Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Trigger warning: discussion of sexual assault.
Witch Doctor: The Resuscitation is the second miniseries by Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner featuring the adventures of Dr. Vincent Morrow, occult physician extraordinaire. Imagine a character who is one part Sherlock Holmes, one part House, and one part John Constantine. His assistants are a friendly blonde paramedic and a teenage girl named Penny Dreadful whose fingers turn into anesthetizing needles. His scalpel is a huge bastard sword with a bright red blade. This comic is exactly the kind of fun, fast-paced mystery-adventure story that originally got me into reading, period.
In fact, the first time I read it through, I enjoyed it immensely. Dr. Morrow has a wonderful dry sense of humor and his facial expressions and body language are dynamic and entertaining. The occult twists on standard medical technologies — the “oculus occultus” in the place of an X-ray machine, a mystical history instead of a medical history — are clever and very aware of their own absurdity. At one point, one of Morrow’s assistants even protests asking a patient about his family history of curses because it “sounds so ridiculous when you say it out loud.” The comic climaxes in a fight scene against the resurrected spirit of Osiris, whose mummified kidney has been placed into the body of an unwitting layman. There’s even a charming romantic sub-plot between Morrow and his primary antagonist this issue, the pathologist-necromancer Catrina Macabrey.
On a second reading though (as fun as that reading was), I realized this comic was rife with highly problematic genre-based gender portrayals. Take for example the two panels above. Morrow is in a magic-induced paralysis and cannot move; Macabrey is making obvious sexual advances on him. The trope of the brilliant, sexy villainess taking advantage of the incapacitated hero is fairly prevalent in film, television and comics, and usually played for comedy instead of as a serious problem. However, imagine the scenario above played out with the genders reversed: now a man is forcing himself on a physically helpless woman, and it becomes obvious what this situation really is – the lead-up to sexual assault. While I do not think that the creators of this comic are trying to make light of sexual assault, they are unconsciously affirming the notion that men cannot be victims and that women cannot be perpetrators. This is based off the obviously untrue idea that men always want sex, and that if they claim they do not, they are either lying or not masculine enough; that women are powerless and could not pose any sort of serious threat to a man.
A few pages later, Macabrey is disempowered in another common trope: no matter how strong a female character is at the beginning, she is ultimately wrong and needs the male protagonist to save her. Macabrey has managed to revive a millennia-dead Egyptian god all on her own, but as soon as Morrow comes into her life, her magic is suddenly rendered useless and only his brains and his team can save the day. I understand that in the context of him as the hero and her as the naïve enabler of an ancient evil, the narrative necessitates that her actions be wrong. But viewed in the wider context of science fiction, fantasy and action film, television and comics, this is simply another reiteration of the idea that even if a woman is powerful and independent, she is ultimately helpless without a man.
Now recall what I titled this column. It’s clever because I used “witch” as a stand-in for “bitch,” but it’s mostly just offensive because I thought it was okay to use the word “bitch” instead of “woman.” I did it to prove a point. Subtle (or not-so-subtle) instances of misogyny permeate media, so common that they go unquestioned, insidiously perpetuating damaging ideas and archetypes.
I originally decided to write on this comic because I thought it would be light-hearted and fun, but genre works intended as entertainment often bring with them unquestioned deeply-held societal assumptions. I still enjoy this comic immensely, and I am not advocating the boycott of all genre media. This is what I’m advocating: don’t forget to question.