Character Reference is a weekly spot where I provide a letter of recommendation for a series you should try, kicking off with a selection of comics. Each Thursday I’ll give an overview of a fantastic comic book series that you might otherwise have missed, covering a range of genres, styles and characters. Enjoy!
After a brief break over January, Character Reference posts are back with more comic book recommendations for your ever-expanding bookshelves! It’s the darkest time of the year, and after a generally dark start to the year, it’s the perfect time to lose yourself in an exquisitely crafted comic about the coolest bunch of teens in any universe kicking some authority figure butt. I figure we could use some of that round about now.
Previously in this section I’ve recommended The Wicked and the Divine which is a Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie collaboration (if you’ve not checked it out, what are you waiting for?!), and I’ve tentatively introduced you to the expansive Marvel Universe through the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and the irrepressible Deadpool, so now it’s time to plunge into the heady depths of these two combined! Are you ready for the Young Avengers? You’d better be!
The Marvel Universe is often quite daunting to new readers; so many characters, so many intertwined storylines and so many different iterations of the same hero. There are parallel universes, multiple timelines…honestly, as a newcomer it can seem extremely messy and off-putting, discouraging people who are unfamiliar from even attempting to start. Often it can feel like it’s necessary to have read a case file of context (or in my case, consulted my friendly neighbourhood comics nerd to fill me in) in order to understand any of it.
One of the strengths of this run of Young Avengers is how Gillen deftly combines all this lore with a devil-may-care attitude that allows the reader to both engage with the necessary information, and shrug off anything they’re not completely versed with. This is really reassuring for new readers, as knowing the full backstories of Hulkling, Wiccan, Ms. America, Hawkeye (no, not *that* Hawkeye, this one is a woman), Kid Loki, Noh-Varr (formerly known as Marvel Boy), Prodigy and Speed would be enough to put most new readers off. This would be a massive shame, as this is a comic that owes a lot of its style and approach to new mediums and has a lot of appeal to those who aren’t necessarily big comic readers; it’s highly influenced by Tumblr in particular. This comic acts as an excellent jumping-on point that can lead to a further exploration of any of these characters if you’re taken by them. Personally I adore America Chavez and I can’t WAIT for her new series to come out (March this year!); it has a fantastic queer Latinx creative team behind it and is going to be great! No doubt it’ll appear on this spot sometime in the near future.
The characters are the real heart of this run, with the thematically resonant plot of these young adults escaping the symbolically oppressive power of the alien ‘Mother’ doing its job to move the action along, but certainly far from being the centrepiece of this narrative. This is a really strong ensemble, with each character distinct and clearly having their own lives and problems beyond the confines of the story being told. The first arc in this run is titled ‘Style>Substance’ but this comic has bags of both.
Gillen and McKelvie, along with Matthew Wilson as colourist, bring their trademark punchy, contemporary movie-esque style to the Marvel universe, with tons of vivid action on every page, lots of humorous quips and a very intelligent, self aware approach that thankfully steers shy of being annoyingly self-congratulatory, unlike a lot of modern meta-fuelled pop culture (looking at you Joss Whedon and Steven Moffat). McKelvie excels at drawing gorgeous people, and cladding them in the raddest of fashions. Young Avengers is triumphant in this respect, with the whole team dressed in lush and appropriate costumes that respect their origins whilst avoiding the common fashion faux pas of many superheroes. Their outfits are both practical AND awe-inspiringly lust-worthy, usually a feat only managed by Captain Marvel. The standout designs have to go to Kate Bishop’s dusky purple form-fitting bodysuit which replaces the tired and sexist boob-window with a high neck and chic asymmetrical one-sleeved styling, and America Chavez’s full range of super cool, street-worthy stars and stripes ensembles. I particularly love that she’s not confined to one set outfit, but has a distinct trademark look made up of practical and wearable separates (shorts, hoodies, jumpers, denim jackets) that make her feel way more real and down-to-earth, as well as keeping her whole aesthetic on point.
Equally wonderfully, each of these female characters are undeniably sexy (as both have admiringly noted), and are shown as being in control of their sexuality, but never feel overtly sexualised for a male gaze. In fact, in a refreshing reversal from the norm, it is the queer male characters that are most overtly sexualised in this comic, with Noh-Varr taking precedence as the main sex symbol of the group, with numerous butt shots, and a topless introduction to the well-muscled character. The LGBTQ representation in Young Avengers is some of the best in mainstream comics, with Hulkling and Wiccan in a loving relationship, Prodigy coming out as bisexual, the arguably genderfluid Loki and a team that is more queer than it is straight; a choice that feels natural and unforced, reflecting its current readers.
This creative team is masterful at creating engaging and relatable characters with an air of celebrity to them; characters that inspire devoted fandom, whilst never giving in to easy, base fan-service that would do disservice to the story or the groups that these characters represent (women, Latinx, people of colour, queer folks) which is a sadly underrated achievement, but one that ensures the quality and longevity of these comics.
Title: Young Avengers (2013)
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artists: Jamie McKelvie with Mike Norton, colourist: Matt Wilson letterer: Clayton Cowles
Status: Sadly there is no current Young Avengers book. However, fans of Loki can follow him directly into ‘Loki: Agent of Asgard’, fans of Wiccan and Hulkling can seek solace in ‘New Avengers’, and America Chavez can currently be found in ‘The Ultimates’, all expertly written by British writer, Al Ewing. Ewing will also be writing Noh-Varr in the upcoming ‘Royals’ series, while Kate Bishop Hawkeye is starring in ‘Hawkeye’ as written by Kelly Thompson.
Best for: Teens and young adults who are sick of adults cramping their style, Avengers fans who are bored of the same old team (emphasis on the old)
Words by Heidi Teague