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Comics Corner – Redemption offers an unapologetically queer twist on Westerns

“Cannibals are the least of our worries.”

When the sadistic overlord of an isolated town in a post-apocalyptic wasteland is less worried about actual cannibals than the woman hunting him down, you know The Butcher is someone to fear. The pages of writer Christa Faust and artist Mike Deodato Jr’s Redemption show readers precisely why.

Redemption #1 (Credit: AWA/Upshot Comics)

Of course, she wasn’t always “The Butcher”. Once, she was Cat Tanner, a young woman who had to grow up fast and do what was necessary to survive after the Collapse, the downfall of civilisation. Driven, unapologetic, and unrelenting, Cat became a bounty hunter, taking whatever jobs she could find and earning her violent nickname for her efficiency.

That was, until she settled in Redemption with her lover, Inez, the town’s doctor. Well, almost settled – as the power hungry preacher Stonewater took control, rallying the people in fear of outsiders, of anyone different, of “sinners and whores”, the openly lesbian Cat knew that whatever fragile peace she had found with Inez couldn’t last, that she had to leave. Inez, as the only one who could care for the people in Redemption – and particularly the women, already victimised by Stonewater – knew that she had to stay, helping those she could and building a resistance movement.

Now, years later, Inez has finally run afoul of Stonewater and his lackey, the town’s sheriff. Faced with execution, her daughter Rose escapes the town and goes in search of the one person who might be able to save Inez and help dispatch Stonewater – The Butcher. The only problem is that The Butcher, now sporting a robotic hand and possessing less interest in other people than ever, isn’t interested.

Despite its post-apocalyptic setting scattered with broken-down sci-fi tech, AWA Studios’ Redemption is a Western at heart – or at the very least a new hybrid genre; Westpunk, perhaps? – but a Western with all the tropes of the form given a long-overdue gender flip. The Butcher is every bit the grizzled cowboy of a Sergio Leone film – the feared gunslinger, a distrusting loner, cold and detached. The mere fact that this archetype is presented as a woman would make the series stand apart, but the fact that she’s a queer woman is one of the aspects that makes it unique.

Redemption #2 (Credit: AWA/Upshot Comics)

The other is the raw honesty of it. Redemption isn’t just a revenge flick in comic book form, or an exploitation movie on the page. It’s not Mad Max: Fury Road with an older Furiosa – although all those influences are certainly there in both the tone of Faust’s script and in Deodato Jr’s stunning pages of desert wastelands. Rather, this is a comic with queer rage at the heart of it, rage fuelled by queer love denied – a feeling many LGBTQ+ readers will find instantly recognisable.

The fact that Stonewater’s words are enough to drive The Butcher from Redemption – in her own words, because she “can’t pass” as straight, unlike Inez; her eventual nickname being something of a double entendre – will also echo many of the concerns that queer people face. Every time a fear-mongering politician speaks of “values” or invokes xenophobia, queer people know we’re the next convenient target. It’s no coincidence that Stonewater pushed to build a wall around Redemption.

Stonewater’s plans for the city echo every hate preacher LGBTQ+ people will have dealt with in the real world, whipping up bigotry as a cheap bid for their own power. The religiosity of it is secondary – here, Stonewater all but admits he doesn’t actually believe in any higher power than his own, just as so many conservatives’ professed views in reality are transparent covers for maintaining their own control over other people. The cost is the same though – Cat has to leave Inez for her own survival, even at the cost of their love, and it’s that loss that ultimately fuels The Butcher’s return years later.

It’s also refreshing that The Butcher is old, hardened. The exploitation genre is notorious for ensuring its femmes fatale are young and nubile, pairing sex with violence for a typically straight male audience. Here, Faust presents – as she writes in the back matter to issue one – a character who “didn’t give a shit what men thought of her even before she passed her Last Fuckable Day”.

Even flashbacks to when The Butcher and Inez were younger and intimate are presented as being about them, first and foremost – their relationship, the secrecy of it, the danger they face for being in love – than a cheap excuse for nudity. It all makes the pair’s reunion a sweeter – but ultimately tougher – read when it happens.

Redemption #5 (Credit: AWA/Upshot Comics)

A lot of LGBTQ+ media, particularly comics of the last 20 years, focuses on beginnings. As audiences, we’re replete with coming out tales, or of beginning transition, or exciting young love. Redemption is instead about endings, of the hard choices made over the course of decades and the pain those choices can bring. It’s about paying the costs of living authentically, and darkly reminding us that the freedoms we’ve won to do so can be wiped out should the future take even darker turns.

Don’t expect a happy ending – Redemption’s stark tone, narratively and visually, rarely strays from its genre influences, after all – but if you’re intrigued by a serious, sombre, gritty Western that simultaneously utilises and defies all the conventions of the genre, all while applying a queer twist to the proceedings, look no further.

AWA Studios published Redemption under its Upshot imprint as five single issues, available in print and digitally. The complete series will be available in trade paperback form on 29 September.

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