by Spencer Irwin and Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Spencer: There’s quite a bit to unpack in the high concept behind Man-Eaters, and I don’t just mean its metaphors and allegories. Despite the fact that it takes place in a world similar to ours in most ways, the one new element Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk introduce — menstruation-triggered transformations into murderous big cats — opens up a bevy of new questions that beg to be answered. Thankfully, Cain and Niemczyk answer them with grace, simultaneously building both world and character effortlessly and never falling into the dangers of rote exposition.
The key to this accomplishment is the fact that Cain and Niemczyk make 12-year-old Maude Henson our entry point to their new world. All exposition is delivered through Maude, and hearing this exposition through the voice of a character instead of a omniscient narrator or convenient news anchor immediately makes it more appealing. It also serves to characterize Maude, giving readers her insights into the things she teaches us. A great early example is this graph Maude provides, describing her father.
First of all, the graph is novel, eye-catching, and quirky, a fun and memorable way to deliver information. But what I specifically appreciate about this page is that it only includes the information about her father that Maude considers important. It grants us just as much insight into Maude as it does her father, helping to establish what I imagine is this series’ central relationship despite the fact that we really only see the two characters together in a single panel throughout Man-Eaters 1.
Delivering their world-building through Maude also means that readers essentially see the world through her eyes. This effects the issue in a few ways. The first is that readers aren’t just privy to what Maude knows, but how she learned it and the ways it effected her.
The main piece of information delivered here, for example, is that big cat-related killings are low in Portland. By showing readers how Maude learned this information, though, Cain and Niemczyk also teach us more about how SCAT works and how schooling and public education have been effected by the big cat attacks. More importantly, we also learn that this information terrified Maude. Readers aren’t just learning about a world — we’re seeing the effects it has on the people living in it, which is far more important.
The second consequence of using Maude’s perspective to build the world is that readers are limited by her knowledge — we can’t know something if Maude herself doesn’t know it. This leaves rooms for future twists to the mythology, of course, but I think the more significant take-away here is the acknowledgment that the citizens of Maude’s world have all been fed the same story, they’re all limited by the same “facts,” but that those facts aren’t necessarily the truth.
Perhaps Maude isn’t aware of how condescending the views she parrots in that first panel are, but others clearly are. Us readers, like the protesters in the second panel, can tell that there’s more going on here, and that even facts and data can be nudged or fake to fit agendas. Like just about all the citizens in the world of Man-Eaters, though, we have no idea exactly what the full truth behind the big cats are, what agenda is being served, and that’s an intriguing position to be in. I look forward to seeing some big reveals — and seeing how Maude reacts to them.
By the end of Man-Eaters 1 Cain and Niemczyk have so thoroughly and completely laid out their world that issue 2 will be able to leap full-steam into the story without having to slow down for any exposition. That’s exciting, but the downside — and the issue’s greatest weakness — is that the story doesn’t actually begin until the very last page of the issue, giving readers only the faintest hints as to what the emotional and narrative thrust of the series will be moving forward. Thankfully, the negative effects of this are minimal — Cain and Niemczyk’s choices are still fascinating to dissect, the world they’ve built is intriguing, and the issue itself is a fun, propulsive read. That alone would be enough to bring me back for issue 2; the story promised by this issue’s cliffhanger is just the icing on the cake.
Drew! I’ve talked so much about the specifics of how this issue works that I’ve neglected to talk much about its central themes and greatest metaphors, about the ideas surrounding transformation, womanhood, and puberty. Do you care to pick up my slack in that regard?
Drew: You know me so well, Spencer! Turning puberty into a literal monstrous transformation is one of my favorite aspects of werewolf stories, but one that is only occasionally mined for its thematic richness. Moreover, in spite of the association between werewolves and the lunar cycle, we tend not to associate werewolves with women, specifically (though I might chalk that up to notable werewolf performances by men like Lon Cheney and Michael J. Fox). Adjusting the werewolf formula that little bit to make it exclusive to women (or uterus-having people, as is the case here) cracks open that puberty metaphor into something much more interesting.
Although, maybe we need to back up a bit to really understand what makes the premise here so interesting. Unlike most werewolf stories, the monsters here aren’t mythical beasts disavowed by society at large, and the threat of attacks are neither acute nor local. As Maude explains, pretty much everyone is already infected with toxoplasmosis.
Which changes the werewolf equation in two key ways: 1) the transformation isn’t limited to a small number of people bitten by a monster, but basically every menstruating person on earth, so 2) the response by society has to be bigger than a handful of silver bullets (though the angry mob still seems to be carrying the day).
And just like that, Cain and Niemczyk have a fictional justification for systemic oppression against women. But it’s only just fictional — Spencer is right to call this world “similar to ours in most ways,” from the way it fears female sexuality to the way it stigmatizes periods. The attitudes society expresses about women through these policies feel depressingly familiar.
But Cain and Niemczyk go a few steps further in developing their world. Yes, men have reacted with fear, enacting a swath of oppressive policies against women, but that has in turn affected the way women see themselves. Spencer is right to acknowledge Maude’s sense of irony, but I’m most interested in the way cats have become a symbol of female empowerment in this world. Just take a quick look around Maude’s room and you’ll see what I mean.
On the first read-through, you might just chalk up this enthusiasm for cats to her being twelve years old, but as the issue makes the association between cats and women clearer, we start to understand just what cats mean to Maude. They are this world’s version of the pink pussyhat (which Maude is wearing here, albeit with the meaning tweaked a bit) — a rallying symbol for women that also kind of sloppily conflates womanhood and having a uterus. I don’t want to dwell on that last point — there’s plenty of space for Cain and Niemczyk to address criticism on that front in future issues — but I think that, without excusing anything, the pussyhat helps ground that conflation in the reality of our times. They’re imperfect times that can and should do better with representation, but like, I also get why lots of women found those hats so empowering.
And the celebration of cats extends well beyond Maude. Check out this storefront/apartment complex spread, which gives us our widest view of the world outside of Maude’s limited perspective:
At first glance, I thought the folks on the second floor repeating “A-weema-weh” in their heads was just a silly non sequitur, but closer inspection reveals that the song is playing in (and possibly spilling out onto the street from) Calico Records. Not only is the record store cat-themed, but they’re playing cat-themed music (BIG cat themed music, no less). It’s a clever bit of world-building that unexpectedly reinforces information we’d already gotten about the world.
I’m definitely excited for more. There was more than enough in this concept and world to keep me engaged throughout this issue, but Spencer’s right to suggest that we only have the faintest idea what the story here is actually going to be. Is it important that Maude hasn’t turned into a big cat? Will she? Has she accidentally uncovered a conspiracy? Is she immune to Toxoplasmosis X? We don’t have enough to really assert any of these as the logical next step, but I’m happy enough to return next month to find out.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?