Arlene C. Harris is a woman after my own heart. She has taken what seems like weeks to put this together and post on her LiveJournal account. She has given permission for Bleeding Cool to repost this in its entirety and I’ve also embedded some of the images. But left links to some of the… well, let’s say dodgier ones. Take it away Arlene.
**WARNING FOR SPOILERS OF TWO DIFFERENT COMIC BOOK SERIES, ALSO WARNING FOR TRIGGERS. THIS ENTRY HAS BEEN TAGGED FOR MATURE AUDIENCES DUE TO SUBJECT MATTER. ALSO, WARNING FOR HERD OF TEAL DEER.CUT TAGGED FOR YOUR PROTECTION**
So a few weeks ago I finished reading Masque of the Red Death. Not the awesome short story by Poe, I mean the somewhat-less-than-awesome, moving paperdoll yaoi webcomic by indy comics legend Wendy Pini. Haven’t heard of it? You’re not alone. Their Alexa stat rankings for the site are abysmal, in the most literal sense of the world. How bad? My semi functioning Les Mis illustration archive site has a higher visit and hit rate. But anyway.
I’ve been reading it since the very beginning, three years ago, when another company was publishing it. At first I was all “oh yay she’s moved on to a new work” and was thrilled at the prospect of something like what the Law & Chaos project could have become had Elfquest not taken over.. but yeah, no. The result is just sad. In more ways than one. I’ve reviewed it elsewhere, or at least the one book that came out (the second volume was canceled a month before its release date and the company went under earlier this year) but this is the first time I’m going to go over the actual elephant in the ready room: what this story really is.
My roommate, also a longtime Elfquest reader, and who is much more into slashfic, manga, and yaoi than I, gave up on Masque of the Red Death two years ago. But I was determined to see it through to the end. I didn’t just read the comic — which is a partially flash animated moving picture story; the flash is actually not as smooth as Homestar Runner and the copypasta art style and repeated overuse of the same images with changes of costume is unfortunately reminiscent of How I Became Yours. I also regularly lurked in the forums. It was easy to follow the threads, in that there are maybe 20 people who post to it at regular intervals. It is from here that some of the extra art in the picture files is drawn.
There’s another reason I’ve been following it, something I noticed almost from the beginning. I spent almost three years telling myself I was seeing things that weren’t there, that I was donning the tinfoil hat of conspiracy. But now that Masque of the Red Death has reached its conclusion, I can’t stay quiet about my observations and conclusions any longer. Because there’s something really really sad about this work. You know what the sadness is?
It reads like a very, very poor attempt to rip off an older, better comic. One that Ms. Pini is intimately familiar with. Because she and her husband used to publish it.
It’s Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil.
Yes, that comic. The one she created as a teenager, and the Pinis “invited” her to come publish with them, and then it was editorialized and dumbed down until she finally got the courage to get her work out from under them, at which point they sued her claiming they had created it and had hired her to illustrate it (an underage girl at the time).
Anyway, the legal debacle is 25 years old and about as well documented as it can get without restraining orders or more lawsuits over broken gag orders, but there’s a very good reason why Ms. Doran thanks her lawyers in the acknowledgements of subsequent editions of her books.
That being said, Masque of the Red Death is not a direct copy. It’s not even an “homage.” It’s like Eragon, in that you know what story it’s based on (Star Wars story retold in a Lord of the Rings universe), but all the names are changed, the story is in specifics different, but in generalities not… and yet there it is, and not nearly as well done as its unwilling progenitor.
Or better still, it’s like Disney’s The Lion King. When that came out there was not an anime fan who didn’t see all the paralells, homages, and outright copying from Tezuka’s classic TV series Jungle Taitei (broadcast in the U.S. as Kimba the White Lion, the title I will be using from here on out). It was all there, right where the original creators could see it, bold as brass. The Japanese were really good about the sly wink and nod, thinking it a respectful homage; they do that all the time and it’s understood to be affectionate if not competitive. It was only when Disney said “no really, it’s not anything to do with Kimba, it’s totally original” that the Japanese got pissed off. But I digress again.
This particular type of retelling goes beyond exploiting archetypes. It’s an out and out rework. They called The Lion King “Hamlet in Africa,” and that still didn’t explain the gross similarities, in character, structure, and story. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like The Lion King (the stage play more than the movie, to be honest) but I’m just saying if Disney had copped to the borrowing from the outset, Tezuka’s people would have been cool with it (and honored at the references) as that’s seen as an acceptable “friendly rivalry” gesture in the world of Japanese animation. It wasn’t the liberal swiping, it was the deceit and pretense of originality that they couldn’t fathom or accept.
Likewise, while Pini’s Masque of the Red Death is allegedly “Poe’s short story IN THE FUTURE!” mixed with some heavy references to Shakespeare’s The Tempest (which continues some elements Poe introduced in his story) the parallels and counterpoints to A Distant Soil are plentiful and astonishingly baldfaced. The relationships between the characters in Masque of the Red Death almost perfectly align with those in A Distant Soil. I mean, I know what tropes are, what archetypes are, what the basics of storytelling are. But there are just so many details, large and small, that echo through Pini’s work that it’s almost as if she took all the component parts of A Distant Soil, wrote each one on an index card, mixed them up, drew them out of a hat, and assigned them at random it in this form.
Small disclaimer: I have been a reader, follower, collector, and fan of both artists almost since the beginning (Elfquest in 1981, A Distant Soil in 1984 from the preview that appeared in EQ #16). I consider myself very familiar with both artists and their respective professional bodies of work, and that knowledge aided me in drawing the lines of connection that I’m about to show.
So, how egregious can the intersections, echoes, and shadows be?
Characters and characterizations
Both stories feature the following: willowy tall thin white haired bisexual male, with a mother (or mother figure) who is sexually abusive/pimps out her son/squicksville relationship, often called/referred to/dressed in an angelic motif. Said male takes a lover who is called a “prince” that is little more than an honorific (one is a nickname denoting membership in a rich and powerful family, the other a useless title in a matriarchal society) who is dark haired, moody.
To borrow from yaoi terminology, in Doran’s work, the white haired character is the SEME (top, dominant) and the darker character is the UKE (bottom, subordinate). In Pini’s work, the trope is reversed: the SEME is the dark one, the UKE the white one.
And yet, both works employ the “fire and ice” motif, both in the story and even in costume design. And despite the switch in the outer vs inner character design, in both cases, the SEME wears the ice costume, the UKE the fire. In both cases, the icy SEME, the strong, intelligent, scheming one (yet still a naif in the ways of personal relationships) and the fiery UKE is the feisty yet deferential companion to the SEME, taken to acting first and thinking later if he gets around to it.
Both SEME are brilliant scientists in addition to being rich and powerful scions. Because nothing says “mmm science and technology!” like lots of money, right? Hey just ask Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark. But at least Seren (from A Distant Soil) has a reason to be, he’s got someone else’s personality melded into his, that of a xenobotanist. He got his scientific prowess from that. Anton (from Masque of the Red Death) apparently decided to become a microgeneticist/nanotechnologist/everythingbutthesinkologist because there was bugger all else to do (pun intended).
The main difference between the two works in how they treat their primary couples is in the dynamic of the relationship of the main gay characters with each other. In Doran’s work the couple’s personalities are to the reader likeable, approachable, sympathetic, even when they’re being jerks or doing something even they know is wrong. The reader never doubts their sincerity even when there’s a doubt in their rationale.
In Pini’s work, the couple’s personalities are to the reader offputting, cold, assholier-than-thou, mostly to other people but especially to one another. One character professes “love” but means “possession,” the other professes “no strings” while meaning “control”.
Both books include a blond boy/redhead girl pair. I realize the trope of blond man/redhead woman is very common (ElfQuest, anyone?) and that both use this trope to full effect, but there are other parallels between these two stories worth looking at. First, the two tragic young women:
In Doran’s A Distant Soil, Liana the redhaired girl is extroverted, bubbly and outgoing, but also was raised sheltered from society in a frightening lab that wanted to get control of her psychic powers. Because of her abilities, she is frequently called “Princess” as an endearing euphamism, and treated by everyone accordingly. Early on in the story she is “almost kidnapped” by bad men with evil intent toward her, and her reaction is to fight back despite being horribly outnumbered, thus displaying inner strength.
In Pini’s Masque of the Red Death, Fronda, the redhaired girl, is extroverted, bubbly and outgoing, but also was raised sheltered from reality as a very very rich spoiled debutante. Because of her father’s power and money, she is treated like celebrity/royalty by everyone accordingly. Early on in the story she is “almost raped” by bad men with evil intent toward her, and she manages to escape despite being horribly outnumbered but is offended by the SEME who apparently did not do enough to either prevent her from suffering the indignation or punish the responsible ones, thus displaying gross priveledge.
Fun fact: the name “Liana” is from old French by way of Latin, and means “to wrap or bind, also a climbing plant or vine.” The name “Fronda” is apparently made up, but appears derived from the word “frond,” like the spreading leaves of a fern.
The male half of the beta pairing is a little more complex. First, in Pini’s Masque of the Red Death, Daryel, the blond boy, is a “tech ops” at the villain’s corporate headquarters. In short, he’s able to reprogram, disable, or otherwise modify tech devices. He appears for the most part to be weak and ineffectual, wanting to protect the girl he’s fallen for, but not having the strength, maturity, or resources to do so.
Daryel (whose surname is either Mirrin or Myrrin, depending) likes Fronda, who brought him into her upscale society world to be her “knight in shining armor” escort to a party, but also feels protective of her. He has a polite and deferential air about him when he’s with her, he’s never crass or vulgar or suggestive with her, even when she’s at her most vulnerable; while he is subordinate from a social standpoint (employee vs. employer’s daughter) he does not try to get anything out of her, and stands by her even though she does not feel the same way about him. Frequent readers of the comic found his goody-goody behavior so annoying they have even given him the derisive nickname “Fluffy” in the message boards. He sacrifices much toward the end to ensure her well-being, risking everything for her despite the lack of a relationship between them.
However, Doran’s A Distant Soil has two blond boys, designed to be somewhat similar, and who have similar but at times conflicting relationships with the same girl. One is the girl’s brother, and the other is a legendary knight. Their names are Jason and Galahad. Yes, that Galahad.
In Doran’s A Distant Soil, Jason, the blond boy, is a “disruptor” who can use psychic energy to disrupt electrical fields. This is very handy in that he can reprogram, disable, or otherwise modify tech devices. He appears for the most part to be weak and ineffectual, wanting to protect his sister but not having the strength, maturity, or resources to do so.
Meanwhile, Galahad likes Liana–who brought him into her world from his universe to be her knight in shining armor, literally–but also feels protective of her. He has a polite and deferential air about him when he’s with her, he’s never crass or vulgar or suggestive with her, even when she’s at her most vulnerable; while he is subordinate from a social standpoint (knight vs. “princess”, even if an alien one) he does not try to get anything out of her, and stands by her even though she does not feel the same way about him. People familiar with the saga of Galahad have always considered him to be too goody-goody, always. He sacrifices much toward the end to ensure her well-being, risking everything for her despite the lack of a relationship between them.
The black panther
Both of the SEME characters have associates who are immortal-unless-killed black panthers, who has served the SEME’s family for generations as official companion. One’s familiar is an actual panther with genetic modification. The other is a shapechanger whose immortality is natural to the species. The black panther is very old but youthful in movement, female, and very protective of the SEME, sometimes to the detriment of the UKE or even a random passerby.
And The Rest
There are also peripheral characters to the SEME, helpers, attendants, servants, worshippers — and yet the SEME feels himself alone against the universe. He was created to be special, and yet he is besieged on all sides by people in power trying to exploit him. He alone is trying to fight agains the great big thing that he believes needs taking down. He is alone UNTIL the UKE attaches himself to him, and then by proxy to his cause. The SEME draws many extra characters to him to aid him, but none willingly, and only because they have ulterior motives (whether living forever, gaining power, saving themselves). Some depart; inboth cases, a gentle doctor leaves the crew before the big problems come to overtake the protagonists (in one case he dies, the other he just leaves citing “other people need me more” — but he’s never heard from again and is likely also dead). Also a few incidental character guests at the grand party bear more than a passing resemblance to characters from A Distant Soil.
Then there’s Bunchh, the blue-skinned event planner/costume designer. Hermaphroditic, omnisexual, flighty, flamboyant, protective of the SEME, Bunchh’s role is a one being Greek chorus for the story. Bunchh says the things to the SEME that no one else dares say, lets the UKE cry on hir shoulder, channels Basil Exposition on the drop of a hat, and apparently has super speed sewing skills because Bunchh is allegedly responsible for all the costumes during this long danse macabre. There’s an occasion for everything, and a costume for every occasion. The character of Bunchh takes the coward’s way out halfway through the disaster, arranging a “beautiful suicide” on a bed of satins and roses.
I am reminded of an early scene in Doran’s A Distant Soil, where there is a high balcony in the starship used as a popular suicide point (the theory being that when you’re immortal, eventually you may just say “hell with it”). One character remembers witnessing a jumper, who just looked at him and said by way of explanation, “I’m bored” before she jumped. The witness’s companion looked over the side, then threw a flower after her and said, “Life’s not boring, lady, YOU are.” My first reading of the two part, Very Special Episode of Bunchh’s Grand Exit Through The Gift Shop brought that scene to mind.
The worst thing about Bunchh’s role is that it likely was intended to be an expy of the author, if not an outright Mary Sue. In practice, Bunchh is the careless creative spirit who professes to be the nurturing, encouraging, inclusive mother-of-all figure who then flounces when things go wrong. There is even a bit where one of Bunchh’s costumes evokes a character from The Tempest, the male fairy/air sprite Ariel. This is important.
Curiously enough, in Doran’s A Distant Soil, there’s a vivacious, flirty, brash, and seemingly butterfly-brained clothing designer as well: Corrinne Brenegar, a woman. And her companion/partner in crime is, Dunstan Auchenloch, a man who happens to be, well, a fairy. A sidhe. A real honest to goodness one.
So on the one hand you have a hermaphroditic male/female who is both a clothing designer and an exotic who identifies with the fae in both temperment and habillement, and on the other you have a female clothing designer and a male fae.
(Fun fact: Take the first letter of Corrinne’s last name, the second and third of Dunstan’s first name, and the third, ninth and tenth of his last name. In order. Probably means nothing but coincidence, but I just noticed it and had to put it out there. What has been seen cannot be unseen.)
Doran’s A Distant Soil features a huge technologically advanced starship that houses the antagonists and represents what the “good side” is fighting against. It is full of decadent, powerful, bored people who do whatever they want because they can. This ship is called the SIOVANSIN. (which was pointed out years ago to be a clever anagram of “invasions”)
Pini’s Masque of the Red Death features a technological futuristic city populated by the antagonists and represents what the “good side” is fighting against. It is full of decadent, powerful, bored people who do whatever they want because they can. It is called SIVARSI NINE. A name which Ms. Pini has not explained the origin of, other than to say she chose the number nine for its symbol of completion (as in the enneagram).
Which is funny when you consider the story starts talking about SIVARSI ONE, the first great city, which was so flawed it had to go through eight incarnations (eight being a significant number in Elfquest and in certain Earth cultures) to become the “perfect” Sivarsi Nine.
Using the Pinis’ penchant for anagrams and wordplay in their naming conventions, it’s more than a little significant that the name SIVARSI ONE rearranges to SIOVANSIER, in other words, more Siovansin-y than Doran’s original designs.
Star Crossed Lovers, Cross-Purpose Theme
The underlying sexual preference of the main couple is the focus for both works. But let’s look at them together and see exactly what is going on with these pairings.
In Doran’s A Distant Soil, one of her original stated concepts was to show a gay protagonist who overcomes adversity and is strong. Even though the series is not yet done, the gay alpha pairing characters clearly love each other, trust each other, believe in each other even under the worst of circumstances (the series is currently at that nadir of the story when they are forced apart and each under dire threat). Even though the SEME is part of the ruling nobility and the UKE is from a lower caste, when they are together they treat each other as equals with love and respect. They also bicker and argue, but their relationship is real. Jealousy rears itself on occasion, but nothing serious. Even when the SEME flirts with/has an affair with a random female, the UKE, while miffed over it, does not see it as a strong threat. It’s a dalliance, nothing more.
In Pini’s Masque of the Red Death, the pair is never on equal terms. Each is manipulative of the other, playing on the others greeds and insecurities. Each constantly tests the other in an unhealthy reactive relationship. Even when the SEME flirts with/has an affair with a random female, the UKE is not only miffed, he flounces, taking the SEME’s life work with him and starting the tragedy rolling — a massive overreaction. Not content to leave it at that, there’s a second incident with a male “rival” (only in the mid of the UKE), the beta (straight) couple’s male, the reaction is over the top — to the point of trying to frame the rival for hypocrisy and putting him into what will be a life threatening situation.
Pini’s work’s emphasis (and for lack of a better term, morality) seems to be the opposite of Doran’s in this case. Doran wanted to show a gay couple whose relationship was probably the most stable of all the characters, in an attempt to show a predominantly straight potential audience that there was nothing fearful, nothing unbeautiful about it. Her occasional R-rated sex scenes are discrete, passionate, explicit, but never vulgar — except in the minds of some of the other characters. Even the SEME’s ruling class has no issue with the same-sex relationship; it’s the fact that the UKE is of “an inferior species” that makes it taboo. Sexual preference isn’t even an issue with them; they don’t equate sex with procreation, since only the “base animals” do it like that; their own children are born ex utero, in “creches” reminiscent of Logan’s Run.
For all its professedly inclusive, anything goes, “we don’t judge” hoopla, Pini showed her hand early with a quick backfill moment of the (later) villain berating the SEME’s father for having had the SEME constructed as an artificial clone/test tube baby/whatever (never made exactly clear) — he shows a picture of his own wife and daughter (later the beta couple female) and promotes the straight hetero male dominated worldview having sex and procreating the old fashioned way. Small wonder that in the end the alpha gay couple dies horribly, tragically, of a horrible incurable unstoppable disease wrought by the UKE’s folly and the SEME’s hubris, while the straight, lily-white beta couple — who barely know each other except for the fact that the guy’s got this Edward Cullen-esque fetish for her and she’s a rich flighty socialite and they went on a date that one time — speed away from the carnage, with what appears to be the cure to the terrible disease in his hands, apparently to save the rest of the (normal) world….
And, wow. There’s some Unfortunate Implications right there. Metaphor much? Seriously…
The Smoking Gun
From Pini’s Masque of the Red Death, toward the end of the first act, after the alpha couple has achieved immortality, stardom, and apparently their own reality TV show. Meanwhile we see the UKE’s abusive mother figure has hooked up with the beta female’s powerful father — who also hates the SEME for personal reasons — the following out and out challenge is issued:
“When it comes to revenge, I find nothing beats stealing someone else’s idea and exploiting the crap of of it — where they can see it.”
It says something more that the villains of the piece say these words. What that something is, I doubt even Freud could figure out. Particularly when the echo is damning in that no one bought their knockoff product, either, at first. And when they did, the intellectual property thieves both died, horribly, reaping what they sowed of their own inferior product’s lethal mutation.
Both the webcomic itself — ignored and/or unloved by either Pini’s built-in Elfquest fanbase, Poe’s gothic fanbase, GLBTQ fandom, the yaoi fandom, and fandom in general — and the world portrayed within the comic both seem to have collapsed in on themselves, like bright stars that got too heavy and bloated that they became black holes, gravitational singularities. In both cases, what must have been promising in the beginning blew up in cataclysmic flames at the conclusion — a fittingly Poe-esque ending in itself. It’s a terrible beauty of a finish, but not one either the characters or the creator apparently anticipated. It could almost be an early M. Night Shyamalan movie in its last cruel twist in on itself, a twist so devious and damning that although the dwindling audience saw it coming, the creator did not. How’s that for some irony?
But enough of me talking. It’s Picture Time!
There are 24 image heavy links to follow, that go with the various sections of the comparison, but they don’t share the same order as the above text and don’t cover exactly the same material. Its nature is visual to display the points where it becomes uncomfortably similar. Also, be warned! Some images are Most Definitely Not Safe For Work, and some are Triggery Content. These are clearly marked as such.
If you have a speedy computer and want to see the whole thing as a slideshow, here’s a handy link for that: Slide Show Of Doom
Part 8: Mommie Dearest **trigger warning, actual and implied child abuse** also NSFW female nudity
Part 9: Old cats and cougars **trigger warning, ditto** also NSFW female nudity
Part 21: The age you must be to read further **TOTALLY NSFW! YAOI WARNING!**
Part 22: Wait, what? **trigger warning, rape** and **TOTALLY NSFW! YAOI WARNING!**
I never really bought the idea that The Lion King was a retelling of Hamlet. Other than the fact that the king dies and his brother is to blame and the son has to deal with it, there wasn’t much to go on. It’s not like Nala drowned herself like Ophelia or Simba had Timon and Pumbaa assassinated á là Rosenkranz and Guildenstern. That basic kernel was not enough to distract the discerning eye from the fact that the characters and background of the thing were directly lifted from Kimba the White Lion.
Just like, despite the parallel quotes at the beginning of the chapters to remind you what it’s supposed to be, and the requisite death that is red that shows up, the vast majority of Masque of the Red Death is not a close reinterpretation of the short story. In fact, unlike Poe, who called his main character “Prince Prosper,” Pini seems to have based her character more on Duke Prospero, the lead in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and makes other side references to that play all through the work. That in mind, the observation that the name Kabala is allegedly based on “Caliban,” Prospero’s slave from The Tempest, does not hide the understanding of the comparison of the surname Kabala (Jewish mysticism, derived from the Hebrew meaning “receiving”) versus Avatar (Hindu mysticism, from the Sanskrit meaning “descending”), any moreso than the more obvious similarities regarding their given names, Seren and Steffan.
There is Just So Much material here I really don’t know what to say about the implications of all this. I mean, many of the tropes used were classic ones that have been used in story after story by hundreds of other writers and artist, and yet — and yet — the odds that so many of them would cross over from one work to the other, despite the stated framework of the storyline, between these two particular works, and especially considering the miles-long and epically wanktastic history from when A Distant Soil was first published by Pini and her husband’s company?
What else can be said, really? Other than, maybe, hakuna matata?
Text of this article is © 2010 Arlene C. Harris. Creative Commons license is extended so long as this entire block of credits is reprinted with the article in its entirety, including image files, and that no profits are derived from the re-publication. Permission has been granted to Bleeding Cool to run this article in its entirety.
All images and content from the various editions of A Distant Soil used in this review (as published subsequently by: Warp Graphics, Donning/Starblaze, Aria Press, and Image Comics) are © and ™ Colleen Doran.
All images and content from both the print version (Go!Comi Publications) and the webcomic version (located at www.masque-of-the-red-death.com) of Masque of the Red Death are © and ™ Wendy Pini.
Any and all images, descriptions, and quotes used in this article are used with respect to the “fair use” clause of U.S. copyright law and are meant within the context of review and scholarly discussion.
In Swipe File we present two or more images that resemble each other to some degree. They may be homages, parodies, ironic appropriations, coincidences or works of the lightbox. We trust you, the reader, to make that judgment yourself. If you are unable to do so, please return your eyes to their maker before any further damage is done. The Swipe File doesn’t judge, it’s interested more in the process of creation, how work influences other work, how new work comes from old, and sometimes how the same ideas emerge simultaneously, as if their time has just come. The Swipe File was named after the advertising industry habit where writers and artist collect images and lines they admire to inspire them in their work. It was swiped from the Comic Journal who originally ran this column, as well as the now defunct Swipe Of The Week website.