Editor’s Note: This post was recognized, along with two others, by the Comics Studies Society, garnering the Gilbert Seldes Prize for Public Scholarship in Comics Studies at CSS2019. It will be republished in INKS: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society.
Back at ICAF 2017 in Seattle, Keith Friedlander presented a paper on Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s 2013-14 run of Young Avengers that was a part of a longer article on the entire Young Avengers franchise to be published as a chapter in Supersex: Essays on Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero (no release date as-of-yet). While I read the series while it was coming out and collected all the issues, I felt pretty ambivalent about it (for reasons I am not sure I can even recall) and even considered selling it all, but Friedlander’s talk convinced me they were worth returning to. Having just re-read them all, I am relieved I didn’t get rid of them because the series provides a fun, snappy and thoughtful exploration of the contradictions inherent to the transformation from adolescence to adulthood and the complications that emerge as the consequences of asserting maturity during the process.
Recently, I taught Jonathan Lethem’s essay “13, 1977, 21” (from 2006’s The Disappointment Artist) for the umpteenth time in my writing class, using it to guide my first-year students in thinking through the relationship of form and meaning, and moving from a literal understanding of the essay to a conceptual one. While ostensibly about how a 13-year old Lethem saw Star Wars in the theater 21 times in the summer of 1977—when his family life was a shambles and his mom was dying of brain cancer—and how he used the film as a coping mechanism, it also provides a view on how his “identificatory obsession” with the film serves as a way to consider contradictory impulses contained in the effort to grow up in the face of the unknowability of what it means to be a grown up.
I bring this up because it is from this essay that I borrow the phrase “assertion of maturity,” which Lethem uses to characterize his 13-year old self’s dorky insistence that his relation to Star Wars demonstrated his specialness, his discerning taste and attention to detail. As he writes, “my private deeper-than-yours, deeper-than-anyone’s communion with the film…was something I boasted widely about…I was teaching myself to package my own craving for solitude and my own obsessive tendencies as something to be admired.” In other words, young Lethem was equating what we’d today call a fannish tendency, with being more adult, trying to emulate some inaccessible essence of being more grown up—knowing something. The phrase itself comes up when he explores the fact that he cannot recall the very first time he saw the film and likens this to the adolescent tendency to bluff familiarity with the arcana of adulthood in all its forms, though he particularly uses drug experiences as the example, it also works for sex, for violence, for money, and all the other spheres of adult life.He “dutifully parrots” adult sensibilities limited by his understanding of them, in order to stand apart from his peers and succeeds, though not in the way his 13-year old self likely imagined he would. He is a dorky kid that exists at the intersection of what he imagined grown up life to be and the realities that ask him to deal with grown up loss. Young adulthood limns the rich play of performativity and its overdetermined mix of pretending, aspiring, making, and being.
Assertions of maturity are a complex knot. As my students are quick to point out, anyone who needs to consistently remind you how mature they are is only demonstrating an insecurity that belies the claim. Simultaneously, however, individuals are called on to assert their maturity in a variety of ways in order for that maturity to be socially recognized and thus be a meaningful part of one’s identity. In this way, we can move from thinking of maturity as a simple yes/no category, towards seeing it as an elastic and positional construct. Every assertion of maturity runs the risk of being framed as evidence of a lack of maturity, of acting as evidence of a lack of preparation to deal with the consequences of that assertion. Adolescence and young adulthood then become crucial sites for conceptualizing that liminality and for acceptably exploring a range of behaviors only separated from adulthood by relative experience.
In short, young adulthood as a subject and young adult literature as a genre provide an acceptable framework for exploring and pushing against ethics and community mores and for embodying the fluidity of identity that remains present, but largely invisible, when representing adults. Young adult literature relies on this to create spaces for the exploration of the self in terms of personal identity and the self in context, i.e. social identity. The superhero, with its own tradition of identity play and its genre flexibility, sharpens these possibilities.
The 2013 Young Avengers series works wonderfully as an action-packed exploration of this framework with all the snappy patter and transparent allusions to youth culture (especially queer online youth culture) that make it a self-aware success. It follows the Avengers: Children’s Crusade, a 12-issue maxi-series that even Jim Cheung’s gorgeous art could not save from the tangled mess of any Marvel story getting anywhere near the figure of Scarlet Witch and her countless retcons, gratuitous power creep, and penchant to be characterized as a tragic and “crazy” woman; a superhero hysteric with reality-warping powers whose emotions everyone is right to be afraid of. While Children’s Crusade and the original Young Avengers series (2005) tended to focus on the young heroes’ desire to be accepted by the normative superhero culture, Friedlander reads the actions and attitudes of the young heroes in Gillen and McKelvie’s run as an example of a fictionalized queer counter-public, “a subcultural public that defines itself in opposition to a dominant social order” and that “mirrors the historic process by which LGBTQ communities have organized.”
I will leave Friedlander to argue his sharp take on what the comic accomplishes in response to both earlier incarnations of Young Avengers and superhero comics more generally (and encourage everyone to check out Supersex edited by Anna Peppard when it comes out), but I think Friedlander’s take also opens the series to examinations of the very queerness of adolescence as a period of experimentation with identity and learning to (hopefully) healthily navigate the individual transgressive idiosyncrasies that exist within (and in contrast to) hegemonic social norms. In other words, there is play between the expression of social values of freedom, equality, and “being yourself” (something superhero comics are happy to preach) and the policing of particular manifestations of those values when they threaten a status quo that seems amenable to everyone in the position of privilege and comfort, who do not consider the destructive effects of that hegemony. “We will let you be a part of this bourgeoisie understanding of adulthood,” Liberal tradition seems to be saying. “But will not let you question it.”
This volume of Young Avengers—like the previous volumes and other similar comic series involving young superheroes like the first two eras of DC’s (New) Teen Titans and Marvel’s Runaways—is very much preoccupied with how to handle the burden of a legacy. The anxiety of influence that C.J. Stephens begins to explore in his 2014 guest post on the New Teen Titans emerges from the inescapable in-narrative and meta-textual comparisons that comes from being associated with the histories and characters that from whence their legacy identities emerge. However, as Friedlander explains, rather than seeking legitimacy within the status quo, the Young Avengers counter-public seeks to publicly claim its own spaces and establish stakes that make sense to their generation and makes explicit the ethical contradictions of adulthood. In doing so, these young superheroes also make visible the uneven access to the independence associated with young adulthood.
The plot of this Young Avengers run begins with Billy (aka Wiccan) and Teddy (aka Hulkling) disagreeing about how to perform their identities. Billy confronts Teddy over the latter’s secret return to superheroing, as the pair had agreed to give it up after all the losses their team suffered during the aforementioned Children’s Crusade series. At this point, Billy is living something of a “normal” life. His foster parents are not only accepting and supportive, they are so understanding that they are letting their teenage son’s orphaned alien—he’s a Skrull/Kree hybrid—boyfriend live with them. But Teddy is skeptical of Billy’s “normality” and uses the language of closeting to describe Billy’s retreat from superheroing. As Esther. De Dauw points out in “Homonormativity in Marvel’s Young Avengers: Wiccan and Hulkling’s Gender Performance,” up to this point, the queerness of YA’s characters has been subdued in representation. Discussed, but rarely shown. For example, she points out that despite being described as a couple soon after their first appearance, Teddy and Billy are not depicted kissing until Avengers: The Children’s Crusade #12, seven years after the original identified them as such. Gillen and McKelvie’s Young Avengers seems to be commenting on this “soft closeting” by questioning whether Billy’s desire for bourgeois “normality” is healthy, making use of the superhero metaphor to insure the characters’ queerness is never wholly erased.
The knot of desire for both the support and guidance of caring parents and the independence of adult superheroing allows this run of Young Avengers to simultaneously explore two threads in representing queer youth. The comic series can explicitly depict a normalized and accepted perspective on queer love, while still using the metaphor of the masked superhero for exploring the shifting play of identity that responds to unstable demands of heteronormativity and the tragic themes that typically come along with those kinds of queer narratives. In other words, by using the superhero identity to stand in for the site where queer youth experience trauma in their familial and other social relationships, while leaving domestic life a sphere of potential acceptance, the comic avoids equating queer life and culture with tragedy. Superheroism becomes the metaphor for an element of what is already text, allowing the comic book to simultaneously represent a positive and normalized gay relationship while exploring the tensions inherent in living in a heteronormative world.
In an effort to normalize his boyfriend’s life, Billy (the reality-warping magician son of Scarlet Witch) uses his power to search through myriad alternate realities to find one where Teddy’s later mother is still alive and from whence he can grab her just before she is killed. Billy prefers attempting to arrange for something akin to his own normative domesticity, rather than accept the inability to go backwards, to undo loss, and to consider that such norms might, even when capacious enough to be accepting—as in the case of Billy’s foster parents—still enact hegemonic forces that seek to control how and when queer identity is performed. The Young Avengers team represents an alternative form of kinship for young people that enacts the promise embedded in adult teams like the Avengers or the X-Men, a promise that has ossified into an ideological status quo that seeks to manage queerness through acceptance, rather than celebrate and embrace it, and thus limiting the definition of mature adulthood to one that must emulate the established order.
A clear example of that ideological ossification is apparent in the Comics Gate movement, that use their nostalgic preference for the generic values of freedom, equality, and inclusion common to older Marvel and DC superhero comics as a way to reject and criticize any effort to actually practice them in any particular way as “pandering” or “force fed.”
Billy’s attempt to construct this supposed “normalcy,” though well-intended, is predictably disastrous. “Mother,” an interdimensional parasite, uses the opportunity of Billy’s spell to take the form of Teddy’s mother and slip into their reality. She then seeks to feed on Billy’s power, control him, Teddy, and their eventual young allies through parental authority. She can brainwash and absorb any parent, and other adults are unable to see the monstrousness of her protoplasmic form. Ideologically intractable adulthood is embodied through “Mother” and made visible through the adults’ inability to see what is happening. For example, when Billy and Teddy seek out the Avengers for help, the adult superheroes all adopt the reasonable tone of concerned adults who simply know better than their young charges and seek to bring them back under the wing of their guardians. The concerns of these young men are easily dismissed via the casual world-weariness of adulthood using faux empathy—“We were all young once”—to insist there is only one reasonable conclusion about the way of the world that all reasonable young people will eventually come around to. In other words, the patronizing claim that “They’ll learn.” As such, the ideas that adults have of the world shape the world, but the inability to see that ensures that the idea of things never changing—of seeking out secure conformity over ethical ideals—remains ascendant. In the comic, this takes the form at first of Teddy’s mother suddenly revealing a strict streak about the two boys’ relationship and their friendships, but soon enough expands to infect all the heroes’ parents and related adults in her vicinity, even going as far as to temporarily bringing long dead parents back to life as weapons against their children. Legacy is weaponized against the young in the way that only serialized comics can depict.
While looking through the various realities for Teddy’s mother, Billy comments on how looking at infinity makes him realize that the notion that life could be no other way than how it played out is a false conclusion that only seems true in retrospect, but that there are in fact a myriad of possibilities in making choices. The implication here is that adults’ experiences lead them to erase possibilities outside of their accepted framework of practical norms that they’ve already chosen to align themselves with. On the other hand, identifying and accepting the unchangeable is also a necessary aspect of a healthy life. This framework for thinking about maturation suggests that assertions of maturity function as probes into an amorphous “adult” identity that runs into the obstacle of diminishing choices that are rewarded as “adult behavior.” Billy, Teddy, and their young superhero compatriots (as soon, other young heroes are all they can trust to not fall under Mother’s sway) may be explicitly struggling against an interdimensional villain but are implicitly struggling with a narrow view of maturation that seeks to guide them into the pre-existing self-justifying incoherent ethical framework called adulthood.
But Young Avengers doesn’t stop there, it includes reference to myriad layers to maturation within its social milieu and the difficulty in asserting maturity while holding onto the open-mindedness associated with youth. It does this by making clear the fluidity actually present in the lived experience of adults that belies the certainty associated with being an adult and having “your shit together.” In fact, everything in Gillen and McKelvie’s Young Avengers is fluid in some way. Mother, herself, is a protoplasmic monster that takes the shape of different adult characters. When struck by our heroes, Mother and her protoplasmic minions collapse into a putty-like essence, temporarily revealed in their shapelessness before eventually coming back together in recognizable adult forms. Despite being a representative of conservative normative values that seek to make everything in its own image, the result of violent resistance of those norms by the Young Avengers, makes apparent the way the hegemonic framework is fluid, absorbing, and assimilating forces it meets as a way to mitigate their influence and maintain control.
This is not to say that idealism is presented without complication. When David Alleyne (aka Prodigy), once a student at Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, is introduced in Young Avengers he is working in a call center and trying to remain far away from the X-related drama that undermined his belief in mutant liberation. Embittered by the events of X-Men: Schism, Prodigy explains to his co-worker, Speed (Billy’s twin brother) in Young Avengers vol. 2, #6, “They used us. It was never about us. It was about us being what they wanted us to be.” In other words, Prodigy sees through the way that youthful idealism is put to use by the previous generation to pursue political goals in their own interest and not necessarily in the interest of the young actually exercising the freedom that is purportedly the goal of their movement. This is especially significant in light of the X-Men franchise serving as a metaphor for a variety of multifaceted global identity movements against cultural and political oppression. Speed cosigns Prodigy’s feelings by expressing his own complaint about “legacy” and not wanting to be defined by the previous generation. As the speedster nephew of Quicksilver (a notable anti-heroic jerk of the Marvel Universe and one-time Avenger), there is a lot of potential baggage that comes along with that association.
Fluidity pervades the whole series. As I’ve already suggested, sexual fluidity is the most obvious kind. For example, Prodigy comes out as a bisexual in the course of the series, explaining that his sexuality is a kind of knowledge, a result of his lost mutant powers to absorb knowledge from those around him. He explains, “It was like an awakening. It was like realizing something that was always true…” This suggests that sexuality is not static and neither an inborn trait, nor a choice, but a complex and cultivated relationship to oneself and other people played out through shared intimacy. Gillen and McKelvie go on to essentially establish all of the Young Avengers as queer youth. Even Kate Bishop (aka Hawkeye), who wonders aloud if she is the only “straight” member of the team, is put into an ambiguous zone by America Chavez (aka Ms. America) claiming, “I’ve seen the way you look at me. You’re not that straight.” Ms. America, herself (another character like Prodigy, who has her origins in another comic that I have never read), comes from an alternate dimension where she has two biological mothers and where heterosexuality is less common, but the site of “experimentation.” Loki, who serves as ally and foil for the Young Avengers in this series, spends most of this run de-aged (again the result of events from another comic book series), but appears in two different female incarnations and later, while in an incarnation that looks suspiciously like a late-teen Tom Hiddleston, makes a pass at Prodigy during the series end’s celebration.
Perhaps the most interesting consideration of the fluidity of identity in relation to notions of maturity is Kate Bishop’s concern about her approaching 21st birthday. The imminent arrival of this arbitrary marker of adulthood makes her worry that she will soon become vulnerable to the invisibility that shrouds Mother’s actions in the eyes of adults. It is an idea that Mother puts in her head—an echo of the common admonition to “act your age.” However, this concern is soon dismissed. Ultimately, the weight lent to this arbitrary age through a social necessity for clear boundaries for determining adulthood is meaningless. “Adulthood” is a construction that, like race or gender, only becomes “real” in particular social contexts that ask individuals to react to demands placed upon them by a positional definition only made possible through erasure of the contradictions inherent in such definitions. In other words, Kate only becomes an adult at 21 by virtue of a legal measure. While it may have some social significance, it does not actually translate into a set of definitional traits outside of age. Returning to Lethem’s “13, 1977, 21,” he jokingly likens his 21 viewing of Star Wars to a coming-of-age ritual aligned with both his age at the time (13, the typical age of bar mitzvah) and 21 (the age of majority), highlighting how arbitrary those numbers really are and how they do not actually indicate adulthood save as a symbol of the expectations that follow those customary public assertions. Reinforcing this point, we also find out that Noh-Varr (aka Marvel Boy) is already 21 and is in no danger of falling under Mother’s sway. In fact, he never even worried about it because as a member of an alien race and culture, the number not only means nothing to him, but the fluidity of time during interstellar space travel means that its passage is not so easily reducible.
The series climaxes with all of the Marvel Universe’s young heroes working together to defeat Mother. Being free of the confining forces that shape adulthood into an ossified relationship to experience, these adolescents and young adults can imagine a new relationship to the world and work against latent social forces to try to enact it. If young adulthood is a liminal space, it benefits from being on the threshold of knowledge, rather than thinking one has already achieved wisdom and knowing. In one of the series’ many gorgeously designed pages we see a far-ranging network of young people connected through various associations as to create rhizomatic collective possibilities in responding to a crisis in a way that the adults in their lives cannot. The visual reference to a text chain echoes with how young people make use of social media to leverage different aspects of identity. This framework for identity highlights how identity itself is necessarily incomplete, achieving closure—a presentation of an identifiable self—only positionally. This method of articulating identity, while present throughout life, is nevertheless at odds with how adulthood is commonly defined as a static achievement.
At the same time, as young Loki’s conscience reminds him in Young Avengers volume 2, #5, “We are creatures of story” and to step into a part is to have that part step into you. He may be speaking of gods right then, but the notion also applies to human beings, whose “realness” have been mitigated by stories since they could be told. As such, even the story of the self has an abiding shape, and while alternately foreclosing and performing identificatory closure describes a character at any point in an ongoing serial, from a distance that figure begins to resemble what it pretends to be most. Take Kate Bishop (who is often referred to by her peers as the most grown up of the Young Avengers). She both attains and forestalls adulthood through an acceptance of the incomplete nature of knowledge and thus the conditional nature of maturity. She learns to accept that no one can ever know all that is needed to be known to make the best decisions or react in the most productive way to whatever life throws at them. She can only “know more” through experience. She demonstrates that even the most grown among us must be open to continuing to learn and grow and change, and not overly rely on the conservative assumptions of adulthood. Ironically, of course, this acceptance looks like a form of maturity to her peers.
Ultimately, Young Avengers doesn’t make a lot of sense plot-wise, instead it creates a space to entertainingly explore the burden of legacy, of coming-of-age in a world with a history that is used to define and categorize everything we do in it, despite history never being “finished.” Furthermore, it is visually playful in a way that challenges the typical organization of the superhero comics page through the incorporation of visual elements influenced by sources as disparate as a Family Circus comic and Instagram timelines. In many places McKelvie breaks the page by having characters interact with and move across gutters and panels, echoing arbitrary designations of space and time that shape the human experience. In others, two-page spreads spiral out in clustered panels circling a magic pentagram. The story provides affective pleasures through the kind of drama that adults frequently dismiss by characterizing as “not the end of the world” (something Captain America says explicitly in issue #12). Young Avengers makes its protagonists’ resistance to adult authority an actual “big deal” by actually having that authority threaten to end the world.
As we grow up, worlds end, the possibilities of worlds opening to us narrow until we have no choice but to accept that life could be no other way, and since in the real world we cannot go back or escape to an alternate reality, that feeling may as well be true. When adults dismiss the concerns of the young by expressing a belief—as Mother does—that they will “learn” and that we were all young once and thus deluded to think the world could be different, they are expressing the very mode by which the world remains how it is. As Prodigy says in the final issue of the series, “Saving the world from yourself is the first most necessary step,” a necessary expression of fallibility and responsibility as an assertion of maturity.