“Read the book that understands that hyperbole is the BEST! THING! EVER!”
One of the great joys of the comics industry for me is following a writer and artist partnership from success to success. I borrowed Gillen and McKelvie’s Phonogram: Rue Britannia from my local library – which was my one-stop-shop for graphic novels and manga when I was teenager (because I was just that cool.) Mixing Britpop, mysticism, and a distinctively British dark sense of humour, Phonogram’s black and white world left such a lasting impression on me; I instantly bought Marvel’s Young Avengers: Style > Substance without a second thought upon seeing their familiar names on the cover.
I had already been following the YA through creators’ Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung’s run, and as a huge Teen Titans fan, I think it was pretty easy for me to also fall in love with Marvel’s teen equivalent. But if it was Heinberg and Cheung who got me to bite, it was Gillen and McKelvie’s subsequent run that got me hooked and reminded me just how good they were together.
I’ve always thought that the hardest thing about writing as a teenage character is that you’re never really the right age to do it. Children can’t do it because they’ve obviously never experienced it, teenagers themselves can’t do it because they’re too close to it to have any proper perspective, and adults can’t do it because they can’t remember it properly. It’s a hard job… but not impossible. Gillen not only cracks it in YA, but he makes it look easy, and beyond even that – he makes it look convincing.
“I have no powers and not nearly enough training. But I’m doing this anyway. Being a Super Hero is amazing. Everyone should try it.”
The underpinning of Gillen’s writing on YA amplifies relatable and believable problems and heartaches of everyday teenagers through their larger-than-life super-powers within the chaotic and bizarre Marvel universe around them. This makes it sound deceptively serious, and although there is a fair share of angst and arguing, the thing that makes the book the most appealing is that it’s fun. It’s just really good fun. And the characters are really funny, too. Kid Loki in particular – I mean, how can an amoral Norse God trapped within the body of a teenage boy not be hysterical.
One of the other things that drew me to YA initially was its inclusion of a more diverse character roster. In terms of race, gender, and sexuality, I have to applaud YA for not just using the ‘outsider’ theme as a metaphor, but also actually embodying it with characters such as Patriot, Miss America, Hulkling, and Wiccan. Moreover, I have to applaud Gillen for making Hulkling and Wiccan’s relationship – in particular – more than just ticking an equality and diversity quota box, but fleshing it out into one of the most fully realised and emotionally charged in the Marvel universe that I’ve come across, and one of my favourites.
In terms of the artwork, I’ve been trying to work out why McKelvie’s style resonates with me so much as it’s not the kind of artwork I normally favour. My all-time favourite comic book artists are people like Dave McKean and Alex Ross – artists who are far more painterly and…’fine arty,’ for lack of a better word. However, as a Tintin fan since childhood, I think McKelvie’s clear-line style owes a huge debt to Hérge and makes me all nostalgic and tingly when I see it. It’s also a deceptively hard style to pull off. If you’re someone like Frank Miller with an unrealistic – almost abstract – way of drawing, you can kind of get away with not being a master of anatomy. If you’re a clear-line artist like McKelvie, there’s nothing to hide behind, and of course, he doesn’t need to. His neat and slick approach perfectly meets and compliments Gillen’s similar stylistic execution of the story and dialogue.
What I love the most about McKelvie’s artwork for YA in particular though is his layouts. I don’t hear people talking a lot about layouts when they talk about comic artists, but as an artist who is still learning her craft, I really appreciate seeing creative and unique layouts in a book. A layout can be more than just telling the story in a series of pictures – it can be a whole, cohesive idea. Going beyond just square boxes on a comic page takes guts, skill, and most importantly: passion. Someone who is passionate about what they do will always go that extra mile to show that passion off, and seeing a really wacky and fun layout when you turn the page is the earmark of an artist who loves what they do and is also having fun doing it, which makes you as a reader have fun looking at it.
I’ve read YA: Style > Substance twice to date, and there are very few books that I revisit besides well-worn copies of my childhood favourites, so for re-readability alone I recommend it, as well as the other collections – Alternative Cultures and Mic Drop at the Edge of Space and Time. And if you read and like those then please track down Phonogram, too. It needs more love.
FYI: For die-hard fans, my favourite YA variant issue cover to track down is the one by Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O’Malley (pictured right).
Written by Hannah Collins.