Muse by Denis-Pierre Filippi, Terry Dodson, Rebecca Rendon
Here’s the thing: I enjoyed Muse. It’s daft and silly, and while it’s not going to win any writing awards anytime soon, it’s diverting and engaging enough to retain interest, thanks largely to some glorious art, lovingly rendered steampunk elements and button-pushing literary allusions.
Hired as a governess/companion, the beautiful Coraline arrives at the gates of a vast estate to be met by an odd little man who seats her in a strange contraption in which they hurtle towards the house. It’s an introduction that sets the tone for Coraline: everything around her is a little weird: there’s a shifty butler/manservant who intermittently stalks and ogles her, a housekeeper who seems to know more than she’s letting on and a precocious, rude boy genius charge who spends most of his time inventing mechansims and being brattish.
And then there are the dreams. Every night after she falls asleep, she wakes up to be whisked away to a pair of flamboyant tailors who reside in her closet. Once suitably clothed, she is ceremoniously shown into a lift that takes her to a different destination each night. The closet (bigger on the inside), it seems, is a doorway to faraway worlds: pirate ships, desert islands, Arabian nights. At first confused and bemused, Coraline soon doesn’t mind these adventures, other than the way they invariably end: a man -the same man- will come to her and attempt to have sex with her. Each time she refuses and slaps him, and thus awakens from the very life-like dream.
Up to that point the narrative is okay: it can still go anywhere, but it goes here- the man in relentless pursuit of her is actually her 12 year old charge (whose behaviour is explained by Filippi as grief over the loss of his parents, leading to a subsequent loss of innocence -no, it doesn’t make sense to me either). As a story, and not a great one, I don’t have a problem with Muse; it is about as real as its depiction of women: a pretty, insubstantial trifle.
Described by publishers Humanoids as ‘a lyrical and titillating ride through reverie and nostalgia,’ the book’s purpose is to excite supposedly, so does that make it okay for it to present Coraline in the manner in which she’s portrayed? Naked, or near naked on almost every page, lathering herself in lotion, being lathered by other women, taking dips in the lake, a complete lack of personality -let us not pretend she is anything other than as an object for the male gaze, a vessel for projection.
I guess you could make the argument that she’s assuming control of that view by quite literally snapping the boy (with the implication that those who see women like that are ‘little boys’), and thus the reader, out of the dream/fantasy. An argument rendered a little obsolete in that ‘reality’ doesn’t seems to offer much by way of clothing either.
As a woman, I don’t find it offensive, but as a comics reader and critic, I do and those stances stem from the same address: Coraline is simply so far removed from being a character, let alone a person, and never mind a woman that she is unable to fulfill either remit. Gratuitous nudity for sure, even if its packaged in titillation, but there’s only two reasons to have boobs on display: narrative and character, and Muse lacks the conviction of both. I’m not really appeased by the ‘art’ argument, either.
Dodson adds to the air of general objectification and flatness by drawing her as plastic-y and rigidly as I’ve seen a woman illustrated, yet ironically his art on the whole is rather lovely: dappled trees and sunlight, he gives a real sense of space: you can feel the vastness of some places and the tight crowded-ness o others.
I’m sometimes worried that my responses to such things aren’t out perhaps as outraged as they should be: it’s relentless imagery with a purpose after all, and some form of sexism, that I end up asking myself if I’ve become Stockholm syndromed to the point whereby the victimisation of my gender has become so enmeshed, so embroiled in everything that I no longer recognise it, but honestly, Muse is just not significant enough to raise those questions in any serious regard. Pretty, diverting, but ultimately unmemorable.