Welcome to Queerness In Comics, a new bi-weekly column by Avery Kaplan, which will explore queer representation in comics. This week, Avery is exploring Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat!, which ran for 17 issues from 2016-2017.
Writer: Kate Leth
Artist: Brittney L. Williams
Colorists: Megan Wilson & Rachelle Rosenberg
Artist & Colorist (Issue 6): Natasha Allegri
While the eponymous character may not (or may) be queer herself, some of the best queer representation ever to find its way into the pages of a Marvel comic can be found in the panels of Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat!.
Part of the depth and verisimilitude of the queer representation in PWAH! comes from the fact that the headlining creative team is queer. Kate Leth, who is bi, wrote all 17 issues of the series, and the main artist for PWAH!, Brittney L. Williams, is gay.
Of the sixteen issues featuring Brittney’s art, Megan Wilson is the color artist for eight issues and Rachelle Rosenberg is the color artist on the other eight issues. Issue 6 features interior art and colors by guest artist Natasha Allegri, with a cover by series artist Brittney L. Williams. In the letters column of issue 13, Kate declares that the PWAH! team will keep it queer until their dying day, and that mission statement is evident from the book’s first issue to its last.
One of the primary settings for the events of the series is Burly Books, a queer bookstore run by Patsy’s childhood friend, Tom Hale. Tom and Patsy had been friends during their teen years, but as Tom mentions in issue 7, it was hard to be out in a town like Centerville, leading him to relocate to Brooklyn. Moving to an urban center from a more rural area is a narrative that’s familiar to many in the queer community, and that familiarity demonstrates one of the best things about the representation in PWAH!: its authenticity.
Burly Books also provides an excellent demonstration of another one of the strongest elements in PWAH!’s representation: how straightforward it is. From its very first appearance in the first issue, Burly Books is unabashedly queer. The front window is adorned by a bear logo, a rainbow colored sign on the wall behind the cash register reads PRIDE, and the books being sold include Beer with a Queer, the Big Book of Plaid, and Butts: Volume IX. It isn’t implied that this is a queer bookstore; this very apparently and unquestionably is a queer bookstore.
The explicit statement of queerness is a consistent theme for PWAH!. In issue 6, Patsy’s telekinetic roommate, Ian Soo, comes out to Patsy as bi (he jokes that he knew Patsy’s secret identity before she knew his). When Ian’s ex-girlfriend Zoe reappears in his life, his backstory is explored further: he explains to Patsy in issue 12 that when he would try to talk to Zoe about the fact that he had dated men in the past, she would simply act as though that aspect of his identity didn’t exist. This dramatization of bi erasure demonstrates the commitment PWAH! makes to bringing meaningful queer representation to the page: Ian’s queerness isn’t a superficial aspect of his character, it’s at the very core of his characterization.
Part of what makes that dramatization so effective is that the creative team knows to deliver the catharsis Ian deserves. In issue 14, Ian confronts Zoe over the way she treated him during their relationship. In no uncertain terms, Ian explains that she could not accept him for who he was, stating that he felt as though their relationship would end if he asked questions regarding his gender.
Ian also offers a glimpse of how PWAH! thematically links queerness with superpowers. When Patsy first meets Ian in the first issue of the series, he is using his telekinetic abilities to steal money from an armored car. After the pair bonds over Ian’s allusion to the musical Wicked, leading Ian to agree to return the stolen money, he nevertheless balks at the notion of becoming a superhero.
Ian’s skill with his abilities develops over the course of the series, and Patsy becomes increasingly less subtle in her hints that Ian should reconsider his stance on super heroism. In issue 11, the tension boils over when Patsy suggests that they can help Ian workshop a better name than Telekinian “when” he makes the decision to be a super hero, leading Ian to storm off and wallow on the couch while listening to the second disc of the Hamilton soundtrack.
Instead of getting upset with Ian over his outburst, Patsy resolves to be a supportive friend, and in issue 12, she assures him that she’s going to stop pushing him out of his comfort zone. However, this assurance proves to be unnecessary, as Ian as resolved to stop waffling and embrace his powers. Later in the issue, a full-page splash heralds the first appearance of his chosen superhero outfit. Significantly, the outfit incorporates pieces of clothing that he had felt unable to wear during his relationship with Zoe.
It’s no mistake that issue 17, the finale for the series, centers on a trip to the mall for a makeover. As Jubilee exclaims on a page that features a sequence of the character trying on various outfits, fashion is “a form of expression. So, express!” Elsewhere in the issue, Ian can be seen wearing the skull earrings that he lingered over in the flashback to his relationship with Zoe – jewelry that was also incorporated into his superhero outfit. The skull earrings are emblematic of both Ian embracing his powers as well as his expression of himself through fashion.
But the makeover at the mall in the final issue of PWAH! is interrupted by a pair of familiar characters who claim to be super villains. They call themselves the Somnambulisters – and the fact that their portmanteau incorporates the word for sleepwalking is no mistake. Although they claim they are vampires, Patsy soon recognizes them as Danica and Stevie, a pair of teen girls who had made minor appearances in issues 2 and 7.
After uncovering their identities, Patsy, Ian, Tom, and Jubilee have a conversation with the two teens, ultimately discovering that, as Jubilee puts it, “the short one’s in love with the tall one.” The conversation gives a nice coda to Ian’s character arc over the course of the series, as he and Tom are able to guide Danica to some of the literary resources for queer teens that might help her embrace who she has been all along without having to dress up and pretend she’s something she is not.