I wanted to talk about something Dante-adjacent today, as a brief distraction from the almost-complete Stock Photo Hell series.
So I was stuck at the airport on an ungodly long layover yesterday. And aside from Live-Tweeting some of my impressions of Paradise Lost (which I do over at @AnneBeanTweets under the hashtag #MiltonLiveTweet), I was reading a comic that had been sitting on my shelf for a while: Ten Grand, by J. Michael Straczynski.
I picked the comic up for two reasons: one, I like J. Michael Straczynski, and I tend to read comics because of writers I like. Straczynski did Babylon 5, also tons of comics including Squadron Supreme, an epic superhero homage/parody that I’m in the middle of right now and really, really enjoying. I also picked up Ten Grand because of the art: Ben Templesmith does cool, atmospheric stuff that’s totally down my alley.
I like the comic for several reasons. The aforementioned art is great, and they even bring in another artist (C.P. Smith) to illustrate a different area of reality. The themes are demonology and weird occult and supernatural noir, which I of course enjoy. The comic has been described as a combo of Hellblazer and Supernatural, and I find that accurate.
Unfortunately, the one glaring thing that rips me right out of the world is the same damn thing that I can’t stand about Supernatural: the damn dying damsels.
(Spoilers.) So the deal is this: Joe, our badass noir hero guy, used to have this lovely wife, Laura. Who he met when he was being all badass and her entire purpose in life was to apparently be a shining beacon of hope and continually suggest that perhaps he could stop killing people for a living. To him, she was/is everything, his entire reason for existence, etc. Yeah, she’s gone and died. They both did, actually. From a nasty demon blitz attack. But wait, there’s more! (And this is the only actually interesting-to-me bit.) Joe’s offered a deal by angels, he gets to be Heaven’s hit-man and die righteously, and after each (yeah, there are many) righteous death, he gets to see Laura for five minutes in Heaven. Otherwise he was just straight-up going to Hell. I find that conceit pretty interesting. His multiple lives and the wacky wacky afterlife hijinks are for sure the best part of the book.
Unfortunately, it further underscores Laura not really being a character or a person at all. I mean, perhaps no one has agency in Heaven…but what is she up to while he’s, like, living and stuff? Does she float around in a golden cloud sort of gently pining? Does she want him back? Does she want anything? (Again spoiler.) She’s snagged from Heaven by marauding Hell forces at some point, making her even more of a damsel in distress, even after death, gosh. Thing is, I’m not sure what she wanted even when she was alive, aside from wanting Joe to get out of the hitman business. I guess that means she wanted stability? Or her love to not be in constant danger? Seems like she’s failed to get either of those things, even in the afterlife. And the thing is, I don’t see her realizing that this continued association with her love Joe is making her life and afterlife miserable and either a) leaving him or b) using clever resources to fend off the forces of Hell and save his soul. Nope. She’s gonna do what she’s done for the entire story: nothing. Literally nothing. Because she’s a quest object and a damsel in distress and to some extent a manifestation of Joe’s anima. She’s not a well-rounded character.
And I could handle that in one storyline if it wasn’t in a thousand damn storylines before this. I am over Perfect Girlfriend Saving Dark Man From Self characters. So deeply over them. Especially when they have literally nothing of their own going on. Without Joe, what would Laura have done with her life? Would she have existed? We don’t know! There’s not even a hint of her own personality.
How, then, did this tradition start? While I don’t have time today to really trace it back (although perhaps I shall someday. French medieval romances, I’m looking at you.), I want to talk about one specific piece of the puzzle. And that’s our buddy Dante.
So in all this talk of Inferno, I haven’t yet mentioned Beatrice. Beatrice is Dante’s great love, whom he deifies repeatedly in his poetry. She shows up in the Divine Comedy literally near the top of Mt. Purgatory in the Garden of Eden, and becomes his guide after Virgil leaves him. She guides him through most of Heaven, and is eventually replaced by St. Peter when things get too holy for even her. Dante also wrote a whole huge poem to her directly, called La Vita Nuova. It’s…creepy. This is one of the tamer bits:
In that book which is my memory,
On the first page of the chapter that is the day when I first met you,
Appear the words, ‘Here begins a new life’.”
-La Vita Nuova
Because here’s the thing. Dante had met the real actual person Beatrice Portinari…twice. Once at age nine, once at age eighteen. Both times they met at parties, briefly. And yet, he was so taken with her that in his head he built her into this savior figure, this perfect woman, this light of his life. He was the epitome of a courtly lover. The scholarly argument is that Dante’s figure of Beatrice in his writing is an allegorical character, and not to be taken as a literal pining over some woman he met twice. And that argument has some merit; for one, it acknowledges that Beatrice was never a real person in Dante’s mind and that fictional Beatrice isn’t a character who is expected to be three-dimensional. She’s a stand-in for the Divine Feminine, a cardboard cutout of a Perfect Lover.
I can’t help but think that a lot of these perfect heart-of-gold girlfriend characters are just Beatrices in disguise. For all the worshiping of Beatrice that Dante did, her existence in his writing mostly relates to him, to fictional Dante. She exists to be the light, life, feminine savior of Dante. And that’s what gets me about this sub-set of the damsel trope: these women literally have nothing else going on aside from trying to save their wayward partners. (TV Tropes suggests that Beatrice types may be Living Emotional Crutches.) Gross.
Anyway. That’s all to say that female characters are more interesting when they’re given desires, motivations, and some degree of actual, y’know, character.
For a noir comic book that has female characters with an actual character arc, check out:
The Last Days of American Crime by Rick Remender, Fatale by Ed Brubaker (best sendup of the femme fatale trope ever), and if you’d like to see an actual female noir detective, Stumptown by Greg Rucka.