Ecce libri cum picturis: Young Avengers #4, among other books

by  in Comic News Comment
Ecce libri cum picturis: <i>Young Avengers</i> #4, among other books

You know, I hate living in a world where Kelly Thompson is even a little right, confound it!!!

Since I stopped doing weekly reviews of everything I read, I’ve been trying to spotlight a book every week that is either the first issue of a series, the last of a series, or something that blows up the Internet. I figured there would be a week like this one, where so many freakin’ good books came out that I’d be tempted to dive right back into doing the whole nine yards again. I mean, there are some weeks where a lot of good comics come out, there are some weeks where a lot of good comics and a few great comics come out, and then there are some weeks where a whole shitload of great comics come out and even the ones that aren’t great are pretty good. Such it was with this week, ladies and gentlemen. When the worst comic I bought this week was written by Brian Wood and drawn by Declan Shalvey, you know it’s a pretty damned good week for comics!

So here are some impressions of some of (but not all of) the various comics I bought before I get to the book I want to write about a bit more (hint: It’s in the title of the post).

First, we have the latest issue of Batman, Incorporated, which continues to get screwed over by the DCnU, so much that we have to pretend the God of All Comics is not subject to the reboot and has basically ignored it. In other words, this Kirk Langstrom isn’t the same one who recently showed up in Detective Comics, and that’s fine. Well, it’s not fine – it’s actually kind of annoying, but it’s fine as long as you remember that G-Mozz plays by his own motherfucking rules, motherfucker! And this book would be much better if Chris Burnham had actually drawn all of it, but that’s been true for several issues now.

Re: Dark Horse Presents: You don’t often think about it because it’s not really his thing, but Sean Phillips can draw some dead-sexy women. Brubaker should make sure to put a woman with a shirt tied underneath her breasts in every comic he writes for Phillips from now on. CHANGE APPROVED!

“I hate New Jersey. I may start with you and then kill everyone in this state.” Poor Jersey. A large part of Jersey is actually quite beautiful, but the stereotypical part is so prevalent that places like, I don’t know, Lambertville get overshadowed.

East of West #2 was not quite as awesome as East of West #1, but that’s like saying that Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey wasn’t quite as good as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, because as awesome as Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey was (“You sank my battleship!”), not much could top Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. OBVIOUS MAN HAS SPOKEN!

Would you like to know how good this week of comics was? A comic with an undead Viking getting his own hand hacked off (and then sewn back on) before dispatching someone by biting his throat out wasn’t the best comic of the week. What’s with all this quality????

“Deal with thine pants!” Bwah-ha-ha-ha!

Prospero is way too terrifying in Kill Shakespeare. I mean, damn.

Everyone should be pals with a giant talking reindeer who knows science. That’s just … well, SCIENCE!

In order to make every other comics creator feel inadequate, Matt Kindt devotes half – just half, mind you – of Mind Mgmt #10 to a kick-ass noir tale before rejoining his main plot, already in progress. Kindt probably woke up one morning and while he was watching Live! With Kelly and Michael thought, “You know, I’m in a noirey mood. Let’s see if I can knock one out before they mention Gelman and his crazy antics.” And he had to stop once they did, hence the brevity of the tale. Yes, in college I watched a bit too much of Regis and Kathy Lee, so I know all about Gelman. I’M LIKE A MOTHERFUCKING ONION IN THAT I HAVE MANY LAYERS AND ALL OF THEM WILL MAKE YOU CRY!

Nick Spencer: Mind-Fucker. Well done, Mr. Spencer.

Rogues! #1 by El Torres and (for this issue) Juan José Ryp came out this week, and if you’ve ever wanted to read Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser but wished the Gray Mouser was a hot chick who occasionally appeared topless and who inexplicably was able to get a really good Brazilian wax job in a medieval world, then you might want to pick up this comic. This is, I should point out, not a criticism in the least.* I do wish Ryp could draw more of the series, but it’s still a fun comic that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

* I do wonder about the hairlessness of some people on television, though. The wife and I just finished watching Spartacus: War of the Damned, and while we both appreciated the ridiculous blood-spurting violence and the indiscriminate nekkidness (I’m convinced that the people who played Crassus and Kore – Simon Merrells and Jenna Lind – had clauses in their contracts that they HAD to appear naked at least once an episode), I kind of wondered how the female refugees managed to find time to shave their pits. Hairy pits would have made Spartacus the greatest television show ever – I mean, it was close to it already, what with the ridiculous blood-spurting violence and indiscriminate nekkidness, but still!

Witch Doctor is awesome. I don’t have anything else to say about it right now. It just is. Get the trade and marvel!

And then there’s the best comic of the week, which happens to be the last comic, alphabetically, that I bought. Handy, that. When issue #1 of Young Avengers came out, our own Kelly Thompson, who’s far better at a sound bite than I am (I mean, I doubt if Image will be quoting me on East of West by saying issue #1 was like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but who knows, right?), tossed a bit of a Molotov cocktail on the Internet by claiming it was “the future of superhero comics.” Someone at Marvel, who’s not as dumb as the marketing department of a Big Two comic book company often seems to be, saw this and realized this would be a great pull quote, so it was splashed over the solicitation of the YA #5, which was pretty awesome (the solicitation, not the issue, which hasn’t appeared yet, and it’s still awesome even though Kelly’s name was nowhere to be seen in the solicits). I liked Young Avengers #1 (and 2-3) but didn’t really get on board with Kelly’s “future of superhero comics” thing, but that’s okay.

I mean, if you read Steranko’s Nick Fury comics from the 1960s, you still get the feeling that those are the future of superhero comics, and we still haven’t fucking caught up to them, but I get what Kelly was saying.

So I was enjoying the first three issues and hoping that YA was selling enough to keep going for a long time and hoping that the fine writer and artist working on it would continue to get more accolades, because they’re both swell dudes who are always willing to talk to schmucks like me and, of course, they make fine comic book publications. The one problem I had with the first three issues, honestly, is the fact that, because it was a superhero comic, Gillen had to actually put in a superhero plot, and while he’s getting better at those, it doesn’t feel like something he’s particularly interested in, so the whole “fake mother from an evil dimension thing” felt a bit forced. I don’t want to make a Phonogram comparison, but I’m certainly not adverse to it: It would be like Dormammu suddenly blasting into the club in the middle of The Singles Club #4 just as Seth Bingo is talking about Johnny Boy. It just wouldn’t work. With Young Avengers #4, however, it seems like he’s found a decent balance, and the result is one of the best single issues so far this year, one that shows everyone in the comic working at the top of their game.

To get the boilerplate out of the way, we have Kieron Gillen writing this, Jamie McKelvie drawing it, Mike Norton drawing some other parts of it (McKelvie explained the division of labor here), Matthew Wilson coloring it, Clayton Cowles lettering it, Jacob Thomas assistant editing it, and Lauren Sankovitch editing it. Kate Bishop, Billy Kaplan, and Teddy Altman were created by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung. Noh-Varr was created by Grant “Yeah, I worked for Marvel once, bitches” Morrison and J. G. Jones.

America Chavez was created by Joe Casey and Nick Dragotta. Loki and Thor were created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Boy, that Kirby shows up a lot in creator credits. I’m sure he got wealthy from creating so many iconic comic book characters, right? Young Avengers is a nifty $2.99, and it’s published by Marvel. Of course.

Yes, this issue is the penultimate issue of the arc, so it might be tough to jump on, but if you haven’t picked up an issue of Young Avengers yet, this will give you a good idea of what’s going on. Gillen is very good at dialogue (which is a lot harder than it looks), so he gets us up to speed without being too obnoxious about it. Of course, we have a recap page, which helps, and then we check in with Kate Bishop and Noh-varr, who haven’t been too involved with this story arc and are themselves getting caught up, so that makes it easier for Gillen to catch us up (plus, the fact that they keep referring to the Skrull threat teased in issue #1 without the reader actually seeing any of it is awesome, in my humble opinion). Noh-varr rescues Wiccan, Hulkling, Kid Loki, and Miss America from Wiccan’s evil mother (who’s not really his mother, but some kind of “interdimensional parasite”), and then, of course, everyone else’s “parents” come back from the “dead.” There’s some fighting, and then Loki finally convinces Billy to do what he’s been bugging him about – lending Loki Wiccan’s powers for a few minutes. Gillen, of course, implies that Loki is not to be trusted, but his bait-and-switch convinces no one (at least I hope it doesn’t), but it does set up the apocalyptic finale.

Nothing impressive, right? I mean, I could have described the plot of … let’s say ONE BILLION superhero comics from the past 50 years. Plots, as we know, are fairly limited, and superhero plots even more so. You can hide the hidebound nature of your plots by structuring your work in odd ways, like a certain God of All Comics, or you can make the action so EPIC! that it obscures the stereotypicality* of the plot like a certain Omnibus-loving Mr. Hickman, but let’s be honest – plots are never going to be that interesting.

What Gillen does instead is work hard on his dialogue and what McKelvie does it tell the story in a fascinating way, so that Young Avengers #4 is brilliant despite the plot. And unlike another critically-acclaimed Marvel comic (cough*Hawkguy*cough), it hasn’t felt yet that Gillen is trying too hard. Or, I should point out, when it feels like he’s trying too hard, it’s because the characters are trying too hard, not Gillen. If that makes sense.

* Yeah, I made that word up. I’m an English majors, motherfuckers, and I’m allowed to make up words, damn it!

What I mean is that Gillen, even though he’s an old fart, has a good handle on how snotty teenagers talk. Look, we were all snotty teenagers once, and if you’ve been around teenagers recently (I haven’t, but I’m around 2nd-graders a lot, and teenagers are just 2nd-graders with out-of-control hormones), you know that they’re even snottier than ever, thanks to social media allowing them to be snotty to a bigger shitload of people. (I say all this with no ax to grind about social media OR snotty teenagers OR even 2nd-graders, but let’s be honest – social media can suck, and kids often can’t help being snotty.) So the greatness of this book comes from the fact that the characters are often posing, and the artificiality of it makes the book fascinating, because superhero comics are all about posing and artifice. Gillen just acknowledges it better than others do. So when Noh-varr rescues his “teammates” (are they even a team yet?), the page that everyone will be talking about is absolutely ridiculous, but that’s the point. Noh-varr is self-aware enough to say “Superhumans in peril. We are definitely on Earth” a few pages earlier, so he obviously knows how goofy the planet is, and we’ve already seen that Gillen is writing him as kind of a mod David Bowie (who likes disco), so he takes artifice seriously. Kid Loki, of course, is snarky and unfiltered, much like “regular” teenagers. At first glance, it might seem like these characters are typical sitcom-type characters, in that they always say the perfect thing, and that’s part of it – dialogue in fiction, no matter how “realistic,” can never be too realistic, because no one wants to read “So, um, I was like, this sucks, you know, and like, so I was like, ‘Let’s bolt,’ you know?” – but even as they’re saying the perfect thing, it’s the perfect thing for their character. So Noh-varr being awesome is different from Kate being thoughtful and Billy and Teddy being mopey Romeo-and-Juliet types and Loki being snarky and America being guarded. Without being too obvious about it, Gillen has done a wonderful job giving these characters their own personalities, even for those characters – like Noh-varr and Kate – who haven’t been in the book too much already. Obviously, in a shared universe, Gillen is using others’ work – Heinberg’s with Billy, Teddy, and Kate, Fraction’s with Kate, and Morrison’s with Noh-varr – but in a few issues, he’s managed to make these characters his own. Kate seems a bit more snarky in Hawkguy, but that might be because she’s dealing with Frat Bro Clint. People can act differently around different people, you know!

The comic in general is pretty funny, but issue #4 might be the funniest one yet. Noh-varr is all dry wit, while Loki is enthusiastic sarcasm and cluelessness, so when he starts to make a joke about America’s parents, she shuts him down quickly. Thor’s entry line is genius, because it’s both such a Thor thing to say and also a perfect parody of a Thor line.

Gillen, however, also gets the idea of drama, especially in the lives of teenagers, so he shifts rapidly from funny dialogue to devastatingly depressing dialogue. He posits a fascinating “origin” for Teddy, and he continues to show how insecure Loki is because of his “past life” and the consequences of that. It’s impressive that Gillen is able to keep the tone light while delving into the very real darkness inherent in these characters and superheroes in general. Yes, the book is rather obvious in its “parents-versus-their-offspring” theme, but again, this is something that is very important to teenagers – not necessarily rebelling against their parents, but their complex relationship to their parents in general. But subsumed into this motif is the idea of growing up, and all of these kids don’t quite know how to do that, and they’re dealing with as best they can.

Meanwhile, the art is naturally superb. Usually, I don’t want to spoil too much in the story, but this time, I don’t want to spoil too much in the art department, because it’s a joy to discover what McKelvie is doing (I very much doubt this will be an issue with other reviews, as people think spoiling art doesn’t count, but I implore reviewers to keep the amazing pages in this comic a secret as long as they can!). I’ve mentioned before that there are two ways for superhero art to stand out – the style of the drawing or the way the artist lays out a page. McKelvie, as excellent as he is, isn’t radically changing the way people draw figures – his figure work is beautiful and precise, but it’s firmly within a “realistic-but-not-Photoshopped” tradition. However, McKelvie has been playing around with layouts for a while, and when he cuts loose, it’s very impressive.

The double-page spread that defines this issue is the most stunning, but McKelvie does a nice job with tilted and/or jagged panels as the kids flee from the various parents, heightening the tension and speed with which the race occurs. He breaks it suddenly with the placid page showing Thor talking to Captain America inside the Avengers mansion, juxtaposing that with the fight occurring in the background (this is a cliché, of course, but it still works when used sparingly). Then the layout settles down into more standard quadrilateral shapes because the characters are talking rather than fighting, and it slows the action down so we can digest Gillen’s words. McKelvie, of course, is famous for facial expressions (if he’s not, he should be), and he’s in fine form here, from Kate’s cocked eyebrow in the second panel of the book to America’s resigned look as she explains that it’s hard to kill the “parents.” The horror that dawns on Teddy’s face during his conversation with Loki is brilliant, as is Billy’s pained look when he realizes that he has no choice but to go along with Loki’s plan. McKelvie does need to work on his ass shots, though. I mean, come on, McKelvie!

I could go on about Norton, Wilson, and Cowles, but I won’t. What you need to know is that Young Avengers #4 is excellent, and it’s a nice snapshot of what we can get from creators who are firing on all cylinders. If you haven’t picked up an issue of YA yet, I would encourage you to check this out to get an idea of what kind of title it is. It might not be quite “the future of superhero comics,” but in the present, it’s superb. So why wait?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½

So, that’s a quasi-weekly review post. Don’t get used to it! In the meantime, enjoy this video of Candi Staton singing “Young Hearts Run Free.” Look at that Indian feather shirt! Dang, the 1970s were awesome.

In summation, just remember what will happen if Kelly Thompson is right all the time:

(Stolen from here, although I don’t know who originally envisioned this.)

Have a tremendous day, everyone!