Book Review: 'Man-Eaters Vol. 1,' By Chelsea CainIn the world of writer Chelsea Cain and artist Kate Niemczyk, women are seen as dangerous animals. They bring that world to life with pages and pages of ephemera: fake ads, pamphlets, even a magazine.
Even if it didn't happen to be about preteen girls turning into enormous, slavering, murderous panthers, Man-Eaters would still be a remarkable comic. Though writer Chelsea Cain starts out by telling a straightforward story, she's impatient with the trappings of conventional narrative. She and lead artist Kate Niemczyk are far more interested in making a feminist statement through other means. To flesh out Man-Eaters' world, a place where women are viewed as dangerous animals, Cain and Niemczyk create page upon page of fake ads, educational pamphlets and other propaganda. Ultimately Cain even abandons the story altogether, devoting the last chapter in this volume to a fictional magazine, Cat Fight ("A Boy's Guide to Dangerous Cats").
Such simulacra are just one way the creators show their debt to Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro's over-the-top feminist rage comic. Like that book (which gets a shout-out), Man-Eaters uses an alternate universe to push contemporary gender politics — in this case, men's fear of strong women, distaste for the reproductive process and desire to control female bodies — to absurd extremes. Also like Bitch Planet, Man-Eaters shows little concern with logic or consistency in making its parallels. This is a manifesto in graphical form. What matters is striking a chord, not patching plot holes.
It's fortunate that Cain's scenario does happen to resonate so powerfully, because there are plenty of plot holes left unpatched. Women become cats, we learn, because of a new form of toxoplasmosis, the disease caused by parasites in feline poop. In girls with Toxoplasmosis X, "hormonal fluctuations trigger... a massive cellular change ... correlated with the onset of menses." In other words, when girls get their periods, some of them turn into monsters.
Simply by envisioning teen girls as ferocious beasts, Cain finds a hundred ways to mock our culture's fear of powerful women. "She's your little princess today, but will she be a MONSTER TOMORROW?" asks one ad. We see a row of girls in handcuffs and a mom dragging her daughter off to, presumably, some sort of government holding site. "You're a danger to the community," Mom says. "If you lose control, we're all dead."
Society's answer to the problem is to stamp out menstruation by putting hormones in the water supply. "Luckily, thanks to science, today girls no longer have to suffer the humiliation and cost of repeated uterine shedding," explains a pamphlet called, "What's Happening To Me and Can It Be Stopped?" Meanwhile, some men seem to be trying to adapt to the creatures in their midst. "Cats are ... more sensitive, talkative, mercurial and not as educated," explains an ad for a "celebrity feline body language specialist." "A few simple 'tells' can make the difference between simpatico and slaughter."
Our guide through this world is Maude, a gangly teen in a pink knitted "pussy" hat and fuzzy slippers with cat ears. Both of Maude's divorced parents are involved in fighting the big cat menace, working with the government's Strategic Cat Apprehension Team (aka S.C.A.T.). Unbeknownst to them, though, Maude has been drinking the hormone-free water marketed to boys under the brand name "Estro-Pure" ("Put some hair on his chest!"). And she just got her first period.
Maude's situation raises plenty of questions, of course. If menstruation has been eliminated, where did Maude get the tampon she learns to insert with the help of a ridiculously detailed instruction manual? If she and her friends aren't drinking the hormone-laced water, why aren't they worried about turning into cats? And if women aren't menstruating, how do people reproduce?
But such problems seem minor in the context of Man-Eaters' sharp-toothed humor. Some of the book's most absurd elements aren't even related to politics at all, but just there for fun — like the S.C.A.T. squad's team of attack corgis. If Maude's story is flimsy, the world she inhabits is not. In fact, it's all too easy to imagine living in the society Cain's dreamed up. By the end of Man-Eaters, a killer cat starts to seem like a perfectly (or purrrfectly) OK creature to be.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about comics for The Atlantic and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She tweets at@EtelkaL.