If there’s anything I learned from 1970s underwear
commercials, it’s that nothing ruins a woman’s day like visible pantylines. Back then I didn’t know exactly what visible pantylines were or why they were so embarrassing, but after reading Terra Obscura, I do and they’ve ruined my day.
Terra Obscura, vol. 1 (America’s Best Comics, 2003) was scripted by Peter Hogan, penciled by Yanick Paquette and co-plotted by Alan Moore. The book builds on Moore’s Tom Strong, a comic as charming as Moore can create, and concerns a twin earth defended by Tom Strange and the Society of Major American Science Heroes (S.M.A.S.H.). Strong, Strange and S.M.A.S.H. work together to save that planet in Moore’s Tom Strong Book 2.
Terra Obscura takes it from there but what happens next is hard for me to get at because I was distracted by pantylines, butt-shots, upskirt peeks and the floppy haplessness of superheroines. Fighting Yank Carol Carter’s panties show through her jeans—though maybe they’re blue latex capris. The Woman in Red has a thong sewn onto the seat of her protective suit—possibly a super foundation garment? (She requires full coverage). The pantylines are a twist, but I associate these conventions with comics I avoid, not the Alan Moore line of trusted comics.
Issue one plagued me with Ms. Masque, Diana Adams, a
corporate executive and “master of nine different martial arts systems” who goes rag doll and flashes her skirt when assaulted. In fact, she’s a master of 9 different systems of keeping her underwear out of an upskirt shot. As a cherry, she has a wholly inappropriate—and spine-breaking— orgasm when a former S.M.A.S.H. colleague is incinerated by her holographic cyborg boss, The Terror, founder of Terror, Inc.
In issue two, Carol and Diana have a pose-a-thon sleepover drawn from bicurious sorority girl porn. At it, Diana tells Carol. “There’s no need to make me sound like a slut” for dating so many male superheroes. The saddest thing about this scene is that it’s an attempt to address comics’ romantic rotation of many male superheroes through a
relatively few female ones. Hogan tries to play with readers’ presumed
heterosexual expectations by making Diana appear so very het. But with such a porn set up, my mind was hardly blown when Diana and Carol get together. Bisexuality here is equivalent to tv’s mysterious motorcyclist who characters pointedly call “he” until she pulls off her helmet and shakes out her hair.
The last few issues aren’t any better. The art renders superheroines vapid and all around inflatable.In fact, the Fighting Yank’s super power could be a valve in her breasts, changing cup size and perkiness at will. The Woman in Red is powered by an alien jewel that apparently makes her fall out of the sky, turn red and cry about it. They all reveal their thongs at will while being immune to wedgies that would saw any female citizen in half. It’s like Yanick Paquette can draw 2 women in four poses and they’re all weird. She touches her face. She bites her lip. She buries her face in her hands. She gasps. In fact, these poses and expressions remind me of the less empowering romance comics. But it’s worse because rendering these heroes more insecure than the ladies of Sex and the City is supposed to humanize them.
There are so manycool, likeable things about Terra Obscura—and the most embarrassing fan service contaminates it all.We could be discussing the obvious implications of a security corporation called, Terror, Inc. or the plain neatness of Invertica, a city that grew deep into the earth instead of up into the sky. I could be posting pictures of a superintelligent chimp or the god Set. But here we are—distracted by pantylines, asses, inappropriate orgasms and a sophomoric lesbian set piece. And it’s all the worse because Terra Obscura has Alan Moore’s name on the cover and in each issue as a “co-plotter.” Alan, what were you plotting? I can see the edges of it in the book. I can see how good it could’ve been.
I expect more from the Alan Moore brand. I expect better depictions of female characters. In fact, if anything, I see Alan Moore as being hard on men. But it turns out there’s no sure way to avoid sexism, misogyny or a full on display of creepy libido. In the end, it’s not like there’s one kind of bad comic and if we avoid it we’re safe. Judging Terra Obscura by its cover, I was worried about the Plains-looking Navajo, Lone Eagle. I hadn’t reckoned with Hogan and Paquette’s panty thing, twisted spine-thing or penchant for bad porn*. Terra Obscura isn’t as bad as Vicki Vale’s talking ass in All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, but that just makes it more insidious. Alan Moore deserves better. We all deserve better. But Terra Obscura’s underthings just get in the way.
* Alan Moore lost patience with bad porn.
Carol Borden hopes never to experience the heartbreak of visible pantylines again.