She Has No Head! - Girl Comics: Not Quite Great, But Mostly Free Of Landmines

Girl Comics #1.  Devin Grayson, Trina Robbins, Colleen Coover, Lucy Knisley, Robin Furth,

Valerie D'Orazio, G. Willow Wilson (writers).  Stephanie Buscema, Colleen Coover, Lucy Knisley, Agnes Garbowska, Nikki Cook, Ming Doyle (artists).  Colleen Coover, Lucy Knisley, Cris Peter, Stephanie Buscema, Elizabeth Breitweiser, Agnes Garbowska, and Barbara Ciardo (colors).  Marvel Comics.  $4.99

As many of you already know, though I have been anxiously awaiting issue #1 of Girl Comics, I also have mixed feelings about the idea (and continue to hate the title).  After my conversation with editor Mariah Huehner I felt optimistic that while Girl Comics wasn’t MY idea of perfect progress it was at least a real opportunity for a handful of incredibly talented women to get together on a book and bring us something we don’t get to see everyday.

I know not everyone is a fan of anthologies, but personally, and perhaps this goes back to my love of short fiction, I’m a big fan.  MOME is a book I read and buy regularly, and it’s consistently one of my favorites, in part because it generally manages to feature the best and brightest independent creators in the industry.  I think that Girl Comics first issue is a pretty interesting, though imperfect, mainstream version of what MOME long ago mastered.

One of the great things about anthologies, and Girl Comics is no exception, is that the variety really gives you a chance to sample a wide array of different artists, writers, characters, stories, and styles.  I think the strength of this first issue of Girl Comics is definitely the breadth of style and material offered.  From Colleen Coover’s simple two-page intro to Trina Robbins and Stephanie Buscema’s talky throwback Venus tale to Valerie D’Orazio and Nikki Cook’s mostly silent Punisher pages to my personal favorite, Lucy Knisley’s light and funny Doc Ock story, there’s a lot to choose from here.  I suspect not everyone will like everything they read which makes the $4.99 price tag a bit hard to swallow.  But you just have to keep in mind that part of what you’re paying for is the variety.  Like a variety pack of cereal which is much more expensive than just buying a box or two of the regular stuff – and sure, the Raisin Bran boxes are going to sit uneaten forever and everyone is going to fight over the Frosted Flakes and Apple Jacks – but you’re paying for that selection, so that everyone doesn’t have to just eat Cherrios.

For me it’s worth it.  I would have preferred to be able to come here today and rave about the first issue of Girl Comics, rather than offering my tepid approval and my argument for why I like anthologies and think they should be bought, especially one that features an all female cast of creators, but the reality is I didn’t like all the stories and it would be disingenuous to pretend I did.  I found G. Willow Wilson’s Nightcrawler tale forgettable and pointless, and though I appreciated that Trina Robbins brought back Venus and I thought Buscema’s art was fun, the deliberately dated story still felt too old fashioned and almost silly for me to connect with it.  However Lucy Knisley’s Doc Ock tale made me chuckle and hit that perfect sweet spot between simplicity and depth in a mere two pages.  Valerie D’Orazio and Nikki Cook’s Punisher tale, though certainly not the most unique concept ever put to paper was inventively handled and drew a particularly interesting and harsh parallel between The Punisher and his “victim”.  There was a sweetness in Colleen Coover’s intro that I enjoyed and the cartooning in Clockwork Nightmare, the tale of Franklin and Valeria Richards by Robin Furth and Agnes Gabowska, was phenomenal.

I was initially on the fence about Head Space, the Devin Grayson and Emma Rios piece, which is usually code for “I’m not sure I get it” but on a second read, I got it and decided I quite liked it.  Ideally the writing and illustration would have made the story slightly more clear, but it was an interesting peek into a character, Scott Summers, that we rarely get to see.  The subject matter in general - i.e. the ongoing (or once ongoing) drama between the longest running X love triangle around – Scott, Jean, and Logan - is handled in a way I've rarely seen before in mainstream comics - surprisingly intimate and delicate.

I think a way in which Girl Comics is failing a little bit, is in its comparison to something like Wednesday Comics which had more freedom in regard to format.  I compared Girl Comics to the excellent Wednesday Comics in my conversation with Mariah Huehner back in December because editor Mark Chiarello's and editor Jeanine Schaefer's approaches seemed the same, i.e. get a handful of the best creators and let them write their own ticket - allow them to tell any story they desired.  And it seems like that's what they did, however the Wednesday Comics format was much more forgiving - half and sometimes full page comics that ran for twelve weeks - making the average comic twice as long as the longest one here.  But for the most part the Girl Comics stories seem over in one shot.  Head Space is done in six pages, Clockwork Nightmare in seven, Moritat in seven, and Venus in eight, and yet those stories barely scratch the surface.  The beauty of Knisley's Shop Doc story is that it really works in two pages because it's essentially two great jokes strung together, with a little visual stinger at the end - it doesn't try to do too much.  But most of the rest of the stories (with the exception of Coover's intro) are long enough that I feel there should be more actual story there, but too short to be able to really explore anything.  There's a perfect balance in short fiction that is hard to achieve and I think unfortunately, most of these stories don't quite hit that balance.  I do wonder why some of these tales weren't allowed to continue into the next issue, which naturally creates a desire on the part of a reader to pick up the next issue to see a continuation or resolution.  Instead Marvel seems to be banking on my interest in spending five dollars just to support women in comics.  Fortunately for them, my interest in supporting women in comics is very high and I'm likely to buy regardless, but I suspect not everyone will feel the same way.

For all the highs and lows of the book, you know what was the best thing about reading it?  I felt safe.

I know that sounds dramatic, but being a girl (woman, female, having of the ladybits, whatever you want to call it) that loves comics, opening a comic often feels like walking through a giant field – one that may or may not be filled with landmines.  You never know when turning the page will have the metaphorical effect of stepping on one.  And the landmines come in all kinds of forms, and they’re certainly not unique to being a woman, that’s just the experience I’m most familiar with.

Of course, leave it to Marvel to place one itty bitty landmine in this book too – in the form of a nearly naked She-Hulk pin up – because heaven forbid that even this book should feel completely like a safe haven – even though GIRL COMICS is literally stamped on the front.  I’m not sure why the nearly naked pin up (a "celebration" of She-Hulk's 30th Anniversary) is necessary and it kind of pisses me off to find it here…and then I realized that one of She-Hulk’s feet is on backwards and suddenly the whole page seemed so silly that I couldn’t gear myself up to get quite so upset about it anymore.  It's just a stupid pin up, and pin ups have a history of being sexually suggestive...at least for female characters...so maybe it's not a big deal?  I don't know.  I'm not sure if it really matters or not, but it seems backwards (and I don't just mean She-Hulk's foot).  It reeks a bit of Marvel trying to validate their often overt hyper sexualization of female characters by getting a woman to draw one, and putting it inside a book BY and ostensibly FOR women, as if this act will trick us into thinking that it's all okay.  As if we'll be all "Hey! this book is BY women and it's FOR women...so since it's in this book...then nearly naked overt sexualization of She-Hulk must TOTALLY be okay!" Try again Marvel.  It's certainly not the end of the world, but it bums me out when you put it in context.  This is a book that should feel totally safe for girls, and yet even here you can't read without being assaulted by a sexually suggestive pin up?  It seems wrong to me.  And if we had a comic called Boy Comics (unnecessary of course, but go with me for a minute) do we think for one second that there would be a sexy male pin up?  The answer is no.  It would never happen.

Hmm.  Guess I managed to get a little worked up after all.

Anyway, with that one small exception Girl Comics did feel safe.  I felt confident in those pages that I wasn’t going to find something that made me feel less than and othered.  At the same time, I continue to think that this segregation of sexes is not a great idea.  Because while feeling safe is awesome, I guess I’d rather not feel safe and know that we’re slowly progressing – inching forward to a place where I don’t have to look at every comic book as a potential enemy – as potentially loaded with landmines.  And if we continue to segregate ourselves and read “safe” books that progress is never going to happen.

I look forward to the next issue of Girl Comics, and I’m going to enjoy the hell out of these great creators getting a chance to work on such a high profile book and I'm also going to enjoy the safe feeling I get while reading it.  But I’m going to look forward MORE to these women getting additional work outside of an anthology built for them, and continuing to pave the way so that most comics feel safe for women.  So that girls don’t have to see their safety stamped on the cover before entering unafraid.

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