“Popularity” changes and is rarely “one-size-fits-all.” We could see such trending last month in back-to-school clothing sales and, more significantly, the toppling of Confederate monuments that lionized slavery’s defenders. Heroism is time and culture-sensitive. This is equally true of the superheroes who figure in many comics, past and present. Even well-known heroes may have their costumes and roles filled by very different people.
In past posts, I have discussed the comic book adventures of a Black Captain America; a Pakistani-American, Muslim Miss Marvel; and a Hispanic Spiderman. These incarnations of iconic heroes of course battle evil, but their cultural diversity has them facing some challenges that never confronted the original white wearers of their costumes. These diverse heroes will never be popular with the KKK, but they have been a hit with a much wider audience. (Yet is the popularity of an icon’s new holder always reliable? Donald Trump, now occupying the iconic position of U.S. president, is still trending well with many people who voted for him, but. . . .)
Today I look at two fresh takes on traditional superheroes, one relatively little-known and the other a world-wide icon. The first, with its 4th grade main character, will have particular appeal for kids in this back-to-school month. Yet the Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur comic book series will also charm older readers sympathetic to tween-age woes. On the other hand, even though Superman comics are read by all ages, the characters and focus of offshoot graphic novel It’s a Bird . . . make it best suited to readers teen and older.
The Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur comics (collected to date in three volumes, 2016-2017) revamp a late 1970s comic series featuring prehistoric heroes Moon Boy and Devil Dinosaur. (This “good guy” creature was named Devil due to its red hide, permanently scorched red in a fire it survived.) In the current series, set in the same comic book universe as Ms. Marvel, writers Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder’s hero is nine year old Lunella Lafayette, a Black girl living with her parents on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Until a time warp brings Devil Dinosaur to 2016 New York, Lunella’s biggest problems have been dealing with school and parents. Lunella is genius-level smart and scientific, but her public-school classes bore her, getting her into trouble. Knowledgeable but sassy Lunella answers back in ways that can befuddle her science teacher. For instance, that well-meaning adult does not recognize the debunked scientific term “phlogiston” when Lunella snaps it out. Her parents’ worries and expectations frustrate Lunella to tears, even though she loves them. These problems intensify once Devil Dinosaur appears.
Affected by the same alien gas that mutated Kamala Khan into Ms. Marvel, Lunella experiences a much less useful mutation. She has episodes of uncontrollable, temporary exchange of consciousness with Devil Dinosaur! These lead everyone to think that the girl genius is having mental breakdowns. This series’ delights include its spot-on depiction of school life, with sharp characterizations of Lunella’s classmates and teachers, including the newest student, another scientific whiz kid who is really an outer-space alien. Secretive “Marvin’s” rebellious relationship with his loving parents mirrors Lunella’s.
Despite these increasing problems, Lunella does not retreat from challenges. She becomes crime-fighting Moon Girl (a name derived from a favorite t-shirt), using her smarts and scientific know-how in combination with Devil Dinosaur’s strength and size to battle assorted villains. Some of these foes are villains from other Marvel comics, just as some of Lunella’s allies are superheroes such as the Hulk and the Thing, as well as Ms. Marvel herself. Over the course of the three volumes, Lunella comes to realize the value of friends as well as allies, of fitting in as well as standing out in a crowd. Yet the authors also support her exceptionality and its relationship to scientific progress. Each chapter (originally a separate comic book issue) begins with an apt quotation from a real-life science high achiever, often a woman. One is geneticist Rosalind Franklin’s remark that “Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”
Artists Natacha Bustos, Marco Failla, and Ray-Anthony Height—working with colorist Tamira Bonvillain and letterist Travis Lanham—advance plots and ideas here in effective, very enjoyable ways. From the details of science-loving Lunella’s room to inserted panels with close-ups of emotional faces, to panels drawn at differing angles to emphasize changes in height or spread across pages to emphasize action and motion—visual elements meld seamlessly with well-crafted text. Bright, bold colors suit Lunella’s personality as well as classroom interactions and the physical confrontations that occur more frequently than quiet moments for Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. Similarly, the sound effects that accompany Lunella’s perpetual race to get to school on time as well as her heroic battles are amplified by apt changes in font and color. The “TAP TAP TAP” of roller skates is shown differently than “DIIING” of the late bell and the “ROAR” of angry Devil Dinosaur. Lunella is such an engaging character—imperfect but growing, fierce in ambition but also in love and loyalty—that I am willing to overlook what felt like too many “guest appearances” by other superheroes in Volume 3. I look forward to Volume 4 of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur’s collected adventures, scheduled for publication in January, 2018.
Why do some superheroes, such as the original Devil Dinosaur, remain little-known while others, such as Superman, become icons? Author Steven T. Seagle tackles this question in It’s a Bird . . . (2004; 2010; 2017) which won artist Teddy Kristiansen an Eisner Award for best interior art in 2005, upon its first publication. (The pair has collaborated on other successful graphic novels, including Genius, which I reviewed here in 2014.) In this semi-autobiographical work, Seagle explores how personal as well as cultural reasons may influence popularity.
The narrator of It’s a Bird . . . , a comic book writer, is dismayed rather than thrilled when he is offered the rare chance to write Superman stories for its franchise owner, DC Comics. We slowly learn that he associates this hero with the dreaded family secret he discovered as a five year old—the fact that Huntington’s Chorea, an incurable and fatal disease, runs in his family. He is wearing a Superman t-shirt and reading a Superman comic when he overhears a telling hospital conversation and glimpses the medical report about his grandmother, dying from this disease. In interviews, Seagle has spoken about his family’s Huntington’s disease, and he dedicated It’s a Bird to his Aunt Sarah, who “did not get to see it.” Along with letterer Todd Klein, artist Kristiansen does a masterful job of conveying these early experiences—half-read pages, stern adult faces and bewildered children drawn with child-like simplicity, in muted water colors. Only the comics image of Superman and a remembered, parallel “S” on the medical report are colored boldly. Later, we see that t-shirt “S” and tearful eyes also recalled in red.
A major portion of It’s a Bird . . . depicts how the narrator/Seagle comes to terms with his family’s genetic burden—the ways in which keeping silent about it and his fears have affected his personal relationships as well as the professional opportunity that now stymies him. As he tries to put off any final decision about writing Superman, we are shown each of the culturally-defined character traits of this iconic figure, and how these stack up in the real world.
It’s a Bird . . . spotlights the ways in which many people in the U.S.A. are even greater “outsiders,” with their own “secret identities,” than the character of Superman is. The idea of an ubermench or “superman” has historical precedents which have been twisted to oppress rather than help. Also, in real life as well as this novel many people besides Superman have sought to create their own “fortress of solitude,” often with unfortunate results. Each of these and other iconic aspects of the Superman character is given its own several page sidebar, depicted in a separate, unifying color scheme and in a different, identifiable artistic style, ranging from Cubism to the four-color dots of old-fashioned comics. There are apt font changes, too. I especially like the entire page devoted to different versions of the letter “S,” and to the double spread about the “The Alien,” with full color and grey-tone images illustrating Seagle’s “rap” about all those treated as alien in 21st century America.
It’s a Bird . . . is itself just the kind of personalized take on Superman that its narrator finally decides to write, accepting the offered job. He decides to stay fully in the race that is life, to “turn the page and know what was going to happen next.” The final frames show this character telling two small boys, who resemble himself and his brother as kids, that what is up in the sky is neither a plane nor a bird but “Superman. . . . You can see him if you look close enough, but you really have to want it.” Superman is both cultural icon and the personal favorite of the narrator’s immigrant taxi-driving friend because Rafa wants to believe in this figure, in the American dream. In his words, “Superman versus anyone? It’s Superman. America, baby, red, white, and blue.”
These kinds of sophisticated insights into iconic popularity, along with emphasis on adult choices and many sidebars, are elements that direct this work towards older readers. Ironically, this narrative and visual richness would, I believe, not be a hit with the current resident of our own iconic White House. While I can easily see President Trump saying something to small children about Superman (after all, there are frequent news shots of him holding the hand of a grandchild), I cannot imagine him handling the complexities of It’s a Bird. . . . Its language and storytelling are too far removed from the non-avian tweets President Trump favors, and his pronouncements about racism and statues (as well as many other topics) show how poorly he understands or can work with shades of grey. I remain hopeful that this president’s popularity will wane enough to unseat him.