Saturday, October 20, 2007

Comics Review: Battle Girlz

When Mech Girl activates her blink suit, where does her big hair go?

Battle Girlz, written and illustrated by Rod Espinosa. Antarctic Press (San Antonio): 2004. 160 pages. $9.99. ISBN: 1-932453-45-8.

Let me begin by denying the vicious rumor that I actually read this book. Clearly, the rumor is false. Look at the evidence: it has a pink spine and the word "girlz" in the title, so obviously I didn't read it, and I certainly didn't read it twice, nor enjoy it both times, nor look for a second volume on the Internet after I finished it.

I have on two previous occasions reviewed Rod Espinosa's work on this blog (here, where I reviewed Neotopia, and here, where I reviewed The Courageous Princess). In all three of these works, he shows the same interest in sprawling worlds, fantasy creatures, endearing characters, large-scale battles, and grrrl power. In Battle Girlz, he delivers all of these in spades.

Espinosa has taken superhero concepts and blown them up to giant size. Rather than defending one city or planet, the heroes defend a universe. Rather than taking over countries and destroying buildings, the villains take over multiple planets and nuke entire continents, giving this comic one of the highest body counts I've ever seen.

The story takes place in the universe of Jalto Shrept. Constantly threatened by enemies from other universes or demons from Hell, the United Empires Government, a federation of 126 galaxies, relies for protection on a large league of supermen known as the Celebrity Power Heroes--or so it seems. In reality, the Celebrity Power Heroes are pushovers. The real protective force in this universe is an obscure organization stationed at the universe's rim, an organization called Special Imperial Security or SIS for short, more popularly known as the Battle Girls.

The Battle Girls are a walking collection of comic book clichés, and Espinosa apparently doesn't care if you know it. They are Mech Girl, a mecha pilot with a troubled past; Mighty Girl, a super-strong girl expelled from school for thrashing bullies; Temptress, a femme fatale with the power to make men do anything she wants; Priestess, a half-elf who casts magic and wields a mace; and Gadgeteer, a genius inventor who holds 65,987 patents and spends the battles sitting in a control room from which she babysits Mech Girl. Leading them all is the enigmatic and creepy Saintly Perfect Goddess, of whom Temptress says, "She's so gorgeous...even I'm in love with her!" (p. 49). And when the Battle Girls aren't defeating evildoers or saving the universe, they're usually eating ice cream or shopping at the mall.

Mech Girl is the point-of-view character; shortly after she fails her last mission, the United Empires Government replaces its mech pilots with robots. Mech Girl then receives an invitation from Saintly Perfect Goddess to join the Battle Girls team on the edge of the universe. Introductions and shopping trips are repeatedly interrupted by supervillains with names like Toy Trip, Gamemaster, and Crolack, Jr. It soon becomes clear that behind the attacks is the evil and ugly Supertyrant Geneszorr, who has a grudge against the goddess and a nefarious plan to take over a planet, and who with his name, appearance, and superpowers probably had few options in life besides evil overlord. You can tell he's especially evil because we sometimes view him at dramatic angles.

One of the best characters, who doesn't get nearly enough time on the page, is Elvar Threckan, a young man who pickets outside the Battle Girls' front gate, "protesting the gender inequality which clearly exists within your ranks" (p. 65). Elvar wants to join the team, apparently so he can hit on Mech Girl, and without invitation follows the Battle Girls on their missions. Espinosa probably intends him to be a recurring comical figure.

Certain elements suggest Espinosa had his tongue in his cheek as he wrote this, and in some senses Battle Girlz looks like a big joke on comics. Besides the stereotypical central characters, there are the Celebrity Power Heroes, who show up near the climax. Many of them look suspiciously like Marvel and DC characters. As the Celebrity Power Heroes approach, the villains ridicule them, saying things like, "They have a guy with metal claws! Like he'll even get close to us to use those things!" (p. 87). And indeed, the villains quickly and easily wipe the Celebrity Power Heroes out. In addition to taking pot shots at superhero comics, Espinosa takes aim at Japanese mecha. With the Power Heroes is a battalion of "Gunrom" units that look like the mechs in Mobile Suit Gundam. As they approach, Geneszorr merely sneers and says, "Rule number nine: NEVER USE MECHS IN URBAN WARFARE. Like tanks, they're just walking targets to a foot soldier with ANTI-ARMOR CANNONS" (p. 92). Shortly after that, his troops annihilate the Gunrom mechs. If this is all an elaborate joke, however, Espinosa tells it with a poker face.

Dominatrix costumes and Mighty Girl's habit of getting her outer clothing blown or shredded off make Battle Girlz less family-friendly than some of Espinosa's other work. In particular, Temptress wears disappearing underwear and metal bikinis and interprets everything anyone says as a sexual innuendo. The other Battle Girls find her disgusting: Priestess yells at her for everything while Gadgeteer just acts grossed out, and this forms one of the comic's running gags.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Battle Girls is how they treat their villains. These are not your grandma's superheroines; they have no qualms about killing bad guys. Only at the climax do we finally see Saintly Perfect Goddess herself in action, and she is brutal, making people's heads implode merely by pointing at them, slashing them open with mech arms, turning them to stone with her magic hair ribbons, or sucking out their auras with her life-stealing blade. (She even bi-locates.) And at the grand finale (minor spoiler alert), she arranges the total destruction of a prison and all its inmates--and this isn't just any prison, mind you, but an entire parallel universe full of supervillains. That's some serious mass execution.

Little hints in the comic suggest that even in the midst of the brainless fun, Espinosa is inviting us to form our own opinions of the Battle Girls' methods. In particular, he spends time on Mighty Girl's backstory. While at school, she was not content merely to defend the innocent and beat up bullies, but regularly broke limbs and gave massive internal injuries. As she tells her father in one panel, "He said the 'F' word in my face and called me the 'S' word.... So I broke his fibula, collarbone and both shins" (p. 59). Running through the comic is a faint hint that superheroes tend to dole out punishment disproportionate to the crime.

Even so, much of what the Battle Girls do is legitimate. They are not vigilante superheroes but a government-sanctioned organization. Their fight with Geneszorr is an actual war, and considering that Geneszorr is wiping out an entire planet, a just war. However, some of their methods are questionable. Though Priestess takes prisoners, Saintly Perfect Goddess kills casually even when she could potentially capture instead. The only ones she does not kill are female villains she can turn into new Battle Girls with her mind-control skills. And at the end, she makes it plain that the only good supervillain is a dead supervillain, even if he's tucked away in a parallel universe prison.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has the following to say about execution:

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offence incapable of doing harm--without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself--the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically non-existent'. [par. 2267]

Geneszorr himself is so powerful--being able to shape-shift, absorb energy, and meld with mechs--that long-term imprisonment or even capture is likely impossible. Killing him on the battlefield is probably the only sure way to "defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor." However, when prisoners are already locked away in a super-prison so secure it exists in an alternate reality, execution can hardly be considered legitimate, especially when carried out on an individual warrior's initiative rather than by a legitimate judicial body. Perhaps Saintly Perfect Goddess should leave off her first adjective.

And then there's the mind control issue....

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Battle Girlz:

Myth Level: Medium (classic pulp fare with all its themes)

Quality: Medium-High (a great deal of fun; Espinosa's excellent art with some poor writing and too much clutter)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (some sexual references and art, frequent action violence)
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