I read three brand new Marvel superhero books this week, all with a female slant (headlining female characters and also featuring female artists, writers, and even editors) and I have to say, buying those books was one of my most enjoyable trips to the comic store in a long while. It felt good to have beautiful books in my hand that I knew were all about female characters and had women creators on board. But as they were all one-shots and minis I was also nervous, my experience with minis and one-shots being patchy and disappointing at best. But I still held out hope...so did they stand up to the anticipation?
Let's find out, shall we?
Firestar #1 (one-shot). Sean McKeever (writer), Emma Rios (artist), Matthew Wilson (colorist), Stephanie Hans (cover). Marvel, 32 pages. $3.99
The first thing I noticed about Firestar #1 is that it has an absolutely phenomenal cover, and I hope Hans continues to get lots of cover work (and beyond?). Unfortunately, the story and writing is ineffective at best and terribly cliché at worst. In fairness, I think one-shots are incredibly difficult to execute successfully, as they are practically by definition inconsequential and forgettable, so it’s hard to judge one writer and one book. However, even with this in mind I’m afraid I can’t give this a pass. It sets Angelica (Firestar) up as a perfect and flawless person – superhero, student, and cancer survivor, a devoted daughter with a dead mother and lonely widowed father, a kind and let’s just say it – angelic - person with not a mean bone in her body. It’s a terrible burden in my opinion to make a character so perfect. What’s interesting about perfection? Who can relate to perfection?
Anyway, the premise is that ‘Angel’ (yes, this is her father’s nickname for her, which wouldn’t be so bad if she had a flaw…anywhere) after recovering from breast cancer is moonlighting as a superhero while attending college. Her long widowed father has finally met someone special and naturally that woman’s daughter is a woman that bullied Angelica in high school. Convenient and a bit unbelievable? Yes. That the woman is still a complete and obvious jerk is also no surprise. The fact that there’s some special reason that she’s such an obvious jerk (drinking) and that there’s a “tragic” reason she’s drinking (a divorce) are also not surprising. To cap off the lack of surprise is the patience and understanding that Angelica applies to the situation, never getting catty or shutting this person down, but rather reaching out with her endless kindness and goodness. When the two women finally have their "very special Hallmark heart to heart" it's can be seen from a mile away, is treacly and cloying, and things are instantly and magically resolved with little effort. Greg Burgas correctly called this out as feeling very "Lifetime Movie Of The Week” last week in his What I Bought post. And I think that "Lifetime feeling" is unfortunately going to be a further strike in making this material interesting or relatable for men (and women like me that have an aversion to those kinds of stories). Don't get me wrong, I didn't expect or need to see Firestar being some jerk or badass or careless young lady, the little I know of her has always suggested she's a very kind and sweet girl, but I think there's a way to do that without dragging your character into perfect Mary Sue territory.
Emma Rios' interesting and unexpected art does its best to save the day – and the fact that the book doesn’t look like every other superhero book out there definitely helps – at least with the surface – the art is unique and engaging, and does bring the material up, but it's not enough to fully combat the weak plot and character work. Rios’ realistic body types and excellent anatomy and movement – especially evident on Angelica whenever superheroing as Firestar – is wonderful. I particularly enjoyed the way Rios and colorist Matthew Wilson rendered Angelica’s powers, turning all the pages in which Firestar uses her powers quite warm - which feels right and like a particularly great attention to detail - in fact, it would have been interesting to see them take it further and apply it more liberally throughout the book - as if because of Angelica's power, her whole world seems a little bit warm and burnt. It could have been interesting. The non-superhero stuff is also good, but not as strong in general. I would however love to see Rios on a regular ongoing sometime soon; she’s definitely got the talent.
Overall though, the art cannot save it, and this book is a miss. I don’t know if that necessarily means that the upcoming Young Allies ongoing book (co-starring Firestar) and also written by McKeever will be as well, since one-shots continue to exist in this strange and seemingly meaningless pocket universe of comics. I'll try to give McKeever the benefit of the doubt and check Young Allies out anyway, but I admit I'm skeptical.
Excerpt from Firestar#1:
Sif #1 (one-shot). Kelly Sue DeConnick (writer), Ryan Stegman (pencils), Tom Palmer and Victor Olazaba (inkers), Juan Doe (colorist), Travel Foreman and June Chung (cover). Marvel, 32 pages. $3.99
Overall Sif, even though it suffers from the same one-shot restrictions as Firestar #1, is a much better book. DeConnick cleverly
avoids most of the traps of a one-shot by picking a simple but engaging story that does not try to do too much or too little.
The set-up, that Sif, recently freed from the body of a terminal cancer patient and re-installed in her own body (Loki had taken possession for a time, ‘natch), is clearly still reeling from the violating and traumatic experience, and seems to feel unstuck from the world in general as a result. Sif has decided to stay in Kansas, rather than return to Asgard, but her restlessness and discontent is obvious. Beta Ray Bill and his companion Ti Asha Ra come seeking Thor’s assistance and with Thor unavailable Sif offers her help in his stead. The following adventure to rescue the sentient ship Skuttlebutt from essentially a possession, well explores Sif’s character, personality, and power set while managing to be enjoyable at the same time. The writing feels like a smooth fit for the character, a bit deliberately formal and stilted, but with Sif not feeling too cold or removed. She’s a character I instantly liked and rooted for, which, in the space of 32 pages, is impressive to say the least.
The art is strong throughout and well matched to the overall tone of the piece. It’s also pretty, but more importantly to me, it’s clear – easy to understand and well paced. There were also a couple surprisingly good expression/character moments that helped sell some of the dialogue (the panel before the cut is a good example) and it's always nice to see that seamless collaboration between writer and artist. It’s also worth noting that much like the Firestar cover, Travel Foreman and June Chung’s cover is absolutely fantastic. It’s also a good example of how you can break some of the unspoken "rules" of dealing with a female character respectfully if you do other things right. In this case, Sif’s cover outfit, while wonderfully designed and interesting, under “normal” circumstances might draw fire from critics (me) as it is skimpy and somewhat inappropriate, however, because the drawing style does not skew towards porn star cheesecake, and because the posing is serious and suggests battle rather than pointless come-hither sexiness, it completely works. It’s honestly one of my favorite covers of the year so far.
I was not very familiar with the character Sif prior to this one-shot, but I really liked DeConnick’s take and would love to see more. In fact, of all the female focused books I’ve read over the last few months (and there have been quite a few), this is certainly the one I’d most like to see made into an ongoing – especially with this creative team.
Excerpt from Sif #1:
Her-Oes#1 (miniseries). Grace Randolph (writer), Craig Rousseau (artist/cover), Veronica Gandini (colorist). Marvel, 32 pages. $2.99
I liked it. Once I could get past the ridiculous breakfast cereal name of course. And though I had some
reservations after my first read, I liked it more after a second as I tried to focus more on what was great about it and tried to ignore that it’s not really made for me. Her-Oes is clearly geared towards young girls and maybe young teen girls, but it’s hard to see much appeal in it for boys, men, and even women to a degree. In a way, that's great – I love that a book like this is out there – a book designed almost entirely for girls – but I just can’t imagine it can do well without the built-in audience that’s there for material geared toward boys. Of course it’s a mini-series and not an ongoing, and I suppose that’s not on accident.
Janet Van Dyne (aka The Wasp), Jennifer Walters (aka She-Hulk), Namora (um…aka Namora), Carol Danvers (aka Ms. Marvel), and though she wasn’t in this issue, judging by the cover, Valkyrie will join them, are all teens going to the same high school. None of them are publicly “out” with their powers so far as we can tell, which sets up a nice conflict and the obvious though effective life lessons that will surely provide. The story focuses primarily on Janet and her desire to be out with her powers, to be better at everything, to get "the guy", and to one day become a great designer (she’s already on her way and it’s reflected nicely in the attention to her clothing here). There is nice stuff between Janet and her best friend Jennifer, as well as between Janet and her parents. There’s also a predictable but effective “mean girl” contingent (being run by Namora) and all the necessary high school elements are in place for maximum drama. It’s a nice set up for a first book, and while quite a lot happens, I have to wonder how quickly they’re going to have to speed things along in order to really deliver something emotionally resonant in only three more issues, if this was the launch of an ongoing, I’d say the issue was pretty on point in its set up, but they may have taken too long (or taken on too many characters) to really get it all done here in four…time will tell.
The writing is nice and handles both the material and character voices well. It’s nothing to knock your socks off but it does the job and I think young girls would probably respond to it. The voices feel sufficiently “teen” and the subject matter is certainly appropriate and probably pretty interesting for any teen girl that has any interest in superheroes. Unlike McKeever with Firestar, Randolph makes the right choice with Janet here, forgoing perfection and flawlessness for awkwardness, imperfection, and relatability and it works to the book's advantage in overall believability and likability.
The art is solid, if occasionally a little inconsistent, sometimes with proportions strangely exaggerated or a flatness creeping in. Overall the first two thirds of the issue felt more considered and carefully executed in regard to the art, but the style was a good fit for the tone, feeling fun and light and relevant to the story. Additionally the color had a nice pop to it and felt like a nice fit for the story and characters.
My only real complaint (beyond my concern over it finding any kind of an audience – a friend of mine couldn’t find it because his shop didn’t even bother to order it – and in my shop they had only two copies and for some reason didn't put them out with all the "regular books" - I had to ask for it) is that the cast is really white. Which is to say 100% white, although an argument could certainly be made that Namora is not white (being Atlantean and here referred to as Greek) however they are all drawn pretty much straight up as white, and with the exception of Janet (or Jennifer in her She-Hulk form), blonde. The book really would have benefited I think with a little more racial diversity – maybe a teen Ororo Monroe (Storm) or Monica Rambeau (Captain Marvel)? Maybe a Cecilia Reyes, Jubilation Lee (Jubilee), or X’ian coy Manh (Karma)? It’s a real lost opportunity I think, to do a great book for girls that further promotes diversity. Maybe they can diversify the cast for Her-Oes Series #2. And maybe in the meantime we can work on that name?
Excerpt from Her-Oes #1:
Unfortunately what I’m left with after reading these three books is that as much as I applaud and appreciate the strides with specific material they feel is geared towards young girls, teen girls, and women, I don't really see how doing it this way can actually work. Not unlike DC’s Minx failure I just don’t know how books designed and written "for girls" can do much to change things if we can't get them into the hands of said girls . Girls just aren’t in comics shops in big enough numbers to support books at a level that will satisfy the big two’s minimum requirements and so I worry that we’ll just end up with a handful of badly selling one-shots and minis and a handful of canceled ongoing books (good or bad) as a bunch of failed experiments that contribute to inadvertently proving that girls and women don’t read comics.
I continue to think that the only way to succeed here, at least as we remain in the fairly early stages of tackling this problem is to create books that appeal to both men and women, boys and girls. And I continue to feel that this is really not as difficult as mainstream comics seem to think it is. I believe pretty strongly that for the most part
men and women want the same things – interesting characters, strong stories, good writing, solid, consistent art. And if you can just remove, or even soften, the feeling that girls are not welcome in certain books – by pulling back on misogynistic humor and overly aggressive sexist imagery where it’s not necessary – and the like, I really think we’d be there. Or at least really close to there.
I think Sif is a pretty good example of this, as is the first issue of the new Black Widow ongoing by Marjorie Liu, and the new Brian Wood Dv8 miniseries Gods and Monsters – books that have something for men, women, boys, and girls, without compromising or talking down to any of them. To me, it doesn’t matter so much that Her-Oes is actually pretty good, and that I expect young girls would like it quite a bit, because I can’t see the appeal for anyone other than young girls and we can’t seem to get it into their hands.
What I do love, regardless of what numbers any of these books pull or don’t pull, or Sif turning into an ongoing or not, is the huge increase in female talent I’m seeing on these books (and many others). In these three books alone there are ten ladies in high-profile and creative positions – two writers, an artist, two cover artists, a colorist, a letterer, and three female editors. All that, as far as I’m concerned, is always a step in the right direction.