When the modern version of Marvel Comics emerged in the 1960s, it was in the wake of the rock and roll revolution that had put youth at the forefront of American popular culture. From the very beginning, the House of Ideas did things differently from its friendly rival DC Comics. Despite the few New York City blocks that separated the two publishers, Marvel took a different tack to its universe building, by making teenagers into full-blown heroes with agency rather than two-dimensional sidekicks, or the younger selves of established heroes.
Children are the Future
Jack Kirby and Stan Lee conceived the Fantastic Four as an answer to DC’s Justice League of America, but the teams couldn’t be any more different from each other. Whereas the League consists of super-powered beings and crime fighters who formed an alliance to fight evil, the Fantastic Four is a family unit that had its powers thrust upon it as the result of a freak accident and subsequent physical mutation. But the origin story isn’t the only significant difference between the two teams; from the very beginning, the teenaged Johnny Storm, who became the 1960s version of the Human Torch, was a full fledged member of the team. This is a sharp contrast to the Justice League’s Robin, and Snapper Carr, the slang-spouting civilian youngster who hung around the heroes’ clubhouse and was considered the team’s mascot.
Johnny was soon joined by a young hero who would become one of Marvel’s most famous: Peter Parker. After being bitten by a radioactive spider, the Forest Hills teenager was on his own as he discovered that “with great power comes great responsibility.” The Amazing Spider-Man was a solo act, a larger-than-life hero — or a villain to some — when he put on the costume, but underneath the mask, Peter was a New York City kid with high school student problems, responsibilities and fears. The guilt of not having stopped the man who would murder his Uncle Ben eventually drove Peter to become a hero, but he did it without the guidance of an established superhero. Like any other teenager, he muddled through and found a way to navigate the confusing new reality he’d been dealt.
Even the X-Men, who were housed and mentored by Professor Charles Xavier at his School for Gifted Children, had relative autonomy. Professor X trained and guided the team, but even on their first encounter with Magneto, the team quickly went from needing his telepathic advice to working with each other to defeat a powerful foe who had dismissed them as children.
When Lee and Kirby unfroze Captain America in the pages of “The Avengers” #4, it was sans Bucky. The former teenage sidekick didn’t survive the attack on the drone that sent the Captain plummeting into the icy waters of the Arctic, opting the door for Rick Jones to eventually attempt to take on the role, going as far as dressing up as Rogers’ wartime comrade. But even then, the teenager who had been called Marvel’s perennial sidekick, has always acted as an autonomous agent.
It was Jones, after all, who wandered onto a gamma bomb testing site on a dare, causing Doctor Bruce Banner to run out and save him, thus exposing the scientist to the radiation that transformed him into the Incredible Hulk. The youth then followed Banner, not as sidekick seeking mentorship, but to repay Banner for saving his life. He even formed the Teen Brigade, a group of amateur radio operators to contact the Hulk in enough time to prevent fights and other trouble.
The Future is Now
Peter Parker may have grown up, but there’s still a teenage Spider-Man in the person of Miles Morales, the Black Hispanic youth who survived the destruction of the Marvel multiverse at the end of “Secret Wars,” and who now slings webs on Earth-616, occasionally in the company of his older namesake. However, as great a character as Miles is, the contemporary young hero who best embodies everything that made Peter such an iconic character in the ’60s is Kamala Khan, the young Ms. Marvel.
Created by editors Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker, writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona, Kamala is the first Muslim superhero to get her own solo Marvel title. Like Peter Parker before her, Kamala struggles with drama at home and at school, but her family conflicts, as well as her outsider status within her peer group, arise from her ethnicity and her religious background.
The debut issue of her solo title showed her rebelling against her strict parents by hitting a waterfront party at an abandoned warehouse. On her way back home (alone), she encountered the Terrigen Mist, which awakened her dormant Inhuman powers. In the midst of her transformation , Kamala had a vision of her three favorite superheroes, Iron Man, Captain America and Captain Marvel.
The appearance of the three leading Avengers during her transformation may have been a metaphorical passing of the torch, but it was also a prophecy of sorts. In the wake of “Civil War II,” Kamala, frustrated at the grown-up heroes for not cleaning up after their messes — be it the political fallout, or the physical wreckage left behind — walked away from the Avengers and formed her own team of super-powered teenagers.
The Champions include Miles Morales and teenage Nova Sam Alexander (who also quit the Avengers), the Vision’s synthezoid daughter Viv, Amadeus Cho (young genius and Hulk), and the time-displaced Cyclops (the younger version of Scott Summers) The team embraces social media and social justice, seeking to fight those with powers who punch down at the oppressed. In the hopes of inspiring everyday citizens to do great things in their own communities, the group put its name and logo in the public domain.
Their primary nemesis is a group of similarly super-powered youth. The Freelancers operate as mercenaries, contracting their services out to corporations, often with the goal of displacing the poor. Like the original Friendly-Neighbourhood Spider-Man, the Champions take the fight to the local level, but as Marvel’s Tom Brevoort hinted back in February, these young heroes will take on a far greater challenge and experience a “Watergate moment” when Secret Empire hits.
Secret Empire and Beyond
With “Secret Empire” and the full-blown Hydra takeover of the United States in full swing, Marvel’s young heroes have gone from rebelling against the Avengers to taking on a fascist regime. Like generations of youth before them—super-powered and not—the Champions and their fellow legacy heroes will go to war. They will provide the bodies that will be sacrificed as their elders wreak havoc. They will suffer the physical and psychological wounds that come with war.
We already know the extent of one young Champion’s suffering. At the end of “Civil War II,” the Inhuman youth Ulysses showed Marvel’s heroes their future. Everyone saw Miles Morales standing in the shadow of the White House, towering over the corpse of Steve Rogers. The younger Spider-Man must struggle with the realization that his action may cause the death of a father figure in the same way that Peter Parker struggled with the realization that his inaction did in fact result in such a death. Great power still comes with great responsibility, and it’s still a lot for a kid to handle. That much hasn’t changed.
But what comes after the dust of “Secret Empire” has cleared? Marvel has already announced the “Generations” one-shots—teaming up younger heroes with their older namesakes—and “Legacy,” with its return of “classic” heroes and the old numbering system. Where will the youthful Champions and the other teenage heroes fit in?
Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada said that “Legacy” will be a “celebration of everything that makes Marvel the best in fiction” and a “loving look at the heart of Marvel as we embrace our roots and move enthusiastically forward.” But has the House of Ideas ever failed to do this? A never-ending stream of events and new number ones, along with a ballooning portfolio of titles may have taxed readers’ patience, but if anything, the publisher’s young and diverse heroes have been and remain very firmly rooted in Marvel’s past, even as Marvel’s creators are actively planting the seeds of its future.