PATSY WALKER AKA HELLCAT #7
Written by Kate Leth
Art by Brittney Williams and Megan Wilson
Published by Marvel Comics
Release Date: June 15, 2016
Things come to a Heady this issue as Jessica Jones jumps ship from working for Patsy’s rival to help her regain the rights to her mother’s comics and protect her kinda sorta secret identity.
In a very unique twist of fate, Jessica’s full entry into the series has been hotly anticipated since it was announced, but not because of anything that actually happened in a comic. Thanks to the tug of war that determines who gets what in media rights negotiations, “Trish” Walker was inserted into Jess’ Netflix series with a Hannah Montana-like backstory to sub in for Hellcat’s actual romance comics history.
That role was occupied by Carol Danvers in the Alias comic that spawned the television series, and presumably Marvel wasn’t keen on forking out a character who could, hopefully before the close of the decade, become a crown jewel of their cinematic offerings. So they got a retooled Patsy instead, igniting the ironic desire for a pair of characters who have appeared on page together only once in recent memory to resume a friendship they’ve never actually had.
Writer Kate Leth wastes no time in acknowledging just how surreal that desire is by having Patsy unable to remember having met Jess, even after She-Hulk insists that Patsy was both at her wedding and offered to babysit Jess and Luke’s daughter Danielle. That actually did happen back in New Avengers #7, and for reasons that can only be guessed at, she was the first one they asked. (The job eventually went to Squirrel Girl, which is best for all involved.)
The absurdity of this team-up relative to comics continuity isn’t lost on artist Brittney Williams either, and she lampshades the stark tonal clash between the characters by bathing Alias Investigations in deep spot blacks to affect the closest thing to a noir vibe that we’re likely to see in this series.
It’s fun and refreshing to see a take on an odd couple like this that doesn’t belabor that tonal clash the way that most titles would and find humor in the fact that everyone is just more or less rolling with it instead. Especially relative to the main Civil War II book that spends half its time on meta-fictional zingers that don’t make a lot of sense for the characters to be flinging. Such is the ebb and flow of superhero storytelling that a distinct lack of self-awareness has become a virtue.
Key to that general “just roll with it mentality” is that Leth and Williams have a very clear understanding of what the broader mythic nature of the Marvel Universe is and let it roll off them like water on a duck’s back, rather than feed directly into it. When Jess intimates that Heady bringing Patsy’s superhero identity into court proceedings could damage her case, Patsy replies with confusion because she’s a good guy. Jess and Jen remind her, in not so many words, that the Marvel Universe is a place that treats superheroes with suspicion and mistrust by default.
What’s most relevant here is that Patsy’s placement agency mostly serves people who have wrecked the city in various ways, but it’s a theme that runs deep through all Marvel books, typified by the general response to the X-Men and J. Jonah Jameson’s classic media crusade against Spider-Man. But just like the underlying recognition of the stigma Ian faced as an Inhuman when he was introduced in the first issue, they recognize that this is the default reality. But it’s not one that holds sway in Patsy’s world.
Her ethos, and that of the creative team, is to create a sanctuary away from those stigmas and the emotional whiplash of conventional superhero storytelling. It’s a statement of purpose that Leth has reiterated in recent days, now particularly relevant as the resentments around the penchant for killing off LBGTQIA characters in popular media intersect with the brutal reality of the mass murder of patrons at a gay club in Orlando, Florida.
In a better, kinder world, it would be enough to say that Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat offers a safe port against the storm of Civil War II raging outside, but we don’t, and it isn’t.
Characters like Nighthawk, Midnighter, and Harley Quinn offer readers from marginalized groups the opportunity to regain a vicarious sense of agency over the astonishing violence they face in real life. The catharsis offered by Nighthawk pummeling a gang of white supremacists while wearing brand new Yeezy Boosts — or Midnighter wearing an American flag tank top to a bar in Moscow just to start a fight in one of the western world’s most homophobic countries — is uniquely powerful. But it cannot stand as the only response to those realities.
What Hellcat offers isn’t so much counterpoint as compliment to those more violent responses. It is the fictional equivalent of what clubs, bookstores, and community groups offer the real world LBGTQIA population.
My opinion has been, more or less since the first issue, that Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat is a decidedly queer book. It’s a contention that, if not controversial, is at least ambivalently received. The general priority for advocates of expanded LBGTQIA representation in comics (and media in general) typically focus on the desire for a character who falls within that spectrum — and is explicitly portrayed as such — to appear front and center in the narrative.
The worthiness of that objective is obvious, especially in considering examples of books where those characters go to LBGTQIA creators like Midnighter, Constantine the Hellblazer, or Angela: Queen of Hel. But comics are a visual medium, and as such, the calculus that goes into defining what is recognized as a gay or queer title rarely if ever takes aesthetics into account in a meaningful way. I believe it is an aspect of representation that deserves a lot more attention.
When Becky Cloonan was announced as the incoming writer on the current volume of The Punisher, it foregrounded a demand for female writers and artists to be given more opportunities to write and draw male heroes. To enact a female gaze and to provide a fresh viewpoint on the normative masculinity that dominates the medium. In the same spirit, there’s a very unique opportunity to examine the net effect of the queer gaze enacted by Leth and Williams, who both openly identify as such, on a book with a heroine who is presumed to be straight.
At what point does the sexual orientation and gender identity of the protagonist cede primacy to the sensibilities of the creative team in what gets recognized as being a gay or queer title, for the purpose of advancing the aim of robust LBGTQIA representation within the media?
Does it make sense to recognize Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III’s collaboration on Batwoman as being a queer comic while denying the same distinction to Phil Jiminez’s work on Wonder Woman, because Diana wasn’t depicted as being subject to same gender attraction? Because that’s how those works would be quantified in a pulse check on the industry had they been published simultaneously.
What Hellcat reminds us of in an utterly unique way, is that these are not distinctions that gay, lesbian, or queer culture abide by. As broad political identities, gay and queer tend to be defined by a desire to integrate into the wider culture in the case of the former and stand utterly distinct in the latter. But as a manifestation of culture and aesthetics, the lines blur considerably.
In the most simplistic terms, gay culture (as it applies to spaces dominated and directed by cisgender men) has a well documented symbiotic relationship with heterosexual femininity, typified by the iconic status given to women like Cher and Liza Minelli that remains a thriving part of the culture that extends from actresses and pop singers to reality TV personalities. It’s a status that has been conferred on Wonder Woman since the 1970s, due in large part to Lynda Carter’s portrayal of her. And that most certainly informed Jiminez’s work.
That dynamic takes on a very specific relevance when considering the reconstruction of Patsy’s romance comic origins.
The camp and melodrama of the genre hold a potent attraction for contemporary gay culture the same way that Jane The Virgin’s postmodern telenovela sensibilities do. That link is made explicit in Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat as early as the debut issue, as Patsy rediscovers the comics in Tom’s bookstore Burly Books. Tom and his store are very consciously constructed to pay homage to that cultural symbiosis and the irony that the comics that live on through a cult-following in the gay community portrayed him as straight.
Queer aesthetics, again in simplistic terms, are more concerned with defying or subverting gender norms, which manifest more subtly through Williams’ art. The most easily visible way that manifests is her approach to She-Hulk by giving her a larger, more muscular frame while also taking care to soften her musculature and portray Jen’s gender presentation as decidedly feminine.
It’s an approach that preceded her in Mike Allred and Joe Quinones’ portrayal in FF and was particularly amplified by Natasha Allegri in the previous issue. It stands in stark contrast to Javier Puliodo’s recent approach in She-Hulk, and is a more specifically a subversion of John Byrne’s iconic work. Under Byrne, Jen was portrayed as being somewhat muscular but retained a slim hourglass figure in order to maintain her applicability to a normative male gaze. Byrne was more or less tongue-in-cheek in how he eroticized her figure by doing things like cloaking her nudity in the speedlines of a skipping rope, but the underlying message was that she had to appear normatively attractive to a heterosexual male audience.
What Quinones, Williams, Allred, and Allegri have done is pointedly confounded that gaze while working to preserve her essential femininity, declaring quite loudly that strength, even in its most overtly physical manifestations, is not the sole province of masculinity. That took on a whole new dimension in the context of Allred and Quinones’ work with Matt Fraction on FF, which saw the introduction of a transgender Moloid character.
Based on dialogue cues about Jen’s discomfiture with her size and how it impacted everything from her ability to find a Stella McCartney suit to her romantic prospects, the underlying subtext was that there was an explicitly defined transgender character in the narrative as well as one presented as a surrogate for the transgender audience. It’s a dynamic that Leth and Williams appear to be repeating on Hellcat by combining the active presence of gay and bisexual characters in the story with the cultural cues they embed in the story.
The influence of queer aesthetics takes another step forward this issue as Patsy seems to acclimatize to her new surroundings in the bookstore by trading out her usual chic, conventionally feminine style for a skatepunk look. She’s pairing a flat brimmed snapback with a plain t-shirt and denim vest that could have been pulled out of Williams’ closet, or even my own, for that matter.
Maybe Heady and Patsy are about to be revealed as having been secret girlfriends in high school rendering this entire line of thought purely academic, maybe not. The fact of the matter is that there’s far more for LBGTQIA readers to get out of this title than their straight peers, and that lies at the heart of what has me questioning how we quantify what is and is not a gay or queer title for the purposes of advancing better representation.
That question also remains at the forefront of the plot as the focus of the dispute between Heady and Patsy becomes Patsy’s mother. The legal loophole that Jen and Jess uncover that allows Patsy to regain control of the comics is the fact that the amount of morphine that she was on when she signed the rights over invalidated them.
She was too heavily medicated to be lucid enough to understand what she was giving to Heady. It prompts Heady to retort that if she wasn’t legally competent at the time, neither could she be held responsible for having attempted to trade Patsy’s life to a demon in order to prevent her death, challenging everything Patsy has thought about her mother in the intervening years — and lending new credibility to Heady’s defense of her.
The LBGTQIA community doesn’t have a monopoly on strained relationships with parents, nor the kind of found family that Patsy surrounds herself with at the close of the issue to celebrate winning the rights back, but these are themes that do sit at the very heart of the most iconic gay and queer narratives.
What’s really made clear by this issue is that however it gets classified, Hellcat straddles the intersection of a number of overlapping cultures and concerns to create a broad appeal for readers from a diverse range of backgrounds, the same way the most seminal work on the X-Men has. What Hellcat achieves that the X-Men never has, however, is prompt us to re-evaluate our attitudes and assumptions about the world around us without using violence or melodramatic strife as a fulcrum.
The Verdict: 10/10