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Worlds collide at the yearly Comicon in San Diego, California. For over three decades it's thrived as a universe where the comic and cartoon industry's biggest stars are profitably orbited by an array of still-striving peers and ambitious newcomers. Corporate moguls like Stan Lee rub elbows with iconoclastic self-publishers. Wannabe writers pursue Marvel or DC editors. And Hollywood suits descend from the planet Money to wave their checkbooks at a true creative underground.
This August, movie people began to sniff around an emergent property quite different from the Blade/X-Men/Spider-Man triumvirate of comic-based box-office hits. The object of their attention--drawn by Brooklyn-based comic artist Amanda Conner and scripted by comicdom's favorite Irish poet maudit Garth Ennis--was The Pro, an unusually graphic graphic-novel about a hooker who gets superpowers. With national pre-orders topping 32,000, it looks like The Pro already has an audience bigger than almost any other non-franchise book in recent memory. Coming from Image, a creator-owned publisher, retailers might have expected a title with a little "edge." But nothing else on Image's current roster uses on-screen blowjobs, golden showers, and deliberately unglamorous nudity either for humor or as selling points. Like Eminem, The Pro commands attention by daring to privilege the dystopian point of view of the poor white underclass.
"It's not so much the kind of superpowers she has as the way she uses them," Conner confides. "It's mostly about this down-and-out girl who gets superpowers, and how she deals with all the dorky superheroes around her." For example, the Pro thinks fighting for "freedom, justice, and the American Way" includes using her super-strength to help fellow streetwalkers literally ream out a homicidal deadbeat john.
"I love things where I get to draw a lot of visual silliness, and The Pro is the perfect example of that," says Conner, a pixieish, dark blond cutie now in her thirties. "I think one of the fun things to do is to make a reader go, "Oh my God, I can't believe they did that!"
There are lots of "Oh God" moments in The Pro. There's a flubbed lesbian seduction by the book's Wonder Woman proxy. There's the gratuitous death of the sole black character, a Green Lantern-meets-Jar-Jar Binks surrogate called "the Lime." (Sadly, he's no lamer than 90 percent of all the ostensibly black superheroes produced by DC and Marvel, all doomed to speak ridiculously highfalutin or passé street slang.) And there's my personal favorite, the Pro squatting to piss on a vanquished foe before the entire UN Security Council. The Pro leaps over pompous hypocrites with a single bound. Throughout the action, she keeps up a steady stream of flippant profanity, but always with an under-current of social critique, like gangsta rap. It's almost as if Ennis were trying to turn his cranky white cocksucker into Lil' Kim.
For her part, Conner deliberately gives Ennis's hooker a kind of frazzled dignity and frowzy beauty most urban working girls (especially drag queens) will recognize. The Pro is a homegirl with the candid sexuality of Mae West and the prankster heart of Bugs Bunny. Although born from Ennis's imagination, the Pro comes alive via Conner's expressive facial and body sketches, positioned in bright panels full of outré gags and absurdist eye candy. SF author Larry Niven dryly noted many years ago that if Superman were to ejaculate inside an ordinary human, the concentrated velocity of Super-sperm would probably blow her head off. Amanda gets to illustrate this potential disaster with the Pro kneeling to fellate the book's pseudo Superman until he yanks away at climax only to strafe the wing off a passing passenger plane.
Conner is a gifted penciler who began freelancing for Marvel in the late '80s. Gothic antiheroes like Spawn and Lady Death were on the rise, alongside an increasing number of sexy "bad girl" vigilantes. Conner bounced from doing kid-friendly licensed properties like Barbie and Gargoyles at Marvel to more mature titles like Vampirella and Gatecrashers as the comics market writhed and buckled under the frantic desire to outsell X-Men titles, which were the top-selling books of the time. A quick pencil, good humor, and great networking skills kept Conner "in play" until her gift for visual gags brought her the kinds of Mad magazine parodies and satiric material she preferred.
Like most comic book professionals who started working in the '80s, Conner embraced the full spectrum of what the comics industry had to offer, from the crazed sex and drug fantasies of XXX-rated comix to the unbelievably vanilla antics of Archie and Veronica. But what her generation began to do that had been taboo for cartoonists during the previous six decades was to completely saturate vanilla books with X-rated elements. While trying to make story arcs more "relevant" to the post-Vietnam generation, popular superhero books started getting Freudian on us. Suddenly every hero had to have an "on-screen" sex life and/or their own custom-made pathology for motivation. Women's costumes got increasingly skimpier and fetishistic; male characters became more openly cruel or neurotic.
During Comicon last month, Amanda and her fiancé, Jimmy Palmiotti, had to carefully police their exhibitor table to make sure advance copies of The Pro weren't snatched by minors. Not rated "X" on the cover like most comics with explicit sex scenes, The Pro uses humor, snappy dialogue, and the streetwise reputation Ennis accrued writing his last hit series, a gothic nightmare western titled The Preacher, to prevent people from tagging their new book pornographic.
Not that certain old-school cartoonists haven't already tried. Jim Steranko, a legendary name in comics, indie publishing, and topless pinup art, used to glory in being the "bad boy" artist of the '60s and '70s. He even quit Marvel over wanting to give their characters more film-noir sex and Hefner-esque cleavage than the Comics Code of the 1960s allowed. Now in his sixties, he seems a little miffed that upstart talents like Ennis and Conner enjoy a creative freedom in comics that he could never have imagined in his prime. When initial publicity about The Pro went out, Steranko published an ostensibly patriotic online rant that singled out The Pro as symptomatic of the malevolent moral decline that made the fall of the twin towers possible.
Steranko's screed--still available online--was unusually pointed (if a bit rabid) in its accusations. "Are some of the most publicized talents in the field so desperate they've turned to celebrating evil . . . ?" Steranko wrote. In truth, such sentiments are a bit hard to swallow from a self-professed gun-owning badass who admits he adores pictorial exploitations of the female body as long as they are in a style he finds "tasteful." "We ended up dedicating the book to him . . . just for fun," Conner recalls with a wry smile.
If the book does as well as currently projected, will Conner feel compelled to try even more extreme projects? Is there a core of truth to what Steranko and other cartoonists say about how younger creators cynically pander to degraded public tastes? There is already talk of keeping the Pro team together for another Ennis idea--this time a more serious World War II story. Currently Conner is staying busy with a three-issue story arc on Birds of Prey, a female-driven superhero series that crosses over into live-action television this fall. If The Pro does get optioned for a feature film, the resultant cash windfall might fund a number of self-published projects Conner wants to do. But Conner's no hypocrite. She adores working the wild side of comics and drawing slapstick toilet humor. It makes her giggle. And it helps sell The Pro.
Published in: Village Voice, 10 Sept. 2002
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