What does it mean to be an Avenger? The journey continues through Young Avengers and Uncanny Avengers.
In the first part of this series, I asked the question “What does it mean to be an Avenger?” The question was designed to be broad in scope so as to allow a more in-depth look at the various titles that include the word ‘Avengers’ in the name to see how they earn that title. The most common answer is “To sell more books; it’s all about making more money.” That answer also happens to be the easiest, and the least intuitive. In fact, that answer—rather astonishingly—seems to be used for a plethora of questions pertaining to comic book happenings. Why did DC kill Superman, only to bring him back soon after? —To sell more books. Why did Marvel retcon Spider-Man’s unmasking during Civil War with a giant, epic, horrifying, grating reset to Peter Parker’s character history? —To sell more books.
That answers instantly cuts off any more discussion because it implies that any other answer is inherently wrong because money is the only reason why things change. Yes, Marvel is a business, so it’s somewhat about the money, but to imply that financial gain is the company’s only drive for creative direction undercuts the efforts of nearly every creative effort that goes into writing and drawing comic books. Superman came back from the dead because he’s a cultural icon and he couldn't be dead. Part of what makes Spider-Man such a compelling character is the constant struggle between Peter’s life and Spider-Man’s work. We cannot close ourselves off from looking at media through other lenses than the one draped in the almighty dollar.
The first volume of Uncanny X-Force is one of those series that stays with you months and years after you’ve put down the final issue. Almost out of nowhere, Rick Remender gave readers a series firmly rooted in dubious morals and questionable ethics. What made it special, though, is how Remender deconstructed those morals and ethics to serve as a look at how dark the world has become. In turn, it showed how our heroes also had to make incredibly tough decisions when faced with situations that have no right answers.
Uncanny Avengers is the spiritual successor to this series, as Remender has carried over a number of major plot developments and storylines from Uncanny X-Force. Even more so, Remender continues to use moral relativism as a core theme throughout Uncanny Avengers, giving it a similar dark tone. The idea behind the Avengers Unity Squad—narratively speaking—is that stories in Marvel comics are too often separated by trivial demarcations of mutant or human. If Magneto is attacking New York, the X-Men typically handle it. When the Kree show up, the Avengers are the first line of defense.
Remender seeks to erode these delineations because they only mean as much as we make them mean. One of the takeaways from Avengers vs. X-Men—for Captain America, if not readers in general—was that the Avengers had not done a good job fostering goodwill between humans and mutants. When the Red Skull cut Charles Xavier’s brain out of his dead body so he could weaponize it against the mutant race, it didn’t matter who stood up to the Nazi threat, only that someone stood up at all. Uncanny Avengers is about the idea that humans and mutants can work together to solve problems; not human problems, not mutant problems, just problems. This does not preclude the team from having it’s own problems, which happen to be entrenched in human-mutant relations.
The goal of creating a new paradigm between humans and mutants is a lofty one, even if you’re optimistic. On an editorial/logistical level, anti-mutant prejudice is a good well for X-Men storytelling, just as Loki is a good tool for Thor storytelling. In-universe, the constant threat from mutants—whether purposeful or accidental—has left even the most compassionate and accepting individuals a bit wary to the dangers of unchecked mutant proliferation. Even the Avengers Unity Squad members seem to always be at each others throats over matters of human/mutant politics.
But this is to be expected.
After Hope Summers shattered the Phoenix force and kick-started the mutant species again, the world changed. Through the eyes of an average Joe, his world has seen the mutants rise and fall twice in a generation, and that’s extremely jarring. Scott Summers was a mutant who, for decades, was a symbol of all that was good about mutantkind. Now, he is a terrorist responsible for the deaths of millions worldwide, along with his mentor and father figure, Charles Xavier. And this is just one of many, many differences and major changes that have come to the Marvel universe in the recent years. Now, Remender is using Uncanny Avengers to unpack all those built-up feelings, all the fears, insecurities, anxieties, and questions that come with a world that doesn’t have a dominant species, really.
The Uncanny Avengers can simply be described as a team of Avengers working to better human/mutant relations—that’s the easiest way to put it. The beauty of this series is how such a minimal premise has become more than the sum of its parts. Remender focuses on an Avengers team, but one that has half it’s roster filled with mutants. The overarching narrative deals specifically with enemies and threats that bridge the human/mutant divide. Infighting amongst members comes down to perspective and accepting responsibility.
The first volume of Young Avengers debuted in 2005 when Alan Heinberg and Jim Cheung had the notion to develop a team of teenagers based on Avengers. It’s a straightforward concept that had been in practice for years at DC with the Teen Titans and Young Justice. In fact, DC basically had the market cornered for teenage heroes, as Marvel had some younger characters, but not many, and they weren’t very marketable. Young Avengers Vol. 1 changed all that with the introduction of seven new characters that would carry the legacy of their adult counterparts while keeping their own, distinct personalities and charms. Heinberg and Cheung ended the original run after 12 issues and only returned to the characters in 2009 with Avengers: The Children’s Crusade which closed that chapter of the team’s book, yet left it open for new creators to come in and make their own mark.
Heinberg and Cheung’s Young Avengers was one of my favorite runs of all time. Now, Kieron Gillen is at the helm and he’s taking the Young Avengers into territory it’s never been before: adulthood. I say ‘taking’ because it’s a process, a natural occurrence that happens over time when teenagers get older. With Young Avengers Vol. 2, Gillen is exploring what it means for teenagers to grow up. He’s even stated in interviews that if the original run was supposed to be about what it’s like to be a superhero at sixteen, then this series is meant to be about what it’s like to be a superhero at eighteen.
Understanding responsibility for one’s actions, making smaller sacrifices for a greater goal, becoming more sympathetic to your peers and their suffering, doing what is right instead of what is easiest, and recognizing your place in the world. These are just a few of the experiences of growing up that Gillen is delving into with his Young Avengers, along with a big one focused on in the first arc: letting go of the security of parents. Because our relationships with our mothers and fathers—good or bad—are the first ones we have in this world, they mean quite a bit and greatly influence who we will become. For superheroes, these relationships can be even more significant. Gillen exploits the concept of parental security and uses it as a method to make these individuals stay together at the end of their first (arguable) victory as a team. They have to make the decision to do what is right instead of what they want, and that’s a sign of growing up.
The Avengers proper are all adults. Each of them has an idea about who they are and how they want to live their lives. This is not to say they can’t/don’t question their actions and convictions, but they still have a basis from which to start. Kieron Gillens’ Young Avengers are anything but sure of themselves. Wiccan doesn’t know if he’ll become a hero and a savior or blight upon mankind. Kid Loki wants so much to be better than he is fated to always be. Miss America is constantly fighting her own inner demons and expressing it through punching and being sarcastic. Hulkling wants desperately to make the love of his life happy, but has no idea how. Marvel Boy is conflicted over his love of Earth and his dedication to the Kree Empire. And Kate Bishop wants something more than even being a daring superhero can give her. Each one is at a crossroads to adulthood and Gillen aims to chart their progress with witty and subtly facetious teenage melodrama mixed with superhero antics and alien invasions.
Unlike Avengers Arena, which expanded the idea of what it means to be an Avengers, Uncanny Avengers expands the idea of what the Avengers stand for and what they fight to protect. Similarly, Young Avengers is less about changing how we see or experience the idea of the Avengers and more about expanding the idea of what it means to be a hero: learning who you are first. Rick Remender and Kieron Gillen are both known for amazing runs on less mainstream titles—Remender with Uncanny X-Force and Gillen with Journey Into Mystery. And in both of those series, the world building was less important than the emotional impact wrought by that world building and the effects it has on the characters. Uncanny Avengers has the colossal task of finding common ground in a world increasingly separated by narrow definitions, unwavering faith, and distrust in each other and our government. Young Avengers seeks to show how getting older is pretty much the same for everyone, it just happens to be a little more complicated if your depressing poetry suddenly becomes reality just because you think it.