Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Taxidermist

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD #507-510, #1070 and #1087-1089, and The Taxidermist from Judge Dredd Megazine #2.37-2.46)

Our guest this week is Lori Matsumoto, who is one of those people who Makes Things Happen. She's a comics writer (watch for an announcement of a big project coming soon!), photographer, blogger and cheese-eater, and just launched Mark Waid's forum. She and I discussed the collection of the 1987-1998 stories involving Olympian Jacob Sardini, The Taxidermist.

LORI: I guess this is Week 2 of Japanese American women writing about cultural stereotyping-palooza in Judge Dredd. "Forgivable but confusing" is an excellent way to describe it. As I read The Taxidermist, I kept having some version of this thought process:

    Whoa, this is racist!
    Then again, Gibson portrays every ethnicity in a grotesquely stereotypical way.
    But... but... the way he depicts the Nepalese is really troubling.
    Look at his Germans. You thought they were hilarious!
    Yes but argh.

Occasionally my musings on race were superseded by sugarplum visions of Body Worlds. Flensed sugarplums. Douglas, have you been to Body Worlds? 

I went expecting to be repelled, you know, being surrounded by taxidermied humans and everything, but I was more disturbed by the poses they were in than anything else. If stuff like this and this exists in the world, are we so far off from this? 

Also I found this photo. I don't know what to say about it.

Beautiful and Bizarre bw1

Wait wait wait, I just found this.

Dude. It's only a matter of time before human taxidermy becomes a reality show, and then an Olympic sport.

DOUGLAS: Well, yeah, and that's really the hidden theme of The Taxidermist, that bodies are becoming completely separated from the idea of "dignity." I wouldn't have guessed that would be the basis of a laugh riot, but this is one of the funniest books in the entire Dredd-verse. (I actually haven't been to Body Worlds; I think it would just make me really sad to see it in person. Apparently John Wagner was ahead of the curve in figuring out where the bodies used in it might have come from.)

What Sardini does to bodies is, by our standards, as undignified as anything could imaginably be, but the central joke of his story is that he's the one character in the whole thing to whom dignity is everything--an old-fashioned craftsman who's frustrated by the decline in the quality of handiwork and by the dumb things that kids get up to. ("That was his trouble - girls, and those stupid friends of his at the Stutter Club. Why couldn't they speak normally, Sardini would like to know? And why did they dress like fools?")

I imagine that mortality and the idea of what happens to the body after death were on Wagner's mind a lot during this period, for whatever reason: I just realized that the same issue as the final episode of "Return of the Taxidermist" included "Bury My Knee at Wounded Heart," one of his best-loved Dredd one-offs, which is entirely about that. More and more, I suspect that the gag in "The Executioner" about where Mega-City citizens go where they die--to the conveyor belts at Resyk--might be the single best joke to come out of the Wagner/Grant collaboration; it certainly never loses its punch, no matter how many times anyone goes back to it.

I promise I'm going to get back to the race stuff in a bit (especially after last week, I don't want to lose sight of it), but first I want to natter a bit about how ingeniously constructed The Taxidermist as a whole is, and specifically about "Return of the Taxidermist." It's a story constructed on a very familiar template--master of a craft comes back for one last challenge/athlete comes back for one last big game--and it takes the utterly insane idea of human taxidermy as an Olympic sport and plays that absolutely straight, thinking through what exactly that competition would be like and what kind of melodrama would arise around Sardini's final big effort. ("He always said no one ever had hands like Sardini. Hands born to stuff their fellow man.")

That's one kind of comedy. Another kind comes from figuring out what kinds of activities make the least sense as competitions, and framing them as competitions. (I get the sense that most of "Laser Gaze" Bolton's appearances were written after Wagner saw how hilarious Ian Gibson made the first one turn out; she actually came back for a second sequence a few years later, and there was a bit in Judge Dredd about competitive staring just a few months back.) Still another kind is a gag Wagner's returned to again and again, because it basically always works in his hands: channeling the fatuous diction of TV sportscasts and their announcers. ("Robbert--all that remains is for me to say goodbye, and good luck." "Thanks, Grace. We're going to need it. We're a real crap team.") And there are lots of (relatively) understated gags, as in the first "Taxidermist" story--my favorite is when we find out how it is that Fraulein Körperstopfer's hairstyle keeps changing from episode to episode.

The core of the story, though, is actually a straightforward drama: can the mastery that's come to Jacob with age compensate for his physical decline? Can he come to terms with the new technology he loathes? Can he learn the kind of "showmanship" that may be incompatible with what he thinks of as his quiet craft? And can he atone for the cowardice that (as we've seen before) is his failing?

(One other little detail that I really like is the fakeout in the plot: everything we hear about Guru Mahama early on makes him out to be so saintly that there's no way not to suspect that he's actually going to turn out to be some kind of corrupt horror. But he actually is that saintly--until Sardini becomes complicit in ruining his dignity.)

Also: points to Ian Gibson, who's rarely gotten to do color work, and even more rarely gotten to do color work that looks this rich and wittily rendered. (The lines of Fraulein Körperstopfer's dress! The vectors of Sardini's moustache!) Compare this to his dashed-off "Q. Twerk" gigs, or that piece in the back of the second Judge Anderson Psi Files collection--it's hard to believe they're by the same artist. I particularly love his redesign of Sardini, with those spindly little ankles, looking like he just stepped out of a Pixar movie.

"Revenge of the Taxidermist" pales in comparison, I think--not as funny or smart or anywhere near as attractively executed--although I do love Wagner's habit of actually getting rid of beloved recurring characters sometimes. Killing off the featured character halfway through the second part of a three-part story is a hilariously audacious move, too, and it's only fitting that Sardini's murder is avenged through the total loss of his dignity as he understands it--as opposed to how his heir understands it--and the complete perversion of his explicitly expressed desires concerning what should happen to his body after he dies. (And, of course, the moment that he finally shows a little backbone, it immediately gets him killed.) He got off surprisingly easily in the original "Taxidermist" story, but pretty much everybody in Dredd's world gets betrayed in the end.

LORI: I didn't realize you were going to do such an in-depth analysis. And here I'm all, it reminded me of Body Worlds, you guys!

Anyway, I have further shallow observations.

I appreciated the inclusion of synchronized swimming as a competitive sport alongside taxidermy, Everest-climbing, and sex. It's a cheap joke, as is the subsequent massacre of the synchronized swimmers, but I am a fan of cheap jokes.

Speaking of cheap jokes: I didn't realize Sardini's wife was dead and stuffed in all three stories until I got to the third one. Her banal poses were amusing until I started to give them greater thought, and then they were kind of disturbing. So I refrained from giving them greater thought. I guess that sums up my experience of reading The Taxidermist: amusing on the surface, less so past that.

I did enjoy a lot of Wagner's concepts; I especially liked the way he messed with ideas of legacy. Life in Mega-City is cheap, but one's corpse might be memorialized in an elaborate tableau of The Birth of Hitler. Guru Mahama lives on in his generals' idea of what his legacy should be. (Until he doesn't.) Sardini's legacy before his death is more significant than it is after it.

I'm out of time so I'll leave the race/class dissection to you, the privileged white guy. I was writing a paragraph about it, but then I started likening The Taxidermist to Downton Abbey, and then that devolved into a rant about why I don't like Downton Abbey but am tempted to watch the third season anyway because I like Shirley MacLaine. So yeah.

DOUGLAS: Fair enough. But yes okay I do have to talk about the race stuff, because it really is a problem for me as a reader. My attitude toward it as the privileged white guy is a totally entitled and selfish one: "how dare anything interfere with my enjoyment of this thing I want to enjoy?" "Return of the Taxidermist" is a story I'd really like to enjoy without reservations, but then I run into Major Koosh--a villain with a cat-whisker moustache and a design straight out of the Yellow Peril playbook--or the Gurkha yelling "Aieeeeee" as he prepares for his massacre, or the enormous bald helper saying "I watchee you--on vid vid! You great man!," and it's like discovering a bug in my soup.

I mean: yes, Wagner and Gibson mock absolutely everybody in this story (it's an Olympics story, so there's a lot of options available for mocking), and arguably the only character who ultimately escapes the business end of their jokes altogether is Guru Mahama himself. And mocking every ethnicity including one's own is for sure a step up from singling one or two out to mock. (It took me a little while to realize that the pose and outfit Sardini's adopted on the cover that was repurposed for the collection are very close to a famous image of John Bull, below.)

Nonetheless, it's a pretty solid guideline that it's not okay to make fun of people who are lower on the socioeconomic mountain than you are, or to recapitulate particular kinds of caricatures that have a history of being tied to oppression. Which is to say that I also think Wagner and Gibson's German jokes are pretty funny in this context. But the difference between the European caricatures and the Nepali caricatures here is that the Europeans are depicted as eccentric jerks, and the Nepalis are mostly depicted as, one way or another, subhuman.

Even so, the part of me that wants to not be maddened by the ugly stereotypes in here came up with a test: are they necessary for something else this story is trying to do that's rewarding in its own way? And the answer is no, totally not. Give the bald helper a line of dialogue even as bland as "I saw you on vid--very impressive!" and the scene would probably be funnier. Major Koosh could be caricatured in any number of ways that don't look like the cover of Detective Comics #1, with zero effect on the plot. And as for the synchronized swimmers... well, I'd rather see more of what the housework competitors were up to, anyway.


Thank you, Lori! Next week, I'll sidle into one of the odder recent American attempts to provide a survey of Dredd's history, Mega-City Masters 2


  1. There's a pretty good story inspired by Body Worlds in one of the volumes of Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service.

  2. Lori din't really say anything. What was the point of her reviewing this when she barely, just ever so barely touches what made her uncomfortable?