Even now, some fifty-five years after her creation, Barbarella is still a controversial character. Best known for the 1968 film where Jane Fonda played the titular science-fiction heroine, she first appeared in a serialized comic by Jean-Claude Forest, which appeared in the French magazine V in 1962. Though hardly the first erotic comic in history, Barbarella quickly became promoted as the first “adult” comic ever and became a best-seller in its TP edition despite French laws at the time forbidding its public display.
Jean-Claude Forest said that Barbarella represented his perfect woman – intelligent, adventurous and sexually free – and that his comic satirized the nonsensical conventions of modern society through the lens of science-fiction. The fact that most of Barbarella’s adventures involved her having sex after seducing or being seduced by various aliens enraged both puritans and those feminists who saw Forest’s stories and artwork as exploitative rather than empowering.
The film based upon Forest’s comics did little to still complaints on either side, opening as it did with a zero-gravity strip-tease. Indeed, Barbarella is remembered more today for its connection to Jane Fonda and its impressive visuals and set-design than any sort of feminist message or the comics that inspired it.
This is unsurprising, given that director Roger Vadim (a noted sexist) favored spectacle over plotting and said (in an interview in The Los Angeles Times) that he saw the Barbarella as “just a lovely, average girl with a terrific space record and a lovely body” and that he planned to limit the satirical elements of Forest’s original comic. Fonda herself said that she played Barberella as an innocent who thinks nothing of reporting to The President naked rather than the “sexually-liberated woman” that Forest envisioned.
Dynamite Entertainment’s new Barbarella series is unlikely to settle the debate one way or the other. Religious Conservatives and Secular Feminists will still form an ironic union in opposing this comic on general principal because of its reputation. What it does manage, however, is to deliver a story born of the some comedic and erotic sensibilities of Forest’s original comics.
Writer Mike Carey has experience in revamping heroines whose feminist origins were obscured by eroticism, having revamped Red Sonja to great acclaim over a decade ago for Dynamite Entertainment. His script for this issue is highly satirical, with the plot focusing on a ship-wrecked Barbarella being put on trial by a society of repressed religious fanatics for possession of “bio-contraband” and subsequently being imprisoned in a gulag that makes Bitch Planet look like Lilith Fair. What better sums up the zeitgeist of 2017 than a powerful woman literally being put on trial for having a vagina by powerful men who claim it is her fault they have impure thoughts about her?
Artist Kenam Yarar similarly captures the visual aesthetic of Forest’s original Barbarella stories. While erotic at times, the artwork is hardly sexualized. There’s no forced-posing or hint of male-gaze, though there is extensive nudity. Yarar also depicts a variety of ages and body-types among the women in the prison scenes. One particularly noteworthy aspect of the art is Yarar’s faces, which appear distorted and misshapen whenever the characters are uncomfortable – a surprisingly realistic detail which renders the usually beautiful Barbarella near unrecognizable as she snarls in anger. The colors by Mohan are appropriately eye-catching and the letters by crank! perfectly convey the language and tone of the script.
While it will not be everyone’s cup of tea, the new Barbarella series is a good read. The story does a fine job of paying tribute to its source material while satirically striking at modern society and the artwork is sexual without being crude. Those who are curious about what came before would do well to check out Kelly Sue DeConnick’s recent English translation of the original Barbarella.