Archive for near miss

Near Miss: Minx

minxLast year, I read Peanut by Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe. The graphic novel is about a teenage girl, in attempt to make herself seem intriguing, fakes having a peanut allergy. It’s a lovely book that I feel deserved more attention.

But my one thought after reading it was “That could’ve been a Minx book.”

An imprint of DC, Minx launched in 2007 and was dead by 2008, but there were problems as soon as it was announced. The name Minx never bugged me — it was cute and just salacious enough — but the lack of female creators was an issue. Minx had too much to prove and had to do it too quickly.

But Minx ultimately faced a bigger problem than just skepticism: The books just weren’t very good.

The majority of the 12 titles follow this extremely set format: An introspective, outcast teenage girl flirts with danger and boys before learning some very important life lesson, delivered with some moralistic overtones. They play a bit too safely, shying away from any real issues. For a moment in Confessions of a Blabbermouth, there was an implication of possible sexual abuse before it was quickly resolved into a “twist” that had been obviously almost from the beginning. Emiko Superstar isn’t the worst of the bunch, but when compared to the devastating and beautiful Skim, also written by Mariko Tamaki, it feels obvious the Minx editors didn’t trust their audience’s ability to handle anything that could be perceived as “dark.”

If this was just one or two of the titles, it could be forgiven. But when faced with about seven titles that all share what is more or less the same character and the same plot dressed up in different ways, it begins to feel a bit paternalistic and tiresome.

Not every one is like this, though. Ross Campbell‘s Water Baby is refreshingly crude and physical and has teenagers that actually act and talk like teenagers. The New York Four, by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly, has its issues, but at least felt like something teenage girls would want to read. I don’t know where Aaron Alexovich‘s Kimmie66 was originally pitched to, but with its twisty sci-fi story about identity, it’s definitely the oddball of the bunch (and is perhaps the most interesting because of it).

But I think beyond issue of repetitive plot structure, what bothered me the most about the Minx books is that they’re all basically a waste of good talent.

The editors had a good eye at hiring creators who appealed to young women but then buried the exact things that made them appealing to that audience.

Jim Rugg is a phenomenal artist, and while his work on both of the Plain Janes books is attractive enough, it lacks the kinetic, playful energy of his Street Angel. Both Andi Watson and Derek Kirk Kim are poetic, thoughtful writers, but Clubbing and Good As Lily suffer from the lack of their art. For the most part, there’s very little chemistry between the writers and the artists. These books feel like work for hire and it shows.

Still, there’s a part of me that admires Minx not for what it ended up as, but for what it wanted to be. Minx was definitely an attempt to capture the young female readers of manga, but I think it provided a point of transition for publishers to realize this was an audience worth catering to. I can’t think of too many graphic novels aimed specifically at teenage girls before Minx. I can think of way too many that have come out since then.

I don’t think it’s quite right to say that Minx opened the door for those graphic novels. But, at the very least, I think Minx deserves some credit for making publishers realize that there was a door worth opening.

Near Miss is a semi-regular feature that will be appearing on Comicsgirl throughout 2013-2014. This project is sponsored by Big Planet Comics.

Near Miss: White Tiger: A Hero’s Compulsion & Black Widow: Homecoming

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 CompulsionWhite 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: HomecomingBlack 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.)

Near Miss is a semi-regular feature that will be appearing on Comicsgirl throughout 2013-2014. This project is sponsored by Big Planet Comics.

Near Miss: Kill Your Boyfriend and Death: The High Cost of Living

(Since I have been unable to troubleshoot my WordPress problems, I am mirroring this on my Tumblr account. It has pictures!)

Earlier this week, College Humor posted a fake trailer for a live-action Daria movie, starring Aubrey Plaza as the title character. As someone who has been watching Daria episodes lately (as well as a lot of Parks & Recreation — hey, Netflix, where’s last season? I’m waiting …), I found it completely charming. And there was a big part of me that wanted it to be real.

So I’m sure being a teenage girl is strange at any time. It’s not something that ever gets easier, after all. But I’d say being a teenage girl in the ‘90s was a fairly unique experience. Unlike a lot of times, we were offered a pretty broad range of role models. While Daria came later than I thought, it was a still a decade that started with Riot Grrrls and My So-Called Life and ended with Spice Girls and Britney Spears.

The ‘90s were also an interesting (both in the “good” and “bad” senses of the word) time for comics, and definitely saw growth from more “adult” lines like DC Comics’ Vertigo, which published both Kill Your Boyfriend and Death: The High Cost of Living.

angel-loveI imagine some of you may think that 1995’s Kill Your Boyfriend wasn’t aimed at teenage girls. And maybe it wasn’t on purpose, but Grant Morrison’s and Philip Bond’s drug-, sex-, and violence-filled romp speaks more about being a teenage girl than you realize.

Our unnamed schoolgirl protagonist is basically your typical frustrated everygirl — she’s dissatisfied with the role she’s handed in life. She’s smart but undervalued. She has a dumb boyfriend that she has just because that’s what’s expected. Her parents belittled her and accuse her of having sex when she’s not. No one listens to her, no one respects her.

Is it any wonder she’d want to act out? Is it really any wonder why she’d want to break out?

I think it’s really left up to the reader to decide if everything that happens after she encounters a charismatic drifter in a fast food restaurant is real or fantasy. I don’t think it matters. As they indulge in a prolonged spree of murder, substance abuse and anarchy, our heroine gets to see the side of life she’s always been missing — one that allows who to be whoever she chooses to be, to try on new roles. She can be unabashedly sexual, dangerous and bold.

Morrison’s writing and Bond’s art are surprisingly playful and counteract the many dark elements of this tale. It’s a romp from beginning to end and it’s meant to be.  The final page is a little bleak, but I think mostly, Morrison and Bond are telling young women to choose a different fate — that there’s more than one path open to them.

While there’s definitely a lot of this that declares itself to be a mid-90s book from Vertigo, it doesn’t  feel dated. Some of the references and aesthetic firmly place it in its time, but there’s a freshness to the voice that I think could feel relevant to a lot of young women now.

While many women did and do love The Sandman, the Death books always seemed to be marketed toward a slightly different (and younger) audience. Tori Amos wrote the introduction to 1994’s Death: The High Cost of Living (let us not dismiss the huge impact Amos had on many of us as teenagers in the ‘90s); and the introduction to the later Death: The Time of Your Life was written by Claire Danes. Even the newer The Absolute Death collection had its introduction written by Gaiman’s wife, Amanda Palmer. For good or bad, Death’s stories are aimed toward women.

Despite her name being in the title, Death: The High Cost of Living isn’t actually that much about Death herself. It’s about a depressed/superficially suicidal teenage boy named Sexton. Written by (of course) Neil Gaiman with perky, manga-inflected art by Chris Bachalo, Sexton is presented as approachable and cute in a Kurt Cobain kind of way (it was the ‘90s!) and after his meeting with the sweet, gothy Didi (in a landfill of all places!) — Death during her one mortal day a century — changes his mind about life.

If you’ve read The Sandman, you know Death is quite a bit more complicated than just a cute and quirky girl who likes top hats and Disney movies and tends to charm people into giving her things. Her happy-go-lucky optimism serves as a counterbalance to her dark responsibilities. But out of the context of that mythology, she’s just another girl that serves her purpose for a male protagonist before dying. Separated from Death, Didi just feels like a means to an end.

In that way, it’s a story that feels different to me now. I was never a huge fan of the character of Death anyway, it was easy to identify with her in this book as a teen. There was a sense of “Well, I wear weird clothes and like strange things. Maybe some boy may recognize how cool I am too.” But as an adult, I recognize how many Sexton Furnivals there are in the world and I wonder why their stories get told more than women’s. Why did we get the story from his perspective and not Didi’s? Death: The High Cost of Living is a cute little fable, but it’s story overall is one I’m tired of.

I wish I had also read Kill Your Boyfriend as a teen alongside Death: The High Cost of Living. I think they play off each other nicely. Teenage girls deserve more than the one story they’re usually given.

Near Miss is a semi-regular feature that will be appearing on Comicsgirl throughout 2013. This project is sponsored by Big Planet Comics.

Near Miss: A few questions with Barbara Slate

angel-loveBarbara Slate‘s Angel Love was one of the major inspirations for this project so I was delighted she agreed to answer my questions through email about its creation and her career — then and now. She had so many cool things to say!

Comicsgirl: What brought you to comics? 

Barbara Slate: In the 70s, I created the first feminist greeting card line featuring a character called Ms. Liz. We sold over two million greeting cards. I appeared with Ms. Liz on the Today Show, and drew a Ms. Liz comic strip which appeared monthly in Cosmopolitan magazine. Ms. Liz was my obsession for nine years but competing with Hallmark was no easy task and for various other reasons, I was definitely looking for something else. So, when a friend suggested I contact Jenette Kahn, president at DC Comics, I did. Luckily, the timing was fortuitous. Jenette was looking to create a girl’s line of comics.  

CG: What makes you prefer that over other forms of storytelling? 

Slate: Comic books have it all! I can create my own characters, draw them, and write their stories. I think comic books are beautiful in their simplicity. Every month my work appears in a 24 page story produced on cheap paper and held together by staples! How lucky can a girl be?! 

CG: What keeps you wanting to create comics?

Slate: I love telling stories. My latest graphic novel is Getting Married and Other Mistakes. I also love teaching teens and adults how to do a graphic novel. I find this work rewarding and it takes me all over the country as a teacher and speaker on the subject.

CG: How did Angel Love come about? It did seem like it was part of an era where DC Comics was trying new things.

Slate: In the early 80s, the comic book reader was 95% boys, 5% girls. Jenette and her staff liked Ms. Liz, so she asked me to create a character for DC Comics. Writing and drawing greeting cards is very different than comic books. Although Ms. Liz has a personality and point of view, she did not have the depth of a character like Angel Love where a Character Bible and Plotline were part of her backstory. I am forever grateful to Jenette. She handed me the Wonder Woman Bible to study and had her two vice presidents, Dick Giordano and Paul Levitz, teach me how to plot using color code. Then she introduced me to my editor, the amazing Karen Berger. In a month’s time, my education through DC Comics was like attending a four year college in how to do a comic book.  

CG: I know you teach graphic novel workshops. I constantly hear from other teachers of sequential art classes that their classes are at least half female, if not more than half.  Has that been your experience?

Slate: When I first started teaching, I was afraid there would be 15 super hero inspired boys but instead it was half boys and half girls. That is a wonderful thing to see. The super hero genre is usually about 15% of the class. My book You Can Do a Graphic Novel breaks down the steps  so anybody can learn to do a comic book. It may not be a graphic novel that gets published by Marvel Comics, but it is a fun and rewarding process.  

CG: Is it important to you to encourage girls specifically to make their own comics?

Slate: It’s a funny thing about being a woman in comics. There is an unwritten code that you are supposed to “empower girls.” When I first started, it was just me and Trina Robbins writing and drawing comics for Marvel Comics and DC. That was the time to encourage girls specifically to make their own comics. Today, I teach girls who are already empowered.  I really don’t see the purpose of encouraging girls specifically over boys. Writing and drawing comics is an equal opportunity passion

CG: What changes in comics overall have you seen in comics during your career?

Slate: Certainly, computers have changed the way comics are created, especially in coloring and lettering. Another big change is that the comic book reader is now 50% girls due mostly to the Japanese manga influence. When Angel Love hit the market in the 80s, there was no place for her in comic book stands. She was literally squeezed in between superheroes. It is disappointing to see that Marvel and DC Comics still have not embraced a line of comics for girls; however, mainstream publishers saw that kids love comics and have created their own divisions. The change is that they call them graphic novels. 

My theory is that the name “comic books” was so demonized in the 50s, that main stream publishers thought if they changed the name to “graphic novels”, the mothers wouldn’t notice that their kids were really reading the dreaded comic book. (Will Eisner was the one who originally coined the name “graphic novel” with his publication of his book, A Contract with God.) 

And it worked! Teachers today use comic books as a teaching tool. Librarians have special sections for the graphic novel. It is a proven way to get teens into the library. The movie industry uses the comic book series to create block buster movies and art critics take the genre seriously. Even mothers are encouraging their children to read comics. 

Today, more and more women are writing their stories in graphic novel form. My dream is that one day there will be enough female graphic novelists that we will have our own section in a bookstore instead of being scattered everywhere amongst superheroes and novels. Yes, we’ve come a long way baby, but boy, we still have a long way to go. 

Near Miss is a semi-regular feature that will be appearing on Comicsgirl throughout 2013. This project is sponsored by Big Planet Comics.

Near Miss: Meet Misty and Barbie/Barbie Fashion

meet-misty1Girls like fashion. That’s a stereotype, certainly, and it can’t be applied to every single woman, no, but I think girls’ interest in clothes gets unfairly criticized. Clothes are an easy way for girls to try on new identities, to dream of bigger things, to challenge people (and themselves). Playing dress up can be a powerful thing. It only follows that comics, when trying to appeal to girls, decided to pursue that line of thinking.

Meet Misty, the 1985 limited series from Marvel’s Star Comics line, actually came with an impressive pedigree: It was written and drawn by comics legend Trina Robbins. Trying to update earlier comics like Millie the Model (Millie shows up as Misty’s aunt), it was focused on clothes, boys and fame, but not without a measure of confidence and independence. Yeah, there’s the typical mean rich-girl enemy, but Misty also is cool enough to hang out with rocker Spike and hip Shirelle.

Oh, it’s overly lightweight, as you’d expect — most of Misty’s crises involve a broken zipper and minor misunderstandings with friends. Still, she’s a kind, likable character and the clothes are fun (you may recognize some of the names that “created” the designs — people like Mike Madrid and Gilbert Hernandez. I’m sure those were inside jokes that flew far over the heads of most 8-year-olds reading this comic). Overall, though, despite Robbins’ undeniable presence, it doesn’t feel significantly different in tone or theme than any issue of Archie and the like. Understandably, that’s what the intention was, but I think there’s a reason this comic has basically been swallowed by time. It’s forgettable. (It’s also almost impossible to find now — I wasn’t able to track down all six issues.)

So let’s talk about Barbie. When I started gathering titles for this project, I had a rule of “No toy tie-ins” but Barbie feels bigger than just a toy. She’s a cultural icon. For good or bad, she represents a lot of different things to a lot of different women. To dismiss the Barbie comics felt like it would’ve been a mistake.

Here’s a confession: I really like Barbie. I understand the complaints — the unrealistic proportions of the doll, the focus on consumerism, etc. — and yeah, I don’t want to turn this into “I played with Barbies and I turned out OK so that should be everyone’s experience!” But I still think Barbie — like playing dress-up — can be a positive experience. She can be anyone, go anywhere and do anything. And she’ll look good doing it.

Between 1991 and 1996, Barbie, published by Marvel Comics, ran for a surprising 63 issues. Its companion series, Barbie Fashion, ran for 53. I think that’s pretty notable for a title aimed at girls in the early- to mid-90s. I was a little too old for it when it debuted, but I’m kind of sad I missed it. It’s actually a lot of fun.

barbieIt is, delightfully, a female-dominated title. Creative teams vary, but the line-up includes Barbara Slate, Lisa Trusiani, Mary Wilshire and Amanda Conner. (While I don’t have those issues, even Trina Robbins wrote for it.)

Both titles can mostly be summed up with “Barbie goes on adventures and wears cute clothes.” Barbie Fashion may be a little more fashion-oriented of the two, but since both titles share a lot of the same creators, they feel very similar. That’s not a bad thing, though. Clearly, Marvel just wanted to have two Barbie titles out at the same time, but in this case, it is “the more, the better!”

Barbie is always helpful and smart without ever feeling like a pushover. She’s beautiful but approachable and friendly. Still, though, Barbie’s never given too many individual character traits, letting her be a stand-in for the reader herself. She’s easy to identify with. It’s easy to want to be like Barbie — or whatever the reader imagines Barbie to be. That seems to be the point and it does feel empowering.

Most of the humor is pretty sweet, For instance, on short story is about Barbie accidentally grabbing the wrong top and bottom of a two-piece swim suit and is forced to wear the mismatched set to the beach. But by doing so, she sets off a new trend. There are light craft projects (string buttons to make a necklace!) and visits with fashion professionals who give the most basic details about their jobs.

It’s not a deep comic, no, but it seems to respect its audience, thanks to the strength of the women working on it. I actually think there’s a lot of room for Barbie comics of this sort to make a comeback.

Near Miss is a semi-regular feature that will be appearing on Comicsgirl throughout 2013. This project is sponsored by Big Planet Comics.