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.
MURRAY CLOSE/GETTY IMAGES
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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era