The fun comic of the summer just may be Marvel's Patsy Walker: Hellcat. I actually gave a summer reading list to The Comics Journal a couple months back and based on the short serial that Kathryn and Stuart Immonen created for the Marvel Comics Presents anthology late last year, I had enough faith to throw Patsy on there sight unseen. Having read the first issue, I'm glad Kathryn Immonen didn't make a fool of me. (Even if she and I have agreed privately that I am a dope.)
Patsy Walker is actually one of Marvel's older characters. Her personal journey is almost like its own capsule summary of the misguided trajectory of superhero comics over the year. Created as the teenaged star of a humor strip in the 1940s, she then became a serious career girl before being ushered into the Marvel Universe proper. Once she was done being a model, she decided to be a superhero with the help of Beast from the X-Men. Then she was sent to Hell and tortured. (I'm not making this up, read Patsy's Wiki here.) I'm assuming she reminded some writer of a redhead he once dated and so he sent her to the underworld as some kind of revenge.
Part of what made Immonen's short such a blast was she saw how all over the place Patsy's continuity was, and she decided to play with the split personalities by literally splitting Patsy into multiple individual identities that were acting independently of one another and had to be reunited in one body before the young lady could get on with her life. The script almost had too much energy to be contained, and even included pauses in the action to admire whatever ensemble Patsy was wearing at the moment. It helped that Kathryn was ably assisted by her husband Stuart, who just may be the finest artist Marvel currently has working for them. His inventive layouts were the perfect frame for the writer's wild ideas.
Here is an example of Stuart's fashion-plate Patsy:
Truth be told, I know sweet f.a. about Patsy Walker, but this initial foray into her history has me sufficiently intrigued that I'd like to start lobbying Marvel now for a definitive Patsy Walker omnibus series.
The first issue of the five-issue Pasty Walker: Hellcat series came out last week, teaming Kathryn Immonen with artist David Lafuente and colorist John Rauch. It finds Patsy once again wooping it up as a model but itching for more adventure, which she gets courtesy of Iron Man and his fifty-state Initiative, which is remarkably similar to DC's Lex Luthor project from 52 where he gave the common man super powers. Only this time, because it's not an evil genius at the controls, the Marvel Universe (as opposed to the DC Universe) will now have superheroes in all fifty states (and possibly Puerto Rico and Guam) so that when Fin Fang Foom farts in Honolulu, one of the Avengers won't have to cash in his frequent flyer miles, some capes and tights fetishist on the islands will take care of it
Anyyyyhoo, Iron Man calls up Patsy and tells her he needs someone to hold down the fort in Alaska, which is not exactly what she had in mind in terms of an exotic climate. Still, there is trouble awaiting her in the form of surly, xenophobic locals and magically possessed polar bears, followed by Patsy quite literally tumbling off a cliff into something even bigger and more dangerous. The whole thing is fun and light-hearted, with Patsy being the kind of smartass motormouth that you either are going to fall in love with or want to smack upside the head--probably both.
I've read a couple of reviews (like one here) and at least one message board thread about the issue where some of the comic book boys seem confused that a comic book might actually be less than serious, but we've all known for a while that quite a few comic book boys carry trunks of redwood up their butts for most of their lives, so this does not surprise me. Though I rarely review comics on this blog, it's been this outright poo-pooing by certain segments of the superhero contingent that inspired me to raise up my typing fists for battle. Even a good review like this one (includes a preview, too) gets overly caught up in what Patsy's powers might be rather than what's really going. Given that the best frame of reference some writers can come up with for this romp is Northern Exposure (I've seen it mentioned more than once), it kind of proves they need to get out more, anyway. (Hey, they're both in Alaska, they must be the same!) My favorite line actually comes from a somewhat earnest Newsarama review: "I doubt that this frothy title will have the legs its titular red-haired heroine enjoys, but this is another solid left-field effort from a confident publisher." Clearly, he intends the word "enjoy" to be employed under its second definition "to have and use with satisfaction; have the benefit of," but I think it's funnier to think maybe he's suggesting that Patsy likes to check out a pair of gorgeous gams from time to time. It would certainly be keeping in the tone and spirit of the book, and would baffle some of the boys even more. (Not befuddle. I am the one who befuddles the boys, right, Bitsy?)
Though Stuart Immonen provides covers for the series, his talents are needed elsewhere (he's currently drawing one of the titles featuring that far more annoying motormouth, Spider-Man; is it me, or does that kid never shut up?). I am not familiar with David Lafuente's work, but he's a perfect replacement, having a style similar enough to Stuart's to fit alongside the original serial in the eventual collection and different enough to be his own man. His line is thin and delicate but his layouts are intricate and spirited. He has a good handle on the fashion, as well as the Lautrec/Mucha stylings that distinguish Patsy's fantasies from her reality. The Iron Man scenes also suggest that he would be equally at home doing more right-field comics, too.
Actually, Lafuente's style reminds me of another favorite first issue of recent weeks, the debut of Matt Wagner and Amy Reeder Hadley's Vertigo project Madame Xanadu. Though their first issue is a fairly straightforward Arthurian origin story, Wagner's script has certain side touches (I'm thinking of Xanadu's sister) that hint at a similar winking style to Kathryn's writing, as well as a sense of joy that comes with playing around with a traditional comics character in a more modern context. Hadley's work is what really impresses in Xanadu, however. She has a far more exacting style than Wagner has when he is drawing his own stuff, and it is even more exacting than her black-and-white work in her own young adult series, Fool's Gold. (Though I have only read the first volume, so the second might show this progression.) In addition to the fine lines, Hadley also shares a similar sense of page layout as Lafuente. Both employ traditional grids as their foundation, but regularly break out of them when something more fancy is required. I would say the main difference is that where Hadley favors more angular panel constructions and relies heavier on page bleeds, Lafuente likes to bounce rounder shapes around and break from the grid in more unexpected ways. Page 11, for instance, has Patsy leaping over a panel border at the top of the page, and then a single panel bleeding off the bottom in the middle of the lowest row to call our attention to something sinister sandwiched between two regular, contained panels. It's subtle, but it really works.
I've had fun with this review, and at times, at the expense of my fellow comics fans and commentators. To be fair, that message board thread I mentioned resulted in the dissenters being piled on by the supporters, so I want to make it doubly clear that I am not tarring all comic book boys with the same brush. Just the uptight ones. If you wonder if this is you, ask yourself if you're getting really mad at me right now reading this, and if you are, then you might want to lighten up and quit taking everything so seriously! Ultimately, there's room for us all on the racks, isn't there? The mainstream shelves are overpopulated right now with overly complicated, overly long series that you practically need a doctorate in comics history to understand. Patsy Walker: Hellcat is like the antidote to that kind of thing, springing out of Kathryn Immonen's gentle jokes about the kind of convoluted continuity that leads us to crossover events where conflicting stories pile-up like cars on the freeway in an episode of CHiPs. Not every Marvel or DC release has to change the fabric of the universe. Books like Patsy Walker: Hellcat and Madame Xanadu remind us that, once upon a time, just having a good story was event enough.
Current Soundtrack: on shuffle, too wrapped up to totally pay attention, though I recall some Arthur Lee, Paul Weller, Ian Brown, and Ladytron
Current Mood: scrappy
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All text (c) 2008 Jamie S. Rich