It’s the 13th issue of Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie’s run on Young Avengers tomorrow. Aside from a foreboding moment for triskaidekaphobic fans, it’s the start of the end of this season. A season I have miserably failed to live up to the initial commitment of writing about every issue of. For largely boring adult reasons like ‘needing to do the washing,’ ‘never seeming to get a minute to think,’ ‘being very stressed and tired’ and worst of all ‘not really being able to get away with writing at work.’ All of the responsibility and none of the capacity.
If I saw myself as a grown up, from the vantage point of some reality-trashing portal back to youth, I’d be thoroughly appalled. Where did all my conviction go? “No, shut up,” my older self would plead, “it’s incredibly complicated trying to remember to function like a normal human being” while my sullen, accusatory teenage self glared at me with all the anger and disappointment of discovering that ‘normal human being’ becomes the peak of her existential ambition.
This plea for normalcy is a common trait with adult superheroes- from Hawkguy’s scheme to one day have a nap, to the traumatised inward-curling of Peter Parker, to Jessica Jones’ attempt at shedding the spandex. After awhile, whether it’s literally having seven shades of shit smacked out of you by The Rhino or the more mundanely oppressive struggle to just get by day to day, you really lose the enthusiasm for taking a beating from life. And you don’t necessarily want to give it up forever but you’re just really. Fucking. Tired. And you’re not sure what’s actually going to cure the exhaustion anymore.
Sometimes, people make the erroneous assumption that this doesn’t happen to children. Even worse, they make the hilariously misguided claim that it doesn’t happen to young people. Maybe if it didn’t happen to you at that age, it’s possible to believe.
It’s a nonsense romanticisation- young lives, possibility imagined as some kind of soul-bow burst of destiny arcing true and precise, rather than the messy sort of tentacled, unknown form that every horrible choice takes at the time. As though youth makes choices simple, rather than placing the fate of your entire life on a moment of panic as you rack through ideas of answers. As though you don’t have a whole world ahead of you to screw up.
(“Oh, we were wondering when you’d start talking about Young Avengers” – This Isn’t Fucking Livejournal Ed)
Of course, most of us can just flunk our A-Levels and make some poor quality life choices in the Jagermeister dimension. We’re not the fucking demiurge. Or a few-thousand-year-old norse god. Or a disgraced Kree warrior. Or the person destined to unite two perpetually warring races, stopping millenia of bloodshed. Or able to smash through the frail barriers of reality. Or richer than Tony Stark.
All that power, in a body that’s still trying to work out how to walk in trendy shoes and won’t know for another five years that that style of jeans was a horrible idea. Every sweaty-palmed, just-listened-to-All-The-Things-That-I’ve-Done-by-The-Killers-57-times-in-a-row-and-this-shit-won’t-go-away, is-my-tongue-really-meant-to-go-there, shit-what-the-hell-did-I-do-that-for decision, which to a normal person (whether adult or child or teen) can feel like the heartstopping drop rollercoaster that might actually kill you this time. But magnified -no, engorged to nightmarish proportions. Not metaphorically nightmarish, actually the kind of world-bending-in-itself thing you feverishly cry out in your sleep about after drinking ouzo.
Sulking right back at my young self, through fiction’s convenient space/time rip, if she asked me why I’d done what I did with my life, I’d snarl something about at least having grasped the hot metal and made the choices. Young me wouldn’t know about that, yet. Young me was much keener on the idea of consequence-free manipulation, not calling the shots.
Of course, if you were a rotten little maggot of a fiendish, fresh-faced sometimes-villain then you might want to keep hold of that. If you fancied yourself as having outwitted even taxes and death, you might think you’d gotten away with it, too, maybe. If it wasn’t for these meddling kids. It’s worth remembering that the last time our plucky little Norse menace reached the end of a season, the one we’ve got now made sure that the cards tumbled to make the house win. Back when he was running the casino. And this looks like he’s setting up shop again but it’s hard to be croupier and a player.
If I’ve quite finished mixing my gambling metaphors, that’s what’s so great about Loki being in this group, of course. Loki uses the guiles of youth- the pluckiness, the risk, the romanticised excitement of the kind of frightening, uncertain character you find yourself drawn to when you’re not sure what to do. They always have a plan, you see.
When you’re getting past the sort of rudderless life stage where you carve mile-wide obscenities into the city planning of New York or suddenly lose your mutant powers and have to give up being in a youth terrorism wing or conduct secret missions to save reality for personal loss and danger or half your friends died and at least one other turned evil or you seriously took life advice from Clint Barton, the sort of glint-in-the-eye idiot who is clearly incredibly bad for everything but also definitely not the ordinary can be terribly appealing.
All that guile and sass- it seems, if he can continue to negotiate America not disembowelling him, he could get out of this without forcing them to, once again, take the pain. This is the truth at the heart of it, you see- when Loki started pulling together this little band, they were (not universally but at least somewhat) discouraged- they’d taken beatings bigger than anyone could be expected to and were riding solo, laying low, building up their vinyl collections and kissing boys, hiding in their room barely able to breathe for melancholy and equally suffocated by a desk telephone cord. The Young Avengers, at the very start of this series, were being kind of grown up.
It’s not the only sort of grown up, of course -hell, it’s not any kind of good grown up whatsoever but it’s the way a lot of us find ourselves, nervously passing time and waiting for the next cataclysmic event to fall. If it’s something that they can look back on this way, it makes a lot of people wish for their parents- for a time when there was an all-powerful being who could take some of this horrible consequence away. (Cod psychology says maybe your adoptive father being Odin is what leads to certain traits persisting)
And that’s Loki’s seductive power- the brilliance of the deceit that’s so attractive it can draw even him in, that he offers an idea that this could go without casualties. I don’t mean that any of them are going to die (apart from Kate, obviously- we know Pizza Dog eats her in the first panels) but that this is going to hurt. Even if the conclusion is only horrible truths, it would be soul-searingly agonising.
The team have had a taste of something else, though. They knew all about this agony before and there’s no question that some -America and David and of course, Teddy- haven’t entirely relaxed out of it but there was that little bit, in the middle of this arc, when it was all diners and waving your shirt round your head on a podium and fighting Skrulls that didn’t even turn out to have a galactic war brewing behind them. A moment out of normal rules, full of power and with no risk of the Kirby engines running low on teenage dreams.
Candi Staton’s invocation of youthful liberation is a command; young hearts, run free! Which is exactly the kind of stupid daydream shit that adults imagine younger people get up to. In reality of course, young hearts writhe in the unbearable agonies of unguarded emotional seas and hurl themselves at every potential anchor they touch fingers with. Adults invent things like a perfect, unimpeachable teenage relationship, a purity of desire and clarity of heart that no one’s ever really had without narcotic assistance.
Teenagers and young people have terrible expectations placed on them to mean something to us. They must be role models to those coming after and beacons of white-hot excitement for the fusty creatures who have been before. We want teenagers to be perfect embodiments of things- true, real ideas uncorrupted by the daily preoccupations of adulthood. We want them to be brilliant and messed up and glamourous and unselfconscious and we stare at them eagerly all the time, through a media glare, as though they’ll suddenly perform this trick. And we’ll write damning reviews on the cover of Time magazine if they don’t.
‘Youth’ is a really popular fandom. And fandoms are possessive. This issue will signal the start of the end of Young Avengers, maybe, for a little while. It’s come in and out of regular publication since its inception- it seems to suit it, flashing in an out as academic years, complete arcs and then back into one-shots or tie-ins for a little while. So you know they’re still there but perhaps the terrible gaze of the narrative lens is off the characters for a bit.
Thing is, fandom’s glaring, red-rimmed eyeballs never sleep. And fandom is waiting- hands greedily outstretched to have the characters returned to it. We all do it, there’s no point pretending; even when you’ve been forced to wait an enormously long time for something, the first thing you want to do is write an AU or a fix it or a thousand million words of meta about how it, err, means something about something. Uh. (“Great work!” -Self-awareness Ed)
This is a pivotal moment- for the characters, for the fandom. We don’t know what we’ll have to take back, squirrelling away sad corpses or banging out filthy slashfic? And we chitter anxiously around the characters- “no, I won’t LET them do this to [X]. I boycott this!” Because these characters and their lives and their interactions have to be important; that’s how fiction works, certainly fiction fandom and they have to be perfect and meaningful and this doesn’t really have to have a consequence. We can get out of this- we can fiddle with it through the thousand reality-bending magics of fandom, we can twist it and turn it and deny it and omit it and deceive and decry until we’ve put it back into stasis. Until the meaning is pre-determined.
And Loki is a brilliant metaphor for fandom; the mischief, the brilliance, the humour and the resilience, the wilful desire to see everything burn, the glee and the drama. But the other Young Avengers? Well, they’re not grillion-year-old entities whose lives are bound by myths. Not yet, anyway. And if we don’t wrap them up too tight, they might just escape before we eat their future.
Oh- shush. We know that there will be consequences tomorrow. Even Loki’s got some coming. We know that there will be the sort of flashpoint that we recognise from our less zeitgeist-y existences- the moments you remember with a quickening heartbeat and a hard swallow, realising the gravity of the decision you had to take all over again.
These aren’t the awful moments of adulthood, the mired-deep complications of teenagedom, they’re the moments that the electricity flows- the big change-points, the unforced choices and the scared surety of knowing that, although you can barely believe it, you’re going to do something really bold. Brave, even. The heroic times- the alchemical swell of adrenaline and horror and euphoria because some ethereal sixth sense is telling you that this is significant, you have to become what this is, face down how it’s come.
And maybe in our less dimension-hopping lives it’s like ‘oh, I picked that university’ or ‘I grabbed that person as they fell into the road’ or ‘I swallowed my own fear and supported someone when they needed it most’ or whatever our equivalent stepping-up-to-the-plate times are. I don’t know what’s happening in the issue tomorrow, obviously but there’ll probably be broken hearts both sides of the fourth wall, there’ll be smooching, they’ll be asses kicked. It will be horrible and passionate and everyone will cry, staggering blindly onwards towards a hopeful grab at a dancefloor. Metaphor.
The great thing about the Young Avengers is that they might not be a metaphor the way people who adulate youth might want them to be but they are young- the command to liberate, to cause whatever damage they must to see the night through.
Being told to run free is a horrifying command- don’t hold anything to steady you, stand without a safety rope and use your heart as a weapon while you still can. It’s not something they’ve done a lot of, truthfully, this season but being a superhero is amazing and probably really awful and it looks like it hurts a fuck of a lot and they’re going to do it anyway.
(Pictures are, obviously, from Young Avengers- issue 12, by Kieron and Jamie, with colours by Matt Willson yes I have finally learnt how to attribute this right on the last time I’m probably going to do it, well done me indeed)