Review: Gwenpool, the Unbelievable, Vol. 1: Believe It

Gwenpool, the Unbelievable, Vol. 1: Believe It
Gwenpool, the Unbelievable, Vol. 1: Believe It by Christopher Hastings
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m of two minds on this one.

On the one hand, it’s pretty fun, pretty funny, and it fulfills its fairly ridiculous promise.

On the other hand…

Before we do this, please understand that I know what I’m about to say is, um, bitchy. And I’m really working this out in text, on Goodreads, so hang with me a second.

Gwenpool’s whole deal is she’s a Gwen Stacy from an Earth where the comic book heroes are comic book heroes. OUR Earth, basically. And now she’s stuck on Earth-616 (the Marvel Earth, if you will), and she kind of assumes, therefore, that she’s part of a comic book story and is invincible. Which means that she gets herself into a lot of tight spots and something saves her at the last second. Deus EX Machina. Deus Ex Lasergun. Deus Ex Thor. Wait, would that be Thor Ex Machina? Whatever.

So what’s the problem?

It’s like this. Let’s talk about the M. Night So-and-So movie Signs.

Signs was kinda fun, but also kinda stupid. The reason it’s kinda stupid is that the whole plot relies on a prophecy as seen by a dying woman. And then the prophecy, as unlikely as it is, turns out to be true. Which would be amazing except for the fact that the entire thing, ALL of Signs, is fiction. A prophecy coming true in a fictional story really isn’t that exciting, when you think about it, because OF COURSE the prophecy comes true. The characters may question the prophecy, but they are ALSO fictional. When you get right down to it, every fictional story is a prophecy as set by the writer. It’s just that sometimes the prophecy is set up to be this amazing reveal, but really the amazing reveal (in the case of Signs, god is real) is no more a reveal than anything else in the movie. It’s writing that starts with a point to make, and then we go the long way around to make the point, and lo and behold, we get there! Really, a simple “god is real” would suffice. Except that I think we’re a very story-based people, and even a completely fictional story with space aliens in it is better at making us question our beliefs than a simple statement would be.

A lot of stories do this. How many times have we fallen for this one: “There’s a chosen one who will come and free us all”?
15 minutes in: That dude is the chosen one!
1 hour in: Huh. Maybe that dude isn’t the chosen one after all.
1 hour and 35 minutes in: Wait, reverse! Dude’s TOTALLY the chosen one after all!

But it’s really not that exciting a reverse because, again, the whole thing is construct. We are given a world, we are given a prophecy to lay on top of that world, and we are given events that cause us to doubt the prophecy. All of it is construct.

An unlikely prophecy is only really interesting

A) in real life (“I just knew something bad had happened, and sure enough…”)

B) if the fictional story makes the prophecy seem so implausible that there’s curiosity about how it’s possibly going to be fulfilled (12 Monkeys, Donnie Darko)

C) if the story and/or characters make it such that the prophecy’s fulfillment isn’t really the point of the story (for example, if I told you, “The ring travels a long way to be thrown into Mt. Doom” it wouldn’t really taint the journey because you’re more interested in who’s there and how they get there. And if you’ve ever read or viewed pretty much anything, I think you’d assume this to be the case from the outset).

Alright, that brings us back to Gwenpool.

Gwenpool is constantly moving forward in the world of Earth-616 through a series of unlikely events, which seem to confirm her theory that she’s from another Earth where these stories exist as comics, and therefore she can’t die. The other characters of Earth-616 seem entirely unconvinced of this truth, which seems like a shot at implausibility, but their opinions on it don’t really matter, and it’s a little weird that characters who have dealt with wildly implausible things as a profession seem so unwilling to accept Gwenpool’s reality.

However, it’s not the in-narrative characters’ opinions on the matter that count. It’s the opinion of the reader, and the question of whether Gwenpool is right, she’ll survive no matter what, or if she’s wrong and she’ll get toasted by, I don’t know, Stilt Man.

Which leaves us with an issue.

As long as Gwenpool is alive, her theory would seem to be correct. And we’ll get a continued series of events, dangerous moments she barely escapes through wild chance and coincidence. Which is fine, except it’s not really wild chance and coincidence when that’s the whole point of the story, right? That she can’t die? As long as the story continues, the wild coincidences are not wild coincidences at all.

On the other hand, this is the reality of comics. I’m pretty certain that if you get a writing gig on Superman, they’re like, “Listen, you can’t kill him.” And there are probably a few other things that make the list. You can’t make him have a baby, you can’t make him become a prostitute. Whatever.

If you’re working on Superman month-to-month, and if you can’t kill him, then there really isn’t tension, right? Because we all know Superman’s going to be fine. And if Superman’s going to be fine every month, how is that different from Gwenpool?

I think where Gwenpool differs is that the book is regularly, blatantly stating that this is the way of comics. And it’s true, but maybe I’m confusing the truth of the statement with the enjoyment of it.

Because the thing is, we watch the same shit over and over. It’s not like Harry Potter’s going to die this time, your 8th time through the movies. It’s not like Stallone is going to fail to defeat Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man. It’s not like Tango and Cash are going to refuse to team up and never break out of that prison.

But nobody is saying that throughout. Nobody is reminding me this is a fictional narrative and therefore far more likely to wrap itself up nicely.

This is probably where some willing suspension of disbelief comes in with comics. I’m willing to believe that Miles Morales might be in danger early on in the series. If I THINK about it, obviously they’re not going to kill Miles Morales in issue 4, but it’s not about thinking. It’s not about considering the sales and social context and publication model. It’s about BELIEVING that it might be true. Letting the creator take you for that much of a ride, at least, and lending that much of yourself to the story where you’re like, “I’m not an idiot, I don’t think Miles is about to die. But I’ll let you tell a story where it seems like that’s where we’re headed.”

It’s perhaps part of what you surrender in comics. Before you can really enjoy comics, you might have to surrender the logic of the outside world and be fully immersed in the world of the comic enough to believe that maybe, hey, Batman might not make it this time.

And that’s the thing with Gwenpool. Because of its insistence on constantly breaking the 4th wall (5th wall? I don’t even know) it’s hard to cloud your mind to that reality as you read. The story exists as a constant test of its own premise, almost like a romcom where there’s a voiceover that breaks in during every scene and says, “Swear to god, they get together in the end. We just have to do a scene where it looks like Katherine Heigl owns a suitcase full of vibrators or has some other misunderstanding and then we’ll be there, I swear!”

Part of the fun of the romcom is knowing where it’s going, but doubting, and the most successful versions of that story really make you doubt whether or not things are going to work out. Despite the fact that you know damn well the couple will get together, you’re given enough to seed doubt.

Gwenpool doesn’t succeed in that way, for me. I don’t doubt that she’ll survive, proving her premise. And if she does die, then I guess we’ll know she was incorrect, and that’ll be the end of the story as well. OR (my prediction) she will die, but do so heroically, fulfilling what she sees as her role while also maintaining the premise’s integrity.

This is why I introduced this whole thing with the admission that I’m being bitchy. Because the book is fun. I don’t think this “breaks” the Marvel U or anything. I think it’s a demonstration of the ways in which books of really different tones can exist in the Marvel U, and I do like the way Marvel is flexible in that sense.

I think what it causes in me is wondering about whether this book will begin to have more of its own things to say or if it will continue to be more a vehicle to say things about other books and characters and the ways comics, in general, work.

I’ll definitely check out the next volume. I think there’s a good opportunity for Gwenpool, but I would like to see more of a character. Or maybe I want it to go full-on crazeballs.

I don’t know. Don’t listen to me. I don’t know what the hell I want.

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