The Ex Never Goes Away:
Mockingbird, Hellcat, Twin Peaks and Me
Travis Hedge Coke
Mockingbird (Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, et al) and Patsy Walker: AKA, Hellcat (Kate Leth, Brittney Williams, et al) are the two best things Marvel has published in the last year.
Patsy has been largely concerned with doing right by people, making friends of enemies, accepting when a friend becomes an enemy, and people that come in and out of your life whether you want them to, or not. It just launched into a new storyline concerning the lead character's two ex-husbands, the physically abusive, perpetually jealous Buzz Baxter, and the self-loathing, narcissistic son of the Devil, Daimon Hellstrom.
Mockingbird just finished a surreal, cerebral run that became increasingly about ex-lovers haunting you and the idea that, maybe, there aren't necessarily good exes. There are the exes you would like to have around more, now, and the ones you would rather be done with, but even if they can't show up on a ghost horse to harass you on a cruise, your exes haunt you, and your life. Even the good ones. Especially the bad ones.
Meanwhile, in real life, an ex wrote me just recently, striking up a conversation by leading with, “I’m only writing you because there’s no one intelligent left to talk to.”
Patsy and Mockingbird are cool and hot comics, respectively, in the media studies sense. They are not dissimilar, but I can’t really say they’re very much the same, either. Both have a sense of humor, and action, and both have a predilection for background jokes, but Patsy is a light read if you want it to be, with a basic, generally emotionally-driven and focused-plot emphasis. It’s a sitcom comic. Mockingbird is what, I think, everyone wanted me to get from Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye that, I kinda did, but also I didn’t. It’s so tonally simple and visually loaded that it makes your brain start running laps in the space provided. It’s a puzzlebox, as I believe the writer described it, and a very engaging one. At no point with Patsy, do I feel a need to overcomplicate or think two moves ahead; it's there, in the present, the way a good sitcom on TV is omnipresent but noninvasive. Mockingbird makes me want to outthink it, to at least have my strategy as a reader in the realm of possibility, to counter what's probably coming a move or two later.
Those two sets of engagement methods, if combined, are how I feel about Twin Peaks, which is making its televised comeback and already started the comeback, really, with the Mark Frost novel and the edited-from-leftovers The Missing Pieces para-movie. While more diehard fans seem to prefer the non-TV-like, high contrast hot material, the stuff that demands a more rigid and immediate attention to the visual or audiovisual experience, the formula-happy, ambient cool elements, tend to bug them. I love - and crave - both. I like the genre-fit noir or soap storylines in Twin Peaks for the same reason I like when a good comic dips into them; the same reason it’s nice to have a soap opera on the tv set when you’re sitting in a laundromat with two more loads to go from washer to dryer yet.
(Like Umberto Eco, I’m not comfortable with hot and cool mediums, while hot and cool works, scenes, or aspects seem reasonable to me. McLuhan pushes movies as a hot medium and television as a cool medium based in how theatrical showings and home showings worked in the 1960s, but that’s half a century ago and even then it was remarkably reductive. McLuhan positions comics as essentially a cool medium, implying that they are more trope-heavy than movies, and require more generalized active involvement from the audience, which simply is not borne out by either medium, as a whole catalogue or works, or either audience, taken in its multi-person entirety. If comics have taught me anything, it’s that unless you are listening to this article via text-to-speech software, you are, right now, engaging in a visual medium, and you can also jump to one of the five to fifteen tabs you also have open right now, or go back to the game you have paused behind this.)
Mockingbird and Patsy serializing (in part) concurrently meant I could switch off from one to the other, reading a new issue of one before the other, or in the reversed order, based simply on what I felt like at the moment. Both comics implicitly and explicitly acknowledge that characters and audience are aware of both history and of a wide world surrounding and affecting the microcosm that is each individual story or protagonist. No woman is an island, and even islands have water around them and land underneath that spreads out below the water, the air reaching above, et cetera. They are enmeshed in worlds, spatially, socially, and temporally, and they relish in this. They splash around in it.
I came into the current Patsy series, going, “Where the hell is Nancy? Will there be Nancy? Is there?” Nancy Brown had not been seen since the oldest, and longest running Patsy Walker comics were redefined as fiction-within-fiction, comics made by Patsy Walker’s mother in her likeness, replicating her friends, but giving them fantastic, exorbitant lives, while in the really real world of the Marvel Universe, she was selling her daughter to the Devil and making a fast and prolonged buck off the faces and names of a bunch of kids. And, within the first issues, alone, characters from those stories were making comebacks, with Nancy eventually having a visual appearance in the comic, if not actually walking around in a scene yet. (Where’s my Nancy scenes, Leth and Williams? I love you. I love the comic. But, where is my Nancy?) Other people were waiting for Buzz, husband turned supervillain, or Valkyrie, or… well, lots of characters that Patsy has had a history with and potentially could make a reappearance.
For some reason, I didn’t expect Mockingbird to tie into too much. That it did was great, and I like what it did with preexisting characters and situations, even down to the Phantom Rider retcon that seems to have burned almost as many concerned folks as the cover use of the other f-word.
If you have the Marvel Universe, you may as well use the Marvel Universe. While neither book redefined the universe, it does use the cosmogony and organization of that universe to rearrange the microcosm of each comics’ scope into something that is niche in the best sense of the term. A home ecology. Somewhere functional and thriving and suited to what is living there, which in this metaphor, is both the characters and the stories.
Your history is an ex as much as a former lover or a friend who isn’t a friend anymore. You remember it. You have to deal with the fallout. The impossible promise it imprinted in your life. The fears or frustrations they left you with. This is all as true of your history as it is any one person. And, your other friends, your other lovers, your family and coworkers - that is to say, interested parties - know lots of this stuff, whether you even remember it as clearly or not. An interested party might remember a bad boyfriend easier than you do. An interested party might recollect you walking dumbly into trouble, whereas you have obscured it with rhetoric and goodwill. Or, loads of excuses.
So, when Twin Peaks brings up minutiae from an episode that aired over twenty years ago, or Mockingbird redirected events first published thirty years ago, and Patsy deals with characters who haven’t appeared in over forty years, the authors know that the audience will comprise those learning all of it entirely anew, those who have secondhand familiarity, and a range of firsthand and perhaps nostalgic awarenesses. Especially today, in the wiki and search engine era, access is keystrokes away. At most. Cain and Leth, Williams and Niemczyk know that all we have to do is reverse image search for similar images or ask Siri a name to get all manner of information handed to us. Both comics use this as a strength, but neither is going to get credit for that the way that Twin Peaks’ authors traditionally have, or in comics, Grant Morrison usually does.
Williams is an amazing artist, interpolating various styles and whole sets of tropes and visual cache, changing gears subtly between humorous or heartbreaking scenes, adjusting the level of cartooning or the techniques of expression for different characters or beats. She is going to get nowhere near the credit for that, that someone showier and more loudly “artistic” will, for the same reason we don’t tend to think of Gil Kane as an amazing layout and expression artist, even though he blatantly was.
Mockingbird has been a rodeo ride, an endurance spectacle, for eight straight issues, and that’s down to the writer and the art team refusing to let us get a firm hold on the reins and keep that hold. This isn’t our show, it’s the bucking broncos; we’re just there to add weight and maybe collect the prize if we can hold on enough. Sometimes, it’s not a matter of if you get thrown, just when, and that’s okeh. That is what you sign up for.
The aggressiveness of all sides, after the blow up against Chelsea Cain that primarily took place on twitter, as ugly and horrifying as it has been, has also caused a reexamination of the whole comic and what Cain brought to comics. I hope it means a rise for her star, some critical love from some corner. She’s earned it. The book deserves it. The furor against that final cover, was not the same as the criticism against a recent J Scott Campbell Iron Man cover, most obviously because one was really, really ugly and the other, as far as I can tell, had nobody actually threatening Campbell at all. But, I notice that the title of the second Mockingbird collection is actually set to be My Feminist Agenda, and I cannot tell if that came about before or after the cover featuring the main character in a t-shirt reading, “Ask me about my feminist agenda,” inspired such vitriolic rage. Either way, I’m thrilled to be part of an audience that’s marketing to. And, I don’t want it changed.
I don’t like to see entertainment live long enough to be diluted, but dilution of a work of entertainment or art is impossible to objectively judge. What I find to be the heart or working engines and gears of Mockingbird may not be what the next reader or the next potential fan does. I’ve read enough interviews to know that actors, directors, even David Lynch didn’t particularly care for some of what I think are some brilliant moments for Twin Peaks. Some of you are still hung up on why I have these big parenthetical clauses in this article, or when I’m getting back to exes and others understand that I’ve been talking about exes the whole time and that’s why the parentheticals are necessary. What those readers understand makes it necessary may not even be why I feel they should be there. This is the nature of how we read, how we engage.
The world is bigger than we can take in, and touches us more intimately than we care to think about on a regular basis. History is always with us. You lose threads. You pick them up. Our history is apparent to others, but in different forms than it appears to us. And, you should buy Patsy Walker: Hooked on a Feline, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Mockingbird: I Can Explain and/or Mockingbird: My Feminist Agenda immediately. Right now. (Go. Buy. Read. Why are you still here?)