Bold, Precise, Experimental:

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Young Avengers and Their Coming-of-Age Story

Whenever Kieron Gillen and Jaime McKelvie’s excellent run on Young Avengers gets mentioned online, it’s more often than not to talk about how diverse and inclusive is in regards of sexual identity. This is absolutely deserved, of course, since this short but intense run does a magnificent job at creating a diverse cast without beating you over the head with it or being more harmful than inclusive (unlike certain recent mistakes regarding snowflakes and safe spaces). However, I also believe there is a side of the story that doesn’t get talked about as much as I think it should: the book tells a story about how a bunch of teenagers have to face not only an enemy that is invisible to most of their allies, but also their own past mistakes and the expectations that others (most notably their parents and mentors) have put on them. This also ties back with the fact that the team is almost entirely composed of people from the LGBT community, of course, and both threads intermingle in such a way that I believe it’s a mistake to separate them when talking about this wonderful book.

Most writers, and I don’t mean just comic-book writers, but fiction writers in general, run into a brick wall when trying to write teenage or young adult characters, especially ones based in today’s reality. They’re either painfully unaware of how young people speak and act (see Fletcher and Stewart’s run on Batgirl) or too focused on being edgy and irreverent that they basically alienate the part of their audience that is over 14 years old and is looking for more interesting, substantial works (such as everything Mark Millar has ever written). I believe Gillen not only understands exactly where the balance lies, he also comments on the detachment between generations by creating a villain that is literally invisible to adults. This is a very clear allegory, and it’s such a clever one that it can represent different several ideas depending on the moment because, if you really stop to think about it, there is a large portion of millennials and gen z’ers that feel like they can’t fully communicate with their adult relatives. I’m not saying it happens to everyone, but there certainly is a very clear difference in priorities: we live in a mostly inter-connected world that changes faster than ever, and topics like mental health, sex, and gender are being discussed to never-before-seen lengths and becoming less and less taboo. For example, I’ve been raised in a very progressive environment all my life, but even today some of my older relatives have problems understanding, for example, how trans people operate or what depression actually is. At the same time, I’ve seen tons of middle-aged people who dismiss modern iterations of cultural movements like feminism because their version of said movement was different, once more, because of the inter-generational difference in priorities. And I get it, understanding new concepts and changing your perspective is more and more difficult as you become older, but I think this is exactly what Mother represents in the book. She’s a problem that is invisible, much like some of our modern problems can be easily ignored by older generations, even if it’s not their entirely their fault.

The adult characters that do show up in this title are dismissive towards Mother and the threat she represents, and it’s implied that once a character reaches a certain age, they become incapable of perceiving her and fall under her influence. Kate expresses her concerns about this near the climax of the story, saying that her 21st birthday is coming up and she’s afraid of ‘becoming an adult’, only for Noh-Varr to remind her that he’s 21 and he’s perfectly fine, and adds that he doesn’t understand why humans are so concerned with growing old. This is played out as a joke, but the idea that an arbitrary point in one’s life turns that person into an adult is one that the book explores and questions constantly. 21 is just a number, and one’s maturity cannot be measured with numbers; it’s what a person does and the reasoning behind their actions that actually defines their maturity, and attaching it to a random number does nothing but put pressure on them. Gillen questions this choice by having a character who not only is not worried about his age under the specific circumstances of their adventure, he comes from a culture so different from ours that he doesn’t understand why humans are so afraid of becoming old. In a similar vein, Prodigy, a character who used to have the ability to absorb information and data around him, treats his own maturity as information in itself, much like his sexuality. This is important because it relates to the themes of maturity he shares with the rest of the cast: we never truly stop growing up, and we should never think that after a certain age we become “mature” and thus our opinions and ideas are more valid than people who haven’t yet reached that arbitrary threshold. If we truly understand that maturity is not directly tied to one’s age, then we can stop ourselves from invisibilizing problems that future generations may have: the need to be open-minded and ready to keep learning – even if we’re pressured by society into believing that we become wiser merely by growing old – is essential to understand the preoccupation of whatever generation comes after us.

I can’t continue talking about how the book discusses fluidity and the cultural footprint of age, gender, and sexuality without addressing Loki, the beautiful bastard that Gillen and I share an unconditional love for. For starters, the God of Mischief defies the mere idea of age by being what is essentially an immortal creature, and more recently by fluctuating between different versions of himself. Each of his forms are better defined, I believe, as different iterations of the same old story, whether he likes to believe this or not, and his physical form does not reflect his stage of maturity at any point during the story. Perhaps more interestingly, though, Loki also comments that “My culture doesn’t really share your concept of sexual identity. There are sexual acts, that’s it.” Which, if you stop and think about it, makes a ton of sense. After all, the Gods in the Marvel Universe are just the embodiment of stories told by the people who “created” them, and thus they’re not bound to one single form. This means that the difference between men and women must be meaningless to them, since at any point they can just transition to a gender-bent version of themselves (which, considering that they’ve been known for turning themselves into animals in several occasions is not by any means an outlandish idea), something Loki himself does in Agent of Asgard by Al Ewing, the run that continues and completes the character arc Gillen had created for him during his time writing Journey Into Mystery. Prodigy, being the smartest person in the room at all times and having had his own out-of-the-closet moment a few issues ago, understands this point almost immediately.

Speaking of Prodigy, I’ve already mentioned how he treats his own bisexuality as a logical result of his ability to absorb information and learn. The idea here is very interesting, since taking the character’s powers to their extreme in this way allows us to approach bisexuality as something that has to be learned or discovered by oneself. This is a very clear way of defying heteronormativity, by implying that nobody is truly 100% heterosexual, and I very much agree with it. Heterosexuality is basically shoved down our throats during all our lives, to the point that discussing any other sexuality is treated as “political” by more conservative individuals. Prodigy also represents the disillusioning with the previous generation, and he has this to say about the current X-Men team: “They used us. It was never about us. It was about us being what they wanted us to be.” This could very well be a not-so-subtle jab at Marvel for their poor handling of the mutant characters in the last few years, but I see it more as a metaphor for the paradox of how the X-Men comics were created as a stand-in for minorities… starring 5 perfectly white, heterosexual people (at least at the time, let’s not forget that Bendis forcefully dragged Ice-Man out of the closet and that Hickman appears to be implying that Cyclops is in an open relationship with Wolverine and Jean Gray). And I get it, it was difficult to star minorities in your comic-book if you were expecting it to sell well back then, but it certainly makes you wonder if the X-Men are truly necessary as a metaphor when you can have actual LGBT representation in your super-team.

Speaking of: the heart of the book, I believe, lies within our two queer main characters: Billy Kaplan, after all, is the one who puts the plot in motion by unwillingly releasing Mother into the world in an attempt to reunite with his boyfriend Teddy Altman. Despite being a couple for a few years before the start of Gillen’s run, these two had never been actually depicted as boyfriends in the same way that a heterosexual couple would’ve, and I assume their queerness was mostly left ‘off-camera’ in order to avoid upsetting a certain sector of the target audience. Gillen says “fuck that” and allows the two to finally interact as a couple for the entirety of his run, to the point that their relationship becomes one of the central points of the book. His way of depicting their queerness through their superhero identities is much more compelling than the one used by most X-Men comics: they are explicitly depicted as homosexual boys, but their relationship and trust issues are still shown through the lens of a superhero narrative. Gillen manages to create tension between them by the way each of them approach their identities. This is because, after a few unfortunate events that led to the disbandment of the previous iteration of Young Avengers, they had agreed to lay low and stop with the superheroics for a while to focus on their blooming relationship. This is why, when Billy discovers that Teddy is going behind his back and fighting crime by himself, he feels betrayed and tries to convince him to stop. Hulkling is a changeling, by the way, and he doesn’t even fight crime as himself; he transforms into Spider-Man so nobody can identify him and thus get him and his loved ones in trouble, and this very much mirrors how a homosexual person might try to present themselves as heterosexual in public to avoid being shamed. Billy also presents signs of this metaphor for internalized homophobia with this attitude towards his boyfriend’s superheroics, of course.

His attitude might also be a comment on the fact that the two characters had spent the past 7 years as a couple despite barely ever being presented as such, and considering that Gillen basically breaks them out of gay jail in the first pages of issue #1 by tackling their relationship right on, I wouldn’t really be surprised if it was. Regardless, as Wiccan, Billy is someone with the potential to control reality itself (adding to the roster yet another character who can change himself and / or the things around him), and by hiding, he’s allowing reality to control him instead. He’s denying his own influence on the world, and it’s only after fully embracing his superhero identity that he’s allowed to fight back in a way that very much mirrors how a queer person can have a much greater impact on how the world around them perceives them once they’ve accepted themselves and their sexual identity.

There is a discussion to be had about how independent of their sexuality a LGBT character truly is in regards of how realistic the world around them treats them. A big problem with representation is that, even if you manage to write about queer or racialized characters, you’re not always going to want to portray the negative impact that racism, homophobia, or transphobia might have on them because that might not be the centerpiece of your story. If systemic oppression is completely ignored in a work, the value of such representation might be hindered, because it doesn’t address the way in which society treats minorities, and for most of us that is a very important part of the experience that should not be left out. However, by mirroring their relationship with queerness through the classic superhero identity struggle, Gillen allows himself to have a queer cast in a mostly healthy and accepting environment while still discussing how sexuality and gender affect these characters, which is, I believe, one of the things that make this book so interesting. Nobody in the book is explicitly homophobic, and yet the metaphor he uses to depict their respective relationships towards their own sexuality serves as a way to address those issues while still being an incredibly fun, mostly light-hearted, and beautifully drawn superhero comic.

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Roque Briones is a Spanish comic-book and manga fanatic currently studying for a degree in English Literature. He also hosts a humble comic-book reading club at his favorite library and has been working on self-publishing his own comic book alongside a close friend. Sequart is his first interaction with the world of academic articles.

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