Gwen is Armed with Head Canon in The Unbelievable Gwenpool 22

by Patrick Ehlers

This article contains SPOILERS! If you haven’t read the issue, proceed at your own risk.

Gwen Poole reads comic books; she’s a Marvel fan. This means that she’s held all the conflicting ideas that Marvel fans have been wrestling with for decades — including a bizarre mix of love and hate that comes from a feeling of ownership so many fans carry. In issue 21, Gwenpool proved that she had mastered the medium of comics, but was losing her edge in terms of up-to-the-minute Marvel continuity. Issue 22 furthers that journey, doubling down on her medium mastery powers, while emphasizing the failings of her regressive fandom.

Gwen’s got a handful of new tricks in this issue — the most spectacular of which is her own ability to leave the panel and travel through the gutter to previous pages. This amounts to time travel, and is a near god-tier power. She also leans out of panels to avoid in-coming attacks and seems to have hacked her way into the editors’ notes, so she’s got a direct line to the readers. The tone of those notes is interesting too — upbeat, even when discussing her obviously tumultuous relationship with Vincent or the probably murderous way she’s dealing with Marvel villains.

It’s soft propaganda from a character who thinks we all share the same lens.

Of course, comic creators and fans have many lenses, and they are always shifting. Doctor Doom is currently in a state of flux whereby he is not really a bad guy any more. This means Gwen’s plan to win over the Avengers by killing Doctor Doom is outdated and (forgive the pun) doomed to fail. So writer Christopher Hastings and artists Gurihiru equip her with the most powerful weapon in the fan’s arsenal: head canon. She comes up against a piece of information she doesn’t like in-universe (i.e., Doctor Doom is good now) and simply changes it for her own experience. It’s such a jarring addition to her power set, but totally demonstrates the agency of readers when it comes to their own experience of comics.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?


5 comments on “Gwen is Armed with Head Canon in The Unbelievable Gwenpool 22

  1. While I would love to use this space to discuss headcanon, a topic I would really love to use Gwenpool to expand on, I don’t think headcanon is the right description for what Gwen’s issue is here. Headcanon is generally additive. It is the things that an individual fan accepts, but not actually supported by the actual text. The example I always remember someone telling me about was disability access in Hogwarts.

    Gwen’s issue isn’t headcanon, it is cynicism. It is the refusal to engage with the comics as they are now, out of the expectation that everything will change back. Gwen is the sort of idiot that complains about, say, Secret Empire because everyone knows that Steve Rogers will be changed back to a good guy (and probably describes the properly set up payoff as a deus ex machina).

    And that’s Gwen’s issue. It isn’t that she’s got headcanon, but she sees that Doom is a good guy, and refuses to engage with the material. Doom’s character, Doom’s struggles for redemption don’t matter to Gwen. And it shows for all her mastery of the medium, the way she is still fundamentally lacking.

    Because stories are about the journey, not the destination. Maybe Gwen is right. Maybe Doom will return to evil (on the other hand, maybe not. If Gwen tried to do this same story to Gillen’s Loki, she would kill a hero. Gillen’s Loki never became a villain. He died). But whether Doom rises above his base instincts, or falls to the petty spite that made him one of the all time great supervillains, the struggle he has trying to be a better person and trying to find redemption is what matters. That is why the story of Infamous Iron Man has meaning.

    And Gwen’s refusal to engage in the journey is her flaw. She now finally realises that these characters don’t exist merely to fulfill her escapist fantasies. But now she has to grapple with why they actually exist. Why they are actually important. And that will require her to see the Marvel Universe as more than just good and bad. But to respect the story of each character.

    But Gwen doesn’t.

    • Oh, I’ve never thought of head canon as exclusively additive. I think it just as often involves ignoring pieces of mythology that you a reader doesn’t like (or hasn’t read). It is, essentially, the canon as a reader holds it in their head. Which is exactly what you’re describing: a refusal to engage with the actual material. Gwen is able to transform Doom back into the villain she wants and expects him to be – i.e., the Doom inside her head. Gurihiru starts to deliver some weird-ass backgrounds in those final pages, with pages of some kind littering the ground around Doom, suggesting that Gwen may be making this change on a macro level. Like, it’ll be interesting to see if she is changing only her personal experience of Doom, or if she’s taken him outside the confines of an individual issue and re-rewriting the entire history of Doom to match what’s in her head.

      • I checked for a definition before posting, to ensure I was accurate. And the definition I found was ‘Elements and interpretations of a fictional universe accepted by an individual fan, but not found within or supported by the official canon’ (this was not the only definition I found, but they all agreed with teh idea of being content outside of the canon). Which is why I see headcanon as things like disability access in Hogwarts or, until recently, Time Lords being genderfuild. Less the canon in your head, and more the canon that exists only in your head.

        I’m not sure how I’d define the composition of the pieces of canon that make up an individual fan’s personal canon, especially as I think it is a bit more complicated than sayign what the reader ‘chooses’ to be canon. Everyone hates One More Day, but you can’t really state it isn’t canon. I mean, when you are writing your fanfic, you may wish to write fanfics where One More Day or Rebirth or any other garbage storyline didn’t happen, but that doesn’t change the fact that Spiderman sold his soul to the devil or that every DC turned into crappy nostalgic circlejerks when Minstrel Flash turned up. When DC start caring again, we can’t just pretend Rebirth didn’t happen. Just as Spiderman being good at the moment doesn’t mean we can pretend Peter is still married to Mary Jane. Rebirth will be canon up until it is either retconned out or it is rendered irrelevant.
        In fact, this issue proves the problem with trying to define a concept of what a canon that fans hold in their heads, built on the idea of choosing specific storylines. It doesn’t really work. The argument would be that Gwen is choosign only to accept as canon stories where Doom is a villain, but she can’t escape engaging in Infamous Iron Man. Regardless of what she has done to create the ‘real’ Doom (I’m going to be very interested to see exactly what she has done and how she achieved it), she is engaging in stories outside of her choice. Because no matter how much you say ‘I don’t see One More Day’ as canon, every SPiderman fan acknowledges that in current continuity, Peter isn’t married

        • For me, head canon is basically impossible to reconcile with comics continuity (though, arguably, official canon is impossible to reconcile with comics continuity, too). It doesn’t “work,” but that doesn’t mean you have to accept continuity in your head canon. Spider-Man was married, now he isn’t — the actual explanation doesn’t need to be part of my head canon, and I don’t really need an explanation beyond “comics are weird.” This allows us to pick and chose, say, which origin story for Two Face we like most, even if its one that is technically not part of whatever continuity is being promoted at the time — so long as the broad strokes are the same, we can believe (or be completely ignorant of) whatever details we want. This is all ultimately for our enjoyment, so if we find we enjoy Star Wars more by pretending like the prequels never happened, I don’t see anything wrong with doing exactly that.

        • I don’t think headcanon is the right word to use to describe this, as headcanon actually has a real definition and I provided it above. How about ‘Personal Canon’?

          I guess my issue with Personal Canon is that I’ve always seen canon as a negotiation (because yeah, official canon never makes sense). And I think any description of Personal Canon can ignore that aspect. One More Day is actually a bad example, because I think Marvel and fans are both pretty happy to pretend it never existed. The negotiated canon is ‘Peter isn’t married’, but everyone is willing to be lax on the specifics why.

          Maybe a better example would be Dark Knight, Dark City, the Batman arc that introduced Barbatos. There is a lot of stupidity in that arc. Thomas Jefferson being involved in a Satanic ritual is pretty stupid. And more importantly, the idea of some demonic force manipulating GOtham to intentionally create Batman is a pretty bad idea. It goes against what makes Batman, Batman. And it is too constricting in its limitations. It creates an actual end point where Barbartos’s defeat is the climax of the story begun with the death of the Waynes. Closes the loop and resolves the inciting incident. Morrison’s reinterpretaion of Barbatos is infinitely better, but there is no way to have a Personal Canon that uses Morrison’s version over Dark Knight, Dark City AND can actually be reconciled with the current comics.

          We have room to negotiate which origin of Two Face we believe when Two Face’s origin doesn’t affect the story. But the idea of a Personal Canon ignores the fact that canon is ultimately a negotiation between the author and the audience. The only space we have to choose is the space that the author’s provide us (I’ll need to find a proper space to discuss the Justice League movie, which I just got back from, but I have to say I do like its approach of ‘pretend Batman v Superman was a good, functional movie with actual characters’. It spends a lot of time pretending the characters in the previous movie acted in completely different ways. A great example where giving the audience negotiation power means they can attempt to address issues instead of be a slave to inescapable flaws).

          If the next Spiderman arc is all about the aftermath of selling Peter’s marriage to Mephisto, we can’t pretend One More Day didn’t happen.
          If the next Star Wars movie uses heavy references to the prequels for important story context, we can’t pretend they never happened.
          This is ultimately for our own enjoyment, but there are unfortunately facts that can’t be ignored. Because otherwise, there would be no such thing as a bad piece of art, as we could just pretend what we read was good.

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