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The evolving queerness of ‘Young Avengers’: Gillen, McKelvie, and the lives of queer youth

Comic Books

The evolving queerness of ‘Young Avengers’: Gillen, McKelvie, and the lives of queer youth

Or, how the series turned inwards for new ideas and understandings.

In the first installment of this ongoing series, we explored how the introduction of the team marked a break from the somewhat cynical, semi-nationalist narrative that ran through most of Marvel’s titles at the time. The creative team of Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung subverted convention by positioning young people as a means of symbolic transformation — the Young Avengers explored the traditional, hopeful status of the “superhero” and used it to unveil an alternative perspective of what heroism could be. The Young Avengers de-centred the role of the state in the genre and placed the experience of the youth at its forefront. Consequently, the title explored pertinent topics like race, class and, perhaps most importantly for this series, queer identity.

The original run of the Young Avengers was indeed transformative in its nature. However, its status as a temporary stand-in for its namesake meant it was somewhat confined to be a recognizable Avengers book. This was not a bad thing : the diverted parallels to the main team are what made the Young Avengers so subversive in the first place. Yet in laying the groundwork for the basic premise of the team, Heinberg and Cheung allowed their successors more creative opportunities. If the first volume of Young Avengers was about how young people could be identified as heroes, the second volume was more interested in the personal lives of young people — what happens when the youth are not necessarily trying to prove something to the older generation.

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Young Avengers

Courtesy of Marvel.

Let’s Talk About Pop Music

The second run of the Young Avengers began in 2013, with the dynamic duo of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie as writer/artist, Mike Norton as supporting artist, and Matthew Wilson on colors. Gillen had previously worked with Marvel on titles such as X-Men. However, he had also written for Image comics with McKelvie on Phonogram — a series that infused British nightlife with a touch of magic. Gillen and McKelvie’s take on the Young Avengers is, in many ways, more like Phonogram than Gillen’s X-Men — the series is filled to the brim with pop culture references, music, parties, and very personalized narratives. Its focus is on the internal dynamics of the team, rather than their integration into the world of superheroes. This is punctuated by the series’ main antagonist: an inter-dimensional parasite called Mother, who is able to make adults fight for her cause, or downright ignore it instead. What ensues is a fast-paced romp through various universes, away from the eyes of society. Unlike in the previous run, the Young Avengers have nothing to prove in this series because they — quite simply — can’t.

The evolving queerness of ‘Young Avengers’: Gillen, McKelvie, and the lives of queer youth

Courtesy of Marvel.

The turning away of the “adult” eye gave Gillen and McKelvie an opportunity to look more intimately into the lives of teenagers and twentysomethings. Specifically, it allowed for a more honest inspection of sexuality and queerness. The relationship between the team’s core couple, Wiccan and Hulking, is given far more attention in the second run. The romance between the two heroes had been somewhat tiptoed around in the past, and while it was acknowledged and, at times, utilized as part of the plot, it was never explored as a fully-formed relationship. Eight years on from its first release, however, and the Young Avengers benefited from less editorial scrutiny and a cultural environment that was slightly more open to queer stories. With creators and characters alike having a greater sense of freedom this time around, readers got a less filtered glimpse into Wiccan’s and Hulking’s lives as boyfriends. This included their highs and lows, their break-ups and make-ups.

I Think We’re Alone Now

In many ways, Gillen and McKelvie’s use of popular culture was the perfect vehicle for bringing forward queer visibility in Young Avengers. References to social media platforms, such as Tumblr and Instagram, alluded to the hidden world of the youth, where young people could be more themselves. Through the series, the team posts updates for their social circle, made up of other young superhero groups like the New Mutants and Runaways. What the second volume of Young Avengers does well is unveil a community otherwise hidden to Marvel readers — a counter-culture of herodom defined by the rebellious principals of youth.

The evolving queerness of ‘Young Avengers’: Gillen, McKelvie, and the lives of queer youth

Courtesy of Marvel.

When shining a light on a new generation of heroes, the creative team simultaneously integrates a handful of queer characters into the team’s roster. What is impressive about the run is how it incorporates multiple narratives of the queer experience into its pages. New member America Chavez’s identity as a lesbian is stated outright by issue #12, however, various lines in previous issues mean her queerness is obvious from the get-go. Similarly, the queer sexualities of Noh-Varr and Loki are addressed in panels, without becoming a major part of the story.

In comparison, much of Prodigy’s arc in the series is about coming to terms with his bisexuality. David’s journey eventually collides with Wiccan’s and Hulking’s relationship, working to create a plot point that contrasts different stages of acceptance in internal queer identity. The accumulation of various pieces of queer discourse is surmised at the end of the run, when Kate Bishop turns around and asks:  “Am I the only person on the team who’s straight?”, to which America replies, “I’ve seen the way you look at me. You’re not that straight.”

 

The evolving queerness of ‘Young Avengers’: Gillen, McKelvie, and the lives of queer youth

Courtesy of Marvel.

Got to Be Real

The Gillen/McKelvie run of Young Avengers works both as an installment in the team’s history as well as a meta-narrative on the state of queerness in comics at the time it was written. It is the natural follow-up to the first volume of the series, which had to regulate its queerness against the heterosexual eye. Upon the re-emergence of the title in 2013, the creative team flipped the perspective to ask how queerness was lived outside of a heterosexual lens, specifically for young people. The subsequent issues tell an adventure that follows the team as they literally flee reality. The series looks at queerness from multiple perspectives and angles. Not only did it portray various sexualities, but did so in characters that were not just white gay men — an identity that continues to over-represent queerness in popular culture.

Young Avengers’ second volume presents queerness as something that exists through communities — through romance, friendship, and solidarity. When the action reaches its resolve in the series, Loki comments, “Is love really going to save us all?” — to which the answer is yes, it is. Where the first series subverted comics culture by looking outwards, this run did so by looking inwards.

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