Angela: Queen of Hel is Marvel’s Best Kept Secret
Sera of Heven is the best new character at Marvel or DC since Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, and it’s about time she’s recognized as such.
Angela: Queen of Hel began as Angela: Asgard’s Assassin, then during Marvel’s recently wrapped event Secret Wars it became 1602: Witch Hunter Angela (one of the best comics to come out of the event) and now in its post-Secret Wars iteration Angela and Sera are in Asgardian Hel to fight Hela, its Queen. While technically a “Thor Family” title it can truly stand on it’s own and on it’s own extensive merits which include the breathtaking art of Stephanie Hans and intelligent writing from Marguerite Bennett .
These comics feature Marvel’s strongest queer lady couple: Sera, the aforementioned irreverent fourth-wall breaking bard, and Angela the noble and fierce badass who’s the series’ namesake. They’re Xena and Gabrielle (Sera even says so) but better– because it’s not another case of queerbaiting. The characters are women in love. They say it, show it, and it propels all of their stories.
Sera is our wise cracking, brown-skinned, transgender, lesbian Virgil guiding Angela on a quest to save her from Hel. Sera is the best fourth-wall breaking character in ages, even as the tool has become increasingly overused in comics. Her answer to “why do you know so much about everything” is essentially “because Bardic Knowledge +30”– which is the best answer.
I hesitate to call Angela: Queen of Hel a superhero comic. They don’t go around saving the world a lot. They go around saving each other. Rescuing others is almost incidental. It’s a chivalric romance and a modern romance too. Our heroines Sera and Angela are all about their love for each other. Their love is why they are starting a slave rebellion in Hel. Every test in their quest that they’ve passed thus far has been a test of their love for each other. Angela even calls her love a weapon.
The prolific and wonderful Marguerite Bennett writes here with laugh-out-loud humor and wisdom that establishes her as the heir to fan-favorite writer Kieron Gillen (who also happens to be my favorite comics writer of my generation). She was Gillen’s co-writer on these characters before the series’ relaunched, and Gillen’s mark on the cast continues with ongoing pop culture jokes and wordplay as well as a Neil Gaimen-esque fascination with storytelling as an act and memory as a narrative tool. Her moments of social commentary are truly funny and also correct. Basically, Bennett has all the best influences and she’s running with them incredibly well.
One highlight of issues 3 and 4 is the return of a favorite Gillen creation, Leah the Handmaiden (who was literally Hela’s hand). The jaded beyond her years teen character is back and snarking. She’s also into ladies as we first learned from Gillen in his Secret Wars comic Siege. With Secret Wars over it would have been easy to just say “oh that alternative universe version of her was a lesbian but this one is straight.” But because Bennett is awesome she’s keeping Leah as romantically attracted to women. Especially women in “space bikinis” as she jokes in issue 3, perhaps inspired by her armored bikini wearing paramour in Secret Wars, Magik of the X-Men.
But Sera herself is the real gift in this series. I’m not brown or trans or magical (though we share a fondness for metal guitar solos) but I do identify with Sera more than any other Marvel heroine. From her first appearances in which she is drawn by Phil Jimenez in Angela: Asgard’s Assassin she’s been drawn with a somewhat stocky body, a round chin, brown skin and a distinctive sloping nose. She’s got character.
However since the comic’s relaunch, penciler Kim Jacinto has been drawing the character with the exact same willowy body as her other female characters and with the exact same generic features. In the first two issues Sera’s skin even colored as Caucasian. This problem has been raised online and writer Bennett had said on Twitter that it was an error that would be corrected in subsequent issues. In issue 3 & 4 Sera’s skin is browner but not quite as dark as it had been.
A lighter skinned and still generic bodied Sera is a loss. For some great insight into colorists and editors selecting characters’ skin-tone in comics, read artist Ron Wimberly’s webcomic.
Critic Mad Mol Green spells out the problems with how Sera has been drawn in the new series:
“But Sera wasn’t only a trans character or a dark-skinned character or a full-figured character. She was all those things. And now she’s not. And if you thought that there weren’t many trans or lesbian or dark-skinned or chubby women in superhero comics, then characters like Sera are essentially non-existent. If Sera’s been summarily slimmed-down and whitened-up, it narrows down the totality of who and what she is, and who and what she represents.”
Thankfully, for many reasons, flashback sequences throughout the series are painted by Stephanie Hans, an artist who’s been with Angela comics since the beginning of Angela’s Marvel solo titles. Hans is at the top of her game and the sequences included impressive panel layouts, brilliant atmospheric color pallets, with reds unlike any I have ever seen. She paints beautiful clothes and emotive faces. I buy literally every comic she’s worked on. Hans’ beautiful paintings influenced by Renaissance religious art, Impressionism and fairytales continues to give the story and its distinctive characters their due. Her art is among the best in comics today. Portraying a brown woman with distinction isn’t just the right thing to do it also makes the art more interesting. And her painting chops are second to none.
In each issue now we have Jacinto’s thin, generic Sera juxtaposed with Hans’ stout and dark skinned Sera. The editor really need to step in and right this. My criticism of the post Secret Wars run comes from a place of love and concern. The series is excellent but I’m sure Jacinto can be doing more to elevate it.
I keep buying Angela because I have faith in her. And Sera.