And I mean that title literally. The definition of “five by five” is as follows: Five by five is the best of 25 possible subjective responses used to describe the quality of communications, specifically the signal-to-noise ratio.
Marvel’s “quality of communication” on their interest in female leads right now is FIVE BY FIVE.
It’s also a handy way to talk about the five new female-led books they’ve launched and with the debut of Elektra last week, I can say unequivocally they are all good. And that, is, well, that’s HUGE.
ELEKTRA. W. Hayden Blackman (w), Mike Del Mundo (a), Mike Del Mundo (c), Clayton Cowles (l) Mike Del Mundo (covers). $3.99. Currently on issue #1.
Elektra is possibly the most beautiful of all five books, which is saying a lot as there’s not a bad looking book in the bunch. But Mike Del Mundo’s incredible fully painted interiors are hard to compete with. I’d like it if the interiors showed a bit more innovation the way his covers do, but it’s hard when you’re holding the sun to also be greedy enough to ask for the moon, so I’ll just say they are stunning. The fact that Del Mundo has to follow up Bill Sienkiewicz’s Elektra Assassin (I don’t know about you but I just pretend that Deodato Elektra crap doesn’t exist) and somehow manages to do something different than Sienkiewicz but still beautiful and interesting is impressive. Unfortunately I think the concept and writing of Elektra is the weakest of the bunch. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but it’s slow and laden in exposition. The Elektra voice is not bad, but it feels too wordy for her personality (even as interior narration). I’m sure Blackman is mostly just trying to bring potential new readers up to speed, but anyone familiar with Elektra already will be a bit bored by the quiet and repetitive beginning. The concept for the book isn’t a bad one, but it feels slightly gimmicky and like a plot driven mini-series that will play itself out nicely in a few issues, rather than the strong base needed for an ongoing. Most importantly, there's just precious little Elektra in this first issue of Elektra, which is a problem. Short of the wordy intro Elektra mostly listens to someone else talk and then eventually jumps out of a plane. It doesn't really even feel like her book (short of the exposition, which was a weak link). Still, with 5-star art and 3-star writing/story, it’s still a solid book.
MS. MARVEL. G. Willow Wilson (w), Adrian Alphona (a), Ian Herring (c), Joe Caramagna (l). Sara Pichelli and Justin Ponser, Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson, and many others! (covers). $2.99. Currently on issue #3.
The biggest surprise of the group, for me, is Ms. Marvel, which is a book that has lit people on absolute fire, and with good reason. Obviously as the story of a young woman of color—and with the especially underrepresented Muslim faith (not to mention Pakistani American background) – this books helps fill a huge gap in our current superhero comics. But filling a gap doesn’t matter if you’re not actually good. Fortunately for all of us, Ms. Marvel is all caps GOOD. It’s smart and appropriately sweet, gloriously superheroic and inspiring. It’s also a wonderfully organic origin story (and I DO get sick of origin stories especially when they’re rehashes or retcons of characters we already know) but Kamala’s tale is both perfectly universal and relatable and also unique to her. Wilson’s writing has not always connected for me, but if there was ever a perfect book for her to write this is it. You can just feel the energy of right character, right writer, right time. Ms. Marvel also has a fantastic illustrator in Adrian Alphona who is exceptional across the board. He’s particularly good at character design, and creating a varied and visually interesting cast, he’s also handling Kamala’s shape shifting power with awesome ease. In the hands of Wilson and Alphona Ms. Marvel is a breakout and beloved hit and I could not be more excited about it.
BLACK WIDOW. Nathan Edmonson (w), Phil Noto (a), Phil Noto (c), Clayton Cowles (l). Phil Noto (covers). $3.99. Currently on issue #5, issue #6 on sale this week.
Black Widow has been going on the longest, it’s on issue #6 this week and it’s as strong as it was in its debut this past January. Edmonson has taken a lighter hand with Natasha, which feels incredibly right. Natasha should be a laconic character. She’s not one to explain her feelings and even her internal thought process should be tight, controlled, minimal. Edmonson has done just that, setting her up on fantastic stand alone adventures that are well-plotted and give her ample room to shine without a lot of needless chit chat. It helps of course that he has Phil Noto delivering absolutely stunning and emotional fully painted interiors. Noto clearly loves Natasha, as evidenced in every page, but more importantly Noto is a master of the subtle. He can take Edmonson’s cleverly pared down script and give Natasha’s face all the nuance a reader will ever need. It’s wonderful and gorgeous stuff. And it’s the kind of book Natasha has deserved for a long time -- which is not to undercut her excellent short-lived series from 2010 by Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuna which was also wonderful and deserving of a much longer life – let’s hope this time we get that longer life.
CAPTAIN MARVEL. Kelly Sue DeConnick (w), David Lopez (a), Lee Loughridge (c), Joe Caramagna (l), David Lopez (covers). $3.99. Currently on issue #2.
This new Captain Marvel is a hell of a re-launch. For me, though Dexter Soy is a talented artist, he wasn’t a good fit for Captain Marvel, his art was too dark and he had trouble with the duality of Carol and Captain Marvel. Marvel tried to make changes but they never quite landed on something consistent that worked. David Lopez is the pitch perfect artist for the Captain Marvel re-launch. His art is superheroic and accessible and he’s absolutely one of the best in the business when it comes to drawing women – women that look powerful and beautiful but also real and grounded. I’m going to crib from my own CBR review of issue #2 when talking about what is so great about both Lopez’s art and more specifically his visual approach to Carol:
"Lopez has also created an excellent dichotomy between Carol out of costume -- even though she's still technically in costume, but just sans helmet -- and Captain Marvel fully suited up. Without the helmet, Lopez has created a Carol that is light and charming, with her flowing blonde hair, softer body language and restrained energy. By contrast, when the helmet goes on, the change is almost Superman-esque. She immediately shifts into "work mode" (or "superhero mode"), her body language and even expressions changing. It's a wonderful distinction and the kind of choice that helps solidify the mythos for a superhero."
"It's also worth noting that Lopez has seemingly solved all the silly controversy of Carol's hair in the previous series, by giving her the long hair that some fans demanded and then designing her costume to give her the pseudo-mohawk that both keeps the hair out of her face and turns her hair into part of her costume. Artists on the previous series played with these elements and tried to make it work. Some of them were more successful than others, but Lopez is utterly clear in "Captain Marvel" #2: this is what Carol looks like out of costume, and this is what she looks like in full-battle dress, end of story. That kind of confidence serves a book well and I'm excited to see it."
Kelly Sue DeConnick is THE writer for Carol at this point. She’s defining Carol/ Captain Marvel and I could not be happier to have her at the helm. I’ve talked before here and on the podcast about how I never cared much for Carol because I have always been a die-hard Rogue fan, and somehow it seemed like betraying Rogue to also like Carol. But DeConnick has made that betrayal inevitable. Her Carol is warm and open, funny and smart, ballsy and powerful, tragic and hopeful. There’s a reason DeConnick’s Carol has spawned a movement (the Carol Corps) and like with Black Widow, it’s long overdue.
SHE-HULK. Charles Soule (w), Javier Pulido (a), Muntsa Vicente (c), Clayton Cowles (l), Kevin Wada (covers). $3.99. Currently on issue #3, issue #4 is on sale this week.
She-Hulk to me, was the dark horse of the group. She didn’t necessarily have to be since she’s anchored her own book longer than many of these ladies and has been a co-star and arguable lead more recently than several of them, but with Javier Pulido on art, I knew this book would look very different from the rest of these books, more cartoonish and tonally offbeat as a result. I was right and I’m SO glad to have this book in the mix. Because it IS the dark horse in all the most delicious ways. You can make an argument for similarities in all of the books above – each are very different but they share more traditional “leading lady” approaches and though the art styles vary in general they’re more traditional as well. Pulido and Soule’s She-Hulk is funny and weird and oh so very fun. Perhaps my favorite part of the book is that Soule and Pulido are not afraid to let her be human, flawed, and physically simply HUGE. An early panel in issue #1 (see below) that has her drinking in a bar with fellow superheroes has her absolutely dwarfing Thor, and seeing it, it feels like everything is so right with the world. Already racking up a bizarre assistant (complete with pet monkey) to help run her new law firm, and teaming up with flailing Hellcat (who looks to be a recurring guest star/co-star?) the book is a very cool blend – one part lawyer, one part superhero, and all hijinx.
So, add to all of this goodness the long overdue announcement of a Storm ongoing and things are looking really promising for women over at Marvel. Of course, as always, the real challenge is going to be these books
remaining good and their numbers staying strong so that the books can have long lives. However, with Marvel’s new and constantly evolving publishing model, some books will not last as long some of us hope, even if they ARE great (see: cancelled Journey Into Mystery starring Sif by Kathryn Immonen and Valerio Schiti and even Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Young Avengers, not cancelled but ended as the story came to a natural conclusion). It’s painful to lose books like that, books I love, but so long as Marvel keeps pushing their female characters and giving them the attention they deserve – big name creators, big launches, and half a chance to find an audience – then I’m okay with books having shorter lives (like Young Avengers) to make room for other great stories. So long as that doesn’t mean that those characters get branded with a “can’t work, don’t try” brand, I’m happy.
And this is a great start.