Dead Girls

Richard Calder - novels
Plastic Life
 

Photo copyright:
John Kaiine

-An introduction to Dead Girls the graphic novel

KJ Bishop

First appeared in Murky Depths Issue #9

I’m gonna run away I’m never comin’ back to you —Joan Jett

We’re going to run away. We’re going to stow away on a ship or join the Foreign Legion. In your world we’ll only die or become like you. But in the other world we can be pirates and vampires and queens of the jungle. In the other world we can be alien on our own terms.

Dead Girls, the novel by Richard Calder of which this comic is a re-imagining, can be summed up as a story about runaway teenage lovers: a boy in love with a girl who is turning into a menace to society. Primavera Bobinski is becoming delinquent and dangerous, and Iggy Zwakh is addicted to her. The world is out to get them, and they run away.

But if the love song is by the Shangri-Las, the imagery is more Hans Bellmer. Primavera’s delinquency is fantastical: in London, a plague is turning pubescent girls into dolls—mechanical, effectively magical, hypersexual, and vampiric. In other words, real girls are becoming, as they reach sexual maturity, the essence of woman as imagined by neurotic malekind: woman as femme fatale, dangerous to man but spiritually inferior to him.

We are told of a second Belle Époque, in our future but in the nostalgic past of the story. In that future fin de siècle, men enjoyed the company of extraordinary dolls: sex toys as made by Cartier, automata with quantum computers inside. Their inventor was Dr Toxicophilous, a Baudelairean dandy of a man, in whose unconscious misogyny was combined with fetishistic, violent desires. The world of the future has graduated from the school of the 19th century no more than the 20th century did.

This psychic material, latent in one man, infected the quantum innards of his creations and manifested as the doll plague. An infected girl’s flesh turns to plastic and metal. A sub-atomic matrix serves as her mind. She will never grow older; she will only, as Primavera says, ‘get dollier’. Like all the girl-women of male dread and loathing, she will have no originality. One doll is much like another. The bite of a doll carries the plague, injecting the male lover/victim so that he becomes a carrier. It could be an ironic twist on the old message that women are not fit to create, only to reproduce the male creation.

The runaways are far from certain that escape is possible. Primavera is able to enter doors inside herself—potentially a mise en abyme of them. With her surname, she is a Russian doll. If she were to go deeper and deeper inside herself, would she find anything other than more layers of doll?

And what would escape mean for Iggy? Iggy’s interest is entirely focused upon Primavera, and his situation mirrors hers: just as she is halfway between the worlds of the living and the dead, so is Iggy, as a person in a state of melancholy identification with the one becoming lost to him.

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Although this is a story about teenagers, it is also, I think, in another register, a tale about the younger children we once were, and the powers we had, which we seem no longer to have. It brings up some of the childhood mysteries that we lived through without consciously understanding them.

Above all, it reminds us of how early in life we were alien. Children’s roleplay and fantasy may not be only a method of creating and elaborating the object-self, but a means of regaining a measure of the lost infinite ocean of being—the immanence we had before we entered the distancing world of language. This much is true, at any rate: however nice the authorities above us try to be about it, it’s impossible to escape the sense that we are strange creatures who must be normalised, monsters to be tamed.

It is impossible to escape. Unless we run away.

One way to simulate being an alien—for the human whose DNA resolutely won’t change—is to go and live in another country. Calder spent seven years in Thailand, where I have now lived for four years. The action of Dead Girls moves to Bangkok, which the world knows best as a Neverland for foreigners looking for the pleasures of the flesh. But Bangkok is also a holy city. Every spangled temple—and there are a lot of them—is a reminder of the Buddhist quest for liberation. Meanwhile the red-light streets, of which we see future versions in Dead Girls, prompt thoughts of an alternative path through profane rituals of disinhibition.

Both ways involve becoming strange.

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Dead Girls the novel is linguistically rich and rococo. Its language is the profligate, peacocky language of Eros—or that of the glorious alien—shaped by a landscaping intellect that keeps the whole thing cogent. Much more than ornamentation, the style is obviously one of the essential systems of the narrative itself. When I was told that the novel was to be re-imagined as a comic I wondered how the story would fare without the larger part of its verbal vitals. The answer is that artist Leonardo M. Giron steps into the breach with aplomb, depicting the world of the story with a suitably ornate flourish and bringing out strongly the novel’s puckish, fun side.

Comic books were an influence on the original novel. This, then, is a reworking (or replaying) of the story from that particular strand of its beginning. Amongst the layers of the novel there’s a comic: this, then, is the graphical strain of the Dead Girls virus. For stories are, of course, memetic viruses. They release private psychic material into the public world. The only prophylactic is to close the book. But don’t we as media consumers go looking, consciously or unconsciously, for the alchemical virus, the one that will infect us with the right stuff to turn us into a master or mistress of our own dreams?

If there seems to be a chance of that, we’ll choose infection again.