Let’s be perfectly fair here, the chances that Captain America really was a Hydra double agent all this time are non-existent. But it’s the thought that counts. Like the WWE and its fans, comic publishers and their readers seem to have a mutual understanding going on: They both know that the status quo will reign superior in the end, but in order for fans to at least pretend that the stakes are real, they expect the publisher to do the same. When people fumed at Marvel over the infamous “One More Day” story arc, they didn’t necessarily do so because they couldn’t accept Spider-Man’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson being annulled, or his identity being made a secret again – such changes could be ‘fixed’ again in a few years. It’s the fact that Spider-Man had to make a deal with the devil for these changes to happen; that Marvel preferred betraying everything their most beloved character stood for to return to the safety of a young, single Peter Parker, that pissed people off.
That is why the Captain America twist matters to fans. Steve Rogers being a Hydra double agent can be fixed, or revealed to have been a fluke all along. Yet the image of Steve Rogers gazing down at his bound and gagged victim, muttering ‘Hail Hydra’ to the faces of thousands of fans who idolize him, that’s damn near irreparable. It might have worked in the 70s, but nowadays, people take their heroes a bit more seriously, and they expect publishers to do the same.
Nevertheless, while the iron grip of its editorial board on its writers is loosening ever so slightly, Marvel seems to remain dedicated in the belief a month without causing some sort of stir is a lost month. Compared to DC’s efforts, many of the headlines Marvel have been making recently – such as elaborating on fan-favourite ideas and steadily replacing their classic Avengers line-up of white dudes with a far more diverse slate of heroes – have done great things for the company, the fact remains that their over-reliance on supposedly large and allegedly status-quo-shattering crossover events doesn’t make their universe a very alluring place for newcomers. Unlike DC, Marvel has more of a tendency to go with whatever seems to be working right now, and while this may lead to their universe often feeling fresh, exciting and reflective of real-world values and issues, it also makes it rather hard for people who only know Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and co. from the movies to latch on. While Spider-Gwen and Silk are two of Marvel’s best currently ongoing books, for instance, they also require at least a basic understanding of Spider-Verse, the cross-over event that spawned them, which in itself had ties to characters and events dating all the way back to 2001. And though Wikipedia may work miracles, at one point, the people who don’t feel like buying every single Marvel comic in existence are gonna feel left out.
So why do people still bother with these things? Because comic books are still hella fun, and luckily, there are some brave writers and artists left who try their very best to make their comics accessible to people who’ve never read one in their entire lives, corporate meddling and continuity be damned. These are the best of the best of Marvel’s current line-up.
Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona et al.
All-New Marvel Now! Point One, Ms. Marvel (Vol. 3) #1-19, Ms. Marvel (Vol. 4) #1-ongoing*
Let’s get the big one out of the way first, obviously. Kamala Khan has become such a phenomenon since her first appearance in 2014, she now sits comfortably amongst the very A-list of Marvel’s heroes with no end to her victory parade in sight. And it’s easy to see why. Despite being the poster child for Marvel’s diversity initiative, Kamala is essentially in the 2010s what Peter Parker was in the 60s: a perennially unlucky urban high school student blessed with both an impressive intellect and a wry sense of wit, who is an outsider at school, yet a beloved superhero on the side. Amidst all the cosmic chaos and reality-bending shenanigans, Kamala is the essence of Marvel distilled into a single character: a superhuman who is human first and super second, escapist, yet flawed, and a character who remains distinct despite the fact that anyone can identify with her. She is both pop-culture fangirl and phenomenon – a far cry from the brooding, reluctant hero, yet someone who enjoys her adventures as much as audiences enjoy reading them.
Writer G. Willow Wilson – herself a Muslim woman, like Kamala – has the character’s appeal down to a T. Her storytelling in Ms. Marvel is simple and straightforward, giving characters ample breathing room to develop and the frequently wacky situations Kamala ends up in time to settle without ever letting the time-honoured superhero tropes go stale. While Kamala’s adventures often tie into her roots as an Inhuman – a race of metahumans who have been part of the Marvel universe for decades – and her admiration for the previous heroine to hold the Ms. Marvel name, Wilson treats all these aspects as if they were created specifically for her own stories, organically weaving them into her narrative so it demands the bare minimum of prior knowledge to be enjoyed. Adrian Alphona’s adorable artwork, riddled with references and funny background events, is a perfect match for Wilson’s dialogue, making their Ms. Marvel the very blueprint for superhero comics in the year 2016.
(*) Don’t mind the whole ‘volume’ thing, all these comics follow a single, continuous storyline. Marvel just really loves restarting its numbering every other month, as you will notice with some other books as well.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North & Erica Henderson
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (Vol. 1) #1-8, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (Vol. 2) #1-ongoing
If you’ve seen any funny comic book captions pop up online lately, chances are likely they’re from The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. While Doreen Green’s furry alter-ego has become infamous for hilariously curb-stomping the Marvel Universe’s most powerful villains, she’d never actually starred in her own series before until Ryan North and Erica Henderson took her to college in this at least ninety percent ridiculous romp of a book. Fittingly, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is a mostly episodic affair, featuring Squirrel Girl cleaning up dangerous threats the actual Avengers are too busy to handle, even if said threats include the likes of Doctor Doom. A character whose entire schtick revolves around being, well, unbeatable, can get old quick, though North merrily skirts around that issue by going all-out on the absurdity, focusing mostly on Doreen beating her enemies using elaborate schemes, pacifism or just straight up silliness.
Yet ultimately, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl‘s biggest strength is managing to rise above just how easy its premise is. A Squirrel Girl solo book might have just as well relied entirely on people finding squirrels inherently funny, yet North makes sure that every single squirrel or nut-related joke actually deserves being laughed at. The variety of humour on display ranges from sharp meta-commentary to deadpan absurdity, and while Erica Henderson’s exaggerated, cartoony art might not be everyone’s cup of tea (it certainly isn’t mine), its colourful retro charm does fit the character and her antics well. Being primarily a parody comic, it’ll come as no surprise that The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl crosses over with about every Marvel character alive, from the obvious to the obscure, which might give casual fans some trouble. On the other hand, in a comic where the heroine argues about grammar with a planet-eating giant, Thor being a woman or Loki being a good guy all of a sudden will probably be the least of your worries.
Doctor Strange by Jason Aaron & Chris Bachalo
Doctor Strange (Vol. 4) #1-ongoing
Jason Aaron is excellent at writing epic high fantasy stories that feel like they’re part of a much bigger world, so what better Marvel character to have him write than the guy whose everyday business consists of battling demons from the 44th dimension with the mighty battle-axe of Zanador? Doctor Strange has always been a bit of a loner, watching over the Marvel Universe from afar and only interfering when the plot demands for a deus ex machina, making his solo book an excellent start for people who don’t want to be bothered with too much baggage. No matter how grand the universes that Stephen Strange resides in may be, Aaron wisely takes the good doctor back to basics and filters all the world-building through his humble character voice, portraying him as a sort of wacky uncle taking readers along for mystical adventures in worlds they don’t need to understand to admire. It would be a bit shallow if it weren’t so damn imaginative.
What sets Doctor Strange apart from other Marvel books most of all, however, is how massive its scale is from the get-go. Befitting of a character who regularly confronts cosmic horrors in his own kitchen, the very first plot arc of Aaron’s run sees Stephen Strange immediately squaring off against an alien cult hell-bent on purging magic from the galaxy. Chris Bachalo’s gorgeously detailed, colourful artwork amps up the heavy metal factor to eleven, delivering one impressive, psychedelic vista after another on a monthly basis, while his monster design is second to none. Dragging the Sorcerer Supreme back into the spotlight after more than 15 years of being the go-to punching bag for whatever big threat the more conventional Marvel heroes are currently fighting might have reeked of an obligation, what with the movie coming up, but in Aaron and Bachalo’s capable hands, Doctor Strange has become one of the best books in Marvel’s current line-up. Also, no Benedict Cumberbatch!
All-New Wolverine by Tom Taylor, David Lopez et al. (Issues #1-ongoing), aka Orphan Black, but with Wolverine. Or rather, with X-23, that female Wolverine clone who was all over the place in the mid-2000s. Wolverine’s no-nonsense attitude is a nice break from the snark-filled teen drama many of her colleagues go through, and Tom Taylor expertly balances action and character development with bits and bops of the self-aware humour no Marvel comic can go without. While All-New Wolverine builds on X-23’s established and very elaborate backstory – as well as on the fact that the original Wolverine is dead at the moment – everything you’ll need to know to start following this adventure is summarized on the first page. Spoiler: She was created to be a weapon. Quelle surprise!
Spider-Gwen by Jason Latour & Robbi Rodriguez (Edge of Spider-Verse #2, Spider-Gwen Vol. 1 #1-5 & Vol. 2, #1-ongoing), aka what if it was Gwen Stacy who got bit by the radioactive spider and got to wear one of the most kick-ass superhero costumes ever designed? Set in a beautifully distinct neon-punk universe courtesy of penciler Robbie Rodriguez, Spider-Gwen quickly transcends its novelty status as it builds a universe entirely of its own. Its thematic complexity can easily compete with books set in the ‘main’ Marvel Universe, though for what is supposed to be a story set in a different dimension, Gwen sure loves to interact with Earth-616’s Spider-heroes a lot.
Black Widow by Mark Waid & Chris Samnee (Issues #1-ongoing), aka that one chick played by Scarlett Johansson, from the movies! Except this time she, like, actually feels things and stuff! And it’s written by the best storytelling duo currently around! And the entire first issue is an explosive chase sequence that makes Mad Max: Fury Road look like Wacky Races! And there’s only three issues out yet, so I don’t know what else to say. Awkward!
Anyway, next time, we’ll take a look at those weird comic book publishers that make books that are not about people in spandex punching things or something. They exist! And they have nothing to do with the original goal of this feature, but who gives a hoot about any of that? Comic books are awesome, superheroes or not.