So-called “taboo” (generally a euphemism employed by folks with hang-ups in place of the word “interesting”) sexual practices have been a long-standing obsession/concern of Peter Milligan’s for years now, and he’s dealt with them with a reasonable amount of what we can loosely call “success” in series like The Extremist and Enigma, but it’s been quite a while since he well and truly took us for a walk on the wild side. Oh, sure, The Names played around with stepmom-and-stepson themes, but never really took it beyond the level of cheap titillation, and New Romancer has hinted at some of the more scandalous aspects of Lord Byron’s well-renowned sexual — uhhhmmm — adventurism, but he hasn’t guided us inside the minds of the perverse/frustrated/unfulfilled/bored to show us what drives them into the purportedly “darker” corners of the realm of eros for what feels like ages now. A lot of his characters have had their quirks, sure, but it’s been far too long since he set out to explore why.
All that appears to be changing in a big way with the release of his new ongoing Image Comics series The Discipline, though, and I suppose we can and should be grateful for that — but the jury’s still well and truly out on that one because this first issue, while interesting and perhaps even tantalizing in some respects, also seems more than a bit redundant and perhaps even unnecessary in today’s popular culture landscape where very few stones have been left unturned when it comes to psycho-analyzing what turns us on and gets us off. One of my favorite YouTube armchair comics critics, who goes by the handle of ‘sleepyreader666,’ even went so far as to call this book “50 Shades with demons,” and while I feel it more strongly and naturally aligns itself with EYES WIDE SHUT than it does with that embarrassingly sappy “BDSM for the masses” franchise, the sentiment expressed still rings true — 20 years ago this comic would probably seem like a real barrier-breaker, but today? Not so much.
It’s certainly not without its strengths, though, and chief among those is the art by Milligan’s now-frequent collaborator, Leandro Fernandez, who delineates both the “daily life” and “night life” aspects of the story with a kind of breezy, low-key grace that hits all the right notes from ennui to dread and everything in between. Cris Peter’s largely-muted but spot-on color palette accentuates the various emotional states to what can fairly be called a damn near perfect degree, and the end result is a book that looks like it sure oughtta be shrouded in mystery, intrigue, and the strange but undeniable lure of the forbidden. And so it is. But that’s not necessarily such a great thing in and of itself, and it’s the (I’m assuming) purposeful ambiguity of the story that is so far proving to be the big head-scratcher as far this series goes.
Our protagonist is a reasonably bright and educated 23-year-old Manhattan housewife named Melissa who is kept in fine style by her husband, but isn’t getting anywhere near enough emotional or sexual satisfaction from their relationship — in fact, it’s even intimated that he might be stepping out on her. All of this leads to the sort of epic levels of bottled-up frustration that one could fairly expect under the circumstances, and Milligan really does excel at the kind of lightning-fast shorthand characterization that makes us feel like we know these people pretty well within a few short pages. Melissa, for instance, appears to have escaped a socially and economically dire upbringing that’s resulted in a predictable level of tension between her and her less-well-off sister and mother, but when one considers that her only form of sexual release is to go to the same museum and stare at the same Goya painting every day, you’ve gotta wonder if she’d have been better off staying in the trailer court and settling down with some rough and randy young stud who’s always up for some action. Still, what the fuck — she’s rich, so she gets no sympathy from me just on principle.
Enter a mysterious and possibly foreign lothario named — yawn! — Orlando, who promises her (without, ya know, actually promising her) entry into a new and appealingly dangerous world of sexual excess and fulfillment if only she’ll meet him at a certain address at a certain time of night. Which she does. And what happens next is — well, I dunno.
The first couple of pages of this issue hint at a possible sexual assault and its aftermath, but when the scene being presaged actually comes to pass within the context and flow of the story proper, it’s no more clear what’s happening to our obviously-out-of-her-depth “heroine” than it was at the start. A painting comes to life — yes, you read that correctly, but if you’re reading Art Ops that’s probably no shock — and more than likely rapes her while Orlando scurries off to some other dimension, point in time, or both to discuss her “suitability” for their little “club” with his apparent “masters.” I’m tempted to say “some first date, huh?,” but as we’re talking about a possible sexual assault here, that would probably come off as being far too glib and so I’ll just forget all about that line even though I already blurted it out.
Fair enough? No? Well, too late — and too bad.
Still, I’ll try to make it up to those of you who haven’t “clicked off” this review with a possibly-well-deserved “fuck this guy” by saying that the ending to this debut installment left me in a real moral conundrum. First off, I’d like to know precisely what the hell is going on, and secondly I’d like to know if and/or how what’s apparently (and unfortunately) happening relates to Melissa’s broader “character arc.” It may be too much to expect 20-some pages of story and art to provide a definitive explanation, sure, but how Milligan chooses to answer those entirely reasonable queries will probably determine how long I end up sticking with this comic.