Trials & Tribulations of Being a Teen Hero in The MARVEL Universe

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The life of a superhero isn’t easy: life-or-death scenarios every day, consequences that could impact your city, your world or even your universe; and what about dealing with those other heroes? Now imagine handling all of that and being a teenager. Forget about body changes – imagine dealing with those raging hormones and emotions while also trying to figure out your superpowers.

The idea of a teenager becoming a superhero is one innovated by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko back in 1962 when they dreamt up the concept of Spider-Man, and although Peter Parker has grown up, the concept of coming of age in the Marvel Age has become a fixture at the House of Ideas. If you fast-forward to the present day, Marvel has a bumper crop of adolescent heroes in titles like Nova, Young Avengers, Wolverine & The X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, All-New X-Men, Nova, and Avengers Arena.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Avengers Arena has been particularly trying for teen heroes, with 16 teenaged heroes forced into a proverbial crucible where teen hero is pitted against teen hero with real consequences and real deaths – seven to date. Newsarama asked series writer/creator Dennis Hopeless about the teenagers he chose for this Battle Royale-style crossroads, and he described them all as having dark sides.

“For Avengers Arena, I tried to pick characters for the book who struggle with their identities,” Hopeless tells Newsarama. “A lot of these kids are trying really hard to be heroes despite being terrified they’re destined for the dark side. They’re all fighting some kind of demon, trying to avoid an evil destiny.”

These teen heroes were pulled from various superhero schools and some out on their own, and put in a situation where self-preservation comes into conflict with their heroic ideals – tough for anyone, but especially a teenager.

“These characters have spent all of this time fighting their darker urges and now they’re in a place where the reward for heroism is pain and death,” says Hopeless. “In Murder World, cold self-interest is the key to survival. The megalomaniac has the upper hand and villainy is rewarded. Our kids have to decide whether they’d rather die a hero or kill to survive.”

Compared to Avengers Arena, the teen heroes in Marvel’s other books might not seem to have it so bad but each has their own challenges. In the ongoing series Nova, the newly minted hero Sam Alexander has been called by the publisher as their “most inexperienced hero” in their entire line and incoming series writer Gerry Duggan says those challenges are part of the charm.

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“As a writer hoping to entertain people this is a positive,” says Duggan in an interview last month. “I’m one of the folks that holds Batman: Year One above The Dark Knight Returns. Watching a character stumble in the early years can be thrilling. In my first few issues of Nova Sam resolves a relatively small problem, but unwittingly creates a much larger one that escalates into a full blown Marvel Team-Up situation. The best education is failure.”

Education has been a key component in the introduction of budding heroes into the Marvel Universe. One of Marvel’s biggest franchises got its start with a group of New England boarding school cadets and a dodgy old teacher. The X-Men franchise has since grown into a multi-faceted array of titles, but the ongoing education of would-be heroes has passed on from the original Uncanny X-Men title through to New Mutants then Generation X to Academy X and now with two competing schools led by Wolverine and Cyclops.

That idea of superhero schools has prospered in recent years, with the Avengers instituting Avengers Academy, Captain Britain launching Braddock Academy and the Sh’iar launching an Imperial Guard Academy. And don’t think the villains don’t have their own; the Hellfire Club have a longstanding training program for grooming future members with the Massachusetts Academy led by then-villain Emma Frost, and recently evolving into a new iteration dubbed the Hellfire Academy as seen in the current arc of Wolverine & The X-Men.

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In Young Avengers, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie have shown what life is like being a teen in the Marvel Universe, outside the schools but inside the personal lives – like a superhero version of Trainspotting. When you add in elements like being superhuman, mutant or god to the already trying time it is being a teenager, Gillen says it’s dirty.

“It's a big dirty metaphor. Everything is a metaphor,” Gillen tells Newsarama. “You use the superheroic experience as a device to highlight the elements we're interested in. Trainspotting is a great call - this is the team as a social group, and superheroics as a shared social love. Hell, superheroics as clubbing. They go out and save the world, and crash into a breakfast bar at 6 in the morning. That's my Young Avengers. Both the highs and the lows can be illustrated through the metaphor.”

Gillen describes the recent Young Avengers #6 as the superheroic equivalent of “working a crappy temp job” as a teen, saying that in that it’s a case where “you know you're wasting your talents but what other choice do you have?”

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When asked if Young Avengers is a title “for teens,” Gillen bristled at the notion that it’s targeted for one demographic.

“’For’ is a loaded word I don't particularly like. I'd rather say it's a book for anyone who's ever been a teenager and isn't ashamed of that,” says Gillen.

Pulling back to get a broader picture of the stakes of being a teenage super-hero in the Marvel U, Gillen and Hopeless had different perspectives.

“Generally speaking, if you're a character in a heroic-action genre story, it's disaster and heartbreak.... but there's an upside,” Gillen says. “Being a superhero is amazing. Everyone should try it.”

Hopeless’ vision for the path of a teenager who chooses to be a hero is without that light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s a God-awful crucible most of them don’t survive,” Hopeless says, matter-of-factly. “Heroes in the Marvel Universe routinely dress kids up in costume and send them out to fight murderous psychopaths. A lot of times, the kids don’t come back. They go out there and try their best to be Captain America but the fact is, a teenager is ill-equipped for the realities of heroism.”

That idea that teenage heroes may not be fully prepared for the weight that being a superhero carries is something Hopeless plays with extensively in Avengers Arena, and it’s a weight that teenagers trying to be adults carry as superheroes or not.

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“I think there’s a lot of powerlessness to being a teenager,” says Hopeless. “You’re expected to act like an adult even though everyone still treats you like a child. Parents and teachers set your rules and schedules. You’re held hostage by emotions that haven’t matured as fast as the rest of you. Meanwhile it’s time to decide what kind of person you want to be and what you want to do with your life. It’s easy to forget how excruciating all of that stuff was once you’ve grown past it, but it really was hard.”

According to Hopeless, the key to writing a convincing teen character such as in Avengers Arena is putting himself back into his own mindset as a teenager and see how he’d react in these fictional scenarios.

“I’ve obviously never been a superhero in training trapped in a death match, but I’ve been 15,” Hopeless tells Newsarama. “I remember the special brand of self-loathing. I can relate to that panic attack my wife used to call “pre-life crisis.” Those are the feelings I lean into when writing the characters. Hopefully it makes all of the crazy a little more relatable.”

Credit: Marvel Comics

Attempting to relate these fictional experiences with these two writer’s own pursuit, Newsarama posed a unique question to both writers; if they were a teenager in the Marvel Universe with superpowers, what would they do?

Hopeless admits he’d apply to Captain Britain’s school since he created the school as part of his series, but admits he’d be kicked out because he’s “not British enough.”

The British born Gillen has similar aspirations, and sees a bit of himself in one of his Young Avengers characters.

“As a teenager, I suspect I'd have ambled into one of the academies without really thinking about it,” admits Gillen. “I’d throw myself into it completely before realizing it was a terrible mistake, and should go my own way. Which means that of all the Young Avengers cast, I'm Prodigy. Man!”

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