Marvel Tsum Tsum #1
Written by Jacob Chabot
Art by David Baldeon, Terry Pallot and Jim Campbell
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
The only people who will wind up hating Marvel Tsum Tsum #1 are the people who already decided that they have without reading a single page. It isn't terribly difficult to see where people in that camp are coming from - this is one of the most merchandise-driven comic books from a publisher with a long history of merchandise-driven comic books. But with this series, writer Jacob Chabot manages to remove the doubts imposed by adulthood cynicism and, with David Baldeon's energetic and fun art style, creates a comic book with multiple layers of stakes and the potential for commentary about fandom as a whole.
Tsum Tsums, for those out of the know, are adorable and collectable plushies in the form of Disney and Disney-adjacent (e.g., Marvel and Star Wars) characters with distinctly kawaii-inspired faces. The story opens with the Guardians of the Galaxy interrupting an interstellar transport truck leading to a crate of tsums crashing in Brooklyn – a sequence that is surprisingly effective in displaying the scope of the Marvel Universe and how far removed the cosmic characters are from the action on Earth. The intuitive Holly, polaroid-loving Bert, and idealist Dunk, a trio of friends from the same apartment complex, find the crate and bring it to Dunk's home in an attempt to open it. Unlike many merchandise-driven works, Marvel Tsum Tsum #1 focuses more on these three children and their reactions to the tsums' presence in their world than it ever does on the tsums themselves. We don't even get a glimpse of the tsums until the sixteenth page, more than halfway through the entire issue.
When we are introduced to the tsums, they are in a state of tabula rasa, and more closely resemble harp seals than any of the X-Men or Avengers. When a battle breaks out in front of the complex between the Avengers and an Ultron-created army of robots, a few of the tsums that the kids have handy begin transforming into the forms of the superheroes.This is an interesting parallel to an earlier mention by Holly and Bert of Dunk's attempts to awaken his own mutant gene and expose himself to radiation from his microwave. They are children who watch and idolize comic book heroes, and Dunk so badly wants to become these heroes that it makes a thematically interesting parallel that the tsums literally do what he has been trying to do.
Interestingly, the tsum that adopts Spider-Man's form uses Peter Parker's Spider-Man, despite Miles Morales being the prominently cameo'd Spider-person. This can be reasoned away by the presence of a Parker-Spider-Man poster in Dunk's bedroom, and by a silhouette in the background of a panel more closely resembling Peter than it does Miles. It might seem inane to search so earnestly for an internal logic in a comic book based off of Disney plushies, but if anything it's a testament to how much the characters and their struggle feels like it matters. Plus, the only way Cap-Tsum America could have known what Cap looks like is through a poster on the wall. Tsum-Hulk reacts appropriately upon being offered black licorice and destroys Dunk's wall, escaping with his adorable friends in a couple of pages that are kinetic and explosive. Baldeon's art often extends beyond the panels, which can be jarring, but really translates the panic that the protagonists feel as they desperately attempt to corral the tsums back in one place.
After utilizing the tsum's love for that which they cosplay as, the gang is able to wrangle the extra-terrestrial plushies back to their crate as they are soothed by the Spider-Man's theme song and 1969 deep-cut "Nobody Loves the Hulk,” all of which apparently exist in this universe. In the background of this story, Chabot has established a sketchy neighbor to the kids, one who puts himself on the same level as henchmen like Bullseye and Rhino, and is desperate for some villainous work.
The issue concludes with the reveal that he has taken the Spider-Tsum, perfectly weaving the two central conflicts of the series together. The first is the challenge of keeping the tsums a secret, which is an interesting twist on the usual superhero-secret-identity trope. None of these kids are the hero, at least not in the super-sense, but they must neatly pack these embodiments of comic book hero qualities into a box to prevent the world from discovering them. The stakes of that feel scarier than the typical secret identity conflict. It would be like Ash Ketchum having to keep the identity of Pokémon a secret. It's that crazy and feels that volatile and tenuous. The secondary conflict is how they deal with this blatant villain henchman of a neighbor who will undoubtedly factor into the overall series as an antagonist. But with this winning combination of accessible characterization and endearing art, much of the issue winds up being surprising and refreshing for Tsum-Tsum fans and neophytes alike.