Gutter Talk: Knowing How To Play Your Cards

Six panels of vintage horror comics. The center says GUTTER TALK

Gutter Talk – art by Viv Le

A few weeks ago, I was asked to come in and talk to a class of writing students about personal essay and culture writing. I carefully loaded up the best parts of my imposter syndrome, showed up late, and talked to very attentive and thoughtful students about having what is easily one of the weirder jobs as a writer. One of the kids, actually all of them with slightly different phrasing each time, tabled the question people ask me a lot: How do you manage putting yourself out there so much without having some kind of breakdown?

My answer, which I did not give then because I wanted to offer a glimmer of hope to those seated with a quiet anticipation of what they wanted from their own bright futures, is that I have breakdowns literally all the time. But I also play a lot of my cards very carefully, and you only see what I choose to put on the table.

It’s a delicate act, to choose wisely which parts of yourself to lay bare and which to hold back, careful to never show too much but also show enough. I like the connection it offers, and I love the conversations that happen when you put all your cards on the table and have someone read them and show their own.

Even the best cards can be poorly played, and all it takes is the wrong one played to ruin the deck.

So how is this a comics column?

I’ve been wandering the halls of an endless depression for a while here. Somewhere in the labyrinth of my own despondency, I hit a wall — one which caused me to retreat from spaces on and offline, build a little nest in the folds of the comforter on my bed in which I could hide and wait for my skin to grow thick enough once more, thick enough to once again take the little cuts that show themselves when you announce your feelings and find that in response, some will reveal their drawers of blades, eager to make cuts.

I spent a LOT of time in this little nest I called my home playing a game called Marvel Snap.

Marvel Snap is a fucking silly little card game on my phone. I hate it. I cannot stop playing it. I love it. I cannot stop playing it.

Look, I love comics. I have moved past feeling guilty or weird about it. I love them, and I write about them here every two weeks. I love Marvel comics, the MCU, the whole lot of it. Marvel Snap is a game on my phone where I play against some bot or teen or teen bot in some other realm of our shared little universe. So Marvel Snap should be right up my alley, right?

But now I feel ashamed that I am so taken in by a game on my phone. I feel like everyone’s aunt who got really into Bejewelled for an entire year before you had to have The Talk with her about maybe finding someone to talk to about what’s really going on. I was playing my own cards close to my chest, holding the very real emotions creating such great and powerful weight, but here I was fast and loose.

Each game takes about six minutes. The little training deck that everyone gets — the game starts you with recognizable Marvel properties like Hawkeye (the dude one, not my much preferred Kate Bishop version), Mr Fantastic and The Hulk — had just enough in it for me to play one more game, then just one more game. Then someone played a card I wanted to find for my own deck (Spider Woman), so I played one more.

I burrowed deep into the fort of my depression and perfected my decks, learned which cards to play at which time in order to maximize my opportunity to find success. The air outside my existence felt heavy with the weight of the world’s realities I sought to escape. But for a while, I could live here, in this space, and learn how to make 12 cards played on a table work to my advantage. Learning to show just enough to succeed, but holding back enough to have a defense for when things go sideways.

I learned which cards may not look terribly strong on their own but can work symphonically in concert with someone of comparable strength. Separately they may run to ruin, but with each other they become pillars of untold strength.

Any good depression subsides for a little while. There is no dispersing it fully, it will never be fully gone. Depression is like glitter. You might think it gone, but that is a foolish gamble. It’s just retreated to spaces unseen, waiting to be stumbled upon by even the most cautious of hearts. What’s important then is the slow skill-building we foster in ourselves through a series of trials and errors. Learning which cards to play at which time, building your deck with the strengths that you need and the backup that supports them.

Marvel Snap is just a silly fucking card game on my little phone, but it saved my life when I needed it, reminded me to rely on the combined strength of others who see the durability in me lost in the twist and turns of a depressive maze. Reminded me to play my cards carefully, with purpose and reservation, and to never show them all, to choose carefully what I give and what I keep just for me.

Every week, I’m going to end with a little wrap-up of comics and comic-related bric-a-brac that I’ve been digging lately. There’s no homework or anything here, just some stuff I’ve been digging that you might too.

Niko’s Pull List

New Mutants #31

Charlie Jane Anders takes the reins on what has been my favorite Marvel book for the last spell of time with issue #31, writing in the mutant Escapade to the cast. Escapade is a trans character whose mutant ability allows them to switch roles, accessories, or skills with someone else for a little while. It is a VERY on-the-nose powerset as far as being trans and being a mutant goes, but this first story is pretty fun and dives into a lot of identity conversations without hitting you over the head with subtext. It’s nice to see a trans kid be a mutant that isn’t named like Safe Space or some awful designed-by-committee Inclusive Character too, and I hope we see more from Escapade and more trans characters appear in Marvel books on the regular.

This is my lone pick, but I want to open the floor to the comments: Tell me about a comic you’re reading. An indie book, a Marvel book. Is there a DC Comics book I should be into? Give me your picks!

Gutter Talk is a biweekly series by Niko Stratis that looks at comic books from a queer and trans perspective.

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Niko Stratis

Niko Stratis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets like SPIN, Bitch, Xtra, Catapult and more. Her work primarily focuses on culture, the 1990s, queer/trans topics and as often as possible where all those ideas intersect. 

She wrote that piece about Jackass that you liked and also the Gin Blossoms one. 

She is also the creator and host of V/A Club, a podcast about movie soundtracks.

Niko lives in downtown Toronto with her fiancé and their dog and 2 cats. She is a cancer.

Niko has written 30 articles for us.


  1. I’m about to start volume three of Giant Days, and I’m really enjoying it! It’s a slice of life following some students at Warwick, centred on a trio of best friends.

    It added a second artist in the middle of the second vol and i do prefer the originals art, but it’s charming enough it’s grown on me!

  2. the ongoing run of Moon Knight is some of my favorite art marvel’s ever done and is a kickass story to boot!

    every wednesday that goes by without a new unbeatable squirrel girl i grow slightly older and sadder

    volume 3 of Elecboy, a cyberpunk/post apocalypse retelling of the Jesus myth, came out recently and i read the series for the first time. it’s mostly in the “would love to know what other people think” column but there’s definitely bits that will bring me back for volume 4

  3. Big fan of Jeff Lemire’s writing, and his work with Andrea Sorrentino (Gideon Falls, Primordial) has been incredible, especially the use of layout in representing the incomprehensible.

    I got the latest issue of Ten Thousand Black Feathers this weekend, and have been enjoying Lemire/Sorrentino continuing to play with different genres simultaneously. There’s a very Blade Maidens vibe to the story within a story.

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