Cover by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Agent Carter #1. Written by Kathryn Immonen (Operation S.I.N., Russian Olive To Red King) with art by Rich Ellis (The Superior Foes Of Spider-Man, Memorial) and colorist Rachelle Rosenberg (The Superior Foes Of Spider-Man, S.I.E.G.E.), this one-shot functions as an effective metaphor for the challenges faced by women in the superhero comics industry. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)

As the first female character to headline a Marvel Studios property, Margaret “Peggy” Carter has become an important figure in the fight for female representation at Marvel Comics, and the publisher could really use her help right now. Last week, Marvel revealed that Nathan Edmondson would be writing the Red Wolf ongoing series, an announcement that was met with frustrated anger by many in the comics community for a number of reasons, with the most pressing being allegations of sexual harassment against the Edmondson. Others have written about the difficulties of reporting these allegations without sources willing to go public, but the controversy around Edmondson has sparked a much-needed discussion regarding the treatment of women in corporate-owned comics.

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This past Sunday, Alex De Campi wrote a Tumblr post calling out Marvel and DC for continuing to employ and protect known harassers, a practice that disrespects the female readers that have become a higher priority for these publishers and the creators and editors trying to make these companies more inclusive and engaging. She specifies that this isn’t just a Marvel and DC problem, but those are the companies whose decisions will have the biggest impact on a creator’s career, so she holds them to a higher standard when it comes to handling such a serious issue. De Campi mentions that she’ll be blacklisted from these companies for speaking out while the harassers will keep getting work, and her perspective shows the challenges female creators face if they have aspirations of working in superhero comics.

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Two days after De Campi’s post, writer Brian Wood released a newsletter pleading for empathy from the comics community, using the Edmondson controversy to fight against the “pervasive nastiness” plaguing creators whose behavior or beliefs may not agree with readers. He focuses primarily on Edmondson’s political leanings and doesn’t directly address the harassment allegations, but considering Wood’s own experience with harassment allegations, it’s difficult not to see his defense of Edmondson as a response to the people who have spoken out against him and the fans he’s lost as a result.

Emma Houxbois has an excellent piece at The Rainbow Hub dissecting how Wood’s newsletter reflects larger industry issues with minimizing the wrongdoing of harassers and blaming the victims, and while Wood has tried very hard to backtrack from his original statements in a newsletter update, his original message is a strong representation of the viewpoint that has kept harassers protected. To Wood, this “pervasive nastiness” is viewed as unjustified persecution rather than a righteous demand that people face the consequences of their actions, and it’s not difficult to imagine many editors subscribing to this ideology.

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These are the events surrounding the release of Agent Carter #1, putting the one-shot in a cultural context that makes it a fitting metaphor for the obstacles standing in the way of women trying to break into superhero comics. Written by Kathryn Immonen with smooth, expressive artwork by Rich Ellis and colorist Rachelle Rosenberg, this issue partners Peggy Carter and the Asgardian warrior goddess Sif for a very unconventional job interview, one that ends with a burning S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier crashing into the Atlantic Ocean. It begins as a light, fun story introducing a female friendship that will hopefully get much more attention in the future, but it takes on more emotional weight once Peggy finds herself submerged in frigid water, desperately trying to save her new ally.

“How many times can we be tested?” Peggy asks in a thought balloon. “How much harder do we have to try? And for what? To prove what?” Peggy is talking about the constant test that is her life as a secret agent, but looking at Immonen’s experience with Marvel, it’s easy to read these words as Immonen’s frustration regarding the trajectory of her superhero comics career. How many times does Immonen have to be tested before she’s given a major title that will last more than a year? She’s proven herself again and again, but she’s still being tested while her male contemporaries have long ago passed and moved on to bigger projects. Immonen started writing for Marvel seven years ago with a Hellcat story in Marvel Comics Presents drawn by her husband, Stuart Immonen, and she’s done consistently strong work ever since, but she’s always kept on the sidelines when she should be tackling Marvel’s biggest properties. (Her 2013 Avengers Annual was a perfect audition for one of the many Avengers titles, but her relationship with the team sadly lasted for just that one issue.)

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Nearly every artist that has worked with Kathryn Immonen has become a top name in the industry, and Brian Michael Bendis has a tendency of snatching up Immonen’s collaborators for higher-profile projects: David Lafuente worked with Immonen on Patsy Walker: Hellcat before joining Bendis on Ultimate Spider-Man, Sara Pichelli worked with Immonen on Runaways and Pixie Strikes Back before co-creating Miles Morales with Bendis for Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, and Bendis’ current Guardians Of The Galaxy artist Valerio Schiti worked with Immonen on Journey Into Mystery, her last ongoing Marvel gig. Immonen’s imagination pushed these artists on each of their respective projects, and they’ve each been promoted to bigger ongoing projects while Immonen is assigned smaller miniseries and the occasional ongoing assignment on a book with declining sales.

Immonen’s first ongoing title at Marvel was Runaways, a book that had taken a huge dip in sales: Joss Whedon’s six issues broke the book’s momentum with a storyline that suffered from extreme delays, and Terry Moore’s nine issues of volume three alienated the book’s fan base by deviating from the concept and characterizations that had been established in the past. Immonen and Pichelli were given four issues to get the book back on track and rebuild the readership, an extremely unreasonable task considering the realities of the comics distribution model, and despite a huge upswing in quality, the title was canceled on a cliffhanger.

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After the Runaways debacle, Immonen would continue to write for Marvel on various miniseries that showcased her talent for dark comedy, high concepts, and complex female characterizations, but none of these were especially high-profile projects. Her biggest gig is also her longest, but Immonen’s run on Journey Into Mystery was still grossly underpromoted by Marvel. Kieron Gillen’s run on the title had a deeply loyal fan base but wasn’t an especially hot seller, and Immonen and Schiti would have had much more luck reaching a wider audience if they started their run with Sif #1 instead of Journey Into Mystery #646, which is an intimidating number even if the issue is a jumping-on point. New #1 issues bring in more new readers, and a title change would have made it clear that Sif is the central focus. There’s no sense of permanence in having Sif step into the main role in an established title because she can just as easily be forced out of it, but that wouldn’t have been the case if Immonen and Schiti launched Sif as part of the Marvel Now! initiative, which had so many new #1s that Journey Into Mystery #646 was swept away in the wave.

Immonen’s work on Peggy Carter has also suffered from some unfortunate titling, and whoever decided to call Immonen and Ellis’ first Peggy Carter miniseries Operation S.I.N. made a huge mistake. That title reeks of editorial interference, and tying the miniseries’ name to a lackluster summer event from the year before was very strange considering the comic was debuting at the same time as ABC’s Agent Carter. That TV series is going to bring in the most potential new readers, so it would have been wise to give the book the same name so those new readers know where to look. Agent Carter: Operation S.I.N. gets the job done just fine, and it implies that the miniseries is part of a larger Peggy Carter story, which there should be at this point.

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Marvel has not made any announcement regarding an Agent Carter ongoing series, but with the second season set to air early next year, it’s the perfect time to give Peggy the spotlight and Immonen is the right person to do it. Her Peggy is a complicated character whose powerful confidence is a cover for the pain she’s internalized after witnessing years of wartime horror, and she refuses to let others see her suffering. She’s a woman fed up with a system that is constantly putting her down, and Immonen’s passion for Peggy’s perspective shines through in her writing. It’s the little moments in this week’s one-shot that flesh out the nuances of Peggy’s character, like her reaction when Nick Fury starts her debriefing by telling her that their “best man” stitched up her face, so it shouldn’t leave a mark. “God. My face.” Peggy responds. “I don’t care about my face.” She’s not concerned with her beauty, she’s concerned with the fate of her fallen comrade, and she’s insulted that Nick wouldn’t lead with that information.

Ideally, the entire creative team of this one-shot would join Immonen on an Agent Carter ongoing, because Ellis’ artwork has the emotional range, comic timing, and dynamic action needed to hit all the beats in Immonen’s scripts. The relaxation in Peggy and Sif’s body language when they meet establishes the swift development of the personal bond between the two women, and the scene of them in the canteen grounds their relationship before the story take a turn for the spectacular when the helicarrier goes down. Rosenberg’s coloring becomes more intense as the action accelerates, and Ellis’ crisp action layouts are paired with hot orange, yellow, and red to add heat and create a strong point of contrast for the rush of blue that comes with Peggy and Sif’s crash into the Atlantic. That blue highlights the numbness Peggy feels as she begins to doubt her strength, and it reappears in the final scene with Fury as the color of the curtain in Peggy’s hospital room, a reminder of the helplessness Peggy suffered as a result of Fury’s test.

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It’s not easy being a woman in superhero comics, and Immonen is a white woman with a husband who is one of the major talents of superhero comics. If it’s this hard for her to get respect from Marvel, how difficult is it for women of color with no existing ties to the publisher? Marvel has made some forward progress with hiring women of color as artists—Stacey Lee on Silk, Natacha Bustos on Spider-Woman and the upcoming Moon Girl And Devil Dinosaur, Brittney Williams on the upcoming Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat!—but writing positions are still filled almost exclusively by white men and women. Marvel tries to make up for this lack of creative representation by introducing new characters of color like Kamala Khan and promoting established heroes like Sam Wilson to bigger roles, but that diversity is purely presentational when it should be institutional.

G. Willow Wilson’s personal experience as a Muslim woman brings a cultural understanding and respect to Ms. Marvel that has made it one of Marvel’s most intriguing books, and the publisher should make a greater effort to bring in more creators with deeper personal connections to the central hero’s perspective. How would Mariko Tamaki’s experience as an Asian-Canadian woman inform Cindy Moon’s story on Silk? How would Mat Johnson’s biracial identity influence his approach to Miles Morales? How would Sherman Alexie’s background growing up on a reservation illuminate Red Wolf’s character? A writer like Alexie may not have any comic-book experience, but that hasn’t stopped Marvel from hiring novelists and TV writers in the past, and even if he has no interest in the project, it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask.

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One of Marvel’s best Secret Wars miniseries is The Infinity Gauntlet, featuring a young black female lead and her family, but written and drawn by two white men: Gerry Duggan and Dustin Weaver. Their race hasn’t prevented them from writing a compelling story with these characters, but if Anwen’s family has a future in the Marvel Universe, maybe it could be handled by black creators? Nilah Magruder won the first Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity this year for her webcomic M.F.K., and her commitment to well-rounded representation and talent for blending the real and the fantastic would make her a great fit for Anwen’s story, perhaps with Genius artist Afua Richardson on art duties.

The talent is out there if editors look for it, but it’s easier for them to stick with what they know instead of reaching out to new creators. That’s a shame because getting work at Marvel and DC is still one of the most substantial stepping stones for comics professionals, and these publishers putting faith in fresh talent on big projects is how many creators go from relative unknowns to dominating players in the industry. What would Kathryn Immonen’s career look like if she was one of the rotating writers on Amazing Spider-Man during “Brand New Day”? If she wrote Uncanny X-Men for two years? These books have built-in fan bases that could dramatically expand a creator’s profile, and representation is always going to be lacking as long as these assignments are denied to people that don’t fit the cisgender, heterosexual white male norm.

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