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2010 October 20
Cover of 'Blood for Blood', the first Greek Street Graphic novel, showing a silhoutted woman in underwear with a skeletal grin. Image: Vertigo/DC Comics

Cover of 'Blood for Blood', the first Greek Street Graphic novel, shows a woman in silhouette and Eddie holding a knife.

Yes, the words quoted above are the first words printed in Peter Milligan’s newest comic, Greek Street.  As the music plays in a strip club, these words blare from the speakers.  One might purport that they sum it up entirely…

[some spoilers in this post]

At first glance, Greek Street seems to be the kind of graphic novel I like to see on the shelves – I’m a huge Vertigo fan, because unlike many mainstream comics imprints Vertigo consistently releases a large range of stories told in a wide choice of settings1 where one does not need a pre-existing knowledge of the characters or a love of the superhero genre to enjoy the title. Despite being myself a fan of the superhero genre, comics can and and regularly do cover so much more than stories about spandex-clad egomaniacs.

The premise of Greek Street is that some stories are too powerful to ever go away entirely. Humankind re-enacts them again and again over the centuries. This involuntary re-enactment is hardly an original idea (see Terry Pratchett’s Witches Abroad,) and ‘the old stories are real’ is a theme that has been explored rigorously by Vertigo’s Sandman series, their Fables series,  The Unwritten, and Alan Moore’s Lost Girls and his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, to name but a few titles. In fact, it’s a pretty tired theme.

In these comics I’ve mentioned, some of the fun of reading them was in spotting the older stories underlying the modern tales – realising who each character represented. Greek Street has none of this subtlety, it wants to hit you over the head with its references, like an over-enthusiastic arts graduate in the pub who just can’t wait to tell you exactly how much they know about the theory of Shakespearean tragedy. Thus its references are clunky and, well, obvious.

The Chorus who narrate the play are all strippers, working in clubs on Greek Street in Soho. The characters – thinly disguised versions of Agamemnon, Daedalus, Medea &c. are men and women involved in the London criminal underworld who pass in and out of these clubs in-

A strip club scene from the interior of Greek Street, showing exotic dancers performing.

A strip club scene from the comic. There are many of these...

Sorry, yes, you read that right – The Chorus are strippers. That is the level that Peter Milligan is pitching to, here. It’s as if he thought “Hey, Vertigo is an adult imprint, how do I make these Greek myths (with all their, y’know, inherent incest, murder, sex, blood and guts &c.) adult? I know, I’ll add a STRIPPER CHORUS!”

By virtue of their choral role, these women do end up allowing the story to pass the Bechdel Test, but it is a hollow triumph when this role seems merely an excuse to draw naked women over and over again – in the dressing room, on stage, in the bath… Did Milligan think that people would be so bored by women actually talking to each other in comics that he had to give readers some breasts to look at during it?

When one of the strippers is killed (dead sex workers in comics? How original…) and comes back to life, stalking the streets as a revenge-driven zombie, she is also drawn naked. I was slightly amused at the lengths the artist had to go to convey the image of a completely naked zombie women over and over again without ever drawing anything around her groin and therefore upsetting the censors – strategic shadows here, and little strategic scrap of clothing there… quite ingenious work, really, from an artist who can barely distinguish one very similar-looking character from another, and occasionally draws people as though their features are sliding very slowly down their faces…

The strippers aren’t the only women who appear naked (perhaps getting to draw lots of breasts was in the artist’s contract?) and none of them are anything below a D cup, or over a size 12 waistline. Maybe there’s just something in the tap water in Soho? Body diversity is rare in comics, but when an artist is trying to portray the gritty, real world, its lack is always more disappointing.

Eddie – the closest thing we have to a protagonist – begins the story by having sex with and accidentally killing his mother and ends this volume in a sexual relationship with an underage girl (a prophetess called ‘Sandy’ – see what I mean about the obvious references?). He’s a walking catastrophe – getting into all sorts of trouble with criminal gangs, mostly through his own stupidity. It’s hard to sympathise with a character with few morals and no sense of self-preservation.

Wracked with guilt after the encounter with his mother, Eddie attempts to castrate himself – a slightly more extreme version of the self-harm his Ancient Greek counterpart carries out – but useless Eddie cannot even do this properly. Presumably the writer decided that it would get in the way of him having hawt hawt illegal sex with Sandy only a few short days later. This seems a pretty unbelievable leap of logic to ask the reader to make, I mean, surely he’d rip his stitches? (Ouch!) Sandy’s mother also throws herself at Eddie – presumably this is how we know that Eddie is the protagonist, ALL of the women just can’t stop throwing themselves at this scrawny little guy.

Greek Street could have been another great addition to the Vertigo line-up, but it is let down by shallow storytelling and some very poor artwork in places. Milligan needs to shake things up a bit – where something like Fables could get away with using characters from myths and legends, this was because their myths were in the past, over and done with, the Fables characters were facing new problems, not acting out stories we already knew. But this is only the first volume of Greek Street, so perhaps the characters will move on and the plot will improve.

While this book does pass the Bechdel Test and only barely passes the Frank Miller Test, those ‘tests’ are not the be all and end all of writing gender, and unlike Fables, Milligan’s Greek Street treats its female characters as little more than stereotypes and eye candy. And for an imprint such as Vertigo, which is edited by one of the most powerful women in comics and already enjoyed by many female comics fans, that’s just disappointing.

To sum up – SEXY SEXY BODY! I’ve never been to a strip club, but if that’s what the music’s like, I’m not going.

  1. Having mentioned that ‘wide choice of settings’, however, I have to ask, did we really need yet another comic set in bloody London? I imagine that comics fans around the world will begin to see Britain as merely a state comprised of one large London-like city and some small parts of Ireland (because they have to make Guinness somewhere, don’t they, Garth Ennis). []
10 Responses leave one →
  1. Markgraf permalink
    October 20, 2010

    I really love the “Memetic Hazard Stories” theme! I don’t think it’s tired at all. It’s something I could happily see explored again and again from all kinds of different angles and approaches and never get bored.

    If I read the back of this, for example, I’d be well up for it. Greek myths! :D But it’s shite, isn’t it? It’s not new or different or even bodily variant. Disappointing. Someone who loves Greek mythology and likes drawing monsters should do another, better, less sexist version.

    … :D

  2. October 20, 2010

    This sounds v disappointing. It’s not like Greek tragedy is exactly *lacking* in sex and violence in the first place, surely it’s unnecessary to slop a lot more over the top in such a crass way. Guess it all fell out from the ‘Greek Street … that’s like… Greek!’ idea.

  3. Miranda permalink*
    October 20, 2010

    Is Fables any good on gender? I keep thinking of getting into it.

    I like the small amount of Sandman I’ve read (basically for Death, but I am admittedly under-read on it!), and I do enjoy The Unwritten (there’s only about one female character in it who actually recurs, so far, but I’ve only read Vol.1 which is very much from the point of view of Tom. And it’s based partly on the Harry Potter phenomenon so I can’t really fault that so far, I think).

    • October 20, 2010

      Fables is an odd one. It’s gone on for far too long now and split into too many spin off series. But the first few GNs are great! Esp. when they focus on Snow White and Rose, I love the relationship between the two sisters.

      I’d have to re-read it to properly rec it as BR-friendly, though. The author perturbs me, he’s a Republican who’s argued that superhero comics these days are ‘too liberal and un-American’. Riiiight. Shouldn’t judge a work by its author, but I wonder what messages I’d pick up from Fables if I knew more about American politics?

      • October 20, 2010

        The way they take Rose Red later, around the time of the war in the Homelands is kind of disappointing though. “You thought you were an interesting character? Hah! No, you’re just a drama-loving bimbo who’ll jump into bed with the most exciting man you can find at any given moment.”

      • October 20, 2010

        Yes, the sisters are great! And I think Snow White in particular is pretty kickass. And Goldilocks too, now I think about it.

        Though it bugs me how the fact that two characters have had sex while under a spell and don’t remember it is brushed aside pretty casually, as is (of course) the possibility of abortion in the pregnancy which inevitably follows. I imagine finding yourself pregnant by a colleague after sex that you don’t even remember would be reasonably traumatic but that isn’t really explored. I didn’t know anything about the author before, but that’s interesting…

        Miranda, you should def read The Kindly Ones if you haven’t already – it has the Furies in being excellent.

    • Stephen B permalink
      October 20, 2010

      The Sandman ‘Death’ stories are excellent, with “Death: The High Cost of Living” being some of the best stuff Gaiman has ever done. And all of Sandman is a must-read really, especially from Season of Mists onwards :)

  4. Sarah Cook permalink
    October 20, 2010

    I would also cite BONE as an example of epic storytelling with female characters that doesn’t make you want to vomit a bit into your mouth.

    Oh yes, and it’s funny.
    And there are dragons.

  5. Michelle permalink
    May 4, 2011

    Why do comic/graphic novel writers always make the occupation of a woman, that of a stripper? Why? Women do other jobs besides stripping and/or prostitution. A whole variety of jobs. And most of us don’t have tiny waists and massive breasts either. is it because these graphic novels are aimed at a largely male readership who find it difficult to form relationships with real, normal women?

    You have to wonder.

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