Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Kids Are All Right (In Comics, At Least)

Also the best art.
If you aren't way into comics, this might surprise you to hear, but most comics are not written for teenagers. It's true. The average comic is written for an audience in their 20s-30s, people who were teenagers and buying comics about ten years ago. There's a simple reason behind this, and it has to do with disposable income, demographics, and shifting market base, but what it all really boils down to is the fact that most comics aren't really targeted at teenagers, no matter what stereotypes may suggest.

There are, however, specialty titles in both Marvel and DC that are aimed at "young adults", with adolescent characters going through relatable, if still supersized, problems. Titles like Young Avengers, or Teen Titans, The Runaways, Young Justice and others, are all based around a group of teenaged superheroes, trying to get their homework done and get by in a world of adult-sized crime.

And get this. These are pretty much the best stories going.

I felt a little weird, at first, since a fair number of these have premiered long after I was of an age to read them inconspicuously, but I've delved right in, and I have to say that teen comics right now are the frontlines of storytelling and character work. We're going to examine a couple of them now, and talk about why I think these are some of the best stuff on the market.

Young Avengers

Okay, right away, this seems like a really dumb ripoff of The Avengers storyline, where Marvel was just blatantly trying to cash in on their younger readers. But my college roommate persuaded me to read a little further, and I'm really glad I did. The Young Avengers are a group of teenagers in the Avengers universe, who've all been affected by superpowers in some way shape or form. Patriot is their leader, an African-American kid whose grandfather was the original Captain America--of course they tested the serum on a black soldier first. It's the sort of story point that makes perfect sense in hindsight and really draws out the world of the characters. Patriot fights in his grandfather's name.

There's also Cassie Lang, or Stature, daughter of the second Ant-Man. She attempts to hold up her father's legacy of protecting people just like he protected her, and she mourns his loss. Billy and Teddy (Wiccan and Hulkling) are two out gay teenagers in a loving and relatively stable relationship, who happen to be superheroes. Kate Bishop just wanted to be a hero, and received Captain America's blessing when he gave her Hawkeye's original bow.

The kids are doing just fine.

Teen Titans

For a lot of people my age, Teen Titans is probably how they got into comics, or at least how they got into cartoons. Both a long-running comic and a show since 2003, this story was intended to be Justice League-lite, but became more of an imprint of how teenagers could really carry a story.

The best known members of the team consist of Tim Drake as Robin, Superboy, Wonder Girl, Starfire, Kid Flash, Beast Boy, and a few others. While the everyday stories dealt with everything from rampaging villains to schoolboy crushes, the characters retained consistent motivations and values throughout imprints, with strong views on their different cultural backgrounds. Starfire, for example, comes from a free love society, a notion that was explored on many occasions, where she made it clear that this did not condone meaningless sex, but emphasized the need for more love and connection between partners. Communication, value exchange, and fighting intergalactic evil. These are things we like.

Of note, of course, is the fact that since the New 52 reboot, the Teen Titans title has been gutted, and its characters have become shells of themselves. Starfire is now a slut because sex has no meaning, no one has feelings for anyone ever, and storylines are for the weak. Anyway.


Another Marvel title that really took off after I was allowed to appreciate it, Runaways is ostensibly about a group of kids who find out that their parents are supervillains, and decide to take them down. Then they do, and a bunch of other stuff happens, and being a superhero is never easy, did you think it would be?

One of my favorite things about Runaways is that it is casually female-centric. It's not a big thing, a plot point, or ever really mentioned, it's just a fact that most of the characters are teenage girls who found out that their parents had been lying to them. There are boys too, but a lot more girls. It happens. Sometimes there are more daughters than sons. That's more than okay with me.

I also appreciate this series because they tell slightly different stories. The Runaways don't wear costumes, don't participate with the other Marvel storylines, though they exist in the same timeline, and try to keep to themselves, on purpose. They're just regular kids in completely extraordinary circumstances, and like regular kids, they want to be as far away from the adults as possible. I get that.

Young Justice

Young Justice is basically Teen Titans. Essentially. I mean, I'll give DC a little credit and point out that they weren't running the same characters in the same teams concurrently (not like how Wolverine was on pretty much every Marvel team for a while there), but it's not very different. Kiddie Justice League, has Robin and Superboy and friends, they fight evil and ignore the adults.

The nice thing is that Young Justice appears to have picked up where Teen Titans left off. While that series is currently mired in miles of ick, this one is merrily skipping along being friendly and having appropriate conversations that teenagers can relate to.

If I have a young adult audience that favors DC, then I recommend READ THIS ONE. The stories are interesting and well-told, there are lots of strong female characters, alongside beloved regulars like Tim Drake, and it never takes itself too seriously.

What more do you want from a teen imprint?

So, basic conclusions...

Overall, comics are in a funny place right now. While Marvel caters to a rapidly aging fanbase that seems obsessed with interlocking storytelling ala Civil War and The Infinity Gauntlet, DC is trying desperately to reach out to new readers with a full on reboot that has only made it more confusing and less appealing to first timers.

But in the blissful world of YA comics, story still reigns supreme, and with a few bumps in the road, there are still places to go to get good, interesting stories that you won't feel weird recommending to anybody, and that won't leave you feeling like a piece of crap for reading them. They're telling diverse, girl-inclusive, imaginative, dinosaur-involved stories, with time-travel and revenge and surprise parentage and more.

What more can you ask, really?

P.S. Wiccan and Hulkling are the cutest thing since sliced bread.


  1. So true. YJ is a consistently great comic (and one of my current favorite cartoons), and Young Avengers and Runaways are excellent too. I also really enjoy Avengers Academy, which has a nice mix of legacy and singular characters.

    1. I've actually not read Avengers Academy, but I'll definitely look into it. Is there any overlap with YA and/or Runaways?