Any book that is solicited as being both “erotically-charged” and “controversial” is also, almost automatically, going to be problematic to review. This is especially true in today’s climate, where the multi-media representation of sexual agency -- particularly that belonging to women -- is often so hotly contested. Is 50 Shades of Grey an empowering tale of freedom through sexual submission, for example; or does it, as Matt Fraction once argued, “romanticize, fetishize, glamorize and normalize abusive relationships”? Similarly, is the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” about a woman railing against society’s pervasive belief that she should demure in sexual situations, or is it about festive date rape? Or are the above just shitty examples of their respective mediums? These questions are all well above my pay grade (except maybe for that last one), which is why, in reviewing The Discipline #1, I may have bitten off more than I can chew.
Written by Peter Milligan, with art from Leandro Fernandez, The Discipline #1 follows a 23-year-old former publisher named Melissa, who finds herself trapped in a toxic relationship with spiteful sister, Krystal, and persona-non-grata millionaire husband, Andrew. That is, until she meets a sexually forthright man named Orlando, who, over 22 pages, molests her in public; elicits bloody sexual imagery by taking her on a date to a fucking abattoir; and finally, trusses her up, naked and noncompliant, in some sort of transmogrifying sexual sacrifice, so that she will join his secretly-supernatural (or alien?) people (the titular Discipline) to fight against a satyr named The Stalker, who is apparently at war with his species, and whose spit is a mix of LSD and Rohypnol.
Ignoring for a moment what makes this book “erotically-charged” and indeed “controversial,” based solely on its strength of storytelling, The Discipline #1 is kind of a mess. Its structure feels poorly planned, jumping haphazardly through time without notifying the reader, apart from one random caption that reads “Earlier...”, which seems to have been chucked in as an afterthought. The pacing, too, seems poorly measured, as scenes shift jarringly through a relationship that feels more rushed than lustful.
Besides Melissa, whose frustrations are heavy-handed at best, there is very little explanation of character motivations or deeper explanations of core concepts, and it all feels confused. The Discipline people, for example, are a seemingly amphibious group whose culture emulates the Roman Empire, even though they speak in a language combining Latin and English. (Latinglish?) But otherwise we get no formative grasp of their purpose, other than that they seduce and recruit innocent women to battlefuck Greek devils. So, they’re a rival frat, I guess?
The end effect is a muddled narrative that is lazily conjured to frame a trite story about sexual conquest. That might be fine if it was in aid of saying something, or if any of these characters were anything more than the basest clichés: the weak-willed damsel in distress who secretly “wants it” (and wears, quite possibly, the most phallic earrings ever committed to print); the mysterious stranger whose sex will free you from the doldrums of domestic life; and of course, the dark savage who breaks into your house to overpower and rape you. But unfortunately, this was a traipse through ill-conceived and mismanaged tropes; a weak story pretending to be strong.
Speaking of strength, the most powerful part of the entire experience is Fernandez’s art, which, while sparse and nondescript at times, shows a much more deft grasp of storytelling. Saying that, while I enjoy how truly dynamic his panelling can be, as well as the kinetic flurry of his figure work, his creature designs are pretty bland. And while his facial acting can be expressive, it’s also very, very samey. Orlando, for example, mostly just scowls and/or broods at things, while Melissa’s mouth is agape in every panel, presumably to drive home the fact that she is aghast at and/or in-awe of the things happening to her.
That, of course, brings me back to the problematic nature at the heart of The Discipline #1: things only happen TO Melissa, and she is given very little agency of her own throughout the story. On the other hand, she is turned on by Orlando’s molestation machinations, and does entertain satyr rape fantasies (even if they are brought to bear, so to speak, against her will); but then again, she is just a character, in this case written by a man, and let’s just say it isn’t doing much for gender relations in 2016.
Are there women out there who will identify with the Melissa template? Absolutely. Is it “okay” for folks like Milligan to write them? That I don’t know, and not being part of the female or BDSM community, it’s not really my hill to die on. I will however say that this seems like a poor, possibly even offensive attempt at its representation (at least to an outsider like me). What really pushed me over the edge was the previously mentioned scene in the slaughterhouse, the imagery during which seems excessive at best, which I write not yet knowing where the story will lead.
Unfortunately, that isn’t enough to keep me on-board with The Discipline. I’m not dropping it necessarily out of protest, but because it does not do well the thing it’s trying to do, relying too heavily on the manufactured hype of reputation that precedes it. Satisfy your own curiosity in reading it if you must, but don’t expect the satisfying sexual experience you may be promised.
The Discipline #1 Writer: Peter Milligan Artist: Leandro Fernandez Publisher: Image Comics Price: $2.99 Release Date: 3/2/16 Format: Mini-Series; Print/Digital