Comics/Graphic Novels

I Love Ya, Tomorrow: The Pluckiest Orphans in Comics

The new Annie remake starring Quvenzhane Wallis comes out this Friday, and I could not be more excited. The 1982 Annie has been one of my very favorite movies since I was a weensy little toetapper myself. Aside from a general distrust of dogcatchers and anyone named “Rooster,” Annie instilled in me a love of stories about plucky orphans who bring joy into the world around them with their charm, moxie, and showstopping dance numbers. And if they find their way into the hearts of cranky old millionaires, well, that’s just a bonus.

Here’s a few of my very favorite plucky orphans in comics:

robin year one1. Robins

Okay, so something like 137% of characters in superhero comics are orphans, but that “plucky” modifier is important. Batman’s parents are dead (did you know?), but he’s not terribly likely to break out into a rousing chorus of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” to my everlasting disappointment. (Joker might, though.)

But oh, the Kid Sidekick. The Kid Sidekick’s entire purpose is to liven up a grim or stolid hero’s world with a hearty helping of puns and gee willikers – and of course, most of them are orphans, because parents generally frown on letting their tweens battle mobsters at two in the morning without any pants on.

I love any and all kid sidekicks, but you can’t get more classic than the Boy (or Girl!) Wonder. Only some of ‘em have been orphans, but having a supervillain for a parent is like being an orphan, probably. For the Annie-est action, go old school with Dick Grayson in Chuck Dixon, Scott Beatty, Javier Pulido, and Marcos Martin’s Robin: Year One, which covers Dick’s first year in the pixie boots. (That edition also contains the equally wonderful Batgirl: Year One by the same team.) Then flip the dynamic on its head with Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Batman and Robin, where the still-plucky Dick mentors the not-quite-an-orphan Damian.

My pick for that real sun’ll-come-out-tomorrow vibe goes to the adventures of former-Robin and not-quite-orphan Stephanie Brown in Bryan Q. Miller’s fabulous Batgirl series, though. The trades are out of print, but it’s all up on Comixology. If you’re on the fence, start with #17, where Steph introduces cranky li’l Damian to the joys of bounce houses. Two Robins, no waiting!

darkwing duck gosalyn2. Ducks

If there’s any pop cultural entity that draws more deeply from the orphan well than superhero comics, it’s Disney. Still, you wouldn’t think Donald Duck of all characters has a family tree laden with tragedy. But think about it: why do Huey, Dewey, and Louie live with their “Unca Donald,” anyway?

Neither the cartoons nor the comics have ever been explicit about where their mother – Donald’s twin – and her husband disappeared to, or what happened to Donald’s parents, for that matter, but they are very definitely Out of the Picture. And yet the triplets are always sunny, resourceful, and ready for anything. They’re plucky ducks, all right. (Wait. That’s the other company.) And as usual, I can’t recommend Fantagraphics’s Carl Barks and Don Rosa collections enough if you’re looking to catch up on their feathery adventures.

But my favorite canardian Disney orphan isn’t actually related to Donald; it’s Gosalyn Mallard, adoptive daughter of Darkwing Duck. With her red hair, fiery temper, and especially the way she brings out Darkwing’s soft side, Gosalyn is even more Annie-esque than the triplets are. (In fact, I once described Annie to a Duck-loving friend who’d never seen it as “A musical Elseworld where Gosalyn is adopted by Scrooge instead of Darkwing.” P.S. Would watch.) And next month you can snag her and her pop in James Silvani, Aaron Sparrow, and Ian Brill’s Darkwing Duck: The Definitively Dangerous Edition, which collects the recent Boom! series – and kicks off a new one from Joe Books. Let’s get dangerous!

avatar the promise3. Avatar

Avatar: The Last Airbender is, simply put, one of the best shows I have ever seen on television. The Avatar is 12-year-old Aang, who has the power to control all four elements. After a hundred years frozen in an iceberg (long story), he wakes to a world torn apart by a century of war, and must use his incredible gifts to bring about peace.

Except the most crucial abilities are not his (totally righteous) bending skills, but his compassion, playfulness, and general love of life. Time and again it’s Aang’s joyful, ebullient spirit that wins him allies, saves the day, and allows him to end a cataclysmic war without compromising his life-affirming beliefs. Though he’s seen his share of tragedy – we don’t know anything about his birth parents, but the monks who raised him were all violently murdered shortly after he was frozen – he never loses the sunny optimism that defines him.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is over, though its sequel show Korra is still airing online – but Aang’s adventures have been continued in comics written by the show’s creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and drawn by Eisner and Harvey Award winner Gene Luen Yang. Start with the first storyline, “The Promise.”

(Does this make Zuko Daddy Warbucks? He is rich and cranky…)

little orphan annie4. Oh yeah, Annie!

Annie’s best known these days for her musical incarnation, but of course she was born in the funny papers, the star of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie. The strip, which ran from 1924 to, astonishingly, 2010, detailed Annie’s adventures alongside Daddy Warbucks and Sandy combating the perils of the time, whatever they might be. (It ended on a cliffhanger, with Annie in the clutches of a war criminal and Warbucks believing her dead. Thanks to the gloriously weird nature of soap opera comics, though, newspaper readers got some closure this year with a Dick Tracy crossover plotline that reunited Annie and Warbucks. Comics, never change.)

To be honest, I’ve never been too motivated to catch up on the comics, mostly thanks to Gray’s ultra-right-wing politics – among other things, he advocated for child labor and extrajudicial violence in the face of a “too soft” judicial system, and famously killed off Warbucks during FDR’s presidency in protest over the New Deal. (I’m guessing the musical had him rolling in his grave.) But they are a fascinating cultural artifact, and a piece of America’s pop cultural history, and I’m sure I’ll dig into the sequential adventures of my favorite pie-eyed redhead eventually. When I do, IDW’s got me covered with a beautiful collection of reprints. Leapin’ lizards!