Saturday, July 10, 2010

Comics: The Children's Crusade!

Comics this week held lots and lots of interest, but surely the most interesting – and best-executed – item on the list was the first issue of the new Avengers mini-series “Children’s Crusade,” written with extremely appealing understatement by Allan Heinberg and penciled with his usual eye-catching mastery by Jim Cheung.

The plot revolves around two members of the so-called Young Avengers, Billy Kaplan, code-named Wiccan, a young mutant magic-caster, and Tommy Shepherd, code-named Speed, a young mutant super-speedster. Something in the confluence of those descriptions will strike old-time comics readers as familiar, and that’s the plan: Marvel readers have seen the sibling-mutant-one-does-magic-the-other-runs-really-fast combination before, in long-time (grown-up) Avengers Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch (we won’t belabor the obvious fact that Stan Lee could think up ten code-names in his sleep that were better than ‘Wiccan’ or ‘Speed’ … yeesh …).

The aforementioned plan hauls in so much back-story that it literally can’t be effectively summarized here (suffice it to say a) the similarity in powers leads young Billy to think he and Tommy must share some kind of connection with the Scarlet Witch, b) the Scarlet Witch’s powers recently drove her homicidally crazy, and c) both Billy and the grown-up Avengers are very curious to know if there is a connection and what dangers it may pose for everybody) – this is most certainly a mini-series for long-time in-depth Avengers fans to savor and discuss, but it will almost completely baffle every other person on Earth (this is the signature flaw of the Young Avengers in general – the whole thing is very much an ‘insider’ series and always has been).

But that’s OK. Fans need their bon-bons too, right? And for those fans (among which I count myself, since a) I’ve been reading  Avengers forever, even during its most wretched eras, and b) the plot could bring about some major changes in some very big, very good story-lines), this series looks to be the treat of the summer. Not only are Cheung’s pencils full of his trademark detail and gentle, almost implied feel of motion (he always uses a more low-key tempo when drawing these characters, who clearly fascinate him), but Heinberg’s dialogue wonderfully straddles the line between sounding authentic and crackling with drama.

From first to last, this is a quintessential ‘Marvel’ production: there’s an opening ‘splash’ page, lots of character-driven conflict, some smile-inducing humor, and a hum-dinger of a final cliffhanger page. But the interest-factor here is amped just a bit by one thing Stan Lee and Don Heck never got around to showing us in the original Avengers: the gays!

Because in addition to being a magic-wielding mutant with mommy issues, Billy is also gay (perhaps there’s something causal? After all, many of the young gay boys I know are also magic-wielding mutants with mommy issues …). And the book doesn’t just archly hint at it – Heinberg confronts it directly, mainly because Billy’s boyfriend Teddy (no Bill and Ted jokes, please) is also super-powered and also a member of Young Avengers. At one point in this first issue, he gets all protective of Billy with Captain America, no less (Cap turns out to be wonderfully tolerant, of course, which is odd for somebody who grew up in 1930s Brooklyn, but he’s the artistic type, so …). In the first few issues of their own comic, the relationship between Billy and Teddy was pretty clearly implied but virtually never given the kind of direct exposition it’s given here, and if that’s a sign of the times, it’s mighty refreshing.

There are two roads open to this mini-series: it can either fiddle around on the margins of one of Marvel’s biggest story-arcs of the last twenty years (the reality-altering Scarlet Witch despairingly uttering those three words: “No more mutants”), or it can confront that story-arc directly and perhaps fundamentally change Marvel’s current continuity. I’m guessing it’ll do the former, but there’s always hope for the latter. Either way, I’ll be watching.


Steven R. Stahl said...

Shouldn't a mystery have a solution? The mystery Heinberg's posed in CHILDREN'S CRUSADE #1 -- How can Billy and Tommy be the Scarlet Witch's sons? -- doesn't have one, because it's impossible for them to be both the biological children of other people and Wanda's sons. No amount of manipulation of souls and reality alteration can provide an answer without forcing the conclusion that if Wanda could do all that, then she could conceive the twins as originally written in Englehart's VISION & SCARLET WITCH maxiseries. And with that conclusion, the foundations for Byrne's, Bendis's, and Heinberg's storylines all disappear.

The larger problem with CC #1 is the lack of a plot generally, but the responses to the issue that I've seen indicate how focusing on the content of the pages blinds a person to the absence of story logic and a working premise.


steve donoghue said...

What I like is that the characters themselves understand everything you're pointing out, Steven - Billy knows how crazy the sounds to other people (as he seemed clearly to know when he first proposed the idea, to Captain America, in Young Avengers 12 way back in 2006 - a weird time-lag, but Marvel's had bigger plot-arcs to deal with), but he can't explain the coincidence of his powers and Tommy's powers any other way.

But I disagree that even in Marvel-logic, the conclusion you come to is forced! Wanda's reality-altering powers have fluctuated in strength and range drastically in the last five years of stories; any writer worth his salt (and Heinberg seems pretty good) will see the potential two-step solution right away: Wanda's powers made the children real, then once she was convinced they COULDN'T be real, Wanda's powers made them the biological children of other parents - but didn't alter their mutant genes along the way. Hence, their powers develope, they become suspicious, and they go in search of Wanda, who may or may not be able to alter reality back to any of its previous states. Works for me. Works a hell of a lot better than a lot of Marvel plots do (see the return of Kraven the Hunter over in Spider-Man, for instance).

My main interest isn't that - it's the larger ramifications for the X-books. If Wanda is found in her Wundagore Mountains anonymity and somehow brought to her right mind, will we see the return of a booming mutant population in the Marvel Universe? Will she stand trial for attempted genocide? A lot of ripples have spread out from that "House of M" mini-series...