review by Matthew Zantingh
Recently, a friend of mine at a conference made a statement that post-apocalyptic films are a failure of the imagination, often being cheap translations of the contemporary moment’s anxieties into a future period where some protagonist eventually survives due to chutzpah or some other individualistic trait. They fail to provide any way for those watching the film in the present to address what are often legitimate concerns – overpopulation, disease, racism, etc. – and instead posit the only way out as a total failure of the system, a failure which often hinges on the continuance of some of the same traits in the present moment (think of the importance of canned food and Coke in the 2009 film adaptation of The Road). While I don’t entirely agree with my friend’s comment, it is hard to dispute it when discussing films like the 1976 Logan’s Run (which I quote only because I recently watched it), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009), and other examples. These movies are often critically panned, yet they do a brisk business at the box office which suggests to me that they fulfill some deeper cultural need for those viewers.*
I’m going to take my friend’s comment, which I admit was qualified and not a blanket dismissal of the genre, up and question the workings of the genre in a recent contemporary post-apocalyptic graphic novel: Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth. This series is now into 29th issue due for release sometime in 2012 just as the 4th collected paperback is also scheduled for release (January 31st to be precise) in the new year. Jeff Lemire is a rising star in graphic novels, and one close to my heart, as his Essex County takes up small-town Ontario as a subject worthy of not just one but a series of graphic novels. Personal remarks aside, there is clearly a market for this series as it has been nominated for both Eisner and Harvey Awards in its relatively short life-span as well as maintaining strong enough sales to warrant its continuation by Vertigo. I’m only going to discuss the first collected paperback, Out of the Deep Woods, for the sake of brevity, even though I’ve read the other two. In discussing the genre and this work, I will give away some of the plot but I’ll try my best not to give away any of the later developments even though the second and third collections begin to develop interesting ideas and take the series in what I think is a better direction.
Some plot basics: the series is set in the United States after a devastating viral outbreak which causes the mass extinction of most humans. However, Lemire has given it a twist in that the virus has not only killed most humans but has also caused any new children born to be hybrid animal/human beings who are seemingly immune to the plague. As a result, these animal/humans are highly sought after by roving gangs of men and weird tribal cultists who worship them. The main character Gus, or Sweet Tooth as he is later named by Jeppard, is a young boy with deer antlers and pointed deer ears.
He is recognizably human, unlike some of the others in the later collections, and comes across as a naive and bumbling boy schooled in the the art of survival by his father but also taught a fundamentalist Christian worldview. The collection begins in the woods where he and his father have been hiding for a number of years but follows Gus as he leaves this wilderness with Jeppard after his father’s death. Jeppard is a hulking, ambivalent hunter who rescues Gus initially from some redneck hunters before promising to take Gus to a preserve especially for the animal/human children. Already you can see some of the defining traits of the post-apocalyptic genre at work here: a devastating crisis which destroys our current consumer/capitalist state, a reduction of humanity to violence and cruelty as their defining traits, guns as the primary form of law in this new world order, a journey undertaken by the main characters in hopes of a better future, and the absence of any real strong female characters.
Perhaps it is in the last post-apocalyptic staple that my friend’s comment bears the most truth on the genre. Most of the post-apocalyptic films, novels, and comics that I have read feature strong male protagonists and characters but almost never have strong female leads.** Recall The Road where the mother wanders off into the unknown rather than face the brutal future; the classic 1979 Mad Max where Mel Gibson fulfills a vendetta against Toecutter’s motorcycle gang after they murder his wife and child; Logan’s Run where Jenny Agutter, or Jessica 6, is basically arm-candy for Richard Jordan; or the 2009 film Carriers in which any significant decision made by a group of four adults comes from one of the two men. The genre in itself seems to create this problem: if you create a future where the current system has failed entirely and the worst has happened or is happening, then humanity will resort back to its more primal/basic instincts. In this scenario, the rule of violence and power comes to the fore, therefore men become the most powerful figures and women become property which is traded between or fought over by men. These scenarios seem to be a failure of imagination for two reasons: one that women, in the event of an apocalypse, will inevitably become weepy, weak, and submissive; and two, that there aren’t women who couldn’t do exactly what most of the men do which is find weapons, food, and survive by their instincts. Now I know plenty of women who stand a far better chance of surviving an apocalypse than I do. Some are biologists while others are athletes, far better suited to the rugged climate that features in almost every post-apocalyptic narrative while almost any woman from any military anywhere would certainly have better odds of survival than I would as an academic whose body is slowly melting away as a result of too much sitting around and reading.
Returning to Lemire’s series, Gus’s mother is missing from the beginning, glimpsed only as a wooden cross on a grave outside the cabin in the first few pages. The only live women who show up in the first collection happen to be prostitutes pimped out by a disgruntled married couple who are not averse to domestic violence in order to put them in their place. To be fair, Lemire doesn’t just leave them here, but frees them by having Gus guilt Jeppard into stepping in on the affair.
In writing this, I’m hearing Joe over my shoulder reminding me of the comics audience: an audience which happens to be primarily male. This may serve as a general explanation of why there are so few female characters in this series, but it doesn’t really address the general lack of strong female characters in the genre more broadly. Does this then suggest that the genre is primarily a male one? That it is disgruntled men who are viewing, purchasing, and producing post-apocalyptic narratives? Unfortunately I have no answer for this question as statistics showing the gender of film goers and comic purchasers are not readily available (if they exist at all). This, then, remains a key tension in the genre itself: how do post-apocalyptic genres configure gender relations, and can these narratives produce non-patriarchal power structures?
A second issue within Out of the Deep Woods that I would like to take up is the issue of nature and the natural world. This is an area close to my heart as my dissertation focuses on the role of nature in literature and how the way we talk about the natural world in cultural texts shapes our relationship to this external world. In post-apocalyptic texts, there is often a pervasive sentiment of anti-urban, misanthropic wilderness worship. I apologize for the clunky handle, but I can’t seem to put it in a more lucid phrasing. Basically it runs something like this: there is a crisis, the protagonists need to escape the city (because this is where lots of survivors are and they are competition for resources) into the wilderness in order to survive. At the heart is weird form of a masculine individualist ethos: get into the wilderness, survive by your wits and strength, and above all, avoid other human beings. My problem with this framework is that it suggests that wilderness will somehow save us all despite the fact that there may be some very compelling reasons it is wilderness in the first place (think of the Canadian tundra: it is wild because not a lot grows there and survival there today is touch and go at best ). The other, perhaps larger problem that I see is that it suggests that at a fundamental level humans cannot co-operate with each other in any sustainable way. This naturalizes consumerism’s inherent individualism and a weird form of social Darwinism common in capitalist thought where the brightest and strongest individuals survive.
Now I’m not completely convinced this is the case, I tend to see these concepts as cultural constructions rather than absolute facts (even though my rather limited knowledge of world history seems to suggest otherwise).
Returning from my digression to Out of the Deep Woods, Lemire’s text has a special place for the wilderness as the story starts here and some of the book’s best panels come in this section.
Such panels suggest that this is the kind of landscape best suited for survival, imparting it supreme value in a post-apocalyptic state. However, the problem becomes that such landscapes are pristine precisely for their lack of human inhabitants. The subtle suggestion running underneath this is that humans don’t belong in nature. That nature is best off when humans leave it alone, a theme that returns in the second and third volumes.
Returning to my opening anecdote and friend’s comment, while I see some flaws in Out of the Deep Woods, these seem to be genre or convention flaws rather than a failed artistic vision on Lemire’s part. This doesn’t let him totally off the hook for the way women are treated, but it does allow his other strengths to shine. I particularly like his innovative use of panels throughout the comic; he is not afraid to play with panel size and placement in a way that pushes the graphic medium further.
He does not do it so much as to be distracting but chooses his points carefully. In such experimentation, I think Lemire shows that post-apocalyptic texts can be very imaginative and engaging. Moreover, I think that the way plays with the animal/human divide in not only its very premise but in the action of the narrative suggests an intelligent and compelling engagement with questions of what it means to be human and what it means to be non-human. Gus, despite his hybridity, continues to prove himself more human than Jeppard in this volume suggesting that Lemire himself may not be so uncritical of the violence he uses. Gus becomes the centre of Lemire’s social critique in the series, even though his naivete leads him into several tight spots. Gus suggests different possible ways of being in dire circumstances, a warning that is applicable to our own time amidst warnings of environmental collapse, economic meltdown, and other such cataclysms. Perhaps a return to wonder, compassion, and curiosity is our only way forward.
In closing, I politely disagree with my friend’s comment. Instead I would suggest that post-apocalyptic narratives can be fully developed and engaging imaginative exercises that offer a unique avenue of critique for our contemporary society. This is not to say that this is always the outcome of post-apocalyptic narratives. In fact, most post-apocalyptic narratives seem to contradict such statements. But as the old saying goes, don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.
* The Day After Tomorrow collected $186 million at the box office and received an average rating of 5.3/10; The Road didn’t make much in the 2009 year at only $8 million (although this may be because the film was released in November) but did slightly better in ratings with a 6.9/10 ; 2012 made $166 million at the box office while receiving an average rating of 5/10. All totals are from boxofficemojo.com and reflect American gross totals (not international releases) while the ratings come from Rotten Tomatoes rating aggregator.
** One exception is Brian K. Vaughan’s Y:The Last Man which despite its male protagonist boasts a primarily female cast although one could take issue with the entire premise of the series which seems to read like a male sexual fantasy even if the series doesn’t really devolve to this level. A second exception is the 1985 Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome which stars Tina Turner as Aunty who controls Bartertown through an uneasy truce with Master Blaster. However, she is the villain of this movie even though she begrudgingly allows Gibson to live after earning her respect.