The Fifth Color | Marvel’s indie scene
Let me explain: Young Avengers #1 came out this week, and I’d been lucky enough to see some early artwork, read some Phonogram and read some interviews with Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (man, that interviewer is so good!) in preparation for the new take on the series. After all, this is Marvel NOW! so why not get an idea of what the future will bring? While everything is certainly all-new and all-different around the House of Ideas, that doesn’t mean we’ll be in for too much of a shock as long as we follow along.
One look at all of the promotion for this book in the past few months explains the whole thing: This book will not be like anything else in the “Avengers” department. While other titles with the team name might focus on more group-based events and threats, the Young Avengers are still trying to figure out who they are before looking at what they mean together as a unit. The clean lines of the artwork suggest a more modern take on a classic teen-superhero story, the amount of detail and thought put into every fight scene and quiet character interaction — there’s just so much to see within the story and without in more of a meta fashion. Gillen and McKelvie either worked hard on making their points come across in every panel or else they are just so effortlessly cool that it dazzles nerds like me. I am amazed and bewildered by this first issue, and I can’t wait to get my hands on Issue 2.
But like I said, I loved the book so much and got all up in the detail and artistry that I knew I wasn’t being objective. As someone who writes about comics, one of the most important things is to be is objective, to be able to come at any title with a … well, let’s say critical viewpoint. So I took a tour through Tumblr, a well-documented website for extreme views, and looked for what people were saying … “critically.” Some people were angry that Speed wasn’t in the book or that it didn’t look like Jim Cheung’s art style (a reasonable complaint considering how much of the former team was defined by his pencils), but the strangest thing I saw was someone who didn’t like the first issue because it seemed too much like “an indie book” rather than a Marvel title.
Isn’t reaching for a more independent and unique take on the genre something that’s generally praised? Aren’t we all looking for a book that’s unique but not so different that it jars us us from our comfort zones? Is there a difference between “indie book” and “Marvel book,” outside of the publisher?
Seems-like-an-indie-book guy didn’t elaborate on that description, but it seems apt. After all, this is the creative team that brought you Phonogram, obviously not a corporate-owned title. But is there more than just the style of writing and art at stake? You could say it’s harder to be an independent title; we want more from, say, Invincible than we do Spider-Man, although each comes with its own expectations. There’s a level of public consciousness that can support a Big Two title more so than a self-published book. Every page has to connect the reader to new characters and new dramatic story points, so it’s a fight to hold your attention. But when they do, and we have a Walking Dead or a Saga on our hands, we are enriched by the hard work it took to get there. We are challenged to think differently about our comics and learn something about the medium in the process.
Sometimes we celebrate that challenge, sometimes we post a bunch of angry twitter comments for not living up to our previously assumed expectations. Young Avengers seems like an indie book because it’s pretty fearless in challenging what long-time readers might expect from a book with that name on the cover. There’s an element of meta-drama as Billy and Teddy argue about being superheroes “in the phone booth” rather than being who they naturally are: heroes. There’s a varied art style where some pages look completely different than others, almost jarringly so, to covey mood or theme.
Another book with the “indie feel” is X-Men Legacy, a gem in the new mutant order. No other book works so hard to introduce us to its main character, Legion, previously a villainous catalyst for our heroes to work around or against. Considering how little development he’s had, David Haller seems new despite his long-standing history. The book has these wild visuals and layers of reality that we get to peel through, reading about someone fighting the monsters in his mind while handling the threats to his more physical person as well as making decisions about the direction of his life that account for more than the moment on the page. While other books praise the legacy of Charles Xavier, Legion challenges its interpretation, if not outright mocking the mainstream opinion.
Both books carry money-making words in their titles, but both chose to deviate from the normal expectations of their respective genres to try something daring. Let me put this another way: Elvis Costello famously appeared on an episode of Saturday Night Live in 1977. He was told by Colombia Records to play a more popular song, “Less Than Zero,” to increase interest in the American release of his album My Aim is True. A few bars into the song on live television, Costello stopped playing, waved the musicians down and said, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there’s no reason to do this song here.” He then led the band in a performance of “Radio Radio,” a song specifically about corrupt radio companies and their control of what the masses heard and the alternative music that was shunned. The song even name-dropped the Sex Pistols, who were supposed to play that night but had trouble getting visas because of their criminal records.
Yeah, it was a big deal; Elvis Costello was banned from performing on SNL for about 10 years, and live-television once again became this dangerous force to challenge the status quo. Did that make the unexpected performance bad? Did it ruin Saturday Night Live? If Tumblr had existed in 1977, no doubt someone would have thought Costello’s stunt “too indie,” but good music is good music, just like good stories make good comics and in the end, that’s really what comics are all about.