x My Journey from Indie Comics Snob to Superhero Nerd | GeekGirlCon

My Journey from Indie Comics Snob to Superhero Nerd

Written by GeekGirlCon Manager of Editorial Services Winter Downs.

About ten years ago, I made the decision to step outside of my bubble and explore the great wide world of comics. As a child, I’d pored over my dad’s old Silver Age Green Lantern comics. More recently I’d devoured trade paperbacks of The Sandman and Maus and Transmetropolitan borrowed from friends or from the library. I’d read books about what a versatile and challenging artform comics can be, and I wanted to find out more.

I steeled myself and marched off to my local comic store.

As soon as I walked in, the man working there swooped down on me. Maybe it’s hindsight that adds the memory of a glint in his eye at the sight of fresh prey. What was I looking for? he wanted to know. What ongoing series was I following? What had me on tenterhooks, waiting for it to hit the shelves?

“I… I… I like The Sandman?” I asked him.

“Ah,” he said, knowingly. The Sandman’s run had ended nearly a decade before.

I guess I’m lucky that he took the paternalistic approach rather than having me strapped to a ducking stool and tried as a Fake Geek Girl. (I don’t consider myself a girl, any more than I consider myself fake, but that doesn’t change what people think when they look at me.) He talked at me for a while, loaded me up with some free Vertigo previews–based, I believe, on the fact that they were the same publisher as Sandman rather than any specific qualities he thought I would enjoy–and sent me off with a figurative pat on the head.

Needless to say, I didn’t immediately rush back and set up a pull list.

Instead, I noodled about the world of alternative comics for a while, discovering Phonogram, which is ripped directly from my brain and onto the page. Its author, Kieron Gillen, grew up 20 miles from where I did, loved the same music I loved, and pours all his feels about it lovingly onto the page. His longtime partner in crime, Jamie McKelvie, draws the most subtle face acting and the most on-point asymmetrical hairdos in modern comics.

At my first dedicated comic convention, 2010’s Emerald City Comicon, I talked to creators selling small-press or publish-on-demand works. I bought first issues of things I had never heard of before–or since. I commissioned sketches from a couple of my favorite webcomic artists. In short, I set the precedent I follow to this day of drastically underestimating how much money I need to get out of the ATM on day one.

I liked comics well enough, but I wasn’t really a comics nerd. Semi-consciously, I avoided superheroes in particular. I admit, there was a certain amount of snobbery involved, about graphic novels vs. comic books and indie vs. mainstream.

How did I get from there to here? To being the kind of person who knows all the staff at my local comic store by name, who is in there so frequently that they grab my comics from the file drawer as soon as I walk in. The kind of person who writes opinion pieces for the GeekGirlCon blog about which female Marvel superheroes need their own movies already.

angela widow elektra

ms-marvel silk spider-woman

storm squirrel thor

 

Just some of the ongoing/recently ended female-fronted titles I’m reading:

Angela: Asgard’s AssassinBlack WidowElektra

Ms. MarvelSilk, Spider-Woman

StormThe Unbeatable Squirrel GirlThor

All images from Marvel.com

 

The answer is: Kieron Gillen’s writing was my gateway drug.

When I heard that he and Jamie McKelvie were teaming up again for a superhero book–2013’s wonderful Young Avengers series–I decided to give this superhero thing a chance. In advance of the book’s release, I read Gillen’s run on Journey Into Mystery (issues 622-645), to figure out what was the deal with this weird child Loki character. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the perfect way into Marvel comics for me. It had similar mythological overtones to The Sandman, and a similar preoccupation with rewriting our own stories, combined with Kieron Gillen’s great dialog and propensity for punching me right in the feels.

Young Avengers turned out to be a fast, brightly-colored romp through the multiverse…until the inevitable feels-punching began, of course. Over the course of the series it also became apparent that the team was entirely queer–or at least, not far off. I was hooked.

not-that-straight-1

not-that-straight-2

not-that-straight-3

The Amerikate (America Chavez/Kate Bishop) ship sails itself! (Young Avengers #15, 2014)
Image source: Four Two Nine

 

From there, it was a simple hop to reading the original Young Avengers run by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung, and then tracking down other titles featuring the Young Avengers–like Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye series, which starred Kate Bishop alongside the original Hawkeye, or the new Loki comic that began right after Young Avengers ended, Loki: Agent of Asgard.

Since I got on board the superhero train, I’ve found that I’m likely in for the long haul. For Marvel comics I currently subscribe to–well, too many to count, but let’s sum it up as every female solo title, plus Loki and Bucky. There are even some all-female teams lately, like Marguerite Bennett and G. Willow Wilson’s A-Force. Among the smaller publisher titles, I follow The Wicked + the Divine–Gillen & McKelvie’s latest feels-mangling opus, which brings a superhero aesthetic to a more urban fantasy context.

Perhaps, I thought, the reason I’ve been resisting superhero comics for so long is that there’s so much to read, and you can spend basically an unlimited amount of money on catching up. The only way I could grapple with the huge back catalog was to pick a point of focus–a writer, a character–and spiral out from there.

But having spent a couple of years since then combing through the Marvel vaults, I’ve come to a different conclusion.

The common thread through all the current books I read is one of inclusion. Female heroes, queer heroes, heroes of color, women teaming up to be awesome. Comics that depict outsider experiences. Teenagers forming their own identities; Ms. Marvel rejecting Baby Boomer condescension. Writers exploring fluid gender identity and sexual orientation through characters such as Loki.

ms-marvel-millennial

Kamala Kahn, spokeshero of the Millennial generation (Ms. Marvel #10, 2014)
Image source: Straight from the Hartzell

I wouldn’t say these themes are absent in older books, just that they are rarer, and more clumsily handled. Long-standing female superheroes such as Spider-Woman, She Hulk, and Ms. Marvel (back when Carol Danvers used the name) are criminally underutilized, often showing up just to fill out the background of a team fight scene, or maybe drop a line of banter here and there.

Over the past few years, comics publishers seem to have been making a concerted effort to broaden their creator base, and thus their appeal. There have probably been as many new female solo titles commissioned for the Big Two in the past couple of years as there were for the publishers’ entire history until then.

The number of female creators has multiplied, across all comics publishers–I’m reading comics by writers G. Willow Wilson, Kelly Sue Deconnick, and Marguerite Bennett, and artists Stephanie Hans, Fiona Staples, and Erica Henderson, among others.

I can’t help but compare the 2005 Civil War event with the 2012 Avengers vs. X-Men (AvX). They both touch on some of the same themes: of assimilation vs. embracing differences; of minority populations being surveilled; of how much freedom people are willing to give up in exchange for security. However, those themes are handled so much more deftly in the more recent AvX event, and the analogies are drawn more clearly with the real-world issues they are supposed to parallel. Without getting into too much depth on either storyline, the first feels like a lot of superficial posturing and speechifying, while the second feels more like it has something to say.

More generally, the writing quality in mainstream superhero comics seems to have gone up dramatically over the past couple of decades. Even stuff from as recently as 2000 feels clumsy, relying too much on exposition, repeating information from issue to issue as if the audience can’t be trusted to follow along. Reading comics from the 2010s is refreshing in comparison; even comics aimed at a younger audience are much more skillful in reminding readers of what came before.

I guess it’s true to say that the real reason I avoided Big Two superheroes for so long is because they weren’t yet the genre that I needed. Now, though–every Wednesday at the comic store feels like my birthday!

A quick note: I don’t have a lot to say here about DC comics, mainly because none of them have grabbed me in the way that Marvel comics have–but partly too because it seems like their progress in this direction is fraught with more missteps, and that’s put me off picking a lot of them up. Don’t let that stop you from discussing DC as well in the comments, if you like!

Winter Downs
“Rock On!”

Winter Downs

Manager of Editorial Services at GeekGirlCon.

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