The Kids Are OK at Best

by Matthew Derman

20 September 2013

Growing up means realizing how little you know. Even if you should have been a superhero…

Growing up means realizing how little you know. First there’s that teenage period of time where you feel like you’ve got the whole world figured out, then becoming an adult is coming to terms with the fact that you actually don’t have a clue. It can be difficult, even painful, to get to that point, and some people never do. Then there are others who are forced to get there more quickly, thrown into situations early in life that require them to summon maturity they might not otherwise possess. This is the case for the casts of Harbinger and Young Avengers, two comicbooks that do a particularly good job of tapping into the minds and personalities of teenagers dealing with grown-up problems. The characters are greatly underprepared to handle the challenges before them, and not responsible enough to have the level of power they have. That doesn’t stop them from trying their best to do some good with their abilities, it’s just that they screw up more often than they get it right. As noble as their goals are, it would be easy to argue that these kids do more damage than they’re capable of repairing.

“Avengers” is not the Operative Word

Billy Kaplan, a.k.a. Wiccan, can change reality simply by willing it. What would most adolescents do with that power? I know my choices wouldn’t have been nearly as noble as Billy’s attempt to bring his boyfriend’s dead mother back to life, and when he tries to do that it ends up bringing an other-dimensional evil into our world. A fumbling stab at a romantic gesture leads to disaster—classic teenager story beat, turned into a high-level superhero threat. This mistake provides the cliffhanger ending of Young Avengers’ first issue, and since then the book has primarily been about the titular team trying to clean up Billy’s mess without truly knowing how. Then when another enemy is added to the mix, they use the same slapdash tactics, chasing after the mysterious new villain through innumerable parallel realities without any intel on who he is, or any plan of what to do should they catch him.

So they’re largely flying blind, but doing it with great energy and purpose. They want so badly to come out on top that, in spite of their successive failures, their belief in themselves and each other maintains. Not unwaveringly—-they experience twice as much doubt as they do confidence. But as a group they muster up just enough faith to keep moving forward, and always with surprising positivity. They find the fun in their overwhelming, terrifying tasks, because that’s the best way they know how to cope.

All of this—the lack of planning, determined attitudes, and humor during dark times—speaks to the team’s youth. It also keeps the series spirited and fast-paced. Since the characters set off on their adventures with a certain abandon, the book doesn’t have a lot of quiet, reflective scenes. Even the moments of self-exploration and passive conversation are full of brisk, quick-witted dialogue and/or narration. These are intelligent teens, with impressive minds to match their powers. They may be surviving only by the skin of their teeth, but a less mentally put-together group might not make it through at all. The Young Avengers are more knowledgeable and project-oriented than your typical high schoolers, but still have relatively limited experience, and are still only playing grown-up no matter how convincingly they do it.

I keep talking about them as a unit, but what makes the Young Avengers successful as stars is how distinct they are from one another, even though they share the aforementioned traits of childishness. Billy is the most earnest, openly sorry for his past errors and desperate to make up for them. His boyfriend Teddy (Hulkling) wrestles with a lot of fear, feeling shaky in their relationship and in his own sense of self. They’re not an unusual couple for their age, struggling to stick together when the going gets tough. Young love, not matter how pure or well-established, isn’t often built to last, something Teddy and Billy are learning the hard way.

There’s also new couple Kate Bishop (Hawkeye) and Noh-Varr, who had just spent their first night together at the start of the series, and are therefore developing their relationship in the thick of all the superheroics. They both have a laid-back attitude about it, not getting too invested in one another too quickly. It’s the kind of non-committal, exploratory romance that’s easy to be a part of in your early years, before anyone’s looking to settle into anything serious. Noh-Varr is an alien, so his romantic outlook is motivated by a more general detached curiosity. He is enthusiastic about his interests, but they can change quickly when something new pops up on his radar. For her part, Kate is too self-reliant to throw herself wholeheartedly into a connection with another person. She’s stubbornly independent not just to keep herself safe, but because things are more fun when she gets to do them her way. So they’ve got their own reasons for the casualness of their dynamic, but they’re equally typical for modern teenagers.

The final “pair” consists of Loki and America Chavez, who aren’t a couple (nor even that fond of each other), but are tied to one another through shared secrets. The audience has not yet been let in on what, exactly, these two know that nobody else does, but keeping it to themselves is what binds them together. Chavez is the strong, silent, pissed-off type, responding to most of her problems with clenched fists. She’s got anger without any angst to temper it, emotionally turbulent but just wise enough to focus her rage and turn it into productivity. On the other side of the spectrum, Loki is the class clown. This makes him an always-appreciated source of comic relief, but he’s the god of mischief and a teenager to boot, so it’s doubly hard to trust anything he says or does, no matter how amusing.

Newest member David Alleyne (Prodigy) rounds out the cast in the role of nerd-who’s-still-cool. Though everyone’s smart, David is downright brilliant. He used to be a mutant who could access all of the knowledge and skills of whoever he was near, and even when he lost that power, he permanently retained everything he had previously absorbed. This makes him an unprecedented genius, but it’s also hard for him to be totally sure of himself, because he’s carrying around pieces of so many other people. “Unable to find a firm place in the world even with a stunning intellect” is a description that could apply to a whole lot of kids out there, the sort of frustrating underachievers that everyone knows could accomplish more if they had any reason to apply themselves.

Young Avengers is a story about kids with unbelievable capabilities working through extraordinary circumstances, but they’re still normal examples of their generation. It’s that apparent mismatch that makes it such a compelling comic, accessible yet wildly imaginative.


The stars of Harbinger are troubled at best, and deeply disturbed at worst. They mostly come from backgrounds with little-to-no family support, which is why they’re able to spend their time in high-powered battles of good vs. evil. However, it’s also why they’re so inept at these conflicts, making things up as they go along and letting their inner turmoil direct their actions. They’re emotionally stunted, which makes them act rashly, thinking with their mangled hearts rather than their heads. Their cause is just, but their methods are misguided, fighting everyone they encounter with everything they’ve got, devising overambitious and simplistic strategies that have no backups when they come to pieces. These teens lost the biggest, most important encounter they’ve had yet, a literal war between them and several opposing sides. They went down swinging, but they nevertheless went down, and a lot of the violence could have been avoided if they’d approached things more diplomatically. Their fuses are too short for that, though, so they dove in hot and got beaten instead.

What redeems them is their unflinching honesty. They’re used to being vulnerable, so they wear their hearts on their sleeves for better or worse. They take more painful hits this way, but it allows them to trust one another, which motivates them to keep up the fight no matter how much it hurts. These are characters who are familiar with hurt, and having one another to count on is better than normal. Being on the team at all is worth the danger and trauma, even for the members who aren’t wholly devoted to the aims of the group. Like with anyone their age, there is a desire for belonging, for community, for acceptance. They’ve never managed to find it before, so there’s no cost too high for them to hang onto it now.

Their enemies are the same forces of oppression teenagers have been raging against for years: school and authority. It all begins with the Harbinger Foundation, an underground training facility for psiots—people with mental superpowers—that exists within the multi-national Harada Corporation, essentially a supervillain in the form of a company. It is the most successful corporation in history, and its head and founder, Toyo Harada, is the most powerful psiot in the world. A daunting foe, but protagonist Peter Stancheck is not easily shaken or impressed. Initially, Harada tries to recruit Peter, who is perhaps Harada’s equal in power, or at least a close second. But it takes almost no time at all for Peter to see through the nonsense and push back as hard as he can. He breaks out and gets to work building a small but fierce resistance, activating other young psiots with crummy lives, both to help them out and to gain their assistance against Harada. They’re a small, motley band of down-and-out kids, but they all see the fundamental wrongness of Harada’s private military and massive economic machine. For them, freedom is king. It’s the only value they’ve kept intact in their lives thus far, so someone like Harada, who believes himself qualified to decide the fates of his students, employees, and all humanity, is the worst kind of threat.

Things are actually a bit more personal for Peter, not just because of the brief time he spent under Harada’s tutelage. Before he gathered the Renegades (a team name they rarely ever use, but have technically adopted), Peter had only one friend, Joe Irons, whom he met in a mental institution. Harada had Joe murdered, hoping that with no one to run to Peter would return to the Harbinger Foundation, a plan that inevitably backfired when Peter figured out what had happened. Since then, Joe’s death has been a constant weight on Peter’s shoulders, the defining tragedy in his life and an ever-present reminder of why he’s working so hard to defeat Harada. Peter stretches and strains his powers, almost hubristically, but he would gladly burn himself out if it meant avenging the boy who saved him from total, obliterating loneliness. This loyalty carries over into his relationships with the rest of his team, and though he’s not all that self-assured or experienced or in any way an obvious choice for leader, he’s a good one because he is so intensely committed to his friends.

Of course, like the Young Avengers, the Renegades are just as defined by their differences as their commonalities. In fact, their second-in-command (for all intents and purposes, even though officially they don’t have any real hierarchy in place) isn’t even a psiot. Kris Hathaway is just a regular girl who gets folded into all the superpowered madness when Peter takes over her mind and forces her to fall in love with him. Eventually he frees her, but the damage is already done, and it’s one of the ugliest, most foolish things Peter ever does. Though he might never get to properly make amends for it, Kris figures that if she can get him to use his gifts for good in the future, then his previous wrongs could at least not have been totally pointless. So she joins him somewhat reluctantly and begrudgingly, and becomes the glue that holds the Renegades together, even if Peter calls most of the shots. Without Kris to ground them, these kids wouldn’t even be as loosely organized as they are. She’s the closest thing they have to “the brains of the operation.”

If Kris is the head and Peter the heart, then Faith Herbert (Zephyr) is the group’s soul, its conscience. Before Peter activated her, Faith was an obsessive fan girl, living in a world of comicbooks, TV series, and the online communities that adore them. Getting to be a superhero is a literal dream come true for her, and she approaches the opportunity from the point-of-view that everything should operate as it does in the stories she loves. When her teammates argue about whether or not to save another group of psiot children, Faith becomes incredulous, because to her mind there should be no debate. People are in trouble? Help them. Bad guy are doing something wicked? Stop them. It really is as simple as that. She has a black-and-white morality, made even starker by her unrelenting enthusiasm and gratitude for the life she’s living now, and she keeps her allies pointed in the right direction.

Finally, there’s Charlene Dupre (Flamingo) and John Torkelson (Torque) the last two additions and probably the most internally damaged. Charlene ran away from home before finishing high school, looking to carve out her own path of sexual discovery and adventure, but ended up in a horribly abusive relationship with an absolute scumbag. When Peter and company find her, she’s a stripper, which is the one part of her life in which she finds any enjoyment, but even then it’s not a career she’s especially attached to. To to flee her life once again, to have a second chance at a fresh start, that’s precisely what she’s looking for, so when it arrives she jumps in head first. The violence is a little much for her taste, and she’s probably the Renegade least into their mission, but she still gives 100% because it’s better than the alternative by a mile.

Torque, the only member of the team to consistently go by his codename, spent his entire life trapped in his bedroom in his family’s trailer, disabled from the waist down and raised by people who didn’t know how to accommodate his condition. He found scraps of happiness in detailed daydreams where he played a bulky, unstoppable action hero, but never suspected he could be like that for real. Yet that’s what happened when Peter turned on his powers, and now Torque is out in the world for the very first time, busting heads and loving every minute of it. Everything is brand new to him—-the ocean, driving, live music, etc., so he sees it all with an endearing reverence. He’s less mature and in control than the others, because he never had any need to grow up before now, having resolved himself to life in a single tiny room. The transition from that to traveling all over the country fighting baddies has understandably not been very smooth.

The Renegades used to be the kinds of youths that nobody would bet on, depressed and broken victims of their own lives, going nowhere fast. Maybe they’re not the greatest superheroes ever, because every move they make is by the seat of their pants, but at least they’re making a sincere go of it. It’s more than the world ever expected of them, and the effort itself is admirable, even if the results are less than ideal.

Today’s Lesson Is

The thickest common thread between these two titles is their protagonists’ recklessness, leading to massive errors on their part and victories for their villains. The other side of that coin, though, is that the kids do learn from their mistakes. They get better and more comfortable with their powers, practicing in their down time as well as in the field. As I said, growing up is a process of discovering what you don’t know, and these characters are growing up rapidly. In the present-tense, they’re amateurs, slipping up and losing at every turn, but they get marginally better all the time, and if they can live to see it, there will definitely be a day in the future when they become full-fledged superheroes. Until then, the journeys are as interesting as they are arduous, heightened reflections of our own adolescence through two varied and well-developed teenage teams.

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