What's the secret to failure?
I, like many people, love Leave It to Chance, the critically acclaimed, award-winning comic from James Robinson and Paul Smith. The three collected volumes from Image (pictured here) left me hungry for more. It never occurred to me when I finished them that there might not be any more.
It probably never occurred to Robinson and Smith, either. After all, they had a solid high-concept idea, the talent to pull it off, and an ambition to get more women and children, a market the industry has struggled to attract, to read comics. They also had the acclaim of critics. What they apparently lacked was good sales.
Leave It to Chance is easy to grasp: it's a cross between Nancy Drew and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. In brief, the setting is the city of Devil's Echo where the paranormal is the norm. Defending the townsfolk against endless threats from demons, monsters, and other bogeymen is the Falconer family. Every generation has had one Falconer to be the town's paranormal investigator and protector, and the tradition has passed from father to son in an unbroken line.
But Lucas Falconer is the last male heir. His battle with occultist Miles Belloc left his wife dead and his face deformed, and he has had to raise his only daughter, Chance, alone. Now Chance is fourteen, the traditional coming-of-age when male Falconers become apprentices of their fathers. Chance wants to follow in Lucas Falconer's footsteps, but he has forbidden it. As you would expect, Chance decides to do some paranormal investigation on her own. Havoc ensues and Chance saves the city multiple times. Lucas is angry with her but secretly proud.
How awesome is that?
I thought I would never again have the joy of reading Leave It to Chance since its last two issues have not been collected in paperback and probably never will be. But then I visited that shady bookstore up the street--you know, the one with New Age books on the shelves and posters of naked anime characters on the walls--where I found a copy of the very last issue, Issue 13 (perhaps an unlucky number for a comic about the paranormal). It opens strong, swiftly informing us that Lucas is dead, murdered by a car bomb. Grieving, Chance has given up on paranormal investigating. But she won't have long to mope because a bumbling psychic trying to resurrect a famous jazz singer has accidentally created a city-wide zombie uprising while in the background a collection of villains with a grudge against Chance are forming a conspiracy.
And that, unfortunately, is where it ends. This last issue came out only after the comic had already been through trouble, and now the series is once again on a permanent hiatus. What went wrong? Why couldn't such an easily likable, fun, all-ages comic succeed?
Earlier this week on The Sci Fi Catholic, I argued that some stories we associate with women are actually intended for men. Although Leave It to Chance was created with a young, feminine audience in mind, I strongly suspect it holds a greater interest for male adults.
I will never forget Paul Smith's introduction to the first volume, Shaman's Rain. It's clear he has a bone to pick with the comics industry, calling modern comics "dark, misogynist, convoluted...mean." Leave It to Chance is clearly meant to be the opposite: bright, simple, and girl-powered. But readers aware of Chance's intent might be a little bemused to discover that everyone working on the comic from the writer to the inker to the letterer is a man. Certain "feminine" scenes in the series seem forced, such as in Issue 8 when Chance and her girlfriends have a slumber party during which they sit around and talk about their favorite comic book heroes. "Hellboy is way cool,"* Chance announces, almost more to the reader than to her friends, as if she's trying to nudge the audience to go pick up a Mike Mignola comic. To my eye, this moment--when the curtain is drawn back on a feminine scene and the reader discovers the girls are really fanboys--is likely to appeal more to a male readership than a female one.
And then there is Chance herself. She has a boyish haircut, thick eyebrows, and a decidedly androgynous body she usually covers with overalls and a bulky trench coat. Again, this appears to be a reaction against the stereotypes of comics in which crime-fighting women are typically voluptuous and underdressed. The reader may get the sense that Robinson and Smith have carefully and consciously de-sexualized their heroine. Even her extremely low-key, G-rated romantic tension with sixteen-year-old, scruffy-chinned criminal mastermind Archie Lightfoot is non-sexual in every sense of the term.
Through most of Leave It to Chance, Chance is generically spunky and able to handle anything, though a few issues end with suggestions that her brash actions may have serious repercussions later on. On one occasion, Chance accidentally kills a man, but never shows shock or remorse. In another instance, she intentionally tosses a "trogg" off the top of a building and again seems unfazed (though the trogg may have survived). When it's over, she's always ready for the next big adventure. Her psyche receives no exploration.
This contrasts intriguingly with another male-authored teenage girl-centered comic, Paul Sizer's Little White Mouse. Its protagonist, Loo Th'eng, frequently dresses in a manner similar to Chance: her typical attire consists of overalls, a vest, and a backwards baseball cap. Loo, in contrast to Chance, is a fully developed character. Her personality is believable even if her abilities are exceptional. Loo, like Chance, engages in reckless behavior enjoyable to watch, but she sometimes feels guilty and frequently suffers consequences. Also in contrast to Chance, her femininity is never lost in spite of her behavior and dress, which might be considered "masculine" in many respects, although Sizer accomplishes this partly by depicting her in romantic or quasi-romantic relationships with much older men and by putting her in a number of skimpy outfits, all of which I considered unfortunate when I read the series.
The only character in Leave It to Chance who really exudes feminine sexuality in a typically comic book way is Ms. Longfellow, one of the villains, who packs a large handgun and wears black tights and cat-rimmed glasses. The issue in which she appears ends with her rendered powerless after a male villain abandons her. Similarly, in Issue 13, the bumbling psychic has a beautiful, air-headed woman on each arm. When the dead start rising from their graves, we see a shot of one of these women running away and shouting, "Don't ask me. Otway just hired me to look pretty!" The matronly-looking maid at the Falconer estate, Quince, is generally Chance's antagonist who tries to get her to be more lady-like and prevent her from pursuing her dream, whereas the butler Hobbs is Chance's enabler. Besides Chance herself, the strongest female character in the comic is Officer Margo, a policewoman who works in the Arcane Crimes Unit. Although presumably intended to champion womanhood, Leave It to Chance generally depicts femininity as powerless. Women succeed in the comic largely by imitating men and learning to move in a man's world. Women who are openly feminine are vulnerable and eventually become helpless.
Issue 13, however, adds some much-needed complexity. Chance struggles with her father's death and feels unable to live up to the Falconer family name. At the story's climax, Chance saves the day partly through a creative use of lip balm, a feminine item, and at the issue's end, even though Chance has succeeded as always, we find her in the arms of Quince the maid, who is consoling her over her trying experiences. Meanwhile, a couple of male characters are clueless and even insensitive.
When he complains about convolution, darkness, and misogyny in the modern comics industry, Smith yearns for a past when comics were fun. Leave It to Chance appears to have the goal (if not the success) of Star Wars: it is supposed to be innovative, yes, but more importantly it is supposed to bring fun back to an artform that has largely forgotten about it. I suspect the most avid readers of Leave It to Chance are probably not young girls but older fanboys nostalgic for the comics of yesteryear.
The cover of Issue 13 is an image of Chance surrounded by zombies and staring at her own grave, containing this epitaph:
Any hope that Chance will be back? It's impossible to say. For now, we'll have to leave it to chance.
*On the off chance James Robinson or Mike Mignola ever read this blog, I would pay good, good money to see a Leave It to Chance/Hellboy crossover.