Note: This post contains spoilers for the graphic novel discussed therein. Super-gigantic spoilers, really. Consider yourself warned.
Comic books aren’t known for their nuanced perspectives on the sexes. Most superheroes are muscle-bound hulks with anger-management issues who seem to think that complex geopolitical issues can best be solved with a swift punch. Comic-book heroines, with their almost complete lack of clothing and anatomically impossible figures, haven’t exactly fostered a healthy female body image. And when it comes to marriage, the old comic-book franchises seem to be clambering over each other to offer up progressive redefinitions of the institution. Sure, there are exceptions to such stereotypes, and I’m sure that aficionados could point them out. In fact, I’d like to do just that: Doug TenNapel’s graphic novel Ratfist provides one of the best perspectives on marriage I’ve seen in pop culture.
Unfamiliar with TenNapel? Well, understand right off the bat that his books are ... unique. Working with pencil and traditional Japanese horse-hair brushes, he illustrates with a style ranging from obsessively detailed to starkly sloppy. His color palette runs an equally wide gamut, everything from eye-popping primaries to black-and-white chiaroscuro reminiscent of classic film noir. And that’s just the art. TenNapel’s subject matter barrels along like a loaded semi taking a tight curve at 80 miles per hour, teetering on the edge of chaos. Expect dog-man hybrids, tutu-wearing government czars, a severed tail with access to its owner’s subconscious, terrible Spiderman puns, furries, 3D-printed faces, and Little Debbie Nutty Bars—all in the first 50 pages of Ratfist.
In fact, those 50 pages are available for free online and would probably do a better job explaining the gist of the graphic novel than I could. But let’s condense it for the time-crunched. By day, protagonist Ricky works as an office drone for cancer researcher Simian Icthus. By night, he breaks into the offices of his employer disguised as Ratfist (who looks like a hydrocephalic, steroid-abusing Mickey Mouse), searching for evidence of wrongdoing with his rodent buddy Milt. Simian Icthus is a corporation, ergo it must be doing something fishy, right? During one of these investigations, Ricky runs afoul of an odd experiment and soon finds himself sprouting paws, whiskers, and a tail, a development that he fears could end his long-time relationship with girlfriend Gina.
You can tell TenNapel isn’t shy about discussing marriage by the way it shows up on the first page of Ratfist. As Ricky dons his ridiculous costume, he ticks off the reasons why he should tie the knot with Gina, concluding:
“It’s true that marriage is just an antiquated institution, serving no purpose but to temper a man, provide emotional security for a woman, and perpetuating civilization with a stable family structure, but marrying Gina will provide perfect cover for my alternate identity. No doubt, it’ll have a maturing effect on me. Not that I need it.”
As if the perky rat ears weren’t clue enough, Ricky, you do need it. And more than just his bizarre haberdashery needs reforming. Murophobic Gina has demanded only one concession before they wed: Get rid of Milt. Ricky crosses his heart and hopes to die, but in the end hangs on to his ratty buddy, which horrifies Milt himself. (Yes, the rat gains the ability to communicate. Don’t ask how.) When Ricky lies right to Gina’s face about the issue, Milt says, “Master Ricky, a relationship ought to be built on a foundation of honesty.” Ricky’s definitely isn’t. He can only conjure up self-centered rationales for marrying, and when he tries to pledge his undying affection, the best he can manage is an anemic, “Gina, I love you more ... more than ... well, more than I love myself.”
The plot spirals on, introducing time travel and a way to cure cancer by sacrificing one’s soul for that of another. As he is physically transformed into a rat, Ricky learns a lot about his longstanding ratty nature. Magically jumping forward four years into future, he finds that Gina has married someone else, had a child—and been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He fights foes left and right, internal and external, until he stands by her bedside with the cure (quite literally) in-hand. Murmuring, “Gina, I love you more than I love me,” he sacrifices his soul for hers, allowing her deadly disease to consume him.
I love the way Ratfist ends, because it captures the very essence of marriage. In a nation of easy divorce and commonplace cohabitation, we need to remind ourselves about the beauty of marriage, how society itself accretes around its joyful sufferings and daily strivings. We also need to remember that civilization crumbles without basic civility. To say that TenNapel got some flak for his take on marriage is like mentioning that the Grand Canyon is an appreciably sized hole—an understatement. After publishing Ratfist online, he became the focus of a coordinated campaign to smear his name and deny him funding for future products. “The philosophical groundwork has been laid for people to treat other people like crap if they don’t believe the same,” he said in a recent interview. “If there is such a thing as objective moral truth, then you must practice tolerance. You have to or you’ll end up going to a civil war.” Seeking peace and broadmindedness in an age of strife? That’s a task worthy of a superhero.Media: