One of the advantages that summer brings to teachers is increased free time, of course. Usually, that free time is taken up by re-certification credits, professional development, and re-familiarizing oneself with curriculum standards after they’ve changed AGAIN and now all of our brand new textbooks are out of date.
Teaching is vocation. A very, very stressful one at times.
But I found myself an opportunity to catch up on some titles that have been on my comic pull-list for awhile, that I was a few months behind on. Admittedly, my list is rather small, I generally don’t pull that many titles on an individual, monthly (or bi-monthly for some titles) basis. My apartment is small, my budget is also similarly minuscule, and I just don’t have the space to store longboxes of back issues.
I barely have enough shelf space for the trades I already collect, and my figures!
That being said, there are a few titles that I very much believe are worth picking up from my friendly local comic store, and I wanted to take some time and make an informal feature highlighting some of these favorites.
No, she’s not Gwen Stacy cosplaying, her name is actually Gwen Poole. If that sounds highly implausible and ridiculous, well that describes her journey in general to become a recurring character with her own ongoing. What started out as just a series of variant covers “Gwen-ifying” several characters’ costumes, “Gwenpool” became popular enough to guest-star in a backup of Howard the Duck where she played the part of a fangirl who found herself in the middle of a Marvel crossover event.
The character then stayed popular enough for Marvel to create an ongoing title for her and – here’s where things really got interesting – pulled Christopher Hastings to write it.
I’ve been a fan of Hastings’ work for, gosh, over ten years at this point. Ever since I stumbled across Dr. McNinja when it was still in black and white, I’ve enjoyed his manic sense of humor and tendency to throw every concept and the kitchen sink into his stories. Despite having mustachioed raptor-riding bandits and irish Ninjas and a genetic disease that turns kids into giant lumberjacks all coexisting in the same setting, each new addition to that setting somehow makes complete sense in context. And manages to do so without losing the sense of ridiculousness that a new reader would have experiencing an evil unicorn named “Sparklelord” trapped in a motorcycle for the first time.
It’s that eye for the sublimely ridiculous that helps Gwenpool become such a treat to read each month.
Deadpool is immensely popular, but rather than riding on the same quotable antics and bloody mayhem in a cheap carbon copy, Gwen is her own character. She has the ability to read the fourth wall – not because she’s insane herself. At least, not totally insane, but because she’s familiar with the comics and knows their tropes, cliches, and character backstories inside and out. And it’s that knowledge that leads her to be a major character in the first place, she knows that as a background civilian, she’ll likely just get murdered off-panel, so she needs to become a popular hero to ensure her survival in the crazy world of the Marvel universe.
And it works.
The main thrust of the series, the reason why it’s entertaining and engaging outside of fourth-wall-breaking gags, is Gwen being forced to clean up her own messes. Messes usually created by blundering into the setting without caring for other characters as real people with their own thoughts, feelings and agency. And this is why I enjoy the series so much, Gwen isn’t a Mary-Sue insert, she makes mistakes and dumb assumptions and then has to face the consequences of her actions. Her knowledge isn’t perfect, and in one issue we see just how terrifying the limits of her awareness are, when she’s forced to fight Deadpool himself.
The same rules that she relies on to stay alive can easily be twisted back on her to kill her (or worse – strand her in Limbo!) in a moment’s notice. It lends a lot of tension to scenarios that would otherwise just be played for laughs.
But despite that all, the laughs still work. The most recent two issues go full-on Animal Man-style existential crisis with Gwen finding herself back in her old life in the “real world” but with her ability to read the fourth-wall still in place. Where other series might have dropped the humor, Hastings still finds some opportunities for wry chuckles with her dull job at the movie theater, conflicts with her parents, and her experiments in pushing the boundaries of her comic panel borders.
This is a series that has a good sense of humor, a heart, and a smart head for juggling it all together. There’s a reason why it’s currently the only Marvel comic I’m pulling on a monthly basis.
So yeah, the secret comes out, I’m a massive DC fangirl, and have been for as long as I’ve been reading comics regularly. I love the setting a lot, enough to page through the most recent damp squibs of events that seek to reconcile its latest mid-life crisis with Rebirth. (Dark Days: Forge was a pretty good one-shot, so we’ll see if things start looking up here soon). But this series is one that’s actually been running pretty smoothly ever since the New 52 reboot originally hit, regardless of what other nonsense has been going on in other series.
Geoff Johns took the Aquaman title at the beginning of the rebooted continuity with the assumption that no one really cared about Aquaman and thought he was a joke. Which was largely the case, but by highlighting the character’s strengths – both literally in terms of his superpowers, and his major thematic elements as a character – he managed to make a very solid series. This then provides a firm base for how other writers have dealt with him in light of the wider shared universe. Bunn and Parker, both of whom followed Johns’ inaugural run of Aquaman, were boring and largely unremarkable, but not awfully so. Dan Abnett’s current tenure has succeeded where both of them failed to make an impact for similar reasons why Johns did a good job dealing with the character, both of them are very skilled at writing characters even if Johns tends to over-promise on plot arcs in most series he runs.
Abnett’s Aquaman is equal parts political spy thriller and superheroics, and deals with Arthur’s conflicting interests and duties as a member of the Justice League, and as King of Atlantis.
This is a common theme in many Aquaman stories, but what makes Abnett’s writing unique is how each of the small geo-aqua-political crises that Arthur deals with connect to each other, and (like Gwenpool) have repercussions that fold into each subsequent arc.
The current arc that just began deals with this fallout, the ruling court of Atlantis now sees him as ill-fit for the crown, and other elements have staged a coup to depose him. The chance to see some world-building for factions within Atlantis is fascinating, and as I’ve said, this event has been building through other arcs that precede it – it’s not just all being thrown at the reader at once. To be able to successfully get the reader to care about Atlantean politics and royal intrigue also highlights a main strength of Abnett’s writing as I mentioned before, characterization.
There’s lots of good scenes of just people being people, Arthur talking with a girl that he went to high school with, now a police officer in their hometown, he and Mera being a cute couple (with a golden retriever they’ve adopted), interactions with other side characters that give them dimension and make things feel more real and grounded amidst the realpolitik that drives most of the conflicts of the series.
It’s not a perfect series, some of the arcs feel like poorly-paced filler in between the main development I’ve noted, but it’s surprisingly solid superhero work in a believable setting, and that’s why I keep following it as it comes out.
Oh, side note, another reason to jump onto this series now – Stjepan Sejic is now doing interior artwork for DC. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because he’s previous just done his own, erm, adult series digitally, and a couple of freelance digitally-distributed titles before this. This is his first main gig with one of the Big Two and damn his work has improved immensely since I saw it last. This is gorgeous work.
The last series I want to touch on is also a DC title, but one that really needs the extra attention because it’s quite honestly the best superhero series from the Big Two running at the moment.
As a bit of background, when the New 52 version of Superman died and was replaced with the pre-Flashpoint Superman (don’t ask me to explain this nonsense, the whole multiverse doesn’t even know what the hell is going on either), his powers were distributed through several different characters, and DC ran a few spin-off titles dealing with that legacy. One of them was engineered by a mysterious organization within the Chinese government – the Ministry of Self-Reliance – to create their own version of Superman, within a rebellious teenager named Kenan Kong.
This series is pretty unique in that it deals with a familiar superhero mythos from an unfamiliar angle. The author of the series, Gene Luen Yang, is himself Chinese-American and deals with social and political issues within China in a way that a native-born American who has never traveled out of the country may not be able to replicate. This shows mainly in the major conflict that drives the story – tradition vs. progress.
Kenan is not Superman. He’s brash, impulsive, rude, and really comes across more like the 90’s Superboy rather than cornpone farmboy Clark Kent. But more than his personality, how he uses his powers is quite different from the original Superman.
The China angle doesn’t just provide unique villains – the first arc deals with the Freedom Fighters of China, a democracy movement that seeks to expose the Ministry of Self-Reliance’s abuses – it also gives a unique angle on the mythos of superheroes in general.
We tend to look at Superman and his symbology through a Western, Judeo-Christian lens. When I talk about the character, it’s usually in relation to European philosophy regarding social expectations, moral ethics and Christian theological virtues. However, New Superman deals with these stories through the viewpoint of Eastern mysticism, specifically elements of Taoism and Buddhism. When Kenan is unable to use the powers of Superman reliably, he finds guidance in Taoist principles, which let him use specific aspects of that power (X-Ray vision, super speed, flying, etc).
But that same traditional structure that gives Kenan a framework to use his powers also conflicts with the ideal that we typically have of superheroes in general.
Let me put it this way, as I said, Kenan is not Superman. The other heroes that he works with – who make up what is jokingly referred to as the “Chinese knockoff” Justice League – are also not Batman, or Wonder Woman. Baixi – the Batman of China is an orphan, but of a more traditional Oliver Twist kind than Bruce was, and also has his own family connections with a sister. The Wonder Woman of China, Peng, is also not an Amazon, but a mythological figure of a different kind, a snake who gained human form because she fell in love with a human. They all have their own motivations, backgrounds and personalities that differ from the templates that they have created around themselves. As they work together more closely as a team and increase in their abilities, they slowly start distinguishing themselves from their “originals”.
In the latest issue though, that same aspiration in Western thought to become self-actualized, a sort of meritocratic salvation, is seen as a negative, something abhorrent and unnatural by several of the villains in the series.
It’s come up a few times in some of my other writings, but since Grant Morrison’s work was one of my primary avenues into superhero comics, I tend to stick pretty closely to his interpretations of not just the Superman mythos, but superheroes in general. He sees these heroes as a sort of modern-day pantheon of gods, ideals that give us an example of virtue and strength to aspire to in our mundane lives. (I disagree on his wording slightly, in my opinion this makes superheroes not a pantheon, but something closer to how the canonical communion of Saints is referred to in Christian tradition) But the advantage of having an outside perspective writing this series is that it provides an interesting counterpoint to that vision of superheroes.
It adds something new and interesting to the conversation, and I want to see it fleshed out further as the characters continue to develop.
Unfortunately, that can’t happen with the numbers that New Superman is currently pulling. Usually, series that drop below 20,000 in sales each month are on ground for cancellation, and this one is sitting at 14,000 last I saw. Not very encouraging, and it’d be a shame to lose one of the most interesting takes on the mythos of DC’s superheroes after only a dozen or so issues.
So yeah, don’t really know how to wrap this article up after those analyses.
Find a local comic store, if you don’t know where one is already. (Google is your friend).
Support creators, give them feedback on social media, check out these series or find some new ones that you enjoy. Even though the market is changing drastically with digital releases making a bigger share of the audience, and trade volumes being treated more like books from traditional publishing houses, monthly sales numbers still do make a difference for companies, and there’s plenty of lesser-known niche titles out there that need more attention.
Go out there find a new story of your own to be passionate about. In the meantime, I’ve got floppy issues to bag up.