Friday, September 9, 2016

A Justice League of Their Own

DC Comics: Bombshells, Volumes 1 & 2
Written by Marguerite Bennett with art by Laura Braga, Mirka Andolfo, and other contributors
Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna

Comic books built around selling toys are nothing new, but the genesis of DC Comics’ new series Bombshells was a bit convoluted. In 2013, the company issued a run of collectible statuettes re-imagining iconic DC Heroines like Wonder Woman and Supergirl with character designs inspired by classic pin-ups and Diesel-Punk (the 1930-50’s art deco cousin of Steampunk). These character re-designs were then repurposed as “variant covers” for DC’s run of regular comics for one month (variants being covers that encourage collectors to buy multiple copies of the same comic for the special covers). Now, with Bombshells, DC is building a story around these character re-designs—the women of DC Comics fight in an alternate World War II against the Axis of Evil: Nazi Germany….AND ZOMBIES!

So can a graphic novel series set in the 1940's, seemingly designed to push collectibles and retro cheesecake, provide a good narrative and satisfy the political sensitivities of the 2010's? And what is a 1940’s take on Wonder Woman anyway, given that the character premiered in 1941?

While Wonder Woman’s origin story is almost completely unaltered (the princess of a mystical island of warrior women follows WW2 aviator Steve Trevor back to the outside world to fight the evil Nazis), her iconic outfit is merged with that of another heroine of the 1940’s war effort…Rosie the Riveter. Bombshells (helmed by a mostly female creative team) moves the heroines of the DC Universe into center stage by setting their story in a version of World War II without DC’s male superheroes in the mix. Bombshells works best when it grounds its heroines in the real world contributions of women, whether in theaters of war or on the home front. Batwoman and Batgirl are vigilantes who are also members of the women’s baseball league (immortalized in the film A League of Their Own) that moved into the Major League Baseball diamonds when the men went off to fight. Supergirl and Stargirl are members of the famous Soviet all-women’s volunteer aerial bomber squadron, the Night Witches. When she’s not sinking Nazi submarines with the aid of sea creatures, Mera the Aquawoman entertains sailors in USO-style stage shows.

The first volume is highly episodic with different narrative threads of different heroines becoming involved with the war effort, while Volume 2 draws most of the characters together to repel an undead Blitzkrieg on London. Unlike some other recent “World War II…but with superheroes” series, DC Comics Bombshells doesn’t concern itself much with period details (like the exact date or progress of the war. These details are vague at best and contradictory at worst) or with much of the historical realities of the time and place (intelligence official Amanda Waller, an African American woman, has all the authority she possesses in the modern series Suicide Squad, without any attempt to explain how that would work in segregated America). The creators aren’t worrying about explaining it so don’t think about it too hard yourself.

So how does the series hold up? Well, as far as period pieces go I wouldn’t rate it as high as DC’s Golden Age and New Frontier limited series but Bombshells did exceed my expectations.

The art is vibrant and dynamic and surprisingly very classy despite the “what if our heroines were pin-ups?” premise. I guess this would be the same very fine distinction aficionados of burlesque shows claim separates the experience from “mere strip-clubs.” Most of the costumes don’t have the “painted on” look of modern superhero spandex and the artists mostly avoid the tacky “Snake Spine” or “Escher Girl” poses that contort the female form in painful or impossible ways to present T&A. And I dare say, with the men sidelined or non-existent, the comic may pass the feminist Bechdel Test: “whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man (Wikipedia).” In this case, the only heroines who are in any way defined by relationships to a man would be Wonder Woman (who considers Steve Trevor under her protection) and Harley Quinn (whose obsession with the Joker is fairly central to her character). For others, it doesn’t matter if the men are, in the words of the 1943 hit song, either too young or too old, because they weren’t very interested in the men in the first place.

If there is one area where the-fast-and-loose-with-history attitude falls short it’s on some of the period set dressing. One of the artists (I’m not sure which, due to the large number of contributors) uses modern designs for cars, tanks, and military uniforms. This was disappointing because they put so much thought into the character designs, but then it seemed like they used the first bit of reference material that came up in Google for "Tank" or “Ambulance.” I wouldn’t consider myself even an armchair military historian but even to me the M1-Abrams tank (those used in the Gulf Wars) trundling around Germany as part of the SS Panzer division somehow distracts me from the amazon warrior ripping it apart with her bare hands. Although I must have developed a fetish for historical accuracy in my old age if it’s distracting me from all these scantily clad women tearing up the battlefield.

While this series wouldn’t go on my “must read” list, I think the right audience really can get something out of it. If my friends sending home pictures from Dragon Con over Labor Day Weekend are any indication, a fair number of female cosplayers have jumped at the chance to give a pin-up glam twist to their favorite heroines. And given the grim nature of DC’s film adaptations I’m always keen to boost anything that shows they can actually have fun with these characters.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at

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