There was a pretty good discussion in the comments of my last post, as well as another CSBG post last week
about superhero comics and the issues related to appealing to both men and women, boys and girls. Rather than get into a superheated battle over it, I thought rather I'd offer up a mini-series that I read in trade recently that I felt pretty well covered all those bases - likely to appeal fairly broadly to both men and women. The book, Kitty Pryde: Shadow & Flame, has the added of bonus of being particularly topical since Kitty Pryde was just this past week returned to the X-Universe (from exile in a giant metal bullet hurtling through space) thanks to Magneto (and Matt Fraction) in Uncanny X-Men #522.
I wasn't always a Kitty Pryde fan, in fact when I was younger I think I alternated between finding her far too bratty and far too perfect. It was frustrating as a reader to see that it wasn't enough for Pryde to be an adorably cute genius with some of the best mutant powers around and to also possess a pure heart, honorable soul, evocative innocence, AND a be a wiz with computers; but that she ALSO had to become a master martial artist whose fighting skills rivaled the best of the best. It was a bit much for me and it's true I often felt the 'Mary Sue' effect that I have heard some other readers complain of. Over time however, and in the hands of some good writers and artists (Alan Davis of course instantly springs to mind) I grew fond of Pryde, especially as she outgrew her bratty streak. She never became my favorite hero, but I found I genuinely liked her.
When Joss Whedon brought her into his Astonishing X-Men - the book that single handedly brought me back to superhero comics after a long self-imposed hiatus - I finally did fall hard for Pryde. When I analyze what about Whedon's run turned me so completely into a fan though, I'm not sure it was anything specific that he did (though I very much like what he did) rather it was that I found myself just generally burned out on the 'super hot / super badass' female archetype that had become so common in comics. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for badasses, especially of the female variety, and I've got plenty of favorites that I am both proud and ashamed to admit to (Emma Frost is at the top of the pile - you decide whether I should be proud or ashamed). But for a while there they just seemed to overrun superhero comics in huge numbers. Everywhere I looked was another "badass" that looked just like all the others. I think it was likely a natural side effect of comics getting all "dark" and "gritty" and "real", and it served its purpose I suppose, but I was personally pretty weary of it. And in comparison to the glut of sexy badasses, Kitty Pryde suddenly seemed to me like an interesting breath of fresh air. Throughout Whedon's run I enjoyed the hell out of Pryde, both in seeing a more grown up version of her than I had encountered before - one that was mature without losing her whimsy - and also in watching her go toe to toe with resident badass Emma Frost without even blinking (and with often humorous results).
So it was in the spirit of that new love I found during Whedon's run that I decided to pick up Akira Yoshida and Paul Smith's Kitty Pryde: Shadow & Flame mini-series. Shadow & Flame feels like a bit of a throwback to the "good ol' days" due in part I suspect to the look of it - Smith's incredibly clean lines and gorgeous storytelling work having gone out of fashion a bit for more aggressive and darker styles. I for one, could not love the art more - the figure work is unbelievably strong and every panel is clear and concise, elegant and understated - serving only the story while somehow never sacrificing the beauty. Smith also, like current phenom J.H. Williams III, is not afraid to give his characters, male and female alike, a variety of expressions that don't always wash out to "beautiful", which is something I enjoy in my comics. And it's incredibly rare. Despite being a beautiful girl, there are many times throughout the mini-series - like when engaged in a battle for her life - that Kitty Pryde looks less beautiful and more...concerned, strong, focused, angry etc. It's a great change of pace for me from the kind of permanent porno face that we so often get these days.
Yoshida's story also feels a bit old fashioned in that even though it is serious and intense, it doesn't feel purposely gritty or like it is pushing on boundaries just to push on boundaries. I know I'm sounding like an old woman lamenting for olden times here, but I have to say that I found the style and content almost as refreshing as Pryde herself.
The book could definitely have tried to do more, say more, be more, and I'd be lying if I said that I wouldn't have preferred a couple more "wow" moments, but on the whole I liked that the story didn't over-reach. It didn't try to do too much in the five issues it had. There was no jamming in of a thousand super-powered "sales motivating" guest stars, or any "it's the end of the world OMG!" plots. The story was simple and well contained, thus delivering a smaller tale nicely rather than promising the world and failing miserably, like a lot of books I've read lately.
The story, in a nutshell, is that Pryde receives a picture from Japan of a caged green dragon (an old flame of Lockheed's) and a note that she should "come alone, bring your dragon". Kitty and Lockheed head to Japan and of course, chaos ensues. Kitty is dragged into conflict with The Hand, the local Japanese government (or more accurately, the Department of Supernatural Sciences), and a group called The Path Of Destiny which may have more to do with her than she realizes. Kitty's old demons from Japan (namely Ogun and his followers) raise their heads to complicate matters further and it's up to Kitty to sort it all out while managing to stay alive.
The combination of both Yoshida's s lucid plotting and Smith's elegant storytelling made a nearly perfect match for me - the kind of match you see more frequently when a book is both written and drawn by the same artist. There's a cohesiveness here that is really lacking in other comic books, especially in minis that I read. Check it out, I've scanned a big excerpt for you guys*:
On the female positive tip, Shadow & Flame is well covered - as it is filled with strong female protagonists (and an antagonist of sorts) and yet there's not an objectifying image to be seen...not even a sexy "swimsuit uniform" in the entire five issues. The characters are all well rendered and respectfully treated, as is the reader. And I'll be honest, when I talk about "appealing to teen girls as a comic audience" this is exactly what I'm talking about. You don't have to reinvent the wheel here or fill every story with shoe shopping and relationship drama...sure most "normal girls" like that stuff...but it doesn't mean it's the only thing we like, or what we'd be looking for in our superhero comics. Mostly you just have to write interesting strong characters that don't make us feel totally excluded or disrespected, and it helps if the art feels in sync with that concept. As for what's in this book "for boys"...well, for boys (and girls!) that like fantastic fighting sequences, ninjas, ancient katana blades, fire-breathing battling dragons, and a significant Silver Samurai guest appearance, they'll be well entertained. Over all the book is entertaining and smart and as I said above, though it's not necessarily mind blowing or game changing, it's just a really solid entry for a mini-series. One that I feel like could easily appeal to boys and girls and men and women in equal measure.
Also, Lockheed does cool stuff, which is always a bonus:
So is Kitty Pryde the answer to all our problems? A non-objectifying lead girls can get on board with? The character I've often seen referred to as "everybody's girlfriend"? Do we need more characters based on the Kitty Pryde archetype, or would that be just as boring as a glut of badasses? Maybe we just need more solid elegantly illustrated well-written mini-series like this? I don't know. If anyone knows the stats on how the Kitty Pryde mini sold, I'd love to hear them. Not that I expect that they'd be good...if they'd been good I'm sure Marvel would have found a way to make it an ongoing series regardless of Kitty being trapped in a giant metal bullet hurtling through space. But even if the numbers weren't great...I guess I wouldn't expect them to be, because though I think this book would really appeal to girls that read mainstream superheroes...we just don't have girls that read superhero comics in high numbers yet. But I'm no expert, maybe this doesn't have vast universal appeal, maybe I just think it's a pretty good mainstream mini in a sea of not very good and I'm confusing that with broad appeal - what do you guys think?
*Did you catch Mr. Smith's mistake in the pages I posted? I don't know about you guys but I take it as a good sign that even a genius like Paul Smith can occasionally make a mistake. Suddenly I feel slightly better about myself today.