“Now I Feel Weird and Awesome!”

Heart. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring)

I have to admit that when I ordered the fourth volume of Ms. Marvel I didn’t have super high expectations for the story.  This volume is titled Last Days, and it marks the end of the series leading up to the company wide event Secret Wars (don’t panic, the series continues after that).  All of Marvel’s major books had a “Last Days” storyline just before they were suspended for the event built around the 616 universe ending as a result of the “Incursion” where all the dimensions of the multiverse were colliding with one another.  Typically, any story that’s editorially mandated is going to carry with it some baggage that will weigh down the book’s ongoing narrative (especially considering that these stories were designed to be explicit endings to all of the ongoing series).  G Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona manage to take that concept and turn it into something really endearing.

The way they pull this off is that they take the end-of-the-world narrative that’s standard in pretty much all of the “Last Days” stories (at least, it is in the ones that I’ve read elsewhere), and they set that as a backdrop.  It’s established up front that Kamala isn’t going to be doing anything to directly help fight against the Incursion; she’s just going to be managing the chaos in Jersey City, and at the end the universe is going to disappear.  Game over, no more continues.  As readers who have meta-knowledge of the event that’s happening, we already know the ending, so the narrative tension of that question is immediately removed so that we can focus instead on watching Kamala cope with the news.  Over the course of this arc she transitions from assuming it’s a major threat that the Avengers will be able to handle to wondering if she can do anything to save the world to accepting the possibility that her time’s almost up and deciding how to spend her last few hours alive.  It’s not necessarily a unique story, but it’s a good direction to go with a young hero who’s still learning about how she’s supposed to do the hero thing.  Consequently, this story becomes about Kamala engaging in a kind of heroism that isn’t centered around punching things.  More importantly, which Kamala is our focus character, there’s so much going on here that’s more about her community coming together in the face of a crisis; it’s nice.

Part of what really makes this story shine for me is the way it highlights Kamala’s relationships with all the people around her.  We get to see developments between Kamala and all of her family (Aamir’s subplot might be my favorite; I love how he simply refuses to let anyone dictate what he should want for himself based on his identity as a young, devout, Muslim man), an exploration of the way Kamran’s kidnapping of Kamala is still messing with her head (it’s a great look at how trauma can impact a person without delving into the lurid aspects of severe traumas like violence or sexual assault), and the setting aside of differences among Kamala’s classmates during the crisis (Kamala’s reconciliation with Zoe in particular is pretty touching; Zoe was the first person Kamala rescued as Ms. Marvel, even though Zoe had bullied her just before the Terrigen mist gave her her powers, and even though Zoe doesn’t realize that, it’s nice here to see her recognizing how mean she’s been).  Even Bruno, whose unrequited love for Kamala has had the potential from the beginning to be a little icky, gets a nice resolution here where Kamala finally acknowledges that she does have feelings for him, but she can’t do romance right now because she’s so focused on learning how to be Ms. Marvel.  It’s a good resolution that sidesteps the cultural problem that Aamir points out in the previous arc, and doesn’t leave Kamala in an awkward position where she has to manage knowing her best friend is in love with her and she doesn’t feel the same about him.  This approach shows a lot of maturity and growth on Kamala’s part, especially as a follow up to the Kamran plot.

The one relationship that’s of particular note is the one that Kamala establishes with Carol Danvers, Captain Marvel.  This team up is one that’s been anticipated since the inception of Ms. Marvel.  Out of all the superheroes that Kamala fangirls over, Carol Danvers is her idol; she was the inspiration for Kamala to take up the Ms. Marvel name in the first place, so there’s a lot of expectation that comes with the two finally meeting.  If the team up with Wolverine back in Generation Why was nonstop adorable, then this one with Carol is nonstop feels.  Kamala gets affirmation from her personal hero that she’s doing well as Ms. Marvel, and she gets to learn with Carol’s guidance about the burden that having power places on you when it’s not enough to take care of everyone.  All this is even more poignant with the subtle implication that Kamala’s meeting the Carol from the universe that’s in process of colliding with 616.  It’s not hard to figure out when you know the context of the story, but little things like the pendant with the combined emblems of Captain and Ms. Marvel and the fact Carol’s uniform is all in dark grays and blacks (like she’s in mourning) go a long way towards suggesting what’s going on.  The Kamala in the other world was probably Carol’s partner or sidekick, and she must have died recently; the visit to our Kamala is this Carol trying to get closure.  That this is never explicitly stated (and Kamala never seems to figure it out) makes the whole thing more heart wrenching.  Carol’s primary appearance is in issue 17, and I think it’s hands down the most outstanding issue in a really superb arc.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend a moment squeeing over Alphona’s art in this book.  He draws the best expressions on Kamala, and when you can tear yourself away from looking at how adorable she is, you can get lost looking at the background details that he nestles into every panel.  Kamala is very proud of her hometown, and with Alphona on the book Jersey City becomes especially weird and quirky.  You have a variety of strange locals like the little people who are always wearing hazmat suits, the bald hipster guy with shrapnel sticking out of his head, and the police who are busily dumping evidence (including a skull with a knife sticking out of it!) into the river.  Alphona’s art makes this book just as much as Wilson’s writing.

It almost feels like a Where’s Waldo picture, but with way weirder stuff happening. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring)

“I’m Trying a Thing”

I’m a little behind the times on this one, seeing as Captain Marvel made her big splash several years ago when Kelly Sue DeConnick first took over writing duties and inaugurated Carol Danvers’s adoption of the title that had previously belonged to the long dead character Mar-Vell, an alien who protected Earth from the time Marvel Comics snatched the rights to the Captain Marvel character name until he died of cancer (I understand there’s a lot of stuff packed in there, and I honestly don’t know that much about Mar-Vell’s history, so let’s move on to other, less convoluted things).  The new Captain Marvel series was a big deal because it signaled the beginning of Marvel’s initiative to diversify its lineup of superheroes with more women and people of color in prominent titles (within a year of Captain Marvel‘s publication, we saw Kamala Khan as the new Ms. Marvel, the new female Thor, the black character Sam Wilson as the new Captain America, and news that Miles Morales, the black and Latino Spider-Man of Marvel’s Ultimate universe, would be transitioning into their primary universe).  On top of all that, it’s also a remarkably well-penned book for which DeConnick has received loads of well-deserved praise.

My previous experience with Carol Danvers as a character in the Marvel universe is mostly limited to her brief stint in the early ’80s as an unofficial member of the X-Men during Chris Claremont’s run.  During this period Carol had been de-powered by a run in with the then-villain Rogue (most people know her better for her long tenure as a prominent member of the X-Men), and through a bit of happenstance, she got swept up in one of the X-Men’s early space adventures with the Brood (a violent race of insectoid parasites who reproduce by laying eggs in the bodies of living hosts from other species) which resulted in her receiving new superpowers.  She parted ways with the X-Men after she learned that they had let Rogue become a member of their team and spent some time adventuring in space with the Starjammers before eventually returning to Earth and rejoining the Avengers.  The important thing to remember in all of this is that from the time when Claremont worked with the character, Carol has always been depicted as a highly capable, independent woman who doesn’t back down from confrontations.

We get that same throughline in DeConnick’s series, but with a lot more nuance.  The impression I’ve always gotten from previous depictions of Carol is that she has a temper which inclines her to resolving issues with fighting.  DeConnick keeps that characterization here (in the first issue Carol works out her frustration about considering a title change by beating up Spider-Man in the Avengers’ gym), but the focus remains firmly on Carol’s internal struggles.  We get to see her thought process behind all the decisions she makes in the series, and it reveals that her aggression stems from major frustrations with her life, like the fact that being superpowered disqualifies her from legitimately competing for flight records as a trained pilot.

Essentially, DeConnick presents a Carol Danvers who reads as human in a way that even Claremont, who loved the character and did everything he could to dignify her whenever he wrote her, never did.

One thing I think this series does suffer from is a lackluster set of covers. Ed McGuinness penciled the cover for issue number 1, and while his subsequent covers are significantly better, this first one just strikes me as so incredibly boring. Probably because while it does show off Carol’s new costume, she’s not really doing anything. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

All this internal angst really pays off by the end of the first arc too, as the story culminates with Carol finding herself thrown through time to the precise moment when she first got her powers.  I’m fuzzy on the details of Carol’s origin story, but the impression given in issue 6 of Captain Marvel is that the whole thing was an unfortunate accident that arose after Carol found herself in a damsel situation which Mar-Vell was trying to save her from.  The great payoff here comes from all the build-up surrounding Carol’s frustrations with her life, and the sudden presentation of an opportunity to change her accidental origin into a purposeful one.  Carol makes the decision to keep her powers with the full knowledge of the difficulties they’ll present her, and this simple change in perspective does a lot to redeem the character’s origin.

Art duties on the first trade of Captain Marvel are split between Dexter Soy and Emma Rios.  Soy does the primary artwork on issues 1-4, and while his painterly style invests the panels with a great sense of motion and his splash pages are really impressive to look at, I found myself continually distracted by inconsistencies in design (here’s a tweet I put out showing how Carol compares to the head of Crusher Creel the Absorbing Man in the first issue; unless I missed something, I don’t think Creel’s powers have ever involved him growing exponentially in size as he loses more and more handily) and the fact that for a story filled with a multitude of diverse female characters, their faces all look pretty samey in Soy’s art (Tracy, an old friend of Carol’s who is in her sixties and has cancer, looks almost the same as Carol except for having dark shadows around her eyes).  Conversely, I can’t get enough of Emma Rios’s art in issues 5 and 6.  She has a heavily textured, wispy style that’s just endlessly interesting to look at, and despite the fact that her two issues here heavily feature Carol with another character who’s also a pale blond woman, they’re instantly distinguishable in any given panel.

All in all, Captain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight is a good jumping on point for this character, and a really good reiteration of Carol Danvers’s origins.

I Like Free Comic Book Day

Which is a strange realization because this is the first year I’ve ever celebrated it by actually going to a shop and picking up some free comics.

Nonetheless, it was a fun experience.  I went to a local shop that I’ve never visited before where one of the employees was hanging out in a Spider-Man costume while a variety of families and adult regulars milled through in the forty-five minutes I spent browsing the shop (it’s amazing how much time you can actually spend in a one-room store that’s probably smaller than my living room).  They had a whole wall devoted to the free comics they had available (there were probably close to thirty titles on offer, and the store had a five freebies per person policy, which was great), and I got a decent variety.

There was the obligatory promotional issue from Marvel explaining the roster of Guardians of the Galaxy in anticipation of the big movie that’s coming out at the end of the summer (though I know virtually nothing about this franchise, I’m inclined to feel warmly towards it because the trailer proudly blares “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede as we’re treated to scenes of a bunch of interstellar misfits generally being chaotic awesome).

Also, I got the first issue of a series called Steam Wars which is a steam-punk homage to Star Wars (complete with the lovable rogue pilot Hansel Lowe–say the name quickly out loud–and his trained bear co-pilot, Smokey).  It’s entertaining, though the Leia stand-in feels very poorly drawn, with none of the competence and resolve that her originator displays.  Further perusal of the publisher’s website suggests this is a problem inherent in their editorial philosophy; multiple series feature female leads, but the emphasis seems to be universally on the characters’ appearance as a way of appealing to the male gaze (also, in an unrelated aside, the publisher has a one-shot featuring stories about Sarah Palin of all people).

In a less regressive vein, I picked up another first issue (all the free comic books seem to be either promotional or first issues of older series, which makes sense) of a series called Courtney Crumrin.  The cover prominently features a tween-age girl standing in front of a shadowy backdrop, looking like she’s wavering between intrepid and unsure.  I thought it was a good read, although the issue ends with a cliffhanger, which bums me out because I like having some resolution with my free comics–I acknowledge up front that I likely will not go out and buy back issues of any of these series.  The tone and style of this one reminds me a lot of Bone by Jeff Smith, which is never a bad thing.

Perhaps the worst acquisition from my free books was Transformers vs. G.I. Joe #0 (a prequel to a series that IDW Publishing seems to be launching in July of this year).  The story’s lackluster, and the art, which seems to be going for a retro ’80s feel, just doesn’t do anything to excite the imagination.  Also, this book uses a weird convention where the Transformers speak in Cybertronian, which is depicted as audio visualizations in speech bubbles with translations overlaid in rectangular boxes.  Perhaps I’ve just read too much Marvel, but the simple convention of enclosing any dialogue that’s not supposed to be in English in brackets with a single editor’s note saying what the intended language is works just fine.  There is such a thing as too much text crowding out a perfectly decent panel, and it’s something I really don’t miss from ’80s era comics.  Also, I never really cared that much for G.I. Joe anyway, so this was purely a “That book has Transformers; I will get it” sort of decision (I should have learned from when I was a kid that just because the cover of a comic features a character you want to read about doesn’t mean the character will be included in the story in any meaningful way).  If only there had been a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic book instead; I would have picked that up in a heartbeat.

The absolute best free comic that I picked up was Project Black Sky, a promotional story from Dark Horse’s superhero universe that features a snarky psychic who hates his own codename, a technologically inclined superhero from the 1940s, and a cyborg gorilla named Ape-X who communicates using American Sign Language.  The letterer for the issue went to the trouble of making a font specifically for Ape-X that mimics the signs in ASL (with an English translation).  Rachael said the icons are pretty good at conveying the signs, but the grammar’s all wrong.  Nonetheless, the book features a panel where Ape-X signs angrily that the eponymous Project Black Sky does “dirty bad science.”  If I ever commission a custom t-shirt, it’s going to have that phrase.

Naturally, because it’s kind of rude to show up to a store and just ask for free comics, I also bought a couple of other titles.  I’ve heard many good things about Kelly Sue DeConnick’s work on Captain Marvel, which just relaunched with a new #1, so I decided to pick that up.  I’m pretty familiar with Carol Danvers as a fixture of the Marvel Universe (her history has a lot of overlap with various folks in the X-books, so she’s shown up pretty regularly in the stuff that I’ve read through over the years), so I don’t need a whole lot of introduction to the character here, which is supposed to inaugurate her move towards being a space-based hero like the original Captain Marvel was.  There are some threads left over from the DeConnick’s first volume of Captain Marvel that I’m not familiar with, but it doesn’t detract much from the story which has some good momentum in the opening pages, but then flashes back to explain how Carol ended up in space in the first place (my one complaint about the pacing is probably the splash page declaring “Six Weeks Ago” on an all black background; yeah, the reader can’t miss it and get confused about the plot’s timeline, but it’s an entire page dedicated to some text with no accompanying art; comics are an expensive medium, and the artwork is a major draw when four dollars only buys a fraction of the total story arc, so shorting readers out of a whole page of artwork kind of irks me).  It’s a solid first issue, but I’m not sure it does enough to get me interested in picking up #2 (perhaps I’d consider buying the trade paperback of the whole story arc somewhere down the road, but going issue to issue doesn’t really appeal to me).

I also picked up the first volume of Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’s Saga, which I have heard nothing but good things about.  It’s an ambitious work, and the six issue collection was priced at only ten dollars, which is absurdly cheap in comparison to the three-to-four dollar cover price of single issues of comics.  I’ll definitely be looking to read more of this series in the future, and will probably expound more on it later.

I picked up a second printing, which uses blue accents for the cover and title instead of the red and pink of the first run (I think I like the blue better). (Image credit: Comicvine)

The book I picked up which I’m most excited about is one that I mentioned a few weeks ago in a link roundup.  With Carol Danvers taking over as Captain Marvel, Marvel has decided to launch a new Ms. Marvel in the form of Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year-old, Muslim Pakistani-American who lives in Jersey City.  I might have gushed a little bit when I first heard the news because having a non-white, female Muslim as the headliner of a solo title is a huge deal.  Anyway, the shop had a few copies of the second printing of Ms. Marvel #1, so I picked it up, and it is phenomenal.  Adrian Alphona’s art is just gorgeous with a cast of characters who all look wonderfully unique and background details that really drew me into examining each panel closely.  G. Willow Wilson, who’s penning the series, writes some of the most satisfying teenager dialogue I’ve ever read (so much better than the pointless chatter that Brian Michael Bendis was guilty of resorting to for his high school scenes in Ultimate Spider-Man) and includes all these great details about Kamala’s life that are endlessly fascinating to me (the sequence where Kamala hallucinates the Avengers’ big three appearing to her as a trio of Urdu-speaking messengers from heaven is both hilarious and intriguing in its depiction of an aspect of a faith tradition I know terribly little about).  I seriously want to read more of this series.

Anyhow, that was a long, probably unnecessary, breakdown of what I picked up for this year’s Free Comic Book Day.  I’m already looking forward to next year’s now.

Some Stuff That’s Nifty (4/13/14)

Faith

1. One thing in my series on the train wreck that was my conversation with Damon, a fundamentalist evangelical Christian, that I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on explicitly was the fact that I went back to the Nicene Creed of 381 as the foundation of my system of dogma.  Most Christians today, regardless of their location within the Church’s various branches, affirm that version of Creed, and so it is a cornerstone of orthodox faith within Christianity.  It’s pretty barebones in its assertions (you don’t get a whole lot besides the establishment of the Trinity, Jesus as wholly divine and wholly human, and belief in the Crucifixion and Resurrection; the technical details of any of those points are still pretty vague and open to interpretation), but it defines what the core of Christianity is for most of the world’s Christians.  This article does a pretty nice job of articulating the frustration I ran into with Damon when his response to my bringing up the Nicene Creed was that it was “valid, but incomplete.”  I suspect this is probably an outpouring of thought from the diminished importance of Church tradition over biblical interpretation that’s common in Protestantism in general and evangelicalism in particular.

2. Following on that, here’s an article from David Hayward discussing one particularly nasty response to Rachel Held Evans’s very honest meditations on how to proceed in relation to evangelicalism after the World Vision incident from several weeks ago.

3. I recently discovered a new blog.  It’s called Scribalishess, and it’s a fantastic combination of fancy pen reviews and explanations of Hebrew scriptures.  Being a lefty, I can’t really do a whole lot with fancy pens other than admire the aesthetics of them (someone, please tell me if a fountain pen has been invented that can be comfortably used by a southpaw with the signature curled claw writing position), but the writer is a professor of the Hebrew Bible, and she’s written some fantastic explanations of the problems with how contemporary Christians tend to approach the Old Testament.  For a sampling of her work that I’ve really enjoyed so far, follow these links: “The Day My Son Was Taught ‘Bible’ in Public School”, “Leviticus Defiled: The Perversion of Two Verses”, “Reading Genesis 1 ‘Literally'”

Science

1. I get a lot of my science news via io9.  Recently, I was really excited to see that they hired a correspondent for news in Washington, D.C. related to science policy.  I think this event is not unrelated to an updated manifesto that was published by io9‘s chief editor, Annalee Newitz, this week where she writes that, whether you like it or not, science is a political issue, and policies that affect scientific research and education need to be addressed.  Wholeheartedly agreed.

2. Following that, here’s an article about the brouhaha stirring at a technical university where a couple who are creationists have been invited to speak at a commencement ceremony.  This is an interesting case mostly because the couple in question are also engineers, and they plan on speaking only about their engineering backgrounds at the ceremony.  Nonetheless, opponents of the decision are arguing that the university shouldn’t even recognize people who take part in political efforts that directly seek to undermine science education, even if it’s an unrelated field.

Gaming

1. There’s still a long way to go to get to equal representation of all demographics in fiction.  This talk given at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference by Manveer Heir, a game designer for BioWare, gives a pretty good overview of the excuses that lots of folks within the games industry are making, and points towards some goals that developers should keep in mind.

2. I’m only a little surprised I’ve not seen this before, but this is a very thorough exploration of all the problems with the user interface in the first Mass Effect game.  Anyone who’s played the series knows that the first game had some major drawbacks, especially in relation to its inventory system.  It’s also a good write up on how a player interacts with a game and what good visual design does to facilitate the experience and immersion of a title.  Also, in the follow-up that looks at Mass Effect 2‘s user interface, the writer validates everything I was thinking about the simplification of pretty much every system between the two games.

Comics

1. So Carol Danvers has been Captain Marvel (in the Marvel comics universe) for a couple years now, and all accounts say she’s been a success in her new role.  Now I’m hearing that Marvel’s launching a new Ms. Marvel, and she’s a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenager from New Jersey.  Why am I not reading this series?!

Movies

1. Last summer I watched a really good movie called Another Earth.  Now the director of that film is about to release a new movie that explores the tension between a materialist outlook and confrontation with scientifically inexplicable phenomena.  Personally, I think a lot of people make too much of the perceived conflict between science and faith (it’s one of my pet peeves about Rob Bricken’s reporting at io9 that he always seems to take this angle in writing about things that examine the relationship between science and faith), but this new film might still be worth seeing.  Here’s the trailer, if you’re curious.

Fun

Art by Lauren Dawson. (Image credit: http://iguanamouth.tumblr.com)

1. There have been a lot of live action adaptations of Superman and Batman over the years.  Also there have been a few of Wonder Woman.  That doesn’t change the fact that Wonder Woman as a character has not seen a notable live action adaptation since the 1970s.  Here’s a compilation of the looks of various adaptations of DC’s Trinity over the years with a rather wry jab at Wonder Woman’s poor representation.

2. I have not read every Shakespeare play (honestly, I’m more of a Marlowe fan), but based on what I know about the ones that I have read, these 3-panel plot summaries are pretty spot on.

3. Time travel is a lot of fun in stories, but looking at visualizations of how it actually plays out are probably even more of a blast.  Here’s a quiz where the time travel in various movies are illustrated on timelines and you get to guess if you can recognize the film based on its pathway.  Like all things from BuzzFeed, it’s kind of stupid, but still entertaining.

4. First, there was Sharknado.  Now, there’s Poseidon Rex.

5. The Muppets instantly make things better.  So here’s a collection of fan art mashing up the Muppets with various characters across the Marvel and DC universes.  My favorite might be the first one that features Dazzler singing with the Electric Mayhem.

Just Because It’s Awesome

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but I love superheroes.  They’re, objectively, the best thing.  Bright colors, spectacular abilities, what’s not to love?

I came across this mash-up art the other day, and I thought it was a lot of fun.  It combines the designs of several major heroes from both DC and Marvel comics and puts them together to make some very sleek concepts.  Some of them involve combining characters who complement each other thematically (Superman and Captain America have so much in common before you even start talking about costumes and powers) while others seem to be done a little more… just because it’s awesome (I really don’t think Spider-Bat works as a concept because even though both characters are defined by traumatic origins, the circumstances are so incredibly different and have such opposite outcomes that I can’t see a way to reconcile Spider-Man’s everyman take on superheroing with Batman’s dour “I’m responsible for everything wrong with the world” attitude).

That’s not to say that Spider-Bat is any less wonderful of a concept, despite not making narrative sense.  It follows in a fine superhero tradition.  Just-because-it’s-awesome is a great motivation for doing things in superhero comics.  I could go on about how we use these larger than life narratives as a way of making sense of what it means to act rightly, and how they’re modernized versions of ancient mythologies featuring heroes doing things that as a culture we find valuable, and some more highfalutin stuff that I go back to in order to explain my fascination with superheroes, but sometimes the excuse really doesn’t need to be any more than just-because-it’s-awesome.

Cover of "Kingdom Come"

See this fight between DC icons?  Just-because-it’s-awesome. Cover of Kingdom Come

Why is Superman fighting with Captain Marvel in the middle of a desert?  Just because it’s awesome.  Why does Captain America lead the modern day Avengers even though he’s a World War II hero?  Just because it’s awesome.  Why does Iron Man keep a gallery of all his old, out-of-date power suits?  Just because it’s awesome.  Why does Batman have both a T-Rex and a giant penny in the Batcave as decorations?  Just because it’s awesome.

There’s a certain amount of joy in imagining these colorful figures doing amazing but admittedly absurd things.  Superhero apologists like to give explanations about how the genre’s matured as an art form where the narratives try to look at real human issues with a backdrop of wonderment, or talk about the deconstruction of the genre that’s happened in previous decades to give a more sophisticated view of how it all works.  I’m totally on board with that stuff, and I’ll happily talk about any and all of that if given the chance, but I know that the core of my love for superheroes boils down to a simple maxim:

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Wait, no, that’s Spider-Man.

Let me try that again.

Why?  Just because it’s awesome.