“This is war. Man is the enemy.”
These words greet visitors to PopovaWorld.com, the website for a new comic book series released last week, just in time for International Women’s Day. Miami-based creative duo Dre Torres and Alex Valdes self-published the first issue of Popova with impeccable timing, because the city will witness International Women's Strike Miami: Femmes Day of Resistance today, Wednesday, March 8.
The real-life protest is intentionally peaceful and nonviolent. But the fictional world of Popova is dark, bloody, and bitterly aggressive. Torres, a filmmaker and writer; and Valdes, a producer, co-created and co-wrote the comic book series, which they see as relevant in today’s political climate.
The revenge-fantasy comic explores what happens when women become the aggressors and break the victim stereotype. “What you see in Popova is the extreme. They do something radical to fight back,” Torres explains.
“The comic speaks to women who are fed up,” Torres says, “whether it’s with the current administration or historically, since women have been oppressed for centuries.”
Torres and Valdes were inspired by the story of Madame Alexe Popova, an ideological killer who lived in 19th-century Russia and ran a service for local women to "liberate" them from their abusive husbands. She confessed to killing 300 men over 30 years. In her own defense, the murderer claimed to have never killed a woman.
"Life After Death," the first episode of Popova, is set in modern-day New York, where a public figure named Irma Rozanov runs a charity for women’s equality. The nonprofit is also a front where she gathers intelligence for an underground war against male oppressors. As the mysterious Madame, she leads a covert troop of female assassins who abide by her strict ideological code: They aren't allowed to kill women. They may sleep with men, but only for sex; love is out of the question.
“These women are driven to a breaking point,” Valdes says. “There’s been patriarchy as far back as recorded history.”
The comic, illustrated beautifully in black-and-white by Hong Kong-based artist Yasmin Liang (of Star Trek comics fame), isn’t as black-and-white in its tight story line about the gray areas of indoctrination.
In the first episode, we meet one of the founding members of the group, Scarlet Rose, who faces a moral dilemma after “working” on a domestic child abuse case. Her protégée, Sadie Mars, calls her out for betrayal, and a cliffhanger leaves us wondering if the draconian Madame will break her own code.
Torres and Valdes, who’ve been collaborating artistically for seven years, grew up in Miami but began working on the Popova story as a screenplay in 2012, when they lived in Brooklyn, before moving back to Florida. Both of them volunteer their time and talent to help Miami kids through Guitars Over Guns and hardly seem the type to dwell on the subject of militant feminism in a misogynistic world.
The women in their lives, however, have been strong, positive role models.
“I grew up in a house with three generations of women,” Torres says. “The people I looked up to my whole life were all women, so it’s hard for me to think of a world ruled just by men. My mom was an independent business owner. I don’t see women as weak.”
Valdes was also raised by a single mom, and his wife has worked with abused women. “Helping the feminist cause is important to our family,” he says. “It’s hard for me to see women as being beneath men or being subjugated.”
In fact, there’s a healthy respect for the image of women in the comic. The characters look fit and attractive but aren’t oversexualized. “This was a sticking point for us,” Valdes says. “We had to fire two guys before we got to Liang. There was too much cleavage.”
The wardrobe is practical and sensible. “There are no high heels and corsets or impossible bodies. We didn’t want this to be about a superhero with tights and superpowers,” he adds. “It’s hyperreality.”
Though Miami women aren’t about to become real-life Popovas, the comic book creators admit they’ve seen a progressive change in social activism since the 2016 presidential election. Both attended the Women’s March at Bayfront Park in January.
“I was really impressed” Andres says. “It was a Miami I’ve never seen before. I was proud.”
Torres concurs. “The Kendall I grew up in was homogenous, uniform, and everybody thought the same way. It’s changing.”
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"Life After Death" closes with a quote by the Madame: "She who is aware of oppression and does nothing is as responsible as the oppressor himself.”
“The quote is meant to inspire people to take action and fight for their beliefs,” Torres says. “The recent women's rally in Miami is a great example of people doing just that. Action is equally important as knowledge.”
Popova is sold online and locally at Gauntlet Comic Books. The release of the second issue is expected by September, and future issues will be collected in a graphic novel. The creators say they envision a “vast universe” of Popova stories.