In the ‘90s and ‘00s, an often dime-crime and pulp-ignorant Millennial generation set about doing what all people on the margins do: create their own exploitation work. Some of us graduated to Tumblr, and some of us branched out into other mediums. I found scraps of myself in books, and I followed the dreamy, nagging threads. In high school, I moved online. Message boards, LiveJournal, ICQ. I became an expert seeker of queerness before I knew what I was looking for, or how to define what I felt. I just knew an obscured difference in myself. Coming out would be hard-won over the coming decades. First who I love, then who I am.
In my early twenties, I found comics and mid-century paperbacks and read happily in those margins while comics pros raised on similar media forged new paths in the medium. In 2019, Leah Williams and Germán García took an exceptional swing at Barbarella Dejah Thoris through Dynamite Comics, and made the kind of story I’d been waiting for.
We are still stuck in a limiting dichotomy of fetishized feminine sexuality in Western culture. It’s a tired ping-pong between sexy and innocent, but as stifling as this scale can be, it’s also difficult to escape. We have our own categories in queer spaces, too: butches or femmes for female-bodied people; boyish or sexless androgyne enbies; high camp drag or muscled men. Many people exist within and without these parameters, and thrive in the margins of our margins.
What we see in media - pulp or otherwise - tends to cleave to these categories, and often feels more like a 101 guide to why queer people are attracted to each other than an exploration of our own desire for our enjoyment. If there’s zest or steam or even filth present, it tends to end in tragedy. If there’s real life involved, there’s often an inordinate amount of time devoted to the trials and tribulations of being queer. And, if there is romance, it’s either stripped of its eroticism to get past censors or dialed up to porn, which can feel like heartless parody.
Pleasure is forbidden in our culture unless we can sell it back to one another, and queer pain’s marketable as voyeuristic pleasure for outsiders and a kind of self-flagellating release for us. A lot of us already live our differences every day and see them sanitized for corporate entertainment or dissected on the political stage, and sometimes we just need a moment to be joyful, horny, embodied or thrilled.
My own intersection of gender and sexuality’s something I joke about to hide my confusion and heartache. Do I want to be the muscle man, or do I want to date the muscle man? Do I adore the breathy femme because she’s beautiful, or because she is everything that I feel I can’t be? I don’t have a clear answer to these questions, but Barbarella Dejah Thoris begins to unwind this knot in my chest. The comic celebrates different kinds of beauty and allure while allowing space for Dejah and Barbarella to be cute, cranky, goofy, clumsy, real and loving heroines. Their bond deepens as they save a planet together, and it crackles with sexual tension and mutual understanding.
Barbarella is a comic child of 1960s France forever immortalized in American minds by Jane Fonda in the titular 1968 film, while Dejah Thoris’ origins date from the turn of the 20th century where she was designed by Edgar Rice Burroughs as a tantalizing anima girl object for John Carter in his Martian novels. While these serialized pulp and sexploitation stories from a bygone era don’t seem like a likely place from which to draw a whimsical queer romance, it comes down to how you’re willing to experience them. There’s real thrill in the mini-skirted spy thrillers, femme-fatale jaunts, lesbian-panic paperbacks and muscled warrior tales, and the potential coding of us, for us. The luridness can sting, wound and reinforce stereotypes, yes, but we can also find ourselves as we’re still excluded from mainstream romance. Williams and García tease this coding out in Barbarella Dejah Thoris, and deliver a comic true to the operatic source material with explicit queer love and playful eros.
García rips up the hetero rule book with Dejah and Barbarella. They’re not sterile or gamine or infantilized. Rather, they have feminine figures and costumes that build on their respective aesthetics, but they’re not total cheesecake or made ridiculous with the exaggerated, grotesque assets traditionally amped up in pulp just for straight men.
Barbarella’s figure is more in line with mod beauty standards, while Dejah’s hips and shoulders are in proportion to each other, and make for excellent badass space princess poses. She also has more muscle than Barbarella, whose physique matches someone who’s more likely to spend time in a lab than swinging a sword. Barbarella’s cat-suit is functional and cute with Addison Duke’s magenta and yellow accents, while Dejah’s traditional scorn of clothing sees her adorned in pretty gold ropes and functional pasties (an essay unto themselves.)
García balances each character’s sexiness and allure with a sophisticated blend of expressive faces and practical anatomy. García and Williams expand their erotic lens to include these smaller physical details, and for an awkward genderqueer person like me who’s used to reducing desire to small gestures out of shame or perceived hostility, they matter. A lot. When Dejah crouches down to inspect the portal, or leans over a rock to get a better look at a giant fish, her assets are not front and center in a cringe-worthy way. We notice her, and maybe we blush a little because of how lovely she is in her wide-eyed interest.
When Barbarella gives us an absent crash course in physics or Holmes-ian deduction, we’re not encouraged to leer but to wish she’d read us anything, really - the phone book would do. García also employs newsprint texture and simple lines when we do see Barbarella’s rear, or Dejah’s statuesque physique. Close-ups of their faces merit actual detail, like when Dejah’s panic and surprise make for a comical beat during their underwater meeting in issue #1. Barbarella’s nose often wrinkles when she’s thinking, and her more ruffled expressions in later issues are earned when the tale becomes so high-stakes even our practical scientist can’t keep her cool.
Williams’s scripted appreciation between our two female leads plays out in a delicate rhythm against the backdrop of their undersea adventure. From Barbarella’s first introduction to Dejah at the tip of her amusingly phallic sword, the two women complement each other in their skills and mutual desire. Williams pulls the absolute best of each character from her respective roots and lets it play here. Dejah’s a woman of action, and a swashbuckling hero who can clearly rescue herself.
Barbarella’s brains are on dazzling display, and her constant scientific asides, tangents and wandering thoughts lend her a charming absentminded-professor vibe that grows on Dejah over five issues. Barbarella and Dejah see each other at their worst - confused, panicked, weary - and at their best, and accept each other along the way. The comic establishes tension that never veers into trite territory, but doesn’t discount physical attraction and the kind of feverish, whirlwind romance that attracts us to these genres. Williams understands how to balance real connection and spice, and Barbarella Dejah Thoris delivers both in a seamless dance of skill and heart.
Issue #5 is a slow progression toward our heroines’ inevitable departure - and when it comes, iBarbarella’s vulnerable inability to say goodbye inspires Dejah to give her a sweet kiss before returning to Barsoom with relics in hand. García takes his time with a triptych of panels that frame each woman on either side of the moment itself, and their mirroring is a silent and emotional farewell that captures the big swings I appreciate in star-crossed love, and the small, delicate truth of how exceptional they are. It’s beautiful.
I and many other queer folks do appreciate cheesecake, but riding the exploitation line and injecting fun and flirtation into the story creates a romance that’s additive and includes different kinds of desire. Blatant gratuity often makes for boring storytelling and cookie-cutter titillation, while sanitized sexuality erases us as people, and worth of pleasure and love. García doesn’t rest on the rote aesthetic or tired allure of previous it-girls, and Barbarella Dejah Thoris is better for it.
The series wraps with Barbarella digging into Dejah’s literary adventures as Williams gets meta for a moment. As Barbarella settles in and cracks the cover of Dejah’s story, we’re reminded why we read an adventure in the stars with these characters over years, and decades. Williams values each character’s allure and allows it to come through in everything they do, and builds a connection between the two women that allows for play, self-empowerment and desire. My heart and eyes are full. May we see more of these stories for us, with everyone welcome, in a bright comics future.