Retroactive Continuity 11: Tomboy vol. 1: Divine Intervention

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I know, this is a day late. I have no excuse.

A commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks as always for backing the Patreon!

The problem is that there are two different things people mean when they say “justice,” and no necessary connection between the two. Real justice is when everyone gets at least what they need, if not more, and life is otherwise as fair as we know how to make it.

That’s not what the characters in Tomboy mean when they use the word.

Tomboy is an aggressively uncomfortable comic, at least in these first four issues. An adorable cartoon pixie and the ghost of her dead best friend Nick (boyfriend, possibly? Addison insists otherwise, but she’s shown having sex with him in a flashback) urge a teen girl to become a serial killer, which she does, starting with the two crooked cops who killed her friend. Her gruff and curmudgeonly grandfather, a retired and highly respected cop himself, helps her cover up the murders and trains her to commit more, revealing that he himself was a vigilante killer once. Addison is shown cuddling with the hallucinatory ghost of Nick, and the apparent main villain of the comic goes directly from cutting a man’s head off with gardening shears to hugging and bantering with her (oblivious) teen son.

While it draws visual elements from magical girls and story beats from superheroes, Comixology’s classification is right: this is a horror comic.

At the core–nearly literally, as the flashback depicting it begins just past the midpoint of the volume–of this story is Justicar, the masked vigilante Addison’s grandfather became out of frustration that being a cop was more complicated than being an off-record soldier, that he couldn’t indiscriminately slaughter anyone he felt deserved it and that people he was certain were guilty sometimes got away with it.

His words are telling, when he describes his motivation to become Justicar: “The rules of law limited my actions and punishments were never as harsh as they needed to be.” So he murdered the local mob’s lawyer, and then began picking off its members. Telling, too, is the one rule he insists Addison follow in her own killings: “No crime goes unpunished. No criminal walks away.  No matter who they are or what they’ve done, the sentence is death.”

But he and Addison are killers, and they walk away again and again. Just as we’ve observed with Batman, there is an inherent hypocrisy to fighting crime by committing crimes. But Addison has her excuse, laid out in a scene where she argues with her pixie advisor (likely a hallucination, though there are a couple of hints that some kind of evil entity may have haunted her grandfather as Justicar and is now, as the pixie and the ghost of Nick, haunting Addison). In a scene after she murdered the cops and before her grandfather starts training her:

Addison: [distraught] I shouldn’t have done that.. I shouldn’t have done that..
Princess Cheery Cherry: Why not? No one else was going to do it.
Addison: It’s wrong!
Cherry: It’s only wrong if you’re a bad person.
Addison: But… what if I am a bad person?
Cherry: You can’t be bad unless other people think you’re bad, and everyone thinks you’re good, right?
Addison: I guess. But if I’m not bad… then what am I?
Nick: You’re a hero, Addison. My hero.

(Note that Princess Cheery Cherry and Nick both speak with the same distinctive speech balloons, white text on black backgrounds.)

This is a particular, perniciously popular understanding of morality, one endemic to fantastic and speculative fiction. We see it in Harry Potter, in Star Wars, in Batman, and countless other places: good and evil are teams. If you’re on the good team, anything you do to people on the evil team is justified. When the bad guys murder, torture, and destroy, it’s because they’re evil, and hence their fault. When the good guys murder, torture, and destroy the bad guys, it’s because the bad guys are evil, and hence the bad guys’ fault again. Addison is narratively positioned as good, following the beats of the hero’s origin story–“everyone thinks [she’s] good”–and therefore any action she takes against the comic’s villains is heroic, even when the exact same action done to a bystander is evil.

Which ties directly into the misunderstanding of justice that is the monster lurking within this horror comic. Possibly literally, if the visions Addison’s grandfather had in the war, Princess Cheery Cherry, and ghost Nick are not hallucinations but manifestations of some kind of demonic entity. On the other hand, Addison is shown taking the drug Ambidrex when she kills, and the fact that it causes hallucinations and violent behavior is precisely what her targets are trying to cover up, so our monster may be purely metaphoric. It doesn’t matter.

The point is that it’s an easy mistake to make, because all justice comes from rage and frequently requires violence to achieve. The challenge is directing the rage and violence properly, because true justice has nothing to do with punishment. Far too many people use the word “justice” when they mean “retribution”; instead of trying to ensure fairness and that everyone gets what they need, they try to do (usually in less extreme ways, but not always) what Justicar did and Addison now does: ensure that everyone is punished at least as badly as they deserve. That this does nothing but compound suffering with suffering doesn’t matter; after all, they’re pursuing “justice” and therefore “good guys.” Making the “bad guys” suffer is the whole point. This is the basis of our entire criminal “justice” system, from the courts to the prisons to the police. It’s a brutal system designed to create suffering based on a childish understanding of right and wrong.

The problem is that the idea of the hero is based on exactly the same concept. When Addison horribly tortures, mutilates, and murders the participants in the Ambidrex coverup, she really is being a hero, which is to say someone who hurts the “bad guys.”

Real justice means raging not at the alleged criminal who doesn’t get punished, but at the fact that some people don’t have enough to eat. It means employing violence not indiscriminately against everyone we’ve decided deserves it, but precisely, as needed to destroy the social structures that create injustice. It is revolution, not vigilantism. Healers and activists, not heroes.

Unfortunately, every healer we’ve seen in Tomboy is either a serial killer themselves or a corrupt pawn of Big Pharma. The horror is the likelihood that this is true in real life.

 


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8 thoughts on “Retroactive Continuity 11: Tomboy vol. 1: Divine Intervention

  1. “We are all ready to be savage in some cause. The difference between a good man and a bad one is the choice of the cause.”
    -William James

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  2. Oh nononono. There is no difference between a good and bad person except the choices they’ve made, and either of them could choose differently five minutes from now. Working toward a good cause is a necessary but not sufficient criterion for goodness–some acts are unjustifiable regardless of cause and circumstance, some can be justified for a good cause in extreme circumstances but not under normal circumstances, and so on.

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  3. I definitely wouldn’t say the characters in Tomboy are meant to be heroes, even if they perceive themselves as such. I see the comic as the tale of a mentally ill girl’s journey to nightmarish villain, not in the opposite direction. It’s less justice and more revenge. In the second volume, Addison slips lower on the scale, and the ‘bad guys’ are shown to be deeper than crooks. If there is anyone we are supposed to root for, it’s the police.

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  4. Oh, that doesn’t surprise me at all. This is all about laying bare the ugliness at the heart of being a self-declared hero.

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  5. Although I don’t really see much difference between justice (in the sense of “criminal justice”) and revenge. One’s a bit more ritualistic than the other, that’s about it.

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  6. “Besides,” said Magrat virtuously, “It can’t be bad if we’re doing it. We’re the good ones.”
    “Oh, yes, so we is,” said Granny, “And there was me forgetting it for a minute.”

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