‘Young Avengers: Style>Substance,’ Review by James Taylor, University of Warwick

[Marvel Now 2013; writer: Kieron Gillan; illustrator: James McKelvie]

Capture

Upon revealing Spider-Man to the world five decades ago, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko demonstrated that superhero fantasy offers a wealth of metaphors for the trials and tribulations, but also giddying heights, of teenage life. Young Avengers continues in this tradition, depicting seemingly timeless adolescent anxieties that have persisted since Peter Parker’s youth, while simultaneously exploring the technologies and trends impacting contemporary teenagers. The first arc, which I review here, is titled ‘Style > Substance’, invoking a view often held of the culture it represents. However, the series offers far more than a mere façade of hipness. Young Avengers probes the motivations and temperaments of its youthful heroes, presenting them as complex characters pushing beyond past traumas as they seek out and assert their individuality.

Central to this arc are Billy Kaplan and Teddy Altman, aka Wiccan and Hulkling, founding members of the original Young Avengers team, established in 2005 in the beloved Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung series. After sneaking out for some superheroics, Teddy returns to his room in Billy’s parent’s house. Creeping through the window he is confronted by Billy, angry and hurt that his shape-shifting boyfriend has been embarking on illicit bouts of superheroics despite them agreeing, following teammates’ deaths, to be Young Avengers no more. The proceeding exchange reminds Billy about Teddy’s feelings of isolation as an orphan, prompting him to use his magic abilities to locate a version of Teddy’s mother in another dimension and draw her into their own. The spell clashes with one of Loki’s, causing an interdimensional parasite masquerading as Teddy’s mother to be summoned. Calling herself Mother, she only wants what’s best for the youths: to ensure they keep out of trouble while she consumes their souls.

As Billy and Teddy reluctantly team up with Loki to oppose Mother, a new team of Young Avengers form around them. America Chavez, aka Miss America, arrives spectacularly in issue three, firing down from the sky to provide aid with attitude. When the combined ability of these four is not enough to combat Mother, Kate Bishop and Noh-Vahh, aka Hawkeye and Marvel Boy, come to the rescue, providing the team with sharp shooting, acrobatics and even more sass.

One curious aspect of superheroes is that they generally only age as teenagers. Peter Parker faced adolescence in his first few decades of continuity, and then became an eternal twenty-something, while Dick Grayson could not be Robin forever, eventually growing into Nightwing. Significant developments can therefore occur in a superhero’s teenage years. This offers freedom for new creative teams to reform a character’s personality, but also an obligation to present what feels like natural progression. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie manage this brilliantly with the trio of original Young Avengers, Billy, Teddy and Kate, who have aged a couple of years since their introduction to the Marvel Universe. Shifts in their characterisations are rooted in their personal biographies and the culture in which they have grown up.

The first issue opens with the always-headstrong Kate waking up to a teenage cliché, in an unfamiliar bed that belongs to a guy whose name she cannot remember (she thinks it might be Norman). She considers the irresponsibility of her actions, but holds herself absolutely responsible: this was her choice, she is not a victim, and what’s more, she enjoyed it! The situation becomes even more alien as she discovers that the bedroom is situated in a spaceship and her lover is Noh-Varr, an extra-terrestrial from another dimension.

Capture

Kate’s confidence and impulsivity is evident throughout the arc. As her romance with Noh-Varr develops, their superheroics act not just to defeat Mother, but as a means of flirtation (at one point, shooting two parasites whist flipping gracefully through the air, Noh-Varr thinks ‘I hope Kate’s watching right now’). The most potent representation of Kate’s personality, which also exudes the series’ spirit of self-affirmation, effortless cool and fun, occurs as Noh-Varr’s ship is ambushed by aliens. A double page spread shows Kate dashing for the ship’s controls while Noh-Varr defends, rectangular panels interspersed with bold text through which Kate recognises her inexperience but shrugs it off, stating ‘being a superhero is amazing, everyone should try it’. As with her night with Noh-Varr, she is aware of potential irresponsibility, but finds more value in uninhibited self-expression and living in the moment. That Kate’s approach to superheroics parallels her approach to sex is further evident in the fact that her smile in the final panel is almost identical to that which accompanied her decision to not be ashamed of spending the night with a man she barely knows.

Capture

Despite sharing the Hawkeye alias with Clint Barton, Kate’s distinct personality ensures that she is absolutely her own character. In fact, the shared name indicates that she is no sidekick or sub-brand. She is not Hawkgirl or Hawkwoman, but has the same status as Clint. Refusing to live in the shadows of others, she continues to wrestle out of a privileged but constricting childhood, whilst exhibiting great loyalty to her friends.

It is friendship (and Billy’s shocking lack of instant replies to text messages) that brings Kate to the aid of Billy and Teddy. In the original series Billy and Teddy’s relationship was generally coyly implied rather than explicitly depicted. This reflected how, as they were just discovering their feelings and each other, they were not quite ready to share this with the world. In Gillen and McKelvie’s series, their love has blossomed, leaving them assured in both themselves and each other, and not afraid to express their affection. This is evident in the heartfelt argument they have upon Billy catching Teddy sneaking in, which goes from bitter accusations of betrayal, to teary honesty and declarations of love, culminating in a lip-locked embrace.

Capture

Gillen tests the durability of this love by casting doubt upon its very foundations when Loki posits that, due to Billy’s reality-warping powers, is it not possible he unconsciously crafted himself the perfect boyfriend in Teddy? Indeed, Teddy’s lineage as a Kree/Skrull lovechild would position him as the perfect product of Billy’s fanboy imagination, constructing his own fantasy from the fantastical mythoi he obsesses over.

 

Loki’s sly tongue immersing the narrative in ambiguity in such a way is evidence of the complexities Gillen has been building around the god of mischief over the last two years. Gillen took the reigns on Loki, reborn in the body of a child, during his celebrated run on Journey into Mystery, in which ‘Kid Loki’ struggles to make amends for his previous self’s wrongdoings the only way he knows how: through deception and trickery. Meanwhile, he is plagued by his former self whispering in his ear. Without disclosing all the details of the finely crafted, emotional finale to Gillen’s Journey into Mystery, its events left Loki with a different configuration within his conscious of evil former Loki and good-intentioned newborn Loki. This situation is enabled by the intriguing way Gillen presents gods as functioning in the Marvel Universe. As beings of mythology, they don’t simply live in and abide by the rules of the diegetic world like other characters, but recognise the machinations of the story to the extent that Journey into Mystery saw Loki tearing up disagreeable captions. While characters can die, stories do not, so dead gods continue to exist in the stories that concern them, and therefore neither Loki’s evil or youthful self can ever be exterminated, but will endure so that they can pester each other for all eternity.

While the multiple facets of which Loki is comprised are an intricate array of competing personalities and meta-fictional concepts, they are bound together by comedy that meshes fantastical traits of Norse mythology with banalities of the contemporary Western world. This makes the complexities as easy to digest as the fried breakfast Loki arranges hexagonally on a diner’s table to perform a divination spell.

Capture

Loki’s particular brand of humour is wonderfully sustained through his dialogue. His trickster tongue never rests, and when not saving the world or his own skin he is mocking dialectical conventions with a gleefully absurd fusion of Norse-isms and English. For example, once again in the diner that provides magical meat snacks, Loki announces he will perform his ‘personal favourite summoning ritual of all time’ before yelling at the waiter ‘Bacon engulfed in a floury roll! With the ketchup condiment!’

While Gillen continues to construct a complex and charming character in Loki, and the trio of original Young Avengers have pre-established relationships upon which to build, America and Noh-Vahh feel more like outsiders. Noh-Varr is presented as a sympathetic poser, anchored to the group through Kate but keen to mingle with the others. Like Loki, his dialect marks him as different, yet he is unable to achieve a knowing fusion with modern slang, and is instead endearing as he labouredly announces ‘Kate Bishop of Earth, I will stand by the side of you and your friends. For you promised to explain the Earth custom known as “hot make out”’. His passion for retro Earth culture partly accounts for his disconnect from modern social conventions, while revealing his affinity with humanity. Conversely, America sticks around due to her hatred of Loki, seeking to protect the young heroes from his devious ways. She entertains herself through expressing this at any opportunity, preferably physically, while otherwise perpetuating the persona of a mysterious and powerful guardian. It seems she sees herself as too well interdimensionally travelled to be fraternising with these kids.

All of this characterisation is exuded by McKelvie’s slick art and Matthew Wilson’s bold colours. Gillen and McKelvie previously collaborated on Phonogram, of which Wilson coloured the second volume. In Phonogram music has magical properties, facilitating an exploration of what music means both collectively and to the individual, while demonstrating the creative team’s aptitude for probing the self-stylised personas of young adults. McKelvie’s ability to draw sexy characters who have perfected the art of pulling shapes whilst keeping their hair intact conveys Kate, Billy and Teddy’s newfound confidence and fashion sense, while making Noh-Varr’s every move in battle look like part of a smooth dance choreography. Loki’s body is less rehearsed than his wit, but he possesses a physical jauntiness as he leaps around like a naughty imp, while America holds herself strongly, making sure everybody knows she is the most seasoned on the dance floor and does not need to prove it. Meanwhile, Wilson intersperses naturalistic hues and shading with vibrant streaks of colour whenever magic, superhuman energy or youthful exuberance (if the three can be so simply separated) burst through.

Capture

Portraying the characters with such vivacity conveys Young Avengers’ celebration of contemporary youth culture. However, the comic also interrogates this culture’s values. The doubt Loki casts over Billy and Teddy’s relationship can be read more broadly as a means of questioning whether the hip, confident personas the youths have grown into are but flimsy constructs, all style with no substance? Meanwhile, Noh-Varr’s dialogue is at its most fluid when he is gushing about Earth music or firing off re-worked film quotes such as ‘come with me if you want to be awesome’, suggesting that his personality may be dominated by a collage of pop-culture references. Such musings echo Phonogram’s exploration of whether cultural identities into which youths carve themselves have historical and social resonance or are mere masturbation.

While the authenticity of self-expression in contemporary youth culture is subtly questioned, the characters’ assertions of individuality are a driving force of the narrative. The original Heinberg and Cheung series rooted the team’s superheroics in a desire to help others, and tracked them striving to be respected and accepted by their idols, the Avengers. In this new iteration the team are more geared toward looking out for one another and attaining independence without the need for endorsement from more established teams. In fact, their attitudes, the stuffy representation of older superheroes and inventive page layouts place the comic itself in active rebellion against more traditional superhero comics. This is demonstrated when Billy and Teddy seek aid at Avengers Mansion, only to realise that they must now operate apart from the Avengers. They are greeted by the Uncanny Avengers, a team recently assembled to unite humans and mutants, but apparently not teenagers. The senior team are seemingly enjoying afternoon tea as they agree to help the youths, and then promptly return them to their parasitical parent-imposters. While McKelvie imbues the Young Avengers with vitality, he ensures that their elders appear rigid as waxworks, suggesting that their iconic status has fixed their roles in the Marvel universe, leaving them ill-equipped to comprehend the perilous tides of youth. Of course, as adults they have fallen victim to Mother’s mind control, yet this reaffirms how alien grown ups can seem to teenagers – to submit to the ways of older generations would literally mean surrendering their souls!

Capture

The fact that the suffocating lifestyles imposed upon teenagers by adults is aligned with the apparent restrictive nature of traditional superhero comics is evident as the Uncanny Avengers return Billy and Teddy to Mother, who promptly summons an empty panel into which the youths are thrown. The next two pages present grids of nine blank panels that act as prison cells for Billy and Teddy, effectively trapping them in a standardised page layout that grants little room to manoeuvre. When Loki rescues Billy the two crawl outside the panels and scale down the page as they locate Teddy’s cell. It is a perfectly executed metaphor for the youths escaping the conventions that long-established superheroes impose on them, finding their own space outside of the confines in which their elders exist.

Capture

 

The desire for Young Avengers to operate apart from the core of the Marvel Universe was announced in a prelude to the series in Marvel Now! Point One, when Loki presents to the reader a leaflet recruiting a feisty young team and committed readership. Along the bottom reads ‘be there or be involved in a string of massive corporate crossover events for your entire run’. This references the fact that Gillen’s Journey into Mystery initiated as a tie-in to the Fear Itself crossover event, and throughout its two year course got pulled into two other, smaller crossovers. Loki’s leaflet therefore expresses the wish for a readership large enough to not need boosting by sharing narratives with other comics to attract their readers, and a request for Marvel to allow Young Avengers to operate autonomously. I am sure the irony of declaring this in Point One, easily one of Marvel’s most blatantly corporate schemes in which fans pay double the price of a standard comic for a selection of previews and preludes lest they miss key plot points, is not lost on Gillen.

Capture

This sense of Young Avengers operating on the outskirts of the Marvel Universe resonates throughout the comic. In representing the different phenomena with which contemporary youth culture interact the series looks outward. This is exhibited in its deployment of pop-culture references. While Billy and Teddy’s fanboy obsessions in the original series comprise of an encyclopaedic knowledge of Marvel superheroes, their fandom now embraces external fantasy universes like those in Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. In relating their circumstances to those featured in their favourite franchises, Billy and Teddy enact the kind of discourse occurring on internet forums as fan communities compare different fictional universes.

An even more explicit simulation of fan activity occurs on the ‘recap’ pages at the start of each issue. These remediate the interface of a Tumblr feed, on which a conversation between fans summarises previous events. This humorously and affectionately parodies the following Gillen’s Journey into Mystery accumulated on Tumblr, encouraging further activity on social media while merging the reader’s world with that of the Young Avengers. For a narrative that traverses different dimensions, featuring a god able to manipulate diegetic conventions, what’s stopping turning the fourth wall into a passageway?

Capture

The portal from comic page to external media is breached further through Noh-Varr providing soundtracks to specific sequences. The song he plays after Kate awakes, ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes, is detailed on the credits page, while the record he puts on midway through a slickly choreographed extermination of a club full of parasites is listed as ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ by Candi Staton. This echoes devices used to infuse Phonogram with music, such as deploying the iconography of famous album covers and naming issues after songs that resonate within the narrative. For readers unfamiliar with the tracks, and therefore unable to “play” them in their heads, seeking out music online has never been simpler. YouTube videos for the tracks on Noh-Varr’s playlist are becoming another virtual space in which Young Avengers fans can congregate. Due to this, the comments below a video for ‘Be My Baby’ include Young Avengers fans trading jokes such as ‘Who else saw the beautiful alien boy dance?’ and ‘i was enjoying this song. at which point, the Skrulls attacked’ (responded to by ‘I’m sure you’ll do just fine in vanquishing them, err..; Norman?’). Meanwhile, comments on ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ such as ‘Who else is here because of Young Avengers?’ and ‘im with some of you, being here because of young avengers. im so glad i did’ demonstrate fans reaching out to one another through this periphery channel.

As Young Avengers accumulates narrative and extra-textual layers it enacts exchanges with technological and cultural phenomena with which contemporary youth culture are engaged. It is therefore able to successfully assimilate into these cultural spaces, while providing a shrewd and witty commentary on them. Yet our reality is only one of many that Gillen and McKelvie’s narrative intersects, as endless worlds are presented in the different dimensions glimpsed, while conventions of superhero comics are playfully flaunted. This rich interaction of different elements is thoroughly entertaining, a reflection of both the tumultuous nature of teenage life and thrills it entails.

ABOUT

James Taylor is in the first year of his PhD at the University of Warwick’s Film and Television department. His doctoral thesis studies the adaptation of the superhero genre from comic book to film. Other academic interests include comic studies, media convergence and science fiction cinema/TV.