Drew: What is an identity? Is it a name you call yourself? Is it a series of values that dictate your actions? I think we often tend to think of our identity as some kind of immutable part of our being, but I personally believe that it changes with the context. Sometimes we’re outgoing, other times we’re shy. Sometimes we’re funny, other times we’re humorless. I tend to think that context-dependence means that we define ourselves — at least in part — by the way others treat us. I tend to be a pretty mature guy, but as soon as I go home to visit my parents, I’m a little bit seventeen again. I often find myself rising (or falling, as the case may be) to those expectations, but Veil 1 introduces a character who refuses to be defined by the way she’s perceived.
The issue opens with that character, the titular Veil, waking up stark naked in a subway station. How she got there isn’t clear — possibly some kind of satanic ritual, possibly the rat version of Michelle Pfeiffer’s resurrection from Batman Returns — but she seems more interested in babbling nonsense rhymes than seeking any answers. She stumbles out into the street, where she’s accosted by Vincent, a thug who takes her nudity as a personal invitation. Any resistance is met with increasing aggression, making it crystal clear that he feels entitled to give what he believes Veil is asking for.
It’s an attitude we’re unfortunately all familiar with, but the brilliance here is what happens next. Dante, a heroic passerby, steps in to save the day. He fends off Vincent and takes Veil back to his place to clothe her, all with the chaste white-hat morality we expect of our male heroes.
Only, Veil isn’t a damsel in distress. When Vincent comes knocking to take what he feels is rightfully his, Veil psychically turns his gun against his lackeys and eventually himself. In that way, Dante’s chivalry isn’t really any different from Vincent’s misogyny — they both made misguided assumptions about Veil based on what they saw: a small naked woman.
What I find so clever about this is that Dante’s actions are presented as heroic in the moment. Because we don’t know her story, we also assume Veil is in some kind of danger, making us as complicit in the sexism as Vincent. Writer Greg Rucka is famous for writing strong, capable women — Barbara Gordon, Cassandra Cain, Renee Montoya, Maggie Sawyer, Kate Kane, Forever Carlyle — yet the context here is enough for us to presume Veil’s helplessness, forcing us to confront our own notions of gender roles. In defense of anyone who feared for Veil’s safety in those moments, she really does seem out of it, and I would probably worry about a male character being accosted on the street by three big dudes with guns, but I still think Rucka has a lot to mine from our immediate categorization of Veil as “helpless female.”
I suppose my favorite subversion of our expectations is when Veil forces Dante to confront her sexuality in his apartment.
It’s not explicit that Veil is being sexually aggressive, but Dante is definitely uncomfortable with the idea of anything sexual happening. Again, Veil seems really out of it, and for all we know, Dante is in a monogamous relationship, or just isn’t into girls, but I tend to think that the notion makes him uncomfortable because it doesn’t fit the narrative of the white knight. It’s not enough to save her from harm, he needs to do it for noble reasons. The idea that Veil may be able to highjack that narrative, too, is another win.
Then again, Veil may not ultimately be in control here, either. She seems to draw her name from the Seven Veils striptease she sees on the street, which is itself an allusion to the biblical “Dance of the Seven Veils.” At first blush, the story — where the maybe-insane Salome dances lasciviously to convince her own father to give her what she wants — seems like the perfect match for this story of female sexuality triumphing over the objectification of men. Upon closer inspection, however, Salome was herself being manipulated by her mother. I’m not sure if that implies a higher power pulling strings (after all, Veil isn’t named after the dancer of the Seven Veils, but by the dance or the veils it uses), but like I said, we still don’t know much about where Veil came from.
For all of my interest in Rucka’s singular approach to femininity here, I have to take a moment to praise the singularity of Toni Fejzula’s art. His chiseled, angular shadows define his forms in gorgeous, painterly planes, giving this issue a look like nothing else on the shelves. More importantly, the way his shadows threaten to swallow characters whole is a perfect match for the moody, mysterious story Rucka has crafted.
Greg! I really liked this issue, but now I’m worried that I pulled some kind of meta-interpretive error by focusing so strongly on Veil’s gender. Am I basically being Dante here? Also, Dante is a pretty loaded name for a character — do you think we can draw any conclusions from that?
Greg: Drew! I, for one, am proud of you for developing a consistent critical throughline in your examination, because the outright quality of this issue flabbergasted me so much that if I had to go first, I would just be writing things like “I LIKED IT. IT WAS REAL, REAL GOOD.” But seriously, this was real, real good, and I think your points of entry shed a good light as to why they’re real, real good.
I’m happy you touched on Fejzula’s beautifully idiosyncratic artwork. The often jagged textures and shading reminded me of stained glass windows, an evocation I first thought was curious, then completely appropriate. Stained glass windows often make aesthetic beauty out of biblical stories that are often dark and violent — the church I grew up going to had a nice one of Jesus ascending to heaven and a not so nice one of Jesus getting stabbed in the goddamn stomach by a bunch of spears — and Fejzula is effectively adding to this tradition.
His downright astonishing use of color is another tally in the “Things I Found Surprising Then Ultimately Totally Made Sense” column, particularly in this jaw-dropping splash page. As Veil takes her first (?) steps into public domain, the sheer bizarre stylishness of Fejzula’s palate overwhelms (what big American city is this pink and purple? why does she suddenly have green skin?), and in this overwhelming, Fejzula succeeds in making us feel as awestruck and alienated by this “new” place as Veil herself.
I’m not surprised you focused on gender, Drew, as there are so many blunt portrayals of an inherently flawed masculine “want” and “deserving”, ideas of “good” possession (going with Dante) versus “bad” possession (going with Vincent), and even sexual emasculation through a phallic symbol, when Veil caps her would-be assailants in the hallway. I’d love to add Veil’s naked introduction to this conversation, as a postmodern feminine-yet-still-masculine retort to that other famous naked wake up scene in The Terminator. When rewatching this scene, it’s interesting to me that in James Cameron’s world, a naked man is not met with sexual pleasure, but with titters and disgust. Furthermore, Arnie’s Terminator has a similar parroting approach to human language. Could Rucka be sneak-presenting us a feminine reboot?
There’s one other moment that struck me as highly charged yet curiously ambiguous. Veil has a playful, borderline parrotlike understanding of the human language. You pointed out that she named herself after a sign she saw and has a penchant for bizarre repetition and rhyming. So it makes sense that when she’s presented with a stimulus, she responds the only way she knows how — repeating the same stimulus outward. Yet something about the looks in their eyes, their almost joyous dispositions, and the inherent sexuality in such a proposition leads to believe there’s something more going on underneath.
I agree that naming any fictional character Dante is begging to be analyzed, and while my understanding of the Divine Comedy is a little rusty, I do know it involves a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and ultimately Heaven, which may just be the roadmap this comic follows. I also know that Poem Dante doesn’t make his journey alone; in fact, he is rescued by a figure named Virgil, which to me, sounds more than a little like Veil. So, is Rucka furthering his flipping of traditional gender functions in “rescue narratives” by hinting at the idea that Dante is the man out of his element in an underworld who needs to be rescued by Veil, and not the other way around? At this point, it’s rough speculation, but I can tell you that I can’t wait until issue 2 to find out.
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