Chelsea Cain Does Superheroes in Mockingbird Volume 1: I Can Explain
Chelsea Cain (Writer), Kate Niemczyk, Sean Parsons and Ibrahim Moustafa (Artists), Rachelle Rosenberg (Colours), Joe Caramagna (Letters)
Bobbi Morse, alias Mockingbird, is an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who possesses fighting skill and intellect, but not, for most of her existence, actual superpowers. After being injected with an experimental serum, she begins to manifest new abilities. Exactly what form these powers will eventually take is unclear; until then, she must keep her mind focused on her missions, rescuing a fellow agent from a BDSM club, halting an overpowered twelve-year-old, and investigating a mysterious virus responsible for a mass extinction.
There was a time when buying a superhero comic issue would get you a self-contained story. But as time went on, tastes changed. First came the development of sprawling, company-wide universes; then, the rise of the graphic novel. Bigger was better, and done-in-one stories were out of fashion. Despite this, we still get the occasional throwback to a more episodic era.
The comics debut of novelist Chelsea Cain, Mockingbird Volume 1: I Can Explain, is just such a throwback. Only two chapters are focused on the narrative of Bobbi’s new powers and the unknown virus. In issue #1, Bobbi undergoes a series of medical checkups, which, we later learn, are taking place between her exploits elsewhere in the book; the chapter ends on a cliffhanger, which is resolved in issue #5.
Meanwhile, issues #2 through #4 of this collection–along with the sixth chapter, which was originally published as a one-shot–mark an unabashed return to the most basic superhero story structure. Each issue sees our protagonist set off on her mission, biff the requisite baddies, and wrap things up before her 22 pages are done. Taking a break from novel-length works, Cain revels in the superhero comic’s ability to get its story across in as quick and as punchy a way as possible.
But although Cain’s approach to structure is largely old-fashioned, her approach to content is rather more playful. Each storyline runs along two tracks. On the surface, we have Mockingbird’s can-do heroics; at the same time, through narrative captions and the occasional visual aside, we are allowed a look under her skin. Bobbi turns out to be a thoughtful heroine who faces her nagging uncertainties with a snarky sense of humour.
In one of her internal monologues, Bobbi mulls over her childhood dream of becoming a superhero, only to be faced with social prejudice. “I could never be like my heroes,” she says. “They all had something I didn’t. A Y-chromosome.” This piece of narration provoked quite a bit of ire on the internet when the issue was first published, with commentators in certain quarters citing it as evidence that Marvel had been taken over by crazy feminists.
The issue in which Mockingbird brings up gender inequality is nowhere near as preachy as its detractors claimed. It is, in fact, a good example of how Cain uses Bobbi’s narration to add a new layer to what is otherwise a straightforward one-off superhero tale.
The antagonist is a moody twelve-year-old girl who has developed the power to control colour, a surprisingly fearsome gift. She has trapped four classmates in a rainbow bubble and can kill people by robbing their bodies of the colour red, draining them of haemoglobin in the process. A SWAT team struggles to communicate with her (“I’ve negotiated with bank robbers, psychopaths, henchmen, serial killers, terrorists, but for the life of me I can’t start a conversation with a sixth-grade girl.”), and so Mockingbird is called in to handle the situation.
“What’s so scary about twelve-year-old girls?” asks Bobbi in one of her caption boxes. “They’re shape-shifters. Not quite one thing or another. How can we have a meaningful dialogue with adolescent girls when we live in a culture that still can’t talk about tampons?”
Aided by an intimate knowledge of early-adolescent female friendship, Bobbi soon grasps what is happening. The girl is not holding her bubble-bound friends captive, but rather protecting them from her own unstable powers. Her brutal retaliation against the SWAT team is because, in Bobbi’s words, “A sixth grade-girl will stab her friends in the back, but come between her and those same friends? She will rip your throat out.”
Mockingbird ends up saving the day, and the story concludes with a tongue-in-cheek call-back to her earlier comments on sexism. “Breaking news: nation stops being sexist, starts talking about tampons.”
The issue shows Mockingbird at its best. It understands the workings of the superhero genre, while being unafraid to play with them. Its social commentary is wry and a touch self-effacing rather than earnest or didactic. At the same time, however, the chapter demonstrates the limitations inherent in Cain’s choice of story structure. The themes and concepts of the issue are rather more interesting than the wider story arc of the mystery virus, which comes across merely as a means of tying Mockingbird’s adventures together. Perhaps her encounter with the deadly tween and the accompanying discussion of gender and adolescence would have benefited from being extended another issue or two.
The artwork across the book is variable. Most of the issues are drawn by Kate Niemczyk, whose illustrations are bold and slick but a little static during the action scenes. Ibrahim Moustafa, the artist on issue #5, shows more energy, but his rather grittier style creates a clash with the rest of the book. Joëlle Jones, drawing the one-shot included at the end of the volume, gets the balance right. With lively compositions and characters full of movement, Jones’ artwork is spot-on for an action-oriented comic. The issue in question actually contains very little action, but the visual storytelling remains fast-paced even when Bobbi is simply getting up in the morning.
All six issues are coloured by Rachelle Rosenberg, whose vibrant pop-art aesthetic is the glue that binds the differing artistic styles together. Homaging the 1960s at their most flamboyant, the colour design is an ideal fit for a comic that draws upon both the Silver Age of superhero comics and the glory days of spy movies.
Unfortunately, Mockingbird has already been cancelled, meaning that Mockingbird: I Can Explain arrived too late to save it. As the series lasted for eight issues, the book is an incomplete collection. This is perhaps where the episodic structure comes into its own. The storyline of the virus may be unresolved, but Bobbi’s self-contained adventures will have plenty to offer a reader looking for a few light-hearted and thoughtful superhero romps.