Patsy Walker: Hellcat by Kathryn Immonen, David Lafuente and John Rauch. Marvel Limited Series, 5 issues ("Snowball Effect," September 2008-February 2009). $2.99 per issue.
As Ever: Spoilers ahead. Boo! And click on the pictures to make them grow.
For much of the first twenty years of my life, I was addicted to Marvel Comics, to the point where I even read rotten titles like Dazzler and memorized such arcane lore as the Hallowed Ranks of Marveldom. (I was a Real Frantic One back then, but nothing more; I never rose above Second Class in Boy Scouts either.) After my early-'80s discoveries of Raw and Love and Rockets, however, I culled my Marvel purchases down to a few selected titles, including John Byrne's Fantastic Four and Frank Miller's runs on Daredevil. Currently, I'm down to one Marvel book (Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal), though recently, on the recommendation of a friend, I bought and read all five issues of Kathryn Immonen and David Lafuente's Patsy Walker: Hellcat mini-series.
I liked Hellcat more than I thought I would. It's not designed to be immortal art--in other words, it's not Raw or Love and Rockets--but as far as mainstream comics go, it's clever and fun, virtues that are too easy to take for granted. The overall plot is simple: Marvel second-stringer Patsy Walker (A.K.A. Hellcat) is recruited by Iron Man to be the official superheroine of Alaska under the terms of something called "the 50-State Initiative," which I'm sure hard-core contemporary Marvelites recognize, and about which I'm clueless. After arriving in tiny North Spirit, Alaska, Patsy is recruited by seven Inuit witches to locate and rescue Ssangyong Rexton, the teenage "heir to the shamanic throne." (All seven witches are Ssangyong's mothers--"It's complicated"--and Ssangyong is pissed at her cadre of mothers, not least because they named her after a car.) Bear in mind, though, that the above abbreviated description doesn't do justice to Immonen and Lafuente's playful tendency to puncture the tropes of traditional superhero storytelling. In issue #4, for instance, Patsy tracks Ssangyong to an ice-covered shipwreck, and picks a fight with a yeti who she presumes is Ssangyong's kidnapper; turns out that the yeti's name is Pete, and he's both Ssangyong's squeeze and the most likeable character in the comic. I'd argue that the hoary cliche "Appearances can be deceiving" applies to both Pete and the Hellcat mini-series as a whole, and that Hellcat succeeds as entertainment because beneath its fizzy surface, Immonen and Lafuente have built a solid narrative structure for their 5-issue tale, complete with motifs and (gasp!) a theme.
Immonen's careful structuring of the entire series is evident in the opening scene of the first issue, a scene that sets up elements that continue throughout all five issues. The first page of issue #1 is a splash of Patsy in a low-cut, extravagantly fashionable dress, facing the reader with a smile as she says, "It's magic!" Patsy is speaking to her neighbor Ruben, a roly-poly, flamboyantly gay fashion designer, while she's trying on one of Ruben's creations. When Iron Man calls Patsy with the Initiative assignment, Immonen writes some funny dialogue for their conversation, including a line where Patsy almost slips up and reveals her identity to Ruben:
"No, Ir-ene. I'm just helping out my neighbor! He doesn't think I'm half as super as you do."
Immonen runs further with this gag later in the scene: when Patsy asks if the Beast will join her in Alaska, Iron Man replies, ""How come I get I--rene and he doesn't get Bea--trice?" A variation of this silly exchange pops up on the final page of issue #5:
Once again Patsy speaks to Iron Man under a ridiculous alias ("Irena Manakov!"), and once again she looks at us and says, "It's magic." The final-panel slap-to-the-forehead tells us, however, that Patsy is fed up with the occult, and is flummoxed by the presence of her own magical powers. The opening and closing scenes of Hellcat are bookends; the conclusion returns to--and rewrites, with minor changes--elements of the series' first pages, a common but effective narrative strategy that serves as a nice example of Immonen's unobtrusive craftsmanship.
Let's return to the series opening, the scene with Patsy and Ruben. Patsy is modeling a dress that Ruben has sewed as a project for his graduation from fashion school (probably a university like the Fashion Institute of Technology), and Patsy asks, "Are your parents coming to your graduation show?" Ruben replies by describing his parents as "a couple of nouveau hippy academics who are worried I'm going to end up sewing for socialites." On page three, Ruben tells Patsy (and us) that his father is "a paleobotanist" and his mother is "an expert in obscure 19th-century music-dance theater." This is immediately followed by two panels drawn in a playful pseudo-Art Nouveau manner, the first of several moments in the series when Lafuente adds curlicues and non-naturalistic flourishes to his art style:
Given that most of Hellcat charts a magical mystery tour involving gigantic talking wolves and killer sea creatures, we might wonder why Immonen devotes space to this chat between Patsy and Ruben. I think the reason is thematic: Ruben talks about the tensions between himself and his parents, particularly over the very different directions their careers have taken, and identical difficulties exist between Ssangyong (who wants to go to art school) and her seven witch mothers (who want Ssangyong to take up the family trade of Alaskan sorcery). The opening scene with Ruben, then, announces that Hellcat will focus on relationships between parents and children that have soured because of disagreements over the child's career decisions.
I wasn't familiar with David Lafuente's art before this mini-series, but he's got a bouncy cartooning style that compliments Immonen's breezy superheroics. He draws Hellcat as an impossibly acrobatic gamin, a Tex Avery version of Jean Seberg, who falls off cliffs and bounces off glaciers. As Tom Spurgeon pointed out in an interview with Immonen, Lafuente begins the series by representing Alaskan vistas with panels that stretch horizontally across pages, but he's also capable of bold splash pages and a Krigsteinesque subdivision of panels into half-second slivers. Here's Patsy's double-take when she realizes that Pete is Ssangyong's boyfriend:
My favorite visual moment in the whole series is in issue #2, where Immonen and Lafuente mix two seemingly incongruous story events. As the seven witches reunite Patsy with her lost luggage, they intone mystical proclamations ("You will travel the seven layers to the upper world...") designed to guide Patsy in her spirit quest. The double-page explosion that results improbably combines a modeling scene from a Dan DeCarlo Betty and Veronica comic with the delirious layout of a J.H. Williams Promethea spread. It's too big for my scanner, but here's most of it:
Ka-POW! Marvel is collecting the 5 issues of Patsy Walker: Hellcat into a trade paperback in June, and I hope sales warrant a sequel and a return to Patsy's frozen North. I'd be happy to spend more money on better Marvel Comics, and trippy, mad spreads like the one above...