There was that strange moment in the last decade where Marvel and DC were looking to novelists to expand their pool of writers. Mostly, it was an experiment that didn’t work out — neither comics fans or fans of the writers seemed to respond too well (and it’s likely the writers discovered that writing comics isn’t necessarily the easiest thing).
But I still have to admire this brief attempt at trying something new, even if the results ended up being mixed. New voices in superhero comics are always welcome, in my mind.
White Tiger: A Hero’s Compulsion
If you were a young woman of a certain age, Tamora Pierce was probably a pretty big deal to you. Her Song of the Lioness Quartet should be the standard by which all other young adult books are judged. You have magic, gender issues, a fully-realized world, a likable and flawed heroine and a pretty awesome and effective love triangle that doesn’t feel forced.
(Maybe that’s the memories of 13-year-old me talking, but those books are great and I will stand by that.)
Pierce is known to be a huge comics fan who often sneaks in references into her books, so her writing a comic series seemed like it should be a perfect fit. I just wish it had been.
White Tiger: A Hero’s Compulsion, a six-issue series co-written with husband Timonthy Liebe, deserves to be so much better than it is. I wanted to like this but it missed its mark for me.
To be fair, I don’t think much of that was Pierce’s (or Liebe’s) fault. I imagine too much editorial influence wanted to place this firmly into continuity. It faces the twin problems of too much exposition that slow the action down and too many references to the storylines that were happening in the Marvel Universe at the time. Angela Del Toro never quite got to shine in her own story.
There are glimpses of a great character, though. I like how Angela isn’t a really reluctant heroine and has a large “family” — both blood and chosen. She wants to use her power and responsibility to do what’s right. I just wish I had gotten to know her a bit better.
I liked the humor — Angela, in her White Tiger outfit, keeps getting mistaken for Emma Frost — and she’s fast and smart with quips. I like the respect that Pierce and Liebe give to Angela’s Hispanic heritage. But the glossy, generic superhero art by Phil Briones, Alvaro Rio and Ronaldo Adriano Silva (with inks by Don Hillsman) does this book little service, especially in contrast to the quietly beautiful covers by David Mack. In the end, there’s not much that’s distinctive here. Pierce’s gifts as a writer are muted by a standard superhero story.
I wanted more, sure. But I also think Pierce deserved better. I still hope that she’ll one day be able to write the kinds of comics she has in her.
Black Widow: Homecoming
I love Black Widow: Homecoming and I will recommend it to everyone forever (the collection is out of print, but it’s not hard to come by. Neither are the original issues. But Marvel? Reprint this now.)
It is, without a doubt, the most blatantly feminist mainstream superhero story I’ve ever read. It’s possibly the most blatantly feminist mainstream superhero story that exists.
Writer Richard K. Morgan had this to say about it:
“A brief foray into sequential art, feminist subtext and overt political anger – welcome to a twenty first century reinterpretation of one of Marvel’s iffiest ‘heroes’. Just how does a superannuated Soviet female super-spy feel about life in the era of corporate power, glossy marketing and lad mag sexuality? Find out, but be warned – in terms of comic sales, this one flew like a brick.”
Which is pretty accurate.
In Morgan’s hands, Natasha is a complicated character — she clearly straddles the line between “good” and “bad” quite often. She’s not afraid of her sexuality but also resents having to use it. In one of my favorite passages, she get dressed up to go out on the town — “Dressed to kill is a strange expression. Heels you can barely walk in, let alone run in. Skin exposed all over regardless of the weather. A look that says ‘Take me, I’m yours.’ Dressed to be killed, more like.”
Yet, she does this because she knows it works. She has no other choice. That Morgan acknowledges both sides is refreshing.
The overall plot is a little heavy-handed in some ways (it involves an evil cosmetic company, basically), but the sensitivity and understanding Morgan provides to his lead character is wonderful. She’s smart and capable but also fearful and thoughtful as she digs deeper into her past. She’s not always likable (she’s quite often brutal) but she’s always fun to watch.
Unlike White Tiger, Black Widow: Homecoming suffers from generic covers that don’t indicate that Bill Sienkiewicz is the lead artist for this comic. His sketchy, dreamy art is the perfect compliment to this story. It’s sexy without being leering and the dirty darkness of it gives the appropriate noir feel.
This is what I wanted from a Black Widow story. I think it’s probably what you do too.
(There is a follow-up series to this, also by Morgan and mostly Sienkiewicz. It’s also worth picking up but it’s not as good as this one. But seriously, find this and read it.)