Marvel NOW! Test Case 002: Caleb reads <i>Young Avengers</i> #1

In November I decided to use myself as a case study for the first issue of one of the series debuting as part of Marvel NOW!, the publisher's concentrated, unified effort to sell its comics to a wider audience, which presumably meant luring in lapsed and new readers. That first issue I read was Fantastic Four #1 by Matt Fraction and Mark Bagley; I didn't much care for it.

This week I picked up Young Avengers #1 by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton, giving it the same treatment. (Between the two, I also tried Fraction and Mike and Laura Allred's FF #1 and loved it, but didn't write about it in this manner because ... well, I don't remember why. Here's what I said about the first issue the week it was released, though). Ready?

My background: I read the first dozen 2005-2006 Young Avengers comics by creators Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung, but gradually lost interest in the characters at about the same rate Heinberg did. Over the years I've read various Young Avengers-related comics, most of which Marvel seemed to be producing to fill the demand for Young Avengers comics while waiting for Heinberg to write more: Young Avengers Presents, Civil War: Young Avengers and Runaways, Secret Invasion: Runaways/Young Avengers. But when he finally did return, I didn't.

I didn't read any of his 2010 series Avengers: Children's Crusade, and I don't have any idea what happened. Apparently it was pretty drastic, though, as at least one of the Young Avengers died. Of  the half-dozen characters on the covers of that first volume of Young Avengers, only three appear in the debut issues of this new series. (Interesting side note: So long had passed between the introduction of those characters and Heinberg's return to them that initially Marvel was branding things with the words "Young Avengers" because there was heat associated with the phrase, but the last "Young Avengers" comic just sold as another "Avengers" comic, because by that point "Avengers" was a hotter term).

There are three other characters on the cover of this issue and, presumably, on the team: Miss America Chavez, whom I have never seen or heard of; Marvel Boy, who Brian Michael Bendis has been tinkering with until he became unrecognizable from his 2000 introduction by Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones; and, finally, Loki, the Thor supporting character who is now a little kid for some reason, a thing that happened in comics I did not read (he was a full-grown lady the last time I saw him, I think).

So I'm not a complete stranger to comics with this title, nor to some of the characters in this book. I think it's fair to put me square in the "lapsed readers" category here.

What appealed to me about this one: The presence of the Phonogram creative team of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, mostly -- particularly McKelvie, if I'm being honest. He's a great drawer of comics, and there's something very peculiar about his style; it's not exactly unique, but it is rare. I don't see a lot of folks drawing comics quite like him.

The fact that the cast was about half-new (to me) characters and half-familiar (to me) characters helped.

And the presence of Bryan Lee O'Malley art on (sigh) one of the covers probably pushed me off any metaphorical fence I was on. Sure, he isn't drawing the interiors, and yeah, his style isn' t the least bit reflected inside, but O'Malley art is so rare at this point that it being on the front of the book read a bit like an endorsement to me. You know, This great cartoonist whose work I love thinks enough of this book to draw a cover for it, so maybe I should check it out.

Or maybe O'Malley would love to draw covers for Marvel and DC super-comics and no one ever asks him. I don't know.

New reader-friendliness: This is a little tricky. We join all six characters on the cover in storylines already in progress, or at least picked up where they left off. Each is paired up, so there are actually only three storylines to follow, and, by the issue's end, two of them have intersected. But there's a definite sense these characters have all had lives that have been going on in a lot of other comics one might want to read to get the details.

To Gillen's credit, I didn't get the feeling that I had to read any of those other comics. He introduces the characters, their powers and their deals pretty well, but I don't know that this is a comic I could hand to, like, anyone and be confident they would like it enough to want to read Issue 2. For example, if I didn't know what a Skrull is, or what Teddy and Billy's powers are, whole chunks of this issue would have been pretty confusing.

I imagine anyone who has read many Marvel comics — be they current or lapsed reader s— and anyone who doesn't mind using Wikipedia to look up a thing or two would be fine here, though.

Newness: Unlike Fantastic Four #1 and a lot of the other NOW! relaunches, this book does indeed seem genuinely new for Marvel, not just a new creative team taking on a title or set of characters, or a slight change of direction.

It helps that this isn't replacing Young Avengers #19 or #45 or whatever on the schedule, of course. This is the first issue of a new volume of a series that hasn't been around in a long time. This is a creative team that wasn't just been working on another Marvel ongoing monthly. This is a new grouping of characters. Young Avengers #1 earns its #1 and deserves its place in the NOW! branding effort.

Reader-friendliness: This is was a pretty smooth read, by Marvel standards. There are only five ads (all house ads, naturally) interrupting the story, so there are plenty of sets of consecutive story pages. The pages are all panel-packed (by modern Marvel standards), with pages of eight-panel grids for conversations (drawn from differing angles and with changing expressions and gestures, so the scene is of an actual conversation rather than just expositing talking heads) and, in the book's one big action scene, a two-page, 20-panel spread that breaks a silent action sequence into a series of telling images.

If you haven't read a Big Two superhero comic in a while, this isn't the sort that will make you throw it across the room in frustration or anything.

Ultimate assessment: This is really good, maybe even great comics. It's hard to tell with just a first issue, of course (the cliffhanger did suggest a somewhat tired direction).

McKelvie and Mike Norton's artwork is simply stellar, the former's style finding a perfect balance between realism and representation on one hand, and actual, no-computer-reference-apparently hand-drawing. It's clean and crisp, with no wasted lines, and colorist Matthew Wilson uses effects effectively, working with rather than trying to bury McKelvie and Norton.

McKelvie also draws really hot young bodies. So there's that.

Gillen's dialouge and first-person narration is pretty sharp; there were a few clever bits that made me smile (the "Spider-Man" scene, Loki), and the teen-melodrama section was incredibly melodramatic in a CW kind of way (as a rabid fan of 90210, I mean that as a compliment).

Again, it's hard to judge the plotting, as at this early point, Gillen's assembling his Avengers, but so far so good.

I'm eagerly awaiting the next issue, and, as I set this one down, I thought that with Waid and Samnee's Daredevil, Fraction and Aja's Hawkeye and Fraction and Allred's FF, this makes at least four high-quality super-comics with top-of-the-field artwork. And each at only $3, too!

I doubt Marvel NOW! has been so successful with every one of its readers, but now that I've tried all the titles I wanted to try in their serial form, I've doubled the number of Marvel comics I buy each month. (Granted, it went from two to four, but that's still double!)

Nitpick: The only nitpick I have here is that a two-page title page seems awfully excessive, especially as the left half is mostly black space. This isn't a CD, guys!

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