Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Young Avengers: A Juxtaposition of Legacy

I wrote a piece on the Internet’s negativity towards new Marvel character Riri Williams and it got me to thinking about legacy characters, a trope DC Comics has been pulling off to varying degrees of success since the 1950s (for the sake of generality – it could be argued that Robin has always been a legacy character, and he’s been around since the 40s) yet Marvel has often shied away from, even when the components necessary are sitting right there in front of them. The House of Ideas has a long history of introducing new characters, though mostly through the X-Men franchise’s Xavier School, a perfect mechanism to allow new generations of characters to develop. That said, a handful of new mutants every few years is different than the concept of ‘legacy’ characters; younger heroes that answer the call when the original either steps down, dies, or is no longer able.

Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung’s Young Avengers was a deconstruction of the legacy trope – a team of teenage heroes with relevant connections to preexisting Marvel heroes but who were also fervent Avengers fanboys and girls (think Kamala Khan, only ten years earlier). Elijah Bradley was retconned as the grandson of the original, African-American Captain America who suffered brain trauma. Billy Kaplan and Tommy Shephard – though born thousands of miles away to different parents – are the lost twins of the Scarlet Witch when she had a nervous breakdown and inadvertently created children. Cassie Lang is the daughter of the second Ant-Man, Scott Lang. The new Vision (at the time) was based partly from the remains of the original. Teddy Altman is a half-Kree/half-Skrull prince of both worlds. And then there was Kate Bishop, a brand new character with no ingrained connection to the standing shared universe. All of these young heroes were created as a legacy characters, yet their journeys have all diverged in interesting ways.

Wiccan and Hulkling
Billy and Teddy’s romantic relationship developed into a core tenet of their respective characterizations. Kieron Gillen and Jaime McKelvie understood this dynamic and nearly broke the couple up in their second volume of Young Avengers, a watershed moment in their commitment to each other. Even now, Billy and Teddy are members of the New Avengers, still together through thick and thin. Though they started out as homages to Thor and the Hulk, Billy and Teddy have been thoroughly established as their own characters whose ‘legacy’ components have been relegated to secondary traits. Yes, Billy is Scarlet Witch’s son, but his road to becoming the fated Demiurge is all his own as he arguably symbolizes “ordered” magic as juxtaposed to Wanda Maximoff’s “chaos” magic. Teddy – whose Hulk connection is the thinnest fiber to an established hero of any Young Avenger – had the most wiggle room, and though he is absolutely royalty of both the Kree and Skrull empires, both cosmic civilizations have had larger problems than melodramatic monarchy disputes for many years now, allowing Teddy to develop aside from his heritage into a truly realized character. Even during the insidious Skrull occupation during Secret Invasion, Teddy’s background is less prominent than his dedication to his planet and his team.

One of the most unfortunate moves in Marvel’s recent history was to completely shelf Eli Bradley, A.K.A. Patriot. Heinberg and Cheung’s incredible characterization was rarely matched by other writers who handled the team for event tie-in mini-series, yet Eli represented a perspective not often seen in superheroes let alone younger ones: moral relativism. Eli was an original character deeply rooted in Marvel mythos whose relatable development offered a unique take on the challenges of being a superhero in a world full of living legends. Eli is incredibly stubborn and passionate about his convictions, an aggressive pragmatist that wants nothing more than to live up to his grandfather’s legacy, and that sometimes causes him to falter when his sense of responsibility overtakes his moral compass. In Heinberg and Cheung’s second, two-issue arc of Young Avengers, Eli’s “Speedy moment” comes when the team finds him shooting up MGH (mutant growth hormone) to maintain his Super Soldier-esque strength and agility. Eli lied to the team about inheriting his grandfather’s powers and struggles with an addiction that leads him to commit crimes in order to maintain the charade; that’s a supervillain in the making if I’ve ever seen it.

Yet, Heinberg and Cheung deftly navigate the situation, reminding readers that Eli is a 16 years old kid, and that the combined pressure of his sense of duty to honor the past and the drive to succeed in his position as the spiritual leader of his team becomes overwhelming. Eli is a complex character with real issues that walk the line between heroism and obsession, a perfectionist that struggles with intense self-doubt and anxiety about his role in the world. When Eli all but disappeared from the Marvel universe, there didn’t seem to be a reason until it was announced that Sam Wilson would take the shield as the all-new Captain America when Steve Rogers was de-aged and stripped of the Super Soldier formula in Rick Remender’s Captain America run. The “Black Captain America” angle wouldn’t be as shocking and exciting if Eli Bradley – and by extension, his grandfather’s place in history as the actual first Black Captain America – was there poised to step into that role. I’m not saying Sam didn’t deserve the promotion, only that Marvel had a phenomenal character already positioned to become the next Captain America, and he was a Black teenager with relatable issues, established connections to Marvel lore, and years of organic development.

Cassie Lang grew into her own after she sided with Tony Stark and his Superhero Registration Act during Civil War. Most of the Young Avengers agreed with Steve Rogers, the face of the anti-registration Secret Avengers unconvinced more governmental oversight would benefit the superhero community. It made sense, especially considering the team’s previous run-ins the with the adult Avengers concerning their right to be active superheroes in the first place. That said, Cassie is a realist that sees the necessity of training and staying accountable in a world full of chaos and uncertainty. Much like Eli, Cassie’s sense of responsibility along with her uncertainty and doubt concerning her own ability to do more good than harm puts her in a position to respect authority and the sense of structure it brings. Cassie just wants to be a better, more effective hero, and that means obeying the law by working within the system to make the world a safer place. Eventually, Cassie rejoins the Young Avengers before her death in The Children’s Crusade, the same story in which she earlier successfully goes back in time and saves her father from being murdered by the Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Disassembled. Five years later, during Avengers & X-Men: AXIS, an inverted Doctor Doom looks to make amends for his past misdeeds and successfully brings Cassie back to life.

Cassie’s tenure as Stature was not a legacy to the ideals Hank Pym and Scott Lang had spent years developing, but rather a redefining of the Ant-Man/Giant-Man trope. Yes, Cassie has the exact same powers of size manipulation as her father and Hank Pym, but the name Stature has no solvent connection to ants or bees or insects or anything else like that – Cassie made her own identity and made her own decisions based on her personal ethics and motivations, even if that put her at odds with her team. Since her resurrection, Cassie has been a supporting player in The Astonishing Ant-Man where her early retirement from superhero-ing, a disconnect from her father, and a suffocating sense of duty leads her to get back in the game, even if that means defying everyone around her and breaking bad. When the devious Power Broker re-gifts Cassie with her size-changing powers and a brand new outfit, she becomes the criminal Stinger, a reference to her alternate universe MC2 counterpart, but also a direct connection to the Ant-Man franchise, further removing her from the Stature moniker and her days as a Young Avenger. Cassie Lang was Ant-Man’s daughter for years, Stature of the Young Avengers and the Initiative for years more, dead then resurrected (a very, very common comic book trope), and is now stepping into a more concrete legacy role as Stinger. Unlike most of the other Young Avengers, Cassie’s is an evolution of character, not superhero title. Even the name she pioneered, Stature, is no longer hers, and that was by choice.

Arguably the most interesting and fun growth of any Young Avenger was in Kate Bishop, a creation of Heinberg and Cheung’s for their original team in 2005. Kate’s father is a prominent member of New York’s criminal underworld, but when the original Young Avengers attempts to stop a hostage situation at her sister’s wedding, Kate steps into action when they can’t get the job done themselves. The Bishop family’s lavish lifestyle affords Kate the opportunity to train and study with the best, and she handles a bow with grace and elegance not seen since Clint Barton, who at the time was dead at the same hands that took Cassie’s father during Avengers: Disassembled. Kate becomes a Young Avenger and eventually meets a resurrected Clint Barton (now calling himself Ronin) who offers her the name Hawkeye. That potential was not mined until years later in Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Annie Wu’s incredible Hawkeyes run, a series that began about Clint Barton’s street-level, non-Avenger trials and tribulations, but evolved into a character study of Clint and Kate, two Hawkeyes who depend on one another yet have wholly different worldviews and perspectives on what it means to be a hero.

Kate was a member of Gillen and McKelvie’s Young Avengers along with fellow founding members Wiccan and Hulkling where she faced relationship issues with Noh-Varr (Marvel Boy) and his literally-alien concepts of sex, love, and passion. Kate has her heart broken when the boy chooses his ex, but she doesn’t relent when Noh comes back begging for forgiveness because her defining moment in Young Avengers (Vol. 2) is the realization that she has trust issues based on very real circumstances, but that she won’t let those issues define her. Kate’s time with Kid Loki’s Young Avengers is an excellent segue into her adventures with Clint in Hawkeye and All-New Hawkeye, the subsequent follow-up series by Jeff Lemire and Ramon Perez that goes even deeper into Kate’s character.

The dichotomy between these Hawkeyes isn’t subtle; Clint is an aloof, flippant, impulsive social warrior while Kate is a centered, emotionally-stable, pragmatic hero and they each bring something different to the table. Clint’s longtime stake to the name and his eagerness to mete out justice – even if he’s ill-suited for the task, in over his head, or impulsive to the point of overzealousness – makes him a truly active voice of the people, while Kate’s family history and nuanced perspective on good vs. evil gives her a defiance and perseverance that reins in Clint’s hurried behavior and offers strategy and elegance in its place. Kate Bishop has grown into an incredible character that whose personality is defined by her actions instead of clever connections or retconned statuses. Kate was a wholly original creation that multiple creators have built into a character absolutely worthy of the Hawkeye title. Yes, Clint Barton will always be synonymous with the name (especially with his place in the ever-popular Marvel Cinematic Universe), but Kate Bishop is as much Hawkeye as Clint, and Marvel was incredibly wise to put her in the starring role of this fall’s Hawkeye ongoing.

Today, legacy characters have become more commonplace in the Marvel universe. Sam Alexander stepped into the role of Nova in 2013, and though he did so in a rather roundabout way (Secret Wars and all that), Miles Morales is an exemplary legacy to Peter Parker’s Spider-Man. Kamala Khan is the new Ms. Marvel, and Moon Boy has a legacy in Lunella Lafayette, the Moon Girl with her Devil Dinosaur.

The Young Avengers began as possibly legacies to the Avengers, a group of teenagers wrestling with the struggles of growing up while protecting New York City as members of a superhero team. Each of Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung’s Young Avengers has gone through trials and tribulations that have helped them grow into roles beyond their original purview, to evolve into fully-developed heroes in their own right without the shadows of their supposed predecessors hanging over their heads. With Patriot being the only (egregious) exception, the Young Avengers paid homage to the ideals of the legacy character trope while simultaneously deconstructing the concept for a new era.

Friday, July 8, 2016

What the F%#k, Comic Book Fans?: A Response to the Reaction Over Riri Williams

Reading reactions to TIME magazine’s recent article on Riri Williams taking the mantle of Iron Man from Tony Stark made me incredibly sad. I’m not going to pretend that hardcore fandom doesn’t exist in other media because it does, but experience has proven to me that comic book fans are some of the most vitriolic in entertainment culture today, the kind ready to find any excuse to not like something, the kind with a narrow perspective on change, the kind that gives the entire medium a bad name.

Obviously, not every single comic book fan in the world is a negative jackass, and I understand that the loudest and most vocal of us are usually the most perturbed and disappointed, so I don’t want to sound like I’m pigeonholing the entirety of comic book fandom in one fell swoop. I’m also not advocating for censorship of opinion or constant optimism – I’m still smarting over how DC’s handled Kyle Rayner since Flashpoint (sans Tom King’s The Omega Men), so I believe me when I say that I understand feeling disconnected from beloved characters due to editorial decisions. What I am saying is that change is inevitable, change is necessary, and change is good.

Yes, the new Iron Man will be a Black female teenager named Riri Williams. And unlike other changes to traditional characters in recent years (Sam Wilson as Captain America, Jane Foster as Thor, Amadeus Cho as the Hulk, etc.), creator Brian Michael Bendis has huge influence at Marvel which means Riri will most likely be sticking around for the foreseeable future. Does this mean Tony Stark is going away? Probably not. Does this mean Tony will never don his armor again? Not a chance.

With the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the House of Ideas has the opportunity to play around with the comic books in a sandbox they just renovated with Secret Wars. This is the perfect time to introduce new legacy characters, and while I don’t understand why established younger characters like the Young Avengers, the Runaways, or any number of Avengers: The Initiative students haven’t been used, I can still give Riri Williams a chance because why not?

The prevailing argument against Riri Williams is that Tony Stark is synonymous with the Iron Man name, and that replacing him with brand new character so drastically different is obviously just diversity for its own sake, which is bad. There are so many flaws in this argument that it would be futile to try and cover them all, so I’ll stick to the big ones. Here are some of the more prevalent points made when this basic stance is brought up:

Why does Marvel keep replacing established characters with new faces instead of creating and encouraging brand new characters?
There are two incredibly obvious answers to this question. First, legacy characters are nothing new, as DC has been doing it for literally decades; the title of Green Lantern has been worn by no fewer than eight characters (most of which carried the ongoing series), the Barry Allen died in Crisis on Infinite Earths and was replaced by former Kid Flash, who then disappeared only to be replaced by a time-displaced Bart Allen, Dick Grayson wore the mantle of Batman when Bruce Wayne was presumed dead, and there have been five Robins since the 1930s. Second, new characters rarely sell well let alone last long enough to become fan favorites. Less than 40 original characters in the Marvel universe since the mid-80s (that’s a rough, if liberal guess, so correct me if I’m wrong) lead ongoing series. Why replace existing heroes with new characters from time to time? Because it’s part of superhero tradition and it’s not going to stop.

Marvel pandering to SJWs with diversity-grabs
A desire to promote diversity and bring more relatable characters into the mix to reflect a growing audience both in size and cultural variety is not bad – it’s commendable. Just because you personally do not want anyone but Tony Stark to wear the Iron Man armor doesn’t mean no one else will. Very obvious analogies can be drawn between Riri Williams and Kyle Rayner, a brand new character in 1994 who took over a decades-old franchise from a character synonymous with the Green Lantern name: Hal Jordan. Even less so than Riri (who’s at least had some quick sequences in Invincible Iron Man issues recently), readers had no idea who Kyle was even though he was had become the only Green Lantern in the entire universe. Oh, and Kyle is part Mexican – was that an SJW diversity play, too? We could even go back to John Stewart replacing Hal Jordan in the 1970s. This is nothing new, and it’s really a shame that in 2016, a fanbase that is primarily white males (though that is steadily changing) gets so bent out of shape over their perceived entitlement to specific characters with little more than “That’s not my [insert whatever superhero]”.

Tony Stark is the ONLY Iron Man
First of all, not true. James Rhodes was Iron Man in the 80s. So that argument caves in immediately. But we can go deeper. The new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, has been used as a prime example of how to introduce a new, diverse character in an iconic role that speaks to new readers without offending longtime fans. And while I agree that Kamala’s popularity across the aisle has been inspiring, it’s also not that straightforward. Carol Danvers was never incredibly popular as Ms. Marvel; she was largely absent from the Marvel comic book universe for years, showing up sporadically from the late 80s through the mid-2000s until she got her own ongoing series again in 2006. That series ended in 2010 and Carol’s debut as Captain Marvel didn’t come until 2012. Kamala Khan made her first appearance in 2013, but her series didn’t begin until 2014 – that’s a full four years between Carol’s tenure as Ms. Marvel and Kamala’s start. The title ‘Ms. Marvel’ had already gone somewhat defunct, and Marvel simply allowed a new character the room the breath that led her to becoming so popular. Kamala Khan as the new Ms. Marvel is very different than Riri Williams as the new Iron Man. Yes, they are both young, non-white characters taking over established titles from longtime heroes, but Kamala had the space and time to grow into the beloved character she is today, despite fans spouting off the same crap about diversity pandering when she was first announced. Riri will be Iron Man this fall and Tony Stark’s status quo is still a mystery until the end of Civil War II. There’s no context yet for why Riri takes the mantle, and it’s foolish to dismiss her so quickly without giving her a chance.

Brian Michael Bendis just does whatever he wants regardless of continuity or how it affects longtime characters.
Yes, both of these statements are absolutely true. But get this: SO F*CKING WHAT??!?! Brian Michael Bendis has affected Marvel comics unlike any other modern writer. He disassembled the original Avengers at issue 500 (I’m sure to the chagrin of some fans still holding onto that grudge), re-established Earth’s Mightiest Heroes for a new generation, fundamentally altered the mutant status quo in the Marvel universe with House of M, built on the paranoia and resentment established by the original Civil War while simultaneously constructing a retconned dream of secret Skrull insurgency for Secret Invasion, wrote one of Marvel’s most critically acclaimed series in the modern age (Ultimate Spider-Man), created fan-favorite characters Miles Morales and Jessica Jones, and wrote one of the definitive runs of Daredevil amongst many, many other accomplishments in and out of the comic book world. His recent track record hasn’t been the best – his time on the X-Men titles was a total drag, Age of Ultron was underwhelming, Guardians of the Galaxy still hasn’t found its footing under his pen, and Civil War II is just inane – but what I am saying is that Marvel puts a lot of faith in Bendis that he can pull out another win with Riri even after a stint of misses because he’s earned that faith.

Image from Comic Book Resources

I know what I’m saying is going to piss off a large portion of the comic book fanbase. I understand that I stand at odds with the prevailing opinion on Riri Williams as Iron Man. I get that people are hurt and offended and upset because change can be scary. What I can’t wrap my head around is how opinions so quickly become hard-lined beliefs, how a first impression with little context can set off such malicious fervor. I get incredibly frustrated seeing a medium I love so much getting weighed down by the doubt and insecurity over losing something that was never ours to begin with. All superhero fans have a special connection to the characters they love, but we are not owed anything, nor are we entitled to our favorite heroes remaining static for our entire lifetimes – that viewpoint is so incredibly self-absorbed and egotistical that I have trouble even sympathizing, let alone empathizing. Thor Odinson will always be the God of Thunder in Norse mythology, but the Marvel universe isn’t stone-carved legend from ancient times – Thor can be a different character than a blue-eyed, blonde-haired image of masculinity because it’s comic books and comics are all about change. Change is a core tenet of how the industry has grown and evolved. Without change there would never have been a Silver Age that I’m sure resulted in longtime readers of Golden Age DC Comics swearing off the company for good because THEY CHANGED MY FAVORITE CHARACTERS, WTF?!?!? (Okay, they definitely didn’t say ‘wtf’ in 1956, but the sentiment remains).

It’s quite telling that a fanbase who ran to defend and shield (pun intended) Captain America over the “Hail Hydra” controversy when perceived outsiders claimed the move was anti-Semitic and/or disrespectful to Cap’s creators is the same one that time and time again gets butt-hurt by young, diverse characters stepping into roles held by white males (usually with blue eyes and blonde hair) since at least the 1950s, if not earlier. When Steve Rogers stated “Hail Hydra”, comic fans were at the ready to justify the move with “This is comics; it’ll be retconned or changed back at some point. Why are you getting so angry?”, yet won’t shut the f*ck up about how they can’t accept Riri Williams as Iron Man because it’s disrespectful to Tony Stark (a fiction character who has no bearing on the real world outside whatever meaning we give him, let’s remember) or some devious, spiteful, nefarious plan by Marvel to destroy everyone’s childhood by reflecting the modern world to a more accurate degree. HOW DARE THEY??!?

Everyone is entitled to their opinion and I will never argue otherwise. Every comic book fan is free to complain or bitch or rant or             spew nonsense about diversity as a negative or tradition being more important than inclusion, able to take to the Internet and write or record any level of diatribe that compounds already-pessimistic attitudes and makes plain the ignorance of knee-jerk reactions.

We are also free to be optimistic, to wait and form opinions based on the material written instead of the press material designed to shock and awe. Of course Marvel is going to promote Riri Williams and the diversity she represents because that’s important to the company for social and financial reasons; these two factors don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and it’s painful to see comic book fans so intent on believing they must. Give Riri Williams a chance because there’s no reason not to, enjoy Jane Foster as Thor (if that’s your thing) while it lasts because it won’t be forever, keep in mind that tradition is personal, don’t let your opinions be unmovable, and remember to appreciate that change is an inevitability so spending your time holding a grudge against an entertainment corporation for taking liberties with characters you’ve enjoyed is only going to affect you because Marvel is moving forward with Riri Williams as Iron Man whether you like it or not.