The Joy of Dicks

December 2nd, 2015


A confession: I am a Strong Female Reader, and I can’t get enough Dicks.

To clarify, I adore Garth Ennis’ and John McCrea’s (if he’s reading this: hi, John!) two-volume series Dicks beyond all reason. It’s obsessed with the combination of male genitalia and violence, and isn’t ashamed of that obsession. It’s ostensibly puerile to the point of featuring an alien antagonist called Lord Bluevein, leader of the Dong. One of its main goals seems to be answering the question: how many cartoonish dicks can we cram into each page?

That’s why I love it so much.

I mean, there’s a building on my university campus called Bonar Hall, and every single time I walk past it I do a mental snicker. The day I learned that All-Star Superman was referred to as ASSMAN in official DC correspondence is a day I will treasure forever. When I picked up a black-and-white print collection of Vol. 1 of Dicks at London Super Comic Con and got McCrea and Ennis to sign it, I made a point of telling them that since it was in a bag, I had an actual bag of Dicks in my hand.

It’s not exactly the most feminine behaviour. But why isn’t it?

I think it comes down to the concept of women’s unrewarded emotional labour, as set out by Jess Zimmerman at The Toast. Our lot in life is to be the grown-up, work-ready foils to our male counterparts. Ha ha, boys and men are immature, the dictum goes if you’ve ever watched a TV show or a film or read a novel or… (ad infinitum), but girls and women are responsible caretakers, always there to clean up their messes. The underlying message, of course, is that boys and men are allowed to be immature sometimes, whereas girls and women are denied that chance. So once we’re old enough to read Dicks/Ennis-McCrea joints/Avatar Comics/edgy comics with swears and boobs in, we don’t get spaces in which to be puerile.

Ennis’ work goes some way towards subverting this from the other side, using fistfights and guns and pledges of bro-hood to portray adherence to such a breakdown of gender roles as harmful for women and crippling for men. While his comics are by no means unproblematic, I can’t forget Butcher’s realization of “Men are only so much use, Hughie. Men are boys” as he bleeds to death in The Boys, or Jesse’s rejection of “macho bullshit” and newfound willingness to show his emotions in the final issue of Preacher. Then there’s his Punisher MAX and Fury MAX, which use the battles of manly manly men’s men to argue that the organised imposition of these codes of masculinity destroys women and eats men from the inside out until nothing is left of their souls.

In all honesty, though, I’m not just in it for the harrowing critiques of masculinity and prescriptive gender roles. I like comics where stuff blows up and bad guys get punched to the ground by good guys, and it’s not because I’m not like those other girls or one of the boys; that way lies madness. It’s that I don’t see my love of sparkly dresses, getting my hair done, dissecting relationships over cocktails, etc as incompatible with my love of boner crimes, ASSMAN and visual media with sweet martial arts fight scenes and explosions.

I need a space to indulge that latter side of myself. We all need that space. But those spaces are so often closed to me and other women in daily life.

Hence Dicks. Although it may be aimed at a primarily male audience, there’s no “Dudes Only” lock on the comic, nothing to stop a non-male reader such as myself from diving in.

I won’t even go into the ramifications of the double meaning of “Dicks” as a term for phalluses and as a pejorative for men and boys who engage in undesirable behaviour, except to say that it makes the literally dick-swingingest comic I’ve ever read into one hell of a critique of codified masculinity, wherein the phallus as symbol of power is played for laughs and constantly undermined.

I do, however, very very much want to talk about the double-page spread of hot IRA-on-UVF-on-British Army-on-Sinn-Fein-on-Ulster-Unionist-featuring-knockoff-King Kong-and-Godzilla action.

(Picture is NSFW, obvs. Not safe for work, probably not safe for home — you know what? Just don’t let anyone else see you looking at this unless they’re extremely understanding. Here’s a hint of what you’re in for if you click that link: knockoff Godzilla, wearing an Orangeman sash, is doing knockoff King Kong in the butt with a reacharound, and there is jizz everywhere.)

This thing of beauty and joy forever reduces these male-dominated institutions, which in real life have propagated decades of violence that destroys lives and communities, to comedy dicks; and depicts the (again, male-dominated) ideologies that drive these institutions as unlicensed versions of movie monsters: patently unreal mimicries forced to fight on no other basis besides the strictures of the narratives imposed upon them. Like the rest of Dicks, it invites us not to nod solemnly with the Rorschachy “Hurm” noise people make to suggest that a) they’re having deep thoughts and b) they’re up their own buttholes, but to do something much more liberating, which is to laugh like absolute juvenile fools.

The comic doesn’t care that I’m reading it through female eyes. It simply wants me to join in its laughter, and I laugh like I’m eleven again. Every time I open Dicks, I’m returned to those joyful moments when anything could be hilarious to anyone, before the restrictions of emotional labour came down.

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