Motormouth (Marvel UK, 1992-1993)
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 things 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Fearless Defenders (2013-2014)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.