Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Moon Girl And Devil Dinosaur #13. Written by Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare (Rocket Girl, Halloween Eve) with art by Natacha Bustos (Spider-Woman, Strange Sports Stories) and colorist Tamra Bonvillain (Nighthawk, Angel Catbird), this issue provides an accessible jumping-on point for readers to discover Marvel’s most compelling new superhero. (This review reveals major plot points.)
Millions of people are going to see Disney’s new animated feature Moana this holiday weekend, and anyone who leaves the theater craving more media with a similar sense of excitement, humor, heart, and inclusion should quickly seek out Marvel Comics’ Moon Girl And Devil Dinosaur (MG&DD). Lunella “Moon Girl” Lafayette is a child science prodigy who becomes a superhero when she gains Inhuman abilities and a giant pet dinosaur. Her ongoing series has been one of the standout superhero comics of the year because it embodies those same qualities that make Moana special.
The MG&DD creative team is excited to tell the story of a new superhero paving a distinct path for herself in the crowded Marvel Universe. While there are plenty of moments when Lunella takes herself and her situation very seriously, the storytelling is always full of humor in both the script and the visuals. The book’s heart comes from how it carefully explores Lunella’s turbulent emotional state at a difficult age. Inclusion is a top priority on and off the page with a cast predominantly made up of people of color (including guest stars Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan and Amadeus “Hulk” Cho) and a creative team that includes man and woman co-writers, an Afro-Latina artist, and a trans woman colorist.
MG&DD acknowledges the huge variety of perspectives available for both characters and creators, and embracing these different perspectives has made for an especially refreshing superhero title. Artist Natacha Bustos has mentioned her personal connection to Lunella in interviews, and how thrilled she is to be working on a character she wishes she had had growing up as the only child of color in her Spanish hometown. That personal attachment to the character and her world enriches Bustos’ artwork, and her depiction of Lunella is particularly remarkable for how well it balances her youth with the maturity that comes from her immense intellect. Lunella is still very much a child, and even though her brain makes her feel more grown up than her dimmer classmates, her age still comes through in her exaggerated body language and facial expressions.
Writers Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare constantly find clever ways to make Moon Girl’s superhero experience a metaphor for childhood growing pains: The first arc tackled the fear of growing up via Lunella’s attempts to avoid the Terrigen cloud that turns ordinary people into Inhumans. Just like how kids can’t escape the passage of time, Lunella eventually got caught in the cloud. After emerging from her Terrigenesis cocoon, Lunella discovered that she can swap minds with Devil Dinosaur, and her inability to control this power made it a very entertaining metaphor for the mood swings that occur as children head toward adolescence.
Kids at Lunella’s age often think that they know everything, as they’re gaining more awareness of themselves and their surroundings without a larger context for this information. But in Lunella’s unique case, she may actually be the wisest person in the world. The new storyline beginning in this week’s MG&DD #13, “The Smartest There Is,” explores how Lunella deals with the revelation that she might be the most knowledgeable person on the planet, and she goes through a series of emotions as this new information sinks in. She’s initially very cocky and aggressively tries to assert her dominance because of her superior intellect, but when it comes time for superhero duties, her brain gets in the way of her enjoyment of the superhero thrill.
Jumping into action with Hulk and Devil Dinosaur, Lunella questions if life can get any better than this moment, but as she surveys the damage caused by the battle, she can’t help but wonder if there’s a better way. “Maybe someone should check the math on all this stuff,” Lunella narrates at the end of the fight, and her intellectual examination of superhero behavior begins to distance her from that lifestyle. Being the smartest person gradually makes Lunella feel alienated, and by the end of the issue she’s firmly gripped by loneliness as she questions her place and purpose in a world that doesn’t recognize her brilliance. This issue’s cliffhanger meeting of Lunella and The Thing was inevitable given Lunella’s address on Yancy Street, and this is the perfect time for Lunella to get acquainted with one of Marvel’s original outsiders, who rose from humble roots on that same street to become an intergalactic hero.
The art team of Bustos and colorist Tamra Bonvillain gives MG&DD a vibrant, animated aesthetic that amplifies the emotions of the main character and her dinosaur pal, and Lunella’s struggle to be treated as an equal by the adults around her is reflected in this issue’s visuals. Lunella’s size plays a big part in this, and Bustos is constantly highlighting how small Lunella is because it’s the most immediate thing standing in the way of her being treated like a grown up. When Hulk takes Lunella to Rockefeller University to talk to other scientists, Bustos lays out the conversation so Lunella’s head is barely above the panel border, visually indicating that Lunella feels ignored despite being the topic of conversation. She has to be dramatic to make her presence known, and that sense of drama manifests in a full-page splash showing Devil Dinosaur towering behind her, a giant mass of bright red piercing the cool blue of the laboratory.
Leonard Kirk joins the creative team this week for a dream sequence presenting a vision of an adult Lunella leading the smartest minds in the Marvel Universe (a group that is otherwise entirely male), and Kirk adjusts his linework to find the middle ground between the styles of Bustos and Jack Kirby, the creator of Devil Dinosaur and his previous companion, Moon Boy. Kirk’s inking is thicker than usual, and it looks fantastic with Bonvillain’s coloring, which is flattened to further evoke that retro Kirby look. This glimpse at the future functions very well as a visualization of Lunella’s expectations for herself, but it doesn’t feel quite like a dream to Lunella, who is still cognizant as she witnesses her adult self. This could potentially be the future for Lunella, and given how great the first year of her series has been, it would be wonderful to see Lunella grow to become a major force at Marvel Comics and inspire more new characters like herself.
Moon Girl is a new type of superhero, one who will appeal to viewers who connect to Moana’s approach to the Disney heroine. Moana refuses the label of “princess” throughout the movie, a decision that distances Moana from the branding that has defined Disney’s young women characters for decades. The Disney Princess franchise brings in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but the company has been gradually moving away from it since Frozen. Considering the massive success of that film, it’s a surprise that neither Elsa nor Anna are part of the Disney Princess franchise, and with Moana it looks like Disney is actively shedding the simplistic princess label in favor of a more complex approach to the female hero.
Watching Moana, I was heavily reminded of past Disney films like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Hercules, but her story also shares similarities with superheroes like Wonder Woman and Aquaman, who are both headlining their own future films. As the movie progressed, I stopped thinking of it as a Disney fairy tale and more as the introduction of a new superhero who doesn’t look or act like the superheroes that have come to dominate pop culture. Like Lunella Lafayette, Moana Waialiki is a smart, confident heroine of color who sees the limits of violence and the value of compassion and understanding, and like Lunella, Moana has a partner, Maui, who engages in the majority of the action while she finds better solutions.
The melding of the Disney fairy tale formula with the superhero formula in a new cultural milieu makes Moana a compelling blend of styles, and MG&DD is working with a similar mix of influences. There’s a lot of Disney in this book, although it veers more toward Pixar-esque subject matter rather than fairy tales. Bustos has compared the series to a Studio Ghibli film in how it focuses on the emotional life of its heroine and having that drive the story. This range of influences gives MG&DD a unique point of view in the superhero landscape, and hopefully the creative team will have the opportunity to continue Lunella’s story well into the future because it feels like it’s still just beginning.
Moana has some tough competition at the box office this holiday weekend, facing off against Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, but a new Disney cartoon featuring the voice of Dwayne Johnson, the highest paid actor of 2016, is all but guaranteed to do well at the box office. MG&DD is in a very different situation. It is consistently one of Marvel’s lowest-selling monthly titles, and even though the creative team is doing exceptional work, comics that don’t move copies don’t last very long. Readers should be thankful that Marvel has kept the book alive past its first year, because MG&DD could have easily gotten the chop after six issues. It’s nice to see the publisher commit to a character who doesn’t fit the traditional superhero mold: Moon Girl’s presence in the Marvel Now! promotional artwork shows that Marvel is putting an effort into making Lunella a bigger presence in its character line-up.
While new readers are encouraged to seek out the first 12 issues (the first collection is on sale now, the second comes out in comic stores the Wednesday after Christmas and bookstores in early January), this week’s MG&DD #13 is an excellent jumping-on point for anyone that wants a representative sample of this book’s many strengths. The holidays are just around the corner, and MG&DD is an especially great gift for young readers. Instead of going with the usual superhero picks, adults should consider grabbing a copy of MG&DD’s first volume for the kids in their lives. This new generation of superheroes needs an audience if it’s going to make any lasting change on the superhero landscape, and even if Lunella’s ongoing adventures are cut short, the stories being told right now are so strong that Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur could be gaining fans for years to come.