Comics Vixen: Marvel Super-Heroes Winter Special #8 Vol. 2
Labeled a Marvel Comics “80 Page Blockbuster!” on the front in no uncertain letters, I somehow expected that this comic would contain just one long, involved story. Maybe it’s my affinity for reading in the trade paperback format that lead me to think that. Instead, this is a collection of three shorter stories, and what really makes me interested in this copy in particular is that the stories seem reflective of a shift in the comic book industry that was happening at the time it was written.
My reviews have been jumping all over the place—from independent comics to trade paperbacks to single issues like this one. In the interest of letting people who are curious know what’s out there, it makes sense not to focus on one particular publisher or format. And we can get a more interesting look at the big picture of the comic book industry and why it’s remained so successful over the years by looking at the new, old, popular, obscure, and everything in between.
I know not everyone can get their hands on a copy of Marvel Super-Heroes Winter Special #8 Vol. 2 from 1991. It’s a bit of a collectable, not because of its age but because it features the first appearance of a new character. (That always makes issues more collectable, and the more popular the character becomes, the pricier the comic is probably going to be.) That said, even if everyone can’t run out and buy their own copies, this is still a really interesting issue that’s worth talking about for what it reflects about the comic industry at the time.
Marvel was founded in 1939 (under a different name), so it has obviously had to make some changes over the years in order to stay relevant. There are a lot of interesting parallels between historical events and what comic books were talking about at the time—enough to merit a separate post about it, if not a book. But just as interesting are the more recent developments that have made comics perennially popular, even cool, in our jaded modern world. To keep that up took a lot of experimenting—some of it good, some of it not so much.
In the early 90s, the comic industry was booming, much like it is now. And this, I would argue, is really when the transition from old-fashioned comic storytelling to more modern approaches and characters happened—the sort of things that made the current boom in the industry possible. (I’m open to counter-arguments, by the way. My knowledge of comic book industry history isn’t really all that comprehensive yet, so I could very well be wrong.) But this three-part issue from 1991, as far as I can tell, exemplifies this transition really well.
The first story—which I initially expected to be the only story—is a very traditional approach to the comic genre. The X-Men must battle an out-of-control enemy threatening to wipe out the X-Men, the human race, or the world as a whole. It’s reminiscent of the classic-but-kinda-corny comics my parents grew up with: it’s aggressively G-rated, in spite of the skimpy costumes. Swear words are ostentatiously avoided—Wolverine says “Cripes!” a lot. Rogue’s dialogue reads like a bad actor’s version of a Southern accent. And the constant exposition through dialogue is so bad it’s endearing: characters literally say what they’re doing as they’re doing it, in case some poor reader might get lost without their guidance.
It did make the story easy to follow, but I couldn’t help but think how far comics have come since then. Now, readers are expected to keep up with complex story lines, dark themes, and gray areas more often than we are expected to enjoy an old-fashioned good-versus-evil buddy battle scene. Both can have merit, I think. But I was a little surprised to find such old-fashioned comic storytelling in a book from 1991.
The second story starts to bridge the gap between traditional and modern comics. It’s still pretty old-school: Sub-Mariner, a sort of noble dude from Atlantis in a Speedo, gets embroiled with a villain named Diablo and has to save the planet with his frenemy Red Raven of the Bird People. But there are hints of modernism. When Sub-Mariner exclaims, “Diablo—the Master of Alchemy!” Diablo replies, “Why do people always say it like that? Is there a ‘Diablo—the Master of Origami’ running around whom I haven’t met?” Corny, but also slightly evocative of the ironic humor and subtle fourth-wall breaking that we see more of in modern comics. The character of Diablo is aware of the absurdity of his interactions. Also very timely is the fact that Diablo’s diabolical plan is to create a hole in the ozone. The nod toward current events more delicate than simply battling “bad guys” strikes me as a more modern phenomenon in comics.
Then we get to the third story, and the reason this comic is the rare collectible that it is today. In this tale, we meet the contentious character of Squirrel Girl. I say contentious not because Squirrel Girl is particularly scandalous or controversial, but because a lot of comic book enthusiasts I’ve met just don’t really like her. I mean, she has the power of a squirrel, so being obnoxious is kind of in her character. And her “power,” aside from things like scaling trees and commanding actual squirrels, is that she’s unbeatable. It’s silly, or stupid, depending on who you ask. But it’s an early appearance of the sort of ridiculous, ironic comic book characters that we know and love today.
I don’t think it was an accident that Deadpool showed up in comics at around the same time. Although he’s better liked by readers overall (look who’s got his own movie!), there are some definite similarities between the two. Characters like Squirrel Girl and Deadpool aren’t meant to be serious. They’re meant to poke fun at the preposterousness of the comic book world, and their ridiculous-but-self-aware characteristics give them the ability to explore their worlds in more interesting ways than traditional characters might. Whether or not people like Squirrel Girl (I do; she’s a bit of a dumb character but in a fun way), her first appearance was part of a bigger picture.
The comic industry was trying to remain relevant to the jaded youth of the day. It’s kind of like how 90s grunge music replaced 80s hair metal at around the same time. People got tired of the over-the-top glamour and wanted something a little more genuine, maybe less polished, that they could relate to. Squirrel Girl isn’t a put-together, well-spoken superhero. She’s an awkward teenage girl who spends the majority of her first appearance annoying the hell out of Iron Man. But she is different in ways that reflect an important shift in the comic book industry at the time, one that made it possible for comics to stay relevant for the next 25 years and beyond.
I’m curious to hear what people think—am I right about the transition in comics happening in the early 90s and remaining influential today, or are there examples that prove me wrong? Find me on Twitter @ElyseHauser and let me know what your thoughts are!
P.S. — I know this column has not appeared on the strict every-other-week basis I intended it to. But since we live in the world of online publishing where strict publication schedules are no longer necessary, I’ve been choosing quality over timeliness. So until life makes predictable writing schedules more accessible to freelancers like me, I’m going to call this an approximately-every-two-weeks column. Sound good? Good.