Female Furies: feminism vs fascism

I recently had the opportunity to pick up the trade paperback collection of the six issue Female Furies miniseries DC Comics published in 2019. Cecil Castellucci’s story re-imagines Jack Kirby’s New Gods characters from a feminist perspective, and reads very much as a response to the Trump administration. Sadly the main aspects of Castellucci’s story are still all-too-relevant, as the blatant sexism & misogyny that Trump helped to once again make socially acceptable still linger on strongly in conservative circles, and the GOP continues its war on women’s rights.

I had never considered Darkseid and his dystopian hellhole of a planet Apokolips to be suffused with toxic masculinity. Nevertheless, the “Fourth World” stories written & drawn by Kirby were highly political, with Richard Nixon serving as one of the main inspirations for the arch-villain Darkseid, a character who was the literal embodiment of fascism, and one of his lieutenants, the propagandist Glorious Godfrey, being directly based on evangelist Billy Graham.

And, whether he specifically intended it or not, when Kirby introduced Big Barda in Mister Miracle #4 (cover date Sept 1971) he was making an advancement in the depiction of women in American superhero comic books. There had certainly been strong, powerful women in comics before, most notably Wonder Woman. Big Barda, however, was among the first occasions when a male superhero’s love interest was shown to be an equal partner, as well as his physical superior. There really had not been a relationship like Scott Free & Big Barda in superhero comics up to that point. And to then reveal there were numerous other powerful women on Apokolips who were Barda’s peers… that was certainly highly unconventional for the early 1970s.

Whatever the case, I think it speaks to the strength & flexibility of the characters & stories that Kirby created fifty years ago that Castellucci can so effectively utilize them to craft a feminist parable that is relevant to 21st century American society.

I would prefer not to describe the plot of Female Furies in detail, as I highly recommend picking up the collected edition, and I do not want to spoil the specifics. In short, the miniseries depicts how Barda and the other Female Furies struggle to gain acceptance by Darkseid and his male lieutenants, all of whom believe women to be naturally inferior to man. The Furies are subjected to discrimination & sexual harassment by the patriarchy of Apokolips in their struggle for equality.

An interesting aspect of the story is how Castellucci demonstrates that a patriarchy often turns women against one another, making them their own worst enemies. When their teammate Aurelie is selected for “special training” with Darkseid’s lieutenant Willik, the other Furies assume that Auralie is sleeping her way to the top. In actuality Willik wants to “train” Auralie so that he can get her alone with him to force her to have sex with him. When Auralie attempts to explain to her sisters what is happening, they accuse her of lying.

The brutal drill sergeant Granny Goodness, the Furies matron, is shown to be politically ambitious, craving to hold the same high rank as Darkseid’s other, male lieutenants. She will do anything to achieve this, including throw her charges to the wolves. When the Furies protest against their treatment by the men of Apokolips, Goodness basically tells them to grin & bear it. She pushes them to succeed in the field so that their successes will reflect well on her, enabling her to amass personal power.

In the end, Barda realizes that the women of Apokolips must work together if they are ever to overcome their oppression:

“Apart? We are held back from our true potential. United? We’re unstoppable.”

I do think the one area where Castellucci’s message falls short is with Heggra, the former Queen of Apokolips, and Darkseid’s mother. Heggra is one of those people who, regardless of gender, comes across at thoroughly rotten & irredeemable. Heggra was the one who ordered the murder of her son’s first wife, the sorceress Suli, solely because Heggra disapproved of their marriage and believed that Suli would make Darkseid too weak and empathetic. If Darkseid is a monster, then it is at least partially due to the machinations of his mother. When the emotionally hardened Darkseid later orders his own mother’s murder, it is difficult not to feel that Heggra has reaped what she has sewn.

I did appreciate that Castellucci gave Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People a central role in the story. Beautiful Dreamer is a character who seldom receives any sort of spotlight or development. I liked how Castellucci showed Dreamer’s telepathic, hallucinogenic powers as playing a part in opening the Furies’ minds, and her faith & kindness demonstrates to them that there is another path for them to walk aside from the cold, totalitarian one of Apokolips.

Castellucci also presents an interesting characterization of Darkseid. Eschewing the terrifying cosmic menace that too many later writers have advanced, Castellucci returns to Kirby’s original conception of the lord of Apokolips. At heart, for all his incredible power, Darkseid is a coward, a miserable & unhappy being, and it is his own fears & insecurities that drive him to try to control & manipulate others.

At times Castellucci’s writing is bluntly unsubtle and her dialogue idiosyncratic. Perhaps on another project this might have been a defect. But the original Kirby stories were frequently operatic and allegorical, his scripting containing a particularly offbeat cadence. So Castellucci’s work here feels rather akin to Kirby’s own.  Perhaps the plot of Female Furies does not hold together as strongly as it could, at time meandering, but it is nevertheless a very passionate story in delivering its message.

The artwork on Female Furies is by Adriana Melo. She is a very talented illustrator & storyteller. Her previous work includes Star Wars, Birds of Prey, Ms. Marvel and Doctor Who. I’ve always appreciated how Melo has rendered female characters. She draws them as beautiful & sexy without ever making them exploitative. As I have observed before, I feel that women often excel at drawing female characters, because they understand the anatomy from firsthand experience, and know how women should stand and move. Melo’s work on this miniseries is very expressive, emotional and dynamic.

I also imagine it is no accident that Willik, a character originally introduced by Kirby, is redesigned in this minsieries by Melo to have a more-than-passing resemblance to the Disgraced Former Occupant.

The lettering is by Sal Cipriano & Carlos M. Manhual, and the coloring by Hi-Fi. The extremely striking cover artwork to the collected edition, originally used for issue #6 of the miniseries, is by line artist Joelle Jones & colorist Laura Allred.

The trade paperback also reprints Mister Miracle #9 (August 1972) by Jack Kirby & Mike Royer. It’s one of Kirby’s strongest Mister Miracle stories, as well as one of the main inspiration for the Female Furies miniseries by Castellucci & Melo. Half a century later Kirby’s work still holds up absolutely, demonstrating what a brilliant & groundbreaking creator he truly was.

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