Shelby: Everyone needs a reality check every now and again. It’s that moment at the end of a vacation when you first check your work email, when the fantasy you’d been living is revealed to be just that, and it’s time to get back to reality. It’s not a fun feeling, discovering something seemed too good to be true because it was, that the “happily ever after” you thought you had was just a story and now the story’s over. Kate Bishop has been trying to build herself a new reality away from a certain, “needy abusive black hole of crippled emotions,” and it was finally beginning to look like she’d succeeded. Unfortunately, she’s got a massive dose of reality headed her way, and it’s not going to be pretty.
Kate is finally getting the hang of LA life, or so she thinks until she runs into Cat Food Guy, who tells her he’s leaving town and asks her to take care of his cat. That turns out to be a mistake…
…so Kate and her friends Marcus and Finch go to return the
hellbeast cat to his rightful owner. They find him beat to hell in his giant house, and find out he’s one Harold H. Harold, and he’s been trying to leave LA ever since he discovered Gia Neff, a.k.a. Gia Nefaria, a.k.a. Madame Masque and her father were conducting some pretty horrifying experiments on bodies in order to achieve some sort of immortality. That was nearly 20 years ago, and he’d been trying to leave ever since. Kate and her neighbors cook up a plan to get him on a plane, but are thwarted by Flynt Ward, the weed lord. Kate managed to swipe his phone during the fight that naturally ensued, and after a visit with Detective Caudle, discovers the plot to kill Clint.
It seems Kate’s candy-colored LA dream is crashing down around her ears. She’s tried to establish a life for herself away from her toxic relationship with Clint, but in the end she can’t get away. Harold almost became her own surrogate Clint: a somewhat bumbling mentor who ultimately needed her more than she needed him. Unfortunately, she couldn’t help him in time.
Annie Wu is once again on pencils this issue, and she does a stunning job. Borrowing from the Hollywood blockbuster scene Kate finds herself in, this book has a lot of cinematic visuals, like this page here; the camera slowly pans out from Harold’s body until we see the real scope of the scene, as Madame Masque’s letter to Kate reads in the background. I love the way that Wu and writer Matt Fraction have shown that Harold’s death is also basically the death of Kate’s west coast dreams. From the front, you would just see the Hollywood sign, the most iconic, touristy sight to see in LA. That’s what Kate wanted, that LA touristy experience. But behind it is the horrible and gritty reality of the LA scene, and that’s what finally burst Kate’s bubble. That, and having her trailer burned down by thugs.
I feel like a lot of Kate’s story has been about masks and superficiality. Don’t get me wrong, I love LA (some jerks I like happen to live there), but it’s a city that’s made its mark by being fake, by generating the sort of fantasy stories that Kate herself is trying to live. She had this idea of the kind of life she could have, and she thought LA was the place where she could make it happen. Kate’s biggest problem was the only real plan she had for her shiny, new life was that it wouldn’t include Clint. I don’t fault her for that; sometimes there comes a point in a relationship where staying is worse for you than leaving, and that includes friendships. I think Kate’s mistake lay in thinking Clint was the only source of toxicity in her life. LA presented this facade of a Clint-free life, but underneath it’s just as gritty and ugly as her life in NY, maybe more so because it’s pretending to be something it’s not.
So now what? Kate’s got to get out of LA alive to save her friend. Even if she manages to do it, she might already be too late. If she can’t save Clint, you know she us going to be furious with him about it. Spencer, what did you think of this issue? Did you think it was both weird and awesome that Harold was actually an existing Marvel character? Everything I read about him said he ended up a vampire; maybe he’s not as dead as he seems?
Spencer: I actually had no idea Cat Food Guy was a preexisting character until you posted that link, Shelby, and I think it’s absolutely amazing; Harold H. Harold is exactly the kind of obscure character that Matt Fraction would reveal after teasing his identity for months. After reading his Wikipedia entry I had the same idea about Harold not being quite dead (or being undead?) due to his vampirism, but the evidence from the issue itself could go either way.
It looks like Fraction has kept Harold’s connection to vampires as a part of his backstory, but more than that, there’s the fact that we pretty much only see Harold at night — Kate even calls him nocturnal at one point — and the fact he hasn’t really seemed to age during his 20+ years in LA (and I doubt it’s “walking and cardio” keeping him young) pointing towards vampirism. That said, Fraction seems to have reworked most of Harold’s origin — he used to write for True Vampire Stories magazine as opposed to covering the “weird crime beat” — plus Wiki points out that Doctor Strange destroyed all the vampires, including Harold, years ago, meaning that most of Harold’s backstory has likely been retconned since then.
The biggest sign for me that Harold H. Harold is really dead, though — and not a vampire — is the one element of that image of Harold’s body that Shelby didn’t point out: that purple arrow sticking out of his chest. Masque is out to frame Kate, and she’ll almost definitely pull it off; Fraction goes out of his way to remind us not only how much Detective Caudle dislikes Kate, but that Caudle has been friends with Harold for decades. He’s not going to let this slide. It’s admirable that Kate is so worried about Clint despite everything that went down between them, but she’s got her own problems to deal with.
Anyway, Shelby, I appreciate you bringing out how Kate’s story has been shaped by the ideas of masks and the glamor of LA. I’ve never been to LA, but Patrick (who lives there) was just telling me how he feels like Fraction has a good sense of the city, and I have to agree; even if the exact meaning of the references to the valley or the restaurant above LAX elude me, it all helps to make Fraction’s LA feel like a real, living city.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that the difference in tones between Clint and Kate’s stories has more to do with the cities they’re taking place in than it does with the star of each story. Clint’s New York adventures feature Aja’s grittier art and deal with a lot of New York-specific ideas, such as the mafia and run-down brownstones. Kate’s stories, meanwhile, are brought to life by Wu’s brighter, cartoonier style and spend a lot of time dealing with celebrities; this issue not only gets in a fun dig at tourists, but specifically dives into the darker side of LA culture by centering Madame Masque’s plan around the idea of eternal youth and beauty.
The idea of using drastic measures to retain youth and beauty at all costs is one of the more infamous stereotypes about LA and its celebrity culture, and apparently there’s a lot of truth to it. There’s danger involved in some of these techniques, and Masque’s plans takes that danger and dials it up to 11. Look at Hudson’s fingers — two seem to be fake, and I’d bet hard cash that Masque amputated them for DNA samples. I can’t yet tell whether she’s actually de-aging people or if she’s somehow transferring their consciousness into eternally young clones, but either way, there’s physical risk not only to the person seeking youth, but to all those poor souls Masque is sacrificing to fake deaths or vivisecting for research. When we talk about the dangers of celebrity culture we’re often referring to psychological stress — the kind of stuff that leads to eating disorders and lifelong inferiority complexes — and Masque’s plans here appear to be Fraction’s way of turning that kind of damage into a supervillain-sized threat appropriate for Hawkeye.
Above I described Wu’s art as being bright and cartoony, but that doesn’t stop her from being able to effectively depict the inherent darkness of Masque’s LA. Much of that has to do with Matt Hollingsworth’s colors; aside from the flashbacks, most of the issue takes place at night, and Hollingsworth appropriately keeps most of the events shaded in dark blues. Wu ably sells the pain and horror of Harold getting beaten up and killed, and her interpretation of the “men in black” hiding in the shadows is as creepy as anything you’d find in a horror book.
Fortunately, Wu still finds a way to keep the proceedings from getting too depressing, mainly through her masterful use of facial expressions and body language.
Shelby already posted my favorite panel from this page — the image of that cat leaping at the camera while Kate stands helplessly on a table belongs in a museum — but Kate’s expression in this panel is just as effective at displaying just how fed-up she is with this cat and its mysterious nocturnal owner. Moreover, of course she looks this frustrated when Marcus is talking about superheroes having good luck — since when has a Hawkeye ever had good luck? Good luck just isn’t Clint or Kate’s style; no, if Kate is going to make it out of LA in one piece, she’s going to have to work for it.
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