Comics

Why LGBT People (Should Have) Loved Purgatori

Since I’ve been running this blog for a while now, and since I’ve been (very slooooooooooowly but surely) experimenting with ways to add new multimedia angles to Trash Culture, I thought it would be fun and appropriate to revisit one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written:   “Why Did Women Love Lady Death?”

I keep coming back to Chaos! because…well, it actually always is a big nostalgia trip for me.  Believe it or not, flipping through my friend’s copy of Evil Ernie: Straight to Hell #3 or skimming over the latest issue of Chastity at the comic store really expanded my idea of what kind of stories the comics medium can tell.   Sure, like a good little comic book boy I mostly read from the Big Two, but there was something unpolished and deranged (and I mean that in the best possible way!) about Chaos! that fascinated me, even then.  Honestly, Chaos! really does embody the sort of works that I’m trying to analyze or poke fun at on this site, and the sort of appreciation I’m attempting to explain.  Seeing Lady Death just a few racks down from Superman actually did teach my young, naive self some interesting lessons that the medium could something other than black-and-white adventure tales.  Of course, you might say that I would have been better off inspired about the medium’s potential by something like Love and Rockets or Box Office Poison, but if that was the case then there would be a fairly good chance you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

Purgatori hasn’t fared as well as her eternal nemesis, Lady Death, after Chaos! was liquidated and its franchises auctioned off.  While Lady Death still as of this writing has her own series, Purgatori, as far as I can tell, has only been subjected to one revival attempt.  That was the ill-fated shot at a full-on Chaos! revival by Devil’s Due in 2005 and 2006, which was plotted and scripted by Robert Rodi of Loki and Codename: Knockout fame.  Why Purgatori didn’t carry over like Lady Death did is a question for the ages;  she certainly wasn’t the only Chaos! character to suffer that fate, despite there being more efforts to give Evil Ernie a decent post-Chaos! afterlife.   That’s kind of a shame, because frankly – and I write this without irony – Purgatori was one of the more interesting LGBT characters to come out of the ’90s.

Okay, okay, I know that simply by writing that sentence I caused a feminist blogger from Jezebel or DailyKos or whatever to reach for their keyboard in a rage without knowing why, but I mean it.  To get at my madness, I’m going to discuss Purgatori’s original origin story, as provided by our favorite creator and fetishist Brian Pulido, The Vampire’s Myth.

Now keep in mind I’m not defending it as some hidden, forgotten, progressive, feminist gem.  I’m not going to presume Pulido’s motives – maybe he made Purgatori a lesbian just to stoke (eeeew) his readers’ T&A fantasies, maybe he genuinely wanted to do something with a gay protagonist, maybe both (it is possible to want to do both, you know) – but Purgatori is definitely catering to what feminists call the “male gaze.”  I mean, check out this scene showing how Purgatori became a demon-vampire thing:

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The funny thing is that this really isn’t all that much more explicit than, say, an issue of “Green Lantern” or “X-Force.”

“You want your “male gaze”?  Chaos! has got yer “male gaze” right here!!!

If you’re offended, at least let me see if I can mitigate your offense with context.  If you’re having a considerably different reaction (or you’re offended and…intrigued at the same time), hey…we can wait.

Ready?

All right.  When we catch up with Purgatori, she had just been banished from Hell to Earth by Lady Death’s evil…well, evil-er alternate personality Lady Demon (just roll with it).  Weakened severely by her battle with Lady Death and finding that the blood of helpless standard-issue morals only barely keeps her alive, Purgatori goes to Alexandria to confront two vampires she created thousands of years ago, the “Coven of Ancients” (I know, with two vampires it doesn’t seem like much of a coven, does it?), Jade from China and Kabala from Nubia.  They want to kill Purgatori in revenge for cursing them with an immortal life sustained by committing atrocities;  the unflappable Purgatori just wants to drain them dry of their blood so she can get her full power back.  In what I genuinely think is a nice touch, Jade does freak out when she learns by telepathically scanning Purgatori’s memories (because in the Chaos! universe vampirism does also give you random superpowers, like in Twilight;  you heard it hear first, Stephanie Meier ripped off Brian Pulido!) since she learns that Hell is real, meaning that if she ever is destroyed her soul will be damned anyway.

It almost makes up for the horrific, agonizing historical inaccuracies (Alexandria was a city in Egypt centuries before Alexander the Great – you know, the guy it was named for – founded it?  China could send an emissary to Egypt in the second millennium BC?  And don’t get me started on the anachronistic costumes…).  Well…almost.  

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Say what you will, but at least they just want to kill each other for revenge or for survival, and they’re not at all fighting over a man.

That’s kind of the entire plot, but it turns out that it’s just a framing story for the real purpose of the series:  detailing Purgatori’s origin.  In a vague and completely historically accurate ancient Egypt (*cough*), a queen obsessed with achieving immortality through building an extravagant tomb falls in love with one of the slaves working on the tomb, Sakkara.  The queen takes her into her harem of women and even explicitly marries her.  Keep in mind that this was published in 1997, which makes for a weird little political message years before it really could be a political message.

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And yet this story has never been endorsed by GLAAD or the Human Rights Campaign…

What’s interesting is just how…marginal this scene and plot development are.  There’s no real political message here, or attempts to make a point about sexuality.  That’s something admittedly you’d expect from something published in the ’90s, when same-sex marriage was still very much a fringe issue in most circles, and like I hinted I really don’t think Brian Pulido was dropping any commentary on gay rights into his yarn about the origins of a mass murdering vampire.  From what I can tell, it’s just there to heighten the inevitable betrayal, but it’s still an interesting detail throw into a silly gorn-soaked comic from the mid-’90s.

But, yes, the queen does stab Sakkara in the back…more or less literally.  Like Bender learned in Futurama, the queen had to find out the hard way that slaves really don’t share their masters’ dreams of immortality.  Afraid of a revolt, the queen agrees to marry a powerful and popular general, who demands that she execute all the women in the harem, including Sakkara.  Narrowly escaping, Sakkara follows up on a rumor she had once heard about a vampire living on the outskirts of the city.  There she discovers an ancient Celtic vampire, Rath, and willingly gives herself over to him for the sake of freedom and revenge.  Rath is something of an Iron Age Libertarian and schemes to spread vampirism in order to “free” humanity from the tyranny of government and organized society, but even he doesn’t suspect that, in a plot twist that does help explain why I love Chaos! so much, Sakkara just happens to be part-fallen angel, turning her into a powerful vampire-demon hybrid.  As soon as she is able, Sakkara, who will go by the name Purgatori for…no particular reason (except that Brian Pulido liked the name, obviously), goes on the ultimate spurned lover rampage and  slaughters or vampirizes the queen’s wedding guests and imprisons the queen and her new husband in a sarcophagus…after turning them into starving newborn vampires.   In the present, Purgatori naturally overcomes her enemies, although Jade does escape to star in her own stories in the future.  Kabala isn’t so lucky.  Amusingly Purgatori considers letting Kabala burn to death in the sunlight, rather than letting her stay immortal and miserable, a sign that she’s “mellowed.”

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Now before I go any further I guess I should toss in something of a disclaimer about the sexy, half-naked elephant in the room.  Yes, Purgatori’s body and costume choices are really not realistic.  In fact, using the word, even following “not”, feels like a crime.  Yes, the mainstream comics medium is plagued by the presentation of women as purely sex objects for the male gaze (although it should be admitted that it also serves the gay-female gaze, albeit only incidentally).  And, yes, all this highlights broader issues with the presentation of female characters in comics that have very real repercussions for women trying to work in the medium or simply become regular readers.  But that’s not the kind of thing I’ll write about here, and there are already plenty of places to read up on these points.  Without claiming that Purgatori is an unjustly lost feminine heroine for the 21st century – although part of me is tempted to launch such an argument – I’m just a little interested in how gay readers can look at Purgatori and find her interesting from a female or LGBT perspective in spite of (or even along with) this T&A baggage.

Like I mentioned, Purgatori’s lesbian sexuality actually is, believe it or not, key to the plot.  Also Pulido, whatever you may say about his writing, genuinely is concerned with showing the reader that both the queen and Purgatori are in love.  It’s just that politics, the queen’s own psychotic need to insure that memories of her will endure no matter the cost in human suffering, and finally Purgatori’s sociopathic lust for revenge get in the way.  Now it is also used as an excuse to titillate – and how – but, to be honest, it could have been a lot worse.

Also it’s worth pointing out that there’s only one man in the story, Rath, who serves as anything resembling a straight, male love interest for Purgatori.  (The dialogue insists that Rath only wants to use Purgatori as his pawn in his crusade to destroy the very concept of organized society, but the idea that Rath also wants to sexually control Purgatori is not very subtle…even by Chaos! standards, which scares even me.)  She rejects Rath at several points in the story, and in their last encounter she spits in his face.  The story presents an interesting parallel.  On one side, there’s the queen and the general.  The queen betrays her deep and sincere love for the sake of political convenience and submits herself over to the total domination of a man she can’t even care about, sexually or romantically.  On the other side, Purgatori is faced with more or less the same situation with Rath, but she completely throws him off once she gets what she wants from him, and then brutally punishes the queen for making the easier choice.  Taking that view, a titillating story about lesbian vampires becomes a weird, wild parable about keeping out of the closet…or else your devastated lover might go insane with rage, turn you into a vampire, and leave you in the closet to become an eternally starving vampire (which, if you think about it, is as good a metaphor for desperate, closeted gays as any).

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Purgatori: she’s a strong, independent demon-vampire-thing and she don’t need no man!

Frankly, speaking as a LGBT reader myself, I had much the same reaction to the story as a few female readers of Lady Death had.  It’s frankly a little refreshing to have a character that’s of course not a bundle of stereotypes, but is also not at all saintly and  not written with a particular political or social agenda in mind.  It brings to my mind the film X-Files: I Want to Believe.  Not a terribly good movie by most standards, but it was worth remembering just for having a villainous, organ-stealing gay couple motivated by a potent mixture of desperation and love.  There are issues with the portrayal of those characters – for one thing, they’re never really given that level of character detail that helped make the better episodes of the X-Files TV series famous – but among certain Interwebs critics that shall remain nameless they tended to be seen as homophobic caricatures just because they happened to be gay and the villains.  So it goes with Purgatori.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a LGBT character who routinely goes on killing sprees, you know.   And there’s nothing wrong with admitting that it’s kind of awesome to have a – dare I say – role model like that.

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Now this is what I call a wish fulfillment fantasy.

First, Purgatori is a gay character whose sexuality isn’t her end-all and be-all.  Yes, I’m daring to say that Purgatori is, at least in that sense, a better written character than Jack from Will & Grace.  More importantly, when Purgatori’s sexuality does come to the fore, it’s treated in a way that, even in our more “enlightened” times, sets her apart.  Most depictions of LGBT sexuality are still painted with a tragic brush.  Same-sex love is very often shown in the shadow of social and religious oppression, or disapproving relatives, or the threat of violent bigotry.  If not that, then it’s shown in the light of some shallow parody of gleeful promiscuity (if you’re a gay male) or of blissful Amazonan domesticity (if you’re a lesbian).  Purgatori has no such hangups.  She exalts in her sexual desire and conquests, and acts in a way that’s very unlike a minority whose sexuality much more often means being persecuted than achieving power.   Is she, to use academic feminist speak, still just using sex as a tool to achieve superiority in systems of power that are traditionally patriarchal?  Sure, but that really shouldn’t make it any less satisfying.

In sum, Purgatori can offer a different kind of release for LGBT readers.  Like Lady Death presenting a female heroine who completely shattered the old concepts that a female heroine must be nurturing and gently benevolent and set fire to the shards, Purgatori is the LGBT hero who is anything but a victim – and if she ever is, it’s only temporary, and we can rest assured she will strike back at her foes not through letter-writing campaigns or an invitation to a nice expensive dinner (which one gay rights organization did with a homophobic singer some years back), but through a vengeance that could make war veterans retch.  Further she easily translates sex to power, a privilege so many LGBT people don’t have, or at least don’t feel that we have.  So why didn’t she resonate with LGBT readers the same way that Lady Death did with female comics readers?  I honestly can’t even make a guess, although I am willing to entertain the possibility that she came too soon.  At a time when the gay rights movement seems to be enjoying some successes but nonetheless seems to have lost its bite, a busty, nearly naked vampire-demon-thing might have been the very thing the gay rights movement needs today in 2013.

Well, I can dream anyway…

…Oh, did I mention that at one point Purgatori wrestles with a couple of vampire-tigers with giant bat wings?  So why do I have to keep having to explain to people my love for Chaos! Comics?

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Cultural Trends

A Lamentation for the American Soap Opera

Recently ABC announced that it was putting the ax to two soap operas, One Life To Live and All My Children, both of which had been running since the ’60s. “Soap operas!” I bet you’re thinking, if not bellowing as you slam down a fist. “Who the hell cares? Let ’em die!” Definitely soap operas have a bad reputation, but I’ll tell you why even people who would hesitate to watch them, even if they had a gun pointed at them, should care. First, though, let me lay down some context…

It’s been said that we are witnessing a Golden Age of Fandom, where those formerly considered nerds and geeks can both openly discuss their obsessions in most forums and have said obsessions all but infinitely catered to by the Internet, if not the media in general. There isn’t much arguing with the fact that the Internet has made it much easier to level up from dabbler to expert, especially if you have money to throw around at eBay and Amazon and the like, but there are still certain sub-genres that can be taboo. Even with Hollywood’s on-and-off love affair with superheroes, in some quarters the actual readers of superhero comics are at best cultural misfits and at worst all male,T&A-chasing misogynists (a stereotype which, to be fair, a few writers, artists, and marketing gurus at DC Comics and Marvel and some fans themselves have not helped dispel). Unless you’re a male teenager, in blue collar company, or both, you might have to joke or depreciate yourself when you mention that you’re a pro-wrestling fan. Last but not least, there’s the entertainment taboo that I’m writing to mourn…soap operas.


One would be hard-pressed to think of a visual genre more generally reviled than soap operas without maybe having to mention various forms of extreme pornography. People of all sorts of tastes and political and philosophical leanings uphold soap operas as the trashiest of trash culture, the absolute nadir of American entertainment (well, maybe; “reality” TV has fought and is fighting hard to take that honor). Not to go all fancy, ivory tower academic on you all, but it is interesting that soap operas’ low status does coincide with the fact that they’re a genre that’s both negatively gendered and classed, much the same way superhero comics and pro-wrestling are. Just as comic book fans are seen as unemployed, sexually stunted losers and pro-wrestling fans are poor, rural rednecks, soap opera viewers are supposed to be all under-educated and under-sexed grandmas and housewives. It’s also worth mentioning that all three have the unique appeal of offering complex and organic mythologies, which is completely engaging when you’re a fan but maybe a little off-putting when you’re a curious passerby trying to understand the appeal in the first place. Even superhero comics, which out of the three has had by far the most success in keeping up with the broader media through films and TV adaptations, has that nasty, unending problem of “accessibility.”

My own appreciation of soap operas was inherited. Since both my parents worked full-time and my grandmother lived next door, I spent many afternoons as a kid in the late ’80s and early ’90s watching Days of our Lives (DL), One Life to Live (OLTL), and General Hospital (GH) with her. I’m grateful for that, especially since “One Life to Live” taught me all about camp. After all, it was a show that often centered around the eternal feud between two grand dames, the saintly but strong-willed Vicki Buchanan and “original diva” Dorian Lord…excuse me, Dr. Dorian Lord. (I’d agree with the Moral Guardians that gender-inappropriate exposure to OLTL made me gay, except I’m sure S.E. Hinton’s homoerotic classic “The Outsiders” already did that). Not to say that DL didn’t have its delightful campy side; who can forget Mafia stereotype/Gothic villain/supervillain-in-all-but-name Stefano DiMera or Steve Donovan, the British spy who had a butler named Alfred? Even though it was the most popular out of the three, my grandmother and I were usually least enthused about GH, although we did get a kick out of the antics of the Quartermaines, who were in some ways the standard dysfunctional, jaded rich family that appeared in every soap opera, but they were hilariously self-conscious (some might say Genre Savvy) about it.

What made soaps so weird and appealing to my young self wasn’t that they were Harlequin romances in TV form, which is still the widespread preconception, but that they often had a weird and schizophrenic mishmash of different genres and tropes. Sure, they were still predominantly focused on love and sex, but since the late ’70s soaps, already responding to the fact that women were less homebound than ever, started expanding beyond domestic drama into strange waters. GH (in)famously pitted its premier couple, Luke and Laura, against a Greek criminal mastermind armed with a weather machine (yes, really). In the mid-’80s DL sent its cop characters to some pretty beach locales to investigate a crimelord in an obvious aping of “Miami Vice.” Other soaps became as much about corporate intrigue and backstabbing as about family melodrama. And it worked! The ’80s/early ’90s were undoubtedly when American soap operas hit their peak. While they were still stamped firmly with the label “lowbrow,” they still got a bit of positive mainstream attention here and there, probably most famously in the 1991 movie “Soap” which was both a parody and a homage, and inspired ratings-grabbing prime time imitators like “Dallas”, “Dynasty”, and “Melrose Place” (which caused so much painful inner turmoil over gender appropriate entertainment choices for Jerry Seinfeld).

I have no idea why soap operas suffered a sharp decline, both in ratings and in cultural currency, starting in the later ’90s. Conventional wisdom is that changes in demographics, mainly more and more women joining the 9-to-5 workforce, is responsible, but that doesn’t explain why soap operas (including American soap operas) remain popular in other countries like Germany and Argentina that underwent similar changes or why their decline wasn’t more noticeable earlier. Hopefully some fledgling sociologist or cultural historian is already spending way too much time thinking about it. My own guess is that it has more to do with changes in the culture of the entertainment industry, specifically the growth of its near-psychotic obsession with the holy 18-to-39 male demographic, and because of writers like James E. Reilly in DL, who took the chaotic blending of genres I loved so much to extremes that pissed off longtime viewers by making stories about demonic possession, UFOs, and mysterious mute women living in swamps (he went on to create the short-lived sub-cult hit and bizarrely ultra-Catholic soap, “Passions,” which had among its regular cast a Satanic witch and her living doll Timmy). Whatever the case, soap operas started floundering badly about the time I started watching them again after a years-long hiatus, because they offered something that was lacking in prime-time television. Yes, the budgets were lower and the acting was often worse (especially among the male models and ex-porn stars who were often recruited to try to grab back wavering female viewers), but honestly it offered a variety and a manic, unpredictable creativity that was lacking more with every year in prime time television. The shows had gone down in quality in about every possible way since when I watched them on the floor of my grandmother’s living room, but I still had more fun watching them than most of the things the networks had to offer in the evenings.

But, like I said, I’ve come to praise OLTL and AMC, not to bury them. In fact, I’m convinced they, like Caesar, were struck down before their day had really come. OLTL was actually experiencing something of a revival under a critically respected head writer and was going up in the ratings. The fact that both shows are being replaced by a trendy cooking show (with the atrocious name “The Chew”) and yet another “reality” show about health and fitness is another damning piece of evidence. Perhaps the decision to cancel was motivated by the comparative cheapness of “reality” TV compared to scripted fare, but my suspicions are raised by the fact that the only surviving ABC soap will be GH, which years ago stopped being a traditional soap opera and turned into a z-grade imitation of “The Sopranos” (no, I’m not exaggerating). Maybe The Powers That Be were relieved to jettison a genre they saw as fit only for aging trailer park housewives, maybe not, but either way I doubt that the sour taste that comes with the phrase “soap opera” wasn’t a factor. With OLTL and AMC gone, there are now only four American soap operas left at all. “The Young and the Restless” and “The Bold and the Beautiful” might actually be around for quite some time, since they command a pretty sizable following in the international markets (I’ve been told that they love “The Bold and the Beautiful” in Germany), but DL, NBC’s last daytime soap, has had its budgets cut down to the bone and is likely the next on the chopping block.

Now that brings us to the question, “Why the hell should I care?” Because it means that it’s one more way that network television will become a less diverse, less interesting place. The decay of the soap opera genre is another validation for the studio executives who pursue fads and short-term profit over the long-term strategy of building and nurturing loyal niche audiences, the same people who have turned A&E into just one of the 90-plus channels that show almost nothing but “reality” shows and reruns of police procedurals. Even if you actually downright hated them in the same way I hate “Super Nanny,” even though I never watched it and never will, barring the possibility of severe brain injury, you have to still appreciate that they were there, an off-kilter option in a bland landscape of “Law & Order” reruns and shows whose entire raison d’etre is showing washed-up celebrities. Look at what the shows are being replaced with; it’s not an exaggeration to say that the two shows are being cut down to make way for literally more of the same, and that they’ll be lucky if they last until the next big TV fad comes along. For that reason I feel bad for the shows’ fans and their cast and crews. In the end, though, I also feel just a little sad that I’ll no longer get to imagine how my fiery Southern grandmother would have reacted to Dorian Lord’s latest antics or if she would root for Dorian against the ever stuffy Vicki.

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