The ‘A-Force’ Experience: A Perplexing Read for a Lapsed True Believer
A-Force is an alternate reality limited series that's a part of the current Marvel Comics crossover event, Secret Wars. Written by G. Willow Wilson and Marguerite Bennett and drawn by Jorge Molina, it's been greatly anticipated due to its pile-up of Marvel's best and lesser-known female superheroes, leading many to believe that it would be an all-women adventure.
At first it seems like an island full of women, and then it seems like an island full of superheroes. It’s neither. It’s not. This is no Themyscira.
We’re on Arcadia; a mysteriously “protected” island, behind “the Shield,” ruled by Baroness She-Hulk, ruled herself by Sheriffs and policed by the Thor Corps, and ultimately overseen, apparently, by Doom. Victor Von God? I’m sure it’s all explained in other books. It’s a fairly empty island, with architecture I don’t especially recognize as American (and with no “people fly around here constantly, why not put in some proper perches for them as a part of the building process” nods to the world at hand). It’s perplexing. It’s a little bit spooky. I’m not surprised when trouble surfaces in paradise.
The heroes we know seem to be a sort of nobility-coded peace-keeping force; the A-Force of the title. They live in a fancy house (all of them? I don’t know, but I’m X-Men bred so that’s comfortable enough at least), they’re commanded by a Baroness and they have no uniform but appear to work in small cells or teams.
Honestly, I think the lack of a unified aesthetic is a huge misstep. Things feel haphazard and unexplained, with the costumes we know and love situated in a clot between Thor Corps’s identifiable assemblage of shared motifs, and Strange’s muted, dark Sheriff uniform. Spider-Woman isn’t even in her new jacket ’n’ leggings getup. Nico’s more black Alice than her familiar buttongoth self, and Medusa’s in a Balent-era Catwoman purple body sock that might well be her regular wardrobe, but looks boring, old fashioned, and… just not very good. It’s not a very good outfit design. She look like a bootleg action figure.
Most of the X-(wo)men of A-Force still wear their team logo with pride, and again, that's confusing. Do they know why they’re living on this wacky island surrounded by Deadlands? Do the X-Men have an updated backstory for this Arcadian pocket universe/rebooted reality/Doom self-insert fic? Help me. I’m puzzled.
Dazzler’s back in silver, of course, and in a nice little throwback to the wider Marvel history she calls a big angry shark “sugar.” I’ll hold my hands up to not remembering if she has a habit of that generally, but what I do know is that Rogue calls the cat, the postman, and the King of the Solar System Sugah — Rogue and Dazzler, frenemies 4 life. That’s the kind of lady-interaction I am here for.
To be fair, if I had more favorites among the newer crowd (Lady Loki, Nico Minoru, America Chavez — if I were a current Marvel reader instead of a lapsed True Believer) maybe I’d find more in the trough overall. The main emotional thrust of this first issue is the three-way bond between Nico, America and Loki, and the impact that personal ties can have on the social order. People often sing sad songs about how wars set brother against brother, but perhaps A-Force looks to be setting sister next to sister, in a wider war on (the) Man?
It’s not a medieval-romantic, monarchist comic, despite She-Hulk’s elevation to Baroness. Storm is a minimalist, occasional background presence, and otherwise the Royals of the Marvel U are seen thrice over; Black Bolt unmasked and asleep, kissed by his wife as she leaves for work; Medusa herself grumbling at her authoritative irrelevancy; Namor, summoned by Baroness Walters to do her bidding as an apparently equal member of Team Namor/a/ita.
Namor’s got his trousers on here, but I can enjoy the composed subserviency of such a longstanding, masculine bossy boots. There’s a very deep satisfaction there, for an audience presumably as female as Arcadia’s visible citizenry. And in a small sartorial triumph, blue Namorita’s far-out one-boob shell/bra combo looks pretty aces under Jorge Molina’s pen. I miss the flatter chest that Alphona debuted Nico with, but praise Doom! The busts of our heroines are not unduly dwelt upon.
(Small side note: Does Sister Grimm not need to bleed to get her staff out any more? A-Force suggests not.)
It’s been a long time since I read a Marvel comic. Y’know what I noticed the most? Adverts, man!
Straight in on the first page, a Gillette --- the best a man can get --- advert tells us who the comic is, ahem, really for. Seven pages later, an underwater-themed advert slots into the over-water action of the comic perplexingly well, confusing my understanding and messing with the narrative flow. Five pages after that, an Avengers: Age of Ultron play set (man-characters only, of course) with the same pale grey/speed line aesthetic bursts onto a page following an exclamatory “CRSSSH” onomatopoeia. BUILD AVENGERS HQ, shouts the advert, while I try to concentrate on alternate-Sam Wilson, just before I try to accept alternate-Stephen Strange.
One single page of comic separates this Avengers merchandise from that; SUNSCREEN IS BETTER WITH FRIENDS, shouts Walmart-exclusive sun protection lotion, as She-Hulk verbally tussles with Strange. Two “friends” clearly separated by altered circumstance. When will they next share sunscreen? Suddenly I... feel so sad.
Four pages later, as I try to figure out whether America Chavez is dating Loki or Nico Minoru or both, a hideous plastic gremlin wearing Loki-esque horns leers at me. His catch copy suggests I “bring a buddy” to the “dungeon”. Is this a sex thing? Are you hitting on me, A-Force?
It turns out later that the two younger girls play ward to Loki’s mentor. Who’s in charge of these advert placements? Is it somebody who understands how sequential storytelling works? Signs point to no.
One more page of comic and then two more of adverts — “share YOUR universe”, says the first, which seems cruel when the heroes of the story are struggling with the rules of their oddly altered world — a clean run of comic, and then two more adverts (American vacationing and a pay-monthly Harley offer) before the issue finally ends.
I’m trying to read a story, here. Hopscotching between ads is exhausting, irritating, and it spoils what fun there was to have. For a first issue of a well-publicized, hot-issue title (Comics: Not Just For Him Anymore!), the commercials and the throwback costuming do separate disservices to a promising scripting team. G Willow Wilson and Marguerite Bennet? Hold the phone!
A-Force is apparently going to continue as a series after the Secret Wars dust has settled, but this version of reality still feels very temporary, which robs the budding plot of gravity and sets two mysteries in apparent opposition. Do I want to know why Arcadia exists under Doom, or do I want to know why megalodons are shooting out of the ocean at Arcadia? Are these two answers entwined? I don’t know. But I hope (and almost trust) that more of the visibly present women get lines, agency and import, while we all enjoy the ride of finding out.