Ah, Chaos! Comics (the exclamation point is mandatory), you couldn’t go through the racks of a comic shop in the ’90s without running into them, even though their comics were the most blatant celebration of ultraviolence and big boobs imaginable. Of course, if you’ve been following this blog, you should know that I have a nostalgia for them that, like with many things, pushes the boundaries of ironic. Basically Chaos! is exactly what would happen if your high school Magic the Gathering partners who were death metal fans got their own comics company, and you can’t tell me there isn’t something downright magical about that. And you don’t get more magical than a character like Lady Death.
The embodiment of writer Brian Pulido’s fetishes and less than orthodox ideas about female empowerment, Lady Death epitomized, if not largely kicked off, the “Bad Girl” craze of the ’90s. A generously endowed woman who slaughtered her enemies and even those who just mildly irritated her, Lady Death was almost designed to be the patron saint of “sex n’ violence.” Her origin story, which had her burned alive by medieval villagers who held her responsible for the crimes of her Satanist father and which saw her eventually lead a coup against Satan himself, didn’t end with her becoming a hero pledged to defend the helpless. Instead, cursed to remain in Hell as long as one person remains alive, she expedited the process herself by setting out to wipe out the human race. When we’re first introduced to her, she’s doing so by seducing a telepathic child abuse victim in his dreams, goading him into becoming a serial killer, and manipulating a high-tech attempt to mentally cure him in order to turn him undead and thus initiate a zombie apocalypse. Really, in her first appearances Lady Death made Doctor Doom look bush league.
At first only appearing as a deus ex apocalypse and a fetish fuel attendant in the Evil Ernie comics, Lady Death ultimately got her own stories and became Chaos!’s most popular flagship character. Her stories tended to be over-the-top dark fantasy, a weird combo of Heavy Metal and vintage Thor comics, especially once it was “revealed” that not only was her father a demonic sorcerer, but through her dead angelic mother she was related to Valkyries. For the most part, she spent time ending up in vaguely defined faux-medieval settings, fighting evil scantily clad women who made her the protagonist by default. Especially in the early days, Lady Death did have a harder edge than most of the “Bad Girl” characters out there, but beyond that there wasn’t all that much that made her stand out from other big-chested, bad-ass female warriors taken right out of somebody’s experimental Dungeons & Dragons campaign.
Despite the (justified) complaints of characters like Lady Death being used just to tantalize an ever shrinking pool of male readers, Lady Death had a sizable female following. According to Mike Sterling of Progressive Ruin fame, “I would say a good half of our regular Lady Death customers during the character’s peak were women.” Back in the ’90s, Gail Simone noted, “At the store I shop at, I’m told Lady Death is very popular with female readers. It’s a bit scary, but that’s probably a good sign. Somehow.”
Gail Simone probably wasn’t the only one reticent about the fact. So, why was Lady Death so popular among women? Let’s ask an actual woman who reads comics, Lauren Martella:
“I read a fair amount [of Lady Death], I’m sure at least three trades worth- I think one could lump Witchblade and a bunch of Image babes in this category. But Lady Death is a cut above- I think it has to do with the fact that in our age group, many of us were living in a post-Watchman/Frank Miller world were sexuality was present in comics, but often it means a complicated or even subjugated history for women that usually meant they were sexual, but free of real agency. Hookers or rape and whatnot. And then there’s characterizations that basically bench ladies: being a love interest or the dreaded side effect of Claremont writing: crisis of self confidence i.e. whining for five pages about being a superhero instead of punching everything. The latter is perfectly fine in the right doses and in context for both genders, but there’s only so many kick ass ladies to go around.
Lady Death was all boobs killing things. And a goddess. And it was terribly written. It just didn’t give a fuck. It was melodramatic in a guilty pleasure type of way, but violent in a fashion that I don’t think we quite appreciate women really enjoying. Sometimes a lady wants to imagine she has Triple D Boobs, can pull off a string bikini and a broadsword and will kill everybody who stands in her way. In an odd way I think it relates to porn enjoyment: they say women prefer erotica and men prefer visual (porn films/images of whatever you like naked, you know the deal). I think it bears out – I’ve talked to dudes who outright dismiss erotica as having as much of an effect as straight up porn, but that dismisses another level beyond the visual that is stimulative to the experience. In relation to Lady Death: you can look at the book and think this is a crap comic with a chick in possession of huge bazongas killing stuff, but it misses levels of enjoyment that women are capable of extracting from them and the power of escapism even in forms so tacky.”
Lauren sums it up nicely, especially by pointing out that Lady Death’s character arcs don’t revolve around a guy. Changing times really have toughened up characters like Lois Lane and Sue Storm, but no matter how independent writers depict them as they still can’t quite shake the fact that they were created (and continue to be used) as foils and romantic interests for male characters. While Lady Death does have a romance with super-zombie Evil Ernie (who, I’m sure coincidentally, resembles Brian Pulido), she definitely does have her own adventures, her own cast, and her own corner of her fictional universe.
It’s also useful to compare Lady Death to another female pop culture icon from the ’90s, Xena the Warrior Princess. Although just the title “Lady Death” does have more cache than “Warrior Princess,” they’re both prime examples of female characters who are sexual but are also assertive and powerful in multiple ways. In other words, being sexual in a feminine way doesn’t contradict being able to kick ass. This is something that’s more rare, particularly in comics, than you might think; look at Wonder Woman and the various (arguably unsuccessful) attempts to make romance and sex more of a part of her character. It’s not a perfect parallel; let’s just say that compared to Xena Lady Death’s sexuality is, um, overstated. But still it is refreshing to have a violent and domineering female character whose sexuality isn’t muted or whose traditionally “feminine” qualities aren’t set up to balance out her cynicism or capacity for mayhem. At the very least, Lady Death helpfully reminds us that it’s not helpful or wise to tell entire groups what they should or shouldn’t be offended by.