“Who can be anything forever?”
Angela: Queen of Hel #7
When Angela first appeared 23 years ago in the pages of Spawn #9, it was a rather unassuming debut. Guest written by Neil Gaiman with art by Todd McFarlane, it was pretty representative of Image in its early days. My younger Sandman obsessed self snatched it up only to shrug my shoulders at the whole thing. My older (still Sandman obsessed self) had a similar reaction when revisiting it. In spite of all this, the character has of late gone through a rather fascinating evolution. Later creators have been able to mold what was originally an embarrassing example of 90s excess into an endearing character.
Angela first surfaced in typical early Image fashion: under a barrage of hype. Spawn creator McFarlane had announced that he would be featuring an who’s who of guest writers: Alan Moore, Gaiman, Dave Sims (before he went off the rails) and Frank Miller. Gaiman’s contribution centered on Angela an angelic hunter for Heaven. Her favorite sport is hellspawns and the story opens with her luring one during the Medieval Era. After a successful kill, the narrative flashes forward to the present day where she is tracking fresh prey: the former Al Simmons. Gaiman builds up Angela as a powerful individual only to have Spawn defeat her rather easily at the last minute. This contradiction is the biggest disappointment with the issue, as Gaiman had already established himself as a writer of strong, fully rounded female characters. What is most off-putting though is the cheesecake quality of the visuals, which are best summed up by a distasteful butt-shot of Angela.
Then there is her costume which is infamous for rather good reasons. Her clothing consists of a headpiece, armored bra (a breastplate would be a too overgenerous word for it), an oversized belt, boots and some kind of cloth hanging from her mid-section. Not only is the design exploitative, but it makes no sense whatsoever. How exactly is that belt staying balanced on her pelvis? There are also these ribbons darting around which are attached to her and whose main purpose seem to be as a substitute for the standard McFarlane exaggerated cape. On a similar note, Angela carries huge spears and swords which appear to be Heaven’s answer to the 90s preference for exaggerated weaponry. (If McFarlane meant for them to stand-in for anything else, I really do not want to know about it).
Still, Angela must have made an impression on someone, as a year and a half later she was back in a three issue limited series by Gaiman and Greg Capullo. The narrative centers on how Angela is framed and put on trial in Heaven. Her friends recruit Spawn to provide testimony on her behalf and everything goes south once Heaven’s legions realize there is a hellspawn in their midst. All in all, this scrap of a story serves mainly as an excuse for widescreen shots of scantily clad angels and blood-soaked action. Gaiman seems to having fun with the concept, yet aside from some of Spawn’s inner monologues, the series lacks the humanistic character insight which defines the writer’s best work. The primary failing is that Angela herself never develops much of a personality. Yes she is tough, determined and so on; however she never rises above a type. The reader has no reason to care about her or miss her once the final issues draws to a close. In the end, she suffers from the worst of failings: blandness.
When Capullo undertook this series, he had already contributed to a few issues of Spawn. His style during this period is strongly indebted to McFarlane. Capullo channels McFarlane’s love for excess from twisty dynamic poses to leering female rear shots. He does add a smidgen to Angela’s costume by the way of arm guards, though mostly the design remains unchanged, as does the essence of the character. After the mini-series she would pop-up in the occasional issue of Spawn or elsewhere in the Image Universe until Gaiman and McFarlane would have a very bitter, public and litigious falling out. Their suit would meander on for nearly a decade until settled in Gaiman’s favor. At this point, Gaiman gifted her to Marvel where she was immediately integrated into the House of Ideas.
(There are several layers of irony here, one of which is that Gaiman dedicated Angela #2 to the memory of Jack Kirby, whose cause was taken up by many as the epitome of Marvel’s disrespect for creators’ rights).
Thus, two decades after her initial appearance Angela made her Marvel debut in the final chapter of the much hyped, though mostly forgettable Event Age of Ultron. From there Marvel shuffled her to one of their booming Guardians of the Galaxy title. Recently relaunched with Brian Michael Bendis, it gave Angela a very high profile. However the move never seemed like more than a marketing gimmick. Not that it was entirely Angela’s fault, as the series represented Bendis in full-fledged autopilot mode. Luckily this phase of Angela’s career was mostly a holding pattern. Marvel had others ideas for how to incorporate her into their cosmology.
They also had yet another Event to use as a springboard. 2014 brought readers Original Sin which nominally was about the murder of Uatu the Watcher. In practice it presented writers the opportunity to reveal previously unknown secrets about various characters. Jason Aaron and Al Ewing, writers of Thor and Loki respectively, joined together for a limited series The Tenth Realm that rejiggered Asgardian history. Angela’s realm of Heaven was now Heven, The Tenth Realm, which in the aftermath of an ancient war, Odin split off from the World Tree, hid away and wiped from the chronicles. The reason for his fury? The apparent murder of his daughter and heir. Only (surprise) this heir survived and grew to adulthood in the personage of Angela.
This may sound a bit convoluted yet Aaron and Ewing do a surprisingly good job of keeping everything running smoothly. (They co-plotted the series, while Ewing received credit for the scripts). As far as revisionist treatments go, it works. It is interesting though how Marvel felt the need once again to distance themselves as far as possible from anything that could be mistaken for actual Judeo-Christian entities. This stands in contrast to DC which feels free to have meandering through their books literal angels and Biblical figures who occasionally have conversations with God. There are limits of course (as Alan Moore once discovered) but it is an intriguing difference which lends itself to further exploration on another occasion.
Angela herself though emerges pretty much unaltered. She is still the same no-nonsense, humorless fighter she always was. She remains Heven’s best huntress and a feared combatant. Joe Quesada gave her design some tweaks, but it is pretty much the same as where Capullo left it, i.e. a relic of the 90s. Some of the adjustments have the effect of making it worse. A belt worn over armor? The mind boggles.
Having been firmly entrenched within the Marvel Universe, it was time for the inevitable solo series, Angela Asgard’s Assassin. Over the course of six issues, Kieron Gillen with scripting assists from Marguerite Bennett would finally start shaping Angela into a more distinct presence. This was largely done through the addition of the character Sera, Angela’s transsexual partner. While Sera represents a step forward for diversity within Marvel, she also lent Angela’s adventures a different vibe. Gillen gave a Sera a whimsical personality which contrasted well with Angela’s solemn grimness. The odd-couple dynamic was perfect allowing humor and warmth to seep into the character for the first time. The scene where Sera and Angela sneak an ice cream in Central Park has a charm reminiscent of Leah’s introduction to milkshakes in Journey into Mystery. The actual plot of Asgard’s Assassin was a bit bumpy at times yet the book represents a fresh approach to the character. Given the opportunity, Bennett would take this template and run with it.
Asgard’s Assassin ended to make way for Secret Wars tie-in, 1602: Witch Hunter Angela. It was an odd hybrid on a couple levels, the most obvious being dropping Angela into the world of Gaiman’s popular 1600 series. For this project, Bennett graduated to solo scripting duties on the main story, while Gillen helps out with the “Further Entertainments”. Bennett raises Sera to true co-lead status as well as reinforcing their romance which was mostly implicit in Assassin. As Sera steps further into the spotlight, the tone of the book becomes more whimsical, as when Angela grows exasperated at Sera’s lively protracted manner of telling a story (aka delivering exposition). There remains plenty of opportunities for derring-do, yet the new sensibilities are firmly in place.
Following 1602, Bennett was the sole writer for the All-New All-Different relaunch: Angela: Queen of Hel. Picking up where Assassin left off, Angela plunges into the Asgardian underworld to redeem the spirit of her beloved, Sera. There is emotional growth, heated combat and meta-references galore. In a nod to Gillen. Leah and Thori make welcome additions to the cast. At the center of it, though, remains the bond between Angela and Sera. Their chemistry is irresistibly charming whether Sera is affectionately chiding Angela for not keeping up with the “blatant exposition” or her cold toes as they snuggle in bed. By this point they have become one of the most delightful comic book couples in recent memory. At the same time, this softening of one aspect of Angela’s character does not detract at all from the others. She remains the fierce warrior. It took over twenty years, yet, Bennett was finally able to shape Angela into a fully formed personality.
This new life is well represented visually as well. During the course of Asgard’s Assassin Angela gained an enchanted garment which transforms itself into whatever the wearer wishes. Naturally for Angela this is a suit of armor. More importantly, it is a suit of armor which actually covers her body in a functional manner. (Yes the damn belt is finally gone). A variety of artists worked on these three Angela series, but the one constant throughout is Stephanie Hans. Hans’ stunning painted art lends a lush dynamism to anything she does and that is especially true of her contributions for Angela. Even when still working with the semi-skimpy outfits she is able to clothe the character in a noble dignity that she never fully possessed previously. Her action sequences are bursts of energy while her character moments are full of poignant emotion. As with Bennett’s writing, she is able to fold the different elements of Angela’s personality together into a striking, believable whole.
Queen of Hel was a lot of fun, especially as Bennett fully let loose the goofy charm. Sadly it drew to a close last week with #7. However, Bennett provided a fitting coda to Angela and Sera’s journey. She even tied the series into 1602, while also continuing to indulge her wonky English lit side (the latter a quality much appreciated by this would-be English major). It has been a long winding path getting Angela to her sweet sunset atop the Brooklyn Bridge, but it was worth it. Hopefully Marvel will not make fans wait too long to see where her adventures might take her next.