Generally there is a reason why a project gets canned and then never sees the light of day. As romantic as it is to think worthwhile creative projects are being mercilessly shelved by brutal conglomerates, as any number of film features that get rushed to DVD after a former unknown actor hits the big time can attest they’re more often better left unseen. It’s a rarer occurrence in comics, because the cost of production is so much lower, but it still happens, particularly at boutique big publisher imprints, like Vertigo, which announced then swiftly dropped Peter Milligan and Leandro Fernandez’s “dark, erotic thriller” The Discipline after soliciting it in July of 2013. Fans of Milligan’s prior Vertigo series Enigma may have been disappointed, building up the announced series in their heads as a spiritual successor to the cult work, but now that Image has inexplicably resurrected the comic, it’s pretty easy to see why Vertigo pulled out: The Discipline is a shoddy, inept work, about as sexy as a scrambled old Skinemax film and equally intelligible.
A blatant reskin of 50 Shades of Grey, which had been a bestseller for a couple years by the time Vertigo announced The Discipline, the comic is laughably bad and frustratingly incoherent, following the sexual and monstrous awakening of Melissa, a 23 year old woman who departed a seemingly great publishing gig to shack up with an anonymous rich man who ignores her and is never seen, only mentioned. Apparently this neglect is enough to instill Melissa with a kind of cabin fever, her company mostly confined to a dog named Hemingway, her entertainment restricted to central park jogs and hungry visits to view a fictional Goya painting of Venus getting groped by a Satyr. It’s at this last spot that she meets Orlando, a pompous European who casually disrupts her art viewing to inform her of his stalking before molesting her:
This sequence sums up The Discipline’s chief issues pretty well, with its clunky dialogue, absurd plotting and juvenile eroticism– Melissa is merely dressing for her own sexuality, removed of agency or interest, her desires never anything she communicates, always something communicated to her, usually violently and rudely. The middle left panel emphasizes this best, as Fernandez gives Milligan’s plotting a clinical vibe, Melissa’s reaction not dissimilar to the facial reaction of a woman who has just had a cold speculum placed inside her during a gynecological visit, which is at odds with what you might expect if this scene was intended to either be an example of sexual assault or a scene of hasty eroticism. The follow up panel treats Orlando with immense sensuality, his lips plump and cooing, his eyes soft and closed, while Melissa just appears frozen. Orlando proceeds from forceful to sensual with no real transition and Melissa’s reactions all appear artificial and lost.
If that criticism all seems abrupt, that’s fitting, because Milligan has the issue unfold similarly abruptly. We transition from a seemingly consensual bit of monster sex to a montage of Melissa’s domestic issues– a visit with a sick mother and combative sister, some ranting about her staid marriage– to this assault, and then we make an equally abrupt transition to a pair of scenes displaying Melissa’s reactions after the fact. The first is more monster sex, except here it’s Melissa dreaming about that Satyr ravaging her, then waking up to masturbate. And then the second is a dinner meet up between Melissa and an obligatory slutty friend:
You might expect a friend to point out the red flag of a guy shoving his hand into Melissa’s crotch in public at their first meeting, and in fairness, Bliss does ask if there were any intoxication-related consent problems…but instead she follows up a sort of date rape question with a teasing remark about whether they hooked up, then a condescending lecture on being a greenhorn to…what? kink? rape? kidnapping? Removing sexual politics from the equation altogether, the scene is amazingly clumsy, the narrative stuttered out rather than eloquently constructed. We are never shown any real moments of Melissa reflecting on Orlando’s “seduction,” the only break between scenes is surreal and dreamed, not a conscious deliberation and even so, it gives no indication that Melissa plans to meet Orlando at the time he said they should, the first consideration for this happens in the context of Melissa’s dinner conversation with Bliss, where yet again she barely gets to express anything, is only told how she should feel, what she should do, what she is getting into.
There are ramifications for this beyond bad writing. Researching the way publications have spoken about this comic, and how they have interviewed Milligan, it is clear that the predominantly straight male critics who have covered the material see nothing to be alarmed about. Multiversity’s Kyle Welch describes Orlando’s tactics as “simple seduction,” while in an early interview for the comic that was actually conducted when it was originally announced for Vertigo, Josie Campbell describes Melissa as “a formerly working class young woman who gets swept up in Orlando’s charm.” In a more recent interview at Paste, Tobias Carroll manages to not ask a single question about Melissa or her sexual agency, and instead commends Milligan for his “sympathetic” treatment of Orlando, leading Milligan to state “He could come across as a creep. The difficulty or work came in trying to keep him as being unnerving when we first meet him—Melissa is unnerved by him—but to establish that he is a lot more than simply some sex pest or stalker of women. That said, I wanted a sense of danger to remain. I’m usually more concerned with a character like Orlando being interesting (and compelling) rather than sympathetic or, God forbid, likable.” What’s important to Milligan isn’t that his seeming protagonist Melissa have any real agency, but that her assaulter, Orlando, always be interesting.
That previously mentioned Multiversity interview also spends some time discussing how The Discipline is about more than just sex, but it seems fairer to say that it’s a comic that trades in the titillation without wanting to discuss any of the more complicated parts of sex and desire and exploration. Melissa fantasizes about were-men ravishing her, whether they be satyrs or werewolves or other hybrids, which subconsciously hints at an interest in nonconsent play, a relatively common sexual fetish that is almost never presented well in entertainment. The only non animal man sex vision Melissa has comes when Orlando takes her on their first date, to a slaughterhouse of all places. She looks at a slaughtered cow and then imagines herself in its place, strung up and bleeding:
Whether consciously or accidentally, the expression Melissa has in this vision is the default image Fernandez gives her whenever she has had a sexual act perpetrated against her. It is a look not of eroticism or arousal or interest or even fear, but blankness, a disconnection from what is happening around her. It is slightly different from the reaction of the slaughtered cow, which seems closer to resignation than shock. Despite Milligan’s attempts to the contrary, this comic and its characters are never interesting, largely because they are the personification of that default Melissa expression, motivated not by arousal or desire but by vague plotting, lacking depth and personality, always props.
Mainstream comics could use more eroticism, this is indisputable. But that doesn’t mean comics needs more material that claims to be about more than sex, a phrase that so often translates to “fantasy drivel where the sex is supposed to keep you interested while a cliched, predictable plot unfolds.” As far as resurrected works go, The Discipline should have stayed in the ground as it lacks an interesting story and, worse, pushes back comics’ sexual politics even further than they have been in this volatile decade.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover