‘Cry Havoc’ Isn’t the Story of a Lesbian Werewolf Who Goes to War — Except It Kinda Is
A tale of myths, monstrosities and modern warfare
by LAURA MUTH
That was the tagline that first drew me to Image Comics’ Cry Havoc. It promised some of my favorite things — queer female lead characters and commentary on military policy. Some spoilers ahead.
Of course, Cry Havoc quickly becomes more complicated than that. Our heroine, Lou Canton, begins as a musician who busks in the streets of London and plays gigs at local bars when she can get them. She ends it as the leader of a pack of assorted shapeshifters from cultures all over the world.
In the process, writer Simon Spurrier gives us an exploration of the mythological and the monstrous factors underlying humanity’s battle between chaos and control. His work does indeed say a lot about the military, but in a way that is mostly allegorical, masked by myth.
While Lou’s struggling a bit when we first meet her — her sensible, responsible girlfriend is urging her to get a real job, one that will pay the bills and provide more stability — her real problems start when she is playing her fiddle near Newgate and is attacked by a spectral hound.
Her nights are suddenly spent roaming the streets of London, sometimes attacking and eating the unfortunate strangers she encounters, until finally one of these escapades leads to her discovery by Timmy — a jovial, besuited representative of the Inhand Organization.
The organization wants Lou to undertake another transformation: from supernatural creature to supersoldier in a squad of shapeshifting badasses being sent to Afghanistan. They have one task — to track down former Inhand contractor and rendition specialist Lynn Odell, who also happens to be a shapeshifter like Lou.
Odell went rogue, killing her CIA colleagues and freeing the prisoners she was in charge of, and Inhand is counting on Lou’s newly improved canine sense of smell to lead the squad to Odell’s hideout.
Most of Lou’s traveling companions are mythical creatures like her, monsters out of legend hired to engage in secret missions and run black sites. In other words, they are myths recruited to perform some of the most monstrous acts humanity can devise — torture, rendition, abduction, assassination.
Odell is portrayed as the most monstrous of them all, however, not for her actions as an Inhand contractor but for her decision to betray them and use her mythical powers for her own ends.
Odell and Lou’s centrality to the story represents another engagement with mythology and storytelling. The role of women in the armed forces has been the subject of recent controversy. In the past year, the U.S. military finally opened all combat positions to female soldiers.
While one point of contention, the physical fitness of female soldiers, is erased by the fact that the ones in Cry Havoc are not entirely human, others remain relevant.
While questions of equal opportunity have lately dominated the discussion of women in the armed forces in the United States, in the past the idea of women participating in combat has been viewed as unnatural. A woman who chooses to do so was seen as abandoning her true purpose, to give and nurture life, in favor of destroying life.
It was, in a word, “monstrous” in a way that men engaging in combat was not.
Now, in Cry Havoc, we have a woman who is a monster not just because of how she can transform physically, but of how she maims and kills. And she can only be stopped with the help of another woman like her.
Odell herself alludes to how her gender and her actions have contributed to the creation of a new mythology around her own monstrosity, joking about how members of Inhand believe she eats “bloodcakes made from my own monthlies.” Her female-ness is linked to the outlandishness of her violence and her rebellion against the control of others.
In a way, it underscores the stories society has long told about how women are unfit for battle. Odell is nothing if not emotionally unstable. And she is totally unafraid of taboos, whether they are acts of torture or simply of frankly discussing her period.
Meanwhile, Lou has become pregnant from a tryst with a supernatural being/maybe demigod known only as “the zeitgeist,” the spirit of the times. Her body has become engaged in the traditionally feminized task of giving life even as she ventures into Afghanistan to take life.
Her pregnancy makes her Odell’s target, since the latter believes the baby will be key to her goal of a new society predicated on the resurgent power of the mythological. Her revolution is dependent upon the birth of a savior, adding another layer of religious reference to Spurrier’s interweaving of myth and modernity.
More broadly, however, in its incorporation of mythology into modern warfare, Cry Havoc raises the question of what makes a monster. While ordinary people may be repulsed and horrified by the transformations of Lou and her fellow shapeshifters, seemingly ordinary humans can be transformed by war in ways that are equally repellent.
Odell may have been a rendition specialist with Inhand, but she worked at that black site alongside CIA operatives who were human through and through — men and women who presumably engaged in some of the same kinds of torture and violence as Odell.
Indeed, the idea of rendition and black sites is not something Spurrier made up for the sake of a good story. It is a reality of the War on Terror, as is the participation of shadowy corporations like Inhand in modern military operations. Spurrier cites Academi, a new name for the company once known as Blackwater, as the inspiration for Inhand.
Soon after her arrival in Afghanistan, Lou finds herself on a helicopter. A sudden explosion startles her. One of the human soldiers traveling with her explains that they had simply “exploded a billy goat.” Sometimes, he explains, they detect movement that could be hostile Taliban fighters.
Their “shoot first, ask questions later,” approach can lead to goats in the Afghan hills becoming collateral damage. The unspoken question that remains is — who else becomes collateral damage when identifying your target seems too risky or too troublesome?
One of Lou’s fellow soldiers, Sri, describes their struggle as one between control and chaos. Odell’s power is not just her shapeshifting or her fighting, but her ability to enlist other creatures to reject the order imposed on the world by modern society.
For Sri, who can detach her head from her body, trailing her own viscera and dripping with poison, her supernatural abilities entail a literal loss of containment. Her body doesn’t just change, it expands beyond its natural form and becomes toxic to the touch. Her work with Inhand means the return of control over her own body.
That return of self-control is exactly what the organization offers Lou. Complete this mission for them, and she can stop all her transformations. On the flip side, Odell’s quest is to reject control that sublimates her abilities and her power.
The dichotomy, like everything else about this story, is not as simple as it appears. For instance, when she witnesses Taliban members attacking poppy farmers, Lou decries their violence as “savage” and “barbaric.”
One of her companions points out that it is neither. Barbarism is something we associate with the forces of chaos. The Taliban was seeking to eradicate the drug trade. They, too, were trying to reestablish control. They were simply doing so along different parameters than the Americans and their allies.
At its heart, Cry Havoc is a story about stories. It is a story about how the myths we believe in, whether those are werewolves and monsters or notions of heroes imposing order on chaos or nationalistic stories of righteous people triumphing over savages define our identity. They teach us what to fight for and who to fight against.
The ability to weave a narrative of the desirability of normalcy is how Inhand can recruit frightened misfits like Lou. The tale of a successful rebellion to establish a new normal that embraces magic is what draws others to Odell.
While most of us may not believe in shapeshifters and demigods anymore, Spurrier shows us that mythology is alive and well in our world. The myths we believe give us heroes and villains in our wars, causes to fight for, and identities to cling to in the face of uncertainty.