Comics review: Gillen and McKelvie's Young Avengers 1-9

In Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's universe, everyone is neon-cool and glitter-fantastic.

First, full disclosure: I consider myself friendly with, but not friends with, the writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie, who are the creators of this comic. They might perhaps refer to me, in turn, as "that woman who appears when we are in the pub". I don’t consider myself to be compromised as a reviewer, however, because I enjoy situations where I get to insult their work.

Bearing that in mind, reading this series has been the first time where I’ve been surprised by how good they are. Please don’t tell them I said that.

In order to demonstrate the sheer effervescent energy of Gillen and McKelvie’s Young Avengers Issues 1-9, here are a few things they have in common with Ke$ha tracks:

1) They tell you that it’s a shame that you came here with someone, because tonight we’re going to behave like we’re going to die young;

2) The elated chorus of ‘we were born to break the doors down, fight until the end’ is something that every single McKelvie-drawn clean-lined superhero popstar practically screams;

3) In the very first page of Young Avengers, Kate Bishop wakes up in a hot alien guy’s bed, and feels like P Diddy. She grabs her clothes, runs out the door, and commences participating in a neon space battle;

4) Gillen’s Whedonesque overconfidence transmits an incredibly strong feeling that the characters R Who They R and anyone who doesn’t like it can take a bath in a tub full of glitter;

5) HOT. AND. DANGEROUS.

Young Avengers is a book about some young misfit superheroes who are flung together to clean up a mess one of them created by accident. You’ve got Hawkeye Kate Bishop; Hulkling, ‘shape shifting alien hybrid guy’; Loki, the god of mystery (Gillen just finished writing his Journey Into Mystery comics); Marvel Boy (banished Kree music lover and semi-naked dancer); Miss America, mysterious interdimensional kicker of butt; Wiccan, angsty chaos magic user (my crush); and recent recruit, Prodigy, who knows pretty much everything. The whole feeling of the book is of a morning after someone you know has trashed their parents’ house, and they’ve clawed together a sigh of hungover associates to help them clean it all up. Only all those friends are neon-cool and glitter-fantastic, and recover from hangovers irritatingly quickly. One even wears a cape.

Of course, of primary concern is the fact that all of them are far more into making out with each other and eating Korean barbecue than solving the problem, which this time is that Billy (superhero moniker Wiccan - and he is not even a pagan) has summoned up evil dimension-hopping impostors of each of the Young Avengers’ parents by accident. Much of the book is, characteristic of the creators, preoccupied with the sexy: every issue is populated by semi-naked Avengers dancing, kissing, or otherwise lamenting the fact that they are not naked and kissing. In between there are some fight scenes.

One of Hawkeye’s very first actions in the comic is to take hold of the unfamiliar wheel of an alien spaceship. It moulds into the shape that she wants it, warping itself to fit her hands. She commences to make things happen. This is entirely what this comic is to the creators: it’s a virile little Corvette that has just been waiting there in the parking lot for a stern hand and bit of a twitchy pedal foot.

I’ve read Gillen and McKelvie’s Phonogram, the last project they worked on together, and though I liked it - Singles Club is evocative of a too-close-to-home twenty-something turmoil - there’s still something very restrained about those comics. Now that I go back to them, they seem meticulously planned and executed, as if Gillen’s vision has imprisoned them in a glass case. It seems it took Marvel to put out a call (not a Batsignal, that would be gauche of me) to have this team negotiate their way into making the Young Avengers book they wanted. It is as if Marvel had unleashed some sort dormant power in both writer and artist, where they’d all of a sudden gone: ‘Right, we got what we wanted: we got to work together on a Marvel superhero book about teens,’ and then commenced evil cackling in a manner that all bystanders might have taken a step back. They took the wheel, and started lasering shit up.

The pinnacle of this chemistry is clear in the double page spreads that allow McKelvie to, for all intents and purposes, entirely show off.

Issue four has a double pager that illustrates pretty-boy alien Noh-Varr’s progress through a nightclub full of enemies: from his dramatic entrance smashing through the club’s window, to his changing the record to Candi Stanton’s Young Hearts Run Free, to his final triumphant exit, it’s SMASH, HIT, SMASH, HIT, his boot through enemies across the isometric diagram.

The collaborative epic was hatched by Gillen and spearheaded by McKelvie, iterated throughout the team: around the edges there was room for close ups of Marvel Boy’s clashes. Then Gillen realised there was room for a key on the diagram, where he added more lines: Noh Varr’s exclamations of disgust at his shoes getting mucky, and thoughts hoping that Hawkeye is watching (his newest crush). The whole diagram is a spectacular illustration conveying movement and humour; a microcosm of the run of Young Avengers so far. Exuberant peacocking. A ‘look what we can do’ in two pages of action.

But my emphasis on pop music and kissing in the previous paragraphs might give the impression that this series is “Style > Substance”, just as the comic boldly states in the very first issue. This couldn’t be further from the truth: just as Joss Whedon somehow manages to craft his characters into believable, complex adults with juvenile senses of humour, Gillen weaves pop culture jokes through the angst and concern of his teen idols, addressing sensitively the issues of gay teenage romance, latent queer desire, love triangles, heartache and loss. Kate’s momentary contemplation on whether she should feel shame at a one night stand in the very first page of the series is an important fuck you to conservative social mores: of course she shouldn’t be ashamed of her own desires. Her young heart: it runs free. And the young man she has bedded respects that, and has the cutest ass I’ve ever seen. The only line I winced at was Noh Varr’s quip ‘COME WITH ME IF YOU WANT TO BE AWESOME’.

Miss America and Loki are two prickly characters that up until issue 9 have been bickering like an old married couple, their stories and motives as yet hidden and their discomfort with each other palpable. We’ve got that unravelling to look forward to, if Gillen is generous. But for now, know this: this series is like pouring Pop Rocks into your mouth and sloshing Coca Cola in after it. You’re in for a grinning mouth full of love.

Young Avengers art by Jamie McKelvie.
FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism