Saturday, December 31, 2011

From Victim to Vamp: Revising Mina Murray in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen


     Like all art forms, comic books and films engage in the practice of creative theft, lifting the most interesting or iconic elements from older works and adapting them to new purposes in order to make them speak to current culture. Alan Moore’s two volume comic mini-series, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which originally ran from 1999-2003, takes this practice to an extreme by appropriating a whole cast of characters from late Victorian literature and assembling them into the prototypical superhero team of the series’ title. Moore’s concept was in turn appropriated and adapted into the 2003 film, also called The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but frequently referred to by the abbreviation LXG.  Both the comic and the film revise some of the best known characters of Victorian popular fiction; the League includes H. Rider Haggard’s great white hunter, Allan Quatermain, Robert Louis Stevenson’s conflicted Jekyll and Hyde, Jules Verne’s enigmatic Captain Nemo, H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man, and Bram Stoker’s vampire-plagued heroine, Mina Murray Harker.
The sole woman of the group, Mina is a striking addition to the League in both the comic and the film, but the woman who appears in Moore’s series is very much a revision of the original character created by Stoker, and the woman who appears in the film is another character altogether, distinct from both Stoker’s and Moore’s versions of her. One way to approach an understanding of these revisions is to read them through the critical lens of feminism, which allows us to consider the ideological burden that a female character like Mina is expected to carry at different historical moments. Stoker’s original character, appearing in 1897, stands on the brink of the modern era and its progressive views of women, but Moore’s series takes a late twentieth-century view of woman in the full moment of feminist self-possession, while the film offers a post-feminist image that dramatically revises both of these other visions and presents woman more as current culture now imagines her.
            In the novel, Dracula, Bram Stoker creates the original character of Mina and gives us an idealized image of British womanhood at the end of the nineteenth century. Mina is intelligent and eager to work, but her strengths are made properly feminine by her obvious desire to use her abilities to help her husband, Jonathan Harker, in his career. Stoker carefully distinguishes Mina from overly aggressive proto-feminists by having her disparage the “New Woman” type that embodied early feminist ideals at the time. Throughout the novel, Mina functions as a figure of good womanhood in contrast to the other female characters, all of whom fall into darkness as a result of Dracula’s influence. Dracula’s brides and Lucy Westenra all become monster women, with bloody, sexualized appetites, and all of them are destroyed by the properly horrified group of men that Van Helsing leads against the vampiric forces. When Mina herself becomes Dracula’s primary target, she resists his corrupting influence and helps the men who are pursuing him. The novel ends with the destruction of Dracula and the restoration of Mina; a final note confirms her redemption by depicting seven years of married happiness and the birth of a son. This conclusion folds Mina back into proper Victorian womanhood as a pure, loving wife and mother, happy in her domestic roles and idealized by the men as the embodiment of the goodness and humanity for which they fought.
            Stoker clearly intends Mina as a model for feminine behavior, although some literary critics have argued that he forces her into an ideal that she does not naturally represent. Elaine Showalter argues that Mina is really an embodiment of the New Woman who “must be domesticated through hysteria” (181), while R.J. Dingley contends that the end of Dracula validates “all of the norms and values which the very nature of [the] narrative had seemed to challenge” and that “a belief in… the integrity of the family and the passive role of women has been fully vindicated by Dracula’s abject failure and by the nature of his end” (22). Whether she becomes so voluntarily or reluctantly, Mina still functions as a pre-feminist ideal woman; she serves as a helper of men, employing her strengths for their benefit, and she consistently resists the violent, sexual force that attempts to alienate her from them. Van Helsing’s praise of her as having “a man’s brain, with a sweet woman’s heart” suggests the early twentieth century’s emerging ideal of woman as an intelligent, capable being who still retained traditional feminine qualities and values. This coupling of traditional and modern ideals is reinforced by the novel’s ending, where Mina is praised as a “brave and gallant woman” who also possesses a mother’s “sweetness and loving care” (327).
            Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen revises Mina in a direction that suits its own cultural moment and reflects a more complex sense of a woman’s life at the beginning of the twentieth century. Moore’s revision completely erases Stoker’s concluding note; gone are the seven years of happy marriage and the symbolically significant son. When we meet her in the first issue, Miss Wilhelmina Murray is recently divorced from her husband and has reclaimed her maiden name. Her associate’s comments hint at the consequences of her earlier experiences:
Dear lady, what am I to say? Your history has placed you far beyond the pale. Divorce is one thing, but that other business… Ravished by a foreigner and all that. Quite against your will, of course, but then people do talk so, don’t they?” (1:1:3)
Later issues reveal that Mina’s husband would not touch her after she was violated by Dracula, even though that violation was technically nonsexual. Mina’s experience with Dracula has marked her, both emotionally and physically, as we discover that her bright red scarf conceals a neck horribly scarred by the vampire’s attacks. “Not quite the two discreet puncture-marks of legend, are they?” remarks Mina when we first see the wounds (2:4:24).
Outwardly prim and cold, Mina eventually reveals her passionate inner nature in her burgeoning relationship with Allan Quatermain, and it is worth noting that Mina is the one who boldly initiates their romance. These revisions show us a stronger, more liberated Mina, but also one whose sufferings could not be erased as completely as the scar on her forehead at the end of Stoker’s novel. Moore’s Mina, with her intense green eyes and caustic personality, is far more modern than Stoker’s heroine, and her emotional toughness helps her to survive in a dangerous, chaotic world. This Mina is unapologetically feminist in her thinking; she comes across as a much stronger and more active character than Stoker’s Mina. She is calm in moments of peril, with the presence of mind to douse the Invisible Man with paint and the courage to act as live bait to attract the monstrous Hyde.
            Moore’s Mina does, however, retain some key elements of the original character, chiefly in her role as the heart of a group of men who must band together in order to save the world. Just as the original Mina is the inspiration for Stoker’s heroes, so is Moore’s Mina the cohesive element that brings and keeps the League together. Mina’s orderly sense and intelligence guide the actions of the League, but her womanly nature also plays a key part, with her passion reviving Quatermain’s spirit and her humanity checking Nemo’s misanthropy. Most importantly, Mina’s courageous goodness keeps the violent Edward Hyde in check; he reacts to her and listens to her when no other force can control him, and his feelings for her inspire even him to acts of heroism. The scenes between Mina and Hyde are some of the most interesting parts of the series; their relationship and Mina’s relationship with Quatermain are the two most important, ongoing elements of the comic; the actual plots of the two volumes often serve merely as backdrops against which these relationships can be developed and played out. The illustration for the back cover of the first volume of League makes the primacy of these relationships startlingly clear; Mina’s delicate, feminine hand rests on top of Hyde’s enormous one, occupying the center of an image that covers a map of the world and is bordered by the hands of the other League members. Only the hands of Mina and Hyde actually touch, underscoring Mina’s unique ability to reach Hyde in spite of his brutal nature. The other men’s hands, all outstretched, seem to reach for hers; all of them, it seems, are destined to connect over the small white hand that lies at the center.
The various facets of Mina’s personality combine to form an image of a very complex, very complete female character. These are the qualities that make her “extraordinary” and worthy of being not merely a member of the League but its effectual leader. In his companion to the series, Jess Nevins speculates that Moore’s Mina may be a parody of the Victorian New Woman; he points out that she is “in some ways comically severe, acerbic, and ‘manly,’ as Quatermain himself calls her” (163). It is true that the series enjoys a few jokes at Mina’s expense, including one juvenile scene in which Quatermain looks up her dress at her underwear, and another in which the villain, Moriarty, refers to her as a “smelly little lesbian” (1:6), but, overall, the portrait seems far more salutatory than satirical; Moore’s Mina is still an idealized image of womanhood, but she reflects a modern culture that insists on imperfections as proof of plausibility, and Moore’s little satirical flourishes only highlight the strongest elements of her character. Moore retains the most progressive elements of Stoker’s original Mina – her intelligence and her courage - and folds those into a more psychologically complex and more nuanced representation that speaks to a late twentieth-century audience about the problems of being a woman in an uncertain world.
The 2003 film, hereafter referred to as LXG, also revises Stoker’s Mina, but it moves in a completely different direction from Moore’s comic series. Partly this is because the film is not an adaptation of the series, but rather a parallel development that originated from Moore’s concept; James Robinson, the screenwriter, created the script for the film while Moore’s comic was still in progress. To expect the two works to be especially similar is, therefore, unreasonable, but the film makes choices that directly conflict with both Stoker’s and Moore’s texts.
In LXG, the Mina character is introduced to us as “Mrs. Harker,” and she tells the gathering League members that her husband “has been dead for years.” When we first see her, she wears the striking red scarf that Moore’s Mina uses to hide her throat, but we soon discover that this might be the only real similarity between Moore’s Mina and LXG’s Mrs. Harker. Mrs. Harker’s neck, when exposed, reveals exactly the two neat little marks that Moore’s Mina bitterly mocks. More important is the effect of those seemingly trivial marks; LXG refashions Mina into a Blade-like Daywalker, appropriate since Stephen Norrington, the director, had previously directed Blade. Mrs. Harker’s first major scene reveals the film’s idea of what makes Mrs. Harker “extraordinary.” She possesses incredible vampiric powers, as dark and violent as those of Dracula himself.
Moore’s revisions of Stoker’s character are not insignificant, but the revisions undertaken by the film are clearly extreme. Where Mina’s intelligence and courage were sufficient qualifications for Moore’s League, only superhuman powers will be sufficient compensation for Mrs. Harker’s female sex in LXG. The scene in which we first see these powers in action does draw on Stoker’s original text, but it takes its cues from the novel’s vampire women, not from Stoker’s characterization of Mina. In Dracula, Jonathan Harker describes his initial encounter with the vampire brides in the following manner:
The fair girl went on her knees, and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the sharp white teeth. (42)
It is easy enough to see the similarities between this passage and Mrs. Harker’s performance in Dorian Gray’s library, but it is much more difficult to see here any kinship with the other two versions of the Mina character. Gone is the complete redemption of Mina that marked the end of Dracula, and gone too is the powerful humanity that defines Mina in Moore’s comic; instead we have a blood-sucking, man-killing vampiress, who also, we find out, has a romantic past with the morally suspect Dorian Gray, and who eventually betrays a disturbing penchant for Gothic leather dominatrix outfits.
            Why does LXG revise Mina in this fashion? It costs the film’s integrity as a composition a great deal to do so. Mrs. Harker’s monstrosity bars her from being the strong human element that connects the other League members; in LXG, humanity ends up being the domain of Quatermain, who also replaces Mina as the group’s leader and center. Mrs. Harker cannot reach Hyde as Mina does, and that relationship is awkwardly shifted to a connection between Hyde and Nemo. The tender, human romance between Mina and Quatermain becomes a torrid, sex-driven affair between Mrs. Harker and Dorian, and these two end up in a sexually charged fight to the death near the film’s conclusion.
            That recurring sense of “sexiness” points to one reason for the film’s revisions. While Stoker creates Mina in a pre-feminist world that is only beginning to think about strong women, and Moore rewrites Mina as a fully feminist heroine of the twentieth century, LXG presents a post-feminist heroine of the emerging era, which promotes a vision of the dangerous, powerful and sexual woman that it considers liberating and even ideal. The men’s reaction to Mrs. Harker’s conduct encourages this view. Stoker’s heroes would immediately have staked Mrs. Harker, and Moore’s heroes would have been horrified by the loss of their human element had Mina become a monster, but the heroes of LXG betray no horror or revulsion.  Quatermain seems relieved to discover that the “weak” woman is actually useful, and the intrepid Sawyer spends the rest of the film actually coming on to her. For the film, Mina’s monstrosity doesn’t appear to be a problem; instead it is merely a representation of the kind of woman that postmodern, post-feminist culture respects and approves.
            The great irony of this series of revisions is that Stoker’s pre-feminist monstrosity becomes the twenty-first century’s post-feminist ideal; Mina becomes the very thing against which she was once contrasted. These changing versions of Mina reflect not merely the evolution of images, but of ideologies, as we see the first stirrings of feminism develop and then give way to new modes of thinking about women and gendered identities. From victim to vamp, Mina continues to be a positive figure held up for admiration and approval, but the cultural moment continually changes the definition of ideal femininity, and thus it changes Mina, as well. If nothing else, Moore’s comic and the film that it inspired show us that the process of revising Mina Murray is far from complete, and we can only guess at the figure of woman that she may next become.

 Works Cited

R.J. Dingley, “Count Dracula and the Martians” in The Victorian Fantasists, ed. Kath Filmer, 1991.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. DVD. Dir. Stephen Norrington. Twentieth-Century Fox. 2003.
Alan Moore, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, America’s Best Comics, 1999-2003.
Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle, 1990.
Bram Stoker, Dracula, Norton Critical Edition, 1997.

NB: This essay was originally presented at the annual meeting of the Popular Culture Association in the South (PCAS/ACAS).