Image: Marvel Comics; cover by Joëlle Jones and Rachelle Rosenberg

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Mockingbird #6. Written by Chelsea Cain (Evil At Heart, Kick Back) with art by Kate Niemczyk, inker Sean Parsons (Aquaman, Bloodlines), and colorist Rachelle Rosenberg (Spider-Woman, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.), this issue makes the most of a Civil War II tie-in to continue the series’ winning streak. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)

A little less than five years ago, Marvel wasn’t publishing a single comic with a solo female lead. Carol Danvers hadn’t received her Captain Marvel promotion, Squirrel Girl was still a joke, and Kamala Khan wasn’t even in the picture. The women of Marvel weren’t getting their due, but the publisher got wise and realized that it was neglecting a sizable portion of the comics audience by keeping these female characters on the sidelines. This month, Marvel is publishing 14 comics with solo female leads: All-New Wolverine, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Gwenpool, Mockingbird, Moon Girl And Devil Dinosaur, Ms. Marvel, Scarlet Witch, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Woman, Silk, The Mighty Thor, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat! These are some of Marvel’s best titles, and there are so many strong Marvel comics starring female superheroes that it can be hard to keep up with all of them on a monthly basis.

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Looking at the creative teams of these titles reveals that most of the creators working on these books are men. The majority of the writers are men—only Captain Marvel, Mockingbird, Moon Girl And Devil Dinosaur, Ms. Marvel, and Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat! have female writers—and while there are more women working as artists on these titles, artists are consistently undervalued in the current superhero comics landscape. Having men on these books doesn’t necessarily diminish their quality, but when women are so rarely allowed to write solo male heroes, the imbalance in representation behind the page becomes more frustrating. (Becky Cloonan writing The Punisher is one of the few exceptions, and that series has been phenomenal.)

There are only three Marvel titles that have women in writer, artist, and colorist roles: Mockingbird has writer Chelsea Cain, artist Kate Niemczyk (joined by inker Sean Parsons on recent issues), and colorist Rachelle Rosenberg; Moon Girl And Devil Dinosaur has writer Amy Reeder (joined by co-writer Brandon Montclare), artist Natacha Bustos, and colorist Tamra Bonvillain; and Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat! has writer Kate Leth, artist Brittney Williams, and colorist Megan Wilson. Each of these titles has a distinct take on the superhero lifestyle, and while the success of these books doesn’t hinge on having women creators, it’s not a coincidence that hiring new female voices to work in the male-dominated superhero genre brings a fresh point of view to these characters and their world.

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It’s unfortunate that ABC didn’t pick up the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. spin-off TV series starring Bobbi Morse and Lance Hunter, because that may have brought more readers to Marvel’s excellent Mockingbird ongoing. Novelist Chelsea Cain has written about superheroes in the past (most notably her humor book Does This Cape Make Me Look Fat? Pop-Psychology for Super Heroes with co-writer Marc Mohan), but Mockingbird is her first professional comics work. She made a big impression with her Mockingbird one-shot with artist Joëlle Jones last year, and Bobbi Morse’s current ongoing maintains the style of that one-shot while taking a more ambitious approach to the story structure.

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Cain describes the first five issues of Mockingbird as a “puzzle box”; the first issue covers an extended period of time that teases the individual adventures detailed in the proceeding three issues, and the fifth chapter wraps it all up. Hopefully readers confused by the first chapter didn’t abandon ship early, because Cain used those three middle issues to tell compelling, subversive standalone stories exploring topics like sexuality and gender roles in superhero narratives and society’s ignorant, dismissive attitude toward adolescent girls. These issues can be enjoyed on their own but they come together to form a larger plot, and going back to past issues after reading the entire story reveals new hints that readers may not have noticed the first time. Beginning the series with this unconventional structure is a bold choice on Cain’s part, but it establishes that Mockingbird isn’t a book interested in fitting superhero norms.

Mockingbird #6 is a prime example of Cain’s nontraditional approach to superhero storytelling. The book is a Civil War II tie-in, but it keeps Bobbi at a distance from the main action of the disappointing miniseries, with her interaction limited to the news broadcasts covering the murder trial of her ex-husband, Clint “Hawkeye” Barton. In one of Civil War II’s many out-of-character moments, Barton killed Bruce “The Hulk” Banner based on a prediction made by the clairvoyant Inhuman Ulysses, and his actions are sending shockwaves through the series headlined by his exes, Mockingbird and Spider-Woman. While this week’s Spider-Woman ends with Jessica Drew getting the bad news, Mockingbird begins with Bobbi well aware of what’s happened, boarding a cruise in hopes of gaining information that could save Clint. This isn’t just any cruise, though. It’s a Nerd Cruise filled with artists, cosplayers, collectors, and gamers, a floating convention that puts Bobbi deep inside a community of people that idolize superheroes.

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One of the main things that sets this issue apart from other superhero comics is that there is no action. Bobbi spends most of her time enjoying the cruise when she’s not waiting for the mysterious horse-headed informant that paid for her ticket. She plays a table-top role playing game, lounges in the pool, and hits up the Maker Faire with her maybe-boyfriend Lance Hunter, who tries to fool Bobbi by saying he’s on the cruise for The Royal Society Of Corgi Enthusiasts retreat. Hunter is a major source of both humor and conflict in this issue, and while he and Bobbi spend most of the issue playfully flirting, Cain uses his presence to bring Bobbi’s lingering affection for Clint up to the surface.

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One of the most subtle but effective displays of that affection comes from Joëlle Jones and Rachelle Rosenberg’s cover image, showing Bobbi surrounded by a sea of Mockingbird cosplayers while wearing a Hawkeye T-shirt. Bobbi’s arms obscure the bullseye logo so it doesn’t immediately register what she’s wearing, but that small detail is a clever indicator of how much Clint means to her. Bobbi doesn’t let other people see how much she’s affected by Clint’s trial, but her vulnerability is exposed when she’s alone in her cabin listening to the news, letting her head drop into her hands for a brief moment before a knock at the door interrupts her sorrow. That short moment tells the reader everything they need to know about Bobbi’s current emotional state, and it makes her strength and confidence outside the cabin feel like an act to cover up her sadness.

As Cain explains in her response to one of the letters in the back of this issue, the story in Mockingbird is shaped by Bobbi’s specific personal interpretation of events. As a way of exaggerating certain elements of the narrative, Cain puts them through Bobbi’s filter. The narration reinforces that the plot is Bobbi’s recounting these events for the reader, and sometimes the line between reality and Bobbi’s version of reality is made explicitly clear. She tells the reader that the telegraph she receives on the cruise is really just a note, but a telegraph “seems ship-y” so she adds it in. Other times, Cain leaves it up to the reader to determine what is true. Was Hunter really wearing his Union Jack Speedo when Bobbi first runs into him, or is that just how Bobbi likes to think of him?

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The latter is very likely given how fixated Bobbi’s mind is on sex when she’s talking to Hunter, as depicted in a hilarious scene that literally prints the subtext of their conversation on the page. Bobbi can’t help but have sex on the brain when she’s around the studly Hunter, but that lust is heavily clouded by her feelings for Hawkeye, who is at the forefront of her thoughts right now. Bobbi is caught in a flurry of complicated emotions right now, and Hunter isn’t helping by getting drunk with Hawkeye cosplayers and grilling Bobbi about why he’s never met her ex-husband. The Bobbi and Hunter dynamic is one that exists solely because of their relationship on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., but Cain has brought depth to this partnership by exploring it in the context of Bobbi’s past relationships. What does Bobbi want from Hunter? Why can’t she let go of Clint? Bobbi doesn’t quite know the answers to these questions yet, but she’s discovering them in this series.

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Mockingbird is also Kate Niemczyk’s first professional comics work, and while she still has plenty of room to improve as an artist, it’s nice to see Marvel bringing in new talent and giving them the opportunity to grow. Last month’s issue featured guest art by Ibrahim Moustafa, and while Niemczyk and Moustafa have different styles, his textured linework and sharp action skills highlighted the areas where Niemczyk can still improve. Niemczyk’s art gives the book an Archer-esque quality that is a good fit for the humor in Cain’s scripts, but that can also make the characters look stiff on the page. She prefers to depict the action from a straight-on angle that brings a general flatness to the visuals, but that isn’t always a problem. Working with this dominant angle gives Niemczyk extra control of the timing, which is especially beneficial during the comedic bits.

One of the biggest laughs of the issue comes when Bobbi and Hunter prepare to investigate the room of Bobbi’s informant. Unaware of the plan, Hunter shows up at Bobbi’s door in the middle of the night completely naked (a dolphin silhouette covering his penis) while she’s dressed for late-night breaking and entering. He returns 10 minutes later wearing the appropriate clothing, and then the scene cuts to them in an elevator, surrounded by other guests in all-black on their way to the cruise’s Ninja Dance. The Hunter-specific beats are broken into two sequences with identical panel layouts: the first panel shows the closed door Hunter is knocking on, the second shows Hunter in the doorway (naked the first time, dressed and accompanied by Ka-Zar the corgi the second time), and the third shows Bobbi and naked/dressed Hunter side-by-side. Those two sequences set a rhythm that builds to the punchline in the last panel, which expands significantly in size to reveal the other guests and accentuate the last part of a joke that unfolds over the course of the page.

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Niemczyk has strong instincts, but she’s still refining her skills. One of the joys of Mockingbird is seeing Niemczyk grow as an artist, and the addition of inker Sean Parsons to the creative team has given Niemczyk more time to focus on the detail of her linework, variation of her compositions, and expression of her characters. Parsons and colorist Rachelle Rosenberg are industry veterans, and they do a lot to elevate Niemczyk’s artwork. The clean definition of Parsons’ inks and Rosenberg’s shading provides the extra dimension needed to enrich the flat linework, and the vibrant color palette heightens the breezy atmosphere of the cruise.

Mockingbird is an extremely fun superhero comic, and nowhere is that more evident than on the last page of each issue. Not the last page of each story, but the actual final page of each comic, which is used in delightful ways by designer Manny Mederos. Issues #2-#5 include paper dolls of Bobbi and friends in various outfits, and this week’s issue includes nine yoga poses to help readers de-stress. Like the paper dolls, these poses invite the reader to interact with the comic in a different way, and even if readers don’t cut out those dolls or strike those poses, it’s refreshing to see a superhero comic play around like this. It’s not clear who came up with the idea for how to use the final page, but the fact that editor Katie Kubert approved it (if she didn’t come up with it herself) shows that editorial is committed to giving this book it’s own unique perspective. That requires a certain amount of creative freedom, and Mockingbird’s team has firmly seized the opportunity to spread its wings and send Bobbi Morse to new heights.

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