Monday, February 14, 2011

Teen Angst Begins Its Comeback in Comics


If only the Teen Titans were this much fun (mash-up by Cliff Chiang)
 That headline will either make you roll your eyes and loudly sigh, or you are eagerly awaiting to hear about new books treading familiar coming-of-age territory. You can count me in the latter category! I've always enjoyed melodramatic adolescent adventures, whether in early seasons of Buffy or between the pages of Invincible. But as the average age of comic book readers has climbed higher, the need to appeal to teen readers has declined. Beloved characters have grown up as well; Spidey falls somewhere between 20-something and young professional, the X-Men have been teachers longer than they've been students, and the original Teen Titans have opted to drop the Teen. Even the once young Robin has taken on Batman's role in the past year. The newer generation of teen-centric titles are scarce compared to yesteryear, not to mention the fact that they've seen a noticeable drop in quality and focus in recent years. Marvel teen properties like Runaways have been bogged down by universe relevant storylines, while DC's offerings are slim. Sean McKeever, the original scribe for Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, has proven time and again how well suited he is for crafting teen dramas (I'd love to see him take on Runaways), but even his recent work on Young Allies has more heroics than angst taking up space in the stories. The extraordinary circumstances teen super heroes face just make their unrequited crushes and questionable judgement more interesting, but saving the day isn't the only thing that keeps me reading. It's the drama of it all! Never mind my own vicarious desires to read about teens; it's quite a challenge to find titles that can appropriately be recommended to a young teenager.* With all of the complaints about a shrinking market, maybe publishers should try catering to the much ignored tween market, that place between Tiny Titans and Teen Titans. I'd really like something else to give my 14 year old cousin besides the Twilight graphic novelization.

I'm happy to report that a few good teen dramas outside of the capes and tights crowd will easily satisfy one's desire for juvenile tales. One is cemented in the reality of collegiate life in New York while the other presents more supernatural obstacles for its high school characters. Both titles sit precariously between the simplicity of youth and the overbearing complexity of adulthood, while providing readers with the many thrills that come along the way.

New York Five
Writer: Brian Wood
Artist: Ryan Kelly
Publisher: Vertigo

I missed the first volume of this series, New York Four, but after taking a chance on the first issue of this sequel I may have to track it down. Centered on the lives of five female NYU students, New York Five sees the returning characters begin their second semester of freshman year. Brian Wood does a thorough job of bringing new readers up to speed on the intricate details of their lives, whether they are weirdly obsessing over a professor (Lona), losing their job (Merissa), or trying to make amends with their tragically-hip sibling (Riley). It's an immediately engrossing mini-verse, largely because of the creative team's attention to detail. Wood gives each character a soundtrack and bite sized philosophies with their introductions, and artist Ryan Kelly has drawn five girls as uniquely different as the boroughs of the city. It's a testament to Kelly's skill that the characters still demand attention amongst the intricate black and white cityscapes. New York Five is a lot like the Gossip Girl series minus the debauchery and constant suspension of disbelief. But unlike the similarly New York set show, the characters of New York Five are more defined and easily distinguishable from one another. Imagine that, a story in the comic book medium boasting a more obvious third dimension than a television series (note: I'm not actually surprised). If you need more convincing to pick up this title, Vertigo has printed the first several pages of New York Five in the back of many titles; just pick up your January issues for Fables, House of Mystery, or Hellblazer to try it out.

Morning Glories
Writer: Nick Spencer
Artist: Joe Eisma
Publisher: Image / Shadowline
Morning Glories has been recommended to me many times in the past few weeks, so I finally picked up a fourth print of the first issue. The first volume of this series will be released within the next few weeks, and thank goodness cause I'm already hooked. The newest class of arrivals for the elite boarding school, Morning Glory Academy, have been told time and again that they have the potential to achieve greatness. What the administrators have in mind for their student's "better future" is yet to be seen. It doesn't take long to realize that once you enter MGA, there's no leaving until your role has been fulfilled. I actually read this issue from cover to cover twice, and considering how many books I have in my "to be read" pile that's saying a lot. Part of my desire to reread the book was for for the purpose of clarification (a lot happens) and that density left many opportunities for discovery in a second read. Mostly it was just fun to pick up again. Joe Eisma is relatively unknown, and his artwork feels a little ripe at times. The backgrounds can be noticeably bare, and the sinister creature introduced within the first few pages feels a bit Scooby-Doo-ish. His strength is clearly in the characters. The first issue sees Eisma creating a wide range of emotional states, often with hilariously spot on facial expressions (Zoe in particular). It would have been nice to see more diverse style in the characters, especially the women. Outfits range from busty, less busty, to modestly busty, unsurprisingly popular choices for women in comics. Personal taste aside, Eisma's style is appropriate for the material. What would a horror-tinged teen drama be without a little t&a? The book is frequently compared to Lost, but I think that does the book a disservice. Unlike the creators of Lost, I'm hoping Nick Spencer has a better idea of where he is going with the concept rather than arbitrarily introducing paranormal elements without explanation. I don't mind the suspense of waiting for answers, but if I get to the end of this series and it turns out "they're all dead!" I will never read another book compared to Lost again. A more apt comparison may be to say Morning Glories is like Battle Royale with a splash of Breakfast Club. Favorite character so far: Ike. He's like Chuck Bass meets Patrick Bateman.


* (I do realize that there are a number of wonderful all ages books that can be recommended to younger teens, such as Bone, Mouse Guard, The Plain Janes, and the recent Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But as you may notice, many of these are self contained series, no longer ongoing (see also Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane), or not in the mainstream thus harder to find. But this post is about a lack of books with teenage characters. A lack of titles produced specifically for readers age 10-14 is a subject worthy of its own post in the future!)

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