Front cover to back cover, Codename Baboushka is blase both in its feminism and in its execution of the spy genre. The art in Codename Baboushka is constantly on the verge of sliding into the land of cartoons. Not that there's anything wrong with cartoons, of course; but, the tone of this comic--the violence, the full-figured approach to depicting Baboushka, the need for menacing bad-guys--constantly demands that this comic look more stylistically developed than it is. The inking on this title is so sparse that faces often threaten to dissolve into a puddle of eyes and mouths.
The two biggest problems with Codename Baboushka, however, are that it's crammed full of clichés and it's a rather arbitrary vehicle for feminist essays. I want to tread lightly and be very clear about what I mean by the latter point, so let's talk about the story issues.
Come to think of it, the two problems are inextricable in some ways, and it's hard to talk about what makes Codename Baboushka seem stale without addressing the representation issues lurking in comics. Johnston has been clear that a big motivation for this series is depicting, for once, a female spy who gets to do all the things normally reserved for Bond clones: dressing up, kill people, and fucking, being the three main things that come to mind.
That's great. Representation is the issue in the world of comics right now, and any creator seeking to address this is fighting the good fight.
But it doesn't save me from the fact that I've read this story before. A plausible response might be, "well, what's played out is the male archetype of this character: now let's let the women have a shot, let's give them a version to enjoy." It could be that my level of investment in the Bond mythos is something that women have been sorely lacking, and that they have a chance here to be similarly invested in this character's mythos. I don't deny that, and I especially don't deny that such a possibility is a massive boon for everyone reading/creating/talking about comics.
I simply don't think this comic is all that entertaining. As I said before, I’m all for building a spy story that doesn’t revolve around a dude who is built on womanizing; but this female iteration with these stories and this art just doesn’t seem promising. It's a spy procedural, with issue #2 filled to the brim with clichés after a mostly boring first issue. What I'm arguing is not that male characters have a monopoly on these clichés and female characters never deserve to have a chance with them. Rather, what I'm saying is that if you are going to go through the trouble of swapping out a male role for a female role, more needs to be done to make it feel like you did more than simply swap. And, independent of anyone’s gender, the story and art just don’t carry this comic.
The second problem is the choice to include the feminist essays in the back-matter. Danielle Henderson's essay is great; but, why is it here? What makes this book a substantial vehicle for feminism? The fact that the protagonist is a woman? Surely the choice to include a woman as the main character in a style of book in which she would not normally be a woman is an explicitly feminist choice. But nothing about the content of this book takes the ideals of feminism any further.
It was my biggest problem with Bitch Planet while reading it: packaging something as feminist literature does not make it so. But Bitch Planet was also at least trying to be feminist in its content. It might sound harsh, but for the Codename Baboushka story to earn its back-matter, the story ought to work harder to be a fresh story for a female protagonist, rather than a tired, typically-male story that might as well read as if it was gender-swapped.
Codename Baboushka #2 Writer: Antony Johnston Artist: Shari Chankhamma Publisher: Image Comics Price: $3.99 Release Date: 11/11/15 Format: Ongoing; Print/Digital