Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Young Avengers #1. Written by Kieron Gillen (Iron Man, Journey Into Mystery) and drawn by Jamie McKelvie (Phonogram, Defenders) and Mike Norton (Revival, It Girl And The Atomics), it’s an incredible debut issue that brings Marvel’s young heroes into the future.
Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s big break in the comic-book industry was the Image miniseries Phonogram, a title that used music as magic to reflect how songs can have a deep personal impact on young urbanites. Visiting both creators’ Twitter and Tumblr pages shows that music remains a major part of their work, used to establish story tone and character personalities through rhythms and lyrics that may not make their way on to the page, but still influence the final product.
There’s one musical cue in the first issue of Gillen and McKelvie’s Marvel Now! Young Avengers: “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes. It’s the perfect song to begin a series starring legacy characters inspired by the rich history of the Marvel universe.
With it’s propulsive percussion, smooth harmonies, and feverishly romantic lyrics, “Be My Baby” is wonderfully evocative of this first issue, which starts with a nod to the past before blazing forward into the future. There’s something to be appreciated about what came before, but there’s nothing more exciting than the new. The scene featuring a shirtless, silver-haired Noh-Varr rocking out to The Ronettes after an interstellar hook-up with Kate “Hawkeye” Bishop precedes a stunning two-page fight sequence that utilizes the medium to present action with a fluid musicality that won’t be found anywhere else on the stands. As Kate runs through the spaceship and her fling shoots Skrull warriors in the face, a series of silent panels are broken up by bold graphic lettering, capturing the chaos of the fight while detailing Kate’s thought process: “I have no powers and not nearly enough training, but I’m doing this anyway. Being a superhero is amazing. Everyone should try it.”
She flies the ship away in the nick of time, bringing the reader to the issue’s title page, where “Style > Substance” is printed in the same striking lettering that appeared on the page before. And while this book definitely places emphasis on style, there’s no shortage of substance in Gillen’s story, which is a beautiful balance of heart, mind, and soul with a good bit of what’s below the waist. In interviews, Gillen has stated that Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung’s original Young Avengers run was about being 16, while this new series is about being 18. Those two years make a world of difference, and these characters are no longer trying to live up to the standard set by their adult mentors, but focusing on paving their own paths in the world.
Kate Bishop is the perfect entry point into the story, the only member of the team with no powers, and one who has been in the spotlight recently with her co-starring role in Marvel’s best title: Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye. Gillen and McKelvie are taking inspiration from British songstress Jessie Ware for their portrayal of Kate, specifically in how Ware “manages to be simultaneously both Robert Palmer and the Robert Palmer Girls.”
Kate is strong in battle and confident in her sexuality, and when she wakes up in Noh-Varr’s bed at the start of the issue, a part of her thinks that she should be ashamed, but then she quickly dismisses that feeling as “really stupid.” Gillen won’t let Kate’s sexual-assault origin story define her, and there’s no slut-shaming going on when she wakes up in the bed of a guy whose name she only kind of knows. There’s a clear sense of joy in Kate’s experience, and she’s spellbound by the alien dancing to ’60s pop music before her; granted, it’s impossible to deny Noh-Varr’s sex appeal as he breaks it down in black boxer-briefs.
Noh-Varr has been a hard character to crack since being integrated into the Marvel Universe following Grant Morrison’s 2000 Marvel Boy miniseries, but Gillen has found the ideal angle for the former Kree ensign turned Earth superhero. Channeling David Bowie in his The Man Who Fell To Earth phase, Noh-Varr is a fanboy of Earth culture, plastering his bedroom walls with movie posters (Spirited Away, Blow-Out, and Metropolis) and amassing a huge record collection. He’s been ordered to stay away from the planet, but in his own words, “How could anyone leave a world that makes things as wonderful as this?”
Gillen and McKelvie also have a strong understanding of the Young Avengers audience, and they’re going out of their way to make Noh-Varr “slashfic-able,” hence the shirtless underwear dancing. There are currently 397 pieces of Young Avengers fan-fiction on fanfiction.net, most of which spotlight the gay couple at the center of this book, and 42 of which are rated Mature.
It took seven years for Billy “Wiccan” Kaplan and Teddy “Hulkling” Altman to have their first on-panel kiss, so it’s refreshing to not only see them be intimate in the pages of Young Avengers #1, but have their relationship as the emotional core of the book. The conclusion of Young Avengers: The Children’s Crusade resulted in the deaths of multiple teammates and the forced retirement of Billy and Teddy from the superhero lifestyle, but as Kate said earlier, it’s hard to stay away from a feeling that is so amazing. When Teddy sneaks into his room after masquerading as Spider-Man for a night of vigilantism, Billy is waiting to berate him for going back on his promise, igniting a fight that sets tragic, world-altering events in motion. In Billy and Teddy’s situation, the life of a superhero is a metaphor for any sort of destructive habit that can get in the way of a relationship, and while there’s certainly more good in being a superhero than doing drugs, the negatives can be exponentially worse.
Teddy breaks down over just how lucky Billy is to have two sets of parents while the only mother he ever knew was burned alive in front of him, and it’s the first time we really see Teddy react to the events of the first Young Avengers series. The emotional outburst causes Billy to reconsider his stance on staying away from magic, and he tries to make his boyfriend feel better in the worst way possible: reaching through multiple dimensions to pull Teddy’s mother from one in the moment just before her death. It’s the kind of thing that Billy’s mother, the occasionally insane Scarlet Witch, would do in her worst moments, and it’s exactly what Loki feared would happen back in Marvel Now! Point One.
Over the last two weeks, Kieron Gillen has been posting “Meet The Team” posts on his Tumblr, writing short essays outlining his approach to each of this book’s cast members and posting YouTube clips from his Young Avengers playlist. Gillen has been a huge advocate of using social media to build interest in his projects (Journey Into Mystery had a particularly passionate Tumblr following), and his “Meet The Team” entries show just how intensely he’s delving into these characters while building anticipation for the release of Young Avengers #1. Each cast member has multiple song links except for Loki, the star of Gillen’s JIM, who has only one song that Gillen feels fully encapsulates the character: Emeli Sandé’s “Heaven,” a poignant meditation on love, power, doubt, and fear.
The conclusion of JIM left Loki in an appropriately mysterious place, returning to his former evil-trickster self but perhaps still retaining some of the sympathetic nature of his Kid Loki character. “Heaven” sums up the character’s dichotomous nature, but it’s also a song that captures the spirit of Young Avengers, which looks at classic Marvel themes of power and responsibility through the eyes of 21st-century youth. Billy has the power, so he believes that he has the responsibility to return to his boyfriend what was lost. Loki has the power to stop Billy before he causes significant damage to the universe, but it’s never exactly clear where the god’s responsibilities lie. And then there’s Miss America Chavez, a new addition to the team introduced in the pages of Joe Casey’s fantastically oddball Vengeance miniseries, who has the power to throw tanks at the moon and a responsibility to keep annoying little tricksters from killing other young heroes.
McKelvie’s talent has grown considerably with each new project, and teaming him with artist Mike Norton on environment details allows him to focus on bringing the vivid personalities of these characters to life. He’s an incredibly stylish penciller, designing costumes that are begging to be cosplayed while dressing his young cast in street clothes that are fashionable and reflective of their attitudes. In terms of design, Miss America is the standout character in #1, wearing combat boots, booty shorts, red hoodie, and star-spangled jean jacket. With her long wavy hair and hoop earrings, Miss America Chavez is in full-on Azealia Banks mode, which is fitting considering her first appearance in the Young Avengers story in Marvel Now! Point One was accompanied with the caption, “I was on Earth-212.”
McKelvie has a firm grasp on facial expressions and body language, and his characters are instantly engaging and real. The look of surprised confusion on Kate’s face that opens the issue is spot-on, transitioning to relieved self-assurance as she takes pride in her conquest. When Billy yells at Teddy for going out in the middle of the night, Teddy’s body language is that of someone actively holding himself back so that he doesn’t say or do something that could have negative consequences. Miss America doesn’t say much at all, but her stank face as she prepares to beat the crap out of Loki speaks louder than words.
The opening fight scene shows how McKelvie is experimenting with panel layouts on this title, and later in the issue there’s another two-page sequence that does remarkable work depicting three story threads occurring simultaneously. As Miss America beats up Loki on the roof, Billy is scanning dimensions to find Teddy’s mom and Teddy is waking up from the commotion happening upstairs, and each of the tracks has a thick, solid-colored line in the background to guide the reader’s eye across both pages. Young Avengers is using the comic-book form to present information in new, visually dynamic ways, and if Gillen and McKelvie’s past collaborations are any indication, it’s only going to get better from here.