Young Avengers 2, by Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen (post will contain SPOILERS)
Let’s think about pop and parents for a moment.
Pop from the 50s on may have been about the generation gap, but it was rarely about the generation gap. Parents showed up occasionally as a force of denial, a brick wall, an elemental “no”, but from the start – “Yakety Yak”, say – they’re a figure of fun, too. Gradually they fade from the picture entirely – the dramas and crises, the lusts and dreams of pop are played out in a world emptied of parents. Parents become ever less threatening, more petty, more ludicrous. As the generations turn, they also become the people who failed – and were failed by – pop, fans themselves in some laughable old time, long gone. But now? Aw Mom you’re just jealous it’s the BEAS-TIE-BOYS.
And yet some trace element remains of real struggles, a genuine gap in which the Midwich Cuckoo boomers – hip to pop – faced a parental force whose own shaping experiences (wartime, the depression) were utterly alien. The unbending parental authority of the American 50s and 60s quickly passed into pop culture myth, so much so that it’s impossible for someone like me, born to post-hippie parents, to truly comprehend how real it might have been. But as a myth it lingers, pop’s chthonic enemy from pre-Beatles deep time, remembered in certain phrases or ritual gestures.
It’s this, I think, that the Young Avengers have dredged up and are fighting – not just an alien mom gone bad but a kind of primal demon of the parental, with the power to recreate bad dads, impose rules by whim and turn friendly adults into the squares they secretly are. This creature has revealed the suit beneath the super-suit and no surprise that only mischief can help (maybe).
Something like that, anyway. Actually, one of the things I liked best about this turn of events is the way Jamie McKelvie’s art, with not a noticeable shift, turns from clean-lined sexiness to clean-cut sinisterness, his talent for making kids seem perfect and real turned to making the world seem too perfect and hyperreal without the script needing to yell it out.
DIVERSION: TEENAGE SUPERHERO COMICS, PART 2
In the actual 50s there was basically one teenage superhero to rule them all, and he was not a rebel. The Adventures Of Superman When He Was A Boy! – the subtitle to Superboy says it all. Clark Kent’s future is as firmly set as if he really had been going to follow Jonathan onto the family farm, and in later continuity his honest Kansas upbringing feels as much an alien life support capsule as his rocket. It’s a fictional environment designed to give him the power of corn-fed Super-Virtue, something darkly but lovingly played with by Rick Remender in his recent Uncanny X-Force run, as a Clark Kent origin is downloaded into a cloned supervillain’s head to give him a second chance. Thing is, it works.
I haven’t read enough Superboy to know when (or if) he started getting into Super-Trouble. It certainly wasn’t during the 50s, despite the occasional villainous or pranking attempt to destroy his reputation, or the various ruses he deployed to foil foolish super-crooks. The weirdness and melancholy which creeps into Superman seems more high-spirited (or just loosely plotted) in Superboy, and all is well in Smallville by teatime.
But even Superboy needs escape, needs to get out from under the grown-up world of Smallville and be with his own kind. His dreams of independence are nebulous but very real – they spur the creation of the first real teenage superteam, the Legion Of Superheroes. The Legion aren’t rebels either, but they represent an answer to a pressing question. If ordinary boys and girls fantasise about being Superboy, what does Superboy fantasise about? And the answer turns out to be – membership of a super-powered teen gang in a happy future where everything works out great. The most important thing about the Legion, like any club, is its rules and its most important rule is no grown-ups allowed! They work free of parents and free of adults, united and independent – a powerful, barely articulated proposition which surely accounts for their early popularity.
The gradual erasure of parents in pop is matched by their lack of salience in superhero comics. Few heroes boast parents as regular supporting cast – in many cases, they’ve been bumped off. In others (as in pop) they’re occasional comic relief. In original continuity Spider-Man – ever the outlier – Aunt May is a source of stress and responsibility, not a particularly potent force in her own right. In fact only one core Marvel comic made inter-generational conflict central to its premise and it wasn’t a teen comic at all, it was The Mighty Thor. Perhaps realistic groundings and revocation of privileges would have been too raw for the 60s teen audience – instead they could watch the Mightiest Warrior of Asgard suffering essentially the same punishments at a fantastic reserve. Yakety-yak, Odinson, talk thou not back.
By the time I started reading Marvel comics parents were occasional phantasms, to be brought in as plots demanded it. Occasionally some mutant’s folks would show up and be supportive or denouncing or hand-wringing according to the needs of the metaphor at the time, but there was little sense of these relationships as ongoing. At DC things were slightly different. With its reliance on “legacy” heroes – new Green Lanterns. Kid Flashes, and so on – whole generations of characters dealt with the same absent-father issues, which is one reason the return of the “iconic” Green Lantern or Flash felt unsatisfying. Father turns out to know best after all.
And gradually, as the audience aged, the spotlight shifted to superheroes as parents, to the point where probably the two most popular, rugged characters in comics – Batman and Wolverine – are simultaneously going through character arcs based on the death of a son.
Once the one-off 60s generation gap passes pop settles into a status quo that still persists, where the conflicts are the painful, messy, undramatic negotiations between a receding tranche of culture and an emerging one. Pop’s bad dads now are less like offscreen authorities and more like ordinary parents of the less dysfunctional kind – well-meaning, condescending, ineffectual, full of pointless experience and a melancholy itch to testify (I feel it myself, all the time). Back in 1967, they say…back in 1976… back in 1982…back in 1993…. And so the cycle continues. There’s a pre-echo here of the next big generational conflict – between the people who squandered opportunities and resources and the people having to deal with the results – but most pop culture makers are still on the wrong side of that. Meanwhile confused nostalgists would make for boring enemies. So it’s no wonder that we reach for the repressive, ancient ur-parent instead. And it’s no wonder that in a comic the ur-parent can only be summoned by magical ritual into a universe that’s otherwise outgrown it.