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

Andy Johnson
Bleed By Example: Empowered by the "Blood Dragon" mutation, Mary Malone is a singular female action hero that opts out of the raunchy-sexuality/guy-as-gal dilemma.

Far from enforcing sexually exploitative stereotypes in the female action hero genre, Bloody Mary and sequel Bloody Mary: Lady Liberty simply explodes them.

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?


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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