When Marvel resumed their regular universe in the wake of Secret Wars last November, they released a really great line-up of diverse comics under the “All-New, All-Different Marvel” banner. I wrote a little about the titles I was most interested in here, and it’s taken me a little time to get to most of the titles. Still, they’re in my pull box and I’ve been steadily making my way through. So, how are they faring eight months later?
Not well, I have to say. Red Wolf, Howling Commandos of SHIELD, and Weirdworld have been cancelled already, and a lot of the other fledgeling comics aimed at diversifying their line-up in either character or tone have been consistently soft-sellers for your local comic shop. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the diversity initiative is a failure; with a more diverse readership comes way more diverse ways of reading, so while a lot of the audience for these books might not be heading to the LCS to pick them up they might be getting them somewhere else — digitally through the Marvel or Comixology app, or in graphic novel form through their local bookseller or on Amazon. Still, the Diamond sales figures reported from comic shops is essentially the Nielsen rating that comics titles live or die on, and the big two publishing houses still use that as a key figure of success.
So let me preface this review by saying that if you’re a comics fan who has been championing more diversity in superhero stories, it’s vitally important to offer feedback to the companies giving it to you in a way they understand. Visit your local comic shop, pre-order the title or buy it off the shelf. A lot of these businesses are locally owned and operated, and they can certainly use the patronage (and the proof that broadening the tent of the superhero story is bringing in new and diverse fans).
One of the titles I was most intrigued by is Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, which wrapped up its first arc last month and released its first graphic novel collection. Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare have been doing some great work here, establishing Lunella Lafayette as a next-generation Peter Parker who just so happens to have a supernatural dinosaur as a best friend. Lunella’s story is relatable and engrossing, even when the more ridiculous elements dominate the scenery. It’s grounded in street-level concerns, coming off a bit like Netflix’s Daredevil — a look at how the high-minded heroics of the Marvel universe affect the working stiffs who have to deal with the fallout.
Lunella, for example, is a ten-year-old super-genius whose parents simply can’t afford to send her to a school worthy of her intellect. Worse, her repeated applications to the prestigious Future Foundation are rejected. So she’s stuck at her local elementary school where she fights off crushing boredom and disconnection by working on a problem that’s complicated enough to engage her and personal enough to motivate her: finding a way to keep the Terrigen Mists making their way around the globe from turning her into an Inhuman. She knows she has these dormant genes locked up inside of her, and exposure to the Mists will activate them, turning her into a different person. Of course she doesn’t want that; she just wants to be a normal girl. So, she tries to hunt down a Kree artifact in the hopes that it will tell her how their experiments worked. Maybe if she gets an explanation, she can reverse-engineer a cure.
Meanwhile, both Devil Dinosaur and a tribe of early hominids called the Killer Folk are displaced through time after a fight; when Lunella finds the artifact that sent them into the modern day, she becomes the Killer Folk’s new target.
This is my first exposure to Devil Dinosaur, though I’ve seen his name pop up here and there in various Marvel cartoons and games. I suspect I’m not alone in this, especially if this particular comic book is meant to draw in readers who would have never gotten into the Marvel universe some other way. I’m intrigued by his back-story, even though I don’t think we’ll get much explanation of it here; the first arc is all about Lunella making sense of her world and the crazy things she gets caught up in and DD is very much a sidekick. But it feels like his fight against the Killer Folk reaches back across the eons, especially since the inciting incident involves a ritual that the Killer Folk perform a blood sacrifice and the dinosaur’s original companion — Moon Boy — is *also* an ancient hominid. What’s going on here? And how does it tie in with Lunella’s life beyond the Kree connection? Maybe that will be answered in future arcs.
This one, though, is a lot of fun. We’re introduced to Lunella, her family, her school, her neighborhood and problems through these intensely disruptive influences that reshape them quite a bit. We see Lunella’s fearlessness as she draws her strength in the face of adversity; how she gets that from a mother willing to do what it takes to protect and provide for her family; and how her work ethic comes from a father who sacrifices his time and attention to make ends meet, but still does his best to be present for a daughter he doesn’t really understand. Lunella, on some level, recognizes the good intentions of her parents even while she knows they can’t possibly get what she’s going through. That tension between love and isolation is well-drawn here; and it informs so many of her decisions. She puts up with the teasing from her classmates, the impatient hostility of her teachers, the dismissive ignorance of the world at large — not because she thinks she’s better than they are, but because she knows how her differences sets her apart from just about everyone. If her own family doesn’t understand her, how can she expect anyone else to?
I know that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but it is. Lunella is a great heroine because she doesn’t let this fundamental disconnection get her down. She still believes in the people around her, she still wants to be a part of the world. The first arc of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur establishes that desire while also showing her that she can embrace the full oddity of who she is and how she relates to the world around her. Seeing that is a true joy and ultimately inspiring.
We don’t see black heroines who are smart, fearless and devoted to excellence all that often. Most of the time we see them as tough powerhouses who don’t take shit from anyone (see: Zoe Washburne, Amanda Waller, Miss America, etc.). And while that’s awesome, Lunella is in a class all by herself. She gets by on her brain, and her strength comes from her ability to stick through a tough problem until she finds a solution. She just doesn’t give up. That willpower is her birthright, and she’s applying it to the problems that we face in the 21st century. Ours is a complex, interconnected and quickly-changing world, and just when you think you’ve got things down the landscape shifts under your feet. Lunella is simultaneously firmly rooted in who she is and adaptable to whatever the world lays at her doorstep. She’s incredible.
The art from Amy Reeder and Natacha Bustos is a big part of this comic’s appeal. It’s bright and dynamic, capturing the lightness of childhood perfectly blended with the hard edges and long shadows of living in a big, dangerous city. They’re able to run the gamut of grounded scenes at the family dinner table, the primary-colored chaos of an elementary school classroom, the neon-and-shadow contrast of a city at night, and the traditional craziness of big superhero action without sacrificing their style; it’s consistent and balanced, simple but extraordinarily capable. This book isn’t only a pleasure to read, but so many of the panels are a joy to look at as well.
I really love this comic, and I think a lot of you out there will, too. And, as much as I hate to say this, it’s important that you find it. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur debuted in November 2015 with nearly 39,000 copies sold; sales figures have since dipped into the 12K range — beneath Contest of Champions, Star-Lord and Hyperion. It’s not quite into “automatic cancellation” territory, but it’s close. The most recent issues of Weirdworld and Red Wolf have only pulled 9K and 7K copies, respectively; Marvel’s top ongoing comics generally pull around 75K copies.
I’m not going to pretend Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur will ever pull that many numbers, but it’s important for us to show Marvel that there’s room in their universe for heroes like Lunella Lafayette. Now that the first collection is out, go to your local comic shop and pick it up. If you like it, make it a point to grab individual issues every month. I know that the feedback model is bogus — digital and bookstore sales absolutely need to be given more weight — but let’s deal with things as they are. Now that Marvel has listened to us and given us diverse and compelling heroes, it’s up to us to show our appreciation with our wallets and words.