Mike Carey's commentary on Barbarella #8, out now from Dynamite Entertainment. Covers by Johnny Desjardins and Christian Ward. Interiors by Donny Hadiwidjaja.
This was our second stand-alone story, and as with the first one (#4, Pest Control) I wanted to change things up in terms of pace and tone. Barbarella has always been a comic series in which sex – as an element in the plot and as a theme being foreground and explored – has played a prominent role. But in the second arc story, sex had been more or less absent, apart from a very mild flirtation between Barbarella and Sally-Anne Glain, and some broad humor in #7 based on Barbarella's successive misunderstanding of the mores of ancient New York.
So it seemed to be a good time to return to that theme, so long as I could find a way to do it that felt organic and entertaining.
So, bearing in mind that when you steal you should always steal from the best, I decided to rip off the Alf Laila Wa Laila, traditionally known here in the UK as The Arabian Nights. I love the playfulness of the storytelling in that venerable collection – the way it messes with genre and format, embedding stories within other stories, switching tone from moment to moment and generally confounding expectations.
This has been done before in comics. If you haven't read the Sandman Worlds' End collection, it's a wonderful example – especially the chapter/issue that concerns the young mortician, Petrefax. I'd also done it myself in other formats, co-writing an entire novel, The City of Silk and Steel, as a loving pastiche of the Thousand and One Nights.
Here, I set out my stall in the title, and in Barbarella's comment, on P2, that Keruskendi's habit of executing his lovers after a single night of intimacy, is common enough to have a name: "Shahryar syndrome". In the Thousand and One Nights, Shahryar is the wayward potentate who makes a similar vow, only to be outwitted (a great many executions later) by the wily Scheherazade, a storytelling ninja who evades the axe for three years by means of the simple but devastating device of the cliffhanger.
I wanted to make the set-up as short and sweet as possible. I had three embedded stories to fit into my 22 pages (god, I love having 22 pages again!), so brevity was key. Keruskendi explains his intentions, Barbarella baits her hook, and we're off to the races. "Once upon a time…"
On page 1, note the Thief of Fire, Barbarella's ship, sitting coyly in the corner there. This is going to be Thief's story too, so I wanted to get her into shot. Incidentally, that female pronoun isn't just me following the convention of referring to ships as women. Thief of Fire has a very advanced (though also very young and impressionable) AI and identifies as female. Fact.
For fans of Alan Moore, Keruskendi's appearance is a wave across the room to one of his greatest stories, The Ballad of Halo Jones – another example (like The Arabian Nights) of a narrative that contains other narratives cunningly and beautifully embedded within it. The Baron looks a little bit like one of the characters in that story. If you've read it, you'll know who I mean.
And into the first story. Note that Barbarella is in an earlier, inferior ship. She and Thief haven't yet met. In the absence of a smart ship that adores you, you take what you can get.
Alert readers may spot a sexual reference in the last panel of P3. It was absolutely great working with Donny Hadiwidjaja on this issue, but my god, does that man love him some fellatio. It's an easy thing to love if you're a guy, so no judgment here, but there was a metric sh*t-ton of it in the art and it was a mite distracting. I asked Donny to tone it down, and he was happy to oblige, but I sense that there was a bit of an underground resistance movement going on in places.
I love this page, though. The Neal Adams sweep of it.
We put a lot of thought into how the sexy flower people should look – especially their skin tones and their hair. They needed to look human enough for the erotic invitation to be genuinely appealing, and yet to still look like they were part of the plant. I like the way Donny – and Mohan – achieved this.
I love the strutting, self-satisfied little flower guy here. He's not as conventionally attractive as most of the others, but in his head he's thinking "How hot am I?"
Keruskendi is not impressed. He's actually a pretty poor audience for all these stories. On some level I think he knows or at least suspects that he's being played. Donny did a great job with his passive aggressive body language. He may be eight feet tall with abs of steel, but it's clear who's on top in this relationship.
The orgy was meant to be the very opposite of the sex Barbarella has with the flower people: crazed, crude, rough-edged, unmannerly and unappealing. Again, props to Donny. I think most readers will empathise with Barbarella's look of profound wish-I-was-anywhere-else.
So now we're into the second story, which is sort of an origin story for Thief of Fire. Wing is the only named character here, and given how brief his appearance is, I think Donny managed to make him memorable and distinct. And how messed up is that suit as a sex aid?
And how fragile is the Baron's ego? He can't admit that he doesn't know thing one about any of this? But he hides his ignorance because he doesn't want to look foolish in front of the woman he intends to kill. And coming back to body language, look at that hands-on-hips stance in panel 4. This is a man who craves positive feedback as much as President Trump. But Barbarella's expression in the next panel is not one of unqualified admiration. Some guys just try too hard.
Barbarella meets Thief of Fire. The key moment of the whole issue, really. I know this isn't how adoption works in real life. This is more like abduction, but Barbarella has only the best intentions and she fills in some of the legal niceties as she goes. There are some absolutely wild camera angles on this page. I think Donny got frustrated with just having the one character in shot the whole time, and decided to cut loose.
The lovely warp effects on Wing's ship as it goes into terminal orgasm were Matt's idea. I suppose it's not a bad way to go, all things considered, although when it's not *your* orgasm, it's technically theft. This whole issue is an ethical minefield, when you think about it.
The robot Barbarella meets here, Diktor, is an old friend and ex-lover. I've tended to steer clear of direct references to the original series, since it's hard to get hold of in some places, but I couldn't resist this small nod. Barbarella's "morning after" moment with Diktor was one of my favorite Barbarella scenes ever.
The robot lovers who are running into each other's arms are probably there because my wife works at the John Keats Museum in Hampstead. In Ode On a Grecian Urn, Keats looks at a man and woman on the side of a vase and reflects on their fate:
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
I guess that's consoling. Depends on your point of view, really.
For the non-binary-gendered Quing, I had in mind Neil Gaiman's Angel Islington, as drawn by Glenn Fabry in our Vertigo adaptation.
Sex and semantics. It's amazing how often they intersect at the wrong angle. Fortunately Barbarella has a good grasp of nuance.
And now we get to the endgame. In the Arabian Nights, Scheherazade basically talks Shahryar into a saner frame of mind, bringing in the children she has borne him over the three years of their marriage and in effect reminding him of how good he's got it. Barbarella's approach is more direct, but then she's got less time to work with.
And Thief of Fire takes the stage as a character for the first time. Okay, if you blink you'll miss it, but I wanted that to be there as a sort of pay-off from the earlier stories that ties them all together in a nice little bow.
Vix is in on the action too, of course. She wouldn't want to miss out.
I guess at this point it's clear that Barbarella is not, as might be thought at first glance, a lone wanderer of the spaceways. She's got herself a family.