She Has No Head! – Why ‘Young Avengers’ Is The Future Of Superhero Comics
I reviewed Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Young Avengers for CBR this week and gave it an – apparently controversial for some – 5 stars. Given the title of this post I’m sure you can guess that I’m standing by that rating. But as I’ve said before, you have a limited word count (rightly so) on reviews, and I have lot more to say about this book, the ideas behind it, its nearly perfect execution, and how excited it makes me for the future of comics when I read a book like this. Because lists are so damn effective, I’m doing a list again…so let’s start by ticking off the boxes of what this book gets oh-so-right.
1. PERFECT A-LIST* CREATIVE TEAM ON “THE RIGHT” BOOK
Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie are not only incredibly talented, but they’re well matched, in part just because they clearly enjoy working together. They have a rapport obvious in everything they do from comics to interviews. You can’t hide that kind of chemistry. Add to that they have both a strong indie fan base thanks to indie darlings like Phonogram, and their mainstream pairings have been strong as well (their collaborations on Generation Hope were some of the best issues of that series). In addition to being a perfect collaborative pair, this is a great book to put them on. While I would absolutely pick up any book that the two were doing together (for Marvel or otherwise) this is exactly the right book for them. McKelvie excels at fashion, style, and character design, which a book about young heroes (and a book that feels like the future!) should be all about. And we’re already getting that in spades from haircuts to clothing and jewelry choices. Additionally, McKelvie is known for his clean effortless storytelling. He’s not afraid of simple panel layouts, but he also knows how and when to break all the rules and be innovative. Again, we’re seeing absolutely proof of that in just the first issue. For Gillen’s part he’s got a great ear for the teenage voice. It feels fresh and young without feeling forced, or alternately being filled with so much weird stuff that olds like myself can’t even follow it. It’s a great blend. The best thing about these creators on this book thought? They clearly love it. It FEELS like where they want to be. It doesn’t feel like creators that have been assigned a book randomly. I don’t know how it got assigned but the love and care going into the creation feels like they said “We’re interested in Young Avengers” and Marvel said “Okay, do it.”
These are wonderful things (even the ones I’m kind of making up – like conversations that happened between creators and Marvel editorial).
2. MODERN & FRESH
The fact that Gillen and McKelvie matter-of-factly has their gay couple kissing on page 11 is huge. It’s huge because it doesn’t feel like a big deal AT ALL. Hulking and Wiccan are being treated just like any other couple in comics. This is progress. This is the future. Bring it!
Though I don’t want to link the two together, because I don’t want to imply in any way that a serious gay relationship has anything to do with nameless hookups – the fact that Kate Bishop is matter-of-factly waking up in a strange place and not remembering the name of the guy she slept with is also modern and updated. I don’t think Gillen & McKelvie are necessarily advocating Kate’s behavior, they’re just acknowledging its existence. And that feels real, that feels modern. That is reality for a lot of people, if not currently, then at least at one time in their past. It’s incredibly relatable. And I love it for that. I also appreciate that there is NO judgment of Kate for this act. She’s not punished for this behavior and she’s not shamed. She’s just a girl that had a good time with a guy, the same way we see guys behaving without judgment all the time. The fact that Gillen and McKelvie can present such real and relatable behavior and it’s just simply part of the story and not something to make a huge deal of is a great thing. PROGRESS, HO!
3. SUPERHERO JOY
I enjoy seeing the mental anguish of being a superhero. The tough choices and the constant battle of trying to balance a normal life and superhero responsibility. That angst is a cornerstone of superhero comics. And rightly so. It belongs in comics. But it’s also nice to see some superheroes that just love being superheroes. There’s both in this comic already, but the focus definitely skews more toward the joy of superheroing. And that’s great – because right now, things are pretty damn good for these kids. They’re not always going to be, and we’re going to see that back up on them I’m sure. But it’s good to see that when things are good, these characters can see it, appreciate it, and actually revel in it. They get that they are living magnificent special lives that few will ever know. And that joy makes for incredibly infectious reading.
There is, however, one box that Young Avengers doesn’t manage to check (yet): RACIAL DIVERSITYis that box. So let’s talk about that a little.
Right off the bat this reminds me of something else I love that had problems with racial diversity. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (and for this piece I’m referencing the television show, not comics).
[Beware of Buffy The Vampire Slayer television show spoilers as well as potential The West Wing spoilers from here on out!]
While we should acknowledge right up front that Young Avengers is already doing better than Buffy – since it has at least one main character of color while Buffy began – and nearly ended – with none. In many ways Buffy had the same problem with diversity that Young Avengers could have in that it had no problem with gender diversity, and over time it developed really well in regard to sexual identity and LGBT diversity, but it never really managed to deal with racial diversity (sure in Season 7 we finally got a smart sexy black dude in the form of D.B. Woodside’s Principal Wood, but it really was too little, too late). Despite that flaw, I think it’s fair to say Buffy was still a brilliant and important cult show that has had a lasting impact on media and culture, and dealt with a lot of crucial issues that a lot of others shows of its time (and well beyond) missed and/or continue to ignore.
I think there are a few things at issue here and first and foremost is that sometimes it’s just not possible to do EVERYTHING you want to do. And maybe that’s okay. Ironically, and this is me putting on my assumption pants (for which I JUST chastised Greg Burgas) I imagine that Whedon & Co.’s answer to the diversity issue would be not dissimilar to Gillen’s answer in their great Comics Alliance interview:
Gillen: “[The balance of the team is] not ideal, but also a creature of mathematics. I can’t use Eli. I’m left with four original Young Avengers, of whom I have to surely include some, yeah? Three men and one woman. I include the only remaining woman and two more white guys (That was another reason not to include Tommy — it’d have skewed the team even more male). I include Loki as he’s the story I want to tell. I add Marvel Boy as Kate needs a romantic interest. I add Miss America. Marvel Boy is about the only one which is even possible to go another way, but I really couldn’t think of anyone else in the MU who fit the role.”
“The male/female ratio isn’t that bad, unless you’re going to take a hard line on 50:50. I could have expanded the team, but — as I said — I don’t want to dilute the story. When you’ve got the medium’s most prominent gay love story and it features two white guys, it limits the amount of room you have to maneuver unless you actually are going to lose them. But the member I’m adding down the line is another minority. I’ll be happier when we reach that.”
“[…] Sexuality is important to the book. And it’s important to give space for the characters to explore theirs.”
These comments impress me to no end. They strike me as intelligent and incredibly well-considered. They acknowledge the flaws and obstacles in putting something like this together. But they show a consideration for all aspects and also an intention to keep trying. I think the comment about doing this kind of thing being a “creature of mathematics” is very true. While in comics Gillen has to contend with limitations like what characters he’s allowed to use, what characters already exist and make sense, as well as what characters he’ll be able to tell the stories he wants to tell. Whedon & Co. didn’t have those problems, but they did have the issue of having to cast real and “the right” people for a role they’d created. It always struck me that in Season 4 Tara would have been a good character to have be a woman of color. But perhaps Amber Benson just nailed that role. You have to give the role to the best person…and maybe in this case Benson was it. Fans certainly do love her. Also, if Whedon knew he was eventually going to kill Tara (and he has said he knew he was going to kill Willow’s partner at some point – whoever that was – whether Seth Green or Amber Benson) how much worse would things have been in Season 6 if the show killed off the only woman of color on the show and an LGBT character to boot? Many fans were up in arms anyway, but it would have been so much worse. Similarly, on the face of things, Faith would have been a good character of color, as it’s nice to see non-white slayers. But given her intended character trajectory, that would have been a HUGE error and drawn a ton of legitimate criticism. This actually reminds me of another really smart and influential show with a too white cast and an interesting admission by creator Aaron Sorkin – The West Wing.
In Sorkin’s introduction to the West Wing Script Book (yes, I own this, and I have no regrets!) he talks about the lack of racial diversity in casting:
“There was a problem. We’d all fallen in love with Allison Janney. Married men were ready to leave their wives. The problem was that Allison’s Caucasian and so was the rest of the cast so far. This was making us nervous. The network too. It also wasn’t right. There was a wonderfully talented Jamaican actress who was reading very well for it. Still, when we closed our eyes at night we wanted Allison. So we cast Allison.”
Any fans of The West Wing know that Allison Janney was one of the best things about it. Just try to imagine The West Wing without her. IMPOSSIBLE! And so a simple story like this reminds me of how complicated all of this can be. It also reminds me to keep my faith in creators that I trust. I trust them for good reason. I trust them because they’ve proven to me that care about these things and think about them and will continue to do their best. I would never say The West Wing was the most diverse of shows, but it did bring us the excellent Dule Hill in a role I adored, a complicated and incredibly well-explored black/white relationship (Dule Hill and actress Elizabeth Moss) that suffered (and triumphed) despite the constant scrutiny of the public eye. It also brought us the wonderful Michael Hyatt in a great role in later seasons (and the same Jamacian actress that might have been C.J. Cregg?), and eventually the slightly prophetic casting of Jimmy Smits as Matthew Santos – the first potential President of color.
I guess all I’m trying to say is that Gillen and McKelvie’s comments and consideration of this issue are incredibly reassuring. They haven’t done a great job of checking the diversity box as yet, but I feel in good hands. I feel in such good hands that I don’t even think I need to worry about it…and that helps me to just sit back and enjoy some damn fine comics.
Creators keep giving interviews like this and I am going to be in serious money trouble. For the second week in a row, Marvel, I promise you more of my money. Good for you.
Now I’m not saying that DC isn’t doing some good books, I’m still loving Snyder’s Batman, I’m still enjoying Dial H, Justice League: Dark, Animal Man, and Swamp Thing, and when J.H. Williams III draws Batwoman it’s impossible to ignore that we’re seeing the best illustrated comic currently on stands. And I’m all about Vertigo as much as I ever have been – even though I feel like they seem to be allowed to do less and less and really cool stuff (like Hellblazer) is taken from them too often). But for various reasons – story issues, creative team machinations, etc., almost all of the female led titles in the New 52 have failed me. I have dropped Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey and despite repeated efforts have never been able to get on board with Catwoman. Sword of Sorcery and Batgirl are not for me and I have doubts about Katana (though I’ll try it). And in addition to all these specific misses there is a darkness and lack of joy almost across the board at DC that is weighing me down. At the end of the day I simply cannot look at even ONE book in DC’s line and see what I’m seeing here in Young Avengers.
And for my money, what Young Avengers is doing is exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for.
It’s what I hope the future looks like.
*I put a star by A-List because I know “A-List” is a bit subjective. I also admit to having trouble trying to identify “technically A-List” from what I consider “A-List”…so yeah, mileage may vary there. Deal with it.