Some comics creators have a style that's naturally appealing to a wide audience. Others have a voice that's so quirky and idiosyncratic that the reader is forced to take or leave it on its own terms. Lauren R. Weinstein falls into the latter category. Even her major publishing effort Girl Stories, aimed at a fairly wide teen audience, has expressionistic art that borders on the grotesque. Weinstein was literally changing the definition of "mass-market" with that remarkable release. What makes Weinstein's work so engrossing is that there's nothing affected about the slightly off-putting nature of her stories. That especially shines in her dialogue, which is at once naturalistic, awkward and hilarious.
For all of its eccentric qualities, Girl Stories saw Weinstein at her most restrained. Having come to her work through her Xeric-winning work Inside Vineyland, I was aware of just how weird Weinstein could get, and I missed seeing her imagination fully unleashed. In the first volume of her new series, The Goddess of War, Weinstein truly outdoes herself. The only artist I've come across who shares a somewhat similar sensibility to Weinstein is Michael Kupperman. While the sort of comics they do is very different, their work shares two things in common. First, both artists love to make unusual connections and juxtapositions for various effects. For Weinstein, those connections are often both means to make the reader flinch as well as laugh. Second, the work of both artists has a remarkable density to it. You can read their pages several times in a row and get different effects from them each time.
The Goddess Of War is based in part on the character Weinstein plays in her band, Flaming Fire. The idea of a blonde, glamorous war goddess is clever in and of itself, but Weinstein takes this idea in some unusual directions. First, the comic itself is unusually large: 10 x 15 inches. That allows her to create some impressive visual effects, including several huge splash panels that are etchings. These moody pieces have the effect of freeze-framing the action, as though one saw them in a museum. The large page size also allows her to cram a ton of panels into some pages, and Weinstein takes advantage of this with a dizzying array of approaches to panel design and layout. Each page in this book really acts as its own entity.
The story is a mash-up of all sorts of ideas. Essentially, the Goddess of War (a valkyrie named Valerie who was later promoted to this position) is sick of her job and wants a day off. She gets drunk (on the blood of 150 Mayan virgins that were once offered to her), goes back in time to recall her pettily punishing the Apache chief Cochise, and then leaves her post to try to make it up to him at the end. She calls up one of her friends to complain about how unhappy she is (of course, that friend is Nebulon the Universe-Eater). Weinstein crams in superhero tropes, mythological figures, psychedelia, historical fiction, absurdist humor and slice-of-life angst. Valerie may be a goddess, but she also acts like a bitchy teenager. She's petty, cruel, lonely, selfish and sad. Of course, she's been put in a position of being worshiped for thousands of years.
Weinstein immediately immerses the reader in Valerie's world, showing us a cutaway of the Head-Cave, her home. It's something that could have come straight out of a Batman comic. Weinstein uses an almost sickly green tint for most of her images, a perfect match for the often ghastly imagery she employs. Weinstein goes back and forth from the gruesome to the hilarious (often in the same panel), as in the panel where she recalls the adoration the war dead gave her: "Some died just to see me! Stupid bitches!" The conversation between Valerie and Nebulon may have been my favorite part of the comic, as Nebulon tries to give her advice and support but thinks to himself "Has she no other friends?", "Why does she always need a cheerleader?" and "Why does she always flirt with me? Does she really like me?".
The second half of the book takes a left turn into the story of Cochise, an earthy bit of historical fiction as Valerie drifts back to her forbidden affair with the legendary Apache leader. As Cochise has to deal with betrayal at the hands of American soldiers, he calls upon his one-time lover for help. Instead, Valerie betrays him as his brother dies and his people are forced to go to war. One senses that Valerie's betrayal was born out of her desire to foment war as it was her desire to run away with Cochise and leave her world behind. Waking up out of her drunken reverie, Valerie realizes her mistake and leaves, just missing the array of intrigue lined up against her. Weinstein packs in a ton of subplots in this issue that actually give the crazy events some structure; there really is a fairly standard adventure narrative that's holding the whole issue together. The Goddess Of War is an adventure narrative filtered through the uniquely skewed perspective of Lauren Weinstein, and while I can scarcely predict what's coming next, I can't wait to see how it will happen.