Friday, January 17, 2014

1987 and all that 021: teach them well and let them lead the way

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Young All-Stars #1-7 (DC)
by Roy Thomas, Dann Thomas, Brian Murray, Michael Bair, Vince Argondezzi, Howard Simpson, Howard Bender, Malcolm Jones III, et al.

The circumstances that surround the formation of the 'Young All-Stars' make them somewhat unappealing as the stars of their own series. They don’t really want to work together, don’t share any common goals, and don’t like or respect or trust one another. And technically they’re just a tiny subset of a much larger, more established, more impressive superhero team, the 'All-Star Squadron'. None of that sets them up to be especially compelling protagonists, because petty bickering between superheroes who need adult supervision doesn't stay interesting for long. It takes three issues for the team to even be created, and then it happens kind of suddenly and for the flimsiest of reasons. Afterwards, the kids have a mighty hard time coalescing as a group, never quite all getting on the same page at the same time, which makes the series as a whole feel like it’s struggling to find it's identity, too.

Part of the problem is that the 'All-Star Squadron' is necessarily a major part of this book, even though (or maybe because) 'Young All-Stars' was meant as a replacement to 'All-Star Squadron'. Partly, I’m sure, in order to bring fans over from one book to the other, and partly because the 'Young All-Stars' need lots of coaching, some number of adult All-Stars are featured in every issue of these initial seven from 1987. They’re not just background players, either. At first, they’re just as important to what happens as any of the supposed stars of the book, and even when they slide into more supporting roles, they still act as guides/bosses/leaders to the 'Young All-Stars', telling them where to go and what to do and how to do it. This forces the creators to give the adult All-Stars room to do their thing, which in turn steals valuable story/page space from the series’ main characters. And since several of those characters are new and none of them are very well-known, they need all the room they can get to be properly introduced and developed.

That being said, it’s a decent enough core cast when you take them individually, though not everyone is equally likable, and everybody’s got at least one aspect of his/her character that bothers me. The most annoying is probably Tsunami. I get that she is meant to be a lens through which to view America’s racism during WWII, but it’d be nice if she could ever play any role other than that. She is an endless stream of heartfelt arguments against internment camps for Japanese citizens, and while I agree with her stance 100%, hearing about it for a few pages of every issue with no progress ever being made grows tiresome fast. Her only other job is to reiterate her life story, because she used to be an enemy of the 'All-Star Squadron', so she has to constantly re-explain why she’s a good guy now. She is regularly the most repetitive and least relevant character in the book.

A close second for worst Young All-Star is Neptune Perkins, who isn't actively obnoxious like Tsunami but, instead, is so passive that I sort of wonder why he’s included at all. His abilities are ill-defined and unimpressive in action (basically he’s just a crazy good swimmer) and his personality is as bland as they come. His main function within these issues is to vouch for Tsunami, since he evidently knows her from being somehow involved when she and the All-Stars first clashed. Tsunami convinces Neptune first that she’s had a change of heart, and he then accompanies her everywhere else she goes, defending her vigorously from anyone they encounter who questions her trustworthiness. Why is he so quick to believe her? It’s not made clear, but if I had to guess, I’d say he probably has some innate attraction to her since she’s another superhuman with water-based powers. Also, he seems like a pretty trusting fellow anyway, open-hearted and open-minded across the board. The real reason, though, is that somebody who’s already accepted as a good guy needs to buy Tsunami’s story so that she can be brought into the fold with the rest of the heroes. Neptune was available, young enough to be part of the cast, and because of their aquatic abilities and history with one another, he made sense as Tsunami’s first point of contact. That doesn't leave him with much to do once she’s officially accepted as a hero and made part of a team with him, though.

Going in the other direction, if I had to pick a favorite Young All-Star it would be Dyna-Mite. Technically a member of the main 'All-Star Squadron' when this series begins, his grown-up mentor/partner TNT dies early on, leaving Dyna-Mite as a sidekick without a side. Also, without TNT around, Dyna-Mite believe that his own superpowers have been rendered useless, since in order to activate them he and TNT always had to fist-bump their special rings together. So he mourns the loss of his closest friend and his extraordinary abilities at once, making him the cast member with the most going on, emotionally. He has a real tragedy to deal with, and an identity crisis, too, since he has to decide whether or not to stay in the costumed hero game without any powers. It’s not a new struggle for superhero comics, but it’s played well in this book, with Dyna-Mite’s relative youth and the enormity of his loss combining to make him an engagingly tragic figure. His personal story arc is the closest thing to a hook 'Young All-Stars' really offers, and the moment in issue #6 where he discovers that he can press both rings together himself to turn on his powers is a definite high point. Sadly, it also takes away one of the things that made Dyna-Mite so interesting, but by then he’s established himself as the best-developed member of the team, the fullest, richest, most human character in the series.

Tsunami, Neptune, and Dyna-Mite were all characters who had appeared in comics before 'Young All-Stars' debuted, though they weren't the most popular by any stretch. Joining these three fairly obscure and underused young heroes are three brand new characters created for this book. After 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' changed history so that WWII-era America didn't have a Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman yet, DC apparently thought it would be a good idea to create replacements for the Trinity in that time period in the form of new super-powered teenagers. The closest to the original, at least in terms of power, is Superman’s stand-in Arn “Iron” Munro. He doesn't have flight or any special visions, and there’s a grey streak in his hair, but otherwise he could pretty much be Superboy in normal clothes---incredible strength, great leaps in single bounds, jet-black hair, square jaw, etc. He’s more of a jackass than Clark Kent ever was though, brash and full of himself and weirdly, aggressively secretive about his origins. He’s also a somewhat reluctant member of the team, not naturally drawn to the superhero lifestyle (hence his lack of costume). He agrees to be a Young All-Star mostly because he and Dyna-Mite form a bond with one another quickly, since Iron saves Dyna-Mite’s life during the same incident that kills TNT. When the time comes to form a new team, Dyna-Mite is eager to have Iron be a part of it, so he begrudgingly sticks around, though once in a while he’ll remind everybody how he doesn't really want to be a superhero. It’s grating, but other than that he’s an OK guy, trying to do his best in everything he does.

At first, Fury seemed like she was going to be our point-of-view character. 'Young All-Stars' #1 opens with her having a dream (or, more likely, a premonition) about the entire 'All-Star Squadron' being killed. Through that dream, she also learns that her surrogate uncle and his new wife are secretly Squadron members Johnny Quick and Liberty Belle, and when she asks them about this they decide it’s time to reveal themselves to her and introduce her to the rest of their team. While dream sequences aren't my favorite, even if they foreshadow actual future events, the larger approach of using Fury as a character the reader could connect with and learn through made a lot of sense to me. It felt like a strong start to the series and the character. Unfortunately, all of that initial set-up happens while Fury is still just Helena Kosmatos, an innocent young Greek woman who’s blissfully unaware of the superpowers she has inside. Once some villains attack, Helena suddenly, automatically transforms into Fury, and it signals a change in her personality that makes her simpler, more boring, and less sympathetic. She becomes all rage and might, suddenly short-tempered and overly forceful and oddly competitive. When Iron helps her out in their first fight together, she doesn't thank him for the assist but instead yells at him for interfering. And she never forgives him for it, either, acting cold toward him from that point on. This antagonistic, seemingly irreparable relationship between two of the main characters is actually indicative of this book’s single biggest problem overall: nobody in the cast belongs on this team (or any team).

Let’s quickly break down why these kids shouldn't be trying to work together in the first place: Iron doesn't even want to be there (as I mentioned), and Fury basically agrees that he shouldn't, because she wants all the action for herself. Dyna-Mite desperately wants Iron there, and wants everyone to get along, but is too busy with mourning and self-pity to do anything about anything, least of all fixing the rampant dysfunction between his new allies. Tsunami is only interested in one very personal problem that has nothing to do with what the team is ostensibly all about, and she even goes so far as to temporarily quit because of it. And, of course, Neptune’s just a non-entity doing nothing. In the entire cast, there’s only one fully invested team player who actually has powers that are good enough to make a real contribution. His name, unfortunately enough, is Flying Fox.

As a replacement for Batman, Flying Fox isn't great, but that doesn't bother me in the least. You’re never going to successfully recreate the awesomeness of Batman, and trying to do so would no doubt have resulted in something dreadfully disappointing (see any number of attempts at this from the past). Instead, Flying Fox is something new, and while the concept isn't mind-blowing (and, at times, borders on being offensive) it is at least interesting, and so is Flying Fox as a person. As part of a Native American tribe living in isolation from the rest of society up in Canada, Flying Fox was gifted with a magical cloak and cowl, and trained in the ancient magics of his people before being sent to the US to act as an agent of good. Sometimes, his discussions of life with his tribe are a little stereotypical, but he doesn't talk about it that often, because a) he’s a man of few words anyway, and b) the point of his history isn't to connect him to Native American culture as much as it’s designed to make him unfamiliar with modern (for the era) US culture. He approaches everything as a learning opportunity, and is very thoughtful and analytic in every situation, be it intense combat or casual socializing or anything in between. Also, since everything he does is magic, his powers are vast and never fully explained, meaning he can believably pull out a handy new trick anytime the story calls for it. That makes him the smartest and most effective Young All-Star by a mile, because everyone else is more limited in what they can do and they tend to act more rashly. Flying Fox is always calm, aware, and content, while his teammates struggle constantly with self-doubt, mood swings, depression, etc. He’s a beacon of professionalism in a sea of teenage stupidity, recklessness, and instability. And while that makes him a great asset for the team, it doesn't help him fit in with the rest of the cast at all, so even Flying Fox ultimately feels like he doesn't belong.

So that’s the gang that, with incessant hand-holding from their grown-up predecessors, is cobbled together to become the 'Young All-Stars'. Six random teens who happen to show up in the same place at the same time to fight a specific threat, and are then made into a superhero team by another superhero team kind of just because they’re there. That threat, by the way, is Axis Amerika, an actually pretty cool new group of Nazi supervillains who target the 'All-Star Squadron' specifically. They are prepared for anything and everything that the adult All-Stars throw at them, having studied their powers before engaging with them. But when a few of the 'Young All-Stars' arrive to lend a hand, it throws Axis Amerika off their game and forces them to retreat. As thanks for helping them fight off the high-powered surprise attack, the 'All-Star Squadron' decides to make the new youngsters into probationary, second-tier members of their organization, and thus the 'Young All-Stars' are born, destined for a life of squabbling and getting nowhere and doing very little for anyone, including themselves.

As I said before, not the strongest logic behind assembling this team. Just because they were somewhat helpful when battling alongside most of the sizable lineup of the 'All-Star Squadron' doesn't in any way mean that they’ll be a capable unit on their own. That’s flawed thinking from the grown-up superheroes at best and aggravating laziness from the writers at worst. It’s a paper-thin excuse to make these kids a team, because the book demands that they be one, because it’s called 'Young All-Stars'. It exists as a comic, so they have to exist as a group. Simple as that, now stop complaining, right? But, come on…six irritating, inexperienced youths who can’t get along with one another for even a second join forces for no obvious reason and without any clear goals or causes to pursue. Does that really sound like something you want to read? Me either.

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