Fearless Defenders: Doom Maidens
by Cullen Bunn and Will Sliney
2013 • 144 pages • Marvel
One of my favorite comic book covers is the piece of art gracing the The Avengers #83, which features several Marvel ladies—Scarlet Witch, Wasp, Medusa, and Black Widow—standing triumphant over the fallen bodies of their male colleagues as an ice cold blonde known only as Valkyrie declares “All right, girls—that finishes off these chauvinist male pigs!” The story within The Avengers #83 is not as gloriously overt as the cover, unfortunately. Valkyrie is soon revealed to have been a false identity created by the Enchantress for extremely petty and dude-centered reasons. (Amora Incantare: the woman who became Dazzler’s main nemesis because she once got an audition Amora totally blew off. The Enchantress, everybody! I love her so.)
Ōoku: The Inner Chambers—Volume 1
by Fumi Yoshinaga
2009 (originally published 2005) • 216 pages • VIZ Media LLC
There’s a troubling tendency for texts purporting to explore a world where women are the dominant gender to simply recast the patriarchy as a matriarchy and call it a day, instead of trying to honestly engaging with gender and reimagining it. I am thinking very specifically of Dungeons and Dragons’ drow and other matriarchies that still cater to the male gaze. Because of this tendency, I tend to shrug off stories that largely swap the roles of the gender binary and focus on stories with a more nuanced view towards gender.
However, I always keep my ear to the ground, because I love being proven wrong. Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ōoku: The Inner Chambers comes with impeccable pedigrees, from the now-defunct, now-deleted, and always missed Dreams and Speculation, where I heard of it first, to its James Tiptree Jr. Award (the first for a manga), to its Eisner Award nomination. The matriarchy of Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is not a simple patriarchy/matriarchy swap. After a plague kills seventy-five percent of the male population of Edo Japan, the manga picks up eighty years later, after the culture has changed to reflect the rarity and fragility of men. Women now fill traditionally male roles—to the point that Yoshinaga’s cast is largely composed of female versions of real historical Edo figures—while men are now kept secluded from the world, valued only for their role in reproduction. Men are so rare that only the most wealthy of women can afford to pay a man’s dowry. An entire harem of men, reserved solely for one woman’s pleasure, is the ultimate luxury, and reserved only for the Shogun.
The Mighty Thor: Volume 2
by Walter Simonson
2013 (originally published 1984) • 238 pages • Marvel Comics
There is something about old school fantasy—sf that was produced between 1977 and 2001 and the attendant/appropriate rock and heavy metal—that fascinates me in a very specific way. It’s this kind of unwarranted nostalgia for something I’ve never experienced, somewhat similar to my love for the eighties. But this is more specific, usually coming with daydreams of reading poorly designed Tolkien paperbacks out on the roof in the summer of 1995. (The flannel shirt tied around the waist of this teenager who never was goes, of course, without saying.) Something about that entire configuration has been setting me on fire lately, and I’ve been trying to tease out why.
Upon reading the second volume of Walter Simonson’s legendary run on The Mighty Thor, I think one factor is just good old-fashioned Norse mythology. Its sweep covers both the fantastic and the mundane, the epic and the low, the bombast and the humanity. And you certainly can’t beat the location. It’s the kernel of fiery truth that many bad Tolkien imitators completely miss, focusing on the trappings and not the heart. (Look, nobody can be the second Tolkien, okay? The degrees required alone would bankrupt you in the United States. We just need to make peace with that and move on.) Simonson not only acutely understands the emotional underpinnings of Norse mythology, he understands where that ties into the unique bombast and mythology of Marvel comics.
The Mighty Thor: Volume 1
2013 (originally published 1983 and 1984) • 232 pages • Marvel Comics
Fandom, as I warbled hoarsely to someone at a fan gathering on Saturday, is generated by the blank spaces in a text. (This is not my theory, but Michael Chabon’s.) It’s the storytelling part of that multipart impulse—to take seemingly disparate events and synthesizing them into a satisfying narrative. Nowadays, this usually occurs in the gift economy of fandom itself, due to the evolution of copyright law, but there are still avenues in copyrighted materials open for fans to make their narratives the narrative. You see this with any text that lasts long enough to eventually pull its creative contributors from a generation that grew up with it. There’s the recently disenfranchised Star Wars expanded universe, and lifelong Doctor Who fan Peter Capaldi is currently at the helm of the TARDIS.
Such is the story of Walter Simonson and his epic five year run on The Mighty Thor. I have only ever heard of this run talked about in hushed, reverent tones, as something that shows the full extent of comics’ unique marriage of text and art. So that makes the more mundane and more interesting story of how Simonson discovered Thor all the more interesting. Having discovered the comic while in college, it dovetailed neatly with his own interest in Norse mythology that his imagination was already at work before he realized it. He ended up writing his own version of events long before he was ever offered the opportunity to write and draw The Mighty Thor. And when that chance came, he was ready, recycling what could be used from that first foray into his new work.
Thor: The Mighty Avenger
by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee
2013 • 216 pages • Marvel
Thor: The Mighty Avenger was both the first Thor comic I ever bought and the first comic I ever bought sight unseen. Trawling eBay for Harley Quinn material, I found an issue of Joker’s Asylum II, a short anthology series. It’s a wonderful comic—I especially adore how the art allows Harley to be adorable, a little grotesque, and look like an actual human being—but the cost of shipping took me aback. Looking at the other seller’s items, I found the first two issues of Thor: The Mighty Avenger for pretty cheap. “Looks cute,” I reasoned, and added them to my order.
What I got was a delightful all-ages riff on Thor’s origin story, casting Jane Foster as the new Head of the Department of Nordic Antiquities in Bergen, Oklahoma, as well as the whole proceedings in a light, sweet tone. Contrasted against my desperate search for any Harley Quinn material that treated her well and wasn’t too grimdark for my blood, this was just one of many moments that slowly steered me towards Marvel and away from DC.
Young Avengers: Style > Substance
by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
2013 • 128 pages • Marvel
Through sheer timing and luck, I have, in my comic book collection, Kieron Gillen’s entire run on Journey Into Mystery in single issues. I don’t mention this as a bragging point; its genius is readily available in trader paperback. I mention this because I really loved getting to follow the story of Kid Loki in weekly installments. In the digital age, it’s very easy to binge on something in days or weeks, so I really value being able to take my time with a series. (I’m doing the same thing right now with Sailor Moon. It’s awesome!) Gillen’s self-contained arc—best described as “a comedy in thirty parts and a tragedy in thirty-one”—is fun, heartwarming, thoughtful, meta, and heartbreaking, all at the same time.
And that’s without Gillen working with long-time collaborator Jamie McKelvie. I don’t mean to imply that Gillen’s writing sparkles less without McKelvie or vice versa, but the narrative and the art walk hand in hand when they’re working together. The two began their working relationship in 2003 at PlayStation Magazine UK on Save Point, a comic about gaming. (This is, to quote John Mulaney, a very old-fashioned sentence. I can practically smell my old GamePro magazines reading it.) Since then, they’ve worked together on Phonogram, the upcoming The Wicked + The Divine, and the short-lived but critically acclaimed and GLAAD Award-winning Young Avengers.
Women of Marvel: Volume 2
by Roy Thomas, Chris Claremont, Mark Gruenwald, and Terry Austin
Why am I not just reading Bronze Age comics all the time?
If you are not familiar with the ages of comics, the Golden Age covers roughly the late thirties to the early fifties, The Silver Age the mid-fifties to the early seventies, the Bronze Age the seventies to the mid-eighties, and the Modern Age the mid-eighties to now. Mark Voger makes the argument that the late eighties and nineties, known for its deconstructions, “extreme!” tone, and allowing Rob Liefeld to make a living, are the Dark Ages, which I can buy. This also allows me to predict that, when DC gets its head surgically removed from its derriere in the future, that the time we live in will be referred to as the Grimdark Age. (Although a new word will be have to be invented to describe Marvel’s current state, which should indicate ascension, a steamroller, mass media saturation, and rolling in money.)
Women of Marvel: Volume One
by Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Linda Fite, Tom DeFalco, Carol Seuling, Steve Gerber, Chris Claremont, Jim Shooter and David Michelinie
For the last three years, the amazing Jess Plummer has been noting what free promotional materials Marvel and DC have sent along to Wiscon, the world’s oldest feminist sf convention. After last year’s pretty decent showing, she was disappointed that Marvel’s offerings this year featured no ladies at all. After all, Marvel has so many interesting female characters and female-led titles these days, from Ms. Marvel to She-Hulk (featuring Kevin Wada’s deliriously delightful covers and Javier Pulido’s willfully and wonderfully grotesque art) to X-Men, which boasts an entire team of lady mutants without bothering to change the title. Why not celebrate that?
Green Lantern: Rebirth
by Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver
I’ll be honest: I don’t particularly get Green Lantern as a concept. I mean, space police, power rings, the fact that John Stewart is awesome, these are all things I get. But the Green Lantern approach to fear has always left me a little cool. Firstly, because it means that Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern for those unfortunate enough not to grow up on a steady diet of the DC animated universe, is a cocky, fearless pilot. As an Air Force brat, I only find this twentieth century archetype interesting when it’s played by Tom Cruise and set to the musical stylings of Berlin. So while I have seen (in slack-jawed amusement at its sheer badness) DC’s hilariously tragic attempt to bring Green Lantern to the big screen, I don’t really have any investment in the character.
But Green Lantern: Rebirth kept popping up over and over again as a good recommendation. Not so much to get into the character, but because it (like its spiritual sequel Flash: Rebirth) streamlines years of messy comic book continuity. When superhero comics are referred to as modern mythology, it’s largely because, like mythology, they consist of many stories (including often different versions of the same story) that are loosely but not firmly related featuring the same cast (including often different versions of the same cast). The accurate approach to adapting such a tentacled beastie is picking and choosing. This is how we end up with interpretations of Batman as varied as Batman: The Animated Series, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and, as it is foretold, Batman v Superman: Grimdark Grimdark Grimdark. And, gloriously, they’re all valid—not only because all readings are valid, but because the source material encompasses all of those approaches. It’s an ever changing beast.
Rat Queens: Volume One — Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch
Out of all the films in Tom Cruise’s filmography that I haven’t seen yet, Legend is the one that intrigues me the most. While Cruise has been involved in a lot of genre fare, it’s his only fantasy outing. Plus, it came out in 1985 and features Tim Curry as Satan, so I’ll probably adore it. It sounds like old school fantasy at its finest. For me, that’s fantasy produced from 1977 (Star Wars is science fantasy, y’all!) to 2001 (when The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring legitimized fantasy in mainstream eyes to a certain extent), as codified by Dungeons and Dragons. It’s your Standard Fantasy Setting, but something about those specific dates make it work for me. (I’m probably romanticizing the idea of listening to Iron Maiden while reading The Lord of the Rings on your parents’ roof in 1994, but hey.) Past those dates, however, and my tolerance for the lack of diversity to be found in your Standard Fantasy Setting becomes nil. Heck, there’s diverse stuff to be found between my extremely scientific dates, so there’s no excuse.