From the vault: Villa of the Mysteries
This review originally appeared in issue #185 of The Comics Journal, which was a looong time ago.
The Villa of the Mysteries #1
by Mack White
“The Villa of the Mysteries,” a new collection of comics by Texas artist Mack White, takes its name after a famous frieze in Pompeii, the largest surviving Roman wall painting in existence. The ancient work’s real fame, however, rests on its disturbing depiction of a Dionysian ritual.
In one section of the frieze, which White reproduces on the cover of his comic, a female with large dark wings is shown whipping a young initiate, possibly, some speculate, to prepare her for the marriage bed. Whatever is going on in that scene, however, it is a pretty safe bet that White has managed to get his finger on the same pulse.
“Villa of the Mysteries” is obsessed with pagan rituals, especially those involving Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, fertility, and general all-out sexual abandonment. He and his cousin Pan, the god of nature, pop up either symbolically or literally in each of these short stories.
In between those ancient references, he throws in a dollops of Christian symbolism as well, as a reminder that the line between Jesus Christ and Bacchus is a thin one. In an introduction that would make a modern mythology major proud, he writes, "Jesus is another of his [Dionysus] incarnations . . . Yet in the translation something was lost. The sexual, animal aspect of the god, deemed incompatible with Jesus' image, was projected onto Satan, and what was natural now became evil." Part of the purpose of White's book then, is to tip the scales in favor of the pagans.
White rolls up his sleeves and dives in with the first story, the unsubtly titled "This is MK-Ultra, Baby." In the comic, big name rock star Dion Nysos (get it?) has arrived to the uptight Texan town where he was raised and abused as a child by his hypocritical aunt. While there, he spikes the punch at a party with an CIA developed aphrodisiac, causing a (dare I say it?) Dionysian frenzy.
Yet things don't turn out quite as planned. It seems there are a number of covert government intelligence groups out to get Dion as well, and the tables end up being unexpectedly turned on him.
As "MK-Ultra's" title suggests, White is not content with simply drawing pagan rituals and orgies. He also seems to have a genuine fondness for pulp literature and conspiracy theories involving UFOs, the U.S. government, and the Vatican. There's enough subversiveness in this one story to delight the most fervent paranoid. In fact, virtually every story in "Villa” has the feeling of coming fresh from of the headlines of the Weekly World News.
“The Nudist Nuns of Goat Island” is a perfect example. The very title brings to mind shows like hard Copy or pulps like Spicy Tales. In this narrative, a collection of, well . . . nudist nuns . . .guard a dangerous secret on their . . . goat island. One which, if let loose, would "have meant the end of the Christian Era." No points for guessing it has something to do with sex and Grecian gods.
The best story of the collection by far is “Cindy the Tattooed Sunday School Teacher,” perhaps because of the chilling way it reminds one of contemporary religious cults like the Branch Davidians. The tale begins in a Southern backwater, snake-handling church run by fire and brimstone preacher Brother Harris.
Into this mix comes Sister Cindy, a former circus worker and tattooed lady whose body supposedly became engulfed with Biblical images at the moment of her conversion. Sister Cindy proves to be a powerful speaker, and it isn't long before she wrests control of the church away from Brother Harris and starts proclaiming herself "the female Christ -- the new Eve."
Unlike the other stories, "Cindy" has a genuinely unsettling tone to it. It's not so over the top that it becomes ridiculous, unlike the one about the nudist nuns. Perhaps what adds to the tale's effectiveness is its ambivalence about Sister Cindy herself. Does she really believe herself to be the incarnation Eve or is it all a scam? Does she have the power to heal, or is she a phony? The story seems to suggest she is lying about her divinity, but she is such a powerful presence in the story, and Brother Harris is so unlikeable, that it is hard not to root for her. I have a sneaking suspicion that White wouldn't half mind us throwing out Christianity for a religion celebrating the "New Eve."
The ambivalence shows up in White's art as well. All of White's stories are done in a very flat, deadpan style, like the cartoon religious tracts of old (Jack Chick would be proud). Yet his art reminds me nothing so much as of those Johnny Craig ECs, where square-faced men with short hair and pounds of guilt sweated over unmentionable crimes.
The final problem with "Villa of the Mysteries" is that it's hard to tell just how seriously White expects us to take this stuff. It's hard to read lines like "Baby, I wouldn't miss this orgy for all the hash in Morocco" without chuckling. In some ways White resembles Sister Cindy herself. Is he trying to say something about the ties between modern and ancient religion, or is it all a big put-on? Both? White keeps a straight face throughout the entire book, but I can't help but feel that he's barely holding back a fit of the giggles.
Still, if nude nuns, strange early Christian cults, tattooed Sunday School teachers, UFOs, and satyrs with really, really, really big penises are your bag of chips, then chances are this comic was tailor-made to fit you.