If you appreciate the cultural significance of comics, then Barbarella should be a part of your repertoire. Mind you, I didn’t know this until about two months ago. I hope to save ya’ll from such ignorance.
If you don’t know, Barbarella is a French comic from the early sixties by Jean-Claude Forest. Apparently, France was (and possibly still is) where it’s at for progressive themes in comics, particularly for women and the expression of their sexuality.
While Barbarella was busy being a women’s sexual liberation icon in France, Grove Press published an English version of the comic on this side of the pond in the mid-60s. But that translation is dated.
Humanoids Inc partnered with Kelly Sue DeConnick to do a contemporary take on the original French version. I had the privilege of reading Kelly Sue’s adaptation, and guys, this comic is a game-changer.
Barbarella is super sexy, but she’s no sexy lamp. She’s full of agency and personhood, you know, those things that build a great character. But beyond that, Barbarella is ingenious, playful and out-and-out randy. As I read it, I found myself tickled at how overtly sexual and delightfully audacious Barbarella’s adventures are. At no point is she concerned with what someone might think of her exploits or her motivations. While the girl does love to do it, her motivations are as varied as the notches on her bedpost. The very best part is that her story is brought to you 100% SHAME FREE.
While reading Barbarella, I was struck by how we’ve only just begun to see more of this in American comics (Rat Queens, Sex Criminals), yet Barbarella was born in the sixties. Don’t even get me started on mainstream TV and film. Slut-shaming has become passive and habitual in many dialogues on female characters’ sexual choices. So, it’s a beautiful thing to see a female character have total ownership of her body, her desires, her sexuality and her actions without a hint of apology.
Kelly Sue is one of my favorite feminists, so I couldn’t help but ask her about the treatment of female sexuality in American comics. Her responses surprised me a bit.
For as many comics as I consume and the time I spend critically reviewing them, I’d like to think I have a grasp on majority themes and trends. Perhaps I do, but I think my perception on the topic of female sexuality at-large was a bit skewed. I was giving too much benefit-of-doubt, and maybe not seeing the seemingly omnipresent objectification of women in one of its more insidious forms, what I refer to below as a “desire to protect.” She’s also more optimistic about what American comics have to offer than I am. You’ll see.
I am grateful to Kelly Sue for taking the time to talk to me about Barbarella… and for expanding my horizons.
Here goes …
G3: Adaptations are old hat for you, I know. But for those of us who don’t know, how did this project come to be?
KSD: I think Warren Ellis recommended me to Humanoids for it.
G3: What goes into to doing a foreign language adaptation?
KSD: The job to try and preserve the tone that you think the creator was going for, making sure the speech sounds natural and that each character’s voice is distinct — a nuance that can easily get lost in a translation. There’s research involved too — it’s part investigation, part intuition. Like solving a mystery, almost. Or maybe more accurately, a puzzle.
G3: What was your process with Barbarella?
KSD: That sounds like such a simple question, but I don’t know how to answer it. Like, do you mean that literally? I re-read the 1968 English translation in its entirety a couple of times, then rewrote it, referring to the original French when I felt I needed to. Then I rewrote it. Then I turned it in, then I got notes, then I rewrote it again. Somehow I feel like I’m not understanding the question. Do you want to rephrase it for me? I are dumb.
G3: I did mean your literal writing process. I think some people may view writing as this romantic process, but it’s different for everyone and not necessarily sitting on a deck in Key West at the break of dawn with seven-toed cats decorating the landscape. So, I guess as a writer, I think it’s interesting to hear how you get to your end product.
G3: What kind of liberties were you allowed, if any?
KSD: Well, language is not math — there’s no one-to-one correspondence. There’s no such thing as a literal translation — so there’s subjectivity and style in every translation.
But I wasn’t hired to change the STORY. And remember, we’re working with comics here — the art is not “adapted” in any way.
We don’t want to change BARBARELLA or “fix” it — it’s a classic. We’re just revisiting some of the translation choices.
G3: Your adaptation of Barbarella is said to be “modern” version, how so?
KSD: I’m not sure — you might want to run that question by Humanoids?
My guess is that the original English language adaptation was put out 45 years ago and vernacular evolves, so the 1968 version reads as more dated than the forthcoming version — but that said, the piece is science fiction — today we look at it as retro-futurism, even! — and I preserved some of the formality of the original dialogue as I believe it was meant to convey that futurism.
G3: Barbarella has a profound historical significance for comics and female characterization in comics, specifically French comics, so it’s exciting that this English version is being published. Would you talk about its significance and what that means to you and how (or if) it guided your adaptation?
KSD: I’m going to skip this one. I’m just not qualified to answer that.
G3: I’ve read the adaptation, and I found Barbarella to be entertainingly body and sex positive. I love how that is coupled with her being smarter than everyone in the room.
KSD: Have you read the first volume or the second? Or both? The first is good but the second is GREAT.
G3: Is there a balance between the sorts of hyper-prudishness born of the desire to protect women from objectification versus celebrating female sexual expression in all its manifestations from sensual to raunchy? Where do you think Barbarella falls on that spectrum?
KSD: Hm. I’m not sure I can cede the premise that prudishness is born of a desire to protect women from objectification. It seems to me it’s more often just an extension of women as chattel — objectification still. It seems to me the kind of thing you’re referring to is more about property rights.
G3: As the conversation about the treatment of female characters in comics has evolved, and we’ve become more aware of the “Sexy Lamp” syndrome, it seems like a significant number American comic writers avoid exploring the desire and sexuality of their female characters for fear of “doing it wrong.”
KSD: Do you think so? I have the opposite perspective, but then I live with the writer of Sex Criminals and Satellite Sam, so my perspective might be skewed. I’m not having trouble calling other examples to mind, though, so I might just disagree.
G3: How do we get more of the positive sexuality, ownership and agency over their bodies, and personhood to prevail in our funny books? Magic? Continued conversation? How do you think Barbarella contributes to this conversation?
KSD: I think it’s happening. Right now.
G3: You’ve got some really great one-liners in the book. One of my favorites is early on after Barbarella and Knautia disarm a guard with a threesome, and Barbarella says, “He’s in no shape to put up a fight, now.” I laughed. Out loud. Do you have any favorite moments or lines from the book?
KSD: The bit where the rocket is going into the space jellyfish too fast and Barbarella yells at the Captain to pull out.
Because I am a child.
G3: Jane Fonda is an icon, of course, but if you could cast Barbarella in a modern film adaptation, who would you choose?
KSD: Gwendoline Christie, maybe? Gwendoline Christie for everything.
G3: How’s this for a tagline? “Barbarella! Saving the galaxy with sex and determination.”
G3: What do you hope readers take away from your modern adaptation?
KSD: I hope they have fun.
G3: Just for fun (and because I am curious), if you could be any of the characters that you’ve written (Barbarella included), who would it be and why?
KSD: Lame answer, but I can be. I get to be all of them. That’s why I write.