False Starts, Part Three of Three: Dazzler #1

Posted by on June 16th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: False Starts Part One & False Starts Part Two.

Dazzler #1;  Jim McCann, writer; Various artists; Marvel Comics; 33 pp., $3.99; Color

Of the small set of comics I’m reviewing in this series — all of them, current Marvel #1s — the Dazzler one-off is actually the best.

The comic is, at least, in touch with its own kitsch.

And there’s something genuinely interesting about the way Jim McCann handles having a protagonist and a premise that no one can really take seriously.  He makes the absurdity, not just a problem for the story, but a problem in the story.

“In the Blood” — the first of two short stories included in #1 — starts off with Alison Blaire being kidnapped, then puts her back in her old Dazzler outfit, and forces her to fight again with all of her old enemies.  Doing so, she reflects: “All of it was surreal back when I first started out.  Now it’s just. . . insane!”

Without breaking the fourth wall, McCann has Dazzler discuss herself as a character, a creation, a commodity.  As Ali prepares to put on her Dazzler costume, not by choice but under duress, she thinks:  “I should be used to this.  I’m a product, packaged and sold.  Started as a gimmick. . . .  I kept becoming what the world expected me to be.  Guess I still do.  Now I’m a niche market again.”

At the beginning of the story, much of her anxiety is about having outlived the glory days, becoming “obscure and dated,” a “has-been,” a “joke.”  As the comic progresses, however, as Dazzler revisits her past and defeats her old enemies, the story becomes increasingly about accepting your mistakes so that you can move beyond them, about overcoming other people’s expectations — and your own — and, in short, about self-definition.  “The greatest realization I made in all of this is that it doesn’t matter how everyone sees me.”

The theme plays itself out on several levels.  In one sense,  Dazzler is commenting on Dazzler, on the idea of returning to what was always a pretty ridiculous idea, and which is now, not only ridiculous, but dated:  “too nostalgic, but too soon to be retro-cool.”  Internal to the story, however, her reflections on her life and career also serve as a comment on celebrity culture, the fetish of fame and the sacrifices people make to achieve it.

What is surprising, however, is how these critiques are overtly tied to gender.  When Alison is abducted, she is immediately robbed of her voice (which happens to be her greatest weapon).  She is confronted with a hollow-eyed Stepford version of herself, and an over-the-top femme outfit that literally demands “wear me.”  She becomes Dazzler while sitting at the make-up table: cosmetics, clothing and jewelry prominently feature in the transformation.  More disturbing, as she battles the villain Klaw, he briefly gains the upper hand, and her defeat is not-so-subtly related to a rape:  She lies on one side, wearing a pained and humiliated expression:  eyes tight, teeth clenched.  Her cleavage is prominently displayed to us; her ass is turned toward her adversary.  He looms over her, and taunts:  “I was inside of you.”

The heroine, of course, springs back from this.  She wins the fight, and in the process she learns that not only does she not have to be Dazzler, she also doesn’t have to stop being Dazzler.  The story ends with Blaire’s decision to keep the old outfit.

The second story in the issue, which is neither as long nor as rich as the first, nevertheless picks up where the first one left off.  In “In the Blood,” Dazzler came to grips with her past; in “Tough Call,” she learns the meaning of forgiveness.  She forgives her sister/archenemy, which is relatively easy, and she forgives their mother, the neglectful drug addict, which is much harder.  The main conflict in the story is the struggle internal to Ali — to call her mom, to restrain her anger, to let herself love.

It’s all meant to be very touching, but mostly I just found it unbearably pious.  It does, however, provide both a conclusion to and a moral for the first story: “Sometimes you have to stop running from what you were. . .  and find out what you are truly meant to be.”

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