Being a male feminist has got to be tough. No sooner do you become aware of the virulent, insidious web of oppression that's permeated society for over 2000 years than you realize that, because you happen to be a man, the most effective thing you can do to fight it is to just shut up. Or as comedian Hannah Gadsby put it in GQ's recent roundup of Voices of the New Masculinity, "How about you scale back on your confidence? How about you try not to act in every situation? What if you tried to refrain from sharing your opinions or co-opting other people's ideas?" The progression of her description of men's behavior — from merely being confident to "co-opting other people's ideas" — is telling. Feminism has shown us it's all too easy for male confidence to tip over into domination. A man who's grasped this may be left feeling that the only thing he can do to show his solidarity is to stay silent.
But there are other options — like surrounding yourself with women and listening to them. That's what Ben Blacker did when he got the idea for Hex Wives, his angry witch comic. Blacker's editors for the series were Molly Mahan and Maggie Howell, who between them have worked on such thoughtful books as Goddess Mode, Eternity Girl, Shade the Changing Girl and Love is Love. They helped find artist Mirka Andolfo, who's crafted a coven of badass babes in all different shapes, sizes and hues: wiry Isadora, ample Becky, hippy Mabel, beanpole Damina, slouchy Jun.
Not that the characters know they're a coven at first. After a few introductory pages explaining that witches have been wreaking havoc on ordinary society and reincarnating for centuries — with the vicious Isadora one of the deadliest of all — Hex Wives finds that same Isadora living inexplicably in a white-bread suburban ranch house complete with picket fence. She and her neighbors spend their days cooking, cleaning and waiting for their husbands to get home from work. Clad in dresses, pumps and pearls, they sneak the occasional cigarette and wonder idly why their cul-de-sac should be surrounded by raging wildfires. Meanwhile, in an underground bunker, their ostensible "husbands" watch them obsessively on video to make sure they're still in thrall to a complex brainwashing spell.
This scenario is Stepford all over again, but even so, it's hard to fault Blacker for his lack of originality. There's just something about the '50s-style Feminine Mystique that's irresistibly fun to make fun of. If only patriarchal oppression were always so easy to see — and easy to smash! Hex Wives is feminist awakening as entertainment. Andolfo's sequences showing Isadora primping in front of the mirror and puttering around the house are closer to fan service than satire, especially since we know the inevitable cathartic rebellion is coming. The book revels in the accoutrements of suburbia, then turns around and revels in suburbia's destruction. It would be far more radical if, like in The Stepford Wives, the heroine lost her soul at the end.
Not that there's anything wrong with just having fun, though — and anyway, Hex Wives is sharp and sobering on one particular topic. That topic is control. As mentioned above, the men in Hex Wives devote all their time to monitoring Isadora and the other witches to make sure they're still brainwashed. At first glance this seems far-fetched: Surely these guys have something better to do than spend all day worrying about seven women? Actually, though, in real life any number of oppressive systems muster seemingly unjustifiable amounts of energy to ensure no one and nothing escapes them. Blacker puts his finger on the compulsive, addictive nature of such systems. When the husbands engage in smarmy love-talk with their "wives" or have sex with them, it's genuinely disturbing because the men are genuinely getting off on it. They don't just tame the witches to protect themselves from them; they tame them because it feels good. Blacker's characterizations of the men are sharp and revelatory. If he'd explored their psyches further, Hex Wives might have added up to more than a romp.
It's an excellent romp, though. For men who don't know how they can possibly contribute to feminism, Blacker offers a terrific example. The key doesn't seem to lie with Gadsby's recommendations in GQ — or, at least, not all her recommendations. Blacker doesn't seem to have relinquished his confidence or opinions to write Hex Wives. What he does seem to have done is listened carefully to the women around him. In doing so, he anticipated Gadsby's final point: "Empathy is a superpower, and it's the only one that any human has to offer."
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.