Let’s Hear It for Girl Comics

Posted by Caroline

Ever since December, when Marvel announced the publication of Girl Comics, the anthology series has been the subject of intense debate and speculation. (You can see what Sigrid said about it here; my thoughts are in the comment section).

Since then, the (all-female) list of writer and artist contributors has trickled out, along with some intriguing pages of sample art, and it was quite an event — even a relief –when Girl Comics #1 finally hit the stands this week, so that we actually have a comic to review! Now that I finally have it in my hand, I’m happy to report that, exactly as I hoped, Girl Comics #1 is a treat from beginning to end.

One of the things I wondered going into this review was, “Will this be a comic that I would want to buy, and read, if I came in without knowing anything about it?” Of course I wanted to support some of the top female talents in the industry, but I also wanted this to be a book I could proudly pass on to others as worth reading in its own right. That question was answered almost immediately when I saw this intro page by Colleen Coover:

Now I always buy Coover’s work, when I can, and besides, I’m the target market for this book. I love comic book heroines; I love their spirit, their energy, and the ways that each of them is unique. This piece captures that in so many wonderful ways. I’m not even sure who all of these women are (and I’m a Marvel fiend), but look at all the subtle differences in their facial expressions. Each of these panels looks like it comes out of a larger story, and I’m having fun imagining what’s going on with each of them.

In the spirit of that introduction, the anthology goes on to include six stories of strikingly different looks and tones. The opener, written by G. Willow Wilson and drawn by Ming Doyle, shows the X-Man Nightcrawler in a German cabaret. There’s no exposition and little context to the 7-page story; it’s almost entirely a mood piece, accented by the lyrics to an eerie ballad being sung onstage — shades of V for Vendetta – as Nightcrawler is drawn into a sinister fight — or is it a planned rescue? We never find out what the X-Man is doing there, or who the woman is that he (sort of) saves, but the sense of unease evoked by Wilson’s words and Doyle’s lines continues to linger, and dispels any thought that the title “Girl Comics” means the pieces will be lightweight or twee.

The spooky mode prevails in several of these pieces, most memorably in Robin Furth & Agnes Garbowska’s “Clockwork Nightmare”. This is a version of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, starring the children Franklin and Valeria Richards, from The Fantastic Four. While you might at first be deceived into thinking this is a simple children’s story, it’s worth remembering that Furth is a longtime collaborator of Stephen King (she co-writes Marvel’s version of The Dark Tower), and this memorably-designed story brings out the horror lurking beneath this fanciful tale. Equally creepy in its own right is a Valerie D’Orazio/Nikki Cook story about that least-girly of Marvel heroes, the Punisher.

That’s not to say there’s no light to be found in this anthology. Independent comics legend Trina Robbins collaborates with Stephanie Buscema on a throwback-y story about an early incarnation of the Marvel character Venus. These days, V kicks ass along with the superhero team Agents of Atlas. But once she worked at a fashion magazine, and this story visits those days. Buscema is a painter, and I love the look of this story, from its Mad Men-esque fashion designs to the eye-popping colors. (Can I take a moment to say how fantastic all the colors in this book look? Considering that dull, muddy colors are one of the most consistent complaints I hear about Marvel’s mainstream books, I hope some editors take a good look at this gorgeous production and make sure these colorists get a ton of work!)

Another really fun story is a two-pager, written and drawn by Lucy Knisley, about a day in the life of the villain Doc Ock. He just wants to go to the store and get groceries — but everything he sees reminds him of Spider-Man, and he encounters octopus-phobia everywhere he goes! This is classic humorous cartooning in the spirit of the backup stories Coover has done in many of Marvel’s All-Ages books, or Chris Giarrusso’s Mini-Marvels. It also reminded me that I’ve been wanting to read Knisley’s travelogue comic French Milk, and now I have even more motivation to do that.

While I enjoyed all of these stories, I’ve been saving the best for last — though in some ways, “best” is defined as “the story I personally loved the most and am thus least able to talk about coherently.” That would be “Head Space,” written by Devin Grayson, with art by Emma Rios.

This story features Jean Grey and Cyclops and Wolverine, and it’s been good long time since I got to read a new story about the those three characters that wasn’t X-Men Forever. It’s six pages of minimal dialogue but there are so many layers of action and movement, of dream and reality, that I’ve read these half dozen pages a few dozen times and keep finding new facets to them. I would dearly love to read the script and find out how this was all communicated to the artist. I’d also be happy if Emma Rios — who draws dynamic, realistic figures, and expressive faces — was drawing a book that I read every month.

Overall, the first installment of Girl Comics was everything I wanted it to be. It showed me work by some of my favorite creators and introduced me to others I’d like to learn more about. It gave me a book that I could show to my friends when they ask about women who are working in mainstream comics. As a bonus, it had features about women who were important in the history of Marvel — Flo Steinberg and Marie Severin — and I hope we get more next month! Most of all, it gave me great art and memorable stories, like every good comic should.

Any way you look at it, Girl Comics is just plain good comics.

By Caroline Pruett
Email: Caroline@fantasticfangirls.org
Twitter: madmarvelgirl

  • Agreed. Love. SO much love. I loved Colleen’s intro, i MAY have teared up, because it was such a relief, and really felt like “FINALLY…!”
    The second page of the intro (not pictured) really got me with “because we cant NOT do it”.

    I enjoyed all of the stories very much, and now my favourite flower is posies.

  • sigrid

    I’ll just say that this comic was exactly what I was hoping for.

  • I’m going to pick this up today at my local shop because Marvel Women, by and large, is a good idea. But, it opens up some questions that Marvel might be comfortable with:

    1) So, GC is retailing at $4.99. My understanding is that Val D’Orazio’s Punisher: Butterfly is selling at the same price. And I’m gonna guess the upcoming Heralds will sell at that price, too. For Marvel to price these books beyond its’ normal offerings would seem to be counter-intuitive to a plan to expose female creators to a wider audience.
    2) At first glance, Heralds looks like a Defenders story – a group of heroes who don’t necessarily get along unite to face a common foe. Which is fine. But why wouldn’t Marvel use the established Defenders mantle for it?
    3) I love that Abigail Brand will be part of the Heralds team. But would S.W.O.R.D not have fit under the Marvel Women banner?
    4) Speaking of ongoings, looking at Marvel’s May solicitations, by and large, their female creators seem to be doing one-shots or special projects like the MW line (A notable exception: Kathryn Immonen’s Pixie mini-series). I’m not willing to think that Marvel is deliberately creating a tokening environment for these creators, but it sure seems to be the effect.

  • Caroline

    @Twyst — Those pages were perfect!

    @sigrid — Totally!

    @Art — thanks for your thoughts, I’ll try to address all the points:

    1) Marvel has a price-point problem in general — I think they’ve hamstrung some promising series lately (including the girl-friendly Exiles) by starting them out at $3.99. I kind of *get* the $4.99 price point for an anthology — this is kind of a prestige project, and they don’t expect a lot of volume of sales, though maybe if that was the thought it would have made more sense to release all the parts in bookstore-friendly GN form. And I know nothing about that punisher book, but pricing it up like that does seem weird. I’m not a business expert, though, and I shouldn’t pretend to be. I will say that marvel doesn’t generally run that part of their business in a way that makes me think they have any idea what they’re doing. But I dunno that its really a factor in whether this reaches a wider audience — I feel like this is enough of a novelty that people who would have bought this for $3 are buying it for $5.

    2. I know absolutely nothing about Defenders so the distinction means nothing to me. I can tell you I’m more likely to pick up Heralds in the context of women’s month — and to distinguish it from other books coming out — than if it was another iteration of a title that had been used before. OTOH, I still think ‘The Order’ would have been a hit if they’d called it ‘West Coast Avengers.’!

    3. i can’t even begin to count the number of ways Marvel screwed the pooch on SWORD. Though I bet if they’d called it X-Men: SWORD or BEAST it would not have already been cancelled. I personally think it would have been kind of weird to use the women banner on a book with a male co-lead, but maybe we’re splitting hairs.

    4. I’m not sure what you want to happen? Do you want them to launch a lot of ongoings that won’t have any legs? Do you want them to have men the women’s books? Do you want them to say, “Fuck it, nobody wants to read about these characters, let’s not even try?”

    Your questions seem to be getting at something but I guess I’d rather you come out and say what it is because I’m not really getting your point. I’m seeing a project with a lot of positive aspects to it, and hearing a lot of nitpicks from you but no constructive suggestions. What, to you, is the alternative to what is being done here? And please understand, I’m not saying that what they are doing is the best or only possible approach; I’m just saying that I would like to know what you think a good approach would look like.

  • handyhunter

    Do you want them to have men the women’s books?

    Or have women write/draw the men’s books? Like Uncanny, Adjectiveless, the Avengers stuff and other big titles.

    I don’t think it’s a nitpick to wonder about the overall changes with the creative staff (or to be cynical about it), if there will be any or if, aside from this book and after Marvel’s ‘Year of Women’, it’ll be the status quo as usual. Maybe it’s because I’m wondering the same thing (with a bonus of ‘how many of these characters are of colour’).

    Anyway, thanks for the review! I’ll be reading Girl Comics. (I had been under the impression that the stories were all going to be about female characters. hmm.)

  • @handyhunter Yes, of course, it would be great to have women on those other books, but I don’t think that putting out a bunch of high profile books featuring their work prevents them from getting those other jobs.

    And if that is what Art is saying, I agree that it’s not a nitpick. However, i did not understand that to be the point of his questions. I did not understand the point of his questions at all, which was why I asked him to clarify.

    I believe the creators were allowed to write about whatever they wanted. Some of them chose female characters, others didn’t.

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  • What, to you, is the alternative to what is being done here?

    I think that’s the crux of my issues here: that this is an alternative. An experiment. No indication that Marvel Women will, ultimately, be more than a well-intentioned promo campaign.

    See, here’s the thing – Girl Comics is good, but it’s a bit of a mixed message for that to launch as Ms. Marvel’s own book gets cancelled. I think there’s a mixed message for Heralds to get special attention when Marvel screwed the pooch on SWORD. It’s nice to see Marjorie Liu doing a Black Widow “ongoing,” but I place that in quotation marks because the character’s being pushed in conjunction with an upcoming movie. To be more succinct about it, my only real suggestions are:

    1) Clarity – with overall comics sales having declined over the past decade, what kinds of numbers are going to save books like Ms. Marvel or, when the time comes, Black Widow? Is GC going to become some sort of regular anthology?
    2) Consistency – As someone who was included in a few “diversity drives” in the journalism industry, this drives a lot of my doubts. In a year from now, what are the chances Marvel will have women, or POC, writing an Avengers title, or an X-book, or a Spider-book. I mean, at least Gail Simone had a two-plus year stint on *the* Wonder Woman for the other side. (And after Cry For Justice, is there anybody who wouldn’t trust her with the JLA over James Robinson? But that’s another company and another topic.) Is it too early to ask whether Marvel will have non-white-male creators on titles of similar status? Perhaps. But if we as fans don’t ask – and Marvel would probably rather we didn’t – then, as you said, GC *will* become an alternative.

  • Those are all great points, absolutely.

    I didn’t address them in this article because that’s not what this article is. It’s a review of the comic that came out this week, in which I’m trying to reflect my respect for the creators involved by reviewing what they actually created. I absolutely think those points should be raised, I would just love it if people would take the present moment to actually pay attention to the work that I’m writing about.

  • No, you’re right. I apologize for derailing things. In and of itself, I did enjoy the book, too. And the X-tale you featured here was … interesting, for reasons you and I have discussed in the past. But no need to go off on *another* tangent.

    As a peace offering, have you seen this yet? http://tinyurl.com/ygz3scf

  • Great review, Caroline! I just read it today, and frankly it’s everything I’d hoped it’d be. I love the smattering of styles and attention to detail in each little story. Have to say that Val and Franklin’s was my favorite. It reminded me a little bit of Fables (obvious reasons), but without the gravitas.