Death, dicks and dismemberment. Racial appropriation. Gender commodification. Drug and alcohol addiction. Animal cruelty. Rape. Naziism. And gun repair. With thumb firmly planted in nose and crotch thoroughly chopped, Spears, Callahan and Anderson’s Oni Press joint, The Auteur, has, with reckless (but not feckless) aplomb (and shockingly no pushback), jabbed every conceivable hot-button trigger issue our modern polite society seems so outwardly consumed with protecting. Or so we thought... Little did we know, however, that in the third issue of its second series, The Auteur’s creative team would address the reigning champion with which the western zeitgeist is currently grappling: transgender representation. The question is, does it do it well? Speaking as a white cisgender straight American male, I’m not really at liberty to approach - let alone answer - that question; not with any true authority, anyway. But in what I imagine to be the quiet words of The Auteur’s resident serial killer consultant/bodyguard... I’ll take a stab at it.
To set the scene, this issue follows Hollywood lout, Nathan T. Rex, as he tries to conserve what little professional dignity he clings to by protecting the integrity of his latest film -- a nazi exploitation snuff action porn -- from the vicar of his recently-murdered, rape-obsessed producers (herself, a tyrannical teutonic bombshell), who wants it to be that most hated of contemporary sub-genres: a zombie flick. But as much as The Auteur: Sister Bambi #3 continues Rex’s further spiral into infamy and tumultuous attempts to woo his muse, the buxom Coconut, this issue really charts his attempt to make the film into something special, something different, something... transcendent.
Spears and Callahan set this up in the very first few pages, with a genuinely interesting, albeit brief lesson on the history of sex in film, focusing especially on how early-to-mid 20th century filmmakers would circumnavigate censorship by portraying sex in movies as a literally clinical affair; masquerading bumping-uglies-and-swapping-gravy as sexual education. This scene is narrated by a cross-dressing Rex. Just FYI.
What follows later in the issue is what Rex perceives to be a way to freshen up his movie: instead of using the ubiquitous zombie plot device, he means to use the ubiquitous talking point of transgender representation, by filming the sexual reassignment surgery of one of his varied hangers-on, the apparently ex-prostitute, transgender woman, Candy Apples. Her boyfriend, however, has other ideas, and steps in to argue the case against the scene, calling it a blatant and tasteless cash-grab. The ensuing argument creates the real fulcrum around which the issue is built, and will no doubt be discussed endlessly on the blogosphere (unless The Auteur’s teflon reputation holds).
The immediate difference between this issue and something like Airboy #2, which recently attracted a fair amount of indignant online ballyhoo, is that this discussion was handled with perhaps a bit more decorum. I write that knowing full-well that one side of said discussion is voiced by a mind-sucking Frankensteinian dick-puppet.
While maintaining a character that represents, to some degree or another, the pure scum of humanity, Spears writes the back-and-forth dialogue on the merits of including transgender representation by giving both sides of the argument ample voice. And while the more culturally-progressive side comes out on top, he doesn’t shy away from allowing the bad guy his say (not to mention a few well-timed, humorous jibes). In so doing, the team here does a great job of once again commenting on, and lampooning, our social sensitivities, while making a salient point: that the media has and always will prey and capitalize upon our most precious issues, and that this will always vex us to no end.
At the same time, there’s a lot of meta-commentary going on here, as the comic book takes its own Adaptation-esque turn by tumbling into the zombie farce Rex desperately doesn’t want his film to become. The Auteur will also almost assuredly garner wider media attention (be it praise or outcry, depending on the way the wind is blowing across Twitter today) for at least attempting to deal with issues faced by the trans community. It also follows a touching scene showcasing non-binary lovers with a stereotypical black voodoo priest cutting the head off of a monkey in a perhaps metaphorical castration. So take that for what it’s worth. The point is, this book may be benefitting from the thing Rex is trying to attempt, and that which his assistant rails against - sensationalization - just as much as it’s speaking out against it. And that is, I think, kind of the point.
For my part, I enjoyed the dialogue Spears sets up here, and the discussion (should anyone be brave enough in taking part in it) that he invites. Again speaking as a straight white guy, I think he’s done a great job of being both respectful to the issue and irreverent at the same time, no doubt learning from the bumps in the road paved by those that came before him.
James Callahan, meanwhile, has just as much to do with what makes The Auteur: Sister Bambi #3 work as Rick Spears, and I could watch him decant his brand of visual surrealism all goddamn day. Whether he’s rendering gory 3D drive-in birthing porn, making once-billowing parachutes look like increasingly flaccid penises, or showing an honestly tender moment between a man, the woman he loves, and the identities they fight to protect (in an interesting and complex role-reversal against societal norms), he proves himself here to be a stylistic genius.
Many readers may disagree with this assessment, noting the wavering quality of his work throughout the issue, but the way it’s done - with such committed intent to illustrate his characters’ unique emotive range - makes his style in this story all the more arresting. It also doesn’t hurt that he can switch on the incredibly detailed art when he needs to, again proving his scope as an artist.
Much of his faltering approach, of course, is relegated to Rex’s characterization, often regressing from a fully-realized figure in the same style as those around him, to what is essentially a childlike sketch or cartoon; shrinking him appropriately to show just how over-his-head or indeed out of his skin he has become. I’ve compared Callahan’s work to Ren & Stimpy before - shifting, as it does, between grotesque realism and cartoonish absurdity - and I think The Auteur continues to benefit from that visual disparity. Just like no other book reads like this, certainly none look like it, either.
Luigi Anderson’s colors do an impressive job of flavoring Callahan’s direction further, washing everything fairly simply most of the time, but like the artist, not without his share of detailed deftness. Altogether, in a way that is very much like live-filming an intensely personal elective surgery, the visual choices in this book make it an intimate, sometimes uncomfortable, but terribly unique and gripping experience.
SAYING ALL OF THAT! I don’t think this ranks as high against the other incredible issues of this series, and it may rely a bit too heavily on the way it frames its loaded argument. But while it’s not quite up to snuff with the issues that have preceded it, that still makes it better and more worthwhile than about 98% of all other comics out there. And that’s saying something.
Get it, read it, and go yell about it on Twitter.