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.

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