The Fifth Color | Playing with children at the Avengers Academy
This week we were treated to the announcement of an all-new title for our upcoming Heroic Age: Avengers Academy. From Mike McKone of Exiles fame and Christos Gage of Avengers: The Initiative fame, one may take a moment and think to yourself that this whole ‘Academy’ idea sounds like a less-ROTC version of the Initiative program. In fact, one could say that giving up four Avengers titles (New, Mighty, Dark and the Initiative) for … four Avengers titles (‘Adjectiveless’, New, Secret and Academy) might seem a little ‘welcome to the old boss, same as the new boss’ by the mighty Marvel marketing machine. On the other hand, this is the Heroic Age; it wouldn’t be the same if all slates weren’t cleared, new #1s heralded and new storylines started afresh, even if they are rather similar to the stories we have right now.
In fact, Avengers: The Initiative eventually grew out of its Event Book origin into something more important than the title on the cover of the book would suggest: essentially, it was a start point for the Marvel Universe. Enough old characters came and went, new characters allowed the reader to have a fresh look at teams and tropes on how heroes and villains worked in the ol’ MU. With the groundwork well laid out for Avengers Academy (well, suspected groundwork considering how much we have to go on with the title right now), this could be the most important book coming out of the new age of heroes.
At first I thought this was a more personal point of view, but if you take the idea kind of broadly, the X-Men were basically the Young Adult section of your Marvel bookstore. Originally billed as “the Strangest Teens of All,” these were the characters in school, discovering new and exciting things about themselves and fighting crime (or general weirdness) under the watchful glowing head of a mentor. As the original X-Men got older and rosters looked more twenty-something than scholarly, Kitty Pryde became the reader’s eyes and point of view on daily mutant life. They brought some more teens back in, they got adventures, when Kitty “graduated,” we had Jubilee for our spunky teen sidekick quota. She got Generation X as the next new teen squad and you can see how the ball gets rolling. Many current readers can remember a love of Jubilee from the ’90s cartoon show which turned into a love of the many comics currently in their collection. And let’s face it: Mutants are way better than sparkly vampires to catch a teen reader’s eye. Unique abilities that hit at one of the most confusing and mixed up times in your life than not only get you access to a special club, but will turn out to be powers once the internal drama of even having them is worked through. Think of Percy Jackson minus the godhood (or in the case of Quentin Quire, keep the godhood) and the demographic this brings in is really important. These are the comic buyers of the future, they want this kind of artistic and drama-fueled entertainment and the X-Men had always been a go-to section to bring it to them.
These days, the X-Men is more like The West Wing, which I don’t think a lot of 13-19 year olds text each other about on the Facebooks. With writers like Grant Morrison who took a broader view with mutation and evolution rather than the traditional “personal” metaphor, New X-Men reaping in a slightly older demographic than the traditional pop crowd. After House of M and Decimation, the wide-eyed wonder and angst brigade of the latest students got a shock in hard, cold, and sometimes gruesome horror as kids were picked off right and left; out of 28 students, ten were killed in various ways, some after being depowered. Color me crazy, but one death is enough to remember for a generation or so (Doug Ramsey, Illyana of the Legacy Virus). Crazy slaughters lose their impact and thin out the demographic as they look somewhere else for their escapist fantasy. The X-Mansion graveyard was so big at one point, the vast rows of tombstones was a deterrent for the Hulk in World War Hulk: X-Men. There wasn’t anything he could do that the once merry mutants hadn’t done to themselves. When Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker moved the X-Men out of Xavier’s Mansion, it was kind of a relief and certainly a fresh start and clean slate for the new era of the book. It also was a sad statement that the kind of stories we grew up on with the X-Men were left back at the tombstones.
This leaves us with a bit of a gap in the market: Marvel Adventures books are aimed at the next age bracket down and something like New Avengers is aimed at current comic fans rather than new ones. It’s too self-referential to be inclusive to new teen readers and is good reason why Wolverine gets his plucky girl sidekicks: she gets to be the one to ask who the villain is and comment on how tacky he looks rather than a quick blurb a narration box or, worse, having the villain have to explain himself. Big names like Wolverine and Spider-Man are important, but we need those teen heroes to look up to them. We need new characters that catch the new readers’ eye and require little to no homework on who they are, putting everyone coming to the book on equal footing. We need an Academy, because Academy translates to School and that means a known structure that’s familiar the high school set. School also means drama, as these will be younger characters with all the loves and losses, bucking the establishment and attitude you can take. Most importantly, the young can grow. Peter Parker keeps having to be reigned in younger and younger as he gets older to keep him relevant to today’s new market as opposed to the old market who saw him through to get older, get married, get kids. The young may think they’re invincible, but fact that they are not creates tension for the reader. If Captain America goes up against HYDRA Agents, we can assume he’s going to win because he is traditionally way stronger than a henchman (even henchmen). Young characters can get tied up and held hostage and fail and pick themselves back up. The young can learn from mistakes and grow, while the older have already made those mistakes to get to the Heroic Age we have now.
Brian Michael Bendis may have a lock on the Avengers New and Old (or at least Adjectiveless), but Christos Gage has the Avengers’ and readers’ futures in mind.