Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

25 May 2012

Young Allies, v. 1

Collects: Young Allies #1-6, Firestar (v. 2) #1, and the Gravity story from Age of Heroes #2 (2010-1)

Released: February 2011 (Marvel)

Format: 192 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785148685

What is this?: A bunch of young heroes loosely collaborate to battle the Bastards of Evil.

The culprits: Writer Sean McKeever and artists David Baldeón and Emma Rios

I was tempted, given my recent glowing review of Nomad, to give Young Allies a 4-of-5 rating and call it a day. After all, it has the same writer (Sean McKeever), the same artist (David Baldeón), and features one of the same characters (the eponymous Nomad). But unfortunately, Young Allies is not the unqualified success that Nomad was.

Young Allies is not quite a team book; as McKeever points out in his afterword, which serves as an epitaph for the series, the book was supposed to be an ensemble piece. A non-team, if you will. It was a way, according to McKeever, to set this book apart from other books. But ensemble books have to work hard to establish their own character, and in a book with Firestar, Nomad, Araña, Gravity, and a new Toro, there aren’t enough strong characters or interesting interactions to give the book a strong identity. Team-up books and books with rotating casts are hard sells these days without a strong brand identity. Even back when comics sold hundreds of thousands of copies per issue, the Defenders (the original non-team) survived on its strong central characters, endearing yet slightly creepy weirdness, and inertia. Young Allies has none of that. Maybe McKeever could have made it work; I would have liked to have seen him try. But none of these characters gave the series the oomph it needed.

Young Allies coverThe name didn’t help. The heroes aren’t officially ever called the “Young Allies,” but McKeever works hard in #5 to get the name to stick: Captain America compares the youngsters to the Young Allies he knew in World War II, and Nomad mentions founding a Young Allies team on her homeworld. And there is a bit of sense to it; the book does have a Toro and a (former) Bucky, just like the original Young Allies. But then you wonder what the rest of the group has to do with a team name that last had an ongoing series in 1946. Araña, who becomes Spider-Girl by the end of the book, is present because she’s friends with Nomad, but Firestar and Gravity … they have nothing to do with the Young Allies concept or even Toro, Nomad, or Spider-Girl. They’re in their own plotline, and it almost feels like they’re in their own book.

That’s the problem with Young Allies, I think. In Nomad, McKeever showed he had a handle on teenagers and high school, and in Gravity, he did a good job with a newbie college hero. But if Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught us anything, it’s that the problems (and metaphors) of high school aren’t the same as the problems (and metaphors) of college. Nomad and Araña, high schoolers both, feel like the central characters of the book. Certainly Nomad is the pivot the Young Allies name is supposed to turn on. But the problems and feel of this book is more collegiate, more Peter Parker in college than Peter Parker in high school. It doesn’t have that structure, that feeling of constriction that high school has. All the kids have freedom, which would play to Gravity and Firestar’s setup rather than the high schoolers’. But Firestar’s too wrapped up in her own problems of identity and recovering from cancer to add much to the ensemble, and Gravity’s sudden infatuation with Firestar (and his deep-seated desire for heroism) keep him from being very interesting.

I had trouble figuring out Gravity’s status quo at the beginning of the book. I’ve read his previous appearances in his own mini, Beyond!, and Fantastic Four: The New Fantastic Four. Still, I couldn’t figure out why he was in Wisconsin again at the beginning of the story (because McKeever, I suppose) or what his relationship status with Lauren, the girlfriend who meant so much to him in Gravity and Beyond!, was. Nor was I clear about when Araña and Nomad became crimefighting partners, although that was less important. The disappointing thing is that there are summaries of Gravity’s, Nomad’s, and Araña’s histories included in the book; unfortunately, they are at the end, where they aren’t obviously useful. If you want readers to know about the characters they’re going to be reading about, background information needs to be up front. The Firestar one-shot does a good job of setting up her status quo, though — so well the character background at the beginning of the issue is almost redundant. Almost. It’s still appreciated, although issue numbers would have been nice in all of the character summaries.

So, to sum up: McKeever has given us a book with an unclear and not quite compelling hook, with characters who aren’t quite strong enough to support a book. What does he do well, then?

The villains — the Bastards of Evil. Even beyond the name, they stand out. Second-generation supervillains with a different sensibility than their parents, the Bastards are easily the highlights of the book, and I wouldn’t mind seeing these characters (or the concept) brought back in some other seires. The bastards are just as prone to grandiose grandstanding as their forebears, but they are Internet savvy and have daddy issues. The Bastards are teens, and McKeever gives them the casual cruelty of teens — stereotypically so, at times. Their attitude toward technology and the world set them far enough apart from the rest of Marvel’s villains to give them a feeling of uniqueness and makes them a good foil for the Young Allies.

I praised David Baldeón’s work in Nomad, and it’s much the same here. The feel is a little different, though; for some reason, his art works better in a high-school book than with the freedom the characters in Young Allies possess. Perhaps it’s because the similarity of his facial types emphasized the conformity of high school in Nomad. Perhaps it’s because his characters have a restrained sexuality, which works well with high school students but not so well with Emma Frost — or college students, really. (My God — I can’t believe I’m complaining about a lack of cheesecake. This is a very sad day for me.) Still, he’s an excellent artist, able to handle conversation and action easily. I wasn’t blown away by his designs for the Bastards, but since he’s working from their parents’ design, I wasn’t expecting to be. I was disappointed that he contributed none of the covers, which were each in a very different style than his interiors. I really didn’t like Emma Rios’s art for the Firestar one-shot, but that might be my prejudice against manga-influenced art. Or it could be the faces — no matter how strong an artist’s storytelling chops are, looking at weird faces on every page eventually wears away the pleasure centers of my brain. It’s a problem with Frank Quitely for me, and Angelica’s widely set, dead eyes are the problem here.

I want to like Young Allies, but after setting aside the Bastards of Evil, I’m left with a feeling of absence, sensing a lack rather than a presence. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Perhaps the book is missing a heart, something that will take its not unpleasing parts and make them into a satisfying whole. Whatever the reason, though, Young Allies falls short.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (2 of 5)

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