SCUM is my second ongoing comic project, and it’s a celebration of the guilty pleasures we find in media as weirdos, fuck ups and outsiders. Growing up poor, queer, crazy and disenfranchised, I always found myself rooting for the bad guys in fiction. They were complicated, messy, vibrant, and allowed to violate the social norms of gender, authority and class that constrict us in real life. It wasn’t fair, I thought, that Scar spent decades planning to overthrow his smug, authoritarian older brother, only to be thwarted in the end by Simba beating him up. He had intellect, he had style, and he had fun – qualities the heroes of these stories often lack. Why were heroes allowed to make mistakes and overcome them, I wondered, but villains were doomed to stagnation and punishment?
Fiction has an advantage over real life, in that it allows us to talk about good and evil as if they are essential, immutable qualities. We can categorise our thoughts and impulses that way, into the wanted and the unwanted. The good, which will elevate us, and the bad, which will cause harm. This interrogation of our own values and choices has always been the reason we tell tales. We all, on some level, want to be better.
My favourite work of fiction is Faust. My favourite character is Goethe’s rendering of Mephistopheles, the devil. Like the cartoon villains I was drawn to as a child, he encompasses so much that is exciting, uplifting, and fun. Faust himself begins the story as a stuffy, cantankerous, self absorbed professor who craves more from his mortal life. He calls on Mephistopheles, the great underminer of god’s plan, and for two enormous, weird, dizzying volumes he explores the material, emotional and spiritual universe, bound to forever remain unsatisfied by his experiences or else forfeit his soul. He transgresses every boundary, he tastes every temptation, and – here’s the part I believe in more than any other – it makes him a better person.
God wins, in the end, because of course he does. That’s how these stories have to work. Good has to triumph to give us closure. Over the course of his endless wicked adventures on earth, Faust is exposed to every human experience and impulse. He falls in love, and he mistreats the object of his affections horribly, and he moves on and tries to forget about her. But he can’t. As he moves through the world, he encounters the story of her ruin over and over again. And he learns about other things too – about poverty, hunger, exploitation and want. The needle ticks over again, and at long last he learns compassion. The end point of human striving remains the same, Goethe tells us, no matter the path taken.
This isn’t an essay about my favourite play. It’s about the increasingly limited scope our cultural myths have come to offer us on the subject of good and evil. The same production companies that showed me high camp intellectuals paving the road to their own destruction throughout the 90s control just about every aspect of our media consumption today. Our conception of heroes and villains has only grown narrower and less nuanced over time. Audiences have been trained to expect clear lessons, simple morals, and uncomplicated images of Good defeating Evil. Empathy for flawed characters is often now treated as a moral failing, or just bad writing. Speaking as a flawed character myself, I’m not crazy about that. I’d like more heroes like Faust, who fuck up unrelentingly despite their best(?) efforts. I’d like more heroes like Mephistopheles, who show us the path to our own salvation even as they work tirelessly to sabotage it. I’d like more stories that reflect the fun, the anxiety, the blind messy struggle of being human in a world where those with power over us decide what’s right and wrong.
So, what is SCUM about? It’s about people who fail our cultural morality tests. It’s about the dark and twisting paths they take, guided by their personal devils. It’s about the people setting the rules, and the people breaking them. Everybody has their reasons. Most of them are bad. Perhaps we can empathise with them anyway.