Bloodletter: Ennis & Ezquerra’s Autopsy of the Female Action Hero Genre

The Carlos Ezquerra-created cover for the 2005 trade paperback which collects both Bloody Mary mini-series sees the titular character stand against a blood-spattered, black background. A smoking machine-pistol in her hands, her torn nun’s habit pockmarked by a dozen bleeding bullet-wounds and tens of empty shell casings at her feet, she grimaces out at the prospective reader. The cover lays down the gauntlet: enter if you dare. The message was that Ezquerra and writer Garth Ennis had created a singularly uncompromising pair of stories fronted by a new female character who did not so much step over the line as leap across it, spewing bullets as she went, in a style that would humble John Woo himself.

Originally published in 1996 and 1997 respectively, Bloody Mary and its sequel Bloody Mary: Lady Liberty are now considered relatively minor works, footnotes in the histories of their creators. But Bloody Mary herself remains an intriguing figure who invites comparison to other ultraviolent heroines from sources as disparate as Hong Kong action cinema and American exploitation films. Mary is interesting not just because of her similarities to these kinds of characters; in fact, she is at least as worthy of discussion due to the techniques Ennis and Ezquerra seem to have employed to differentiate her from them. Beneath the gory action and black humor that dominate these series, it is possible to detect attempts to escape the conventions of the action heroine. These, as much as the story itself, warrant attention today, when all too many action heroines are either crudely caricatured sex icons or minimally altered versions of men.

The roots of Mary’s differences lie in her character’s origins. Her world is a ravaged one–a flashback at the beginning of the first series states frankly that “in 1999, we all went back to war”. That war is fought between the Allies–the UK and US–and a united Europe. The war begins when each side succumbs to their worst potential, as Ennis sees it; Europe’s jealously-guarded economic prosperity brought about by political integration leads to the rise of a Europe-wide fascist government. That aggressive superstate’s subsequent genocide of non-whites leads Britain–“unable ever to be truly European”–to ally with an America surrendered to its most rabidly militaristic and religiously conservative elements. The Allies’ joint seaborne invasion of France not only echoes World War II but also starts a twelve-year conflict which gradually turns Corporal Mary Malone into one of the Allies’ deadliest agents and earns her a grim sobriquet.

Mary’s reputation and action scenes depict her as a devastatingly efficient killer. Combined with her proficiency with firearms, this reputation superficially draws her close to the “girls with guns” phenomenon which has long had traction both in Western and Asian action fiction of all media. The crucial difference, however, is that Mary is almost never sexualized. Hong Kong director Wong Jing’s infamous films, for example, typically involve gun-toting women assassins using their sex appeal to get close to their targets; this sexualization of action heroines is a familiar trope in the West too, exemplified among others by the most successful of human videogame characters, Lara Croft.

Ennis and Ezquerra take steps to avoid these trappings. A short-haired forty year old former alcoholic, Mary wears practical rather than revealing clothes, and when dealing with her male comrades and enemies she is always focused solely on the mission. Her lack of over-the-top sex appeal even extends to her combat style; she stands and shoots, never bounces off the walls or cartwheels through the air as more balletic heroines might. After all, she’s a soldier–not a dancer. Ezquerra often draws her with a tired, lined face and her ordinary parents and ordinary name betray the fact that she was once a normal American woman who grew up in the mountains, warped into a assassin by the chaos around her; she is not a fantastical killer from the ground up, she has not always been this way.

Although she more often wears practical military gear, Mary’s penchant for dressing in a nun’s habit is sometimes necessitated by her missions, and fits in well with Ennis’ frequent inclusion of religious elements into his writing, particularly prevalent in Preacher, which Ennis was working on with Steve Dillon at the time. The concept of a gun-toting nun recalls Ms. 45, Abel Ferrara’s infamous 1981 exploitation film. The cultural jump-cut is interesting because it makes Mary somehow more transgressive than a scantily-clad hitwoman could ever be, transforming a symbol of religious piety into the trappings of an :angel of vengeance”, an alternate title for Ferrara’s film.

While Lara Croft or a Hong Kong assassin-heroine generally emerges from her battles unscathed and as seductive as ever, Bloody Mary depicts its main character in the more savage way her name suggests. Towards the end of the original mini-series, Mary and her nemesis Anderton battle inside the luxuriant halls of the Vatican, now the defiled headquarters of Europe’s dictator, Jerome Rochelle. Both imbued with the powers of the “Blood Dragon”, a bio-weapon developed in a Chinese military lab, Mary and Anderton are almost invulnerable.

But this is not Superman-invulnerable; in typical Ennis style, Mary and Anderton find that whilst they can survive any number of gunshots, the wounds still inflict as much pain as ever, cause the same disfigurements, and will never heal. To Ennis, there must be a price to pay for the inherent hubris of super-powers, and in Mary’s case the result is to become a gore-stained, forever-scarred husk of her former self by the end of the battle. It is from this part of the comic that we realize the trade paperback’s cover is taken; soon after the start of the second series we see the full extent of Mary’s battle scars. Apparently pondering both them and her miraculous and ultraviolent escape from the Vatican, Mary sits on the edge of her bed and says only to herself–“I feel nothing”.

Ennis and Ezquerra’s requirement that Mary wear the marks of her battles on her body and in her mind forever distinguish her from all too many heroines for whom there are no long-term consequences of their actions. This is another crucial way in which Mary is separated from the “girls with guns” phenomenon; she is far from pristine and unaffected by her experiences–she is permanently defined by them, making her nickname all the more appropriate. In a very real sense, it seems the blood on Mary will never wash off.

In the second series Lady Liberty, Ennis seeks to add a little extra depth to Mary’s character. Contracted by the US Army to assassinate a religious maniac whose followers have captured New York, Mary demands only the reconstruction of the Statue of Liberty as payment for her services. The symbolic statue was toppled by the disciples of Achilles Seagal during their capture of the city, and at either end of series Mary’s condition is inextricably linked to that of the statue. When we first see Mary, she is stood mourning the shattered Lady Liberty, raindrops filling in for the tears neither broken woman can cry. At the very end of the series, with Seagal dead and the statue rebuilt, Mary smiles for the first time.

Having Mary shift from the pressing revenge motivation offered by Anderton to the altogether more symbolic motivation offered by Lady Liberty is a slightly jarring one. What this shift does allow for is a another flashback. This one allowing readers to infer a Wilfred Owen “Dulce est decorum est” moment for Mary. Her father’s regaling her as a child with the true meaning of the statue proves to be Mary’s inspiration for signing up for the military service. Service that would ultimately turn her into a killer. Unlike the first series, Lady Liberty allows Mary to come full circle, to fight for one last time for a representation of the ideas she originally fought for, in the apparent hope that it will ease her tortured soul and rejuvenate the ideal that America represents to her.

Finely-crafted by Ennis and Ezquerra, Mary is elevated above the rank-and-file female action hero. She is more than surface, more than simply a different look and new behaviors. She is the utopian sullied by infinite war. She is the drawing together of these same ideas and motivations. As focused as these series are on their gallows humor and bullet-strewn action, something creeps around underneath. Mary is an ideal. After all, how many other characters would risk their lives for a statue?