Head on over to MadArtLab for the story of Annie Alexander, the woman who founded two research centers and collected and catalogued thousands of specimens from the glaciers of Alaska to the deserts of California!
Magik (1983, Marvel Comics)
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: Sal Buscema
Systemic abuse of the young is just about the darkest thing that comics can address, and for every character whose horrendous childhood is discussed in intelligent detail there are ten with dashed off cases of Childhood Abuse so cavalierly handled that they hurt rather than advance understanding of real childhood trauma (“It’s Clobberin’ Time..”). In the early Eighties, it was the turn of mega-star Chris Claremont to approach the topic, in one of the most beautifully crafted and undersung tales in the X-Men lore.
Magik is the story of Colossus’s sister, Illyana Rasputin, who was, as a child, left lost and alone in Limbo, where a vile magician named Belasco dwells. While seconds pass for the X-Men back on Earth, years pass for Illyana, years in which she is broken and rebuilt by Belasco until she is nearly unable to believe that she possesses anything good within her.
It’s a ravaging and almost viscerally terrifying story about the fragility of our sense of self and humanity stuffed into a four issue mini series that today shows up only in dollar bins, if at all. Claremont did not allow himself easy answers for this story. There is no Teamwork Will Save The Day moment, and no ultimate redemption because, in reality, trauma on that level does not go away or Get Solved. In one of the most powerful devices of the series, Illyana wears an amulet with five spaces. As she’s abused and made to believe that she loves her abuser, he draws off chunks of her soul and fashions gems from them to place in the amulet, each gem a symbol of humanity lost. At the end of the story, only two spaces are remaining, a constant visible reminder of the fact that a massive part of her life has been twisted beyond redemption, and that no matter what happens, there will always be lingering parts of her psyche that are pushing her into self-destructive choices.
It’s the problem of not being able to trust yourself or your own goodness that Claremont chronicles so well. Illyana attempts several times to tap into the good magic that Storm taught her (a different Storm, who’s a sorceress…it’s a bit of a story) to create an acorn, a symbol of life, only to have it wilt into a black mass of putrescence each time. It’s a fitting symbol for the self-doubt of the abused, the inability to ever really know if your impulses come from you, or what was done to you, if you’re doomed to be somewhat inhuman forever, or if you can legitimately heal.
For those who, judging Claremont’s works based on his output of the past decade, don’t understand the ecstasies people go into when they talk about the man’s prime, Magik is a glimpse of a master at his dark best. And as a tale of the deep psychological scars of abuse related with emotional insight rather than lurid sensationalism, it has been rarely surpassed in the thirty years since its appearance.
From The Depths of Limbo Comes… The Power Meter.
Fierce: 10: Illyana has to overcome a near omnipotent master of a torment dimension while struggling with the growing worm of abuse-born dependence in her heart so, yeah, she’s pretty fierce.
Smart: 10: Nobody in the book demonstrates any particular braininess. Illyana is a girl who has only known the grinding torments of Limbo her whole life, after all. But Claremont’s psychological astuteness and willingness to forego pat solutions to emotional scarring are smart in a way that Eighties books, heck, modern books, rarely achieve.
Funny: N/A : Not surprisingly, this book is not really About the yuk-yuks.
Artwork: 8: It’s Sal Buscema so, yes, it’s very lovely artwork. But one wishes that the look of the book was challenging on a level that matched the storytelling, like what Sienkiewicz and Miller pulled off in Elektra: Assassin. For any other book, this art would be exactly what you’d want, but for this tale of isolation and self-loathing, something more experimental might have sent it into legend, rather than the dollar bins.
I Hate Gallant Girl (Image, 2009)
Writers: Jim Valentino & Kat Cahill
Artists: Seth Damoose
“Remember that’ Who’s the Boss episode when…?”
No, you don’t. Because you don’t remember any individual Who’s the Boss? episode. Because it was a show dedicated to a happy average that allowed for a pleasant frittering of time with none of the upsetting vagaries of excellence or awfulness that stick in the mind. It was exactly and precisely All Right. It was, on occasion, On Television, and that was enough for 1989.
If there is a comic book equivalent of Who’s the Boss?, it is I Hate Gallant Girl, an Image/Shadowline title that manages to make sexual titillation and gratuitous murder seem absolutely by the numbers. There are only three issues in this mini-series, in which a competition is held to see who will become the next Gallant Girl to join the Fellowship of Freedom. A genuinely talented super hero loses because she doesn’t have the right look. A ditzy but actually evilly brilliant one wins because she’s pretty, and there are a few fights in between.
See if any of this rings familiar: The rejected youthful super-hero, Tempest, is recruited by the grizzled veteran of the Fellowship to root out corruption in the organization which he helped found. Every expected beat is there, just in a magnificently truncated form. The apprentice and mentor have a falling out over basically nothing only to patch it up again after a few panels for no particular reason either. There is this omnipresent feeling of, “Well, we have to do one of these scenes, so here it is. There. You happy? We did that scene. Now here’s an upskirt shot of Gallant Girl for ya. You like that? There’s another in a few pages, after some more of that, whatdyacallit… plot stuff.”
Tempest is supposed to have lost because she’s not hot enough, and we’re supposed to pull for her because she’s an unattractive underdog, but she’s drawn as a slim chesty raven haired beauty with perfect eyebrows because, presumably, that makes the Gallant Girl – Tempest fights more compelling. There’s a love interest for Tempest that’s developed for about two pages in which the male says that, in spite of her being a super-attractive super hero, nonetheless he likes her … anyway?
The moves to establish sincerity are subverted by their brevity, and the attempt to create distinction between characters is washed out by the Hot Girls aesthetic. But it’s still, for all of that, enjoyable because familiar. It’s like watching an episode of the Andy Griffith Show. Is it objectively good? Who knows – it is so familiar and expected that it just allows your brain to shut down and go on automatic for a while.
There’s value in that. Everything doesn’t need to be turgid and truth-revealing. That would be exhausting. For those moments when nothing will serve so well as Something, I Hate Gallant Girl will always be there.
I Rather Like Power Meters, However.
Fierce: 5: Yeah, Gallant Girl’s pretty fierce. Tempest is, you know, okay.
Smart: 5: Gallant Girl is an evil super-genius, so that’s nice.
Funny: 5: Sure, it’s, not bad, funny-wise.
Artwork: 5: If you like Bomb Queen you’ll find this art comfortably familiar.
Night Nurse (Marvel, 1972)
Writer: Jean Thomas
Art: Winslow Mortimer
Night Nurse is a comic between worlds. It is largely a straight-up story of a young nurse struggling to balance medical training, hospital routine, and a regular life, the sort of tale that dominated the racks during the super hero dry Comics Code era. But it doesn’t stay put for long. Within the four issues of its brief run, it turns quickly from the standard Career-And-Romance structure of its early Sixties Linda Carter: Student Nurse roots towards an odd but exciting mixture of medical ethics, gangland violence, and straight up Vincent Price era horror.
Drugs and gentrification, two-bit hoods and flagrant malpractice all have their space in Jean Thomas’s dizzy world of one hospital’s late night goings-on, largely thanks to her deft disposal of the central male love interest. A rich playboy arrives, asks Linda Carter to stop nursing so that she can marry him, and she decisively refuses, never looking back, and opening up pages of space to dwell on something more than traditional hospital romance.
The first issue features not only a spritely gallop through the rigors of medical school and hospital training, but a class warfare subplot that ends in near municipal terrorism. The overall message is somewhat hard to scratch out amongst the various plot twists (the poor are upset about blackouts that seem to hit their neighborhood disproportionately, but then it turns out they hit everybody equally after all, leaving us who knows where in terms of urban indignation). Lack of clarity aside, full kudos to Thomas for, in the first issue of a nurse genre comic, tackling something as obscure as classism in electrical access.
Issues two, three, and four wander even further afield from standard Medical Caregiver tropes. The second issue features a fellow nurse beginning a relationship with an older surgeon who, it turns out, is a raging drunk who manipulates his authority with the hospital to cover for his malpractice and supply him with drugs for his various medication addictions. It’s a story that would fit comfortably on an episode of House but seems pretty daring for the second issue of a comic that was only tenuously allowed life in the first place.
Issue three is rather more nurse-y, with Nurse Carter back at center stage, risking life and limb to protect a patient who really doesn’t particularly deserve it, but issue four runs straight into the Spooky House on the Hill genre with the dejected nurse from issue two taking up work as a private caregiver to a handicapped son of a crumbling ancient family housed in a, yes, spooky house at the edge of a cliff. It’s a mystery thriller tale, perhaps a last ditch attempt to save the comic by using tried and true Sexy Redhead Nurse in Peril imagery and story elements.
To no avail. The series was done, and when the Night Nurse returned as a character, it was in order to focus on her new role as an after-hours emergency caregiver for the superhero community, not as a regular nurse doing the best she can amongst the chaos and jumble of the regular world. It’s a series I’d rather like to see revived in its original form to add a bit of something different to the superhero dense offerings of Marvel’s regular roster. The return of female characters distinguished by their dedication, hard work, responsibility, and intelligence rather than their super powers or tight costumes is one that surely must be coming, mustn’t it?
“Nurse, quick, this Meter’s flatlining. Give me 10 cc’s of Power!”
Fierce: 9: Carter and her fellow nurses have a strict ethical code and follow it, hang the risk to themselves. They aren’t superheroes. They can’t deflect bullets. But they will do their job, and do it to the fullest of their abilities no matter what it might cost them. Carter rushes into danger, takes charge, and uses her knowledge and experience to save the day, and that’s more Fierce than any series of punches or psi-blasts could ever be.
Smart: 10: The first issue is devoted largely to segment showing Carter and her friends going through the sprawling labyrinth of nurse training, directing attention at the massive amount of intellectual stamina it takes to join a profession often cerebrally under-valued.
Funny: N/A: This is a straight up drama and career book, with no humorous elements to speak of.
Art: 7: Winslow Mortimer turns in classic artwork that suggest General Hospital with a twist at its heart. It’s not a revolutionary addition to the medium, but it does its work updating a genre with some nice de-stabilizing sensibilities.
Amelia Cole (IDW, 2013-Present)
Writer: Adam Knave & D.J. Kirkbride
Artist: Nick Brokenshire
There’s an old chestnut deep in the heart of the American mythos that dependence is the death of liberty. We can’t provide welfare for the poor, because they’ll grow dependent on it. We can’t allow the state to provide health services, because that will reinforce unhealthy habits. And on. The problem is, positions on the issue of the balance of mercy and dependence have become so entrenched, so fortified with catch words and automatic talking points, it’s difficult to bring people to a new perspective.
Fortunately, finding new ways to adjust humanity’s perspective on ossified issues is more or less what art does, and what comic books have rather proudly specialized in for the better part of a half century now. In the pages of IDW’s Amelia Cole, Knave and Kirkbride tell a tale of a society of magic and non-magic users weaving their mutual myths of Dependence and Need while all being manipulated by a grotesque and unknown entity. The parallel with uber-corporation capitalism run amok, manipulating its defenders and victims alike, is there, but is subtle enough to not raise defensive hackles.
We are thrown into this world suddenly, along with the protagonist, Amelia Cole, a magic user who lived in a world of no magic, but was trained in one of omnipresent magic. Chased by the authorities, she leaps into this new world, of magic users running government and refusing to authorize the use of magic for the non-magical population, lest they become too Dependent upon it. Amelia will have none of that, however, and uses her abilities whenever she can to help anybody who needs them. Amelia is a lovely representative of that fundamental empathy which humans have so long as it’s not been beaten out of them by the rhetoric of Just Rewards, and it manifests in everything she does in her new world.
It’s hard to say what is more delightful about this book, really, the level-headed people-first heroism of Amelia, or the masterful scaling of the universe and story, as we move from a conflict between Amelia and the Establishment’s super hero, to her versus the mechanism of the city government, and finally to her versus the powers that control all aspects of that machinery. Just when you’re sure who you dislike, the story scales up and we learn how good intentions get quashed in a quietly predatorial social system.
More than that, the book is fun. For all of the big ideas going on, Amelia’s day to day makes for purely enjoyable reading, as she wields a magic plumber’s wrench during the course of her job as a non-magical building’s superintendent while talking to Lemmy, the junk golem she conjured when she first arrived in this new world. The purely personal feels very real, and makes the super-heroics feel like high-stakes stuff in spite of all our decades of jaded comic experience. I’m always glad when a new trade comes out, and always a bit sad when it ends.
Power Meter Shall Overcome.
Fierce: 10: Amelia doesn’t stop. She will not abide the logic of allowing preventable harm to fall on regular people, and repeatedly throws herself in the path of mammoth machinery which has Dependence Prevention as its primary justificatory mechanism.
Smart: 8: Amelia is gifted and pushed on by righteous empathy, but we don’t ever see her, or anybody, doing things particularly brainy. The book itself, however, in its sense of scale and underlying themes, is very smart, enjoyable as just a magic saves the day narrative, or as a covert commentary about states privileging their favored classes through partial legislation.
Funny: 8: Amelia’s interactions with the vagaries of this new world are delightfully awkward and self-aware and ring very, very true.
Art: 9: Brokenshire’s art has a sort of People’s Art quality to it that first perfectly with the themes of the comic, at the same time politically engaged and street-level human.
Elektra: Assassin (Epic Comics, 1986-87)
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Bill Sienkiewicz
The usual order of relations between writer and artist in comic books runs something like, “Here’s fifty bucks, now draw this, monkey.” And that’s where it ends. But sometimes, that rarest of sometimes, artist and writer fall into a creative feedback loop whereby the work of each challenges the other to figure out new ways of pushing the boundaries of their storytelling craft. We comic readers live for that dizzying Sometimes, and few books provide as constantly satisfying a ride as Elektra: Assassin, an eight part mini series emerging from the heart of Eighties Experimentation.
Epic Comics was an offshoot of Marvel which split itself pretty evenly between challenging, cutting edge work (DeMatteis’s ethereal Moonshadow) and less challenging, quite-a-distance-from-the-edge work (Steelgrip Starkey and the All Purpose Power Tool). And while for most the name Epic might bring memories of ElfQuest and Groo, it was Elektra: Assassin that has earned it a small patch of publishing immortality.
It’s a difficult series. Characters switch bodies and link minds, resulting in a chaotic intermingling of internal dialogue boxes that respect the normal narrative strictures of neither space nor time. Miller offers only the most occasional of anchor points to orient yourself by before springing off into another dizzying fugue of actions and pre-actions and long foreseen consequences. Elektra is less a character than a force, driven by almost genetic psychoses to complete her mission while ripping apart the lives of the mortals who happen to catch a glimpse of her. She’s a Greek god, and woe betide those who glimpse her.
Theoretically, the story is simple. A demon is plotting to take over the US presidency to start nuclear war, and Elektra has to stop it. But what it’s truly about is ordinary people following helplessly the path of an extraordinary creature, never sure if she is brilliant or utterly mad, and too enthralled to care. The second character, a SHIELD agent named Garrett whose body is destroyed and replaced, piece by piece, over the course of his entanglement with Elektra, is an utterly doomed man who provides our main perspective on how she works.
He sees patches and snatches of her in action, trying to piece together the big picture of what she’s up to as she laughingly dismembers him and slowly gains control of his mind. He hates her and is infatuated, and the great fun of the book is trying to determine which of his actions are those of an independent subject and which are the mental manipulations of Elektra, planned fourteen steps in advance.
Miller’s Elektra isn’t just a Very Good Fighter. She has the ability to switch consciousnesses with people, to invade and control their minds, to deflect bullets, to alter seemingly the fabric of reality, a product of a brain chemistry that she willingly and devastatingly alters in order to know the plans of her adversary, The Beast. And throughout the story, Sienkiewicz does everything he can to make you feel unsure of your vantage point, glimpses of Elektra coming in visual slashes and lurid stills that entice and baffle and unground whatever grip you thought you might have had on this character. The twisting unreality of his visual method put the challenge to Miller to make a story that refused all traditional comfort, and Miller, in the heart of his prime, responded with a sure brilliance that dazzles.
Elektra: Assassin takes a character we thought we knew and pushes her into the realm of unfathomable legend, such that by the end of the book, you feel a visceral fear whenever she crosses the page. And to make the reader actually fearful by abusing their sense of narrative perspective and continuity is a masterstroke that comes but once each comic generation.
It is not Ninja, it is Powerbar.
Fierce: 10: So fierce you almost physically tremble when she puts in an appearance, so unsure are you of the limits, if any, of what she can do and where she falls on the spectrum of madness versus dedication. She’s a Force.
Smart: 10: We’re told she’s a genius intellect, and see that in action as she uses humans and organizations as pieces in plans that are never succeeding so well as when they appear to have utterly failed. She’s well-nigh omnipotent in this title, and the psychological intelligence with which her fragmented story and mind are portrayed is staggering.
Funny: 8: As you can imagine, it’s not a real ha-ha book. But the moments of humor are legitimately great. The sitting president is a Nixon-ish character who goes to sleep next to his immense wife, cuddling the button that will trigger nuclear attack while mumbling his campaign catch phrases to himself. His challenger, whose total insincerity is captured via a purely visual humor that I won’t even try to describe, is capped by the worst slogan ever.
Art: 10: Perfect. Miller and Sienkiewicz are tossing the ball back and forth to each other, gleefully finding new ways to make us feel not at home in the story, and each time they pull that off, it deepens our mystic dread of their central character, and heightens the tension of each interaction she has with the world of mere people.
Jem (IDW, 2015).
Writer: Kelly Thompson
Art: Sophie Campbell
Jem was my secret delight as a child. It came on irregularly, but whenever it did I was hooked. It had rock stars, who were also superheroes, who had a hologram projecting supercomputer that could do basically anything, and featured three music videos each episode, one of which was generally an awesome evil song by the Misfits. Glimmer and glitter, fashion and fame.
The young boy who used to shout at his screen, “Have Jem use Synergy, Kimber! Use Synergy!” is now a jaded adult, and the announcement of a new Jem comic book put me in a trepidatious state of being. After seeing the trailer for the upcoming Jem movie, which has nothing discernibly Jem about it, I was expecting the worst and in fact bought the first issues without reading them, too afraid of having childhood memories besmirched.
Which, it turned out, was dumb, because Jem is just about perfect. It’s difficult to describe, just how satisfying this book is. Giving old cartoon characters new and fully developed voices is a mine field trod warily by the best of writers. Between old fans seeking authenticity and new readers seeking believability there are a lot of places to misstep, but Thompson’s sense of character and voice is, in a word, flawless. To take just one example, my favorite character from the original series, Kimber, is portrayed as a driven, rather unreliable, but loving and quirky ball of pure kinetic energy who is working on developing a relationship with Stormer of the Misfits, all of which, once you see it played out on the page, makes sense to a “It couldn’t possibly have been otherwise” degree.
And it’s not an isolated incident – each character, from the leads to the secondaries, is an update that reads totally true. Jerrica’s crippling fear of public performance. Pizzazz’s steady rage. Rio’s easy charm and disarming curiosity. Thompson even nailed Clash. Clash, guys. The Music Video pages are raw bursts of classic MTv intensity, with the Misfits lashing out in poisonous green and black while Jem and the Holograms are wrapped in outrageous pinks and purples.
And that’s not having mentioned yet Campbell’s utterly charming visual sense, which captures Kimber as a sort of punk porcelain doll, Jem as a space age rocker, and Pizzazz as an arch reptilian anger platform. But what I like best is that the bands are not composed entirely of Idealized Body Shapes sporting different clothes and skin tones. Stormer, Shana, and Aja all have body positive character designs that suggest (finally) to young readers that you can be artistically successful without being anorexic.
The stories are comfortably familiar to fans of the cartoon – Jem and the Holograms try to use their music to do some good in the world, while the Misfits do what they can to sabotage their plans. But the freshness of the characters, and especially the Kimber-Stormer dynamic which, let’s face it, we’ve wanted to see for three decades now, have made these old stories new again.
“Try and Keep Up, Slow Powerbar in G”*
Fierce: 8: If the Misfits aren’t all the punk Eighties fierceness you can handle, then you are either George C. Scott or a machine built only to Thrash.
Smart: 5: We’re told that one of the band members is a mechanical genius, but otherwise, this book is about people with good hearts, not necessarily brilliant brains, and that’s perfectly fine.
Fun: 10: I wish these books were released weekly so that I’d have that regular infusion of fun and whimsy to inject between the dull bricks that are The Rest of the Comics I Buy. The characters are Frothy, the hair and clothes are sensational, and the splash panels are pure Eighties rock.
Art: 9: Campbell has done a fantastic job updating the distinctive flair of classic Jem into a hyperkinetic, manifold-influence modern context. It’s bright and alive and should keep the name of Jem alive for another generation at least.
* If you chuckled at this reference, then I love you.
It’s Women in Science 42, chock full of all the 1950s Marine Biology awesomeness you’ve come to expect! This week, we look at Eugenie Clark, whose plectognath research in the South Pacific and Red Sea turned into one of the surprise best sellers of the early Fifties.
Head on over to The Humanist for the second and final part in my cartoonological and essayerific survey of the life and continued relevance of Voltaire, this time focusing on his later, I think rather more interesting social justice and biting pamphlet period!
Grrl Scouts (Oni Press, 1999)
Written and Drawn by Jim Mahfood.
Back in high school in the mid 90s, you knew who the cool kids were. They spoke their own strange tongue and carried around bootlegged videocassettes of something called Clerks which, to hear them tell it, was about blowjobs and smoking and the Death Star and Berserker, whatever that was. Even though most of us are now far too mature to admit it, Kevin Smith taught a generation how to fuse indie cred with abject nerdistry to produce something approaching an opera of the everyday.
Many comics took note, but few as excitingly or plausibly as Jim Mahfood’s 1999 Grrl Scouts, a series about three female drug dealers who get high, party hard, murder their foes, and collect full runs of Jack Kirby. They are so successful in their business that they run afoul of the Brotherhood of the Cracker, a corporate white supremacist amalgam of religion and capitalism run by Phillip Nykee.
The story, though, of violent and spectacular revenge against Corporate America, isn’t the important thing here. It’s all about characterization and atmosphere. It’s true that our three heroines, Daphne, Rita, and Gwen, have essentially the same voice, but it’s an interesting one, a mixture of brassy self-assuredness and unrestrained profanity in the service of portraying a group of women carving out a decidedly atypical form of femininity.
Mahfood dots the book with a dense array of cultural touchstones, from hidden music track listings to the posters on the walls and the comics lying about on the floor, creating a saturated visual experience for those willing to take the time to sift through each panel. Everything about the book is hyperbolic, a realm of pure Id Unleashed, where the bad guys get raucously butchered, and the good guys do all the drugs, have all the sex, and collect all the comics.
In the painful and slow history of the deVictorianization of comics, Grrl Scouts is an important contribution. It avoids subtlety and understatement at every turn, giving us instead women with as many failings as virtues, all papered over by an instinctual swagger that pushes them forward for better and worse. They often do stupid things for terrible reasons, and that’s half of being human, a half that had been denied female characters for far too long under the Overbearing Nag or Virginal Paragon models that had ruled comics before.
Grrl Scouts proceeds from the idea that, sometimes, and actually often, people are not particularly subtle or introspective. They are violent and cocky and impulsive and greedy, women as well as men. It takes that idea and goes precisely where you’d expect, and along the way it creates a camaraderie of the New Scum (to borrow Ellis’s apt phrase) unfamiliar and fascinating and plausible.
Hide the stuff, man. It’s a Power Meter.
Fierce: 9: Yeah, the Grrl Scouts are pretty fierce. They undergo a training sequence and everything. They are Ids incarnate, who solve their problems with gratuitous murder and shrooms, and that’s a bit of a different thing to see.
Smart: 3: None of the characters is shown doing anything requiring any particular knowledge. These are three women trying to maintain their lifestyle by selling drugs in cookie boxes. So, yeah, not much room for pondering Chaucer or building cyclotrons.
Funny: 9: If you like Kevin Smith films still (and, come on, you do. You’re not supposed to, but you secretly do anyway), then you’ll fit right in with the humor here. If you don’t, you are going to find this book intolerable.
Art: 9: Mahfood, as both writer and artist, weds the art flawlessly to the story. It’s all that black and white, heavy lined, zine style art that aimed to save comics from its own excesses in the 90s, and mostly succeeded. The panels are cluttered and raw, and that’s also how it should be for characters whose lives are a bit of a raw clutter.
ApocalyptiGirl (Dark Horse, 2015)
Written and Drawn by Andrew MacLean
Balance in comics is often most notable in its absence. When a writer has the perfect ratio of grand scale to personal narrative, the experience is so seamless and engrossing, you don’t even notice the carefully wrought skeleton of the story. But when that ratio is off, uneasiness sets in, and the whole comic tends to unfold like a grand exercise in Something Here Definitely Ain’t Right.
Such is ApocalyptiGirl, a slim graphic novel put out by Dark Horse earlier this year by Andrew MacLean, about a girl and her cat looking for Something in a post-apocalyptic world. The premise is interesting, but we aren’t let into what the story is actually about, and where the girl actually comes from, until the final pages, when the reveal isn’t enough to save the skewed balance of what came before.
The majority of the book features our heroine running about, fixing robots, and following some unspecified signal, interspersed with some fighting and some narration balloons which attempt to jam the universe creation in around the scenes at hand. There are ways to set up a universe organically within the context of a character’s personal growth, but MacLean opts instead to pair background narration with repetitious scenes of no particular interest, which is to coat cardboard with asphalt. Here is a fine example of some backstory being told around the crucially important image of the heroine sitting on something:
And here it continues, to the riveting scene of her turning on a switch inside that something:
And here it continues yet further after two more pages of similar content, with her leaving the thing she was sitting on after it turned out to do nothing after all:
There’s an aria leitmotif that weaves through the story that doesn’t do anything in particular except serve as an excuse for peacockish author notes. We all get tempted to do things like that to show how Very Clever we are, how “We’re not just comic writers, we’ve got culture too. Let me tell you about the Latin root of the word aria…” but usually somebody comes along and shows us how transparent and unnecessary those little moments are, and we quietly excise them before the public can roll its eyes at our foibles.
The heroine herself is a gamble. MacLean has decided to save all the significance of her story for an end reveal, hoping that it will retroactively fill in her character’s odd behaviors. And yes, it explains a number of things that were random and disjointed before, but explaining actions isn’t the same as establishing character, and by the time we finally figure out who she is, it’s hard to muster too much retroactive enthusiasm. She’s on a quest that we’re not told about even though Everything Else about this world is explained in overbearing and unnecessary detail. She likes her cat very much. She can kill people when she needs to. She’s frustrated about something for some reason. That’s the character we have to follow to the end, through self-same set pieces that culminate in a random reprieve for Existence.
It’s got a fun style artistically, but MacLean has let his central character get crushed by his need to jam as much universe creation into his graphic novel as possible, and the result is a book which might have been something if given the time to grow over twenty or thirty issues of an ongoing title, but that compressed into a graphic novel is necessarily cramped and unsatisfying. We all want more stories about awesome, gadget-savvy women surviving in an apocalyptic mad-scape. But not this way. Not this way.
Time to Drive Around Some More, It’s a Power Meter:
Fierce: 5: She’s independent and handy with a blade, but to be truly fierce you have to have a character that makes sense from the standpoint of their motivations and goals. To pull off his big surprise ending, MacLean kept these in the dark, with the result that she seems more arbitrary than fierce.
Smart: 6: The heroine is shown attempting to fix giant scrap robots, a nod to some nascent engineering ability, but once we find out who she is, it opens up a rather larger question of why she wasn’t able to do more.
Funny: 3: There are legitimately amusing moments, but the oppressive narration casts such a pall over the proceedings that they feel more like angular authorial impositions than natural outgrowths of the story.
Storytelling: 3: Narratively, this book is a hot mess. The scale is never worked out. The other inhabitants of the world are excuses for fights and nothing much more. The incidents are poorly chosen and repetitious. The pay off isn’t enough to justify the cramped motivations that were required to make it happen. To be fair, the cat is good looking.
Canteen Kate (St. John, 1951-53)
Created and Illustrated by: Matt Baker
In 1951, American television saw the premiere of I Love Lucy, a program showcasing a comic genius portraying a character six times too clever for anybody’s good. She concocted fantastic, elaborate schemes to escape the drudgery of mere existence, only to have them consistently fall apart at the last minute in spectacular fashion, a routine that kept the nation watching for six seasons, four of which it spent as the number one show on television.
That very same year, in comics, Canteen Kate appeared, focusing on the antics of a canteen cook named Kate in charge of feeding enlisted men in a Korean war zone. She’s a redhead (she’s referred to as blond once but the colorist clearly didn’t get that memo), stuck in a routine if useful job, who is always creating fantastic, elaborate schemes, not so much for her own sake, as to improve life for the GIs. Her Desi is a hapless private named Al Brown, whom she somehow always talks into aiding her latest venture, and who just as regularly ends each episode in the brig for his troubles. He is alternately a simpleton and a long-suffering sage, and his role as Kate’s partner in crime is irresistible.
Canteen Kate is everything that its near contemporary Jetta isn’t. Where Jetta specialized in gross caricatures of people being generally awful to each other, Kate is about people with the best of intentions attempting to make life generally better for each other in a horrible situation. Where Jetta’s humor revolved around repetitious puns and prat falls, Kate’s involves elaborately built scenarios of scheming and trickery on par with I Love Lucy’s best. Jetta the heroine is a more or less vapid excuse for a mini skirt who puts up with serial cheating from her boyfriend as a matter of course. Kate sees a world full of problems, and moves entire bureaucracies to solve them. Jetta was created by Archie regular and industry standard Don DeCarlo, and Kate by the first African-American artist in comics, Matt Baker, also the artist for Phantom Lady, who tragically died in his thirties.
It is not easy for a Fifties comic to still be funny, light, and enjoyable, but Canteen Kate is. Kate is independent and resourceful and, if a couple of her schemes focus on getting more attention from the GIs, the vast majority of them are aimed at improving the quality of life, from a caper to get an unused air conditioning unit for the canteen, to a plan to relieve the enlisted men of foxhole digging practice by commandeering an earth mover which she pilots Like A Boss. The men treat her as another one of the boys which is, again, a surprisingly positive message of battlefront cooperation between the sexes that you wouldn’t expect in an early Fifties humor magazine.
It does bear some of the marks of its time. The Japanese minorities who show up from time to time, while not the evil caricatures of wartime comics are nonetheless played up as money-grubbing opportunists constantly prefixing every noun with the word “honorable.” Kate’s costume is rather more minimal than it strictly needed to have been. Other than that, though, the comic is rather timeless. Just as I suspect humans will be watching VitaMeataVegamin clips so long as there are humans, these simple tales of one cook against the military will always be welcome.
Face Forward, Private, Power Meter at Two Clicks!
Fierce: 9: Though she does tire of being treated as one of the guys from time to time, Kate is a self-motivated machine who won’t put up with any merely military regulation between her and her latest plan. She handles earth movers, mine detectors, and firearms with fearless self-confidence.
Smart: 8: The boundary between Smart and Resourceful is tough to pinpoint, but the focus of this comic is definitely on Kate’s ability to find wildly unlikely solutions to the problems of barracks life, rather than on GI-chasing or keeping her hair perfect, and that’s refreshing.
Funny: 9: Compared to others comics from its time, this is easily a 10. Even now, the situations are of enough complexity, the outcomes occasionally surprising enough, to keep it in the ranks of light, enjoyable, and sincerely amusing reads. If you love screwball comedies from the Fifties of the Bringing Up Baby vein, you’ll love this book.
Art: 9: Baker’s work is iconic. He’s sexied up Kate’s working fatigues considerably, giving her a low buttoned shirt and gam-revealing rolled up trousers, but he’s equally willing to have her dressed in baggy uniforms if the story calls for it. Actually, cross dressing is a regular theme of this comic. Al ends up in a dress twice, and is remarkably chill about it, and Kate is forever impersonating male soldiers to work her way around the system. Baker’s sense of femininity maintains a sense of balance and class that DeCarlo’s decidedly did not, and it makes a huge difference to the flow of the narrative.
Models, Inc. (Marvel, 2009)
Writer: Paul Tobin.
Art: Vincenc Villagrasa, Ron Chan, Gary Martin, Terry Pallot.
Models, Inc. ought to be my favorite comic ever. It is a fashion-superheroics hybrid comic that reverently revitalizes heroines from Marvel’s deep past, placing them in a modern, fervently pro-gay setting that features mini essays throwing shade at Marvel’s manifold fashion faux-pas. It’s Hellcat meets Ru Paul’s Drag Race – an issue of Cosmo that breaks into occasional costumed fist fights. It’s written by Paul Tobin, who wrote some of the best Avengers stories you’ve never read in the pages of Marvel Adventures, stories my daughters and I still quote on a nearly daily basis to each other (“And here’s an awesome picture of you battling a pigeon with your face” gets said at least once a week at Stately DeBakcsy Manor). Fashion guru Tim Gunn makes a snarky guest appearance, fending off bad guys in Iron Man’s armor while spouting fashion-related one-liners.
I love all of these things. The cast is an all-female who’s-who of Timely-era Marvel regulars: Millicent Collins (Millie the Model), Hedy Wolfe and Patsy Walker (Patsy and Hedy: Career Girls), Chili Storm (Chili: Millie’s Red Headed Rival, now reimagined as an awesome-fierce lesbian), Jill Jerold, and Toni Turner, along with some waves towards the Silver Age greats – Mary Jane Watson, Janet van Dyne, even Nico Minoru from the modern era. Tobin has done a great job giving Hedy, Patsy, Millie, and Chili individual voices, which is one of the hardest tasks when bringing relatively mono dimensional Golden Age characters into modern times.
Hedy has a blog, “Crashin’ Fashion”, and the excerpts from it are some of the comedic highlights of the series. Chili is outspoken and proud of her sexual orientation, and wants to add the next level of Rawr by following in the super hero footsteps of Patsy Walker’s Hellcat. Millie keeps the whole ensemble together through a basic devotion to the idea that fashion can and must do good. And when the comic is navigating the intersection between fashion and super-heroism, the book is everything I could possibly want. It addresses the visuality of super heroism in a way that most comics are afraid to dare, and that is both very, very fun and important as a way of commenting on the iconography of comics in a narrative setting.
It ought to be my favorite, but yet isn’t quite. There’s a definite feel here that editorial pressure was brought to bear. Witness the fact that, in the trade edition, the front cover doesn’t feature any of the female heroes, but rather an image of Tim Gunn standing in front of Iron Man. It’s a great image, but it speaks to a certain reluctance to let the comic be itself. The main story, meanwhile, focuses on a murder-robbery mix-up which entangles Millie as a suspect, which features lots of nameless Men With Guns popping up from time to time. That’s great, because it lets us have some fun Hellcat moments with Patsy Walker, but at the same time, this central plot pulls attention to a bunch of relatively procedural moments and methodical stooge-punching which I’m sure made for easier blurb copy in Previews, but which take away from the casual, in-between-moments character-building that Tobin is so good at when he’s allowed.
There’s something great here, and now seems a good time to re-visit it. If we can make a comic about a girl in a squirrel costume, and one about a homicidal lady clown, we can damn well, in this age of Drag Race and 5-to-4 Supreme Court decisions (which, yay, by the way), make a sickening comic about fashion and super-fashion which lets the Marvel heroines of old shine in their updated world.
Power Meter, Millie’s Metric Rival
Fierce: 8: These are self-made women, who don’t put up with the somewhat straw-man chauvinism of the police force’s top cop, and who use their combined talents to solve a murder mystery. But that mystery takes up so much space that we don’t get to see the characters unfold as they could.
Smart: 5: None of the women are shown doing anything particularly brilliant.
Funny: 8: The bits of fashion sass that creep in everywhere are entirely enjoyable, and Hedy’s columns are a welcome bit of fashion reality in an artistic universe that often favors titillation over elegance and actual design. “HULK MIX SOLIDS!” is also a great article teaser.
Art: 5: A book called Models, Inc. should have eye catching fashion on each page. This is the world these characters came from – a world where housewives and daughters drew their own fashion designs, sent them into the comics, and then, if they were lucky, saw those clothes show up on the characters, with a fashion credit shout out to the lucky fan who conceived them. Some issues had dozens of different clothing changes just to fit in all the rich ideas from the readership. Even when the stories were lackluster, the community feel of the fashion was always a quiet joy. This series starts off promisingly, with some great and distinctive designs for each character, but slides into some looks that are pretty Meh, with a highly forgettable final runway panel.
Starfire (DC Comics, 1976)
Writers: David Michelinie (1,2), Elliot Maggin (3-5), Steve Englehart (6-7), Tom DeFalco (8).
Art: Mike Vosburg, Vince Colletta.
In 1973, Red Sonja made her debut in the pages of Conan the Barbarian, relaunching the medieval woman warrior trope that had lain dormant since the glorious weirdness of the Golden Age. There followed from Marvel in quick succession a trilogy of female hero titles, The Claws of the Cat, Night Nurse, and Shanna the She-Devil, two of which were penned by female authors, all of which gave the impression that the current of gender consciousness was running swiftly through the Marvel offices, bypassing the confused and thrashing efforts of the Distinguished Competition.
DC had struck it improbably rich with Wonder Woman in 1941, and had been resting on those laurels ever since, with only a 1972 Supergirl title and the courageous but ill-starred Diana Prince experiment of 1968 to mark the passage of time. Something needed to be done, something to show that DC was still the monarch of female super hero titles. The result was Starfire.
It’s a book that shows editorial panic at every seam and is, as such, a pretty good textbook on how editorial Oughting can drive a comic into the ground. DC put three different story editors on the book in the space of just eight issues, and four different writers. The first issue features an essay on the back page setting a defiant tone: “We hope that Starfire is more in line with the changed world in which we dwell, where people and ideas are judged by their merit – not by the physical form in which they happen to dwell.”
So far, so decent. But then, in the very next line we have, “On the other hand, this is hardly a magazine about women’s liberation.” This statement of hazily defined editorial policy is refreshingly explicit – wanting to create a new woman hero, but not wanting to offend, wanting her to be strong, but not to ruffle any feathers that might hurt sales. By the fifth and sixth issue, the editors are morosely apologetic and defensive in the letters column, rolling over and showing their soft underbelly to anybody who pointed out that the comic didn’t really seem decided on itself.
The changing costumes of Starfire (no relation, by the way, to the later Teen Titan) are the emblems of this larger confusion. Starfire begins the story as a slave raised to be the concubine of the monstrous Mygorg, a species that holds humanity in thrall. As such, she has a boob-windowed skin-tight slave costume that’s highly sexual, but makes sense given the story. That she continues wearing it through several issues is a bit strange, but in issue six they finally give her a costume that looks like that of a warrior leading humanity to freedom against their oppressors – the bits of extraneously exposed flesh are covered, and she’s actually given a pretty boss cape. Only to have, and this is true, the new costume SNAG ON A NAIL and get conveniently torn from her body in an improbable explosion of fabric at the start of the very next issue, leaving her to run around issues 7 and 8 in thigh high boots and a battle bra. Just like with Shanna, trouble for the comic spelt a reduction of the heroine’s wardrobe.
The uncertainty over her characterization continues in the writing. She is almost continuously threatened with casual rape. The Mygorg want to rape her. Her followers fantasize about raping her, and one of them tries to, only to be instantly forgiven, the event laughed off in a “Boys will be boys” spirit. Her army finds a civilization of hidden priests, the leader of whom poisons her, ties her up, and threatens to kill her unless she becomes his concubine.
Which gets us to Starfire‘s main problem. It is a book about a woman heroically rising from slavery to lead a revolution for mankind’s freedom, but the gang that she leads is so utterly worthless that it’s hard to care. No matter her passion or skills with weaponry, her ceaseless devotion to a crew of cowardly rapists isn’t terribly fulfilling. To make her strong, the decision was made to make her followers as abjectly useless as possible, a sort of negative space definition of heroism that has the result of rendering her whole enterprise hollow.
The title is a clear attempt to cash in on the success of Red Sonja (the first editorial even gives a lengthy explanation of how Starfire is about “sword and SCIENCE” rather than Sword and Sorcery in a protesting-too-much attempt to separate itself from “a certain other sword-swinging lady”), with grand prose about liberating a humanity that we only ever see at its worst in order to augment the leadership potential of the heroine. And yet… for all of that, I rather like it. Visually, the combination of futurism and medievalism is interesting, and the universe that the hodge-podge of talented writers were building is one that would have been nice to live a while longer in – a world of ancient technologies being held together by arcane sorcerers, of scientists turned into mindless brutes, and an entire species so degraded by thralldom that they would rather suffer self-destruction than face terrible freedom. It could have gone places, but by failing to maintain its focus and sense of purpose, it never got the chance. Instead, it stands as a reminder to the current generation of editors of what happens to promise when the sham of Ought lords over unified creativity, and the attempt to replicate the success of others dominates the ability to forge one’s own.
All happy Power Meters are Alike
Fierce: 9: Quite the contrary of relying on the men around her to tell her what to do and get her out of trouble, Starfire is positively hampered by the men around her. She has to do what she does in spite of them, a rather good parable for the state of women in the work place at the time. Still, a fair amount of what she does is to get revenge for the death of her rescuer/trainer/lover, a man who had no problem forming a sexual relationship with her while she was still recovering from the psychological trauma of slavery, so that casts a slight pall.
Smart: 5: Starfire’s a fighter, not a thinker, and most of the tropes in the book are borrowed from elsewhere, but the treatment of intellectual thralldom is something of a piece with Sartre’s revolutionary existentialism, and that’s kind of cool. So, it averages out.
Funny: N/A: Humor is not an element of Starfire. I think one of the casual rape scenes was supposed to play as amusing but, no.
Art: 9: While the writer changed every third issue, the artistic team stayed constant throughout Starfire‘s run, and the unified look, with its own conception of how high science and barbarism would look after eons of intermixing, is interesting. On the character design front, Starfire’s middle costume is great and should have been arrived at sooner, and kept longer before caving into the demand to put her in a Red Sonja bikini top.
The Pro (Image, 2002)
Writer: Garth Ennis
Art: Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti
With Special Thanks to Eitan Manhoff.
America likes evils it can punch. Our deep-seated, still uncured Puritanism demands that our foes be Satanic and our desires unexamined, and on the fringes of those twin impulses a lot of heinous shit goes down. We happily spend billions on weaponry and the trappings of power, and consider it indecent to reflect upon urban misery and how our declared morality exists at total cross purposes with the grinding economic system that keeps everyone’s 401K accounts blandly humming along.
9/11 shocked the complacency of decades of Eisenhowerean self-congratulations, forced us to stare at how we behave internationally and at home, and showed us a persistent darkness there which comic books were among the first to intelligently probe. Many different tacks were taken, from the maudlin to the vengeful, but one of the most challenging came in the form of Garth Ennis’s The Pro, a title about a Denny’s waitress slash prostitute suddenly granted super powers and a spot on a Justice League-esque team of heroes.
She is real. She has a constantly bawling baby that saps her sleep and haunts her every waking moment. She has to give blowjobs in car parking lots to keep the lights on, and has seen and experienced every cheap depravity of which men are capable. She is all anger and profanity and hopelessness, because she comes from a world not dramatic enough for the heroes to give a damn about. Like the America they protect, the heroes are only interested in problems that are splashy and titanic, in fights of good versus evil, of battles that win popularity with the right demographic. They exist in a state of never-ending symbiosis with their enemies, a perpetual kink rendered heroic by a nation that wants to think of evil as external to itself.
The Pro knows better, and has no illusions about what to do with her powers. She seeks over-the-top revenge on those who wronged her in her normal life, and adds degradation on top of mere victory in regular combat. She sees that a fair part of the team’s perverse sense of play-acted justice is a result of their denial of their dirty basic humanity. They have traded in the regular sloppy joys of life, the fucking and curse words and indignity, for a sublimated sham of fist-delivered justice, and it has twisted their ability to recognize reality, and what really deserves their attention.
All of which makes this sound like a very turgid, philosophical thought piece. It isn’t. It’s raucously fun and hugely inappropriate as only Ennis can manage. The Pro takes revenge on a John who stiffed her in a scene directly analogous to the “Pull yourself together!” bit from Airplane, but with the perversity turned all the way up. Blowing the Superman stand-in, she moves her head just in time for the ejected semen to slice the wing off a passing plane. The Green Lantern is an insufferable stream of DJ Jazzy Jeff patter that sadly still represents the usage of minorities in ensemble casts. The first super villain team they fight is grammar-themed. It’s a book about a chain smoking, breast feeding prostitute whose job it is to inject reality into a culture that hates nothing more than the sanding off of its favorite veneers. It’s funny and brash and at the bottom as important and true now as it was in the midst of the national paranoia of a dozen plus years ago. In the words of the Pro herself, “Sounds better than sucking cock for a living, I guess.”
Sounds better than sucking cock for a living, indeed.
Power Meters Always Pay Up Front.
Fierce: 10: The Pro does not fuck around. When she’s real, she’s real, and when she finds herself in the midst of the elaborate play-acting of super hero battle, she cuts through the inauthentic posturing to do what needs to be done so focus can go back on stuff that actually matters.
Smart: 9: The main character isn’t about book smarts, but the raw intelligence of knowing what is important, and what is artfully decorated fluff. It’s a societal intelligence that has seen enough perversity, greed, and weakness to know when they take superficially noble forms, and to call them out on it. The book as a whole is brilliant at taking a titanic theme of a nation’s perverted sense of willful blindness and presenting it in a way so outrageous that we have to listen.
Funny: 9: This humor is not going to be for everybody. At least, not everybody is going to say this humor is for them which will, in turn, go back to reinforcing the central thesis of America’s crippling Puritanism and the danger it holds for our sense of justice and scale. One could say that the book, by being so casual about the realities of single parenting and prostitution, renders the topic cavalier, when it ought to be treated with a more sober earnestness. I think, though, that that very insistence upon earnestness is what makes us so twisted in our views of sexual conduct, which in turn has turned something potentially benign (witness Scandinavia’s healthy grasp of human sexuality) into something secretive and shameful and therefore dangerous for all concerned, and that part of the point of the book is to break us out of that pattern of making the lives of the poor worse via our Enlightened Concern.
Art: 10: Conner and Palmiotti, now the wonder team behind Harley Quinn, are perfect for this book. Their sense for rendering the grim realities of sex and violence as both cartoonish and impactful at the same time, exhibited for all ages in HQ, is allowed its full flowering here. The pages feel filthy, but done in such an absolute spirit of comic abandon that your eye keeps pushing on, absorbing the levity that you need to not abandon all hope, and at the same time the grit that gives the story substance.
The Ballad of Halo Jones (2000AD, 1984-1986)
Written by: Alan Moore
Art by: Ian Gibson
The world of female comics is saturated with qualifiers. For its time. Comparatively Speaking. As good as could be expected, considering…. We are forced to relativize in order to recognize genuine progress while still acknowledging the vast chasms in female characterization yet to be traversed. But then, every rare while, a book appears that doesn’t need the critical shield of qualification, one that tells its heroine’s story exactly as it ought to be told, without pandering or condescension, overt sexualization or strident rhetoric a propos of nothing. One that shows us a person, and a life, and credits the reader to figure out the rest. Rare, but they do happen, and at the top of anybody’s short list of such books is The Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson.
Originally published in 2000AD, the book has all the massive universe building that is characteristic of that publisher – a dense array of ideas in merciless succession about what the grim future has in store for humanity. Trees that have evolved to scream when cut, Earth forced to sell water to other planets to keep from total financial collapse, and The Hoop – a massive ring structure where the unemployed are offered a subsidized existence bereft of all hope. Halo Jones, as the story begins, is just another of the residents of the Hoop, an eighteen year old girl without any particular direction who has grown used to riots and lurking religious cults as the stuff of daily life, and to the notion that a trip out for food might end in death. Her friends represent a rich selection of adaptations to grinding poverty – Ludy, a musician whose identity is trammeled to tatters by fear born of desperation, and Rodice, who has lived so long in the midst of this arachnid system that she can’t psychologically pull herself from it, so totally has she internalized its rules and paranoia.
But Jones escapes, finds a starliner and heads for space on a path that, in any other book, would be a romantic and jolly cosmic odyssey, but that, in Moore’s expert hands, reveals the full hurt of freedom in an indifferent galaxy. Everywhere she goes, she makes friends with women characterized to the hilt, from Glyph, whose story of lost gender identity is heart-rending and beautiful and twenty years ahead of its time, to Toy, a seven foot tall brawler whose end is as horrid as Glyph’s, to Life Sentence, a soldier so possessed by the cruelty of war that her only fear is peace, and the living in it. Through the slow gnash of poverty, and the cold realization that no matter where she goes, she always ends up in some Hoop or other, she is dragged through alcoholic self-destruction and ultimately, too lost to find any other purpose, becomes a front line soldier in Earth’s galactic expansion force, fighting on a planet whose gravity warps time itself, such that minutes on the battlefield translate to months for the rest of the universe. In a series of the most perfect pages in comics, she enters battle again and again, years slipping by in the course of a day, wrecking all sense of self and belonging, and all limping towards a tragi-comic end.
With Halo Jones, Moore told a tale beyond gender, beyond even humanity, pressing at the cold dark truth of all civilization, and Ian Gibson realized that tale with haunting and stark perfection. It is a grim tone poem in the key of determinism, better than which there are none. No qualifiers needed.
Who Wants to Power Meter Forever?
Fierce: 10: Jones and her friends are very much their own people, as profound in their weakness as unearthly in their strength. The story of the all-female Beta platoon Jones joins is gritty and true and senseless and perfect.
Smart: 10: Jones isn’t exceptional in any way, including braininess, and that is the point. “Anyone could have done it,” is the quote of hers that future generations remember. The structure of the story, the richness of the portrayal of galactic civilization, and the absolute nerve it took to even attempt to tell a story that incorporates Einsteinian time dilation into battlefield physics, are all exceptional.
Funny: 8: For a book that has so many dark notes to sound, there are also great moments of cosmic absurdity that spring naturally from the universe Gibson and Moore have constructed. Moore has terrific fun constructed the language of future society, and its chirps and tweaks are always thoughtful and amusing.
Art: 10: Gibson has the task of capturing the story of a universe destroying a girl, of taking her from an inexperienced street punk to a wrecked husk, of conveying personal moments of unbearable grief and grand galactic combat. In the current era of stylized specializations, we would have to settle for full realization in one realm, and a studied Getting By in the other. But Gibson comes from the era of artistic titans, and handles the demanded versatility as a matter of course.
She Hulk (Marvel Comics, Volume 3, 2014)
Writer: Charles Soule.
Artists: Javier Pulido (1-4, 7-12), Ron Wimberly (5,6).
In June of 1992, a copy of John Byrne’s Sensational She Hulk changed my life. I remember a big splash page where She Hulk is riding across a star strewn sky in her space car and suddenly says, “I know this sector! That last shot was the same funky space the Byrnemeister pasted up for issue six! In fact… it was exactly the same! The lazy bum just Xeroxed the pages out of that issue! He turned it sideways, but you could even still see the fold line where the original two pages joined.” The idea of comics talking about themselves, of characters making fun of artists and artists yelling at editors in the margins, blew my young mind, and made Sensational She Hulk my favorite comic month in, month out.
All of which is to say that I come into new She Hulk titles with unjustly high expectations, expectations which are usually met because any writer who undertakes She Hulk is already a pretty special breed. Dan Slott’s run was nerdy and fun and larger than life – everything it should be, and its fifty issue span was well deserved. When Charles Soule was announced as the successor to Byrne and Slott, the common wisdom was that he couldn’t possibly match their work, and that the title would prove short lived. The latter prediction was true (there were only twelve issues), but not for the reasons people imagined.
Soule’s She Hulk isn’t a wacky space adventurer or a frustrated ring-leader of variously comic super hero E-listers. She is a lawyer, and Soule’s comic is first and foremost about the craft of lawyering. His demonstrations of the ruthless machinery of law (one of Tony Stark’s lawyers, a man known only as Legal, is a brilliantly hateful addition to the Shulkverse) run beside his clear love of its potential as a preserver of human dignity and fairness. Of twelve issues, three are given over to a densely-written account of a wrongful death case brought against Captain America, a gutsy move that vigorously avoids having Jen Walters resort in the last instance to fists and rage to solve her problems. It’s a deeply ethical and moving story that pays homage to Marvel’s past while attempting to move beyond the confines of traditional comic tropes.
Jennifer Walters is big, green, and confident in the expected She Hulk manner, and her companions in law are equally strongly drawn. Patsy Walker returns at long last to the Marvel universe in her guise as Hellcat, and has some powerful and true scenes that get at the condescending but well-meant dishonesty of how the exceptional negotiate their interactions with the merely talented. But the great breakaway character is She Hulk’s paralegal, Angie Huang, a ball of filing efficiency and enigmatic knowledge unfazed by the regular crises of Walters’s law practice. She makes cross referencing feel as momentous as dragon slaying, and we can’t have enough characters like that in comics.
In the last issue, Soule says that the twelve issues we have are the complete story that he pitched to Marvel, but it sure feels like this was a bigger story that had to be wrapped up quickly. There’s a pervasive plotline about a mysterious Blue File of which much is made, but which is precipitously wrapped up in the last issue along with a slew of character revelations that feel like they were meant to be doled out at a more leisurely pace. The Sensational She Hulk lasted 60 issues, Dan Slott’s She Hulk lasted 50 – it would have seemed reasonable to expect this series, especially given the rising vogue of female super hero titles, to hold on for a decent stretch.
So, why didn’t it? The writing represents a deeply realized and interesting change of direction for a character who needed it. The covers by Kevin Wada were gorgeous and inviting. The good will for She Hulk, after two great predecessor series in recent memory, was high. This should have been a hit of Squirrel Girl or Harley Quinn proportions. It could well have been that Soule had said everything he meant to say, and that twelve was only ever going to be the number of issues we got, but there were murmurings of another tale. A tale of a fan base that had last seen She Hulk in the pages of FF, drawn by Mike Allred and that, presented with a new She Hulk series drawn in much the same style by Javier Pulido, experienced Silver Age burnout, and couldn’t be induced back to the comic no matter how brilliant its contents. Had She Hulk not been in FF, Pulido would have been unilaterally embraced for his bold take on the character, but as it was, after five years of waiting, She Hulk fans were treated to a visual experience chained to a title that people had, justly or not, grown tired of, and that fatigue translated to a lack of enthusiasm during the comic stand skim.
It’s a theory which has anecdotal support, but I’d like to think slightly better of the attention span of veteran comic readers than that. Pulido’s kinetic layouts were fun and powerful, and a good foil to Soule’s courtroom intensity, and we all knew that quite well. So, a mystery those twelve issues will remain, but no matter what, we shall always have them, now collected in two handy volumes, and vague promises of more to come if we are very, very good. Jennifer Walters has never been this professional and engagingly cerebral. Let’s hope she stays that way.
Power Meter, Power Meter, Metering Power like a Meter Man.
Fierce: 10: She’s She Hulk. Fierce is her thing, but now with legal ferocity standing next to the smashing kind. I also like how Soule explores the darker side of her gifts in her interactions with Hellcat.
Smart: 10: Walters and Huang are legal geniuses, and are shown constantly at work in their profession.
Funny: 8: Following two of the most consistently funny books in Marvel Comics, this She Hulk perhaps wisely decided to keep the tone light and frothy, but the overt jokes few. There are many funny things, but the meta-commentary has been swapped out to allow us to take Jennifer Walters more seriously, and that’s probably for the best.
Art: 7: There are two primary artists on this book – Javier Pulido did ten of the issues, and Ron Wimberly handled two. More different styles you would be hard pressed to find, and it makes for a somewhat jarring narrative experience. Pulido puts his work into an exquisite laying out of the page and, if the occasional panel doesn’t quite come out (I spent a good twenty minutes trying to comfortably hold a folder like below – couldn’t manage it), the overall effect pushes you from page to page.
Meanwhile, Wimberly’s energetic and unhinged lines wedded to extreme perspectives, so powerful in the right context, gave the narrative a sense of omnipresent menace which unsettled the carefully wrought balance that Pulido and Soule had managed. For those who had just settled in to Pulido after four issues, the swing to the edgier Wimberly, and then the swing back to Pulido, was difficult.