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The evolving queerness of 'Young Avengers': the Heinberg and Cheung era

Comic Books

The evolving queerness of ‘Young Avengers’: the Heinberg and Cheung era

Or, how two teenage superheroes changed the tide of Marvel history.

The turn of the millennium marked a notable shift for Marvel and its portrayal of “the superhero.” The 1990s had been a turbulent period for the company, ruled by ongoing tensions between editorial and writers, failing sales, and eventual bankruptcy. Marvel responded with the rolling out of various titles that blended more modernized action tales with a greater focus on the personal lives of characters. Kurt Busiek’s and Alex Ross’ Marvels — a limited run centering on the civilian’s experience of Marvel canon — started this trend in 1994. By 2000, the notably darker Marvel Knights series was underway, bringing forward Marvel’s street level heroes.

Writer Brian Michael Bendis had also begun the Ultimate Spider-Man run this year, which told a more grounded version of Peter Parker’s origin story. Over in X-Men, the success of the franchise’s film under Fox had prompted Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run, which took the team out of colorful spandex and into leather and streamlined the title to focus on Xavier’s school.

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With leading franchises such as Spider-Man and X-Men modernized for the 21st century, Marvel was left with the question of what to do with their less popular, campier team– the Avengers. The super squad were never really at the forefront of sales but nonetheless generally coasted steadily in numbers. However, by the early 2000s, it was becoming clear that interest in the team was low. Fresh off the success of Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil, Bendis was put in charge of reshaping the status-quo of the title, which he did so enthusiastically. His 2004 Disassembled storyline followed the mental breakdown of the Scarlet Witch, which led to the deaths of fan favorites Hawkeye and Ant-Man, and the disbandment of the rest of the team in its entirety.

In Come the Millennials…

The evolving queerness of 'Young Avengers': the Heinberg and Cheung era

Courtesy of Marvel.

Beyond the main team, Marvel sought to expand the potential of the Avengers franchise by attracting newer, younger readers that were looking for characters more relatable to their age group. Enter Allan Heinberg and artist Jim Cheung, and their 2005 series, Young Avengers. Whilst a fan of the genre, Heinberg himself had never before been involved with comics, instead gaining prominence in television for his involvement in shows such as The O.C. and Sex in the City. Cheung had previously worked for Marvel in the late ’90s on X-Force and was set to be one of the company’s up-and-coming artists. Heinberg was given few guidelines over what the series should be, presumably under the hope that he would be able to emulate the youthful appeal of The O.C. Well aware of the potential backlash they could garner from die-hard Avengers fans, Heinberg and Cheung made their comic in intrepid defiance. Its opening sentence: “Who the #*&% are the Young Avengers?”.

The first series of Young Avengers leans heavily on the notion of the subversion of legacy. On the surface, the team appears to be inspired by classic Avengers members: Patriot as Captain America; Iron Lad as Iron Man; Asgardian as Thor, and Hulkling as Hulk. However, as the series goes on, each character takes their acquired legacies and warps them into something completely different.

Patriot (Eli Bradley) is not inspired by Cap’ but rather his grandfather, Isiah Bradley — a Black man, deemed the “First Captain America,” who was given the American super soldier serum in its experimental stage. Iron Lad is revealed to be a younger version of super-villain Kang, desperate to prevent his descent into evil. Additional member Kate Bishop shares the confrontational personality and resourcefulness of her legacy character, the deceased Hawkeye. However, her rich, socialite background stands as a clear contrast to Barton’s working-class origins. Stature — aka Cassie Lang, daughter of the dead Ant-Man — involves herself in heroics works, actively contradicting her mother’s wish to protect her from her father’s fate.

Hulkling and Wiccan: Super Boyfriends

The evolving queerness of 'Young Avengers': the Heinberg and Cheung era

Courtesy of Marvel.

The notion of subversion is most prominent, however, in Hulkling (Teddy Altman) and Asgardian (Billy Kaplan), who develop a romantic relationship as the series progresses. Heinberg has previously stated that he initially doubted he would be able to write their relationship with Marvel in the first place, and subsequently pitched Teddy as a woman shapeshifted into a man. However, under the company’s approval, he eventually depicted both characters as gay teenagers. As both characters begin to develop their relationship, and in turn grow more comfortable with their sexuality, the placement of their legacy changes. Near the end of the series, it is revealed that Teddy is the son of Kree legend and Avenger, the original Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell), and Skrull royalty, Princess Anelle. Billy’s shift begins as he recognizes his magical abilities and takes on the new mantle of Wiccan. Like Hulkling, Wiccan discovers his true parentage, learning that he is the son of the Scarlet Witch, along with his lost twin brother, Tommy. Both Hulkling’s and Wiccan’s arc in the book subsequently revolves around the journey of self-discovery and embracing of identity.

Heinberg’s and Cheung’s Young Avengers series stands as unique, especially when looking at the rest of Marvel’s books at the time. Whilst the team were part of the company’s effort to modernize the superhero genre, they did so in a way that contrasted to many of their neighboring Marvel titles. In the mid-noughties’, much of the Marvel universe was caught up in the cynical, nationalist sentiment of post-9/11 America. Where Avengers were being murdered; where the X-Men were recovering from the decimation of the mutant nation Genosha; where entire pages were being dedicated to lines like, “Do you think this A stands for France?”, the Young Avengers instead offered a hopeful narrative of youth taking on the mantle of heroism and shaping it into something more reflective of the experience outside white, heterosexual masculinity.

The Legacy of the Young Avengers

The evolving queerness of 'Young Avengers': the Heinberg and Cheung era

Courtesy of Marvel.

Indeed, none of the prevailing themes in the original Young Avengers are particularly radical, queer or otherwise. Billy and Teddy’s relationship in this run, in fact, proves slightly vanilla. The couple do not kiss until the very end of Heinberg’s and Cheung’s tenure, and there are few bumps in their relationship throughout the series. Nor is there much exploration of Billy’s or Teddy’s experiences as gay teenagers beyond a brief story in Young Avengers: Special. While their arcs are certainly centered on identity, this is principally conveyed through the realization of their origins. The queerness of the Young Avengers in its first book, as sustained by Billy and Teddy, is set under a fairly liberal framework. There is nothing too shocking, at least in theory- heterosexual readers will not be disturbed, please and thank you.

Yet the significance of Heinberg, a gay man himself, making two openly gay, young characters, placing them under the identities of well-known comic icons, and depicting them in a relationship, should not be diminished. With Marvel’s first out gay character, Northstar, written as perpetually angsty and single during this time, and other gay Marvel couples such as Rictor and Shatterstar still confined strictly to subtext, Billy and Teddy were one of the first, canonically gay couples in Marvel history. As queer politics was still recovering from the stigma of the Reagan era, the political climate of 2005 was not necessarily open. Heinberg and Cheung ultimately dared to create an overall optimistic series, featuring a gay couple, at a time where much of Marvel was leaning towards state-centered, gritty and bleak storylines.

Wherever queer representation is today in comics, it is partially off the back of Heinberg and Cheung. Hulkling and Wiccan have become one of, if not the, most prominent queer couples in the Marvel universe. In the pages of Empyre, one of the biggest Marvel events of the year, the couple were officially married, surrounded by a team full of queer characters. In subverting the notion of legacy, the Young Avengers became legends themselves. The queer landscape for comics indubitably changed upon this team’s entrance into the industry.

Style Over Substance

Young Avengers

Courtesy of Marvel.

But how did the Young Avengers develop from a small team with two gay heroes, into one that has more queer members (albeit cis, queer) than heterosexual? The answer can be found in the pages of Young Avengers: Volume 2.  With the queer foundations laid in volume one, the entrance of writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie in 2013 signified a new stylistic era for Marvel’s young superhero crew. New characters were introduced, dimensions were crossed, and more expectations were defied. True to their nature, the Young Avengers were breaking boundaries.

Check back shortly for part two of our queer analysis of the Young Avengers, where we delve into volume two from Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie.

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