Comics have got to be forward thinking. That’s a mantra for right now, and it’s been true all along. What is Superman but an immigrant, a refugee from a warzone who finds a home in America? What about Luke Cage? Black Lightning? Or even more recently, Ms Marvel? Comics should be able to represent everyone, and that should be true however you define yourself. That’s what makes them so good, so universal.
This month, two brand new number 1 issues launched from two very different publishers, and both of them approach these questions of representation in very different ways. One certainly much more successfully than the other.
Let’s take a look at them.
America Chavez was created by Joe Casey for his terrific miniseries, Vengeance back in 2011, but really, it wasn’t until Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie launched the barnstorming Young Avengers that the scope of her character was fully realised. Whilst Casey settled for her being the romantic foil for one of the teen boys in Vengeance, Gillen retconned the character, writing her as a lesbian, and the daughter of lesbian parents. Although she is not from Earth (she comes from a Multiversal dimension known as the Utopian Parallel) she is written as an hispanic woman too. She’s also a really wonderful character. Gillen wrote America Chavez as a no-nonsense woman keeping her whole team in check. She also gets all the best lines (including my favourite, “the laws of physics can kiss my ass.”) Most importantly though? She never once felt like she was less than the sum of her parts. Casey might have given her some basic characterisation, but Gillen wrote the hell out of her and made you care.
Coming from writer Gabby Rivera, whose debut novel Juliet Takes a Breath was described by Mic as telling ‘the story of a queer Puerto Rican from the Bronx who heads to Portland, Oregon after coming out to her family’, means that she couldn’t be more right for the job; and artist Joe Quinones whose wonderfully vibrant art made Chip Zdarsky’s ace Howard the Duck series so much fun, America looks on paper to be doing everything right.
So why then does this first issue just not work?
A good part of it is that Rivera has a lot to do. She has to set up Chavez as a character (not everyone will be familiar with any of her backstory), she has to introduce her place in the current Marvel universe, and on top of all that, she has to give us a reason for this solo series to exist. That’s a lot to get done in a single issue, and America #1 doesn’t do a particularly great job of balancing all of those elements. Rivera seems determined to let us know everything up front, making the first ten pages feel really disjointed. In one two page sequence, America goes back home to her girlfriend in NYC, and by the end of page two she’s been dumped and runs away from an argument through a dimensional portal. We barely get enough time to understand the nature of their relationship, and already we’re on to the next thing.
The main thread for this first issue, and for the whole series it seems, is America Chavez goes to college. It’s a road well travelled in comics these days, from Gotham Academy to Deadly Class, and an easy set-up for a mystery narrative, but there’s something missing. It’s extremely unclear why America Chavez has decided to go to college. An opening crawl states, “so where does a super-strong queer brown girl who can punch star-shaped holes between dimensions go to get her hero-free kicks?…America’s going to college.” Which reads less like the set up for a story and more like an elevator pitch in a meeting somewhere.
It’s clear that Rivera and Quinones have taken inspiration from Young Avengers and Hawkeye (the centre spread of the University campus, aims right for pages out of those books, but fundamentally doesn’t work) and that’s great. Those books have strong emotional cores, and are very well told stories. The issue never lands an emotional beat, is structurally all over the place, and ends on a really strange moment that feels totally out of place. In the end, it’s a shame to say, but America deserves better.
Magdalene Visaggio and Eryk Donovan, the creative team behind Quantum Teens (the former writing, and the latter on art) have totally nailed their first issue. Natalie and Sumesh are a teen couple who steal tech and go to high school.
Natalie is a trans girl, and her boyfriend Sumesh is adopted but what makes Quantum Teens are Go (the best named book this year) so great is that this isn’t a very special episode. This is a damned fun book with some great character moments, and some wonderfully observed drama in amongst all the balls of slime, time machines, and evil robots.
At its core, Quantum Teens feels like a story of escape, which Black Mask have done so well in the past with books like We Can Never Go Home. Sumesh doesn’t feel as though he fits in at his adopted home, and Natalie is experiencing transphobia both at home and at school. What better way to get away with it all than with a time machine?
Eryk Donovan’s art has a punk feel to it which fits the tone of the book perfectly. His storytelling is really sharp and perfectly paced. Just take a look at the end of the opening sequence, which falls somewhere between Dr Who and Indiana Jones, the final panel of that section has our characters in action, and Natalie leaping towards a robot, wielding an enormous pair of pliers. When you turn the page you’re confronted with her sitting on her bed the next morning, nursing bruises. It’s economic, it’s smart, and it’s not holding your hand. That’s how you tell a damn story.
Honestly, I’ve read the first issue Quantum Teens are Go a fair few times since I picked it up. If this isn’t in my top ten books of the year I’d be shocked.