Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.
This week, it is Man-Eaters #2. Written by Chelsea Cain (Mockingbird, Kick Back) with art by Kate Niemczyk (Mockingbird, Faith) and colors by Rachelle Rosenberg (Mockingbird, Spider-Woman), this issue delves deeper into a horror story built on society’s fear of adolescent girls. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
Chelsea Cain didn’t have to stay in comics. Her work on Marvel Comics’ Mockingbird brought a barrage of social media attacks against her from misogynist fanboys, and it would have been totally understandable if she decided to walk away from a toxic industry to pursue other creative endeavors. But that would mean sacrificing her agency to a swarm of strangers whose vitriol only reinforces the immense value of her work. She refused, instead reuniting the entire Mockingbird creative team—artist Kate Niemczyk, colorist Rachelle Rosenberg, and letterer Joe Caramagna—for a new creator-owned Image Comics series that maintains the defiant spirit of their superhero work without any of the restrictions.
Man-Eaters owes a lot to Image’s Bitch Planet, and it makes that connection explicit in the first issue with a Bitch Planet poster hanging in a teenage girl’s room. The tones and visual styles of the two series are drastically different, but both are about women being unjustly punished by a patriarchal authority. Man-Eaters distinguishes itself by prioritizing adolescence, imagining a near future where adolescent women are infected with Toxoplasmosis X, a mutation of the toxoplasmosis parasite that lives in cat feces. Most people have been exposed to toxoplasmosis and experience no symptoms, but in Man-Eaters, the mutated parasite triggers hormonal fluctuations that transform teenage girls into bloodthirsty were-panthers.
The first issue of Man-Eaters breaks down the series’ concept and lays out the history of this altered timeline by introducing an adolescent girl, Maude, and her single dad, a homicide detective who investigates cat attacks. It’s a very exposition-heavy issue, but the creative team’s clever storytelling keeps the energy up and prevents it from feeling like a heavy info-dump. Like another exceptional new Image series with horror roots, Rob Guillory’s Farmhand, Man-Eaters has a sharp sense of humor that fuels the book’s momentum and makes it an especially fun read, even when it’s engaging with weighty political material.
Man-Eaters #1 opens with Maude imagining a superhero named Tampon Woman as she plays with two tampons like they are dolls. The government task force created to investigate cat attacks and bring in mutated girls is called S.C.A.T. (Strategic Cat Apprehension Team). That humor contrasts with the grisly terror of the cat attacks and the insidiousness of the government’s efforts to stop the contagion, creating tension that pulls the reader deeper into the story.
The government has figured out a way to suppress girls’ menses, but it’s not 100 percent effective. Maude is the latest girl to slip through, and the debut issue ends with Maude having her first period. This week’s Man-Eaters #2 looks at the immediate aftermath as Maude tries to hide this biological change, which her father immediately picks up on. The issue also introduces Maude’s mother, who works for S.C.A.T. and is investigating a recent cat attack with her ex-husband. After laying the groundwork in issue #1, the creative team complicates the character relationships with the addition of Maude’s mother and intensifies the horror elements as Maude’s parents encounter a killer cat in the field.
Cain recognizes the vast opportunities comics provide for visual storytelling, and she often incorporates graphs, diagrams, and other visuals aids to convey information in new ways. This ties into how she uses the page as a single storytelling unit, and her partnership with Man-Eaters’ creative producer Lia Miternique has shaped how she approaches narrative in a visual medium. The two worked together on the books Does This Cape Make Me Look Fat? and Confessions Of A Teen Sleuth, and founded a production company, Ministry Of Trouble, last year to develop transgressive projects like Man-Eaters. Miternique is the series’ cover artist and designer, creating all those visual aids within the issue, and she plays a huge role in fleshing out the world of this book with advertisements and other supplemental materials.
These visual aids help convey information about the environment, but they are also tied to character. In the first issue, Maude breaks down her dad with a page that shows a diagram of his daily clothing, a graph of things he loves, and a spinning wheel of things that he says. The costume diagram informs how Maude feels about her father’s physical appearance while the graph indicates that she knows how much his love for her outweighs his other passions. The spinning wheel is particularly evocative, accentuating the randomness and repetition of her interactions with her dad. He’s going to say something she’s heard over and over again, but she never knows just which thought it’s going to be.
Miternique’s approach to Man-Eaters’ covers uses bold graphic imagery to capture the soul of each issue. The first issue’s cover looks like a propaganda poster for a preteen girl revolution, a concept reinforced by the sparkly glitter variant. The second issue cover moves in a very different direction with a photo of a tampon with cat ears and whiskers drawn on top of it. The background is the light blue of a Tampax box, or the liquid used to show absorbency in commercials, and the back cover has “PERIOD.” printed in white against the same blue background. The variant replaces the blue with a pastel pool covered by an iridescent layer, making the book pop out on a shelf while adding an extra level of depth to the image.
The logo, credits, and tampon all rest on top of a background that changes depending on how a person looks at it, creating a three-dimensional illusion for the central object. The cover makes a loud political statement, with the tampon representing an aspect of femininity that isn’t talked about publicly and is often considered gross by men. In order to help those sensitive readers engage with this tube of cotton attached to a string, cover artist Miternique adds cat ears and whiskers to the end of the tampon. The string becomes a long tail, and the cotton folded in at the bottom is reminiscent of a cat’s tucked-in hind legs when it rolls on its back to have its belly rubbed.
When I showed women I know the cover of Man-Eaters #2, it immediately got them talking about their feelings toward tampons. One mentioned that she felt the tampon was an outdated symbol because she and so many other women she knew no longer used them, but also recognized that it’s more important for teenage girls who are learning the basics of their bodies in this fundamental transitional period. Another was immediately annoyed that tampon technology has barely evolved over decades, and this frustration is a key element of this issue’s most powerful moment.
At the start of Man-Eaters, Maude childishly plays with tampons, but in this second chapter, she’s confronted with the product’s intended use. This overwhelming rush of information is presented through the complete instructional manual for Pursettes tampons, giving readers a full rundown on how the product works and how it should be inserted. Maude’s incredulous reaction to the entire process is an integral moment. When boys hit puberty, they get a lecture about washing their armpits. When girls hit puberty, they have to learn how to regulate a monthly cycle of bleeding private parts, and there are consequences if they don’t do it correctly. It becomes clear early on that they are going to have to live with biological discomfort that cisgender men have no comprehension of, and society is only going to pile on more stress and hardship on these girls as they grew older.
Man-Eaters was supposed to be one of two new Chelsea Cain comics released this fall, but last month, Marvel Comics canceled Cain’s new The Vision miniseries, a follow-up to the 2016 Eisner Award-winning title by Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, and Jordie Bellaire. Written by Cain with her husband, Marc Mohan, The Vision had four issues scripted, three issues fully inked by artist Aud Koch, and one issue colored by Bellaire. Marvel had released preview art and the creative team was actively promoting the book when Marvel abruptly pulled the plug because editorial had decided to take the character in a new direction.
Cain was justifiably angry, and she went public with her frustrations, burning bridges with Marvel to illuminate how superhero publishers treat creators. So much of Cain’s writing is about women fighting against systems engineered to grind them down, and she wasn’t going to sit back and accept this treatment from a publisher that could easily find a way to publish this book without it interfering with their editorial plan for the future. Call this new miniseries an out-of-continuity successor to King and Walta’s series while Vision gets Infinity Warped with Howard The Duck or whatever the bigger plan is for the character.
Those readers that want everything in continuity might be annoyed, but the book’s pedigree would probably sway a lot of people to check out this continuation. Everyone involved in The Vision committed to a project that took time they could have used to work on something that would actually see the light of day. These creators signed on to the book assuming that they would be getting paid for six issues—ideally with residuals from a collection, but I don’t know the specifics of Marvel’s work-for-hire contracts—and it’s unfair for Marvel to renege on that agreement, especially when the work has already been solicited to the public.
Chelsea Cain doesn’t need Marvel Comics. She’s an accomplished novelist with a passion for comics, and while Mockingbird wasn’t a commercial success, it showed the world that Cain is a formidable talent with a confident voice and inventive approach to graphic storytelling. If she’s blacklisted from Marvel, she doesn’t have to worry about that ruining her prospects for a career in comics. She’s in a position of privilege, and she’s using that to speak out about editorial decisions that diminish and disrespect the hard work of creators to satisfy corporate interests. Hopefully her statements about this mistreatment will incite some kind of positive change, and by publicly challenging established power structures, she lives up to the rebellious ideology at the core of her comics.