“This has to be the first summer in forever without a major superhero movie,” said Eleanor, panting in the dry heat of July.
Dania nodded. “Well, how do you expect to release a superhero movie when no one can go to the movies?”
They were sitting out on the stoop in front of the house, the shadow of the building falling in front of their feet. Even under the shade, they fanned themselves. It was a slow summer day, the kind where a trip to an air-conditioned cineplex, to watch the latest batch of digitally costumed hunks punch things, wouldn’t have been amiss. But with the drive-ins needing the twilight to be seen, there were no heroes to shield them from the midday heat.
“There are still superheroes outside of the movies,” said Gwen, putting her book down. “You saw that Marvel released those new plays about their lineup, right? And there’s always the comics.”
“Well, yeah,” said Dania. “Comics are, like, square one for superheroes.”
“There’s, like…a million new superheroes,” said Eleanor. “People come up with them every year. How do you know which ones will stand out?”
Gwen raised an eyebrow.
“Funny you should mention that,” she said.
Eleanor barely had time to register Gwen’s comment before a paperback book landed on the porch, between herself and Dania. On the cover, a young woman with a long orange mop of hair stood cockily, with a hand on her hip. Her arms and legs were speckled with body paint, and one word floated in the dripping splotches of color above her head.
“Primer?” read Dania. “Is this new?”
“DC hired some new artists to work on a superhero graphic novel for a tween demographic,” explained Gwen. “My dad’s a comics nerd, so he got a copy for Hazel, and sent one to me, too.”
“Is Hazel a tween?” asked Dania, forgetting how old Gwen’s kid sister was.
“She’s six,” said Gwen. “But it’s colorful and not too serious.”
Eleanor opened the book, paging through. The character design, from artist Gretel Lusky, found an appealing balance between realistic proportions and stylization. While none of the characters matched the barrel-chested physique of the Man of Steel, everyone felt distinct. Facial expressions and body shapes oozed personality, endearing Eleanor to characters even as she didn’t know anything about them.
“Hey, don’t spoil the ending.” Dania took the book from Eleanor. “Mind if I borrow this?” she asked Gwen.
“Be my guest,” said Gwen, leaning back in her chair. “It’s a quick read.”
“It’s the first in a series?” asked Dania, reading the blurb on the back. Ashley Rayburn is an upbeat girl with a decidedly downbeat past.
“Well, read it before we discuss that,” said Gwen. “I have thoughts.”
Dania cracked the book open. Eleanor, without saying a word, sidled up next to her friend, reading over her shoulder. Gwen, happy to share the newfound hero with her flatmates, headed back inside to grab a glass of something cool. It was going to be a long afternoon on the porch.
– – – – –
“Okay, it’s definitely setting up a sequel,” said Eleanor, after reading the last pages of the graphic novel. “Like…how is that not a setup?”
“It’s certainly hinting at more,” said Gwen, sitting up in her chair to begin the discussion. “DC Kids is an extant division of the company. They’ve invited guest artists to do spins on their characters before.”
“But a new superhero –– like a brand-new one,” said Dania. “That’s something bigger, right?”
Gwen shrugged. “It doesn’t happen every day.”
“I love Primer,” said Eleanor. “The whole Foster care situation immediately grabbed me. It gives Ashley a really consistent motivation of proving herself to her new parents, while also leaving the door open for her to explore her origin in future issues.”
“This Foster family is the one that gives her the superpowers in the first place, though…right?” asked Dania. “With the paint?”
“Technically, yes,” said Gwen. “It’s entirely because she’s aligned with this new family that the paint first comes into her possession. Thematically, it’s an excellent parallel between the human and hero journeys: stealing the paint is the first major transgression Ashley makes against her new parents, but it’s also the setup for proving herself to them in the end.”
“It’s a tightly written story, for sure,” said Eleanor. “There’s barely anything included that doesn’t help to move the narrative forward.”
“Well, there’s a few things,” said Dania. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s cool stuff, but not all of it goes anywhere.”
“The painting garage, with Kitch,” said Dania. It was from the novel’s second chapter: Ashley’s Foster dad catching her out late, tagging a wall with graffiti. Seeing promise in her art, he’d shown her his paint-splattered garage –– only to never return to the garage again during the plot.
“It just felt like a strange set-up for something that didn’t come back,” said Dania. “Like, the moment there was that wide-shot panel of the whole room, I was almost sure that was gonna be the secret lair. Like, that’s where she stores the paint and ‘suits up’ or whatever. But even the final moment of her deciding to save Yuka and Kitch happens back at the graffiti, not in the garage.”
“Hm,” Gwen thought. Narratively, Eleanor was right that the story never got bogged down on the logistics of Ashley’s story, instead keeping the plot moving quickly with strong motivations that resisted overthinking, on the part of the characters or the reader. But Dania had a point.
“Not to mention, Luke gets lost in the middle of the story,” Dania continued. “I mean, he’s nice and all. And it’s better to have Ashley test the powers out with someone else present. But he doesn’t really…do anything.”
“Now that you mention it, he does vanish,” said Gwen. “You’d expect him to assist, somewhat sidekick-style, during that final fight. But Ashley hangs up on him before the Chapter 3 climax, and he doesn’t speak again until the final two pages.”
“Not to mention, what’s the deal with the wigs?” asked Dania. “That felt like the setup for something, but…I don’t know, it felt like it just meant they could experiment with Primer’s look. I thought it would have some practical application.”
Eleanor took the book from Dania. She flipped to a page in the middle of the novel, just before Primer took on the Night Knights, a minor and unexplained group of rogues. The panel was a full-body shot of the heroine, with red hair that matched the cascading locks on the front cover. Everything about the image –– from the lack of white frame around the border, to the page turn following offscreen dialogue it succeeded, to the narrative context of Ashley’s first time taking her powers for a spin –– it all gave this particular image of Primer weight, as though the audience was being asked to remember it.
And yet, only 28 pages later, another image of Primer took up the full page. This time it was an action shot: a sonic blast emanated from her hand, as she called her name to the villain. Visually, she wore the same costume as before –– except the wig, which had been swapped out for a neon-blue pixie cut.
“There’s clearly some reasoning behind the wig changes,” said Eleanor. “They wouldn’t give her a non-standard outfit, and make her best friend a wig designer, unless it was building up to something.”
“But what?” asked Dania.
“I’m not sure!” said Eleanor. “Something in Issue #2, maybe.”
“That’s what it feels like,” said Gwen. “The plot reads like…well, an origin story. Which it is, of course. But there’s so much left in that seems to hint at a larger world. So, read in isolation like this, it feels unfinished. Or, rather, longing to be finished, with additional issues.”
“The paint could use some explanation,” said Eleanor. “I mean, they wouldn’t have included that entire cheat sheet of all 33 powers if they didn’t intend to use them all. She only uses fourteen of them within the book.”
“There’s real promise in that mechanic, though,” said Gwen. “The idea of a superhero having to ration and select their powers, prior to a fight? Or realizing they picked the wrong ones and having to improvise? I’m genuinely excited to see all the challenges of that premise.”
“Right?” said Eleanor. “My first thought was that she could start mixing them together. Like, the colors of the paint somehow correspond to how well the superpowers work in tandem. Red pairs well with blue, but not with brown––which matches how the powers mix. Super speed works great with teleportation, but not so well with ghosting.”
“It would certainly add another thematic layer to the storytelling,” said Gwen. “Which is sorely needed. One reason for the story feeling a bit baseline is that the development of Ashley’s artistic voice, and the development of Primer’s handle on her powers, are really only linked through the application of the paint. There’s no ‘this is how you blend a fighting style’ or ‘you have to sketch out a battle plan.'”
“Again, ideas for future issues,” said Eleanor.
“Well, then, I think the success of Primer depends on how willing you are to hope that things get better later,” said Dania. “As it stands, it’s fun, but there’s so many loose threads that it feels somewhat incomplete.”
“I’m confident they’ll fill out the rest of the details,” said Gwen. “The presence of these details at all leads me to believe that they’re planning something.”
“Exactly,” grinned Eleanor. “I’m not thinking of it as unfinished so much as I see it as a proof of concept. If this standalone issue of Primer is the pilot episode for a larger series of graphic novels, then you can sign me right up.”
“What did Hazel think?” asked Dania.
“Oh, you know,” said Gwen, sitting back in her chair with a smile. “She likes the bright colors.”
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