Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Who Digs Teen Super Heroes?

The short answer to that question is me—it’s the more in-depth version I’m interested in trying to figure out, and will attempt to do so with a little impromptu history lesson wherein the facts will hopefully be at least close to accurate given the minimal research I plan on doing.

As we all know—right?—the first major young character in comics was the original Robin, Dick Grayson, introduced in 1940 to be the boy/teen sidekick to Batman. Bucky, Speedy, Toro, etc. and a horde of other pre-pubescent tagalongs were created throughout the 40’s to accompany the hordes of hit or miss super heroes the industry was churning out at a feverish pace. The idea was that since a lot of kids and teenagers read comics, they’d like to have a character they could imagine themselves as; they could hero worship Batman and Captain America, but they could actually be Robin or Bucky.

Robin and other young boys hanging out with strapping men in spandex of course became a major target of Fredric Wertham in the mid-1950’s, so a lot of them went away over the course of that decade, as did super heroes comics as a genre in large part. This was likely just as well, since the kids who grew up in the 40’s were now hitting the cusp of adulthood and didn’t feel like identifying with a cheeky circus performer in pixie boots or precocious army mascot in a domino mask, preferring the edgier EC Comics-type fare you’d expect twentysomethings to cotton to. The only teen heroes who really thrived to any degree in the 50’s were Superboy because he was just Superman as a kid and Robin because he was mostly an accessory to Batman. The exception to the rule would be the Legion of Super-Heroes, introduced in 1958, but I attribute the fact that they had a unique gimmick—that whole being from the future thing—as offsetting a malaise in young protagonists at the time.

The game changed again in 1962 with Spider-Man, not just another teen character but a full-on leading (young) man with angst and depth his predecessors of 20 years earlier never came close to demonstrating. With Spidey, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko invented not just a hero their younger readers could fantasize about being, but in Peter Parker an alter ego who wasn’t all that far off from how they actually were real life, mixing the tried concept of a wish fulfillment character with an identifiable protagonist. It no doubt helped that the Wertham storm had been weathered and there were actual young readers to appreciate the effort again.

Whether because of Spider-Man, the return of teen fans, just because or a combination of them all, DC brought back their younger heroes in full force, grouping Robin, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Aqualad and Speedy together as the Teen Titans while also giving the Legion their own ongoing series in Adventure Comics. At Marvel, the X-Men were created perhaps in least in part with the idea that if one awkward kid did well, five would do even better, while Rick Jones became a fixture in Incredible Hulk, Avengers and later Captain America and other titles.

While the late 60’s did not bring the return of Frederic Wertham, there was the inevitable aging of another audience and ensuing lack of interest in teen heroes that killed off both Teen Titans and X-Men for a good bit. However, rather than go gently into that good night, the folks responsible for Spider-Man and the Legion came up with the novel solution to simply age their charges ever so slightly, meaning as their fans were going off to college, so was Peter Parker; as the readers were discovering romance, the Legionnaires were hooking up. Rather than lose that young audience who found Iron Man too old but were over the youthful adventures of Supergirl, a middle ground of hip characters in their early-mid 20’s were established, with many tenured leads being subtly slid back towards that demographic as well.

Once you buzz past the early 70’s and get toward the end of that decade on into the 80’s, things get interesting as far as teen and just-past-teen super heroes. The three most commercially successful ongoing series of the period for quite some time were Uncanny X-Men, New Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes.

In the case of the X-Men, a cast certainly not fit to be attending high school shot the book to popularity in the middle of the 70’s—Wolverine has never been a teen hero—but the ultimate entry level character for kids in Kitty Pryde cemented it’s spot as in many ways it became about the one kid being your access point to hanging out with the coolest group of older friends you could imagine.

New Teen Titans showcased a mix of high school and college age characters that all happened to be extremely physically attractive—but in distinct and thus more believable ways thanks to the talent of George Perez—having incredible adventures and also exploring their friendship and sexuality. Legion of Super-Heroes was a similar set-up but in the far-flung and awesome 30th century. Whereas Robin and Bucky had been endearing but fairly goofy wish fulfillment fantasies to kids in the 40’s, the Titans, Legion and X-Men were far sexier versions who were able to hold the attention of their audience regardless of age—young readers wanted to spend time with them, slightly older fans wanted to be them, and those who had been following along since the 60’s saw their glory days. As a result, these books stayed on top for most of the 80’s.

As the 90’s dawned, for whatever reason, the 70’s backlash of disinterest in teen heroes seemed to resurface and the answer of the comics community was to take the previous solution of aging their young characters even further. The X-Men—the presence of Jubilee aside—became comprised more or less entirely of adults, and ones with a hard edge at that. The Teen Titans became the New Titans, ditching the optimism of youth for a seemingly endless wave of tragedy (see Donna Troy’s life). The Legion jumped ahead five years and became grown-ups in a now dystopian future. Even the New Mutants, who remained among Marvel’s younger characters, transitioned into the paramilitary X-Force, with gray-haired Cable at the helm and as the focal point.

In spite of this, there were a lot of great teen books and characters in the 90’s—I should know since it’s when I started reading comics. You had my beloved New Warriors, Tim Drake as Robin and the new Superboy, not to mention a wave of would-be Spider-Man surrogates who went on to various levels of success like Darkhawk and Sleepwalker. Even A-listers like Green Lantern and Flash became part of the youth movement, with Kyle Rayner and Wally West taking the mantles, plus good stuff outside of Marvel like Harbinger at Valiant or Prime at Malibu.

Of course there were also simply so many comics in the early 90’s that the “throw everything at the wall” approach to publishing was guaranteed to yield at least a bit of quality in every category across the board including with teen heroes.

Give or take 10-15 years or so that brings us to today. We’ll leave out the bit where the market collapses and nothing is doing well because it’s not really relevant to any points I’m trying to make or explore.

The comic industry has rebounded from the abyss with vigor over the last decade, experiencing rebirth in publishing as well expansion into other mediums like film and television. There’s a whole component about the indys and how coming of age graphic novels and standalone stuff about growing up has surged of late, but again, not really what I’m talking about here, so we’ll stick to super heroes.

If there’s been any knock on mainstream super hero comics in the 00’s—and there has been more than one, but this is a biggie—it’s that kids don’t read them anymore. If that is the case—and for the sake of the argument we’ll assume it is—then the original reasons why we had Robin in the 40’s, Spider-Man in the 60’s and Kitty Pryde and the Titans in the 80’s has evaporated somewhat in that the median age older reader probably doesn’t want to self-project as a younger character, particularly when the big guns are perpetually situated around the late-20’s/early-30’s age range most fans find themselves at or wish to get back to already.

Indeed, these days the rules that apply to an “adult” book like Avengers or Green Lantern carry over to “teen” books—or to put it more simply: It doesn’t matter how old the hero is, if it’s a good comic, it will succeed. Thus even with a dearth of younger readers, quality stuff like Ultimate Spider-Man or Young Avengers continues to experience success. Geoff Johns’ Teen Titans or Brian K. Vaughan’s didn’t so much do well because they spoke to a younger generation; they did well because they were kid. On the flipside, I don’t think Blue Beetle or Young Allies had trouble because they starred teenagers; they had trouble because it’s a tough market to launch new books in period (which sucks because those were some quality comics).

So coming full circle, what is I like about teen super heroes? It may have started out as an “Ooh, I could be Superboy!” or “Ooh, I want to hang out with the New Warriors!” thing back in the 90’s, but at this point I’m 28 and comics starring the younger set like Avengers Academy or the latest iteration of Teen Titans still tend to grab my interest.

For me, I think it’s that I’m an unabashed fan of the soap opera element of comic books just like I am of television or movies, so I’ll naturally gravitate to stuff starring teens or young adults where that is dialed up to 11 (I love Gossip Girl, but my parents have been on me for months and I still haven’t given The Good Wife a shot). If I’m going to get lost in a world of pathos, angst, romance and heroics, I want my escapism writ large and to the extreme, the way teenagers tend to view life (and the way me and most of my friends do too, since we’re largely in a collective state of arrested development). There’s something about every new crush being the love of your life, every test you face (written or super villainous) being the most devastating ever, and this group of friends being the one you’ll keep forever that appeals greatly to me.

Do I love teen super heroes because I’m a romantic? Because I’m a drama queen? Both? Does it matter? I don’t think it does.

I do hope more kids read comics again someday for lots of reasons—health of the industry, good way to learn to read, etc.—but for sure one is so that teen super heroes get another shot and another generation gets to see how cool they are.

And I’ll still be reading too.


Rickey said...

I desperately want to read some good New Warriors comics. "Good" like "Maximum Carnage good."

Ben Morse said...

You need to read Forever Yesterday. I think it should be in the third New Warriors Classic volume.

Bill said...

Great post, Ben! As curator of titanstower.com, my love of teenage comic characters is obvious.

One interesting point is that Marvel, in its early days, had no idea their characters would last so long. They ended up graduating Peter Parker and the X-Men from high school pretty early on... which is a bit of a shame in retrospect.

And although Kitty was younger, the rest of the X-Men were squarely adults in the 80s. The appeal to teen was also the X-Men's go-to metaphor of alienation, which forever speaks to teenagers. It's really a brilliant metaphor that has kept the uber-popular heroes still seeming like identifiable outcasts to readers.

There's also the "Peter Parker clones" like Firestorm and Nova in the 70s, clearly inspired by the Spidey template.

It's also funny that Peter was the perfect "identifiable" hero because of his younger, teenager geek status. And now, adult readers bemoan the "unmarriage" because they identified more strongly with the married-and-settled Peter. Oh, how the times change.

I do think, also, that good stories just sell. And in the 80s, Legion, Titans and X-Men just had some of the best stories (and amazing artwork) in the business. Because, when you think about it, those characters didn't act much like "real" teenagers.

I do think there's something forever-electric about teen characters. They're instant-underdogs. They're dramatic. There's tons of hormones. And they are discovering all those first pangs of adulthood. It's just great drama, often unencumbered by large doses of cynicism.

That's sort of been the Titans' problem since they've aged. Their "metaphor" was largely about coming of age. So once they reach a certain level of "professionalism", they lose that. They don't have the future trappings of Legion, the outcast metaphor of X-Men or even the rebellious edge of New Warriors. Oh, my poor Titans.

Warren said...

I want the characters in Legion of Superheroes to be dialed back a few years! They only work well as teenagers! The adult Legion is bo-ring.

DrugDingo said...

The Legion hasn't worked, as kids or adults, for like five years.