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Queering the Western? Questions of Genre, Gender, and Normativity in Rikke Villadsen’s Et Knald Til (2014)

03 Apr

By Charlotte Johanne Fabricius

 

How can one queer a comics genre – especially one rooted in patriarchal tradition, rife with male gaze and stereotypical gender roles? I consider ‘queering’ to be not only an inclusion of nonnormative gender and/or sexual identities, but a broader strategy of ‘making strange’[i]. Furthermore, I consider the comics medium to be an especially interesting site in which to investigate such ‘strangeness.’ This idea has previously been offered by, amongst other, Ramzi Fawaz, who, in The New Mutants (2016), draws upon queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s idea of queerness as “gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances”, which manifest themselves as “formal gaps, overlaps, dissonances, and resonances of comic book visuality.”[ii] I speak of queering as not only a ‘making unfamiliar’, but also of ‘making possible’ different futures and logics than presented in traditional version of a genre. In the following, I investigate one such attempt, the comic Et Knald Til (Another Bang), which has been characterised by publishers as an ‘erotic Western’.

Et Knald Til[iii] is written and drawn by Rikke Villadsen, published in 2014 by the Danish Publishing House Aben Maler, and nominated for a Ping Prize for Best Danish Comic Book in 2014. It tells the story of a quintessential Western town, inhabited by cowboys and loose women. An outlaw with a price on his head comes to town, kills the men who try to stand in his way, solicits a prostitute – who explodes after their intercourse – and has a drink at the saloon before retiring to a room in the same establishment. Parallel to these goings-on is the story of a young woman in the town who dreams of being a man, so she can leave the town to go adventuring. When the outlaw arrives, she steals his horse and the clothes of one of his victims and sets out. When she starts menstruating, however, the horse recognises her sex and throws her off, leaving her to an uncertain fate. The story concludes with the outlaw waking up in his room only to discover that he has been transformed into a woman identical to the one whose story the reader has been following.

Villadsen-1

“If only… / If only I was like / If I were a man / I wouldn’t have to lie / here with my mouth half-open, waiting. / If I were a man I would be full of action and testosterone / My beard would scratch when I rubbed my hand across my chin” © Rikke Villadsen 2014.

The title of the comic contains a pun which is more or less preserved in my suggested translation, Another Bang. The word “knald”, translated to “bang”, means both a loud noise and a euphemism for sexual intercourse. The auditory meaning is emblematic of both the Western genre, with its frequent gun fights, and of comics, where such onomatopoetic exclamations are iconic to action-based narratives. The lewder use of the term refers, at least in Danish, to a casual encounter, one in which no romantic or emotional attachment is implied. Indeed, the bangs themselves belong to the male-dominated side of the narrative, as it is outlaw who is responsible for most of the shootings and the sexual encounter. The female protagonist enters the story by reacting to one of these bangs. Her narrative is catalysed by the actions of a man, and she is only able to find agency in reacting to the goings-on in the parallel narrative. Even though the title phrase is one of her lines of dialogue, she only gets to say the word, not do the deed.

 

Et Knald Til functions as a pastiche of Spaghetti Westerns, and in this case is quite unlike more “straight” Western comics. Though it contains trademark elements in its setting, characters and basic plot, something is always a little ‘off’. The female protagonist’s lines are in Danish, whereas the rest of the characters speak in lines taken from classic Western films, making the dialogue strange and stilted, and marking the woman as an outsider, who can’t quite seem to coexist properly with the rest of the story. She lives on the margins of this society, on her own pages and in her own chapters, only indirectly interacting with the rest of the characters.

 

This, of course, is no accident: Villadsen draws heavily on a stereotypical gender binary, which upholds the structure of the story (separate chapters, separate linguistic codes, separate plot lines), but is also critiqued within the story. Her heroine soliloquises wistfully about becoming a man, so she can go on adventures and not be confined to a traditional female societal position. Villadsen goes to some lengths in giving her agency, but this agency remains tied to masculinity. In order to move along with her narrative, the heroine must dress in a dead man’s clothes and steal his phallic power, first by pointing out his lack of a nose (which has been replaced by a bullet hole) and then by claiming a phallus of her own – “suck my dick, metaphorically” she exclaims, standing over the body.  She the steals another man’s horse and attempts to ride out of town, only to be discovered by the horse when she starts menstruating, at which point the horse throws her off, leaving her – presumably – to die.

 

Villadsen-2

“Yes, well, metaphorically / …suck my dick, metaphorically! / Huh? What’s that?” © Rikke Villadsen 2014.

Agency is tied to violence, which in turn is tied to sex in this world, a trope Villadsen critiques, but ultimately seems to uphold. The two female characters – our heroine and the prostitute – both die after having attempted to reach personal freedom and sexual climax, respectively. Neither of them quite fits into the roles set out for them, and they are punished by death. By introducing the cyclical element at the end of the narrative ‒ transforming the outlaw into a woman ‒ we are not certain that her fate will be much different from those of her predecessors. The agency afforded to women within this gender binary is limited and liminal, existing only for a short period of time.

 

To counter the heavy normativity at the surface level of the story, Villadsen inscribes a sense of fragility at the centre of these power structures by what I term her processual aesthetic. Panels and pages in Villadsen’s work have a sketchy and re-drawn look, often leaving pencil marks or abandoned lines on the page, creating a palimpsestic, work-in-progress feel. She works in pages with a large amount of negative space, as if this world could vanish into the blankness of the page at any moment, and has almost foregone the use of gutters, favouring a grid layout instead. Most of the characters stay within their confinements, but the heroine spills over the lines surrounding her, trying to escape from the story that cannot contain her embodied reality.  Even though the lack of gutters minimises the uncontrolled potential of the blank space (I am drawing here on Scott McClouds understanding of the gutter as a place where everything and anything can happen)[iv], our heroine points to the artificiality of the constraints of a comics page.

Villadsen-3

© Rikke Villadsen 2014.

A paradoxical estrangement happens when reading Villadsen’s work: Villadsen as an author seems acutely present, showing us her work at various stages of completion, down to her meticulously lettered dialogue. There is something more than a little queer about this story, that relies on a set of tropes which are pushed to their extremes. The drawings look like caricatures, just as the genre has been transformed into a pastiche. Villadsen’s use of classic Western quotes works, paradoxically, to queer the majority, at least to Danish readers – to us, only the heroine is speaking clearly, whereas the language of the men is foreign, constructed, strange.

 

Villadsen’s processual aesthetics, in order words, serve multiple purposes, but ultimately make it impossible to term the work as definitively normative or subversive. The fluidity of the lines and hyperrealism – such as the impossible posing of the characters, the exploding prostitute, the talking horse, and a scene in which the outlaw converses with his own Wanted-poster – subvert the reader’s expectations of the gritty realism of the Western genre. The reader comes to expect a twist on every page, and this expectation is fulfilled, but the final twist suggests a circular logic that most of all points to uncertainty.

 

Villadsen’s processual style is interesting for two reasons: firstly, because it clashes with the highly rendered, almost romantic style of Spaghetti Westerns. Yes, they are gritty in content and tone, but especially Francophone Western comics[v] are visually detailed and mostly realistic, looking like the films they pay homage to. Villadsen’s style is a far cry from this aesthetic. Secondly, showing the reader the various stages of drawing, keeping movement and uncertainty on the finished page, suggests that these pages could have been drawn differently, that a different outcome was close at hand. Nothing is certain, everything is constructed, and hence, everything could have turned out differently.

 

The ending of Et Knald Til, where the outlaw is transformed during sleep into a woman identical to our lost heroine, posits a dilemma with regards to the queer potential of the story and use of genre. On the one hand, we may reasonably expect that this new woman will experience the same fate, that the story will repeat itself, following the prescriptions set by the genre conventions. There is nothing terribly queer about a character switching sexes – the binary stands, and presumably won’t change the intrinsic links between violent agency and masculinity.

 

 

But on the other hand, endings like this prompt re-reading, a discipline essential to queer interpretations. Suddenly, we consider our heroine in a new light. Suddenly, nothing about the gender binary is stable. Suddenly, nothing about the genre conventions is stable. There is nothing ‘inherently’ queer about this particular work – processuality, pastiche, gender-swapping, and transgressing social borders as strategies are not queer per se, but as I see it, queering a genre or a format is about making it unfamiliar, and Villadsen does achieve that.

Villadsen-4

Villadsen’s linking of genre-specific tropes and binary gender constructs makes explicit the parallel I wish to point out with this article: that, in many ways, genre works like societal constructions of compulsory gendering, what we might – with Judith Butler – term the heterosexual matrix.[vi] Genre revels itself through Villadsen’s work as a structure, a formula which is critiqued, but only within the constraints of that very structure. The heroine of our story discovers to her dismay – and ultimate demise – that the structures of her world are rigid with gender and restricted agency. What Villadsen lets us, as readers, discover, is that the rigidity stems equally from the constraints of genre. Though the heroine does not succeed in obtaining freedom, she does point us in the direction of a queering of genre: one must also, in the process, queer and destabilise gender.

 

In making explicit the links between the Western genre and binary gender, Villadsen wills us to consider what stories could be told if we were to push the boundaries of genre – and gender – even further, reading and deconstructing them together, as it were.

 

If we are to make an example of Et Knald Til – I would hesitate in calling it a completely successful queering, but it is a very interesting attempt – we should consider making strange and poking fun of genre within those genres, if not the only way, at least one way of queering a genre. This is, perhaps, especially suited to genres that, like the Western, do not hail from the comics format originally, but have found a new and unique expression within it. There is a set of conventions both with regards to plot and characters and as concerns the format of comics, meaning that a making unfamiliar can happen – as it does in Et Knald Til – both at the level of the story and in the layout and style of the pages.

 

A “queer view” looks for the potential subversion in a work, which can only be located if one is familiar (to some degree) with the context and formal elements of the work. The question that prompted my reading is how a balance can be achieved between conventions that are beloved and highly effective, but often antiquated and problematic, and a queered, subversive, more progressive stance – in other words: how can old media be made anew without repeating past prejudices? An answer may lie in a strategy of poking fun and pushing boundaries, especially in links between gendered structures and genre structures, rather than courting nostalgia.

 

Author Biography

Charlotte Johanne Fabricius holds an MA degree in Modern Culture from the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen. Her work on comics concerns the intersection between the comics form and aesthetics and norm-critical theory, especially regarding subversive potential in mainstream comics genres.

This paper is adapted from a presentation given at Comics Forum 2016.

 

Bibliography

Butler, Judith. Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. Thinking gender. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Fawaz, Ramzi. The new mutants: superheroes and the radical imagination of American comics. Postmillennial Pop. New York ; London: New York University Press, 2016.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. 39. New York: HarperPerennial, 2011.

Villadsen, Rikke. Et Knald Til. København: Aben Maler, 2014.

 

References

[i] Using the term ‘queer’ in this way risks talking over the lived experiences of those who use the term for themselves, or indeed have had the term used against them as a slur. I choose to use the term academically, because, to me, it can describe what happens when mainstream culture starts poking holes in itself and its traditions, making possible different narratives, different aesthetics, different ways of being. I speak of queer as a ‘making unfamiliar’, a ‘making possible’ of being outside the norm. My identity politics here limit themselves to wanting room for more, for difference.

[ii] Ramzi Fawaz, The new mutants: superheroes and the radical imagination of American comics, Postmillennial Pop (New York ; London: New York University Press, 2016), 33.

[iii] Rikke Villadsen, Et Knald Til (København: Aben Maler, 2014).

[iv] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, 39. (New York: HarperPerennial, 2011), 66–69.

[v] I am thinking here especially of series like Charlier and Giraud’s Blueberry or Jijé’s Jerry Spring. I am also indebted to Matteo Pollone for introducing me to the Italian equivalent, Tex by Bonelli and Galleppini.

[vi] Judith Butler, Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity, Thinking gender (New York: Routledge, 1990), 151 et passim.

 

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