Lost in Transition: ‘DC Comics Bombshells,’ And Why the Second World War Is ‘Like This Now’
“It’s like this now.”
Those four words are about as DC a phrase as one gets in comics, more than any quote from any comic, because they summarize DC’s approach to all of its worlds and all of its continuities: we want it to be like this, so It’s like this now.
It’s why there’s been anywhere from two to five reboots of the universe during the time I’ve been reading comics. It’s why there’s a multiverse, and why any attempt to bury the multiverse never lasts. And that multiverse is how we’ve wound up with Bombshells, the digital-first series based off a collection of statues issued by DC Direct, written by Marguerite Bennett and illustrated by a team that includes Marguerite Sauvage, Wendy Broome, Laura Braga, Stephen Mooney, Ming Doyle, Ant Lucia, and Bilquis Evely.
(Incredibly, this isn’t even the first comic to lay claim to the very specific description of “series with a majority-female cast based off a collection of statues from DC Direct.” Ami-Comi Girls is the first I’m familiar with, based on a line of “anime-inspired” statues that I would never in one million years put on open display in my home. You’ve all seen the back half of Previews, right? You know the type.)
Bombshells as a statue line is based on “good girl” nosecone art from the Second World War, and is basically a new take on the Justice Society versus a superpowered Axis. Batwoman gets her name because she hits things with a baseball bat. Stargirl and Supergirl are sisters from the Soviet Union. Wonder Woman meets a shellshocked Steve Trevor who is barely able to form a complete sentence. All of them are being slowly gathered under the leadership of Amanda Waller to fight undead Nazis, which are, I think we’ll all agree, the second-worst kind of Nazis. (Illinois Nazis are the reigning champs.)
The first thing to mention about Bombshells is that male superheroes are mostly non-existent. Not to say that they couldn’t exist, but in this world the scales of superhuman power — tipped in the direction of men since the birth of the superhero — are skewed in a different direction. No reason is given, nor needed; “it’s like this now.” The closest thing to male superheroes are a lighthouse keeper named Arthur Curry, a resistance soldier named Roy Harper, and a John Constantine who spent half the series as a rabbit. (John Bunstentine?) Everyone else who counts as a superhero is a lady. They skip straight to Batwoman and Supergirl without bothering with their male counterparts.
The second thing to mention is that Bombshells is queer as hell.
It is queer as all hell.
Bombshells is so damn queer, everyone. There may not actually be enough space in this column to list the number of queer characters in this comic, so I’ll focus on one.
One of the delightful touches of the book is how Batwoman, when called up to go overseas, is given a high-tech baseball bat that shoots missiles by Amanda Waller, because comics are pretty awesome sometimes. Since leaving Gotham, she has inspired her own team of girl sidekicks in the form of the Batgirls, who run around Gotham and hit things with baseball bats until those things are not doing evil any more.
One of the Batgirls is a familiar face: Alysia Yeoh, known to comics fans as the transgender supporting character from Batgirl.
To ensure there’s no confusion, in chapter 38, Alysia explains her approach to her gender in a monologue that builds on the key turn of phrase in an oft-shared Tumblr post by Grumpypedant on what it means to be transgender.
(Realizing you’re transgender is realizing that you were so good at pretending, you fooled even yourself.)
But the thing is, even if Alysia hadn’t spelled it out, I would have assumed she was who I thought she was anyways, since Marguerite Bennett is probably the single most queer-friendly writer at the Big Two, and trans issues are part of that bundle. (She was also co-writer on the recent Angela series featuring Sera, profiled here.) Alysia fits the world of Bombshells because it has been crafted to be friendly to queerness from the get-go.
There are more adventures with Alysia in DC's in-continuity Batgirl series, so why did I choose to focus on the version in Bombshells? Because again: Bombshells is queer as hell. And there are a lot of arguments that it shouldn’t be, and here, they’ve all been cast aside.
One standby counter-argument that gets trotted out against fans who want a more diverse cast in historical fiction — diverse in race, in gender, in how they got to that gender, in sexual orientation, in religious background — is “that’s not what it was like back then.” It’s never a firm argument; the marginalized have always been with us. Their stories were always there to be told. They were just hidden from view by people who either didn’t care about them or actively hated them.
But it’s even less firm as an argument with a series as full of fantastical elements as a superhero comic, which almost by definition is tossing realism out the back window from page one. Even that most realistic of superhero comics, Watchmen, postulated that the world would be incalculably changed by the presence of the superhuman. And since change is inevitable, what changes — and what doesn’t — is going to be part of any artistic statement being made.
There is another, more grounded argument: “Yes, the marginalized existed, but they were marginalized, and Batwoman kissing girls in public and Alysia having transitioned before turning 18 is not something you’d expect queer people in WW2 to do, so what do their struggles have to do with how queer people in the 1940s were forced to live?”
The answer is, not a lot. But...
As Alysia says above, the question shapes the answer, and the real question is, “Does it need to be accurate to life in the 1940s to have worth?” And the big hint to the answer is this: A lot of '40s style superhero comics work in a limited color palette or in black and white, and Bombshells’ art — thanks to its talented art team — is bursting with the colors of a pride flag.
There are a lot of realistic superhero comics that calculate the fall of every sparrow deafened by a super-fast, super-strong punch, and seek to track every social change brought on by the tights and capes worn by the most famous people in the world. Many of them are even set in, or tied into, World War II, a massive worldwide historical event that shaped the world and is still shaping it. I have loved a number of those comics. But Bombshells is not that kind of comic. It’s the other kind of superhero comic.
In Bombshells, queer superheroines and transgender kid sidekicks fight the forces of evil with superpowers, super-science, or just baseball bats and acrobatics. Rather than relying on superior training and force, the Batgirls win more often than not because their hearts are true and their cause is just. Alysia wears a brightly colored uniform, and isn’t shot dead because of it — because the Batgirls’ costumes are an expression of who they really are, and in the face of that, evil never wins for long.
No one’s going to queer-bash the Batgirls, because the Batgirls, and Alysia among them, are bigger than those who hate them. The superheroes are free to fight against capital-e Evil and win, and free to be who they really are while doing it.
Bombshells could never happen in the history of the world as we know it, but the creative team took that as a challenge. Enough of it rings with, not scientific truth, but emotional truth, to know that the history of World War II that we know about is firmly in their minds. Steve Trevor is traumatized and treated with respectful care by Wonder Woman. Racism is not just limited to the Axis powers, but can lurk in the hearts of anyone. There are food shortages. There are industrialists trying to turn a buck. There’s sacrifice for the greater good, even if it’s unquestionably superheroic and doesn't involve dying on a forgotten hill somewhere.
Since care has been taken with what to include, it must also have been taken when deciding what to leave out — and leaving those things out is a legitimate decision for the comic Bombshells is. Bennett looked at World War II and the DC universe, and said, “No, it’s like this now.” And Bombshells is a better series for it. I have a big enough stack of war comics by Garth Ennis and his many collaborators to appreciate that type of World War II comic. I’m glad this other type exists.
In Lost in Transition, Charlotte Finn uses the reassessments of life that go with being transgender to apply a fresh set of eyes to comics that feature transgender or genderqueer characters and themes.