Trigger warning for a discussion that focuses upon the venomous misogyny, including sexual violence, that featured in mid-70s issues of Ironjaw and Conan.
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One way of discussing the profoundly misogynistic content of Fleisher and Sekowsky’s Ironjaw #1 is to compare it to another characteristically chauvinistic barbarian title of the period, Marvel’s The Savage Sword Of Conan #4. In the latter, which appeared just a month after Ironjaw’s debut issue, the reader is presented with a typical sword’n’sorcery convention: in largely deserted wildlands, a barbarian protagonist comes upon a semi-naked, beautiful and clearly vulnerable young woman who’s being pursued by a intimidatingly powerful male. In Thomas, Buscema and Alcala’s Iron Shadows In The Moon, Olivia, a sex slave, is fleeing Shah Amurath, who has, we’re told, raped her before and intents to do so again. As if that wasn’t a fearful enough prospect, and it most surely is, Amurath then insists that he’ll murder Olivia and drag her “naked carcass” back to the city of Akif.
The tale-opening chase is a protracted three page scene which revels in Olivia’s nakedness and powerlessness, ratcheting up the mandatory tension for unreconstructed genre fans before the saviour figure of Conan arrives, as he surely must, given that the bounds of self-censorship in a Marvel black and white magazine were already being pushed to their limits. (The Marvel magazines appeared without reference to the industry’s self-censoring watchdog The Comics Code Authority, but there was still a clear sense that there were limits to what could and couldn’t be shown.) If Olivia is shown to be defiant and brave, she’s also an obvious representation of stereotypical beauty as it’s degraded by malevolent male power. The chase and the rescue serve to establish nothing about Olivia as an individual. What we see is all about Conan’s power and Amurath’s malevolence. She is merely the interchangeably winsome and nubile mechanism by which the audience can be titillated while the hero and villain are manoeuvred into a bone-shattering confrontation. In that, she’s the prize for the combatants, but nothing human of even the slightest depth beyond that. Indeed, while it’s Olivia’s cries that alert Conan to Amurath’s presence, there’s no indication that the barbarian is in any way disapproving of the rape being played out before him. When Conan announces that he’s going to murder Amurath, he mentions not a jot about the prone, violated, terrified woman that’s before him. Her suffering fails to register with Conan at all. In being raped, she is invisible to the tale’s protagonist.
Later, in between pronounced bouts of swooning, quaking and screaming, Olivia will be shown pluckily, if fearfully, overcoming her terrors in order to untie a bound and defenceless Conan. But she’ll remain, at best, a perpetually semi-naked and essentially agencyless sex object. Of course, as the tale proceeds, she’s shown flirting with and falling for her brutish rescuer. Why? Because that take on that character in that genre and that medium in that situation pretty much demanded it.
Having dispatched Amurath with a maximum of violence, and yet a conspicious absence of blood and gore, Conan proceeds to insist that Olivia escapes on her own to freedom. Her counter-argument, that she’d be blamed for her slave master’s murder if she’s discovered by his soldiers, is as obvious as its brief. But it convinces this take on Conan, who appears remarkably dim and yet easily convinced, to take her along with him. In the conversation that follows, he establishes himself as the possessor of a blunt-force species of chivalry, slow to take responsibility when it needs to be assumed and yet loyal and restrained once it is. Not until the stories end, after 45 pages, do Olivia and Conan touch each other with anything suggesting passion, and then it’s a clinch initiated by her rather than him. Conan is, ultimately, a barbarian with a heart of gold, afflicted as he is with the reasoning capacity of a young boy.
In such a way did Roy Thomas’ script – as adapted from an R E Howard story – present a Conan who was both a vehicle for the revenge and sexual fantasies of a particular brand of sword’n’sorcery devotee and a figure of uncommon self-control and inherent decency. On the one hand, the tale is saturated with a poisonous blokeishness. On the other, it appears, at a facile glance, to be a roughly-made paean to an inarticulate courtesy and an unselfconscious self-discipline. In the end, the beautiful woman not only falls for Conan, but surrenders herself to him, and at no cost to him beyond his pursuit of his typically pseudo-heroic adventures. What could be less threatening and more promising to a shy, needy bloke reader? Just punch the bad guys, rescue the fair women, and love and sex will effortlessly come your way.
But in Ironjaw #1, Fleisher and Sekowsky strike out against the comicbook convention of the strangely reticent ethical barbarian. As with Iron Shadows In The Moon, The Saga Of Iron Jaw begins with a fleeing, voluptuous woman facing overwhelming and predatory male force. In this case, the tale’s female object of desire is, in the company of her father, being pursued by a gaggle of horse-mounted troops. (Tellingly, we never learn her name, despite her appearing on 10 of the comic’s 20 story-pages. She is, however, referred to variously by male characters as a “succulent wench”, “a wench in a net”, and “a slut”.) As with the Conan tale, Ironjaw intervenes in the conflict, but not with motives of revenge or even heroism. Instead, he’s seeking a “agreeable woman”, which is a use of the noun that indicates a physical compatibility, regardless of her choice, with his carnal desires rather than a potential lover who looks likely to willingly grant consent. Faced with the nameless young woman’s objections, Ironjaw declares that “I am strong and you are weak! So it does not matter what you want!” Nor, as Fleisher and Sekowsky tell their tale, do her wishes count for anything at all.
This then, is a book that openly celebrates rape. And celebrate rape it most certainly does, for Ironjaw’s victim is immediately shown in what can only be read as a post-coital state of adoration and bliss:
Nameless woman: “At first I … I thought I would hate being here with you! But now I …
Ironjaw: “But now you find out that you do not mind so much. You are just like all women, never knowing what you really want!”
This, unbelievably, in a colour newsstand comic aimed at children and bearing the stamp of the Comics Code Authority. (*1)
And as inconceivable as it must seem to anyone who hasn’t encountered Ironjaw #1, I haven’t even begun to exhaust the appalling unpleasantness of the comic’s contents.
*1: Atlas editor Jeff Rovin would latter complain that the Comics Code Authority had “ripped us apart” – here – over the content of Ironjaw, which begs the thought of how much more brutal and heartless the comic would have otherwise been.
to be continued;