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Young Avengers #8 and the rise of the Tumblrheroes

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Young Avengers #8. Written by Kieron Gillen (Iron Man, Journey Into Mystery) and drawn by Jamie McKelvie (Phonogram, Defenders), this issue spotlights how the title has amassed a massive social media following by understanding what fans do and don’t want to see. (Warning: major spoilers ahead.) 

Search for “Young Avengers” on Tumblr and you’ll find a massive number of posts dedicated to Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Marvel Now! series. These range from heated discussions of recent story developments to cosplay pictures of McKelvie’s designs, and every new issue of Young Avengers provides plenty of fresh fanbait ready to be shared across social media platforms. Sometimes it’s a cute relationship moment or a particularly badass action sequence, other times it’s a Noh-Varr musical reference or a Miss America costume change. (Marvel editorial is aware of this, and has structured the Young Avengers recap page to look like a Tumblr Yamblr dashboard.) After half a year of issues, the creative team has seen enough Tumblr posts and tweets to know what fans want to see, and the book has become part superhero story, part confluence of memes. 

There’s a certain amount of pandering done by the Gillen, McKelvie, and company, but it’s no different to the type of pandering found across all superhero comics. Unlike some media, there’s constant communication between the creators and consumers of comic books; even though the audience for comics is relatively small, publishers want to maintain a strong relationship with the of customers they have. DC Comics doesn’t seem to understand what fans are interested in, and it’s no surprise that the monthly Comic Book Resources column presenting reader questions to DC editor-in-chief Bob Harras and editorial director Bobbie Chase ended after just four months, since the editors didn’t want to answer tough questions about legitimate reader concerns. Marvel has had a much stronger relationship with its readers, and it’s maintained a weekly Comic Book Resources column in which its editor-in-chief answers readers’ questions, beginning with Joe Quesada’s “Cup O’ Joe” and transitioning to Axel Alonso’s “Axel-In-Charge.”

People at the very top of Marvel take time to learn reader concerns and directly address them, so it’s easy to see why Marvel Now! has proven such a critical and commercial success. Some readers may want crossovers and publicity stunts (and Marvel Now! has had its share), but more importantly, it’s the strength and synergy of the creative team that determines a title’s success. Marvel asked its writers which characters and artists they wanted to work with, and the results inspired passion projects like Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic on Thor: God Of Thunder, Matt Fraction and Mike Allred on FF, and Brian Michael Bendis’ two X-Men titles. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie have had remarkable creative chemistry since their work on Phonogram, and the intensely hip point of view of that title carries through to their Young Avengers work. 

This book started with a bang before losing a bit of steam in the first arc, largely because of Kate and Noh-Varr’s absence after opening the title with an outstanding fight sequence. And while the villain Mother is a strong thematic opponent for the team—representing the childhood that these young heroes are trying to break free from—the interdimensional parasite is an ill-defined antagonist that still lacks a clear motivation for its actions. Mother serves its purpose, though, in that the Young Avengers are now forced to keep their distance from their parents and any familiar locales that Mother could strike at, essentially turning them into the new Runaways. Now that the team is all together, Gillen can start exploring the complexities of the group dynamic and the mysteries of each member, and the series has been steadily picking up steam with the introduction of former teen superheroes Speed and Prodigy to the narrative. 

Last issue’s page of Instagram posts provided brief glimpses into what the team has been doing for the past three months, and in #8, the creative team continues to provide Tumblr-friendly snapshots that suggest far more is happening to these characters beyond what the reader is seeing. The three panels that start the issue are the beginning of the fanservice, providing a trio of alternate reality scenarios because superhero comic fans love alternate realities. In the first, Kate Bishop fights off a gang of purple harpies that have her face; in the second, Noh-Varr is a giant detached head that walks on mechanical spider legs; the last image shows Loki’s skeleton sitting on the throne of Asgard, the dead bodies of his fellow gods strewn beneath him. The alternate reality teasing continues on the issue’s title page, which is designed to look like Loki’s passport and has visa stamps that suggest the team has been to Earths inspired by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Studio 54, and zombie fiction. There’s even an Earth-1 stamp that looks like the old DC Comics logo, implying that the Young Avengers took a detour to the world of Marvel’s top competitor. 

Remember when the superheroes ate shawarma during the post-credit sequence of The Avengers? The spirit of that scene lives on in Young Avengers #8, where the team gathers to eat Korean BBQ in the same restaurant where Kid Loki first met Miss America way back in Marvel Now! Point One. The scene also marks the first appearance of Noh-Varr’s beard, the latest effort by Gillen and McKelvie to make the audiophile alien the group’s resident heartthrob. Rather than cast one of the female characters as the book’s major sex symbol, the creators have placed Noh-Varr in that role. It began with his fresh-out-of-the-shower introduction in #1, then the “Come with me if you want to be awesome” buttshot in #4, and now Noh-Varr has carefully manicured facial hair to broaden his appeal to those who like their men on the burlier side. 

One of the things that makes Young Avengers stand out from other superhero comics is that Gillen and McKelvie understand that a vast number of the book’s readers aren’t heterosexual men. Superhero comics have been strongly defined by a straight male gaze for their entire existence, and while the creators of this title are heterosexual, they are challenging the way superhero stories approach sexuality. 

McKelvie’s female characters are sexy without being exploitative, and while some of that is due to their physical appearance, it also has a lot to do with their attitude. Kate Bishop is a cast member in another comic that Tumblr loves, Hawkeye, and Gillen carries Matt Fraction’s “rich kid meets girl next door” characterization of Kate to this book. She’s glamorous but humble and charming, and the fact that she holds her own in battle without any powers makes her even more of a badass. (For more great Kate action, I highly recommend this week’s Hawkeye Annual #1, which takes visual inspiration from Love And Rockets as Kate moves to the West Coast.)

While Kate is quippy and cute, America Chavez is quiet and cool, an enigmatic character who acts first and talks later. She also has the best fashion sense in superhero comics, choosing a common motif for a vast superhero wardrobe rather than just one standard costume. Fashion is something that superhero comics are sorely lacking, and it’s refreshing to see an artist use a character’s clothes to reflect her personality. America’s origin is still a mystery, but her clothing suggests that she doesn’t necessarily identify as a superhero the way her teammates do. By making her costume look like regular street clothes, McKelvie gives the reader the impression that America Chavez isn’t assuming a different identity when she puts on a costume. (Miss America is more of a cheeky nickname rather than a proper superhero title.) The characters that have superhero names—Wiccan, Hulkling, Hawkeye, Prodigy—all wear costumes that are specific to those identities. That’s not the case for the other three members of the team, who don’t have superhero names and don’t make the distinction between in and out of costume. Noh-Varr has abandoned his Marvel Boy name and now wears his Kree military uniform, Loki wears his usual Asgardian garb, and America Chavez just wears whatever stars-and-stripe-centric ensemble she has in her closet that day. 

#8 features the most overtly sexualized females to appear in the book as Gillen and McKelvie pit the team against multiples of Oubliette The Exterminatrix from Grant Morrison’s Marvel Boy, a villain dressed in skimpy leather dominatrix wear. What’s titillating quickly becomes very creepy once the women take off their bondage masks, though, revealing black holes for heads that speak through sharp-toothed mouths that emerge from the voids on slimy pink tentacles. It’s like the creative team is saying, “You want T&A? We’ll give you T&A, and we’ll also make it completely unarousing.”

This issue’s two big Tumblr bait moments come at the end as Gillen brings back a fan-favorite Journey Into Mystery character and throws a major wrench in the book’s core romantic relationship. The former is an example of Gillen giving readers more of what they want, and the latter shows him doing the complete opposite. After travelling across multiple dimensions and discovering that Wiccan has the potential to shape entire universes, the team finds itself in Mother’s home dimension (a black-and-white world composed of blank comic-book panels), where Hulkling and Prodigy are separated from the rest of the group. The other Young Avengers flee to a new dimension, where Loki’s best friend Leah is waiting to send Tumblr into a tizzy. The relationship between these two characters ended tragically in the pages of Journey Into Mystery, much to the chagrin of the book’s fiercely loyal fans, and Leah’s appearance is geared to satisfy those that followed Gillen to Young Avengers specifically for Loki. 

The Leah reveal is nothing compared to the issue’s final page, which shows Prodigy putting the moves on Hulkling as they face their potential demise. Flipping to that last page, it was like I could hear the sound of the Teddy-Billy ’shippers frantically typing away, and a visit to the Young Avengers Tumblr hashtag confirmed my suspicions. There was post after post of shocked reactions to the cliffhanger, with that shot of lip-locked David and Teddy getting passed around the Internet like a case of Mike’s Hard Lemonade at a high school party. The plot twist garners exactly the reaction the creators are looking for, but it isn’t just notable because of the fanservice. This is a mainstream superhero comic that ends on a full-page splash showing a close-up of two male characters kissing, and if David’s sudden burst of affection isn’t a fake-out, David-Teddy-Billy will be one of the only same-sex love triangles in superhero comic history. The creators of Young Avengers are trying to tell stories about young heroes that haven’t been told before, and they’re not afraid to piss off people while doing it. What’s important is that the book gets people talking, because Gillen and McKelvie are listening.