Rogue: Lucky for those boys, I arrived when they were about to learn first-hand how A.I.M. agents take care of loose ends. I was able to put a stop to them, but not before they turned the sentinels loose, pre-programmed yo launch the destabilizer on top of the Chrysler building. Can you imagine the chaos that would have resulted had they succeeded…
— ♫ ♪ OMG, you have a text! ♬ ♪ —
Rogue: Code 245.
Natasha: Not on our day off.
Rogue: Let Danvers have this one.

From A + X #2, by Chris Bachalo.

Review: A+X #2: The Gal Pal Strikes Back

I’m a great fan of Chris Bachalo’s art, I’m a great fan of ladies punching robots. So you’d think I’d be a great fan of this comic, but alas and alack, I can’t quite get there. I read the issue, and I was definitely entertained— it’s a quick read and a cute story. But something gnawed inside and kept me from believing this book to the fullest.

And then, sometime after the eighth time the spoiler panels cycled through my dash, I figured it out. This issue ran through basically every cliché of girly team-up!! Rogue and Natasha were both written as generic sassy ur-superwomen with accents slapped on.

Here, let me explain.

First up, we got BLACK WIDOW (you know, the redhead spy from that AVENGERS movie?) teaming up with ROGUE (you know, the power-stealer with the white streak in her hair from them X-men movies)! But these ladies ain’t talking hair— they’re BUSTIN’ HEADS!

It starts with the introduction, one of those easy-to-digest infoblurbs that tries maybe a bit too much to be funny. Here are these girl characters, it proclaims. You probably recognize them from the movies, because of their hair. But wait, I read comics, ergo I don’t care about silly things like hair. Don’t worry, man, the comic responds, we’re also giving you violence.

It sets up a false dichotomy between girly things like hair and comic-book things like asskicking, which is strange, because Marvel characters have great hair. Some even have hair for powers— Medusa, Doc Samson, and probably Thor. Furthermore, it banks its two stars as those girls from the movies, which doesn’t seem so bad until you realize that they’d probably never introduce Peter Parker as “that brunette wisecraker from the movie.”

Opening scene: Natasha is at a spa, gabbing with her pedicurist, sipping her frothy girl-coffee drink, getting her nails did. Her phone beeps a bunch, it’s some Avengers info, and Natasha is mad at work for interrupting her playday. All well and good, I know I hate it when I have to spend my weekends doing boring not-fun stuff. I’m definitely not putting off writing a research paper on the Albigensian crusade right now!! Absolutely not.

Except wait. Natasha is a cold and deadly secret agent type, introverted, unlikely to gab, maybe even unlikely to spa, and she definitely wouldn’t have an obnoxious ringtone that alerted the whole world to her texting. That is the opposite of stealthy. Plus, she’s like, 80-plus years old, and thus unlikely to come near the syllables oh-em-gee except in gag youtube videos.

One of her absolute hallmarks is her sense of professionalism. Here’s what Greg Rucka said, in a recent interview:

The thing with Spider-Man is, you throw him at anything and he creates the situation. He hates that silence and he forces the interaction. By putting him in a room where you have Iron Man saying, “Really? Really? This is what we’re meeting about?” and you have Natasha going, “Well, okay.” I love Black Widow and one of the things I’ve always liked about her is she’s a professional. I like that when Cap turns to her and says, “Well, can you find him?” She just says, “Yeah, I can find him.” She doesn’t prevaricate, there’s no hedging. “It may take a while, but I’ll find him.”

So chew on that a bit as Natasha blows off her Avengers job assignment for more pedi time.

Speaking of pedi time: it’s not standard procedure to remove your clothes for a pedicure, but hey, then we couldn’t get this great underwear shot when alert alert robots show up—

Natasha puts on her clothes, meets up with Rogue, they have an inital bit of pre-teamup banter and then they start fighting robots. For some reason Carol Danvers gets namedropped a few times, possibly because she’s also a girl and this is girl fight time. Anyway, per the basic rules of comic book fight, the initial strategy of punching is thwarted somehow, and the foe disappears for a while giving the good guys time to regroup and come up with a more effective strategy.

Enter the drooling guy.

Rogue: What’s that smell? Where’ve you been hiding?
Garbage Guy: Err, in a garbage—
Rogue: Never mind, we lost track of the disruptor. You built it. Find it!
Garbage Guy: Yeah. Yeah, I can do that.
Drooling Guy: Omg. It’s Black Widow. In person. She’s soooo hot.

Drooling Guy and I have met before, in many comic books with superladies in them. He shows up and says something ranging from ill-advised to outright sexist, the superlady in question either rolls her eyes or tells him off, and we’re all reminded that, hey, this chick is really hot and unattainable. But did I mention hot?

Frequently, Drooling Guy mimics the stereotype of basement-dwelling nerdganisms who have possibly/likely never seen a girl— the same sorts of imaginary people, then, that are widely assumed to purchase all the comic books. In this way he can be used to gently mock his audience, to point out how sad it would be if you bought this comic just to look at the girls, coughwheeze. I admit there’s a certain potential for subversiveness, but the problem is more often we simply get to see these superwomen from the perspective of Drooling Guy, i.e. we get a panel where Black Widow is mostly present in the nipple outline through her uniform.

Perhaps I’ve reached a plane of existence undreamt of even by Grant Morrison, but I don’t need to be reminded of how hot a female protagonist is to keep reading about her.

Natasha: I broke my trigger finger in the fight with Mark X. No way I’m steady enough to hit a target from this distance. But you can.
Rogue: What?! But I don’t know how—
Natasha: Yes you do.
Rogue: Oh. Good kisser. Spy secrets. Wow. You had an affair with—
Natasha: Focus.

But then, I live on tumblr, where the sun never sets on the Johnlock Empire, so surely a dose of same-sex supersubtextual action will reel me back in with the force of a thousand reblogs. It’s a girl. And another girl. And they’re kissing! Progress!

Except wait, I know I’ve left my cardboard continuity police badge around here somewhere.

  1. Natasha is an extremely guarded, paranoid personality— so much so that she literally keeps her top secret plans locked on a microchip inside of her. She didn’t tell her own team about the three-month timehop solo mission she masterminded to save their lives. Her life depends on “spy secrets” and letting them stay secret, and this is a basic, basic trait of hers. Natasha wouldn’t kiss Bucky Barnes, a man she is canonically head-over-heels for, if it meant giving him all her secrets. So why is she giving them to Rogue, who she’s barely met?
  2. Rogue has control of her powers these days and doesn’t soul-suck on touch, so she probably isn’t going to absorb specific skillsets upon surprise contact. So why does the kiss even work?

The answer to both of these questions, I suspect, lies somewhere with Drooling Guy. After all, Drooling Guy loves it when hot girls do ~sexy things~ with each other. Remember a few months ago, in that other A and X series, when Jeph Loeb had the spirit of Drooling Guy posses the body of Clint Barton?

Winner: you!

Look, I’m actually all for ladies kissing ladies, and I don’t think fanservice is all bad. Even if Marvel comics puts this stuff in to tickle the imagination of straight dudes, well, it’s not just the straight dudes who read these things, and I don’t deny the potential to reclaim this sort of thing for other audiences. I don’t even think Natasha herself is above fanservice— I don’t think she’d have any reservations kissing a woman and she has a penchant for both theatricality and distraction. I even like seeing her come up with out-of-the-box solutions. If the kiss didn’t explicitly involve Natasha giving up her “spy secrets” casually and without thought, I could almost believe it. I could find it a charming, funny scene.

But that’snot how it happened, and then Bachalo wrapped it all up with a “Black Widow sure gets around lol” joke, which, no surprise, I’ve kinda had enough of this week.

Superhero comics are a unique genre in that they bank a lot on the appeal and branding of their characters. Writers, artists, plots and coherency come and go, but action figures are forever. That’s why it’s a little bit maddening to see character thrown away for the sake of cliché. And this issue is a lot of cliché.

Almost every set piece that separates this from a superhero team-up by the formula: the spa day, the pink background, the appearance of Drooling Guy, the same-sex kiss, that all happens because the characters teaming up are women. The action is bookended by sudden attacks of the hyper-feminine. Spas are great, man, but they are strongly gendered environments, so are frappachino-esque coffee drinks, so are obnoxious text message alerts, written, as they are, in pink.

OMG, you have a text! OMG, you have a text!
Rogue: Code 245.
Natasha: Not on our day off.
Rogue: Let Danvers have this one.

Don’t mark me wrong, I have zero issues with the girly stuff. I think it is a bizarre sort of feminism that construes femininity as the enemy, and I think it’s actually empowering to see big-time superhero women who are unafraid of being women. But when every superheroine off day is a Carrie Bradshaw-esque shopping spree, we get this extreme form of girliness that intensifies the false dichotomy between ladybusiness and asskicking instead of subverting it. Note that in these final panels Natasha and Rogue have a choice: spa or superhero. Hair or busting heads.

I’d love to see what Natasha does on her off-days because I don’t imagine she gets many of them. There are plenty of reasons she might go to her spa— a certain amount of personal vanity, a post-Soviet desire to consume, or simply as a brief respite from the all-encompassing stress of being herself. She might talk to her manicurist because her life of international espionage is really one of isolation, because simple smalltalk in her native tongue is a comfort. Or because Natasha’s manicurist is terrorist in disguise and entire spa is actually a fluffy pink front. (Remember, y’all, SHEILD used to operate out of a barbershop. The precedent is there.)

There are likewise plenty of reasons for Natasha to build a friendship with Rogue, beyond a bizarre and sudden mutual antipathy for Carol Danvers. They are both former villains, taught from their teenage years to do Bad Things, manipulated, and both have since risen to positions of leadership in big-time spandex franchises. Both have had their consciousness taken over by other personalities when Chris Claremont was writing, both have felt cursed by their abilities, both are threaded through with themes of control. There’s a lot that could be done here, is what I’m saying, and two strong personalities to do it with. They could even go to the spa and still be shown as the wonderful multi-faceted characters that they are. That’s just not what this comic gives us. Rogue and Natasha are presented as basically the same character: tough, a little sassy, committed to their days off. Their differences are in their powersets and accents, not in their personality.

Of course, I’m being a bit unfair to Chris Bachalo’s work, here. This is half of an issue that doesn’t pretend to be anything but frothiness, enjoyably executed with visual panache. Not every comic book encounter is going to be a deep conversation about Integral Character Themes and superhero stuff would be way less fun that way. But the problem this issue brings up is a real one. There are astonishingly few panels in superhero comics that feature women interacting with women. There are so few that I have this slobbering fangirl tendency to attach myself to them indiscriminately and take my joys where I can. But quite a few of those are team-ups like this one, spa days and shoe shopping, where the central premise is girlishness and not character. Girlishness is great, but it should be employed as a part of character, not apart from it.

So, no, I don’t think this is a bad comic. I’ll continue to enthusiastically puchase and enjoy Bachalo’s art, and in my comic book reading career I’ve certainly endured worse than clichéd writing and a bra strap. But I hope that by explaining the tropes at play and how I see them, we can all teach ourselves to want better comics, or at least, think better about the comics we have.

Panels from A+X #2, by Chris Bachalo, “Drooling Guy” Clint Barton interlude from AVX: VS #6 by Jeph Loeb and Art Adams.

What is FEAR?

What is FEAR?