Young Avengers and Its Portrayal of Diversity
Marvel’s Young Avengers, just by its title, sounds like a cheesy Avengers spin-off that your kid brother or sister would be watching on Disney XD every Saturday morning, but this is far from the case. Young Avengers is progressive, pop-culture reference laden, and so much fun from beginning to end. The first issue was released in April of 2005, written and created by Allen Heinberg with art by Jim Cheung, with a re-launch that ran from 2012 – 2014, written by Kieran Gillen and art by Jamie McKelvie.
The original team consisted of Eli Bradley (Patriot), Nathaniel Richards (Iron Lad), Billy Kaplan (Wiccan), and Teddy Altman (Hulking) who were soon joined by Kate Bishop (Hawkeye), Tommy Sheppard (Speed) and Cassie Lang (Stature). The roster shifted slightly in the re-launch, with the addition of the Gillen-created Kid Loki, the Kree playboy Noh-Varr (Marvel Boy), the mysterious Latina dimension-smasher America Chavez (Miss America), and eventually former X-Man David Alleyne (Prodigy). Throughout both runs of this series the diversity of the team is something rarely discussed by the characters, but obvious to the reader. The portrayals seldom rely on stereotypes: the writers develop each of the new characters with unique and interesting personalities right off the bat, something that is not easy to do with relative unknowns.
The Heinberg/Cheung iteration in 2005 featured two women (Kate and Cassie), an African American (Eli), and a gay couple (Billy and Teddy)—and a synthezoid, but we won’t count them as a marginalized group in this context. The Gillen/McKelvie run had a similar make up. The most notable addition here is David Alleyne, a bisexual male, something infrequently portrayed in the mainstream (at least not explicitly). Male characters are more often portrayed as totally straight or totally gay, contributing to binary understandings of sexuality and the invisibility of bisexuals in popular culture. In 2006 and 2014 Young Avengers received the GLAAD award for best comic book, garnering the acclaim it deserved for its complicated but grounded depictions of LGBTQ+ characters and their relationships.
Kate Bishop (Hawkeye)
One of the highlights of the first Young Avengers run was the introduction of New York socialite Kate Bishop, who, Like her Avengers counterpart, Clint Barton, was and remains the only member of the team without superpowers.
Prior to her sister’s wedding, Kate had been assaulted in Central Park. To help herself through the trauma of this violation, she took up martial arts, archery, and swordplay. While this period of Kate’s backstory was never discussed in detail, it contributed to the complexity and strength Kate showed throughout the series, while also tackling the issue of violence against women with unusual sensitivity.
An interesting aspect of Kate’s identity as a Young Avenger is her struggle to find a codename. Names like ‘Weapon Woman’ and ‘Hawkingbird’ are suggested by her teammates, only to have Captain America gift her Clint Barton’s old bow and arrows, with a note addressing her as Hawkeye. What’s significant about this is that she isn’t referred to as ‘Lady Hawkeye’, ‘Hawkette’, or ‘Miss Hawkeye’—she’s just Hawkeye. She takes on the mantle without it having to be adjusted for her gender, she’s not a spinoff or a sidekick, she’s the real deal, as is borne out by her eventual leadership of the team.
Kate is also distanced from the old tropes of comic-book misogyny by her sexual agency. In the first series her costume is fairly provocative: it’s tight, purple, and shows off her midriff. While it does seem functional, it’s clearly designed for the male gaze. However, though she is ostensibly a ‘hot girl in a sexy outfit’, she retains her own personhood and is not defined her relationships or by the stereotypes so often attached to women in comics. Early on, she enters a relationship with Eli, which mostly consists of constant bickering. She soon realizes that it’s not going to work and ends things with him. During the Gillen/McKelvie run, she’s shown to be in a casual relationship with Noh-Varr. Throughout this relationship Kate turns the rhetoric of male chauvinism on its head, at one point telling Noh-Varr to “be pretty and silent.” Nor-Varr is frequently drawn shirtless, showing off his traditionally ‘super-heroic’ musculature. This objectification of a male character through the female gaze is a nice reversal of the hypersexualzation usually reserved for women in comics.
If you need even more proof of Kate Bishop’s badassery, she is currently the joint lead in Matt Fraction’s run of Hawkeye, currently one of Marvel’s most celebrated titles.
David Alleyne (Prodigy)
David was first introduced into the Marvel world as a student at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. He had the ability to telepathically absorb knowledge of those around him. After one of the major Marvel events – House of M- a lot of mutants lost their abilities. He later discloses that he not only gained knowledge and talent, he also got “other stuff”, which leads him to have an awakening as a bi-sexual. Gillen puts it best in the letter pages from issue 11:
“I’ve liked Prodigy ever since I’ve first read him in NEW X-MEN and had the idea for the plot later. Coming to a better understanding of your sexuality is a key part of the teenage years. The narrative of “I always knew I was like this” is certainly one story, but it’s not everyone’s story. Someone discovering about themselves by living is also true, and those realizations can be profound and wonderful”.
In popular media a female character exploring her sexuality, or just being bi-sexual, is something that is fairly common, eg: Willow in Buffy, Brittney in Glee, and Piper in Orange is the New Black. While obviously not being straight is at least somewhat of an issue for any gender, it is still far less common for a male character to be bi-sexual, much less an African-American male character. Using an already established character to break these standard bifurcated gender roles was a great move by Gillen. He has taken a sexual identity that is nearly invisible in popular culture and put it at the forefront of his story.
David is also the only character shown struggling, in a sense, with his sexuality. While it is always encouraging to see different sexualities portrayed as people who have their life together, having one that is still trying to fully understand how they feel and just now coming into their own is much more relatable if your target audience is teenagers. David shows, again, what is great about this series, giving readers another aspect of the transition of adolescence that they can relate to.
Cassie Lang (Stature)
One of the few missteps in the series is the development of Cassie, daughter of the second, and at the time dead, Ant-Man, Scott Lang.
Her character serves three purposes, all of which adhere to unfortunate tropes, in the first three arcs of the series. The first is that she’s the youngest and most emotional member of the group—she is seen crying for a good portion of the first story arc. As the youngest of the Young Avengers, at 14, she is given very little agency and is often condescended to by the adult Avengers and her peers. When Cassie first arrives she’s referred to as “kid” by Patriot and is told by Iron Man that’s she’s too young to have her dad’s helmet.
Aside from a compelling and empowered speech she gives when demanding her dad’s suit, she is one of the least developed Young Avengers and has little to do throughout the rest of the series. The second problem is her incredibly forced romantic relationship with Iron Lad—and later the new Vision. This Vision is created using Iron Lad’s brain patterns, making them essentially the same being, because in comics that is how things work. While Heinberg and Cheung seem hell bent on having each character in a relationship at one point or another, this particular one is abysmally written. They share only a few lines of conversation before they are shown kissing, with Cassie crying because Iron Lad has to return to his own time. Cassie is here being used as a means to inspire readers’ sympathies for Iron Lad, who was pretty two-dimensional throughout his six issues.
Later, Cassie is written into a third, much more worrying narrative trope. This is sometimes called the “Women in Refrigerators” trope, a name coined by esteemed comics writer Gail Simone. The trope applies when a female character is depowered, raped, or killed to further the development of a male character or characters. This is exactly what happens to Cassie at the end of Avenger: The Children’s Crusade. The writers sacrifice her to destabilize the Young Avengers and galvanize Iron Lad into becoming the villain from the future he swore he’d never be. The writers seem to assume that her death would cause the most emotional impact, with her being one of the only two female characters, among five males, and the youngest member of the team. While Cassie was far from the most exciting character, it was frustrating to see her so underused and then thrown away to advance the plot of her one-time love interest.
Billy Kaplan (Wiccan) & Teddy Altman (Hulkling)
Billy and Teddy are what you could consider the heart of the team. Both are fan-boys who geek out when they meet past heroes – occasionally quoting stats about them – and chat about Game of Thrones with Loki. Billy is the closest thing you get to a brooding teenager in the group. No only did he have the everyday struggles most adolescents have, he was also being bullied (See: being hit repeatedly in the face) in school because of his sexuality. Until one day when he accidently almost killed the guy hitting him by shooting a lightning bolt in his face. This was when he discovered he had the powers of a sorcerer, thus adopting the codename Wiccan – even if it is a fairly inaccurate title.
Billy’s boyfriend, Teddy, has the ability to shape-shift and has super human strength. Teddy’s personality is hard to get a read on at times, this makes sense though, when he realized he didn’t fit in in high school he morphed his body into that of a jock, using that to became best friends with the captain of the basketball team. While is depicted as an All-American of sorts he also has multiple ear piercings and is a super-hero nerd, so this can possibly be seen as a reflection of his powers, outwardly changing, but internally staying the same. No matter what the appearance or social persona he takes on, he remains incredibly kind hearted and easy going, the exception being when Billy is in danger, this is when the happy-go-lucky jock does his namesake proud.
What makes their relationship so important is how much of a normal teenage couple the writers make them. Aside from when their back-story is told, their sexuality is almost never even discussed, instead their personalities, skills, and relationship with their friends and each other are what is elaborated upon. We also get to witness Billy coming out to his parents, he’s actually about to tell them he’s a superhero but they interrupt him and say that they already knew and are so proud of him and happy he and Teddy found each other. While it wasn’t what Billy had in mind at the moment, it is certainly the reaction any teenager coming to terms with their sexuality would hope for from their parents. While it’s so easy to just shrug off a gay couple being portrayed the same as any heterosexual couple, or parents being accepting of their son being gay as the new normal, this is something that’s not often at the forefront of a story, much less a superhero story, and even less so one aimed at younger readers. Being one of the few male LGBTQ+ couples in the marvel universe – with X-Men’s Shatterstar and Rictor being the other prominent one – the depiction of Billy and Teddy is so important, not just in that it shows a healthy teenage relationship, but that it doesn’t fall into the typical, borderline offensive, clichés in the process.
America Chavez (Miss America)
The enigmatic America Chavez is one of the new characters introduced in the second run of the series. We know very little about the feisty Latina at first, other than she can rock a star-spangled denim hoodie and booty shorts, likes Korean barbecue, and can kick through dimensions. As her character continues to develop throughout the series she seems to fall into roughly the same category as Kate, the no-nonsense, butt-kicking, self-confident heroine, but with some important differences. While she is not necessarily from our dimension, America is portrayed as a Hispanic, frequently referring to Loki as “chico”, she also has two moms, and is herself a lesbian.
The way Gillen revealed her sexuality is what really stuck with me, it was not made into a big deal, it was through one offhanded comment made at the very end of the series when Kate asks her about a boy she had once kissed. America replies with “Only once. Didn’t stick. It’s always a shame when you end up as a damn stereotype. “Yeah, I went with a boy on my first team, but I was just experimenting.””
If Billy and Teddy are the heart of the team, America is the mouth, sans filter. She plays as the foil to the boy’s ever-optimistic outlook, giving the team the much needed reality check that everyone occasionally needs. She has some of the best lines in the series as well, with ones like “The laws of physics can kiss my ass”, and her ever-complex battle strategies such as “Punch everyone”. Like Kate she is depicted as a strong female character with complete agency, but unlike Kate she is also a racial minority and queer. If someone who is not white wants to find a comic book character to identify with racially, they would have very slim pickings. This especially applies if you are also a woman. America is a great addition to this very under represented demographic in the world of comics, for me, she is the breakout star of the series, and it is a travesty that she has not gotten her own series yet.
“Being a superhero is amazing, everyone should try it”
An easy complaint about Young Avengers is that it is diversity for the sake of diversity. Fortunately, the book also makes it very easy to argue against that, because the characters are fantastically written. The characters are given depth without long bouts of exposition, the relationships are not forced, and they are given authentically age appropriate voices. Gillen discussed how he went about building the team when he took over writing the series in 2012.
“[The balance of the team is] not ideal, but also a creature of mathematics. I can’t use Eli. I’m left with four original Young Avengers, of whom I have to surely include some, yeah? Three men and one woman. I include the only remaining woman and two more white guys (That was another reason not to include Tommy — it’d have skewed the team even more male). I include Loki as he’s the story I want to tell. I add Marvel Boy as Kate needs a romantic interest. I add Miss America. Marvel Boy is about the only one which is even possible to go another way, but I really couldn’t think of anyone else in the MU who fit the role.
The male/female ratio isn’t that bad, unless you’re going to take a hard line on 50:50. I could have expanded the team, but — as I said — I don’t want to dilute the story. When you’ve got the medium’s most prominent gay love story and it features two white guys, it limits the amount of room you have to maneuver unless you actually are going to lose them. But the member I’m adding down the line is another minority. I’ll be happier when we reach that.”
Whether or not you are already into comic books, you should give this series a try, it knows exactly what it’s trying to do, and it excels at it. This series represents everything good that comic books are capable of being, creating new characters and diving deeper into ones that have had little development. These characters are the reasons why you keep reading: the bullied kid, the jock, the socialite, the girl with a chip on her shoulder, the sexually confused teenager. These are aspects of adolescent life, which even if you are personally past, can still resonate with people of every age.
What do you think? Leave a comment.