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Three Characteristics Every Teen Superhero Book Should Have

An analysis on what makes a great teen superhero book; turns out it's not all acne medication and highschool crushes.

For those of you who read my column last week about the qualities that make team superhero books great, the format of this article should be easy to follow. However, for those late to the party, I'll explain: in this series of columns, I'm going to take a deeper look into the qualities make certain genres of comics good.

While these lists aren't meant to be a checklist for writers to follow when exploring a new character, I felt that there were common threads among books that would separate the good from the bad. This week, I've decided to move on to analyze the teen superhero book and the qualities that makes certain examples great.

While I had a hard time finding a bad teen hero book that lasted longer than it should have, there are a number of titles that just seemed to hover around mediocre. However, there were certain things that I found that elevates titles like Invincible, Blue Beetle, Amazing Spider-Man and Static past the realm of "merely okay" into something more. You'll find the list below. Because really, if we can't recognize greatness, what's the point of analyzing comics?

== TEASER ==

Foils

Young Justice

English poet John Donne once wrote "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." This holds true in comics as it does any other medium, as the success of a character is often linked to his (or her) supporting cast. This is especially true in teen superhero books, as interactions with others in a time of social and physical development makes for great storytelling.

Similarly to how team books need various archetypes to make the cogs in the group work together, a teen book needs a rich supporting cast for the protagonist to bounce off of. Whether it's a best friend, a love interest, an arch-nemesis or a role model, a teen hero cannot thrive on his own. Part of what makes teen heroes so interesting is the fact that they're growing all the time, and having them do that by themselves runs the risk of having the lessons learned look a bit too unrealistic.

Much like how teenagers who think they know everything may keep making the same destructive mistakes, a teen hero without a supporting cast may come off as annoying, or have trouble conquering their problems.

Real Issues

While every teen doesn't go through huge helpings of drama, there's a good chance that they will face things that they have no idea how to handle. Besides problems that happen when "on the job," a good teen superhero book should have issues that real teens face.

However, it can be difficult to balance drama with a "regular" superhero plot line: writers must be careful, lest they turn their book into a "very special issue" month after month. Still, books have explored themes like suicide, sexual experimentation and peer pressure successfully before; letting them flood a book is a quick way to make things unrealistic.

Part of the appeal of teen superheroes is the juxtaposition between a "real" life and the life of a costumed crime-fighter; having the protagonist balance both is key to the understanding of the book. This doesn't mean that they have to react in a normal way, however: characters like Cassandra Cain highlight their lack of a "normal" teenage life by the way they react to otherwise mundane situations.

The Passage of Time

While awkwardness is a big part of the teen superhero genre, no one likes a character that is mired in the mud, unable to move forward. Part of what makes teen characters great is that we get to grow with them. We are there for their creation as unstable, reckless youth, and we get to see them evolve into someone a little more capable and confident.

Characters who remain stuck in one place for too long run the danger of becoming stale with the audience: making the same mistake over and over again rarely makes for compelling storytelling.

Instead, we must be given a sense of progress, even if the teenage isn't going to grow up right away. In some cases, we can see the passage of time quite literally, like the evolution of Dick Grayson from Robin to Nightwing to Batman. Other times, the flow is more subtle, like Mark Grayson's transition from high school student to college dropout to intergalactic warrior.

Even still, characters may not grow physically at all, like Jaime Reyes, but the transition from awkward teen to confident hero is evident.

The Wrap-up

Part of what makes teen superheroes great is that it harkens back to a time when everything was still new and waiting to be discovered. Teen heroes are competent enough to handle themselves, but vulnerable enough to be overwhelmed by issues that they have no idea how to face. There's a good potential for drama because they there's a lack of confidence and certainty that only comes with age.

As always, this list isn't meant to be definitive: the bottom line is that a book will be great depending on how a writer interprets these tropes and uses them to his/her advantage. A book hitting all these bases can still be boring if there isn't a good writer backing them up; hopefully creative souls, like the ones behind DC's relaunch of Young Justice, Static, Blue Beetle and the Legion of Super-Heroes, will keep us reliving our high school days for decades to come.

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Matt Demers is a Toronto comics columnist and a staff writer for Comic Vine. You can follow him on Twitter and Tumblr; he likes messages!

28 Comments
Posted by NightFang

Great Article!!!

Posted by noj

Thats an awesome picture of Nightwing!

Posted by GundamHeavyarms

Great article, teenage heroes have always been my favorite.

Posted by Amegashita

   Great and insightful read as always.

Posted by Kairan1979

Great article! I agree that one of the major flaws of the comic books about teenage heroes is the lack of supporting cast.

Posted by CellphoneGirl

Nice :D 
 
These are the reasons why i LOVE Teenage Superheroes.

Posted by Outside_85

Nice...and how i can see my personal favorite (still) teen char stagnating because only two people appeared to be able to write her properly... 

Edited by Adnan

Agreed, especially on on the 'Passage of Time' point. I made a blog post regarding the very same point and the DC relaunch only 30 minutes ago too lol.
 
Static was an interesting choice to list among Amazing Spider-Man and Invincible...fate hasn't been kind to him in recent stories (namely the ones written by Henderson)

Posted by AlKusanagi

Might fall under "real issues," but I think self discovery is a biggie. Learning how to use their powers, learning to function in a team and in a society which may or may not fear them, and just plain learning who they are themselves.

Posted by lastdrag0n89

great article. though I cant help but feel that these guidelines should go the same for almost any hero. Those trait mentioned above are present an almost all great Story lines for a superhero. Ironman; Extremis for example as well as a few others
~Dag0n~

Posted by longbowhunter

As much as I hate real teenagers, teen hero comics are some of my favorite. Invincible, Chuck Dixon's run on Robin, Generation X, Runaways and Kyle and Yost on New X-Men. I LOVE these comics!!!
Edited by Bittle

Loved the article.  Tim Drake and Dick Grayson are some of my favorites b/c it has been so good watching them grow up.  You should have filed under the Runaways as well.

Posted by difficlus

Eh new layout is kinda wierd but...

@NightFang said:
" Great Article!!! "

Posted by JonesDeini

Great article. You're turning in some of your best writing I've seen lately. 

Posted by SpidermanWins
@difficlus said:
Eh new layout is kinda wierd but...
Yeah this'll take some getting used to
Edited by Pizawle

The growth is certainly the highlight. Fantastic dramatic potential.
 
It is very tricky, though. There must be a true respect and understanding of youth to deliver worthy stories on this front.

Posted by mysticflame

Good article teen hero are a favorite and I also felt the Runaways was a good teen team.

Posted by skaarason

invincible is the best !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by leokearon

Shame Marvel ignore the last point when it comes to Jubilee
Posted by Eyz

Ah.... Young Justice, my all-time favorite team book run!

Posted by Grim

YOUNG JUSTICE PROPER FTW!!!!!!
man i miss them....

Posted by DarkChris

Nice article! Nightwing is great in that pic. Anyway, I think the ideal teen superhero books are Ultimate Spider-man (2000- 2005) and current Spider-Girl. 

Posted by Doctor!!!!!

Young Justice is the perfect example... WHEN IS IT COMING BACK ON!!!

Posted by .Mistress Redhead.

Great stuff!

Online
Posted by StarKiller809

I've always tried to get into a teen superhero team book, but they never clicked with me. I just don't get how they could still be teens when they have been around 50 years.
Posted by AirDave817

Another great read!

Posted by RedheadedAtrocitus

All this kinda takes me back to Loeb's run on Supergirl, and how I was of real mixed opinions on the 'angsty Kara' character that came out of the first couple of arcs.  Frankly it made me see it as wholly realistic her attitude yet on the other hand really made me grow hateful of Kara as a superhero with all the distressed 'emo' about her.  That's why the 'real issues' agenda you put forth int his article here I think is probably what makes the ingredient for a teen superhero comic successful.  All such heroes of that formative age are still developing in so many fundamental ways, so it goes without saying that issues that teens face need to be addressed in comic media as well.  I guess we just have to hope that they begin to mature as well lest we begin to grow tired of the character's development.  For a while I thought that was hot Kara was going to turn out, but as it seems she's been a lot better now.  Writers will time will help such characters mature, and that's why the 'passage of time' idea you propose is also an important point.  Well thought out!

Posted by RichyRich

Im still in high school (at least its my last year) and ive always loved the teen books.  
 
Except Ultimate Spider-Man. This may sound totall nit picky, but as muach as I love the ideas of the USM, some things bother me. First would be pete as the DB web master, thats only a minor gripe.  
 
And the villains. Alot of ultimate villains redesined looks are just awful. Green Goblin/Hobgoblin look like small uglier hulks, and Electro as some nude earlees guy (lame starburst mask FTW). Plus some remade backstories like making Scorpion a clone (and he's my fav spidey villain), making Carnage whatever the hell that was, turning Shocker a total joke, along with Kraven, and making Harry the Hobgoblin. 
 
But im off topic. Teen angst, young love, and a strong supporting cast, with real human problems rounds out a great teen book