Paper Girls, Giant Days, Squirrel Girl and the Golden Age of the Hang Out Comic

When I was a kid just getting into comics, I was all about the bonkers, unrelenting drama of superhero comics. The X-Men were my jam, so that makes sense. Nothing was more over the top than the 90s for everyone’s favorite mutants. I mean, just think of the events from that era. They were positively insane when you dissect them even for a minute, but also irresistible for the same reason. Here’s a quick breakdown of three of my favorites to show you what I’m talking about:

  • The first comic I ever bought myself was the part one of X-Cutioner’s Song, a X-Men event built around Stryfe, the clone of Cable (who is the time traveling, aged up child of Cyclops and Madeline Pryor (who is a clone herself, this time of Jean Grey)), trying to assassinate Professor X with a bullet infected with the techno-organic virus in hopes of framing Cable (and presumably killing Professor X). 15
  • My favorite of three, Age of Apocalypse, is an alternate timeline showing what the world would have been like if Professor X was killed when he was much younger. It plays out because Xavier’s child David Haller – aka Legion – tries to help his dad by murdering Xavier’s oft nemesis Magneto, only he accidentally kills his dad in the process. Great job, David. Then Apocalypse takes over the world until Bishop and X-Man (another version of Cable/Stryfe, sort of, who goes by the name Nate Grey), amongst others, help save the day and restore the original reality.
  • The much maligned Onslaught crossover was about Professor X breaking bad after a dark part of Magneto’s psyche infects his brain (post Xavier wiping Magneto’s mind because the latter ripped the adamantium from Wolverine’s body), as he becomes a monstrous, supercharged villain named Onslaught who was also somehow powered by Franklin Richards and the aforementioned X-Man. Onslaught could only be stopped when the combined Avengers and Fantastic Four ran into a vortex created by Onslaught’s demise in hopes of, I don’t know, sopping up the energy like a French Dip does to au jus. It’s a weird one to look back on.

In reality, those were crazy comics. But boy did I love them. They were everything I wanted from a superhero comic. The more dramatic, the better was what I thought when I first got into the medium. Quality was almost irrelevant 16 as I just wanted my big, weird stories. I wasn’t alone. Readers ate those stories up. But back then, those kinds of reads – at least to a newer comic fan like me – felt like the only flavor on the menu. That was just kind of what comics were, by and large, and it worked even if there were exceptions to the rule.

The zenith of comics in my youth, in the form of Joe Madureira’s cover to Age of Apocalypse

But naturally, as I aged, my interest in comic stories shifted, and it wasn’t in the way you might think. I didn’t stop reading superhero comics or anything. That obviously didn’t happen. I still read and love superhero stories, and I appreciate them for what they are, even if my taste in them changed as well. Instead, my favorite comics often tend to be less about bombastic superheroics or endlessly mysterious family trees like the X-Men would give me, and more about relatability and connections. They’re what I call “hang out comics,” and they are something we’re seeing more and more of in the medium.

So what is a hang out comic? It depends on who you ask. For me, it’s any comic where your connection to the cast of a story supersedes the plot itself, or where you basically just read a book because you enjoy hanging out with the cast, thus the phrase “hang out comic.” They’re not about the drama as much as they are spending time with your pals, doing whatever they do, much of which might be pretty basic human kind of things. 17

Now, hang out comics are hardly a new idea. Even when I think back to the peak of my X-Men fandom, I find moments like Gambit and Wolverine playing basketball against each other that remind me my adoration of these characters went beyond who could punch Apocalypse the hardest and most successfully. Superhero comics have had single issues or beats within stories built on ideas like taking it easy in Harry’s Hideaway or having elongated conversations over breakfast 18 for quite some time. That prevalence was often even greater outside the realm of spandex. So these stories have been around.

But what has changed – beyond my own interests – is two fold. One, these kinds of comics have become increasingly visible as the market itself has diversified, with more publishers joining the game, webcomics providing easier, more affordable outlets, and crowd-funding platforms making self-publishing more viable than ever. Throw the rise of social media in and it’s easier than ever to get a greater breadth of stories out into the world. While finding success or making a living off them can still be a tough nut to crack, these changes have led to a wider variety of subject matter in comics. That’s a good thing.

From Hannah Blumenreich’s Spidey-Zine

Two, there’s been a societal shift in which we’ve become even more invested in the internal lives of characters or even famous people and the small things that make them who they are, even if we still live for big, ridiculous drama. Concepts like fan fiction and shipping – both of which have existed for a long time – have entered the lexicon and mainstream in a major way. We’ve moved past characters like Sherlock facing off against Moriarty or Thor and Loki fighting being seen as the end all, be all for narratives, with more slice of life concepts like the former two brunching together or the latter pair sharing a laugh over another round of “get help” rising in appeal. 19 We crave the ordinary even from the extraordinary, as that makes them all the more relatable. 20 Basically, we want them to be our friends, and these kinds of stories make it easier to imagine.

Perhaps no comic represents this paradigm shift better in recent years than Hannah Blumenreich’s work with Spider-Man. Her fabled Twitter comics that eventually became the mini-comic known as Spidey-Zine replaced squaring off against Norman Osborn for the 300th time with Peter and his Aunt May watching the Gilmore Girls together and Spidey walking a young woman home after she was harassed by jerks, explaining Cowboy Bebop to her all the way there. While this is effectively unquantifiable and hardly an apples-to-apples comparison due to her work being free online, I’d wager that Blumenreich’s Spidey-Zine comics are the most read Spider-Man comics of the past decade. And its popularity isn’t because of any huge dust ups or clone sagas or anything like that. It’s because under that mask Peter is a normal guy, and people love that. Blumenreich tapped into this idea in a substantial way, giving us brilliant little hang out comics for the original hang out superhero. 21

While Spidey-Zine is the perfect illustration of how this trend has risen, to me, there are three comics in particular that exemplify the capabilities and potential of the “hang out comic” idea better than any others in the market today. I wanted to write about them both because they are wonderful works, but also because each of them is ending this year, putting readers in a position of not just having to say goodbye to favorite comics, but, in a way, to friends as well.

The rest of this article is for subscribers only.
Want to read it? A monthly SKTCHD subscription is just $4.99, or the price of one Marvel #1.
Or for the lower rate, you can sign up on our quarterly plan for just $3.99 a month, or the price of one regularly priced comic.
Already a member? Sign in to your account.

  1. By the way, I’m recounting all of these from memory. There’s no way my synopses of these events are incorrect 25+years later.

  2. As evidenced by my love of Onslaught, which continues to this day through a combination of never rereading it and simply choosing to ignore how any plot holes it may have.

  3. My love of this concept also manifests itself in my sketchbook, which has the theme of “superheroes doing ordinary things” and features pieces like mohawk Storm playing a guitar by Benjamin Dewey and Grifter and Zealot shopping for melons together by Dustin Weaver.

  4. Shouts to my guy Brian Michael Bendis!

  5. Even if the latter example is a fight related scene from Thor Ragnarok, I’m still calling that a “hang out” kind of move. It’s familiar in a friend/brother sort of way.

  6. That’s a huge part of the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in my opinion.

  7. Chip Zdarsky’s Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man #310 reached the same places Blumenreich did in a different way, and deservedly won the Eisner for Best Single Issue/One-Shot this year for the effort.

  8. By the way, I’m recounting all of these from memory. There’s no way my synopses of these events are incorrect 25+years later.

  9. As evidenced by my love of Onslaught, which continues to this day through a combination of never rereading it and simply choosing to ignore how any plot holes it may have.

  10. My love of this concept also manifests itself in my sketchbook, which has the theme of “superheroes doing ordinary things” and features pieces like mohawk Storm playing a guitar by Benjamin Dewey and Grifter and Zealot shopping for melons together by Dustin Weaver.

  11. Shouts to my guy Brian Michael Bendis!

  12. Even if the latter example is a fight related scene from Thor Ragnarok, I’m still calling that a “hang out” kind of move. It’s familiar in a friend/brother sort of way.

  13. That’s a huge part of the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in my opinion.

  14. Chip Zdarsky’s Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man #310 reached the same places Blumenreich did in a different way, and deservedly won the Eisner for Best Single Issue/One-Shot this year for the effort.

  15. By the way, I’m recounting all of these from memory. There’s no way my synopses of these events are incorrect 25+years later.

  16. As evidenced by my love of Onslaught, which continues to this day through a combination of never rereading it and simply choosing to ignore how any plot holes it may have.

  17. My love of this concept also manifests itself in my sketchbook, which has the theme of “superheroes doing ordinary things” and features pieces like mohawk Storm playing a guitar by Benjamin Dewey and Grifter and Zealot shopping for melons together by Dustin Weaver.

  18. Shouts to my guy Brian Michael Bendis!

  19. Even if the latter example is a fight related scene from Thor Ragnarok, I’m still calling that a “hang out” kind of move. It’s familiar in a friend/brother sort of way.

  20. That’s a huge part of the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in my opinion.

  21. Chip Zdarsky’s Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man #310 reached the same places Blumenreich did in a different way, and deservedly won the Eisner for Best Single Issue/One-Shot this year for the effort.