I’ll admit that the solicit for “All-New, All-Different Avengers Annual” #1 had me a little nervous. When mainstream properties take on fan fiction, it’s often a way for “legitimate” fiction to belittle “illegitimate” fiction as sillier or inherently inferior. Luckily, “All-New, All-Different Avengers Annual” #1 takes a heartening approach to the subject. The creators manage to poke fun at fan fiction’s more lurid, wish-fulfillment elements without letting the reader forget that Marvel and DC superhero stories — with their power fantasies, time-warping plot twists and use of licensed characters — are very much on the same spectrum as fan fiction, as every creator at the Big Two gets to put their own twist on characters and worlds that someone else invented.
What, then, is the problem with fan fiction? “All-New, All-Different Avengers Annual” #1 has a lot of fun suggesting that this isn’t always a question of quality, as many critics would have you believe. Instead, it’s a question of whose wish-fulfillment fantasy gets played out.
Ms. Marvel has always been a fanfiction writer, so it’s no surprise that she opens the Annual waiting to see how many people like her latest fic, “Evil Cyclops Versus Good Ultron.” When she happens upon a fic about herself, “Ms. Marvel and the Teenage Love Triangle From Space,” she freaks out: “This is so not how things are between Nova and Spidey and me!” What makes her freak out even more is the fact that Miles Morales turns out to be the writer of this “totally inaccurate” fanfiction. G. Willow Wilson, Mahmud Asrar and Tamra Bonvillain‘s frame story thereby makes this not a question of legitimacy — both authors are Avengers and both have fought side-by-side — but about the fantasies each wants to see written.
The ending drives this home. When Kamala and Miles fight in a chatroom, anonymized by their screennames, he scoffs at her criticism of his story: “Says you, internet rando!” Kamala, of course, is not an internet rando, but Miles immediately characterizes her as one because she disagrees with him. Each sees his or her own twist as “legitimate,” and the other’s twist as ridiculous.
This theme plays out in the rest of the issue as well, as Kamala makes the mistake of reading through all the stories about her and her teammates on freakingawesome.com. The artistic teams keep it particularly playful; the panels for the “lesser” fanfic stories are as vibrantly rendered as they would be in any other comic.
In Mark Waid and Chip Zdarsky’s “Once and Future Marvel,” the story progresses from something Kamala would love — a dying Captain Marvel handing her helmet to Kamala and saying, “You are in every way my equal” — to something she would loathe: Kamala returning the helmet to the original, male Captain because “it’s called a mantle, not a womantle.” Zdarsky tracks Kamala’s progress through the story with a panel of her reactions at the bottom of each page. We get to see her go from skeptical to misty-eyed to flame-eyed in five pages, and the story is paced so that it’s the misogynist ending that feels shoehorned. We see not only Kamala’s fury at the fanfic author’s ending, but also the way that the initial story of comradery and bravery moved her: both the bad and the good of fanfic.
“Up Close and Fursonal” is a superhero team-up in which Ms. Marvel and Ultimate Spider-Man are a snake and a mole respectively. This is emblematic of the random changes fanfic authors make — everyone in “Harry Potter” is now a vampire! — but Zac Gorman and Jay Fosgitt don’t let canon, corporate-published randomness off the hook either. “At least I’m not a pig!” the Spectacular Spider-Mole jokes, a clear reference to Marvel’s official, published Spider-Ham stories. Moments like that remind the reader how fine the line between fanfics and cape comics often is, and they keep the story from becoming mean-spirited.
In “Squirrel Girl Vs. Ms. Marvel,” Faith Erin Hicks and Megan Wilson initially present amped-up versions of the two superheroes; Kamala has flame powers and Squirrel Girl’s a giant mech. (Squirrel Girl’s transformation sequence is particularly funny.) Overpowering favorite characters is a phenomenon that happens often in fanfiction, but “OP” characters are also a problem in many licensed properties — something that Hicks and Wilson play with at the end. As in many of the other stories, the twist at the end inverts reader’s expectations around which fiction is really more ludicrous: the fanfiction or the officially licensed.
Scott Kurtz and Steve Hamaker’s “An Evening With Ms. Marvel: A True Story” is a classic self-insert story where a man named Kenneth frames himself as Ms. Marvel’s personal hero. This story is perhaps the toughest on fanfic writers, and — while I appreciate its dig at men who cannot imagine women as the center of a story — it isn’t as playful or inventive in its critique of fanfiction versus mainstream superhero stories as the others.
While cute and funny, Natasha Allegri’s “The Adventures of She-Hulk” seems to play with different themes than the others. Here, She-Hulk and an inexperienced authorial pencil debate what should happen next. Allegri writes more about the creative process, and the way that past plot mistakes come back to bite you in later installments.
All told, “All-New, All-Different Avengers Annual” #1 avoids the laziest approach to fanfiction and offers a gentler, smarter read by playing with concepts of authority and legitimacy, rather than buying wholeheartedly into its own.