) the readers familiar with one or both of them. This one's pretty good at presenting the Judges' milieu within the first few pages, I think. I also appreciate how it switches off between calling back to familiar aspects of the world and introducing new ones; I'm pretty sure the Verminators have never been seen before (or since).

But I don't know how it does in terms of presenting the Aliens world; is there more to the Xenomorphs than attack-kill-reproduce? To put it differently: how does "Incubus" act as an Aliens story--which of the Aliens tropes does it follow, which does it tweak, which does it miss? And how does it fit in with the movies thematically? I gather that the scene in the maternity ward, and Bones' "It's me--d-daddy!," have some resonances with the movies, but I couldn't tell you more than that.

LAURA: The more you deconstruct the Alien franchise in terms of its themes, the more you start to realize what a startling change it represents from the usual horror movie approach to gender. Rather than portraying women as helpless, scantily-clad victims who get penetrated by the knives of male attackers – with the obvious rape analogies that implies – females take center stage in Alien not as objects or victims but as agents that drive the action, while feminine themes like pregnancy and birth infuse both the heroism and the violence of its characters.

Which is to say: instead of a horror movie that is metaphorically based on male sexuality being inflicted on women (i.e. most horror movies), Alien is a film about female sexuality inflicted on men. This turnabout isn't totally equivalent to the way women are treated in horror movies – the men aren't sexualized per se – but it's still a really fascinating and refreshingly different take on the genre.

Horror movies typically link female sexuality with violence in a way that is intended to excite the audience or punishes women for being sexual, but in Alien female sexuality becomes something powerful, something that creates power and inspires fear rather than being exploited for titillation. The most iconic and terrifying image of the franchise is that of an alien fetus bursting from the body of a writhing, impregnated man.

Dan O'Bannon, the writer of the original Alien film, even called the movie “payback,” and spoke very frankly about how the movie was intended to play on male fears and superstitions about penetration, rape, pregnancy, and birth:

“One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex... I said 'That's how I'm going to attack the audience; I'm going to attack them sexually. And I'm not going to go after the women in the audience, I'm going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.”

Pro-choice advocates often like to imagine how differently abortion would be treated if men could get pregnant, and Alien is that very truism realized in the form of a horror movie. In a certain way, Alien is a a fuck you not just to to the horror movies that portray women as supersexy knife pincushions for angry men, but to the Todd Akins of the world who treat women and their bodies as, well, something alien.

One of the biggest departures from canon in Judge Dredd vs. Aliens is necessitated simply by the fact that Judge Dredd is a guy, which means that we've got a male protagonist rather than a female one, and the implications of that are even bigger than you might think. The most significant female figure in the book is Sanchez, a newly graduated female Judge that Dredd takes under his wing, although she's a figure of inexperience and self-doubt, and far more of a sidekick than a central character. The absence of a female lead negates so much of what the Alien movies are about, and while it's possible that the comic could find some interesting terrain to explore here with a testostorone-fueled character like Dredd -- well, it just doesn't.

After Dredd and company head back to the hospital to deal with the Xenomorph on the loose there, we get our first hint that we're going to be name-checking the birth themes of Alien in really ridiculous ways when the judges chase down a hallway marked “OB/GYN MATERNITY” and find a Xenomorph menacing a baby. Seriously: the comic just throws in a baby and has an alien loom over it with giant teeth.

Relationships between mothers and children played a big role in the movie sequel Aliens, particularly after Ripley learned that her real daughter died of old age while she was in cryosleep, and when she later took on a motherly role towards an orphan girl named Newt who of course was kidnapped by the aliens. This scene in Dredd may be going for something similar, but since Dredd has absolutely no relationship to the baby, it all just comes across as a rote “children in danger” cliché. In the Alien movies, the point wasn't simply that a child was being threatened; it was about the maternal instinct those threats awoke in Ripley, and similarly in the Alien Queen when her eggs were threatened. This, on the other hand, is just a random fucking baby.

The comic also subverts the most basic metaphor of the movies with its very subtitle: Incubus. It's the nickname given to the Xenomorphs by the people of Dredd's city, and it's based on a mythological demon that took male form and was said to rape and impregnate women in their sleep. Listen: the entire point of Alien was male terror of sexual violation and the transformation of pregnancy from something female to something male. By reframing the aliens in the context of an incubus, the comic takes the rape, violation and pregnancy represented by the Xenomorphs out of the uncomfortable realm of men and places them back in the default realm of women, fundamentally undermining the entire concept.

It's interesting; while I was reading about the Alien franchise, I came across a reference to “male rape,” and it got me thinking. While in a lot of contexts "male" is assumed to be normal or default while "female" is considered something irregular, when it comes to rape, it is too often considered inherently female and needs to be specially qualified as male. That's what the horror of the Alien movies is designed to address, and it's a little disappointing to see that crucial aspect of the films ignored and subverted in the comic in such shallow ways.

It all culminates in the most hamfisted and obvious dialogue ever when Sanchez and Dredd are both cocooned by aliens and implanted with embryos, and Dredd tells her (the primary female character in the book), “You're going to have a baby – only it's not going to be the human kind!” Thanks for 411, Dredd. I think it would have been a lot more interesting to see the comic deal with what it means for an ultra-masculine warrior like Dredd to be impregnated, especially since dealing with that tension is the motivating force for the horror in the franchise, but sure, let's just talk about how the lady judge is knocked up instead. And don't forget to tell her it's “too late for tears” afterwards!

The one hint we get about male paternity is the most superficial one possible, when the villainous Mr. Bones, who has been raising an army of Xenomorphs to unleash on the judges, refers to himself as their “daddy.” Of course this never gets developed beyond literally this one word, and Bones refers to the aliens earlier as nothing more than a “means to an end." Absent any sort of relationship or paternal tenderness, it's just a cheap throwaway line he shouts before he dies. The comic seems to want to play with the obvious tropes of the movie, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to understand them well enough to do anything besides make thematic check marks next to babies and stuff. Also, I truly wonder whether there was a conscious decision to realign the metaphors according to more traditional gender roles and thereby obliterate them, or whether it just happened by default because the writer didn't give it any thought.

Absent the compelling and iconoclastic themes of the films, the comic becomes just another space alien horrorshow, and not a particularly interesting one at that. When Dredd takes out the Queen and her eggs, it doesn't pack the same punch as when fellow mother-figure Ripley does it because there's no special thematic resonance; it's just another dude with a gun blowing up a monster.

In the end, when the teks surgically remove the embryos from both Dredd and Sanchez for scientific and/or bioterror applications – much as they did with Ripley in Alien: Resurrection – Dredd averts the entirety of that terrible, terrible movie by incinerating the offspring and saying a line that sums up the Judge Dredd vs. Aliens comic and its failings: “I'm not the motherly type.”

DOUGLAS: Whew! Fair enough--although I think there's a little more than reversion to stereotypes going on with the gender-role stuff than you argue there is (if not a lot). I imagine the difficulty of playing up the horror of an impregnated Dredd is that a) it would of necessity be another callback to "The Starborn Thing" (one of whose memorable moments is Dredd, dragged back to camp by his bike, gasping "I'm... going to have... a baby!"--see below) and b) it would mess with the running gag of his being the ultimate stoic ("I'm just not scratching").

But we do see Bones telling Dredd "you're hanging there for two now," Packer's "Come on, you alien freaks! Come to momma!" (and the gender dynamics of the Verminator team are at least a little outside-the-norm), Shook taking a pass on the mission because he's got a wife and kids, and--maybe best of all--Dredd announcing that they'd better get Sanchez back to HQ because she's been impregnated, to which Giant asks "You as well...?" "That's affirmative," Dredd snaps, and promptly changes the subject. Similarly, we do see Sanchez complaining "The thing inside me... I-I think I just felt it move!"--but earlier we saw Jimmy saying the same thing. The one thing that does make me roll my eyes is Sanchez having to shed her Judge uniform; I can see where it would make sense just for storytelling's sake not to have the two human characters dressed identically, but come on.

One other thing that might complicate some of what might seem to be possible angles for playing with pregnancy and parent-child stuff in this particular series: Judges are celibate, or rather supposed to be celibate. Although we do see Sanchez, about four years later (in "Origins"), saying "Not sure I agree with this whole monk thing anyway."

LAURA: Honestly, I think that everything you said only lends more weight to my criticisms. All of the parentally-themed exclamations you mention are just that: exclamations. The comic's approach to the themes of maternity/paternity don't go any deeper than Duke Nukem-style catch-phrases like "come to momma." Also, it's kinda hard to celebrate the gender diversity of the Verminator crew for including a woman after she gets fridged with alacrity in order to make her fellow Verminator boyfriend rageface at the Xenomorphs for the rest of the comic.

But I think my primary concern boils down to what you acknowledge as well: actually dealing with the notion of maternity and the male horror associated with both rape and pregnancy would "mess with the running gag of [Dredd] being the ultimate stoic." When you get down to it, Dredd is a really poor choice of character for a horror narrative in general, because being the ultimate badass means that he can't acknowledge fear, or viscerally experience horror in a way that connects with the audience.

The power of the aliens is derived significantly from the horror of emasculation -- of a man being treated as a woman, especially with regards to rape and impregnation -- and because the comic doesn't want to "debase" Ultimately Manly Man Dredd or take away his power, it can't really let that happen in a way that means something emotionally. So instead, it ends up gutting the most powerful and subversive female metaphor in horror films to protect his masculinity. Where the Alien movies laser-targeted male discomfort and used it to provoke horror, the comic itself actually becomes an expression of that male discomfort, and by avoiding rather than confronting those gendered fears, it turns the aliens into something far more banal and less frightening.


Thanks again to Laura! Next week: Debbie Chachra and I take on the first volume of Mega-City Undercover, featuring the earliest Low Life serials.