Back in January Valiant launched a new solo min-series for Faith Herbert, aka Zephyr. This was great news for those of us who have been happily following her adventures ever since Joshua Dysart reintroduced her to readers in the pages of his Harbinger series. Two weeks ago, Valiant announced that demand for Faith had proven so strong that not only would her story be continuing, but it would be upgraded from a sequel mini to a new ongoing title. This is no small accomplishment, as Faith will be the first ongoing female solo title published by the current iteration of Valiant. As such, the new series, which will retain writer Jody Houser, represents another successful step forward for diversity in comics. However, it also points to another trend that has been occurring recently: a shift in the tone of storytelling. Ever since Alan Moore asked “Who Watches the Watchmen?” and Frank Miller pondered the last act of The Dark Knight’s career, the medium has been dominated by the grim and gritty archetype. At its height in the 90s, the prominence of such figures somehow achieved self-parody (cough, Az-Bats, cough) without losing their popularity. To this day, a new creative team’s pledge to “strip our hero down to nothing and see what makes him (or her) tick” is frequently cited as a fresh approach to counter lackluster storytelling. It’s not. Which does not mean that it cannot work, only that there is nothing groundbreaking about it. Instead, a new generation of heroines, including Zephyr, are helping redefine superheroes for a new generation of readers.
Faith grew up a fan of geek culture in general and comic books in particular. It was something she shared with her parents and after their death in a car accident, it became what tethered her to their memory. Where other writers might allowed this dark backstory to overshadow Faith’s personality, Dysart and Houser have taken the opposite track. Faith is a character filled with a joy for life, along with a strong moral compass. She sees herself as a force for good in the world, and takes that responsibility seriously. Yet, she jokes, laughs and daydreams like anyone else. Each new extraordinary challenge she faces (from alien invasions to speaking with her ex) only strengthens her resolve. She has an endearing personality which instantly charms readers.
This same observation could also be made about the biggest breakout character of the last couple years: Kamala Khan. Like Faith, Kamala has her ties to geekdom; she idolizes Carol Danvers while writing fan-fiction about Danvers and her fellow Avengers. Out of all the various figures Skottie Young and Aaron Conley placed at the roleplaying table in Rocket Raccoon and Groot #4, none of them felt as apt as Kamala. Giving characters these personality traits, naturally makes them more relatable to readers who are likely to share some of the protagonists’ interests.
However, what else Kamala shares with Faith is even more important: a determined can-do attitude. Kamala has faced many obstacles during her time as Ms. Marvel, including coming to terms with the literal end of the world. Occasionally she has felt overwhelmed but never lost faith in herself or the goodness of others. Time and time again, she overcomes her self-doubt. And this spirit extends to her supporting cast as well. Writer G. Willow Wilson has done a masterful job of crafting a narrative that organically commends the power of positive thinking. One of the best examples of this was towards the end of the Last Days storyline. As all of Jersey City gathers together in a high school gym in hope of waiting out the abovementioned End Times, a dance party breaks out. The high-energy spirit of the scene is infectious, lending the sequence the air of a celebration of life, instead of a eulogy for death.
While Kamala is keeping Jersey City safe, across the river another young heroine is eating nuts and kicking butts. If Ms. Marvel was Marvel’s breakthrough star of 2014, 2015 was all about Squirrel Girl. Conventions around the country were filled with young women cosplaying Squirrel Girl (though I am still waiting for someone to dress-up as Tippy-Toe). Where Kamala’s optimism is tempered with acknowledgement of where she needs growth, Doreen lunges head first into any conflict convinced that she can maneuver her way through it. Well, she is the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, after all. Doreen, however, is more than simply a brawler. She is a sharp minded computer science major who thinks her way out of jams as often as she punches her way to victory. Writer Ryan North has a perfect knack for taking established elements of the Marvel Universe, especially villains like Kraven, and rendering them in his own distinct manner. In the process he lends Doreen’s adventures a wacky, often absurdist vibe which never demeans any of the participants. The result is a book full of goofy fun, as well as sharply drawn, loveable characters.
This same dynamic can be found outside The Big Two in a series like Lumberjanes. I came late to this title, having to date only read the first four issues. However, it quickly became apparent why this book has enjoyed the commercial and critical success it has. Set at a summer camp, it follows the exploits of five young women as they get mixed up in all sorts of supernatural trouble. Writers Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis launch the debut issue at full throttle with the protagonists fighting a pack of three-eyed wolves. (“What the Joan Jett!?” indeed) All the main characters have an easy chemistry with each other, their interactions flowing believably amidst all the weirdness and quotable quips. It is a charming story which had me laughing out loud in multiple places.
A key element in Lumberjanes’ success is Brooke Allen’s art. Her loose cartoonish style perfectly fits the odd-ball exploits of the scouts. This is equally true for Erica Henderson’s work on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl which deftly blends goofy visuals with dynamic action sequences. Adrian Alphona set a similar tone for Ms. Marvel. His loose lined illustrations contributed greatly to the vibe of the book; his detailed filled backgrounds did much to underline the hectic nature of Kamala’s life. Ms. Marvel has had a rotating team of artists, Takeshi Miyazawa being the most prominent, each of whom have lent their own voice to Alphona’s template. Faith mixes Francis Portela’s house style approach to Faith’s life with fantasy sequences rendered by Marguerite Sauvage. Sauvage’s drawings add a large amount of whimsy to the title, keeping both the heroine and her readers in touch with their awkward geek side.
That sense of relatability is an important aspect of all these series. Not only do they provide readers with strong female protagonists, but they offer up a large variety of role-models. The current lady Thor may be inspiring, yet her physic is as unrealistic for most women as her male predecessor was for the other gender. Faith and Doreen offer alternatives, as does the cast of Lumberjanes. Kamala is the daughter of East Asian immigrants, presenting a perspective on another type of American experience. Finally there is Lumberjanes which recently won a GLAAD Award for its portrayal of lesbian and transsexual characters.
American culture is shifting and series like these are part of that process. New readers are approaching comics for the first time, looking for something different than The Caped Crusader’s latest criminal smack down. Will they eliminate dark and gritty from the landscape? Of course not. Batman continues to occupy his melancholy perch at or near the top of the pre-order charts. Nor should all those brooding loners disappear into the night. Diversity, in subject and style, is vital. In the end, the greater variety of well-told stories readers have to choose from, the better for everyone, publishers and fans alike.
Disclosure: Publisher Valiant provides review copies of Faith to Nothing But Comics without any payment between the site and the publisher or agreement on the review’s content.