It’s oddly ironic for a comic whose title provides critical information about the nature of the story it intends to tell to come out at a time when the titles of Marvel comics seem to be at their most meaningless, but Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat isn’t quite so much riffing on Marvel’s affinity for adjectives as it is Joss Whedon’s motivation in naming Buffy the Vampire Slayer to calibrate expectations and act as a kind of bouncer before you’d even seen an episode. A teen girl with a silly name would be killing vampires and if you couldn’t deal with that, well this just was not going to be the show for you.
Admittedly, Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat requires a bit more fluency in the character’s history to grasp, but it’s very clearly a reflection of the fact that she has two very distinct identities. Patsy’s rather unique in comics history because she began life in the 1940s as a romance comics lead at Timely before transitioning into a superhero at Marvel twenty years later, so the concept implied by the title is that it will be reasserting Patsy’s pre-superhero history, drawing on the young career woman focus her stories took on following her high school graduation. What absolutely has to be understood about this book is that it isn’t in the model of a boys’ adventure title, and as the first issue seems to imply, will be drifting far afield from those genre expectations.
It’s an idea that writer Kate Leth is uniquely suited to having recently completed School Spirit, a queer focused high school drama serialized in Rosy Press’ Fresh Romance anthology in addition to a pair of graphic novels focusing on fan favorite Adventure Time characters Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen. Given Archie’s new portfolio of critically acclaimed titles including Jughead, pairing Howard the Duck’s Chip Zdarsky with Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’s Erica Henderson, hiring Leth and handing her this comic is an incredibly savvy move on Marvel’s part. Of course part of the setup taps into Patsy’s current status quo of working as an investigator for She-Hulk, thus putting it into the orbit of both of the aforementioned titles (and under the same editor). It’s an amusing byproduct that Marvel has seemingly grouped its latest Canadian acquisitions; Zdarsky, Leth, and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’s Ryan North together both tonally, and to a certain extent geographically within the Marvel Universe.
Despite Leth’s admiration of Henderson’s Squirrel Girl that resulted in her bequeathing a “Nuts About the Booty” award to the title and her association with Zdarsky, there’s a world of difference between North, Leth, and Zdarsky as writers. Leth brings an incredibly unique energy to Patsy Walker that loosens the genre restraints and pacing considerably relative to her peers. The concerns and anxieties of the Marvel universe just plain do not exist in Patsy’s world, whereas in Squirrel Girl and Howard the Duck, they most certainly exist even if they only do so to be lampooned.
Take for instance the inciting incident of the issue in which Patsy catches a guy using telekinesis to steal a bunch of money. Things escalate as you’d expect until he makes a Wicked reference and they suspend their battle to just go to the park and talk about how much they like Wicked and their shared disappointment that there has been no forward momentum in adapting the novel into a film or animated feature beyond the popular broadway musical. This is something I can really get behind because I’m a huge fan of the novel and have a lot of trouble with the creative decisions that went into condensing it for the stage, not to mention the fact that to the best of my knowledge Taye Diggs and Justin Guarini are the only black actors to play Fiyero when he is clearly coded as such in the novel. I’m not even into musical theater that much and I can relate to this!
The point here is that instead of fighting she just sits down to chat and we learn that the would-be thief, Ian, is a pretty reasonable guy who got tempted after gaining powers from the terrigen mist bombs that have been kind of a big deal at Marvel following Secret Wars. The whole concept being pushed with the Inhumans is that they are the latest grand metaphor and are in the process of being given the stigma that the X-Men have worn for so long via the mutant metaphor. Patsy doesn’t blink at Ian being Inhuman and she further doesn’t blink at the mention of him recently breaking up with his “partner.”
Leth is, as I’ve described in depth about her work on School Spirit for Fresh Romance, a canny operator when it comes to queer coding in fantasy narratives and so it’s no coincidence that Ian is both an Inhuman and either gay or bisexual, because she has a very intimate understanding of what genuine representation and inclusion look like. I was ecstatic when Leth was announced on this title and it’s incredibly rewarding to see her set to work immediately doing the things that marked her for future greatness in fantasy storytelling as far back as her first Adventure Time graphic novel. This isn’t posturing, it’s a clear throughline in her work that is not only clearly visible to the most casual reader, but a goal she’s repeatedly and emphatically stated in her own words.
Patsy keeps Ian with her as she then helps a woman going through a bad break up retrieve tickets to a play lost under a grate, using his powers to lift them once Patsy gets the grate out of the way. (I was expecting her to say they were going to Hamilton.) It’s just fun, cheery, low impact stuff like that but as the story goes on, it embeds itself even more firmly in queer community and culture as Ian ducks into a bookshop called “Burly Books” where Patsy is reunited with her high school friend Tom who was upgraded from the classic character “Tubs” (not to be confused with the controversial Neko Atsume character) into an affable bear who runs the store thanks to his cut of the residuals from the Patsy Walker comics that her mother wrote about them (yes, that’s where “Trish” and her abusive stage mom in the Jessica Jones Netflix series came from). It’s all eerily reminiscent of the Amazing Amy books in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, but we’re going for something a lot cheerier for the foreseeable. As it turns out Hedy Wolf, her friend and rival from those classic comics, assumed control of the rights to the comics when Patsy’s mother died and, instead of letting them fall out of print as she promised Patsy, she put them back into print behind her back.
The main story wraps up over drinks uniting the whole gang including She-Hulk, Ian, and Tom which leads to Ian -freshly hired by Tom to work at Burly Books- telling Patsy how difficult it is to find and keep any kind of job as an Inhuman when all any potential employer sees in them are potential liabilities instead of the bonuses that their powers bring to the table. Are you a queer person, or more specifically, like me, a trans person who has ever held a job anywhere? Well then, this conversation is actually about you. The most darkly comic point in the book, is that Patsy’s grand scheme is to launch a job placement service for unemployed and underemployed people with superpowers and fund it by getting a retail job. I’m still proud of that time that I made a joke about a millennial getting a job in Starfire being a bigger act of wish fulfilment than talking to a dolphin, but that really kind of is how things are going right now and Patsy hits it dead on.
The thing of it is that mainstream comics have a very serious existential question facing them in the coming years. Companies like Marvel or DC can hire the urgently needed and dearly loved voices like Leth’s and empower them to tell powerful and relevant stories or they can squander the opportunity and wither into irrelevance. Here’s the thing that I think no one has mentioned lately about Kate Leth. She’s already a New York Times bestseller! She will go places and does not need Marvel for that. I love this book, and truthfully I have loved Patsy Walker for quite some time, but I loved Patsy Walker because of Kathryn Immonen and David Lafuente’s screwball take on her, and prior to that I loved her because of the person who played her in a superhero roleplay I was in years ago. Patsy’s great, she’s historic, but I’m here for Kate Leth and Brittney Williams full stop the same way that I was glued to Fresh Romance for Leth and Jovellanos, and will be when Leth takes on Vampirella for Dynamite. I flat out would not be reading this book if they weren’t on it.
Brittney Williams has a truly indelible presence on the page and it was the first of images of her take on Patsy that truly signalled to me that I was going to love this book. There’s a palpable sense of joy and energy in her illustration that radiates off the page as keenly as Erica Henderson, Babs Tarr, or Emanuela Lupacchino most evident in her thick, flowing inks. One of the most interesting things about this book is that the two things that the big companies just plain did not want to mess with up until today were romance and palpable manga influence.
As recently as this August, Mia Schwartz, the illustrator behind indie breakout visual novel We Know The Devil, took to Twitter to rant about how frequently she’s derided and dismissed by professional male contemporaries for employing a manga influenced style. If you’ve played through WKTD, then you’ll have at least some indication of how powerful Schwartz’s cartooning is and how she has the rare ability to be able to execute subtle and evocative facial expressions while also drawing extremely simplified facial features, which is no small feat for any cartoonist.
Where Williams brings that influence out is in modulating how she draws Patsy’s figure to amplify the emotional beats along the same lines as manga and anime artists, doing things as subtle as occasionally giving Patsy sharp feline teeth or going so far as to draw her in the chibi/Super Distorted style. When I first saw Williams’ art on the series and the tiny Patsys that she drew in those proportions, it felt bittersweet because my presumption at the time was that we absolutely would not be seeing those stylistic flourishes carry over to the interiors. My honest expectation right up until I opened the issue, was that we might get something like that on the masthead of the letters page or the recap/intro in the opening, so I’m beyond excited to see that stigma seems to have been lifted, at least for this title, letting Williams spread out and deliver the full range of her abilities.
Background cameos and in jokes have been a big part of the landscape this year, especially where Leth is concerned, granted that she, or her tattoos in the case of a particular Howard the Duck cover, has appeared in several titles including one from Babs Tarr in Batgirl, but Brittany Williams takes it to a level beyond the usually appearances from friends or Sailor Moon and/or Steven Universe characters to unleash a barrage of amazing gay culture puns in Tom’s bookstore and same gender couples in the bar they attend later, staking the title out as an inarguably queer space.
Part and parcel of that is her figurative work that not only evokes Tom beautifully and honestly to the bear image that he’s clearly cultivating, but does full justice to She-Hulk. Back when Matt Fraction was on FF with a rotating team of Joe Quinones and Mike Allred on art duties, he introduced a transgender moloid child in a powerfully affecting storyline that no one has been able to touch since, but as whip smart as we all know him to be, he also, in concert with Quinones and Allred, presented She-Hulk in a way that spoke directly and warmly to adult trans women in a way that no one had attempted before. When Charles Soule and Javier Pulido picked up the character for their ongoing, the broader, more muscular frame that Quinones and Allred gave her disappeared and the moment was lost, but when Jen was reunited with Quinones on Howard the Duck he picked up immediately where he’d left off on FF, and Williams is mirroring him beautifully in her take. As canny as Leth is with queer coding in her approach to Ian and the Inhumans status quo in her writing, so too is Williams sensitive to the subtext that serves to give space and power to particularly marginalized readers in spirit if not in letter.
Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat is, true to the character’s roots in the romance genre, a book to fall in love with.
Written by Kate Leth
Drawn by Brittney Williams with colors by Megan Wilson
Lettered by Joe Sabino and Clayton Cowles
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Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman from the wilds of Canada, most recently spotted in the Pacific Northwest. She is a two time IWC Women’s World Champion and has written about comics for the web since 2005 for sites including Playboy, Bitch Media, and Graphic Policy.