I’ve been thinking a lot about young super heroes lately. Specifically, I’ve found myself surprised by a lot of people’s reaction to Marvel’s new NOVA series – a lot of the reaction I’ve been hearing has been focused on what a ‘cliché’ it is. How it brings nothing new to the table, clings too desperately to tried and true teenage superhero tropes. I really enjoyed the first issue myself, but it got me thinking – how has the ‘young’ superhero evolved? Why isn’t there as much of a demand for them now? And what would the contemporary equivalent be? I didn’t quite find any answers, but feel free to join me on a stumbling, meandering quest across comics history as we look at the adolescent superhero.
Before we look at what I could call the first young superhero, let’s take a look at the guy who’s probably the most iconic, and who kind have kicked the whole thing into high gear; Robin, the boy wonder. It’s interesting to imagine that Robin came into being basically through editorial mandate – children were the primary reading audience of comics in those days, so Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson were told to include a young character who readers could relate to. Not only did that lead to the unforgettable visual of a dark figure of the night paired with a happy-go-lucky acrobat in garish colours, it’s a great reminder of the power the public has in consuming entertainment. For all the rabble-rousing for female-led titles in superhero books today, the sales numbers of these books seem to indicate there’s not much of a demand for them. Anyway, with the creation of Robin came the tradition of the sidekick, and before long, the idea of a superhero ‘legacy’ that defined DC comics for so long. Heroes trained and mentored young disciples in hopes that they’d one day become heroes of their own, or even replace their teachers.
As much as I love all of those things, and as much as I love Robin, I don’t think you could really call him a young superhero, at least not for a few decades. He really was a sidekick, an extension of Batman. Of course, the first young hero proper is also the guy who created the template for them; Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-man. I don’t want to go all mystic on you, but there really is something about those early Spider-man adventures that’s untouchable – some sort of beautiful alchemy happened, and Marvel really did create a superhero the likes of which we’d never seen.
Parker was bitter, jealous, occasionally self-serving and endlessly neurotic. One of my favourite things about Peter Bagge’s THE MEGALOMANIACAL SPIDER-MAN is that it’s barely parody. Peter, especially as drawn and plotted by Ditko, really did look like he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown at all times. That is, when he wasn’t filled with resentment towards women for not seeing how special he was, or hatred towards the bullies who mocked him. Despite all of these glaring flaws, Peter was a likeable character, and has endured as one of the most popular characters in comics.
Even if Ditko’s departure resulted in a loss of that edge, turning Parker’s world into a brilliant dream-world of motorbikes and beautiful women, he’s still remained, at heart, a self-involved narcissist who can’t ever be happy, but still tries his hardest to do the right thing. Part of the problem with Lee/Ditko’s run being so legendary, original and relatable is that it created a template to follow, just as Robin’s introduction as the boy wonder did years earlier. Marvel, DC and even plenty of independent publishers have attempted to replicate that alchemy, to various success.
Which brings us to NOVA. Ignoring the passionate and vocal fanbase against a replacement of Richard Rider, why the tepid reaction? Sam’s story is that of a young teen living in Carefree, Arizona – a young man with an alcoholic, depressive father, who works as a janitor at Sam’s high school and spends his nights telling tall tales of his time as a member of inter-galactic force for justice, the Nova corps. Of course, Sam doesn’t believe any of his ramblings, and is too busy being bullied for having a father working labour and clearly hungover in the halls between class. His only solace is the idea that he might one day get out and live his own life, that and the cute young alternative-style girl who seems to have an interest in him.
What doesn’t work about this formula in NOVA? I’m not sure if it’s just a case of audience sophistication – I do think the comics reading public is getting smarter and smarter, and I think the recent embrace of non-Big Two titles prove that. That being said, superhero comics have been feeding us the same stories for years, so the familiarity of Sam’s origin can’t be the entire reason, or we’d be just as unwilling to read about Scott Summers possessed by an evil force or Thor facing a killer of Gods.
Maybe it’s the attempt to modernize. Maybe Sam’s suicide-girlfriend and alcoholic father reek of the ‘hipness’ of Robin’s college revolts in the ’70s, or Bob Haney’s overuse of the terms ‘square’ and ‘cat’. Of course, it could just be a matter of context – maybe the sting of Loeb’s work on HULK and HUSH and ULTIMATUM are still too fresh in the minds of readers for them to embrace his new work too quickly. Or maybe it’s as simple as the age of people reading comics – Batman having a sidekick that ‘could be you’, that presented your point of view in the story was the exciting draw for a group of young kids in the ’40’s. Peter’s neurotic self-pity and juvenile pranks felt honest and true to a high-school or college reading audience. Maybe NOVA’s story just showed up at the wrong time – maybe Captain America trapped in a strange dimension and learning how to be a father is more relatable to the current age of those reading superhero comics. Who knows? But I know the template created in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN will live on, and be tweaked and replicated…until someone else comes along with something just as fresh and exciting and seemingly otherworldly.