By Steve Morris
Let’s just say, being open-minded people as we are, that none of us particularly knew much about the character of Mockingbird until Chelsea Cain got hold of her. She was married to Hawkeye for a bit and played a role as one of the side-teams for the Avengers (the West Coast Avengers, I think?) but spent the majority of her time being, well, dead. Mockingbird was killed off for a good fifteen years or so, during which time the modern Marvel landscape was rebuilt without her. It’s fair to say there’s a whole generation of comics fans who didn’t know who she was when she first stepped off a skrull spaceship and back into the Avengers.
That made it very hard to define Mockingbird as a whole, so it was doubly-risky for Cain to pitch the character a new series in the form of a “puzzle-box”. The initial idea for the series was of a five-issue puzzle box format, with a half-nonsensical opening issue which would be called back to through the next three issues, before being followed up properly in the fifth and final issue of the bunch. Not only are we being reintroduced to an updated Mockingbird here, but we’re also being given a Mockingbird who purposely makes only half a barrel of sense. We’re not getting a full story on a character we don’t have a true grip on. That’s real risky storytelling there.
The first issue of the series – the one that Cain admits is deliberately trying to confuse and trick the reader – has a huge burden on it as a result. The thing is, the creative team immediately set on such a specific tone for the series that they very rapidly start to build up not just Mockingbird herself, but also the world she’s in. Throughout the issue we explore her social surroundings, as she’s repeatedly sent off to SHIELD’s medical centre to be tested as part of her Avengers membership. Each time she returns to the waiting room, other Avengers make wordless cameos in the background, reading books or passing time.
She doesn’t talk to any of them at any point – she just sits there, as Tony Stark reads up on STIs or Luke Cage and Jessica Jones contract measles from their daughter. Mockingbird has interacted with all these characters before in the superhero context, but having her sit in the waiting room changes the atmosphere entirely. It turns them into a part of her routine – like the neighbours you always see down the supermarket, or co-workers you meet every time you go into the office. The important thing for Mockingbird is to give her a sense of establishment, and so seeing her regularly sit quietly in the waiting room next to people like Hercules settles her into the Marvel Universe far more than a one-issue spotlight in an Avengers run.
Seeing how SHIELD staff react to her is also crucial. Throughout the issue we see glimpses of their psyche reports on her status and forms which she’s filled out on their request, and through their questions we get quick skips across to scenes that show off some of her superheroics. These are all very short, largely wordless moments, but they amount to something. We’re getting to actually see what her life is like, in stops and starts, rather than being told it. Time is being invested into developing out what the whole of her life is, rather than just the moments where she’s full-on saving the world. And the core of her life is inconvenience and irritation.
In a world filled with wisecracking superheroes, Mockingbird comes across as one of the most sardonic of the lot. She’s knowingly inconsistent right from the start, complaining about how SHIELD treat her whilst acknowledging that she’s been a right pain to them since the beginning. Not many characters seem to have a full understanding of how their personality affects others, but Mockingbird has a sharp awareness of herself, which comes across in her interaction with the other characters. She quickly grows an assertive dominance over a handler who tests her psychic abilities, and tries to charm over her various nurses without poking into the question of where her previous nurses have mysteriously disappeared to. She downplays any worrying traits in her powerset.
As time goes by and she grows visibly more aware that something strange is going on, we see her adopt a laissez-fare attitude: she randomly brings a dog into her medical sessions just to see if anybody will complain. Understanding that nothing she does has any meaning anymore in the medical bay, she tries to leverage her way into a medical marijuana card. Because hey: why not? You wouldn’t see other superheroes calmly going along with strange happenings like Mockingbird does – they’d be trashing the place by now, throwing guards around and asking questions. But what we’re beginning to understand is that Mockingbird has a completely different attitude to anyone else. She sees through it but wants to see just how long they’ll keep trying to lie before their demeanour cracks.
That’s how the puzzlebox aspect actually benefits Mockingbird’s first issue. She is as aware as the reader that weird things are happening, but she’s also waiting out to see why, rather than asking the questions immediately. It puts her more on our level than if, say, Spider-Man were plodding around and asking open questions to the nurses. We get to see her simultaneously grow in distrust and interest as the issue goes on, and it serves to really develop her personality as something memorable and fascinating.
That defining edge serves as the core of the first issue. Even as the nurses fail to gain an understanding of Mockingbird, the creative team are calmly guiding the reader to ensure that they do understand where Mockingbird is coming from. We see that she is Agent 19 of SHIELD and a superhero; but we also see her as another waiting patient in a hospital, bored and passing the time with idle distractions and amusements. She teleports a ping pong ball off a table and barely blinks twice at it – she has visions of vampiric figures and never raises a hand against them. She’s all poise, playing a waiting game.
Mockingbird herself is a part of the puzzle box, and she knows it. Her interest in batting at the puzzle without interrogating it until the framing sequence which closes out the issue leaves us room to engage the character and discover who she is – just in time for her to lose interest and smash through the door of everything we’ve read for the last twenty pages. As a hook for an ongoing series (and as a showcase for a personality which has been lost to readers over the years) it’s a hell of a strong finish. Finally we’re going to find out who Mockingbird really is…. just as we’ve finally learned who she really is.
Written by Chelsea Cain
Drawn by Kate Niemczyk
Colours by Rachelle Rosenberg
Letters by Joe Caramagna
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.