Superhero series should have easy jumping-on points. If these books are grabby enough, readers might be compelled to seek out earlier chapters. I had read the first few issues of The Unbelievable Gwenpool and thought they were fun, but I fell behind and the issues started piling up. I jumped back on with May’s #16 and discovered a remarkably inventive series that experimented with the medium while telling an engaging, emotional story about a young superhero superfan struggling to find her place in the world.
The conceit behind Gwenpool is that she’s a real-world person, Gwen Poole, who gets pulled into the world of the Marvel comics she loves. She’s acutely aware that she’s in a comic book, allowing writer Christopher Hastings and main artist Gurihiru (the team of Chifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano) to take the Deadpool-inspired meta elements of the comedy to an even more exaggerated level. This current arc has Gwen back in her home dimension, being pressured by her parents to grow up and find a job rather than living vicariously through media. She has no memory of her life as Gwenpool, but her time in comics has fundamentally changed her perception of reality and made her cognizant that she’s still in a comic book.
The Unbelievable Gwenpool #17 (Marvel) begins with Gwen in her new part-time job, trying to avoid the comic-book elements like captions and panel borders that now surround her. She’s worried that she’s losing her mind, but her confusion and panic make for an extremely entertaining story. Some readers may write off Gurihiru’s manga-influenced artwork for being too cute, but it has impeccably clear storytelling that heightens the impact of Hastings’ inventive script. Gwen’s facial expressions play an especially big role in an issue focusing on her increasingly stunned reactions, and Gurihiru nails down each emotional beat to emphasize her personal journey in the story.
There are so many cool moments in this issue, starting with the appearance of the issue’s title behind Gwen while she works the movie theater concessions counter. While taking the train home, Gwen decides to test the limits of the panel borders she senses, slowly reaching out and being shocked when she touches them. Panel borders are responsible for some of most fascinating tricks, especially when Gwen ends up in a hospital at the end of the issue and wipes one away so she can see herself in the adjoining panel. That sequence ends with a panel where the angle shifts to add depth to the previous page’s two-dimensional layout, and it’s a delightfully trippy melding of perspective, space, and structural conventions.
Letterer Clayton Cowles plays a huge part in the sequence where Gwen supercharges her internal monologue so she can make the caption box above her head big enough to reach. The pink box grows until it pushes Gwen to the edge of the panel, and then it gets so big that she’s lodged up against her window, trying to hold back a giant block of text that is arranged on an angle to accentuate the force it’s placing on her body. The caption ultimately pushes her through the window and sends her falling down two stories. This entire scene is an exceptional example of how formal experimentation can inform a story and offer a compelling take on the superhero genre.
The end of the first arc of Gail Simone’s Clean Room—a female-driven horror story with intrigue and terror seeping into every panel—has left an unfilled niche in the comics industry. With its final issue so fresh in the minds of readers, Simone’s next book has a very high bar to clear. Thankfully, she’s teamed up with artist Cat Staggs to deliver the fascinating Crosswind #1 (Image). It has been described as Freaky Friday meets The Godfather, though Fargo could easily be added to that equation. The body swap at the center of the story happens between a mob-affiliated hit man in Chicago and a Texas housewife. Staggs and Simone are listed as co-creators early in the book, and it’s one of the rare times that an artist’s name is listed above the writer’s, which is worth remembering as readers work through the issue.
It is not so different from other Simone works: There are characters struggling with moral quandaries, blatant and near-violent sexism, and an interesting supernatural element. The book is paced quickly, ending on a cliffhanger that will pull readers along to the next issue. But there are differences, too: housewife Juniper is nervous and paralyzed by anxiety without a lot of explanation. For years Simone has written nuanced, complicated female characters that show layers from the get-go, but Juniper feels flat. The problem may be that the far more conflicted hit man, Cason, starts the book, with Juniper’s story coming second. Unfortunately, the only other two women in this first issue fall into their own tropes, a Stepford wife tattling to Juniper about her allegedly cheating husband, and Cason’s oversexualized strong black woman badass girlfriend; the latter barely passes the sexy lamp test, which is particularly disappointing given Simone’s excellent portrayal of a complicated woman of color in Clean Room. This is, of course, just a first issue. There will be time for Juniper to show her stripes, but with an all-female creative team, rare enough in comics, and particularly Simone’s involvement, it’s disappointing.
Most of Staggs’ previous work is on covers, and while her page composition and grasp of dynamic anatomy is excellent, her coloring work pushes Crosswind into the realm of the uncanny valley. It’s helpful that the backmatter includes work-in-progress shots: Her pencils and inks are strong, but photorealistic colors make it feel computer generated or even traced instead of drawn. She’s skilled and great at drawing interesting pages and people, but the book would be less unsettling and an easier read with a different colorist.
Crosswind is a strong book that suffers from minor issues that could easily get resolved as the story progresses; it also suffers by the inevitable comparison to other tiles. Staggs’ art reads excellently on covers but strangely in 32 interior pages, and Simone’s style and strengths are recognizable enough to easily spot when they’re off. Given a couple issues to get their feet under them, Simone and Staggs will hopefully knock it out of the park, but Crosswind #1 isn’t there yet.
Patience is a virtue, one that few cartoonists have in them. Stories require space to move, grow, and breathe. How much space will vary from story to story, with some requiring more than others, but none can be rushed without dire consequences. This is the primary stumbling block facing Motro Vol. 1 (Oni Press), the latest book from artist-writer Ulises Fariñas and his co-writer, Erick Freitas.
The book, which collects the series’ first four issues, tracks the life of Motro, a super strong man who is adopted by a warlord as a child and struggles to fulfill a vague prophecy. Drawn by Fariñas, the book has quite a bit going for it in terms of design and aesthetic. More than a few pages demonstrate his talent, showcasing complex designs and complicated pages with minute detail, as well as his ability to impressively render a diverse array of textures. The whole thing is more than striking, and it’s a wonderful-looking comic in significant ways. And yet, Fariñas and Freitas are unable to make the narrative cohere.
As the series opens, Motro appears as a boy, but the second and third issues both feature extensive time jumps. While that in itself is not a problem, Fariñas and Freitas don’t make those jumps significant. They appear to play into some grander story of the life of Motro (and they may pay off in later stories), but here they simply disorient. Fariñas and Freitas don’t afford each chapter the room to develop any sort of self-contained or episodic story, but they don’t make each one relevant enough to the others to make them really felt as serials. You don’t get to spend enough time in any one place long enough to develop a familiarity with it, or even a passing knowledge. The shifts and gestures toward an overarching story are never connected.
Generally, the series appears to be moving too fast for its own good. What occurs in 100 pages could easily be made to fill 400 without adding anything in the way of plot or character. It’s a real shame, because it’s clear that a lot of thought and effort went into the world of Motro. Unfortunately, that effort appears as a blur outside a car window, which makes it difficult to fully appreciate. There are, however, sequences that go off without a hitch, such as the short story “Land Of Snow,” which is featured in this volume as supplementary material. Told almost entirely silently, this story is simple but spacious, and though it’s a mere four pages, it feels elegantly paced. It offers readers a glimpse at what a more patient version of this series might have been, though it’s an offering that is, ultimately, more bitter than sweet.