MAW #2: Sisters of the Moon

On Diana Spiro, feminist folk horror, and the power of the past.

MAW #2: Sisters of the Moon

Here we are already: The second issue of MAW hits shelves today. It's available in print exclusively at comic shops. Digital copies are available on comiXology, iBooks, Google Play, and Kindle. The cut-off for comic book stores ordering the third issue is this Monday, October 25, so you can put in an order today when you pick it up.

This is part of a series of essays on the series and its influences. It contains spoilers, so please read MAW #2 before you scroll down.

The Star of the Sea Catholic Church, in Virginia Beach, is directly across the street from the boardwalk carnival. I assume that the church is older; once, maybe, believers could have looked across the street to the pier and the sea beyond it, contemplate the verse about the Spirit moving on the face of the Water, behold the glories of God’s creation.

Now, they behold the glories of the Gravitron. It’s a spectacularly shitty little carnival, the one on the pier, with two or three carousels — kids can ride horses, cars, and boats, at different speeds, but always around the same circle — and a creaky Ferris wheel painted in the same earthy ‘70s colors it had when I was young. It shines and stinks and any prayers uttered nearby are interrupted by the sound of screaming.

“Star of the Sea” is a very ancient phrase, and not a Christian one. In Catholicism, it refers to the Virgin Mary, but originally, it was one of the titles of Isis, the great Egyptian mother goddess who spread her wings and absorbed half of the ancient world’s goddess cults, becoming the one all-powerful Her worshiped from Cairo to London: Mother of the Gods, She Who Gives Birth to Heaven and Earth, the One Who Is All, the Moon Shining Over the Sea. We still worship her today. Mary is an Isis figure, obviously, but the Triple Goddess of Wicca, who is the “soul of Nature” and the “moon among the stars,” also draws her iconography from Isis cults. Isis’ blue robes and triple moon crown are seen on the High Priestess in the Tarot deck. “Star of the Sea” is also a title of Yemaya another divine Mother, the mermaid orisha of moon and sea and birth and women.

So there is a temple of the Goddess on the coast of Virginia. There’s a shrine to a power that is both older, and, according to some accounts, substantially more powerful than the Christian God. Apuleis famously wrote that Isis not only surpassed all other Gods, she contained all other Gods, and everything else, too. She was “Nature, the universal Mother” and “the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are.” Her shrine proclaimed, more modestly, that Isis was “all that hath been, and is, and shall be.”

That’s whose view we decided to block with a Ferris wheel and a souvenir shop and a little bar that sells plastic cups of Bud Light and frozen margaritas. Down the street, there is the Association for Research and Enlightenment, the still-surviving cult of the famous psychic Edgar Cayce, who claimed that this land was a power spot suffused with healing energy. Out on the horizon, you’ll see aircraft carriers from the Naval base where my uncle was stationed, and his father before him. Fighter jets boom through the air from time to time, louder than you would ever imagine.

Transcendence and debauchery, salt water and Bud Lite, women’s goddesses and men’s wars, all in a state with a woman’s name, called after a ruthless Queen who often posed as an earthly avatar of the Virgin Mother or the moon goddess Diana. This is where Maw was born.

Diana is another Isis. She’s the Goddess of the witches, according to Charles Leland. She’s a Great Mother whose (horrific) statues insist she can feed the world. In Roman mythology, Diana is a copy of Artemis — a virgin who lives in the wilderness, surrounded by women — but that Diana is also a goddess of the Moon and the wild and childbirth, and a protector of women. People prayed to Diana in childbirth; first for an easy labor, and then, if that proved impossible, for Diana to kill them quickly so they didn’t have to suffer any more.

Which is to say, Diana has always been the hardest and coldest of the Great Mothers, just as comfortable with taking life as she is with giving it. She’s the heroine of one of the Western world’s first rape-revenge stories — the myth of Actaeon, which Marion sums up in Issue #1. Actaeon assaults Artemis by intruding on her while she’s bathing, and Artemis makes sure he is ripped to pieces by his own dogs, eaten alive by what he loves most in the world. Diana protects women, not by nurturing them, but by annihilating anything that poses a threat.

Our Diana — Diana Spiro, the founder of the feminist commune where Maw is set — is not a queen, or a goddess, or even a virgin, but she shares her namesake's approach. Once you peel back her mystique, Diana is a fairly bad role model. She’s an unrepentant capitalist who charges six thousand bucks a head for a retreat that accomplishes very little. She’s a celebrity, content to be “aspirational” to the masses rather than helpful to anyone in particular. She’s built a cult of personality, yet her involvement with her followers is less than minimal; she wears a five-thousand dollar pantsuit to her TED Talk about how hard women have it. Her feminism centers on individual “self-improvement” and ephemeral “wellness” rather than on making any real changes to the system, and no amount of self-improvement can make her a nice person; calling her relationship with her son "strained" or "difficult" is far too kind. If you Twitter-searched Diana Spiro’s name, in this universe, you’d find people calling her a pseudo-scientific quack, a reckless charlatan, a neoliberal, and a #GirlBoss, and at least some of those people would be right.

So Diana is “villainous,” in all the ways second-wave feminists tend to be portrayed as villainous, and in some ways that are unique to her. She contains elements of women who are widely disliked — Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton — and women that I, myself, find shady. (The most direct inspiration for Diana’s character is probably Marianne Williamson, who was running for president when I first pitched Maw.) She’s visually connected to a malignant feminist history; her cult’s core iconography, triple moons and labyrinths and labryses, comes direct from the “women’s spirituality” movement, which was disproportionately led by TERFs like Mary Daly. Diana isn’t a TERF — and she knows that the ancient goddess cults she’s emulating weren’t either — but if that imagery strikes you as sinister, you’re right.

Yet there is a vision that drives Diana Spiro — that of an awesome, unfathomably old female Power, hemmed in and degraded by men and capitalism and governments and armies and Christianity — and that vision is genuine and deeply felt on a level most people will never be able to appreciate. Diana, like any convert, clings to her faith because it saved her from the abyss.

When I was growing up, there was no feminist more reviled than Andrea Dworkin. She was scary, she was violent, she was ugly, she hated men, she wanted to make heterosexuality a crime. She was an enemy to younger feminists, thanks to her militant opposition to sex work.

It’s hard to describe just how much people hated this woman. The most illustrative story I know is the ugliest: Dworkin wrote about being raped in a hotel, late in life, when she was already famous, and she was universally mocked and disbelieved. Who would want to rape some old, fat woman? The pain of it seems to have killed her. She disappeared from public life and died a few years later. This is awful to begin with, but it becomes an atrocity when I tell you that it was “sex-positive feminists” who wrote the blog posts claiming that Dworkin had "lost her mind."  

That’s how much Andrea Dworkin was despised in her lifetime. She was destroyed, not only by men, but by the women she thought she served. Everyone hated Andrea Dworkin, because everyone thought that Andrea Dworkin “hated men,” or “hated sex,” but very few of those people really asked why she had a problem with those things. The “why,” of course, is that Andrea Dworkin was married to a radical man, an anarchist anti-war organizer named Cornelius de Bruin, and he beat the ever-loving shit out of her. He put out cigarettes on her. He slammed her head into the floor. When she escaped, she had no recourse but sex work, and the experience was like pouring salt in her deepest wound every day.

Andrea Dworkin spent the rest of her life writing about the evil of heterosexual relationships and sex work. Of course she did. She didn’t do it to hurt anyone — though she did hurt people, and we need not excuse that harm — but because she was telling the truth as she saw it, just as she was telling the truth about the rape in that hotel room. We erased her history so that we could hate her more. We made a monster out of her, because it’s easier to fight a monster than to help a woman in pain.

Monsters come from somewhere. “Monsters” are people who’ve had the exact right set of experiences to become who they are. The second wave is limited and dated and flat-out oppressive to many of us, but it comes from Dworkin, and from women like Dworkin: Radical women who were traumatized or hurt or failed by radical men to the extent that they believed it was literally impossible to work with them. Before you pass judgment on their anger, consider what kinds of harm and failure are happening today.

Diana is the person in this story who incarnates that history. There was a point in her life when she was a “real” radical, someone who aligned with the wider left. Like many women of the student left, her inclusion was conditional on her willingness to accept abuse; first at the hands of her famous husband, then at the hands of her entire community, when she spoke up and was ostracized for being a madwoman, a traitor, a tool of the Establishment who undermined the Great Man and his Great Work with her petty personal concerns.

Diana’s disconnection from radical causes is not ignorance; it’s disillusionment. She doesn't think she’s making the world a better place. She’s already tried to make the world a better place, and it didn’t work. The most idealistic, compassionate, radical people in the world proved not to have any of those values when it came to how they treated her. Now, all she wants is a world of her own making; a place where men like her husband cannot touch her, where she is invulnerable and sovereign. She wants to be in charge. She wants power. Formerly powerless people often do.

You don’t have to like her. But you owe it to yourself to ask: What would it do to an idealist to lose all her ideals at once? What would it do to realize that even the people who are supposedly the most committed to “making the world a better place” don’t care if the world is good to you? If being a good comrade just got you exploited, would it be such a crime to want money? If being selfless and altruistic left you alone in your hour of need, might you not prioritize your own gratification above all things? If power is all that really matters, in this life, then why not grab some, any way you can? And if there is a Power who actually cares about you — old and female, maligned and forgotten, hemmed in on all sides by enemies, much like yourself — who else could you possibly serve?

Diana is Marion’s ancestor and mirror. She knows why Medea sets fire to the world when her husband betrays her, and why Clytemnestra kills her beloved war hero of a husband for hurting their daughter. She understands why the first skill Aradia taught was poisoning the oppressor, and why Lilith, the disobedient first wife in exile, births demons. Diana is the past, and the past shapes us, whether or not we want it to. Isis has a thousand titles, but one of them is She Who Seeks Justice. For Diana, and for this story, that one matters most.

Other inspirations for Diana include:

  • Oliver Reed in The Brood.
  • Astrid Mueller, the Oliver-Reed-esque self-help guru in Gail Simone's Clean Room.
  • Valerie Solanas with Brene Brown's career path.
  • Starhawk with severe anger management issues.
  • Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man, both in and out of drag.
  • From Hell; specifically, the amazing, bonkers lecture about how the city of London was custom-built by wizards to subjugate the Goddess.
  • A lot of Fleetwood Mac songs, particularly this one.
  • For some reason, when I needed to write dialogue for Diana, the easiest way to do it was to imagine either Emma Frost or Gillian Anderson's character in Hannibal. Relatedly, I've just realized that Gillian Anderson should have been cast to play Emma Frost in at least one of the 25,000 X-Men movies or TV shows on the market, and that I will have a little hole in my heart until the day it occurs.