Comics To Note: Man-Eaters By Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, Rachelle Rosenberg, Joe Caramagna, And Lia Miternique
Something in Portland is on a killing spree. The government will need to round up the suspects while the specialists in the Pacific Northwest's Strategic Cat Apprehension Team will have to work with local law enforcement to catch the killer. The likely suspect is an adolescent girl - but which one?
To understand the genius of a new comics series being published by Image Comics I need to delve into a little science history for context.
In 1908 French scientists Charles Nicolle and Louis Manceaux discovered a parasitic organism, which became known as Toxoplasma gondii
, in a hamster like rodent called a gundi. Thirty years later the organism was first discovered in humans. Researchers eventually noted that the organism can survive in almost all warm blooded animals, which act as intermediate hosts, due to it being transmitted through the placenta, via consumption of infected meat, or through an organ transplant (in humans, obviously) but in 1970 researchers found it in cat faeces and realised that felines are the definitive host (the only species group in which the organism can reproduce sexually) and the ones responsible for another method of transmission - through an intermediate host ingesting soil, water, or vegetables that have been infected with contaminated cat faeces.
If its scientific name sounds slightly familiar it's because this is the organism that causes the parasitic disease toxoplasmosis that's associated with the "crazy cat lady" stereotype. More recent research has estimated that 30% to 50% of the world's population may be infected (and it's a permanent infection) and scientists have discovered that the organism could result in behavioural changes in an infected host. In one example in humans, infected men are "more likely to disregard rules and [are] more expedient, suspicious, jealous, and dogmatic" while infected women "show higher warmth and higher superego strength, suggesting that they [are] more warm hearted, outgoing, conscientious, persistent, and moralistic". (You can read the scientific paper Effects Of Toxoplasma On Human Behavior
if you want to know more.)
It's also been cited
as a factor that "drives risk-taking in business, helping to promote entrepreneurial activity" and it may have a link to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Clearly, although that infection rate is pretty dire (or because of this), toxoplasmosis is ripe for all sorts of satire. A comics team comprising Chelsea Cain (writer/creator), Kate Niemczyk (pencils and inks), Rachelle Rosenberg (colours), and Joe Caramagna (lettering), with Lia Miternique (covers and creative producer), Stella Greenvoss (additional interior art), and Katie Lane, has obliged - at the end of September Image Comics published the first issue of Man-Eaters
, an ongoing series that applies a feminist horror twist to toxoplasmosis with a touch of coming-of-age drama.
(Cain, Niemczyk, Rosenberg, and Caramagna were the team responsible for the critically acclaimed - and Eisner nominated - Mockingbird
series from Marvel that debuted in March 2016 and then was abruptly cancelled
eight issues later.)
Above: A double-page spread from Man-Eaters #1 features words by Chelsea Cain, art by Kate Niemczyk, colours by Rachelle Rosenberg, and lettering by Joe Caramagna.
is set in Portland, Oregon, and, more broadly, the Pacific Northwest, and introduces us to 12-year-old Maude and her father, a homicide detective, in the first issue. In this world toxoplasmosis has mutated into a form called Toxoplasmosis X that causes adolescent females to turn into wildcats or "werepanthers" at the onset of menses.
The werepanthers run rampant, killing indiscriminately (even family members aren't safe), but the public-health problem has been brought under control by the government of the USA, which puts progesterone and estrogen in the water supply. This has the effect of blocking ovulation and preventing girls from getting their periods - well, most girls.
Meanwhile the criminal aspect of the killings is managed by Strategic Cat Apprehension Team (SCAT), groups of specialists that educate the public and take the lead in all cases in which a cat attack is suspected. Due to the government's public-health intervention the attacks are way down so the SCAT teams have been reduced and centralised in hubs. The one for the Pacific Northwest is headquartered in Seattle, Washington, and, as we learn in the second issue, Maude's mother is a member of that team.
In the first issue we learn that a werepanther is on the loose in Portland and the police call in the SCAT team to investigate. As part of the management of the crisis all the "viable" suspects in the killing area are rounded up for emergency screening but we discover that there's at least one girl who the authorities have missed.
The satire is wonderful - the main theme is rarely explored in literature and the resulting humour is, unsurprisingly, explicit and spot on; in fact there's an entire page, in the form of a package insert, dedicated to how to use "Pursettes" tampons, which might horrify some men but is very familiar to most women. Happily the (real, werepanther-slashy) horror is contained to a level that allows teenage girls to read this series, which I'm really glad about as they will most identify with the growing-up angst that Maude is experiencing, as well as the complicated dynamics she witnesses between her parents, who are divorced but occasionally still have to work together.
The parody extends to the front and back matter in the single issues and it takes the form of advertisements; government documents and flyers; and "PSAs" and propaganda paid for by an organisation called Men And Boys, which I suspect will become more prominent in future issues. I hope that once the trade paperback is released all those extras will be included in the book as their contents add to, and expand on, little details in the world that aren't always explicitly mentioned or depicted in the main narrative, or they appear as small objects that really deserve a closer look. (For example, you'll see the ad for the Estro Pure "estrogen-free water for boys", which appears on the back cover of issue #1, appear on a few billboards in the issues. The "Cat Attack" public notice also appears in a few panels.)
Plus, starting with the second issue, the back matter also features art and text by real teens who are given a voice in what is the perfect platform for publishing adolescent angst and anger.
Above: An impactful single page from Man-Eaters #1 features words by Chelsea Cain, art by Kate Niemczyk, colours by Rachelle Rosenberg, and lettering by Joe Caramagna.
I've touched mainly on the story and the world building but half the package is the art and colouring of the actual comic. Both complement the series beautifully and straddle the duality of comedy and horror by offering a lightness that strengthens the teenage perspective, from which much of the tale is told, but they go darker, when necessary, such as in depicting a werepanther attack or its aftermath.
There haven't been too many spreads yet - it seems that Cain and Niemczyk are really keeping them at a minimum for impact - but there have been a few single pages, particularly in the first issue, that have comprised one panel so that the art - and the moment in the story - really packs a punch.
Above: The covers of Man-Eaters #1 and Man-Eaters #2, which were created by Lia Miternique.
The covers are also fantastic and manage to offer an amusing mashup of the themes - the first issue features cat paws with their murderous nails out in the style of a war propaganda poster but it looks like the glittery cover of a teenage girl's notebook or wall poster; the second issue features a tampon that's been transformed into a mouse via a doodle in pen and a little bit of crafting of the cotton; the third issue, which will be out later this month, depicts a public-bathroom sanitary-product disposal bin with glitter stickers on it.
To add to the feminist fun, the first two issues are also available with special-edition alternative covers (glitter for issue #1 and iridescent for issue #2) for those who can afford to pay an extra dollar for the comics. Likely they'll become collectors' items purely for the novelty - but why not?
Two issues in I'm a fan of this series, which is clearly just getting started as it manifests more surprises - and slowly reveals secrets - at a pace in which each issue covers about a day in the timeline. Naturally, I'm keen to find out what will come next. There's lots of patriarchy left to explore (nevermind ridicule) and, since we're at the beginning, Maude's role is still very unclear.
Is she the werepanther?
Is she a modern superhero who will save the world?
Is she both?
The press copies of
Man-Eaters #1 (Diamond code JUL180103 or JUL180104 for the glitter cover; release date 26 September 2018) and
Man-Eaters #2 (Diamond code AUG180252 or AUG180253 for the iridescent cover; release date 31 October 2018) were provided by Image Comics.
Man-Eaters #3 (Diamond code SEP180190) will be out on 28 November 2018. You can buy the issues, worldwide, through Things From Another World or order them through your local comic store.
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, Speculative Fiction