Tuesday 1 February 2022

Race, gender, and 1990s comic books 2: Warrior Nun Areala

[Advance warning: this post will probably be of interest to no-one but myself and a handful of pop culture historians.]

Researching my post on Shi involved a bit of reading around it, into the weird, spine-twisting world of 1990s 'bad girl' comic books. It didn't take long for another one to catch my attention - in this case Shi's close contemporary in the surprisingly crowded field of 'fanservicey 1990s comic book Catholic martial artist superheroines', namely Warrior Nun Areala. I promptly read something like one hundred issues worth of nunsploitation superheroics, and now stagger back to report my findings. 

Anti-Pope Sixtus VI, punching through walls one-handed like a total boss.

Shi and WNA debuted in the same year, 1994, and in many ways they are mirror images. Both are drawn in manga-influenced styles, and both are action heroines in revealing outfits who jump around a lot while hitting people with swords. Both flirt with 'bad girl' iconography, while actually depicting their heroines as completely morally upright and sexually chaste. But whereas Shi was an Asian heroine created by a white American artist fascinated by Japanese Buddhism, Areala was a white heroine created by a Taiwanese-American artist fascinated by Roman Catholicism; and while Shi had aspirations to artistry, sophistication, and moral seriousness, WNA was gleefully trashy from the outset. Ana angsts endlessly over how to reconcile her violence with her religious morality. Areala just yells 'HAIL MARY!' and then beats everyone up. 

Here’s the concept: it’s the eleventh century, and Vikings are ravaging Europe. Belatedly noticing that the warriors she watches over spend most of their time brutalising helpless civilians, the Valkyrie Auria has an ‘are we the baddies?’ identity crisis and converts to Roman Catholicism. She then spots an unarmed nun being pursued by Vikings, and merges her spirit with her own, creating a new, composite, superpowered being: Warrior Nun Areala. Areala slaughters the Vikings, achieves sainthood, and proceeds to found a secret order of all-female Catholic demon-hunters, the Warrior Nuns.

The story then cuts forward to the 1990s, by which point there has been no noticeable demonic activity for decades and the Warrior Nuns are viewed as something of an obsolete embarrassment by the Vatican. Newly-qualified Warrior Nun Shannon Masters is sent out to New York… just in time for a demonic invasion of the city led by an immortal ancient Roman Satanist arms dealer named Julius Salvius, who plans to use his army of cyber-demons to TAKE OVER THE WORLD. Shannon tries to stop him and gets splattered, but as she lies dying she has a vision in which Saint Areala merges with her, healing her wounds and granting her superhuman prowess. (Oddly enough, the Trinitarian echoes here – Areala as Mother, Shannon as Daughter, Auria as Holy Valkyrie Spirit – are never discussed or explored.) Declaring herself to be Warrior Nun Areala reborn, Shannon proceeds to defeat Julius and saves the world. Then she hangs around in New York to beat down any other demons who turn up.

This concept could have been used as the basis for a serviceable urban fantasy series, and indeed several subsequent writers tried to use it to tell 'serious' urban fantasy stories, usually with poor results. But Dunn's original series leans deeply into high camp. Shannon is trained by a cyborg nun named Mother Superion. Her nun-fu fighting style involves yelling things like 'VIRGIN KICK!' and 'ROSARY ATTACK!' while hitting people. (And, yes, her rosary beads explode on impact.) Her original Warrior Nun costume has three cleavage windows. (It gradually became more sensible over time.) At one point she is attacked by a wooden golem who communicates entirely in anagrams of 'Warrior Nun Areala', and who thus lurches around saying things like 'WAR AURA, LEARN IRON' and 'I RAN A RUNE WAR'. The colours are bright and the visuals are cartoonish and the whole thing has a slightly amateurish air that reassuringly implies no-one involved in the comic was taking things too seriously. And the characters communicate in 'dialogue' like this:


(And then his plane explodes.)

It's also obvious that Ben Dunn is a massive D&D nerd. Demons answer to 'lord Orcus', describe inferior demons as 'low-level lemures', refer casually to conflicts between 'demons' and 'devils', and describe Earth as being on 'the Prime Material Plane'. One character is referred to as 'a level 5 Magic Priest', who went missing while 'battling a type 7 demon'. At one point, the demon princess Lillith is even attacked by an armoured Catholic priest who introduces himself as 'THE CLERIC!' (She kills him one panel later.) 

Even though Shi was a higher-profile property at the time, WNA had a lot more comics - 120ish vs 65ish over the same ten-year period - probably because Ben Dunn's Antarctic Press was a much more efficient comic-producing company than Billy Tucci's Crusade Fine Arts, which seems to have existed in a perpetual state of crisis. These are mostly filled with inconsequential adventures, and endless spin-off mini-series about minor characters: Shotgun Mary, Lillith, Dei, Crimson Nun, Silver Cross, Serina, The Redeemers, etc, etc, etc. As with Shi, however, the core narrative is contained in just a few issues: Warrior Nun 1-3 (1994), Rituals 1-6 (1995), Resurrection 1-3 (1998), and finally issues 9-12 of Warrior Nun series 3 (1999). Those sixteen issues tell Shannon's actual story, although frustratingly it cuts off just before reaching its climax: the next issue, Warrior Nun 3:13, time-jumps forwards to introduce a new, younger, Buffy-inspired heroine, leaving the original story unresolved. (Maybe it got wrapped up in series 4? I couldn't find those.) 

Considered as a stand-alone sequence of sixteen issues, I felt that there was a lot to like about the core story of Warrior Nun. The first twelve, by Ben Dunn, are lurid and campy and fun, fully self-aware of their own silliness: it was only when people tried to take it seriously that the whole thing went off the rails. Both Barry Lyga's Warrior Nun series (1997) and Steve Englehart's Warrior Nun: Scorpio Rose miniseries (1996) tried to use WNA to directly tackle serious themes of institutionalised sexism, racism, antisemitism, and homophobia within the Catholic church, a task to which it was wildly unsuited. They were meant to be character-driven stories about faith and doubt, but Shannon herself is essentially a non-character: her whole personality boils down to 'be good' and 'serve the church', and whenever they come into conflict the first one always wins. Her backstory is like that of every D&D character irritated at having to waste time on background that could be better spent adventuring: 'I'm an orphan who was raised by paladins to be a paladin so now I'm a paladin. Motivation: be a paladin. Personality: Lawful Good. Now where's the dungeon entrance?'

There's nothing inherently wrong with being a non-character if you're in the right kind of story. Secondary series protagonist Shotgun Mary exemplifies this: she's an ex-nun with a motorbike and a shotgun who rides around America shooting demons in the face. That's it: that's her entire life. Some of the Shotgun Mary stories are almost abstract in their pure simplicity: cultists do cultist stuff until the demons show up, and then the demons do demon stuff until Shotgun Mary shows up, and then Shotgun Mary shoots everyone in the face and the story ends. (It appears to be a fundamental law of the Warrior Nun universe that all problems can be solved by Shotgun Mary shooting them in the face.) It's more like a dance than a story. And because of that absolute simplicity, when a complication is added - as with the rather touching revelation of Mary's homosexuality in Shotgun Mary: Blood Lore (1997) - it can actually work. Whereas the writers who worked on WNA in 1996-9 kept trying to write about Shannon as though she was an actual character, and she just wasn't, and it never really came together. 

Ideologically, WNA clearly wanted to have its communion wafer and eat it, too. In one sense, Shannon is an exemplar of 1990s 'Girl Power' pop-feminism: heroic, capable, near-invincible in battle, and frequently shown to be right while her male superiors are wrong. At the same time, she's a 'good girl' who willingly subordinates herself to patriarchal religious authority, and never objects to the assortment of ridiculous stripper costumes she's asked to wear in the line of duty. (It's Mother Superion, not Shannon, who ultimately insists on a more sensible design.) Like the Paladin Girls of whom she is, in a sense, an early example, she's sexy without being sexually threatening, empowered without being confrontational. (Compare and contrast the Ghost comics written in the same period, whose 'feminist avenger' rhetoric deliberately set out to alienate parts of its male readership.) Shannon's secretly in love with a priest, Father Crowe, but they're both sworn to celibacy, and both much too moral to dream of breaking their vows. Judging from their letters columns, other contemporary comic books featuring 'strong female characters' - Shi, for example, or Ghost, or Kabuki - were extremely proud of the fact that they had female readers who identified with the pain and anger of their heroines. I'm not sure that WNA had any female readers at all.

What could possibly have driven them all away?

Religion-wise, Dunn took flak from both sides: Catholics wrote in to complain that he was sexualising and trivialising something holy, while atheists and neopagans expressed disgust at his depiction of Catholic militant orders as heroic rather than villainous. Certainly Dunn's portrayal of the Catholic church was much more positive than that of most other comic books of the era: Magdalena and Witchblade, for example, mostly depicted it as a nest of intolerant fanatics and loopy demon cultists. Maybe he absorbed something other than an epic-level nun fetish from his days as a Catholic schoolboy after all...

The most remarkable part of the series came in 2000, when Chris Allen took over as both writer and artist on the main book for four highly impressive issues. Abruptly the story swerves into operatic grandeur, as Satan comes to Earth, Shannon renounces the church, Father Crowe confesses his love, and Auria's opposite number - the demonic valkyrie Nebelhexa - manipulates the franchise's greatest villains into breaking open the hidden vaults where the first Pope is locked away, crazed and immortal, deliberately written out of history by his successors. (The true original Pope turns out to be a black man, in a fairly obvious but still effective metaphor for the erasure of black experience from Eurocentric histories.) After dozens of issues worth of plate-spinning, Allen pulls all the narrative triggers at once, and it briefly looks as though the whole franchise is actually going to grow up. Sadly, the series got yanked out from under him and soft-rebooted back into perpetual adolescence before he'd even finished his narrative arc. 

Thinking about why Allen's arc worked for me when Englehart and Lyga's didn't, I concluded that it came back to the difference between working with a concept and working against it. If your form is something that tends naturally towards absurdism, like a nunsploitation superhero comic or the average D&D adventure, then suddenly asking your audience to take it completely seriously usually won't work, because the premise is at least somewhat inherently ridiculous. But if you just keep turning up the dramatic volume, then such stories can often attain a level of weight and significance of their own accord. Shannon, like many D&D PCs, has virtually no inner life: she relates to the world purely through action, and as a result she is fundamentally ill-adapted to stories about psychological complexity. What she can do is grand gestures: doomed final stands, dramatic renunciations of allegiance, declarations of secret love. Comic books thrive off that sort of thing. So do D&D campaigns.

I haven't seen the recent Netflix adaptation. The 2019 comic book miniseries was pretty good, though!


  1. Wow. Never heard of this series. Pretty wild.

    1. Few people seem to have, and yet it must have been an inspiration for later (and more famous) 'Catholic monster hunter' media like Magdalena, Chrono Crusade, Hellsing, etc. (Dunn's position as a mediator between the worlds of Japanese manga and American comics may have been significant, here.) Dunn even complained at the time about how quickly other people started imitating his idea!

    2. So, if Areala is the 'Catholic monster hunter' origin/most recent major emergence, the 'Protestant monster hunter' origin is Solomon Kane?

    3. Hm. Areala originates the 'battle nun' archetype: she appears in 1994, and then you get Warzone Vestals in 1995 (though they were initially less nun-like than they later became), 40K Sisters of Battle 1997, Magdalena 1998, Chrono Crusade 1998. Solomon Kane establishes the 'witch hunter' archetype, which merges with Vincent Price in Witchfinder General (1968) to produce the stereotypical witch-hunter in his broad-brimmed hat we're all familiar with from WFRP. (WFRP 1st edition even had a patron god of witch-hunters called Solkan, i.e. SOLomon KANe.) Pop culture witch hunters traditionally have the trappings of Puritanism, probably mostly because of their association with the Salem Witch Trials, and often act as Protestant counterparts to the figure of the Catholic inquisitor.

      The idea that the Vatican might have a secret order of monster hunters is commonplace in urban fantasy literature, but I feel that Protestant monster hunters are usually depicted as individualists rather than as organised agents of Protestant churches. Hellsing's loopy take on Anglican monster hunters would be the obvious exception.

      In WNA, the Anglican church inexplicably has battle nuns of its own. Brigantia, from the third illustration down, is one of them!

    4. Well, Anglican nuns do exist (see: Black Narcissus, Maria Francesca Rossetti). But they're so few in number that I can't imagine getting even a platoon of Battle Sisters together. No wonder Brigantia is meeting with a druid.

      I wonder if there's a straight line between The Crucible and Witchfinder General?

    5. Good point! I tend to think of Anglican nuns as a kind of Victorian High Church aberration, and to forget that some of them are actually still around...

      That comic is deeply odd. An Anglican warrior nun teams up with King Arthur's sister and a druid with a machine gun to steal the head of Bran the Blessed back from the Nazis.

      Yes, I suppose that The Crucible must have been an influence on Witchfinder General, though with due allowances for the formal differences between a stage play and an exploitation-horror movie!

  2. The Netflix adaptation winds back the “sexy” angle a lot, instead hitting the vague teen supernatural drama notes of shows like Vampire Diaries and The Order (although thankfully with more budget then the Order.

    I didn’t finish the first season, but honestly it seems to have only used the basics of the plot. Ava gets her superpowers from a Halo that belonged to a male angel, not a reformed Valkyrie, as an example.

    1. Interesting! The 2019 comic reboot also massively winds down the fanservice, with the heroine as a grungy teenage lesbian who gets dragged into the whole 'demon hunting' situation very much against her will. (It's set in 1997.) I'll have to watch at least a few episodes, if only for completeness sake!

  3. Please, keep these analyses of obscure (to me, at least) comics coming! I find them fascinating.

    Also, I've always found stories that include fanservice but try to justify it way weirder than ones that just admit they're putting it in because they want to and/or it'll sell more issues. Regardless of what you think of it, an honest bit of fanservice is at least obvious and open to whatever your thoughts are, whereas the odd hybrids can run the risk of saying all the wrong things. It's convenient how many strong, independent female characters just happen to want to dress in the sorts of outfits their male authors love; but then, of course, it's not unthinkable that someone would want to dress that way; and while that's something that can be an interesting idea to explore in a comic, it all too often, as you said, becomes someone having their (cheese)cake and eating it too. You can't do something silly and claim that it isn't, and while something openly silly can still be outright goofy (or problematic!), it will always be less worthy of derision than something equally silly that pretends like it's anything more.

    1. Thanks! I find these works interesting for precisely these reasons. People tend to write off 1990s 'bad girl' comics as simply sexist garbage, but now that I've actually read a few hundred of them I think they're much more conflicted: often the work of male creators who genuinely wanted their female characters to be strong and empowered AND sexualised and objectified all at once, and kept struggling to reconcile the two, with varying levels of success.

      In virtually all these comics, 'why does she dress like that?' is a conversation that people keep having both in the letters pages and within the comic itself. Writers, artists, and characters alike offer a variety of apologies and excuses, torn between guilt, defensiveness, and the unavoidable fact that sexy covers helped sell comic books, especially in those innocent pre-internet days. They play a similar double-game in relation to gender: in-universe they're terrifying scourges of the patriarchy, but out here in the real world the very scenes in which they brutalise fictional men are the ones in which they display themselves for the gratification of the *real* men (or boys) who buy their comic books, as the frequent 'pin-up' or 'swimsuit' editions of these comics made clear.

      I'll probably do a couple more of these posts: one on Witchblade (which was actually written by a woman, at least at first) and one on Ghost (which was written with overtly feminist intent). After that I'll see how it goes...