Back in 1986, I subconsciously decided I liked a new Marvel Comics heroine without actually reading any of her books. Her name was Dakota North and, 32 years later, I’ve finally read her series.
One of the reasons I want to write about old comics is to talk about the relationship between my memories of a work and the actual craft that goes into a project. This week, I’m writing about a character that intrigued my 14-year-old self because of the infectiously ridiculous pun in her name and a stylish design that didn’t look like anything else Marvel was putting out at the time.
Here’s what I foggily remembered — some of it inaccurately — about Dakota North, before reading it:
- She had one of the coolest Marvel Comics house ads during the mid-1980s.
- Her adventures happened mostly in the world of fashion and beauty.
- She kind of reminded me of female characters like Ms Tree or Modesty Blaise.
Here’s what I definitely know about Dakota North:
- In the early 2000s, she showed up for a few issues of the Black Panther title written by Christopher Priest.
- Her series was one of a very few written by a woman, something that was all the more rare in the 1980s.
Here’s what I don’t know about Dakota North:
- Anything that happened in any issue of her actual comic.
That’s right: I never read any Dakota North when it was coming out. If memory serves, I don’t even remember seeing it in any of the comics shops I frequented as a teenager.
But the character — created by writer Martha Thomases and artist Tony Salmons — still managed to lodge itself in my brain. Something about that initial house ad grabbed me: Here was a female character drawn with allure, not titillation, at her core. I hadn’t encountered enough fashion illustration to see its influence on Dakota North, but I knew I was seeing something different.
Working backward from the present day, you can pick apart the cultural artefacts that likely inspired Dakota North. The flirty, will-they-won’t-they vibe of Moonlighting is in full effect, as well as the aura of Patrick Nagel’s sleek illustration style, made more popular after pop icons Duran Duran used his work for the cover of their hit album Rio.
Dakota North is also reminiscent of Aeroplane! and Sledge Hammer!; like those works, it parodies the genre in which it’s taking place. The plots in the short-lived series revolved around shadowy espionage deals, corporate parody and mild romantic tensions.
The overall effect of the experiment was scattershot. But that kind of works in its favour, as Thomases seems more concerned with rapid-fire jokes than tense gunplay.
More than anything, it’s the primacy of style that’s the biggest takeaway from revisiting Dakota North. You can practically feel the air kisses jumping off the page, because Salmons revels in drawing outfits, hairstyles, shoes and accessories.
An investigation in the Guggenheim Museum, a chase scene in a faux Bloomingdale’s, and issues set in Paris and Venice all cement the notion that this was a comic in love with the idea of style and with Manhattan as the epicentre of chic.
Sure, the fashions, sensibilities and slang are locked to the mid-‘80s zeitgeist, but that makes Dakota North feel like a really effective time capsule for that cultural moment.
Marvel’s always prided itself on being the world outside your window, but this series happens in a “realer” version of New York City than the one that Spider-Man swings through. Superheroes never show up in the flesh during Dakota North’s five-issue run. The only exception was a Hulk TV show playing on a television in the background of an evil sheikh's lair.
Instead, you can feel elements of other comics genres that were fading from view repurposed in Dakota North too.
Dakota’s supermodel looks and her constant flirtation with police detective Amos hearken back to romance, fashion, and other comics series aimed at girls such as Young Love and Millie the Model. But it’s Amos and the other men who are left pining, not the female lead character.
Moreover, every time Dakota brushes off a pushy, leering creep, it feels like Thomases is flipping the bird at the casual commodification and dismissal that women suffer through in a male-dominated world.
The storytelling is wonky and pacing haphazard but, ultimately, Dakota North succeeds because it achieves the only goal Thomases set for it: For it to be its own thing.
And Dakota still pops up in the Marvel Universe. Ironically, an appearance in a Daredevil story arc establishes that she and Jessica Jones are friends, a plot beat probably meant to nod at the debt that the newer character owes to the older one’s trailblazing.
Dakota North prefigured Jessica Jones and never harboured any of the dysfunction present in Brian Michael Bendis’ private eye. They do the same job but Dakota has done it without the trauma and baggage that Jessica carries around. Hell, it seemed fun and a bit effortless in her original series.
Unfortunately, that sense of fun was largely absent in Dakota’s latter-day appearances. Proximity to Daredevil, Spider-Man and Black Panther — the kinds of superhero characters she was initially designed to stand apart from — diluted the unique mix of ingredients that made her a fashion-forward anomaly back in 1986. And while she may occasionally crack wise, she’s just making jokes in a comics landscape that takes less risks than it used to.
The things that first drew me to Dakota North will probably ensure that she’ll keep showing up in Marvel’s comics, but it’s an open question as to whether these new stories will ever re-capture the stylish appeal of her original series.