The end of the year is nigh, so I might as send the final Pull List of 2016 out with a bang with two of my favorite series of the year. Both are diverse in terms of gender, sexuality, and race/ethnicity, both tell compelling stories with intriguing characters, and both prove independent comics are where it’s at if you want unfettered creativity. The Big Two can keep their event crossovers, rebirth-y reboots, and disappointing cancellations of low-selling, high-quality niche titles. I’ll be over here reveling in The Backstagers and Spell on Wheels.
Jory transfers to a new all boys school, St. Genesius Prep, and isn’t happy about it. In a half-hearted attempt to make new friends, he joins the drama club. The lead brothers instantly deem him too unpopular for the stage and send him behind the curtain to join the gaggle of backstagers: Aziz, Sasha, Hunter, Beckett, and their senior stage managers and adorable boyfriends Jamie and Timothy. Jory and the gang explore the ever-shifting interdimensional secret tunnels below the school and encounter all sorts of fantastic beasts. But the fantasy land is more dangerous than they realize, and if they’re not careful they could disappear forever like a group of backstagers did decades before.
Created by writer James Tynion IV and artist Rian Sygh, The Backstagers has four issues out, with BOOM! Box releasing the fifth on December 21, 2016. Walter Baiamonte handles colors and Jim Campbell letters.
Spell on Wheels
Jolene Nguyen, Claire Bettany, and Andy Highsmith are a trio of BFF witches living outside Boston. Andy is new to the crew and is dating Claire, a psychic with a mysterious past, while Jolene has deep ties to ancient magic. When Nathan, a man from Claire’s past, steals a bunch of powerful magical items from their home, the women set out on a roadtrip to get it all back. Meanwhile, a mysterious foe has sent Nathan on the hunt for Claire’s mystical compass. Friendship binds the girls together, but it might also be the only thing standing in their enemy’s way.
Two of the scheduled five issues of Spell on Wheels have already been published by Dark Horse, and the third is will be released on December 21, 2016. The miniseries is written by Kate Leth, illustrated by Megan Levens, colors by Marissa Louise, and letters by Nate Piekos of Blambot.
To Pull Or Not To Pull
While superhero comics tend to be geared toward young men, all-ages comics are aimed almost exclusively at girls. Do you know how hard it is to find indie comics with an intersectionally diverse male cast that aren’t based off a TV show and aren’t standalone graphic novels? I do. Just last week I spent nearly two hours researching that very question for a patron in my library. By the time I was done I had only a handful of titles and a raging headache. The Backstagers was the first title on that list, and for good reason. It’s not written specifically for boys—I’m a thirtysomething QWoC and love the hell out of it—but it’s ideal for them, especially the ones who often feel left out of mainstream comics.
Like Spell on Wheels, the main and background cast are diverse in body shape, race/ethnicity, and sexuality. Cis-het white male isn’t the default mode here. The untraditional group of boys explore a pretty traditional story model, but it’s the multilayered friendships and budding romances that really make it sing. None of the boys participate in toxic masculinity or fall prey to machismo, nor do they pity themselves for being outsiders. This isn’t grin-and-bear-it or “it gets better;” this is find your happiness in whatever form it takes.
James Tynion IV cut his teeth on Batman and horror comics, but he really came into his own with the refreshingly weird SF/F stuff with series like The Woods, UFOlogy, and the first two miniseries of his apocalypse trilogy Cognetic and Memetic. As an all-ages book, The Backstagers is nowhere near as intense or violent as his previous works, but it’s well within his wheelhouse. Rian Sygh’s art style, of a mix of manga and Scott Pilgrim, is perfect for Tynion’s twisty tale. His artwork is cartoonish but expressive, and brings to life Tynion’s vision. Paired with Walter Baiamonte it almost feels like looking at freeze frames from a Nickelodeon show. Jim Campbell does a solid job keeping the lettering as oddball as the story. There’s a lot of room to grow with The Backstagers, and a lot of secrets begging to be revealed.
It took about two seconds between reading a tweet back in July announcing Kate Leth’s new series and pulling up Facebook to message my comic book shop to put in a subscription for me for Spell on Wheels. That’s how excited I was. Lucky me, that eagerness was wholly paid off, and then some. Kate Leth and Megan Levens’ series has the Monster of the Week sensibilities of the early seasons of Supernatural, the feminist girl power of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the magical sisterhood of Practical Magic. It’s fun without being kitschy, quirky yet realistic, and intersectionally diverse without succumbing to tokenism. Jolene, Andy, and Claire are sparky, witty, and grounded. They complement each other well, and it’s easy to see why they like each other so much.
For a five-issue miniseries (so far…), the mystery unfolds a bit too slowly and the keeping the main antagonist’s villainous motivations a secret two issues in doesn’t help matters. But I trust Kate Leth to get us to where we need to be without rushing or fumbling the ending. The former Valkyrie turned comics writer/artist has done a spectacular job helming Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat! (one of the best Marvel comics of the year, frankly) and Vampirella, and knows how to tell a wicked good story.
Megan Levens’ art is classic comic book—half realistic, half cartoony—and her playful, warm style simultaneously heightens the magical feel while fixing the story in the real world. Marissa Louise may not be a well-known colorist, but she damn well should be. Her colors are bright, vivid hues that make the scenes pop off the page and bring out the best in Levens’ detailed work. Letterer Nate Piekos blends seamlessly into the panels and is easy to follow and even easier to read. Spell on Wheels is definitely going to be one of those series I use to introduce new or reluctant readers to comics, but there’s plenty to delight and entertain longtime readers as well.
Right now my brain is comprised almost entirely of Rogue One, so much so that it’s been nearly impossible to squeeze in any other pop culture or entertainment media whatsoever. When I picked up my comics the day after seeing my newest Star Wars obsession, the only comics that were able to break through all the Baze/Chirrut headcanons were The Backstagers and Spell on Wheels (and Hawkeye, Goldie Vance, and Doctor Aphra, but those are stories for other Pull Lists…).
In an era where I’ve been gradually culling my subscriptions down, The Backstagers and Spell on Wheels were added with eager haste. I love stories that drag the reader deep into the fictional world, that make you feel like you’re on the tip of a vast iceberg of creativity and craft. While neither series is perfect, both are full of potential and light years ahead of the middling comic book natter filling up the shelves.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.