Jem and the Holograms: The YouTube Generation Stands Up For Its Artistic Right to Exist At Last

For decades now, a grim presence has sat heavily on the chest of popular artistic culture.  Men and women now in their thirties and forties have, far past our time, insisted that everything should remain the same as when we were kids, and that any deviation from those memories, any new way of carrying out public creativity, is forbidden and to be shunned and scorned with all of the weight of our massed presence.  Rarely has that knee-jerk urge to destroy something different been more in evidence than when the first Jem and the Holograms trailer hit.  A horde of middle-aged men and women leaped to mass indignation, saying that this new movie had too much Internet culture, not enough of their 80s culture, and berated the film for daring to do something different to make a beloved set of characters actually engage with developing popular expression.

I know, I was one.  “Synergy isn’t a holographic woman?  Jerrica isn’t in charge of Starlight Records?  Blasphemy!”  With every inch of my 36-year old person, I was indignant that something I loved would be polluted with things like Instagram and YouTube.  And that’s how I went into the movie, grumbling through the first 10 minutes, “Self-absorbed teenagers… bah!”  And then something happened… I looked over at my daughters and saw that they got it, that this unbounded online creativity, this urge to be yourself in a public forum, was something they understood and that it was, in fact, a very good thing.  When I was a kid, if you were strange (and I was), you remained silent.  You didn’t seek support or like-minded travelers.  You either hid who you were or took the shame as part of your daily routine.  What Jem communicates, more than anything, is the potential for we oddballs to exist in this new public culture and find a place comfortable in our mild wackiness, and that is precisely something I want my daughters to know, and a message that popular entertainment, dominated by my generation for far too long, has often haughtily denied them.

Plus, it’s a fun damn movie.  The homages to the original cartoon are plentiful and charming.  Heck, the last line of the movie is, “Our songs are better.  We’re gonna get her.”  The hologram is updated and made so much more meaningful than anything in the original cartoon.  The musical numbers are big and fun.  Young Blood is at least as good as any Summer pop hit, and The Way I Was is a strong ballad that I downloaded more or less the instant that I got home, and is several degrees better than what you’ll find on the Top 40 charts.  The Misfits scene is exactly what you’d want.  The messages for LGBT youth are beautiful and appropriate and inspiring.

But, it seems, in our generational thirst for blood, we’ve taken something quite lovely and smashed it upon the evidence of a minute and a half that we didn’t personally identify with.  We muddied the waters with all of our outrage, and choked the ability of this film to say what it has to say to a new generation who really needs to hear it.  And that’s a terrific shame.  So, if you have daughters or sons, and you want them to engage positively in online creativity, and assert their identity strongly, grab them today and head out to Jem.  You’ll enjoy the glamour and glitter, fashion and fame, and they’ll enjoy seeing their world on the big screen.

Super Heroines 5! Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld (1983) and Ms. Marvel (2014)!

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Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld

(DC Comics, Volume 1, 1983-1984).

 

AmethystCover

Writers: Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn

 Artist : Ernie Colón

 

Adolescence is difficult to write well. When we remember our own adolescence, we shudder, and the vibrations of that self-conscious shudder usually find their way into any fictional accounts of teenagerdom we craft, rendering them either several shades too snide or too maudlin. We think of ourselves as having been hopelessly naive and self-centered, all of the subtleties of our complicated emotional lives effaced by the sand blaster of adulthood and the slow erosion of time passed, and so we write adolescents as invariably insipid, gullible, and narcissistic.

Comic books throughout the Seventies had their fair share of doltish teenagers but then, in 1983, came one of the loveliest accounts of the hopes and pressures of adolescence in, of all places, a fantasy comic book of the He-Man stripe, Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld. It’s the tale of Amy Winton, a thirteen-year old girl who is given a gem on her birthday that opens a gateway to Gemworld. Stepping through, she finds a world of magic users and fantastic creatures and, much more than that, that she is now a grown woman, the Princess Amethyst, upon whose shoulders rest the entire realm’s hopes for survival.

 

The Secret Parents theme is evident from page one.
The Royal Parents theme is evident from page one.

 

It is, quite consciously, an exercise in the Royal Parents trope (which is referenced in the first lines of exposition), the fantasy that one’s parents are fakes, and that one’s real parents are extraordinary kings or wizards who will one day come and reclaim you as their own. I think we all had that daydream at one time or another, and Amethyst is a sustained working-through of that childhood constant. As Amethyst, Amy must reunite the various lands of Gemworld which have been under the tyrannical boot of Lord Opal since the murder of Amy’s real parents some two decades past (time moves more quickly in Gemworld than on Earth, which is why Amy has an adult form in one world and an adolescent form in the other). Meanwhile, at home, she’s a regular girl with two deeply realized characters for parents. Her mother is a child psychologist and her father a professor, and their interactions with Amy are among the smartest and most real-feeling human interactions of any comic.

 

Dads are cool.
Dads are cool.

 

 

The episodes on Earth are few, however, as this is really the story of Amethyst learning to lead, to bury doubt so that the nations looking up to her take inspiration and fight on. More than a story about fighting and magic spells, it’s a story about the magnetic strength of independence, a message that any girl growing up in the early Eighties surely needed for the hard road ahead.

 

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It is also a tale of the confusion of approaching maturity. Amethyst is a thirteen year old in the body of a twenty year old, and must process at once the flood of other men’s desire and the sudden onset of her own. It’s an analogy for adolescence generally – feeling your body and mind tugging in different directions, as idealized middle school romance runs hard against the realities of maturity. Having Amethyst, as a grown up, confronting the passions of the adult world with the consciousness of an adolescent, gives the young readers a handle on something hard to understand, and is an engaging way to remind us older readers about the stumbling complexity of those years.

 

The page layouts have some nicely robust intricacy.
The page layouts are pure fun.

 

 

Amethyst is, in short, a beautifully told, vibrantly drawn tale with a psychologically subtle underpinning easy to miss if one focuses only on the superficial similarities with Masters of the Universe or She-Ra. It has some of the best parent writing in the business, and has found some enchanting ways of dealing with the hope and confusion of growing up, all while telling a great and fun story of evil overcome.

 

Heck Yes, a Power-Meter!

AmethystMeter

 

Fierce: 9: Amethyst has various magical abilities, but the true fierceness of the character comes from her assuming the mantle of leadership and learning how to inspire, and how to deal with advice from elders in a way that incorporates their information while retaining her full authority.

 

Amethyst, Learning to Lead.
Amethyst, Learning to Lead.

 

Smart: 9: Amethyst never does anything particularly brainy, but her diplomatic intelligence is keen, and the emotional intelligence of the book overall is fantastic.

Funny: N/A: This book doesn’t try to tell any jokes which I find a great improvement over the early 80’s propensity to tell lots of terrible jokes.

Artwork: 9: The gem-theme is played out throughout the artwork, with the vibrant colors of the various world gems a component of the page designs, and the creatures and mythology of the realm woven into the inter-panel elements. The scripts call for some complex emotions to be rendered, and Colón regularly succeeds in finding the proper tone. There isn’t anything particularly revolutionary in the character design, but there isn’t anything unusually offensive either.

 

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

 

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Ms. Marvel (Marvel, 2014)

 

 

MsMarvel3

 

Writer: G. Willow Wilson.

 Artists: Adrian Alphona, Jacob Wyatt, Takeshi Miyazawa, Elmo Bondoc, Ian Herring.

 

Few titles have had as many hopes and expectations greet their inaugural issue as faced Ms. Marvel upon its launch in 2014. It was the comic that was going to heal social wounds and shove comics into a bold new era of subtly managed inclusivity. It was destined to pave the way for quirky female super heroes and gifted female writers and, if the hyperbolic speculations were to be believed, more or less solve racism and chauvinism in the comics industry and thereby, clearly, the world.

It was a massive weight to place on a book with a new creative team and a new character, and so come that first Wednesday the tribal elder wisdom held that the bubble of over-inflated praise would burst, and Ms. Marvel would go the way of so many promising but under-supported Marvel super heroine titles before. Then the amazing thing happened- an armada of long-standing comics nerds and first-timers picked up Issue One, thumbed through it, and found that it was not what they expected, but was precisely what they wanted.

 

MsMarvel6

 

Ms. Marvel is the story of Kamala Khan, a Pakistani Muslim teenager dealing with the everyday grind of Being Different. She is a fan-fic writing, Warcraft playing, good grade getting nerd who has to put up with Caucasian Sympathy and Concern, which Wilson portrays very believably as far more dehumanizing than workaday scorn. Her family consists of likable and relatable people who, yes, represent various stereotypes of the Indian Subcontinent Family trope, but do so in a way which shows a basic humanity that just about anybody can connect with.

 

Family Dialogue is a clear strong suit of the comic.
Family Dialogue is a clear strong suit of the comic.

 

The scenes with the family are, truth be told, my favorite part of this comic. The tension between assimilation and tradition, identity and duty, is the keen pulse running throughout the book, creating an emotionally resonant foundation to which the story can constantly return when the super heroics are in danger of going stale. In terms of the domestic sphere, this is one of the most consistently engaging comics out there.

When the book moves away from the sphere of Kamala’s family, the results are more variable. The teenager patter is filled with references to 80s movies, MMORPGS, and early-season Simpsons episodes, which is how people in their thirties think teenagers talk, but resolutely is not how teenagers talk. I know that we all want to think that the pop culture of our youth is eternally young, but as I have discovered over years of teaching teenagers, observing Marty McFly and Princess Bride references meet with a total lack of recognition, it isn’t so. We don’t have a claim on youth culture in perpetuity, and it’s sadly time to stop writing adolescents as if we do.

 

Kamala's first transformation is a poignant moment of double alienation.
Kamala’s first transformation is a poignant moment of double alienation.

 

The super antics side of the equation features a mixture of quite lovely things, and well-intentioned things that didn’t quite work as planned. The story around the first villain, a clone of Thomas Edison who is part cockatiel, started off promisingly enough, but didn’t quite manage to sustain its thematic elements. The impact of his storyline rests on us believing that a Clearly Evil cockatiel headed man approached a bunch of pretty regular teenagers and said, “You are parasites, and can best serve the salvation of the world by becoming human batteries for a series of gigantic robots I’m building,” and that they then responded with, “Yeah, that sounds about right, we’re in.” This is supposed to make the teenage volunteers seem selfless and thereby feed into the overarching notion of modern youth as service-oriented rather than social-media-obsessed. It’s a good message that needs to be said more, but the lead-up is all so improbable that one is too busy wincing at the awkward justifications to work up a respect for their noble motivations. That awkwardness weaves its way through the climax of the first arc, and hobbles somewhat the impact of Wilson’s moral.

 

Hmmm....
Hmmm….

 

On the super hero side, things are better. A team-up with Wolverine strikes the right balance of experience confronting youth, and the interactions with the Inhumans whose Mists gave Kamala her powers reinforces nicely the themes of assimilation running throughout the comic. Plus, the fist fights incorporating Kamala’s morphogenic powers are super fun visually.

 

MsMarvel2

 

But super heroics isn’t what this book emphasizes at its core. It’s about a girl dealing with difference and adolescence. She’s an Inhuman (a subject of Queen Medusa, who is for some reason always drawn as if she’s seventeen), a Muslim (which doesn’t make a terrible amount of sense given the existence of alien races and scripture-debunking time travel, but we’ll leave that be), a Pakistani, and, worst of all, a teenager, trying to figure out how things like boyfriends and heroism work. In one of the most telling episodes of the early issues, her first transformation causes her to become the white-skinned, blond haired, sexified Ms. Marvel of the early 2000’s, a desperate manifestation of a desire to fit in rendered external by her unconscious morphogenic gifts. She doesn’t have all the answers right away, and her openness to wisdom from unexpected sources is one of the continuing delights of this book, as is her nerd’s eye perspective of the world she’s stepped into. So long as Ms. Marvel avoids being dragged into mindless crossover events that emphasis galactic punchery over domestic difficulties, it will continue to be one of the great and unique accounts of foreignness in all of its manifestations on the comic shelves.

 

 Sing Me a Meter of Power, Oh Screen.

MsMarvelMeter

 

Fierce: 8: Kamala can handle herself nicely in a fight, relishing her powers with a refreshing zest that breaks up the episodes of social doubt, and has shown an increasing concern about the lethal boundaries of her powers that should lead to interesting places.

 

Smart: 7: Kamala Khan is supposed to be a perfect student, and yet, every time she says something physics-related to demonstrate that intelligence, it’s mostly wrong (an early reference to Newton’s Second Law is particularly cringe-worthy), though in a way that I suppose is in character for a high school student. Keep in mind though that, as a physics teacher in respectable life, I’m probably pickier on that front than I need to be. The cultural intelligence, however, is acute and refreshing.

 

Funny: 8: Again, you have to suspend your disbelief that a girl in her teens jokes more or less exactly like a person in their thirties, but when you do, the references are great and fun.

 

Artwork: 9: This is a magnificent pairing of art and narrative. There are several different artists throughout the first 14 issues, but they all stay true to Alphona’s initial vibe, a mixture of the cartoony and the fragile, a perfect representation of Kamala’s romanticized inner life sliced through here and there by veins of sadness and frustration.

Read about some real female super heroes at Women In Science!
Read about some real female super heroes at Women In Science!
Read More Super Heroines Episodes!
Read More Super Heroines Episodes!

Super Heroines 4! Jetta (1952) and Batgirl (2011)!

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Jetta (Standard Comics, 1952-1953)

 

Jetta4

Writer and Artist: Dan DeCarlo

 

Every discussion among “Fifties Good Girl Comic” enthusiasts is roughly the same. Somebody will throw out a title – Suzie or Patsy Walker or Katy Keene – and the conversation will commence along deeply ploughed channels, debating fashion cut-outs and career choices, until somebody says, “And then there’s Jetta,” at which point everybody goes reverentially silent. Jetta is something of the Holy Grail amongst this set, discussed only in hushed tones with other initiates. It ran for only three issues, which had horrendous distribution problems, making it almost ostentatiously rare. It was written and drawn by Dan DeCarlo, the man who invented Josie and the Pussycats and Sabrina the Teenage Witch and who more or less defined the Archie style. It was a humor comic about the future, ten years before The Jetsons.  In their mouths, no superlative seems too extreme – it’s the Funniest of the Fifties comics, the best drawn, the smartest, the sexiest…

 

Awful Puns and Struggling Women are pretty much Jetta's bread and butter.
Awful Puns and Struggling Women are pretty much Jetta’s bread and butter.

 

Every time I hear these Jetta panegyrics, I go back to my reprints and try and find just what it is everybody else seems to find in these few issues, and come up empty. The artistic style is classic and distinctive, but the jokes are awful and the characters worse. It’s basically Future Archie – Jetta’s main boyfriend is even named Arky, to really hammer the point home. Each issue contains a few stories which link together a series of flat future-tech puns (“Now you’re cookin’ with Uranium!” being the main catch phrase the series was trying to sell) in the service of telling a tale about Jetta’s variously goofy friends getting into mishaps of their own devising, often involving Arky’s chronic infidelity, which is always laughed off in the end as Jetta routinely takes him back (this is the Fifties, remember, when every good girl was expected as a matter of course to accept her Man’s roving larks).

 

Jetta falls.  A lot.
Jetta falls. A lot.

 

Partially, the flatness of the comic can be laid at the door of Fredric Wertham, whose campaign against comics’ obscenity made all of the comic publishers over-chary. Across each issue’s first page is a banner reading “Look for this banner when you buy a comic magazine. It is your guarantee of wholesome reading.” Nobody was taking chances, which famously blanched the entire industry for the better part of a decade. Partially, it’s the fault of the Fifties ethos of bland conformity generally, though I think it’s easy to understate that decade’s capacity for subversive commentary. If the Fifties was the age of McCarthy, Separate Marital Beds on TV, and Andy Griffith, it was also the era of Mad Magazine, the Twilight Zone, and Rusty Warren.   There were still ways to be funny and clever within the confines of the era’s straitened mores. But Jetta’s rebellion is entirely visual – the female characters are given short skirts and placed in “accidentally” tantalizing positions that got by the moral authorities precisely because the characters and humor were so entirely unexceptionable.

 

Hilaria.
Hilaria.

 

It’s an interesting strategy in the face of censorship, and perhaps it was the only thing DeCarlo could have done at the time, but it doesn’t make the comic good so much as good as could have been expected. Jetta has no character. Arky is morally mostly gross. The best character is of course the female villain, Hilaria, mainly because she at least has an identifiable motivation for doing things, namely hatred of Jetta. It won’t make you laugh, and you probably won’t care about anything that happens to anybody, but as a timepiece, and as an example of an art form grappling with creative restrictions, it’s fascinating. There are better “Good Girl” comics from the era, ones featuring young women dealing with the pressures of careers and actual relationships, but none with the same strange mixture of futurism and conformity, creepy sexiness with standard gender roles, as Jetta.

 

Hokey Smokes, a Power Meter!

PowerMeterJetta

 

Fierce: 2: Jetta gets momentarily angry at Arky’s various infidelities, but invariably takes him back with open arms after.

 

Smart: 1: Jetta is never shown doing anything requiring mental effort. The one science project that she’s shown being a part of, all she does is trip and fall while carrying a box of parts.

 

Funny: 3: I can’t say I laughed once during this comic, and can’t really imagine who would. Did “Stop handing me that space gas” ever evoke raucous guffaws? Yes, humor ages the worst of any element in the arts, but there are plenty of examples of Fifties humor in a “wholesome” vein that are legitimately funny still. There are a couple of gags that have glimmers of clever, however, if you’re really into puns.

 

Fashion: 5: It’s fair to speculate that the entire point of Jetta was to give Dan DeCarlo an excuse to draw women in really short skirts. His private sketches show an artist who enjoyed sexualizing his characters. Still, DeCarlo’s vision of future fashion is probably the most engaging thing about this comic, and was certainly influential in the development of The Jetsons later aesthetic.

 

DeCarlo's private drawings are telling.
DeCarlo’s private drawings are telling.

 

 

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Batgirl (DC Comics, 2011-2014)

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Writers: Gail Simone, Marguerite Bennett.

Artists: Ardian Syaf, Vicente Cifuentes, Daniel Sampere, Fernando Pasarin, Jonathan Glapion.

 

The trick to a good Bat comic isn’t to invent villains as disturbing as possible, but rather to invent villains whose vices are extensions of the Bat heroes’ virtues. The unique drama of the Batverse comes from that tension as virtue meets its extremities. And few comics explored those tensions as fruitfully and consistently as Batgirl when Gail Simone was at the helm. Her Barbara Gordon is an exceptional human being in every regard, a person of such extreme gifts that her genius is always on the verge of becoming monstrous were it not for the overwhelming power of her basic capacity for empathy.

 

Batgirl5

Simone’s run lasted for thirty four issues, though the actual number is lower still, as every time Simone built up a good head of narrative steam, the editorial powers-that-be roped the book into some sprawling Bat Event that scattered her carefully wrought threads. When permitted to tell her own stories, however, this series provided some of the best Bat writing ever. The run begins with Barbara Gordon recovered from the spinal injury that had bound her to a wheelchair for three years, creakily reassuming her role as Batgirl. Her first villains darkly echo this process. The Mirror is racked with Survivor’s Guilt, just as Batgirl is confounded by the fact that she has been given a second chance to walk when so many others were not. In fighting his obsession over the unworthiness of Those Who Survive, she has to wrestle with the darkness familiar to anybody who has had a shot at recovery not granted to others.

 

Black Canary is having none of it.
Black Canary is having none of it.

 

In Gretel, Batgirl faces a broken woman of superior abilities who is unable to piece herself together after extreme trauma. For Barbara Gordon, still haunted by the images of the Joker standing over her, putting the bullet in her that severed her spine, Gretel is a case of what might have been, and in fact what might still be, if she doesn’t resolve the fears and rage swirling about her own traumatic past. But her greatest foil is Knightfall, a titanically wealthy young woman who was made to watch her family slowly murdered over an agonizing three hours, and who resolved to use her resources to wipe out crime in Gotham City. She is smart and resourceful and organized, and absolutely committed to the virtue of what she does. She wants to eradicate the criminal element through a massive show of irresistible, privately-funded force. In some sense, it’s a familiar story – a character gets fed up with the revolving door of crime allowed by the super hero moral code, and decides to end it at last in an orgy of anti-criminal violence. But Simone consistently finds the humanity in her, and the lingering inhumanity in Batgirl, and sets them in a dance that runs throughout the comic.

 

The family moments in this Batgirl run are among the most touching, and real, in comics.
The family moments in this Batgirl run are among the most touching, and real, in comics.

 

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That dance is fueled, as is much of this comic, by the pull between empathy and reason. Batgirl is supremely rational and intelligent, but at the same time consistently presented as the Bat figure with a unique sense of empathy and human feeling (in spite of one scene where she is chomping down on bacon, telling her father to “keep the swine train comin’” – a line that feels out of place for someone who ought to be smart enough to know the horrendous cruelty and waste of the pig industry, and empathetic enough to not be so glib about pleasures that come from the suffering and death of living creatures). Keeping those faculties in balance is her main character challenge, never realized as beautifully as in her relation with Poison Ivy, Simone’s characterization of whom is breath-taking. Ivy’s extreme reaction to the seasons, her struggle to identify with the suffering of people, her loneliness within the magnitude of her grander cause, are all eloquently portrayed, and make a lovely confrontation point for Batgirl’s own issues of balance and commitment.

 

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One thing I’ve never been able to make up my mind about with this series is Ricky Gutierrez, Barbara’s boyfriend-for-no-discernible-reason. Some days, I think he’s brilliant as Simone’s commentary on all the vapid, characterless girlfriends of super heroes that have popped up through the years, people who have no personality and no purpose beyond getting kidnapped or hurt so that the main hero can get vengeance. He’s a bit more developed than that, but not enough to make all the big drama around his character feel justified unless it’s as a fond but snarky nod to that trope. The all-overness of the relationship as it is characterized tend to make me think that’s how it’s meant to be read – Sometimes it seems like they’ve only had one actual date, and yet he’s got a framed picture of her, and yet she at one point says she has no boyfriend, and yet she calls him her one shot at real happiness, and yet… What it all adds up to is that he’s there and emotionally important so long as he’s needed to motivate an outburst of righteous rage in Batgirl, and nowhere present otherwise, just like the cutout girlfriends of old. If he is an homage character, he’s one of the best there’s been, and if he’s not, he’s a rather consistently disappointing presence at the center of some fairly important narrative moments, which would be unfortunate. So, I’ve chosen to believe the former.

 

Some of the best moments are the guest appearances of other DC super heroines.
Some of the best moments are the guest appearances of other DC super heroines.

 

Leaving Ricky aside, Simone’s Batgirl is a series that grapples with the guilt of recovery, the greater guilt of genius, the tragedy of family (the side stories of her long-absent mother, long suffering father, and psychotic brother are all elegantly wrought), and the subtle bleed between empathy and rage with a consistent sense of psychological realism in the midst of the fantastic.

 

“It’s all done save the power meters, fellahs…”

 PowerMeterBatgirl

Fierce: 10: Batgirl is cut from the same cloth as Batman, capable of untold fury and brutal precision, but always able to reel it in before crossing the uncrossable line, and somehow that edge of empathy makes her even more fierce.

 

Smart: 9: We don’t see as much of the intellect of Batgirl in this series as we did when she was Oracle. We hear about her genius a good deal, her eidetic memory is frequently referenced, and on occasion see her doing some research or computer work, but the vast majority of the time she’s punching and kicking and bleeding. Still, the psychological intelligence of the title, and the fact that her analytic approach to problems underlies even her punchiness, make this decidedly one of the brainiest books in the New 52.

 

One of Batgirl's more science-y moments.
One of Batgirl’s more science-y moments.

 

Funny: 8: Batgirl isn’t a battlefield yukster, but her inner monologues and, more importantly, the everyday dialogue, are all often quite funny without the whiff of pandering that slunk into the comic after Simone left. It’s smart and current without trying to painfully show at every moment how Very Smart and Very Current it is.

 

Simone's take on Poison Ivy is haunting and gorgeous.
Simone’s take on Poison Ivy is haunting and gorgeous.

 

Fashion: 8: No matter who’s handling her, Batgirl feels like part of the Batverse. Her costume is tactical and practical, not at all the cutesy party couture it was often before and has reverted to since. The visual portrayal of Poison Ivy is poetry, pure and simple. Even Catwoman, long the focus of everybody’s sluttiest possible efforts, is comparably restrained and sensible here – still sleek and catlike and exuding that simmering eroticism, but within the context of the character’s basic elegance.

 

Read More Super Heroines Episodes!
Read More Super Heroines Episodes!
Read about some real female super heroes at Women In Science!
Read about some real female super heroes at Women In Science!

Super Heroines 3! Shanna the She-Devil and Aria: The Uses of Enchantment

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Shanna the She-Devil (Marvel, 1972-73)

 

Shanna2Written by: Carole Leuning (Issues 1-4), Steve Gerber (Issue 5).

Art by: Ross Andru.

 

In 1972, Stan Lee made a decision several decades ahead of its time – to not only launch three new female-centered series, but to have women writers at the helm on two of them. Within months of each other, Claws of the Cat, Night Nurse, and Shanna the She Devil premiered, and within months after that, all three folded. The Cat and Night Nurse only saw four issues a piece, while Shanna bowed out after a mere five. It’s a moment in comics history that is under-recognized in discussions about Stan Lee’s progressive place in the medium, and a tantalizing glimpse at what Might Have Been had the comic-buying public been ready for it.

 

 

Shanna1Carole Seuling was the writer for the first four issues, and her vibrant and modern spin on the Jungle Woman genre is evident from the first page. Shanna is an environmental biologist specializing in big cats who becomes so sickened with man’s needless slaughter of wildlife that she runs to the jungles of Africa with two leopard cubs, to protect nature and escape man’s ravenous capitalist appetite. She’s a PhD and a gymnast as well as environmentalist and feminist, who comes down hard on poachers, slavers, and the entire Western system of resource exploitation. The Jungle Woman archetype had a long lineage before Shanna, but Seuling succeeded in updating it with the environmental awareness of modernity, mixing the lavish escapism of the genre with a nascent sense of man’s reach having surpassed its grasp. This was 1972, when ecology was just finding its feet again after Ellen Swallow’s initial ecological studies had been grossly buried by a post-War America that couldn’t be shagged to give two damns about anything that stood between it and the grotesque consumption of consumer goods. Most mass media hadn’t worked its way back around to ecological indignation and yet here, in a comic book that lasted less than a year, those themes are at play thanks to Seuling’s unique approach to characterization.

Ain’t comics grand?

 

ShannaIssueOne
Issue One
Issue Two.
Issue Two.

Some weird stuff happens in these five issues. The first is given over to stopping a set of poachers, and is by far the best issue of them all. Shanna’s wardrobe is given a sensible explanation and is, if minimal, better than any Shanna costume since. She is taking on an enemy that makes sense, and the action and message work perfectly together. Then, in issue two, I suspect some editorial suggestions made their way in – Shanna’s costume gets several times skimpier for no particular reason, and Shanna is now taking on a slaver who is, at the same time, trying to hijack a French moon rocket that has… heroin… on it? But it’s still great – Seuling directs attention to the fact that slavery isn’t over just because Abraham Lincoln said it was, and Shanna brings the hurt to the slaver’s organization in a most satisfactory way.

 

 

 

Shanna4Issue three involves Minoans who have reestablished Cretan culture in the middle of Africa and in doing so have bred bulls that shoot Fear Rays from their horns. It’s weird and wonderful and, if it doesn’t have the broader themes that the first two had, it’s pure goofy fun makes up for it. Issues four and five revolve around the Mandrill trying to take over a few African nations with a crew of Mandrill-face-tattooed women and a creed of Hate that makes for some grandly villainous, Ayn Rand-esque soliloquizing about the virtues of hatred, but that otherwise comes from nowhere and proceeds likewise.

Shanna would have to wait another quarter century for a solo title, one drawn by Frank Cho in a manner that makes her revised costume appear stylish and understated, and without Seuling’s sense of balance between action and thematic depth. Shanna the She Devil is, in short, a smart and underappreciated comic that makes big issues blend with classic comic tropes in a way that keeps the whole galloping forward instead of stumbling clunkily on its own righteousness, a synthesis many of the Seventies’ “socially aware” comics aspired to but failed to unilaterally achieve.

 

Hey Kids, It’s a Power Meter!

 PowerMeterShanna

 

Shanna won't kill you - she WILL watch you die, though.
Shanna won’t kill you – she WILL watch you die, though.

Fierce: 10: Shanna can kick the living Hell out of you herself, but sometimes, for variety, she’ll stand by and watch her leopard sidekicks maul you to death. You don’t get a PhD without a body count.

Smart: 9: Shanna is introduced as a doctor of environmental biology, and that fact is reiterated several times. She’s one of the very few women in comics prior to the present era who has an advanced degree, and is shown applying it in her work.

Funny: 5: I find Minoan Death Ray Bulls thoroughly amusing, but that probably wasn’t the intent.

Costume: 7: The costume in issue one makes sense. It’s made of the pelt of her leopard sidekicks’ murdered mother, to help them establish scent identification when they were young, and to remind her of the evil that men are capable of when money is to be made. If they kept it, I think it would be a 9 or a 10, as one of the only female costumes that has its own story and rationale. But the hussying up of it in the latter issues drags it back down.

 

 

A costume with a back story and thought out rationale?  Blasphemy!
A costume with a back story and thought out rationale? Blasphemy!

 ____________________________________________________________________

 

NowFinal

 

Aria: The Uses of Enchantment (Image, 2003)

 

Aria4

 

Writer: Brian Holguin

  Art: Lan Medina


         After Image Comics got “I am muscled and on a rooftop – and YOU are muscled and on a rooftop – let us fight for several issues!” out of its system in the mid Nineties, it turned slowly to the formula which makes it today the most critically acclaimed of the comic publishers. While today Saga and its brethren bear the mark of confident independence, Image’s first forays were tentative and fragile creatures evincing different levels of professionalism and storytelling innovation that feel exciting still in their raw adolescence.

 

Aria1Many of these early 2000’s Image books were centered on a female protagonist and almost all are forgotten now (not to downplay the presumable hordes who are still keeping that candle burning for Athena, Inc.), annihilated in that slim crushing space between Spawn and Chew. But some neat things happened in there, one of which was Aria, which began as a series in 1999 and concluded in 2003 with the 4 issue mini-series Aria: The Uses of Enchantment which we’ll be looking at today. The starting premise of the Aria series, that magical creatures still exist in modern society, will be familiar to readers of the later Fables series, but takes a lovely turn into the melancholy of maturity that is entirely its own. It’s a story about resignation, disillusionment, and mortality wrapped in the trappings of a magical kingdom, where the protagonist has to shoulder the dual burdens of liberator and destroyer.

 

Aria3Kildare is a fairy, nine hundred years old and now living comfortably among men, who is summoned to a sumptuous feast in a hitherto unknown magical realm, existing in secret in the Catskills. Everything is perfect – the handsome king, his hedgehog chamberlain, a grand ball in the most luxurious tradition – everything save for the queen, who finds herself unable to feel… anything. That sliver of paralyzed emotion becomes the wedge which splits the kingdom apart, while Kildare is largely there in the role of catalyst. She has some powerful set-pieces facing off against the murderous Hunter of the woods, but primarily she is there to observe, to follow the process of disintegration, and to remember when all is done, and that characterization feels totally right. Your main character doesn’t need to be the cause and resolution of every single plot point in a book – sometimes it is sufficient for her to be a presence at happenings outside her control, to record and experience it all in our stead and then move on. That feeling of wise but helpless detachment is one of the most interesting things about this book, and gives Kildare her own immortality-weary interest.

 

If pressed, Kildare can wreck a fool.
If pressed, Kildare can wreck a fool.

 

Inside, the art is perfectly wed to the story. It is cold when whimsical and tragic when real, so that you never feel quite settled in either the magical or actual worlds portrayed. Something is off, but it’s not the offness you might first expect. Holguin and Medina unite to take the story somewhere unexpected and bittersweet that is off the beaten path for the Fairy Kingdom Not What It Seems trope. This was the last of the Aria stories, and with its mature treatment of fairy-tale elements, it set the tone for so much of the rich enchanted realms storytelling we have experienced in comics since. The issues are harder to hunt down now, but if you find them, they make for a rewarding return to the origins of fairy tale modernity, and a new take on what protagonists can do and be within a comic narrative.

 

 What’s one POWER METER, when you can have two?!

 

PowerMeterAria

 

Fierce: 8: Kildare can throw down if she needs to, but in this story she’s largely above the fray.

Smart: 7: Kildare and her unbalanced sister are shown in the beginning sorting through books, and knowledge gained in the enchanted library forms a crucial element of the story, but this book shades towards emotional rather than intellectual wisdom, and excels at it.

Funny: 4: The hedgehog chamberlain has an amusing interrupted Lumiere-esque musical number, but otherwise this isn’t a book aiming to stir chuckles.

Fashion: 9: This story takes place mostly in the enchanted world, and the costumes are what you would expect – elegant and flowing and frigidly perfect, as they should be. In other incarnations, especially in the Aria & Angela books, the 90s Image instinct for over-sexualizing female characters creeps up, but that’s not really an issue in this story. This is a tale about loss within whimsy, and the art elegantly reflects that atmosphere.

 

Read More Super Heroines Episodes!
Read More Super Heroines Episodes!
Read about some real female super heroes at Women In Science!
Read about some real female super heroes at Women In Science!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Explanation of the Power Bar Rankings:

 

Fierce: Does this character solve her own problems rather than deferring to the authorities around her for guidance? Does she have a distinct personality that exists separately of her love interest? Does she stand up to institutionalized power structures because it’s right?

 

Smart: Is the character ever shown solving problems with her intellect, or engaged in a scientific/artistic pursuit? Alternately, are the characters in the comic as a whole crafted with an intelligent understanding of motivation and complexity?

 

Funny: Pretty self explanatory here folks.

 

Fashion: I initially thought about calling this the Costume Exploitation scale, as a place to call out terrible and objectifying costume choices, but there are ways to do character design well and sensibly, and Fashion seems the positive word for that. The question here is, “Did the artist take time to think about matching the costume to the personality of the character, or is there just sexual titillation for titillation’s sake?” In addition, “Is there something particularly visually striking or new about what this title is doing with the 90% of the character covered in clothes?” That might sound superficial, but I love clothes and never get to talk about them outside of yammering on about RuPaul’s Drag Race on Facebook, so it gets a bar.

Super Heroines 2: Motormouth and The Fearless Defenders

ThenFinal

 

Motormouth (Marvel UK, 1992-1993)

Motormouth5

Writer: Graham Marks (1-10), Glen Dakin and Nick Barber (11), Andrew Cartmel (12).

Pencils: Gary Frank (1-4, 6),Phil Gascoine (5), Edmund Parryman (7), Del Barras (8), David Taylor (9), Rosie Mendoza (10, 11), Richard Elson (12).

Inks: Cam Smith (1-7).

 

“The British Marvel Universe is born!”

Let us walk back, you and I, to the days when comic books were poised to become the medium of the future – simpler times when, if you could draw a man muscley enough, a woman chesty enough, a belt pouchy enough, and a gun gunny enough, you could regularly sell multiple million copies of a single issue. These were the early 90s, before the Great Fall, and it seemed a propitious moment for Marvel UK to create not only a new title, but a whole new series of books, the British Marvel Universe. Warheads, Death’s Head II, The Knights of Pendragon, Hell’s Angel, Shadow Riders, and Wild Child. None of them would survive past issue twenty, and a few not even past issue ten, but along the way some rather interesting thiMotormouth2ngs happened, such as our subject today, the twelve-issue run of Motormouth which defies any attempts at easy categorization.

Motormouth’s heroine is a short, constantly cursing street punk whose years of homelessness produced a cynical, survival-first outlook on life that give the comic an intriguing set of social virtues not at all common in the genre. She is not out to save the world or right wrongs. She is trying to survive, to secure food and clothes even as she comes across a pair of dimension-warping sneakers (a pleasant reminder of a time when getting the right sneakers was a matter of playground life and death) that place her smack in the way of the evil Mys-Tech corporation’s plans for global domination.

 

And that, really, is why this comic is so odd. In any other comic, the central character would uncover the giant plot, and then work to pull the operation apart for the good of humanity. But Motormouth, Harley Davis, has been too broken by hard life. She spends most of her time running, and only engages with the central baddies when they kidnap her lovable oaf of a partner, Killpower. Really, the comic is split in two – Nick Fury’s direct war against MysTech, and Motormouth’s random jaunts through various dimensions. While Nick and the Punisher and Cable and other such alpha-males of the early 90s dutifully blow shit up and kill dudes for justice, Harley is as likely to be fighting alongside a sorcerer princess or running from the police in a society based on militarized fashion.

What's this?!  A staff meeting - and 2 of the 3 staff members are women?!
What’s this?! A staff meeting – and 2 of the 3 staff members are women?!

The boys go through all the standard super hero moves, while Harley is allowed to actual be what her character is and act how one would expect a person with such a background to act. What’s more, she’s not the only female character behaving outside the playbook. What you notice in the background at SHIELD and MysTech are numerous women in positions of authority, espionage officers, tacticians – pretty much every level of administration has women and men drawn with comparable frequency. It’s a simple thing to do and yet, so little done. Just putting female characters regularly in front of computer screens, clearly doing a job and doing it competently, is perhaps a greater step forward for comic gender parity than the quirky character of Motormouth herself. It’s one of those tiny but huge details that it took us a few decades to work back around to.

 

 

Rather Less So.
Rather Less So.

Who can say where this book was going. Marks left after issue ten, the title itself was cancelled after issue twelve, and throughout the art leapt back and forth between Quite Lovely and Rather Less So. Killpower is a walking parody of all the worst excesses of early 90’s Marvel, and yet half of these books are given over to the very era-appropriate gunsplosions of Fury, Cable, the Punisher, and some dude called Bad Hand. There is a group of all-female super villains called The Furies who have a neat, very 2000 AD feel and backstory to them, and were clearly meant for bigger things that never came. And in the very last issue, we get a glimpse of Motormouth returning to the streets, remembering the smell and cold of living in heaps of cardboard, the first moment of vulnerability we see… six pages before the series abruptly ends. And yet, in the twelve issues we do have, there is available a subversive toying with the expectations of an industry gone drunk on its own success, and a super heroine too seasoned by life to succumb to the call of standard heroics.

 

 

PowerMeterMotormouth

Fierce: 8: Motormouth eventually gets the ability to emit a sonic scream which she absolutely uses to flat out kill anybody who puts her in a corner. She’s a realist in an insane situation, and the application of street smarts is what keeps her alive.

Funny: 7: There aren’t any Hearty Guffaw moments, but the whole structure is, on its own, quite amusing. The juxtaposition between the “Kill Em All” Frank Castle moments and the goofy side adventures of Killpower and Motormouth are knowingly wonderful biting-the-hand-that-feeds moments.

Smart: 8: Killpower is dumber than rebar, and Motormouth is a street punk who acts on years-honed survival instincts, but the book itself thinks through its main ideas. It’s got that love of sci-fi detailing, of taking big, complicated ideas and playing them out in a comic format, that feels very UK-comics.

Fashion: 7: Is Harley’s outfit sexier than it needs to be? Towards the end of the series, it often feels that way, but at the beginning it feels right – the garb of late 80s London street youth. It’s sexy, but the leather finger gloves and thick studded belt have that definite, “Touch me and I will BREAK you,” vibe to them that makes it come off as a subjective statement of challenge rather than a move of submissive objectification. Plus, Killpower’s Liefeld-inspired overdone design is a consistent hoot.

 

 

NowFinal

 

The Fearless Defenders (2013-2014)

 

Defenders5
The cover artwork was consistently the best on the shelves. Soviet-Greco Realness, y’all!

 

Written by: Cullen Bunn

 Art by: Will Sliney (1-6, 8-12), Stephanie Hans (7)

 

And now we’ve a sad tale to tell about a comic beloved beyond all reason (but not beyond its merits) by a handful of devotees, cruelly cancelled in its prime. The Fearless Defenders, were it released today, would be up there with Squirrel Girl and Harley Quinn and Spider Gwen in terms of outrageous sales and stunning popularity. It simply came two years too soon – it had the grave misfortune to be the harbinger of the coming revolution rather than its realization, and as we all know from Silver Surfer, being a harbinger is a lot cooler on paper than in practice.

 

The book is about Valkyrie, one of the great underused characters in the Marvel canon, and her quest to find Shieldmaidens to stave off Caroline LeFay’s resurrection of the mad Doom Maidens. Really, it’s a chance to round up all of the great secondary female Marvel super heroes and give them some precious moments to show their dramatic potential. Misty Knight, Clea, Dani Moonstar, Hippolyta, and Elsa Bloodstone are all magnificent, and Cullen Bunn nails their characterization perfectly. We don’t burn through pages retelling each of their origin stories in tedious detail – instead Bunn elects to let their linguistic rhythms and crisis management decisions speak for themselves, so that you feel close to the characters from their first appearance, and understand their decisions and motivations accordingly.

Defenders1           The most interesting part of the book, however, isn’t the old guard, it’s the new character of Annabelle Riggs, an archaeologist who happens to be about at the first sign of the Doom Maidens’ return to Earth. Hers is the voice of compassion and reason throughout the book, and one of the best treatments of “the normal person on a super-powered team” since Xander Harris. She has her moments of comic stumbling, but also of intense bravery born of essential fragility and basic human empathy which make all of the super heroics around her somehow petty by comparison. She shows that humans, for all their fleshy mortality, are rather improbably outstanding, and more than able to care for themselves. Comics can use more messages like that.

 

In a too brief number of issues, The Fearless Defenders tries to do a lot of things and address a number of social issues, some brilliantly, and some perhaps necessarily awkwardly. There is a Mansplaining scene where a bunch of male super heroes get together at a bar to try and talk the Defenders into breaking up by pointing to their superior experience and knowledge of such matters.

Oh, Herc.  Never change.
Oh, Herc. Never change.

That’s an important societal structure to address – how entrenched authority condescendingly feels the right to tell upcoming movements How It Is, and full props to Bunn for even attempting to engage with the issue, but to pull it off requires all of the male characters (except for Hercules, who is somehow almost delightful in his over the top, totally honest and blissfully unaware chauvinism) behaving way off book. They’ve been shoe-horned into a role that doesn’t quite fit them in an attempt to make a valid cultural point, but the offness of the resulting characterization makes the culminating moment of established female independence feel a bit weird, and less validating than it could have been.

Elsa Bloodstone does not mess around.
Elsa Bloodstone does not mess around.

But the guys’ various pomposities are still funny, and their assumptions still make you think, so damn it, why not? And in the meantime, we are treated to a cavalcade of super heroine and super villainess guest stars, from Colleen Wing and Hellcat to Ruby Thursday and Zheng Bao Yu, all while setting up a social revolution among the New Amazonians, a recasting of the Shieldmaidens as defenders rather than weapons, a steamy romance between Annabelle and newly hatched Inhuman Ren Kimura, and a world-shaking rumble with the schemes of Morgan LeFay’s daughter. The density of character moments and big team dynamics harkens back to a time before story decompression, and in these two trades is enough material to fill out double that number. It was a great comic, taken from us too soon, and now, two years later, if Marvel is seeing its way clear to green-light independent titles for every character who popped up in Spiderverse, perhaps it is the perfect time to #BringBackFearlessDefenders.

Or, at the very least, an Anabelle Riggs stand-alone.

 

PowerMeterDefenders

 

Fierce: 10: Any one of these characters on their own would get a 10. Heck, Misty Knight’s bionic arm by itself would get a 10.

Smart: 7: The characters are pretty much all bruisers who Hit Things until the crisis is fixed, and even Annabelle, the smart one on the team, has all of two panels in twelve issues where she is shown actually using her knowledge. However, the book’s engagement with large social issues is daring and intelligent.

Funny: 9: From the brilliant genre-crossing covers, to Elsa Bloodstone’s wry professionalism, to Hercules’s blithe manliness, this is a consistently funny book with a solidly dramatic core.

Exploitative or Taking It Back?
Exploitative or Taking It Back?

Fashion: 8: Sliney and Hans were faced with a tough challenge- how to deal with these super heroines who have been hyper-sexualized over the years in a visually compelling way that still allows for some form of empowerment. I think they pull it off brilliantly – the characters, even when they’re dressed in their traditional slinky costumes, are composed so as to exude power. Take a look at this Misty Knight – that costume is painted on, and she’s exhibiting the much reviled Boobs n Butt Spinebreaker position, but there is nothing about how the character is composed that suggests submission. My test is to cover up the bad guys and see if the character would be at home in a 1991 Marvel Swimsuit Issue. That is decidedly NOT the case here. As to Valkyrie’s new costume, I love the pants, love the hair, and tolerate the top. They dropped the iconic Boob Spheres for a relatively banal black and blue top with the metal disks tucked up on the collarbone where they’re pretty much always covered by hair, so those neat old Wagnerian associations are effectively ditched for what is, 95% of the time, A Shirt.

 

 

Now that you’re done with this week’s episode, why not read about some real life super women over at Women in Science, or hop back to a previous episode of  Super Heroines?  Doesn’t that sound grand?

WOMEN IN SCIENCE COVER LAYOUT SAMPLER
To Women in Science!
To Super Heroines!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Explanation of the Power Bar Rankings:

 

Fierce: Does this character solve her own problems rather than deferring to the authorities around her for guidance? Does she have a distinct personality that exists separately of her love interest? Does she stand up to institutionalized power structures because it’s right?

Smart: Is the character ever shown solving problems with her intellect, or engaged in a scientific/artistic pursuit? Alternately, are the characters in the comic as a whole crafted with an intelligent understanding of motivation and complexity?

Funny: Pretty self explanatory here folks.

Fashion: I initially thought about calling this the Costume Exploitation scale, as a place to call out terrible and objectifying costume choices, but there are ways to do character design well and sensibly, and Fashion seems the positive word for that. The question here is, “Did the artist take time to think about matching the costume to the personality of the character, or is there just sexual titillation for titillation’s sake?” In addition, “Is there something particularly visually striking or new about what this title is doing with the 90% of the character covered in clothes?” That might sound superficial, but I love clothes and never get to talk about them outside of yammering on about RuPaul’s Drag Race on Facebook, so it gets a bar.

Super Heroines 1: Miss Fury and the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

ThenFinal

 

Miss Fury (1941-1951)

Written and Illustrated by Tarpé Mills.

In the history of the super heroine, two roads lead from 1941. Within months of each other, the Fury1two first real female super heroes emerged that year, and they couldn’t have been more different. We all know about Wonder Woman, the Amazonian goddess created by lovable charlatan and bondage enthusiast William Moulton Marston for DC Comics. After a promising, if surreal, hyper-feminist start, the death of Marston brought on a series of less than inspiring successors who saw her as little more than a dame with a nice set of gams. Meanwhile, over in the newspapers, a woman named Tarpé Mills had created a very different sort of super heroine several months before the release of Wonder Woman.

Her name was Marla Drake, a young woman just shy of twenty three years old, heiress to a fortune and to a curious panther costume. No god-powers, no invisible vehicles, no magical truth-evoking sex paraphernalia, no bullet-deflecting armbands. Just an ordinary woman with a costume and a consistent desire to do good when she could. That persistent sense of normalcy overcome is what makes her so consistently interesting, and why it is a rather large shame that female super heroes ended up going the way of Wonder Woman rather than that of Marla Drake’s alter ego, Miss Fury.

Fury3

Miss Fury was, quite simply, a phenomenal work, stretching from 1941 to 1951 with one significant break in the late Forties. If Wonder Woman is the Superman of super heroines, gifted with a stunning array of abilities that, in sum, tend to detract from her interest as a character rather than to add to it, Miss Fury is Batman – a normal person trying to thread the intricacies of the evil that men do. Sometimes the heroes turn out to be nursing a complicated streak of villainy, and sometimes the villains show unexpected humanity and weakness. Even the most incidental of background characters has a fully realized story and intricate set of motivations. What’s more, Mills realized that Miss Fury didn’t have to be in Each And Every Panel, that her world and villains needed space to develop on their own if we were going to care about these characters and the things that happen to them, and feel excited about the times when Drake finally dons the Miss Fury costume.

From a storytelling perspective, it was one of the richest experiences available at the time (and, for that matter, still). From an artistic perspective, in many ways it hasn’t been equaled since. Mills was a fashion designer before turning her hand to comic creation, and each panel sizzles with a profound and un-ironic love of clothing and design. Really, you don’t realize how bad the everyday clothes are in other comics until you’ve been reading Miss Fury for a while. The loss of that richness of visual detail is something we’ve come to accept, and perhaps we wouldn’t have if Miss Fury had been the comic to outlast Wonder Woman.

All Things Are Weapons To Miss Fury.
All Things Are Weapons To Miss Fury.

Even with my professed weakness for a stylish cut of cloth, however, what I like best about this comic is how Miss Fury handles her male counterparts. They are all, in one way or another, in love with her, but also have absolute respect for her abilities and accept her direction when she takes control of the various sticky situations that emerge. Fury doesn’t do any stupid, self-destructive things for the sake of Her Man’s Work and Advancement, and generally treats everybody around her with the same level-headed tact and fundamental friendship. Male friends come up to her apartment, they talk about intriguing criminal cases, and then they leave again, with narry a “Leave the planning to the men, Dollface” in sight. Every panel radiates the idea that, gasp, men and women can work together on issues involving international diplomacy and global economics as absolute equals without stopping to agonize over the following of traditional gender roles.

Miss Fury is an equal opportunity distributor of beatdowns.
Miss Fury is an equal opportunity distributor of beatdowns.

 

In short, it’s a comic about a woman and her array of odd but deeply realized friends, stopping ex-Nazis and deathless Russian scientists, all while dealing with the responsibilities of single motherhood (Marla adopts the child of her nemesis at one point) and the complexities of being a vigilante when villainy fails to be as clear-cut as the movies make it. It’s one of the best things in comics, and it’s a scandal that we hear about it so seldom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everybody Loves Power Bars!

PowerMeterFury

Fierce: 10: Miss Fury will PUNCH a fool, and look SICKENING doing it.

Smart: 8: While Miss Fury herself is above average smarts, the brains of this book come in the deep and compelling character development, particularly after the war.

Funny: 2: Miss Fury is still too busy PUNCHIN’ that fool to be funny.

Fashion: 10: Mills was a fashion designer, and it rings through elegantly on each page. Miss Fury’s panther costume is pretty skin-tight, but in an era of tiny skirts and bustiers by way of costume, her full body leotard is, if anything, a conservative choice.

 

 

FURTHER READING:

Fortunately, IDW has re-released the first 8 years of the strips across two gorgeous volumes, with an introduction by female cartoonist historian extraordinaire, Trina Robbins. Get them, both of them. Do it now. Not to be confused with the Dynamite re-launch of Miss Fury in more recent times, about which more …. Later.

 

 

 

NowFinal

 

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (2015)

 

Written by Ryan North.

Art by Erica Henderson.

 

Squirrel1Seventy-four years and an ocean of Lessons Learned later, we have The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, a comic by Ryan North and Erica Henderson which is on just its fourth issue, and already showing its promise as a healer of wounds long standing in the comicsverse. After issue one, it felt like the book of the year, the one that takes everybody back, male or female, fresh reader or veteran, to everything they love about comics as a genre. Each person I talk to has a different story to tell about what Squirrel Girl reminds them of, but for each one it’s a recalling of something happy and optimistic that they’d thought lost.

Doreen Green is, like Peter Parker before her, somebody that just about anybody can relate to. She goes to college to study computer science, but not the flashy stuff. Instead, she has a passion for pursuing the super boring Maintaining Cross Platform Support material that everybody who starts with visions of being the next Tony Stark eventually devolves towards. It’s that real excitement for normalcy that makes the book so infectious. She drinks the stuff of regular life and of super life down with equal glee, from checking out her choices of college clubs to reconfiguring Iron Man’s armor to include a roomy tail section.

Her power is the ability to talk to squirrels, and that’s it. And yet she has an innate and boundless Squirrel4self-confidence equal to any challenge, a tough, I Can Take on the World optimism that you can’t help but cheer on in its total Candosmanship. But when it comes down to facing off against the bad guys (including, in just these four issues, Kraven and GALACTUS), her real weapon is psychology married to indomitable hutzpah. She problem-solves the lives of the villains she’s up against rather than fighting them, and the resulting nods to the history of Marvel comics are as delightful to the old guard as they are Fresh and Shiny New to the uninitiated. And if none of these characters ring a bell, well, luckily for you Squirrel Girl carries a shiny pack of Deadpool Marvel cards to keep everybody straight, or at least as straight as Deadpool could be expected to manage.

And she’s balanced. Doreen Green has a tongue-tied crush on a guy she meets while moving in, a perfectly normal partnership with Tippy Toes the squirrel, and a room-mate who has a bit of mild mannered heroism of her own. She’s not tripping over herself to prove how Trendy she is every third panel (cough), and never does it occur to North to use an Agonizing Back Story as a substitute for character development. Meanwhile, Erica Henderson’s art is the perfect complement, somehow managing to encompass Galactus eating a giant nut-based planet and two roommates talking about registrars seamlessly in the same delightful style.

Squirrel3There is a flood of new female super hero comics available now. Some feel like a crass cash-in on the reigning Zeitgeist. This one feels like a creative team singing a love song to their favorite things about comics, and if anything shows that Tarpé Mills’s spirit of well-rounded and engaging storytelling is alive, it’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ANOTHER POWER BAR?!  NO WAY!

PowerMeterSquirrel

 

Fierce: 9: Squirrel Girl’s victory list includes Dr. Doom, Thanos, and WHIPLASH! Whiplash, yo!

Smart: 9: It’s a light but wonderfully clever book about a smart computer science student who happens to talk to bushy tailed rodents.

Funny: 10: Pretty much every panel is a gem, and the tiny narrator additions at the bottom are icing.

Fashion: 8: There HAVE been, mostly lamentable, attempts to sexify Squirrel Girl’s outfit. This is not one.   And that is good. Squirrel Girl is drawn a bit on the heavier side, with a gap in her teeth, and a mostly sensible outfit, and these are all things that we could stand to have more of.

 

 

Hey, now that you've read about some great fictional super heroines, why not pop over to Women in Science and read about some Real Life ones!!
Hey, now that you’ve read about some great fictional super heroines, why not pop over to Women in Science and read about some Real Life ones!!

 

 

An Explanation of the Power Bar Rankings:

 

Fierce: Does this character solve her own problems rather than deferring to the authorities around her for guidance? Does she have a distinct personality that exists separately of her love interest? Does she stand up to institutionalized power structures because it’s right?

 

Smart: Is the character ever shown solving problems with her intellect, or engaged in a scientific/artistic pursuit? Alternately, are the characters in the comic as a whole crafted with an intelligent understanding of motivation and complexity?

 

Funny: Pretty self explanatory here folks.

 

Fashion: I initially thought about calling this the Costume Exploitation scale, as a place to call out terrible and objectifying costume choices, but there are ways to do character design well and sensibly, and Fashion seems the positive word for that. The question here is, “Did the artist take time to think about matching the costume to the personality of the character, or is there just sexual titillation for titillation’s sake?” In addition, “Is there something particularly visually striking or new about what this title is doing with the 90% of the character covered in clothes?” That might sound superficial, but I love clothes and never get to talk about them outside of yammering on about RuPaul’s Drag Race on Facebook, so it gets a bar.

MissFury

New Women in Science! The Next Generation: Lauren Uhde and Her Amazing Friends!

panel2 copyOn today’s Women in Science, I get to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long while now, namely to talk to some women freshly entering into scientific careers for their opinions about how far we’ve come, and how much there is yet to be done.  And I couldn’t have asked for a more thoughtful consideration of the current state of scientific research than that of cancer researcher Lauren Uhde.  Her advice about high school, college, and beyond is priceless, and if you’ve got any young’uns about considering a career in science, they should really give it a read!!

 

 

 

 

Hey Seattle Folk! Find me at Emerald City Comic Con!

In a mere 24 hours, Geoff and I will be descending upon table FF-10, there to offer copies of The Illustrated Women in Science, Godless Nerdistry, and the first two volumes of Frederick the Great in exchange for the currency of the realm.  And to chatter on about fops.  Mainly the latter.  Find us!!

AboutTheAuthors copy