I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
When I was a younger, so much younger than today, I was always ready to expound at wearying length about the viability of comic books as an art form deserving of broad respect. This was in the era when major media outlet feature stories expressing gentle amazement about the widening demographic enthusiasm for material that was once thought of as little more than diversionary trash for the junior set. “Comics: They’re Not Just For Kids Anymore,” the headlines would blare, usually with the addition of a “Wham!” or “Pow!” so there was at least still a whisper of condescension.
These many years later, the endurance of comic book superhero storytelling has come to pass in ways I never would have dreamed. Never mind that costumed do-gooders have overtaken U.S. moviemaking to such a stunning degree that the mere release of a trailer is treated as a major event. Periodicals (or, more commonly, collected editions of those periodicals) I would have felt sheepish about reading in public are now consumed by enough people — and a diverse enough array of people — that they’re hardly shameful. It’s a cause for celebration, mostly. But then there’s a whole subset of combative, entitled fans who’ve spent the last few years empowering each other to raise a ruckus of online harassment whenever the legacy superhero publishers don’t continue to skew product lines to their particular, narrow interests.
In 2015, Marvel announced a new ongoing series featuring Mockingbird, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, former Avengers, and ex-wife of Hawkeye. Kate Niemcyk would handle art duties, and, in something of a coup, they’d recruited a novelist with a healthy collection of bestsellers to her name to write the series. Chelsea Cain made her comics writing debut with an earlier one shot about Mockingbird, and seemed ideally suited to bring an unique perspective backed with proven skills as a creator of engaging genre fiction. This should be an understood boon for the field, especially as overall superhero comic book sales continue to edge downward, even as the metaphysically gifted figures on their pages have infiltrated over other media. It turns out, though, that Cain’s unique perspective is exactly what made some of the brattiest comics fans tremble with idiotic rage.
Let me assert this as plainly as I can: Cain’s writing on the series is wonderful in every way. It exhibits a strong command of character and a consistency of purpose. It establishes a clear extended arc, but also develops dense, engaging stories to fill the individual issues. This is especially welcome in an era too often marked by writers who fill multiple issues by taking stories that would be better in a shorter, tighter form and dragging them out with glacial dispersement of incidents. A skilled plotter, Cain covers a lot of narrative territory, every panel containing something that moves the story forward or provides a deeper understanding of the players.
That detailed approach already put her at odds with the modern Marvel preference for gimmick and spectacle. Her misguided detractors, though, took greater issue with the radical notion that Mockingbird, a.k.a Bobbie Morse, might have a worldview shaped by her own particular experience. More specifically, she expressed opinions any reasonably intelligent woman might have — maybe should have — when traversing a supposedly enlightened culture in which her contributions and capabilities are immediately, instinctively dismissed for no other reason than her basic biological makeup. In basic parlance, Mockingbird kicked ass. But she also existed in a space where it was occasionally required of her, in a way it wasn’t for a man clad in iron or a god of thunder, to point out that truth. Wisely, that’s how Cain wrote her.
The themes of Mockingbird are important and valuable. But if the title were nothing more than those themes, it would be a mere diatribe. It still wouldn’t be worthy of the derision Cain and her collaborators eventually endured at the keystrokes of supposed fans who took malevolent pleasure in the book lasting only eight issues, but the series would be flawed, to be sure. That’s not the truth of it. Cain exhibited a delighted command of Marvel lore, peppering in cameo appearances from the likes of Howard the Duck and Hercules, taking the kinkiness of the villainous Hellfire Club to its logical conclusion, and generally showing she understood the inherent appeal of these colorfully clashing titans. Cain combined the zippy energy of Marvel Comics’ long-gone heyday with a vivid freshness that added relevance to a character that had been around for decades, but had previously had little driving purpose. Due to the inspired creativity of Cain and her collaborators, Mockingbird was perfection.
Comic book superhero storytelling needs more writers like Cain. It’s too bad Marvel still hasn’t figured that out.
Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.