Above all else, most superhero comics should aim to be entertaining. Sure, it’s nice if you get some commentary in there, or a little bit of a political message, but superheroes aren’t the ideal messengers for heavy themes. (Sorry, people who think The Dark Knight Returns counts as deep political satire.) By the entertainment-per-page ratio, Portland author Chelsea Cain’s run on the Mockingbird series for Marvel is leading the superhero pack these days.
From the (pretty funny) John Roderick joke on the front recap page to the page of suggested daily yoga poses (including “tripped by corgi”), the sixth issue of Mockingbird is what old-timey radio hosts used to call “a hoot.” It’s a story about our hero, a spy with a long and somewhat unglamorous history in Marvel Comics, investigating a curious lead on a nerd cruise where half the attendees are fans dressed as superheroes. (We’re helpfully informed that “Defibrillators are located near the Cinnabon™ on level two.”)
This issue of Mockingbird ostensibly ties in to Marvel’s grating and graceless summer crossover, Civil War 2, but all you really need to know going in is that Mockingbird’s ex-husband, Hawkeye, is on trial for the murder of the Hulk, and the cruise is hosting a large contingent of Hawkeye fanatics. Any woman who has found herself in close quarters with hundreds of nerds dressed up like her ex-husband will be able to relate to this truly universal situation.
Penciller Kate Niemczyk and inker Sean Parsons are intensely interested in making every single background character their own human being, which makes scenes at a Dungeons & Dragons tournament especially fun to read. The lettering, however, is pretty ugly: extra-dialogue elements like a crowd’s chanting and spy-to-English translations are represented in multiple ugly fonts that float on the page, unmoored to the rest of the comic in an annoying way. Some pages look like someone used the “Draw On” tool in MacPaint to slap a few elements on top of otherwise professional work.
The rest of Mockingbird is geared toward maximum reader entertainment, with jokes and clever asides and misdirections. But toward the beginning of the book, as Mockingbird boards the ship surrounded by nerds greeting each other with Vulcan salutes, the observes that she’s alone in a crowd: “If I had hoped to get away from my ex-husband’s troubles, I had come to the wrong place. The good news was, I didn’t need the disguise. Hawkweye fans? They like to pretend I don’t exist.” It’s a clever commentary on the fact that superhero comics fans tend to marginalize and ostracize women characters (and the fans who dress up like them) from their culture. Maybe there’s more to these superhero comics than just entertainment, after all.