Chelsea Cain (writer), Joe Caramagna (letterer), Stella Greenvoss (additional interior art), Kate Niemczyk (pencils & inks), Rachelle Rosenberg (colorist)
September 26, 2018
Two years ago, Cain, Caramagna, Niemczyk, and Rosenberg created one of my favorite comics in recent memory, Mockingbird, which took a B-list (and powerless) Avenger and made her into a kickass secret agent and unapologetic feminist. The series was simultaneously action-packed, hilarious, and heartfelt, all while having a complex narrative structure that worked well in both single issues and trades. It was a genuine crime the book was cancelled after only eight issues. Now, the team that brought us Mockingbird is back, this time with Man-Eaters, a feminist take on the cat people genre that is one part Bitch Planet and one part Ginger Snaps.
Unfortunately, this cat didn’t exactly land on its feet.
Don’t get me wrong: Mockingbird fans are sure to find a lot to love here. The panels are packed with funny little details and background jokes that make it a joy to dive into. And, like Mockingbird, it’s just as willing to abandon traditional panel structure, throwing in some infographics or design elements in lieu of traditional pencils. It’s some truly stellar work by the entire art team.
The big problem, though, is that the first issue attempts to accomplish a bit too much in twenty pages: establishing how a mutation of the parasite causing toxoplasmosis causes menstruating adolescents to turn into wild cats; laying out the government’s response to the ensuing attacks, including the formation of the SCAT task force, widescale dumping of estrogen and progesterone into the drinking water supply to stop menstruation, and detaining those who manage to menstruate anyway; and introducing us to our protagonists, teenage Maude and her unnamed detective single father.
To manage that massive amount of information, the issue relies quite heavily on expository captions, explaining the status quo in a fair amount of detail. It works to get the information across quickly, but at a significant narrative cost: our apparent protagonist does basically nothing at all in the besides play with some tampons, tell us about her dad, and, on the last page of the issue, get her period. A bit more happens with her dad, who investigates a new big cat killing at a pencil shop, but even he only gets a handful of lines. By trying to get so much backstory into this first issue, we’re left with protagonists who are largely cyphers who are acted upon, rather than acting on their own behalf.
There’s a good chance that this is specifically a first issue problem. With the setting established, the creative team should be able to focus on story to a much greater extent in upcoming issues. It’s also likely that the exposition dump wouldn’t even be particularly noticeable to someone reading the series in trade, but the narrative problems become especially apparent reading the first issue in isolation.
That said, I’m still very apprehensive about Man-Eaters. This first issue feels cis-centric in a way that could very quickly lean hard into biological essentialism. By leaning hard into the connection between womanhood and menstruation, the book others both trans masculine people who menstruate and trans women who do not, without so much as a recognition that either group exists.
Just as troubling, the creative team fails to tackle the health effects of dumping pharmaceutical quantities of estrogen and progesterone into the water supply, something that would jump start puberty in many prepubescent kids, as well as set off secondary puberty in hundreds of millions of men. The issue’s back cover includes a Bitch Planet-esque fake ad for Estro Pure “certified estrogen free water for boys,” but it plays as a gag on toxic masculinity (“of course men would be afraid of their boys getting some estrogen”) rather than a very necessary response to what would otherwise be a public health crisis.
That isn’t to say that these problems can’t be overcome in future issues and that Man-Eaters can’t be made inclusive of the reality of trans folk existing. (Working with some trans consultants, including both trans masculine and trans feminine folks, would be a good start.) There’s a lot to love in Man-Eaters, but, I’m definitely wary of a book I was otherwise very excited about from a creative team I genuinely loved in the past.