Transmyscira: MOCKINGBIRD #8

Written by Chelsea Cain
Art by Kate Niemczyk and Rachelle Rosenberg
Published by Marvel Comics
Release Date: October 19, 2016

I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.

Life of Pi

One of the most unexpected things that nearly a hundred consecutive weeks of reviewing comics has taught me is how to let go of deeply cherished stories and characters.

It could probably be argued that from a meta-fictional perspective, Darkseid is the most effective super-villain there will ever be because every story has to end some time, every creative team has to part ways, and few get to decide it on their own terms. Entropy, as Darkseid is always happy to remind us, is inescapable.

Mockingbird #8 is a comic that knows it’s ending, but in a pure reflection of its heroine, decides that it doesn’t really want to acknowledge that fact and carries on accordingly.

Or maybe it does and its just being sly about it. Endings are certainly front and center as the issue kicks off, capping off the flashbacks to Bobbi and Clint’s therapy sessions with the moment that their marriage dissolved. “He’ll be back” Bobbi says, choosing not to acknowledge the end. It’s the one trait in particular of Bobbi’s that makes her ex, the Phantom Rider, such an effective foil for her.

Bobbi’s unwillingness to take what’s in front of her at face value see saws between a virtue and a vice, but Slade elevates obliviousness and avoidance into high art, shedding a bright light on Bobbi’s foibles by taking them to their furthest and most loathsome conclusion.

Stripped down to the bone, the Bermuda triangle arc has the ghostly vestiges of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl about it: a slowly dissolving marriage, a massive media trial, a trip under a false name, and a violently clingy ex. Beneath all of the superhero trappings, Chelsea Cain is telling a compelling and easily recognizable story of contemporary womanhood, which is much rarer of a feat than it ought to be.

In sharp — and welcome — contrast to Flynn and superhero fiction’s Gone Girl analogues like Jessica Jones, Cain eschews the gothic and gruesome in favor of charm and indulgence. There’s a lot of room in the public sphere for harrowing narratives that explode issues like gaslighting, domestic violence, and the gendered dynamics of contemporary marriage into a scope and scale that makes them impossible to ignore or downplay, but there’s also much unclaimed real estate for stories that clamp tongue firmly in cheek without biting the tip off.

One of the keys to the success of the dry, sarcastic wit that Cain imbues Bobbi with is that it doesn’t suck the remaining moisture out of the air. Despite that aspect of Bobbi’s outlook on life, Mockingbird has, for the length of its run, never been a comic to meet earnestness and emotion with cruelty or dismissal. The most prominent example of that attitude is how the creative team has woven themselves into the carefree and unself-conscious enthusiasm of the nerd cruise rather than walling it off behind postmodern ironic distance.

Sometimes it works in very overt ways like the seemingly in continuity missives that open the issues from Cain and editor Katie Kubert or artist Kate Niemczyk being hauled in as a suspect (which only makes sense, she drew the murder after all). Other times it manifests in more subtle ways by inviting us to share in the innocent joys of corgi cosplay or letting the human cosplayers get a shot at standing alongside a real superhero without making it at their expense.

When a pair of cosplayers get caught up in the moment and try to use the powers of the superheroes they’re dressed as, instead of getting clobbered the punchline is that Slade is no less inept at what he ought to be the best at: shooting things.

Slade is, fundamentally, no less of a threat or terrible person than the Purple Man or The Joker and Cain takes great pains to communicate that by explicitly labeling him a stalker and correctly identifying his many crimes. As a result, his absurd physical appearance and the mostly comical way that he’s dealt with takes nothing away from the seriousness of the issues that he represents. It instead demonstrates that his variety of toxic masculinity can be deflated and disarmed without the need for a fountain of arterial blood spray or wine bottles in very uncomfortable places.

Nor does Bobbi have to martyr herself to the feelings of any of the men in her life or assume their emotional labor. It’s a point proven in the most glorious sequence of the entire series as Bobbi is carried ashore by a legion of mer-corgis.

Anger, tears, and all the rest of the most physically draining end of the emotional spectrum can provide powerful catharsis, but Mockingbird is a comic that has dared to remind women repeatedly that pain and suffering aren’t a prerequisite for success. Take off the hairshirt, the mer-corgis beckon to us, let us carry the weight for once.

As if those determined pups weren’t already enough, Cain and Niemczyk take Bobbi’s cosmic inability to suffer for her craft to its apotheosis when Hunter arrives to “rescue” her from what appears to be the desert island she was languishing on and turns out to be a Club Med instead.

Even the harsh reality of the series’ ending at eight issues feels like it’s being challenged, as Bobbi’s statement at the outset of the issue that Clint would be back gets its payoff in the epilogue with Bobbi taking a “real” vacation in the Alps with both him and Hunter. With one last parting gift, the creative team leaves nothing unsubverted, giving us a vision of a polyamorous Bobbi whose perceived failure at marriage and monogamy is redeemed as a success at the unconventional, just like her failure at getting superpowers as a child paradoxically lead to her being more competent and successful than anyone around her.

After the climactic issue of a series that has more or less been about a heroine with a pathological inability to fail, there’s more than a bit of a tinge of comic irony to Chelsea Cain opening her farewell letter by demurring that she isn’t a comic book writer, but it also highlights the psychology behind Mockingbird.

Bobbi, as I’ve mentioned before, is an unapologetically aspirational figure in a medium where women are celebrated for their flaws and the degree of their suffering. Cain remains, as we all are, subject to what comics enabled her to liberate Bobbi from. She lists Bobbi’s best qualities and self deprecates in the same breath, which sure is a thing that women do a lot, but it’s not that long ago that Kelly Sue DeConnick, in an essay for the debut issue of Island, held Cain up in a similar way to deny herself the title of writer:

“I make up rules to explain why I’ll never qualify, then try to find loopholes. Like this: Maggie [Estep] and Chuck [Palahniuk] and Warren [Ellis] and Chelsea are all ‘real’ writers, and they are all into gross things and I am not, therefore I am obviously not a writer.”

Seen from that perspective, Bobbi is what happens when we finally succeed in pushing past that psychological gag reflex and acknowledge the totality of our own self worth. To the reader, she’s more or less the evolutionary leap that she attributes to the virus that took up the focus of the first arc.

Because it’s demonstrably silly to say, in the present tense, that Cain isn’t a comic book writer. She’s demonstrably written eight issues of one, but of course there’s always a rule to invent like a self sabotage version of Calvinball.

The truth of the matter is that over the last eight issues, Cain has taken to comics like a fish to water, much in the same way that Chuck Palahniuk did with Fight Club 2. Aside from Palahniuk and Stewart ending Fight Club 2 at Cain’s house and Cain capping off Mockingbird with possibly the greatest Fight Club joke ever, the pair of writers have, through their artistic collaborators, shown an impressive fluency in the comics page in both their debuts.

The most obvious parallel between Palahniuk and Cain’s approaches to the comics page is how they integrate graphic design elements into the narrative to blur the distinctions between fiction and reality. There’s obvious similarities between the airplane safety brochures that opened every issue of Fight Club 2 and the medical charts, letters, and captain’s messages that Mockingbird uses.

But where Palahniuk and Stewart leaned into the visual language of film to drive the metafictional aspect of their comic, Cain and Niemczyk have stuck firmly with the institutional for much of the series. It was used to the greatest effect in the first issue by communicating information about Bobbi and her worsening condition through charts, forms, and pill bottles to convey her detachment and compromised agency, but the spirit remains through the final issue, albeit in a more whimsical way.

Bobbi’s dating history, or at least Ka-Zar (the man, not the corgi crossplaying Bobbi this issue) and Slade, are presented as model sheets and Bobbi’s thought process in how to deal with him is broken down like a flow chart the way relationship advice is doled out in checkout lane magazines.

It’s been clear since the debut issue that Cain has understood how to utilize Niemczyk’s skillset as an artist, but the latter has also demonstrated fearlessness in moving beyond the expectations of her style to execute abstract and design heavy layouts that frequently recall David Aja’s work on Hawkeye, a nice bit of stylistic continuity between the star crossed lovers.

True to the setting, Mockingbird’s sendoff is an all you can eat buffet of wish fulfillment and simple joys, which works to bring out the best in Niemczyk. If she didn’t love corgis before starting Mockingbird, she must either adore or absolutely despise them after all the time she put into them. It’s an odd thing to say, but there’s been a lot riding on those corgis from the very first issue, when her beautiful rendering of one was a key element of establishing Bobbi’s anxiety, and this issue is no exception as the mercorgis represent the final delirious high of the series’ particular brand of surreality.

The pair of Niemczyk and Rosenberg are an irreplaceable part of the Mockingbird experiment because their more or less conventional stylings are what prevent the series from being classified as an outlier or a boutique title. For Mockingbird to succeed at its stated intent, it has to show us that despite how exotic and unexpected it appears, the things it represents ought to be the norm.

Joelle Jones’s cover for the issue hewed just close enough to the kind of homage to 1970s Hollywood movie posters that J. Scott Campbell drew on heavily for Danger Girl to get readers to let their guards down without sacrificing the values that set it apart. Niemczyk’s work throughout the series does much the same thing. That she strikes a clean balance between depicting Bobbi with an idealized figure without gratuitously eroticizing her almost goes without saying.

She goes much further in the “Bermuda Triangle” arc, drawing crowd scenes that warmly and accurately portray the body diversity of the cosplay community without compromising anyone’s dignity. After all, if a superhero comic is going to explicitly forward itself as being both feminist and a fantasy, the bare minimum it has to achieve is overcome the established norm that fantasy always comes at someone else’s expense, as the normative male power fantasies that dominate the media have shown in their penchant for degrading women.

Which is where we leave Bobbi, in a fantasy of her own where she doesn’t have to compromise between the two men in her life while they argue over which one of them is Tyler Durden.

“I didn’t create some loser alter ego to make myself feel better,” they think at each other, completely overlooking the fact they’re arguing over what’s essentially fugazi. Sebastian, or Jack as he was known until Fight Club 2, was the real person. Tyler was just a crummy coping mechanism. That thing that Cain, Niemczyk, and Rosenberg strove to overcome when they conceived of their Mockingbird.

There’s a lot of questions that need to get asked when a comic that has its fuzzy little corgi paws so firmly placed on the pulse of the broader culture can’t make it into the double digits, and it isn’t enough anymore to just say there isn’t an audience for it. The conundrum facing Mockingbird is essentially the same as Nighthawk’s widely criticized cancellation.

Mockingbird was a series that clearly captured an underserved audience in comics, an audience so underserved that it doesn’t necessarily know that it exists. The direct market, at more or less every level has been so successful at telling women that comics aren’t for them that massive swaths of them have come to believe it.

If a feminist superhero comic arrives at a comic book store and no feminists are around to read it, did it really happen?

It’s a vexing question, especially when Marvel won’t commit to nurturing audiences that it’s spent the last couple decades shunning. Instead, a kind of karmic wheel turns in which short lived series like Mockingbird die and are reborn somewhere down the line as another comic with a similar ethos that fails a little bit less resoundingly.

Perform a past life regression on an issue of Mockingbird and you might just discover it’s the reincarnation of the Liu/Acuna Black Widow run. But as pressing as the attendant issues around the series’ cancellation are, to let them get in the way of enjoying cavorting mercorgis would be a profound betrayal of Mockingbird’s spirit.

The Verdict: 10/10


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