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.
Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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