Between Omar Mateen, Brock Turner, Jim Hesketh, and Matt Hickey, the past week has been a devastating showcase for the extreme, violent outcomes of toxic masculinity, habituated by our culture to control and dominate. It’s becoming more and more apparent that maybe it’s time to cast a critical eye on how men are taught to construct what is “masculine” before its poisonous side-effects harm even more innocent people.
“For those of us who have been through male conditioning and carry around this fucked-up masculinity stuff … it has to be engaged with and that has to be a question,” says Olympia cartoonist and regular Seattle Weekly comix contributor Taylor Dow, 24. “That’s why it doesn’t work when the solution is ‘Oh, my character is a woman now!’ like with Captain Marvel. I think that’s bogus. The work is to have stories that address those parts of yourself with a really critical eye.”
Dow, who identifies as genderqueer, likes to say that they “make comics about men making comics about men.” In the case of Apocalypse Dad, Dow’s brand-new 44-page comic book and their most affecting work yet, it was actually a film that served as the impetus: Transformers: Age of Extinction. As they watched a beefed-up Mark Wahlberg play martyr for his daughter, chastising her for having a secret boyfriend and defending her as alien robots literally shoot giant phallic guns out of their faces, Dow realized something: “There are lots of apocalypse dads right now.”
Surveying the contemporary cultural landscape, Dow discovered that the archetype of the gruff, goateed dad, defending his daughter at all costs as the world crumbles around him, showed up in Interstellar, Maggie, Taken, and the celebrated video game The Last of Us. “I realized it was this huge thing and it wasn’t being engaged with critically in film or anywhere. You just watch him running through all these movies ruining everything, and it’s like, ‘Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?’ ”
So rather than ignore this character, Dow invited it into their work, and decided to see what would happen if they didn’t give it what it wants. “What does it do? Where does it go? What is its function?”
Using Google street views of Seattle as a reference, Apocalypse Dad drops a hulking, flannel-clad dad into an overgrown, decimated, seemingly abandoned cityscape. The dad, wielding a crowbar, wanders aimlessly through the empty world searching for his daughter—smashing windows, bricks and lifting rocks as if she might be hiding under them like a pill bug. “WHERE’S MY LITTLE GIRL?” he quivers, his goatee scarily enveloping his tight-lipped mouth, “WHAT HAVE THEY DONE WITH YOU?”
As with graphic novelist Anders Nilsen’s best work, Dow subversively layers their outwardly goofy, scratchy cartoon style (the titular dad looks like a hot dog with a goatee and hair) with vast, eerie, almost Biblical environments that lend a sacred silence to the proceedings—which, of course, take an unexpected turn halfway through.
“It’s a heavy comic,” Dow says, “Sometimes people will come to me and say ‘I loved the comic! It was hilarious!’ and I can’t understand that, because it’s not a joke. There’s this version of masculinity showing up in pop culture and inside of us and in actual dads, and it’s not working, it hasn’t been working, and we need to disassemble it—but not destroy it. That would be rigid and limiting. There has to be this point where we take what we want from it and make it our own.”