Black Cat Vol. 1: Grand Theft Marvel TPB – Jed MacKay

5 out of 5

Well, I’ll be flamboozled: there are new things under the Marvel / DC sun. Without going too deep on the issue of what makes a “good” or “bad” Big Two comic, let me somewhat skirt things by saying that every era of these publishers has a kind of style to which most of their books adhere, and though there can absolutely be notable runs, the actual experiments with characters / styles are rare, and subject to a flash-in-the-pan style of writing, where a big idea jumps up in issue #1 and then dies in issue #2, as typical comic book toil takes over. The experiments aren’t necessarily better; if you like the house flavor being offered, then there are creators who do incredibly good versions of that at both houses, at any time. In general, I don’t like the house style, as especially the current, post-MCU, post-let’s-recruit-webcomic-writers world in which every book seems (during my perusals of new #1s) to be aiming for some highly irreverent / highly relevant style that’s full of movie-like zingers and offhand (attempted) profundity. …And then cue that month’s crossover event.

Black Cat’s first five issues of her 2019 series, by Jed MacKay, are why I don’t think one should unequivocally swear off any given publisher, or genre: while MacKay’s witty repartee fits within the patter patterns I’m poking at up above, it works on a character level – it doesn’t just feel like a faceless style dropped on Felicia Hardy’s lady-thievin’ adventures. Similarly, the moments that elevate the text above hijinx aren’t forced, and aren’t the usual respins-of-old-news (i.e. IS BATMAN’S SECRET IDENTITY BRUCE WAYNE???) – it’s kept to a minimum, when it makes sense in the story, and comes about as a beat in the dialogue that catches a character in a certain way, for a moment of pause. So, like, character-driven, yet again? For shame, MacKay, to actually give the various folks in your book unique personalities.

Grand Theft Marvel introduces us to Hardy’s three-person crew (the other two plucked from the Marvel archives – something MacKay does tastefully, and without showiness, throughout) as they’re hired on for some ridiculous heists by Hardy’s teacher, Black Fox, for his “last big score.” Things are kept light, for the most part, but there’s also beautiful restraint, here: Hardy isn’t all quips; MacKay keeps the thievings logical, within context – we’re not trying to redo Ocean’s 11 – and he leaves room for conversation that helps to build up not only the crew, but also Fox, and also those standing in Felicia’s way. MacKay frames things from Felicia’s POV, lending a feminine gaze to things, but as with all of the things I’m praising here, he’s not going out of his way to make this a book “for the ladies” – she likes cute men; she comments on it; end of.

Of course, all the writerly delicacy wouldn’t work without the art to back it up, and Travel Foreman (plus flashback support from a perfectly cast Michael Dowling) is a godsend, paralleling MacKay’s balancing act by evenly dealing in clean panels and wonderfully anarchic – but clear – action sequences, and finding a portrayal of cat that’s still all feminine wiles but tasteful. The dialogue plus Foreman’s animation brings everyone instantly to life, and all beats – dramatic ones, comedic ones, thrills – are sold without a hitch.

There are a lot of books that get out and running with a great #1 issue, only to fall flat on their face, exhausted for ideas, soon after. By not especially trying to rewrite the Black Cat template, but instead leaning in to it with his own style, Jed MacKay is delivering the kind of book that’s timeless, and that can be read outside of whatever Marvel continuity is happening at your leisure, and, likely, at your immense pleasure.

The TPB includes many of the wonderful variant covers from the first five issues.