The Delinquents: A Beginner’s Guide to ‘Quantum & Woody’
Valiant Comics‘ shared superhero universe is smaller and less familiar than those of its major rivals, but even a small shared universe can offer a lot to learn about. To help those readers looking to take the plunge into the Valiant Universe, we’ve assembled our own team of delinquents to break things down. Steve Morris knows Valiant inside out; J.A. Micheline is new to the universe. Micheline has the questions, and Morris has the answers.
In April, JAM and Steve (or to put it in shipping terms… SteAM?) covered Divinity and Unity, which sort of bummed JAM out as an exercise. So in order to see if we can get a bit of verve and fun back into Valiant, this month we’re going for one of the most entertaining books the publisher has put out since the relaunch --- Quantum & Woody, the adventures of two extremely dysfunctional brothers who are sort-of trying to be superheroes.
(Eagled-eyed readers will remember that last month we promised to also cover the new adventures of Faith --- however our discussion of the squabbling brothers took over, and we had so much to say that it seemed best to leave Faith for another time.)
Steve: JAM! This month we’re on with a book that is my favorite from Valiant’s line. We have the first two volumes of Quantum & Woody from James Asmus, Tom Fowler and Ming Doyle, which collects about ten or so issues from the series altogether, but doesn’t run to the end of the storyline (which is in the third trade).
Quantum & Woody has always been a little under the radar compared to some of the other Valiant books, and I’ve not been quite sure why. What’s the concept of Quantum & Woody? Was it what you were expecting?
JAM: Okay, Quantum & Woody is a comedy series about two brothers who gain atomic superpowers while trying to track down whoever killed their father. One brother, Eric, is black, and the other, Woody, is white. Woody was adopted by Eric’s father and lived with them for nine years before, one day, just vanishing. The two only reunite at their father’s funeral and they aren’t exactly on good terms.
I don’t know what I was expecting in this comic, really. I didn’t know the premise (or if you told me, I forgot) and I guess in my head this was going to be something similar to Archer & Armstrong. The naming scheme is the same and so is the genre --- comedic action/adventure --- so somewhere in that ballpark was what I was expecting. I thought I would be disappointed, if only because I haven’t really connected with most of the humor in Valiant and, as I’ve mentioned before, humor is hard for me. So after you mentioned you loved Archer & Armstrong, I was pretty certain I wasn’t going to love Quantum & Woody.
And I was so, so wrong.
Even though neither of the titular characters (Quantum is Eric’s superhero name; Woody is just Woody) are my favorite Valiant characters --- that title goes to Eternal Warrior --- Quantum & Woody is 100% my favorite Valiant series. I like it so much. It’s like Archer (the TV show, not the comic), but with more pointed racial commentary and a higher batting average for funny jokes.
Steve: The original Quantum & Woody series --- which hey, maybe we’ll get to at some point --- is probably the most well-regarded Valiant series of all time, which meant this must have been supremely difficult to restart and launch with a new creative team. I think what really helps out the gate is that the first artist is Tom Fowler, who must be one of the most talented cartoonists around. He’s funny, creative, and can roll with pretty much anything. Which is what he gets given by writer James Asmus.
While Asmus is one of my favorite writers, there was always this slight worry at the idea of having a white, straight writer handle a book like this. Quantum & Woody pretty directly races into jokes about race, gender, sexuality --- it’s always been a direct series. But Asmus handles the humor really really well, I think. He manages to ensure, for the most part, that he controls the tone, which makes sure that the point of the jokes isn’t ever lost for the readers. It’s a particular style of book, one that does dumb jokes with a high sense of intelligence. What did you think about the tone?
JAM: I thought the tone was just right, which is one of the most difficult parts to nail for (a) a comedic book and (b) a comedic book that is ploughing straight into politically sensitive waters. I should be clear that the tone is not perfect at all times. There are a few jokes that did give me pause, while processing this as a political work, and though they weren’t outright over the line for me, I can easily envision someone else having an experience that’s less than stellar.
It’s why I think the Archer comparison is an apt one; I can imagine someone watching that show and finding it to be too much, even if I’m able to roll with it.
But, on the whole, the jokes are very, very rarely at the expense of marginalized people/marginalization, and even then there’s consistently some nuance involved. I started out bracing myself at several points, waiting for the off-color joke to go without remark, but instead I found the problems were either exposed or subverted. Sometimes I think it wandered into the territory of having its cake and eating it too --- like, say, making a gay joke only to highlight that gay jokes are bad and shame on you for jumping to conclusions --- but it stayed very much appropriate and fun, for the most part. And as a result, I began to trust the team.
Yes! Me! Trusting white male writer and artist (until Ming Doyle, who is an Asian woman, taps in for volume two) to make jokes about race and gender and sexuality! But seriously, I did. As soon as I realized all the racial politics involved in the series’ set up --- white male f--- up with a black male brother who was in the army/law enforcement; black male being told by his father that he has to be twice as good; white male always getting in trouble while the black male is on the straight and narrow --- I was just waiting for it to be a hot mess. And it wasn’t.
It was literally so good I started texting one of my best friends, also a black woman, about how I needed her to read this comic immediately because I was continually cracking up.
Steve: I think there are several moments that manage to help you get cemented with the comedic style, and with understanding who these characters really are. There are a series of flashbacks to when Quantum and Woody are kids, which are actually really quite emotive. In particular, I remember one scene where a very young Woody, after a fight with his adoptive family, stands, braces himself, and says, “alright just do it already!” at which point his adoptive father realizes the abuse that the kid has had in his life.
And he hugs him. Moments like that build into the screw-up Woody becomes, not endorsing his future-self but instead painting him as a sad situation that didn’t magically improve like you might hope.
Quantum, as well, comes out like a champ, here. He plays as boring because he’s grown up to believe he should be part of society, rigid and simple, to better play into how America treats African-American men. He’s basically the “lone Black Republican” joke you see show up sometimes in comedies? But again, the flashback structure develops him out and explains how he got to be who he is, and why he’s reacting in the ways he is --- why his main response to the spotlight is to feel embarrassed and awkward. They might be in frequently outlandish and ridiculous situations, but the two characters do not sell themselves out at any point. That, to me, feels like the core of the series.
JAM: Yes. Okay listen, I didn’t want to bring up the Black Republican joke because that’s like….the second funniest thing in the first two volumes. I ugly laughed. I had to close the comic. I had to start texting my BFF again about how she had to read it because goddamn that was so funny.
But I was thinking about the politics of the situation --- having Woody (the white guy) express to Eric (the black guy) about how shocking it is that he’s a Black Republican and is he sure and also just, why. But the fact that they had built so much into his history --- and actually so much about the importance of hard work and meritocracy from his father --- that the move made total canonical sense in a way that I think actually signified the team knew the implications of that scene. There was context, back story, and nuance all paving their way to lead up to what easily could’ve been a disaster of a joke.
But it wasn’t. And so what you say about the core, the structure, the threads of narrative that are played at once for drama and humor --- you’re exactly right. It’s impressive. It’s good work, even though it sometimes fails. There was more hustle shown here, in a comedic book, in understanding the different levels and angles and approaches of race and politics, than there were in, oh, I dunno, some more serious attempts we saw at covering race last year.
I like this book so much. I really, really do.
Though, I feel like I should also give another warning --- while almost all of the black-related race things were on point, I’m less comfortable with the Asian representation in the comic.
Steve: I’d be interested to hear that --- what examples of Asian representation are there in these first two volumes? I remember one moment in, I think, volume three, but I can’t pinpoint what happens in the first two. Is it a throwaway thing or is it a part of the storytelling?
JAM: I think it’s part of the storytelling --- and actually, maybe, part of a problem at Valiant. I talked about this problem with Ninjak and then I’ve seen criticism of this with Rai (even though I’m yet to read it) and now I’m kind of hmm-ing about what happens in Quantum & Woody. You have the Johnny twins who, I guess, aren’t totally stereotypical but there’s still something about their depiction that doesn’t sit right with me. (This is aside from an ultimately ableist throwaway joke that’s made about Johnny-2.) I think it’s maybe that they’re gimmicky villains and the major Asian characters aside from a woman who’s supposed to be a Thai massage therapist with this kind of weird implication that she’s also a sex worker, but that Woody explicitly does not want her for sex purposes --- you see what I mean here about having cake, eating it, etc.
Steve: The Johnny Twins are two villains who show up to menace at odd points --- two Asian men, one of whom is a big charismatic beef, while the other is a squatter scientist with an inferiority complex. For me, that just seemed like a standard set of characteristics for a double-act. I didn’t see an issue with their particular representation, but your point is more about Asian representation as a whole, here, right? That they, and the masseuse, are the only three Asian characters we see showing up in the book at this point, so it’s not exactly offering a lot for Asian readers to come on and relate to?
JAM: In the larger background of the company making these not-great representation choices, it just gives me a little bit of pause, you know? Like, I can enjoy this comic, but I think I can enjoy this comic because anti-black racism is handled much better and with more nuance than the other racial issues present.
And actually, this is a common problem, and something I’ve noticed in other properties. Creators and companies get the black representation right and then think they’re all good, but it doesn’t work that way. I don’t know if I would call it privilege to be able to enjoy this comic the way I do, since it specifically addresses a lot of black stuff, but there is something to be said about the fact that I can more easily get over the other things that are not-great about the book. I could recommend this to other (cishet, abled) black people --- and white people too, actually --- but I think I would hold back for many others without explaining that it is an imperfect work and why it works for me, but may not work for them. I was able to trust them, but I bet lots of other readers will not have that ability.
Steve: Because it’s following up on a series by Christopher Priest and Mark Bright, my guess would be that addressing race as seen from an African-American perspective was a core part of getting any new series right. That’s the main goal for creative and editorial. From there, it’s a case of expanding the book out and going further with representation --- and the book is progressive, and arguably more progressive than the original --- but sometimes that might mean a little shorthand coming into play?
JAM: Yeah, I think that’s more what it is. It’s not that the depictions were racist (except I think there’s a way better argument for the racism and misogyny of that depiction of the Thai masseuse) so much as --- I dunno, I think I was hoping for a greater breadth and complexity of character if we must have only three major Asian characters appear (and especially if one of the three --- our Thai masseuse --- is the object for a joke about stereotypes.) It would be disingenuous to me to bring this book to an Asian friend, excited about how well it handles race, when actually it only handles one race pretty well. That’s what I mean, I guess.
Your point about Priest’s original intentions is a good one, though, and one I didn’t think about. I didn’t even know there was an original by Priest until someone mentioned it on Twitter. As you may recall, I know pretty much nothing about old Valiant. But I don’t know. It’s straddling an odd line. While the point of the comic may be to really highlight anti-black racism, when I look at what’s left for Asian readers, I’m still disappointed. Just because the comic isn’t about anti-Asian racism doesn’t mean there couldn’t have been more visible and nuanced Asian characters present, you know?
Steve: A note to anyone else before we get comments (which I would dismiss immediately, given what happens) --- we didn’t read the fourth volume, in which we meet Korean Superheroine “Red Very Good Fox Champion Nice”.
Steve: It’s part of a one-shot, which starts off with the duo being recruited for part of an international super-team of heroes and weirdos. She’s one of the people involved there, but is killed off in a freak accident caused by the brothers before the team briefing has even ended. It’s my least favorite joke in the series, because she’s got an awesome design, added something new and potentially interesting, but then got discarded so quickly. That scene certainly adds extra weight to your thoughts above regarding Asian representation in the book, and I just wanted to note that one.
I want to also talk about the dynamic between the brothers, which is the core of the book. You’ve seen the way Archer and Armstrong work together, or Dr Mirage and her husband Hwen. Quantum and Woody have to “klang” bracelets against one another every 24 hours, or they’ll be killed by their powers, which means they always have to be together. But what did you make of their dynamic, unique as it is at Valiant… and within comics as a whole, really? Nobody else is doing a comic featuring adoptive brothers of different races, and that’s something I’d really like to hear your thoughts on.
JAM: I think it’s great. The dynamic avoids a lot of the pitfalls of writing about race by allowing each brother to be complex --- and wrong. The first major moment of teeth gritting for me, where I was bracing myself for the expected, was when Eric expresses upset that his voice sounds “black” and makes a point to say that he doesn’t “talk black.” Woody responds correctly: he says that that notion’s kind of racist.
At this point, we’re in danger of something that I’ve discussed before in other critical pieces --- the use of a white voice to educate a reader and/or character about racism. In this case it seemed particularly bad because you have this white guy telling this black dude what’s racist. It’s a set up that benefits white audiences by reinforcing them as the true arbiters of racism, as well as pointing out that “not all white people are racist.” It centers them as heroes rather than their historical (and present, let’s be real) role as villain.
But here’s what happens next: Woody immediately cops to having done something that’s racist as hell! And it’s obviously racist, not a problem with layers and societal weight, as Eric’s remarks were, but just flat out, everybody-knows-it, racist. And Eric gets to call him out immediately.
So you see what happened here, right? By positioning that scene immediately following the other one, it robs Woody of his position of All-Knowing-White-Guy with regards to race, as well as bolsters Eric’s position as a person of color who is aware of what racism is --- he’s not just some naive guy who doesn’t get it; he just has a particular understanding of race that’s a direct result of racial oppression and baggage. That all becomes crystal clear once you hit that resolution.
That move told me absolutely everything I needed to know about whether this team knew what they were doing, to be honest. That’s the moment I really started to trust them.
Steve: The series keeps one-upping itself, and I’m aware Asmus has a comedy/improv background. You see that with the way he structures the story to get weirder and weirder as it goes along, so each issue takes you more and more into this different world that works solely by Quantum and Woody rules. Each storyline builds on the last, so --- for example --- issue #10 isn’t weirder or bigger than issue #11. That allows him to build the comedy.
The second arc here is interesting in that regard, in that it seems like the story is going so huge that it won’t be able to recover or go bigger (but spoiler: it does) and that’s when Ming Doyle helps drop the characters in a remote white supremacist stronghold that hero-worships Quantum… not knowing he’s black, because he wears a face mask.
How do you feel about the way the story keeps rising in both tone, fantasy, and comedy? You speak about building up trust for the creative team, but when you can see the narrative heading into wild positions like the second arc, do you worry, or brace yourself? Or do you relish whatever might come next?
JAM: By the time we were into the second arc I was mostly in relish-mode, if such a thing exists. Yeah, I can’t totally turn off my sense of foreboding in works like these, but by volume two, I found myself mostly chilling out and enjoying the ride.
I think one of the good things about the series --- and I’m going to bring up Archer again --- is that it’s wild as hell but you also don’t notice. I didn’t really notice that it was more ridiculous or weird than the last arc because the core of the series is steady. It’s commentary through comedy. So I guess I worry less about whether the story makes sense or whether things are too far fetched, because I’m expecting a level of farfetched-ness in the way that it’s been set up.
Also, the second arc is probably better. I think because it’s a little bit less beholden to giving backstory and little bit more just going all-out for points-via-wisecracks that is more impactful to me. This is probably because I don’t particularly like either Woody or Eric, but I like what they are vehicles for. The story about saving their dad is good, but honestly, the situation they find themselves in in volume two is just so hilarious. And characterizing for Eric too, actually. As I said before, he’s a complex guy. So everybody wins.
Steve: You said earlier that the “black Republican” thing was your second-favorite joke --- what was your favorite joke?
JAM: Aren’t we spoiling this for them? I want them to go read Quantum & Woody. You guys, go read Quantum & Woody and try to guess what my favorite joke was. Or find out what your own favorite joke is, I dunno. It’s just really funny and spoiling jokes is the worst, haha.
Steve: Ha! Fine. You have one volume to go before you finish the main storyline anyway, so who knows how you’ll find the finale, too. Erica Henderson shows up as a fill-in artist on some of those ones.
Quantum & Woody wraps up in three volumes, then has a series of one-shots, miniseries etc. that get collected together elsewhere. Their most recent main appearances were in The Delinquents, in which they team up with Archer and Armstrong and basically ruin Archer’s innocence forever; along with Quantum & Woody Must Die, which features Steve Lieber as artist.
Despite being my favorite Valiant series, it’s never really caught on properly with audiences. While X-O Manowar and Unity held steady, Quantum & Woody seemed to rather quickly lose sales and drop below whatever cancellation line Valiant currently hold. It’s a shame, and I think it’s because humor simply doesn’t sell for extended periods of time. Is it fair to say, though, that it’s something you’ll be keeping on with --- will you be reading the rest of the issues, and finishing the story? Does it actually interest you at all in reading the very first, original series, too?
JAM: Yeah, I definitely want to keep going and finish the story. And I’d love to check out the original series, since as good as a non-black creative team is on this book, I can only imagine that Christopher Priest’s involvement takes it to new heights. I want to read it all.
Steve: And one day perhaps we will! But for the time being, let's wrap up this edition of The Delinquents, because heaven knows we've had a whole lot to say about Messers Quantum and Woody.
We're also going to wrap up this run of columns, at least for now. Over the last few months we've looked at a whole range of Valiant comics, from X-O Manowar and Harbinger right through to Dr Mirage and Divinity --- it's been a pleasure to travel through the Valiant Universe with you, JAM! Until next time!