I had been kind of wanting to read one of the Secret Wars titles this summer, but couldn’t really decide which one. There’s certainly one that’s been getting the most press, however, and I decided to give that a read: A-Force by G. Willow Wilson and others. That would be G. Willow Wilson of Ms. Marvel fame.
When I say press, I should mention I’m specifically thinking of an op-ed that ended up in the New Yorker about the comic, and then Wilson’s response. I read these first before A-Force, then again after… It’s enough to make me shake my head. Here, links:
The last is an interview with Wilson about the fact that A-Force is going to be continuing, after Secret Wars. Which is interesting, but I don’t think changes much of the initial conversation about this title. Which is to say, it’s a 5 issue title, as part of a giant crossover event affecting every Marvel comic title, character, and universe… and it’s all functioning as a giant “what if?” So of course, that’s how it was taken, right?
A Brief Overview
So A-Force is the Avengers title of Secret Wars. It’s set in one of the many domains of Battleworld, a “feminist paradise” called Arcadia. Here an all-female Avengers team (reminiscent of the recent all-female X-Men team) defends the land against… well, whatever dangers arise in Battleworld. I mean, it’s called Battleworld. There are dangers.
Like, giant sharks.
There’s clearly a main cast that Wilson and team are planning to work with (and no Kamala Khan to lean on), and then in the backgrounds you can see a whole host of other Marvel ladies. As is pointed out by Wilson in her response above (it made sense to me once I read her saying it, anyway), it’s Marvel ladies from throughout the timeline. So you have Jean Grey Phoenix, disco-era Dazzler, things like that.
I’ve enjoyed the first two issues (of five) so far, with the big mystery/mysteries being around some things that feel important: a new Captain Universe (a good sign for universal survival), and portals to the other realms of Battleworld that seem to open up around her. And Wilson talked about things from Secret Wars following on into the future comic – Captain Universe seems like a good candidate for that!
The New Yorker talking about comics at all is probably pretty rare; and Harvard professors talking about comics is also similarly rare, I’m sure. And the author seems pretty clear that she is not much of a comics reader, but still…
I wanted to hit on a few of the general areas where I am left shaking my head, and feeling like she’s catching up to the ongoing dialogue about comics (and women within them), already in progress.
Here’s the biggest miss: she showed no sense that this was a short-run title, nor that it was part of a giant crossover event. Taken on its own, let’s look at one phrase they both talked about (and that I made sure to drop above): “feminist paradise.” A phrase which does not appear in the comic itself.
As Wilson points out, a phrase like that is not one that is used without being tongue-in-cheek. Or shouldn’t be. Apparently, the reviewer thought that if feminists had their way, the world would look just like Arcadia? We’re ignoring the scenes where the external authorities come in and tell them what to do? Who happen to be men…
If the reviewer wanted to know what the Battleworld was like, well, as Wilson said, tell her about the zombies. Which, oh by the way, are included in A-Force #1!!!
Taken out of all context, I guess this does seem like a really weird comic. Honestly, most would. Comics, as I discussed last week, are about storytelling, and they do so by including art. One individual comic does not the whole story tell. But speaking of art…
The reviewer had two problems with the characters. One was an artistic one: a complaint that their outfits made them look like “porn stars.” The other was an accurate, if really old, complaint: so many of the female superheroes seem like female versions of male characters.
I really wonder what cover she was looking at, because one thing they focused on a lot was female Loki, who I don’t even see on the cover…
I remember reading that the reviewer must have been looking at one of the variant covers, but I am not seeing that mentioned in the articles above.
Wilson’s rebuttal is that this is a really standard way to portray superheroes on a cover. Well, especially male ones. Female superheroes are often in unrealistic, hyper-sexualized poses. So the fact that that is not the case here is more a victory than a cause for alarm. And if the problem is the reviewer “is categorically opposed to latex, she should consider trolling a different genre.”
As to the Ms. Male characters, yep, that’s a thing. A long-time thing. The leader of the A-Force is She-Hulk, one of many characters that she makes a big deal about. She also approaches She-Hulk as though she were brand new, not decades old. And to be fair to She-Hulk, nearly every Gamma-infused personage has ended up with Hulk in their name, include whole planets of Hulk. Which there’s a Battleworld for.
So amidst all her rant, she did at least identify one thing that is problematic. But by identifying something so old as a problem, it’s like saying that comics are inferior and always will be, and will never be accepted by the critical community. Which oh by the way, was also covered last week when I talked about Understanding Comics. 23 years on from that book, and comics are still not being taken seriously.
Wonder Woman was created, So our work here is done
The reviewer spends a whole lot of time then talking about Wonder Woman (apparently recommended to DC by a Harvard professor, here might be the real thing she’s looking for…). Apparently the 1941 creation of Wonder Woman, a character who was not the female version of a male hero, and who is about as old as Marvel comics as a whole, is enough to solve everything.
Nevermind that in recent years, DC comics has been the far more egregious party when it comes to female characters on comic covers. Nevermind that they have Ms. Man characters just like Marvel. Heck, nevermind that they’re a different company from Marvel. Wonder Woman, who no one seems to be able to adapt to the big screen, is the perfect female superhero, job’s done.
No one tell her about Wilson’s Ms. Marvel or she’ll get all confused…
Criticism from Within vs. Without
Wilson closes by saying that the New Yorker article very clearly shows the difference between criticism coming from within a community, versus criticism coming from outside a community. Very clearly, the scholarly-minded Harvard professor writing to the New Yorker is upset that comics aren’t Shakespeare, or something of that nature. If the Great American Novel is To Kill a Mockingbird – the only novel by an author (until the prequel/sequel comes out soon?) – then comics must seem like the exact opposite. Decades of continuity, bad decisions, failed characters and story-arcs. And a huge cast of creators – much less a huge cast of characters.
Criticism from within the comics community, meanwhile, might be seen as A-Force itself. Female characters being just as strong – just as good – as the male characters. Better, even, as neither the Thors nor Steven Strange, who appear in A-Force, seem particularly like heroes. But as a big “what if?” of an all-female Avengers team, this comic is a great example of the good that can come from something like Secret Wars: something new and different, built on that which came before. While also, as part of the whole narrative, what came before is being torn down and replaced with something new and, hopefully, better.