Love superheroes, comics, and stories where characters of color/LGBTQ* characters are actually well-developed? Here’s a fabulous story for you!
“The Young Protectors” by Alex Woolfson
Trigger warnings for (spoilers) discussion of previous rape/sexual assault and intentional sexual manipulation in the comic itself.
With this comic, you get humor, thoughtful plot development, some awesome fight scenes, and, infrequently, sex (though nothing particularly explicit). The narrative is well-developed and moves at a fast pace, although it doesn’t always provide immediate gratification; sometimes a piece of information will be alluded to and you’ll reeeealllly want to hear more about it, but the dialogue will drive the narrative past that moment. Never fear: if a topic comes up, Woolfson put it there for a reason and the information will eventually reappear more explicitly. The characters themselves are a lovable band of misfit superheroes who all, for one reason or another, couldn’t make the cut for the schmancy A-List superhero internships. So far, these shortcomings have been extremely human ones (vague spoilers: unprocessed trauma from sexual assault, extreme difficulty focusing for long periods at a time, underdeveloped skill set) and ultimately made the characters more emotionally accessible.
As far as representation goes, Woolfson is doing fairly well. He’s made the heroes in The Young Protectors a variety of different races, which is a pleasant change from the predominantly white cast of traditional superhero comics, and developed their origin stories and relationships instead of using them as token racial representations. The characters appear to be exclusively cis-gendered, and so far the narrative includes heterosexual and gay (male) relationships.
Female characters are sadly as underrepresented as they generally are in superhero comics, but the way Woolfson develops the few female characters he has is pretty satisfying. The Commander is the founder of The Young Protectors, the organization’s strategist, and very clearly the intelligence behind their success. She’s attractive and appears regularly in the narrative, but her appearance and sexuality are not portrayed as the focal point of her character. Also, her uniform? You could totally fight crime in that thing and still be comfortable. Woolfson also appropriately acknowledges the fluidity that can exist in feminine sexuality (and I’d argue existence of female pleasure for its own sake) by (spoilers) including a scene where she is candid about personally having sexual fantasies and enjoying the occasional homoerotic fantasy about her male teammates.
On the other hand, the female (spoiler) villain is waaaaaaaaaaaay more sexualized; thigh high boots, lingerie-esque uniform, cleavage for days, etc. And let me tell you, (more spoilers) that lady is one seriously evil and manipulative motherfucker. The association of the comic’s single visually sexualized woman with evilness leaves me going, “ehhhh…..” and uncomfortably recollecting all those WGSS classes I took on the perceived malevolence of feminine sexuality and its suppression, so as to not tempt the good-hearted menfolk who might fall prey to its wiles and be overcome. This association between overt feminine physical sexuality and villainy is exacerbated by the fact that she (honestly I should’ve just whited out this whole paragraph) is blatantly manipulating The Annihilator into doing some stone-cold shit that he’s textually explicit about being uncomfortable doing.
Since her characterization is pretty much set in stone at this point, I would like to see Woolfson introduce a really, really, really, ridiculously good-looking lady to the team of heroes – skimpy uniform, ideal but not actually impossible physique, stunning features. He should proceed to richly develop her character in ways that are unconnected to her appearance and ensure his illustrators draw her in a way that is totally non-gratuitous: just an ordinary superhero who happens to be extremely attractive and enjoys wearing revealing clothes that in no way define her role or value as a character. I’m picturing Hotwire from The Awesomes, actually. Gettin’ some milk at the store. Chillin’ with the squad. Fightin’ bad guys in an efficient and successful way that does not involve throwing weak punches specifically to smoosh her boobs together. Enjoyin’ speaking up for herself and tellin’ hard truths. Buildin’ a healthy and supportive friendship with The Commander. Havin’ many conversations with her that pass The Bechdel Test. You know. Normal girl stuff. As a femme-identified woman, this is something I feel extremely fierce about: while the desexualization of female characters and the portrayal of multiple different types of women is important, it’s also important to recognize that sexualization isn’t an inherently negative thing, and is a facet of many real (kickass) women’s personalities.
The one main flaw to this series is its layout. The narrative is nonlinear in a way that’s vaguely reminiscent of Watchmen, but a lot less effective since it’s unintentional. This is because it is an ongoing comic; Woolfson has had ideas for backstory development (I’m thinking specifically of the (spoilers) ongoing ‘truth or dare’ segment and the placement of Spooky’s origin story) that break up the narrative, and would be a lot more pleasurable to read if they were inserted in a more logical place.
Spoilers Ahead: Lasciate Ogne Sorpresa, Voi Ch’Intrate
One of the things I absolutely loved about this series is the way Woolfson suckers his readers into liking The Annihilator. We have absolutely no reason to trust him and many, many clues that he’s a guy with whom you should keep your guard up; I mean, c’mon, his name is literally The Annihilator, and he enjoys obnoxiously mentioning that he’s an anarchist every few pages.
But then, he introduces himself to the readers (and Kyle) by his ‘personal’ name, Duncan, and you find yourself forgetting about that nasty ol’ Annihilator guy who calmly caused hundreds of deaths for personal gain. The first two chapters establish him as a self-interested but not senselessly vicious character. (I’d argue that the subsequent chapters prove that characterization isn’t a misrepresentation, either.)
Woolfson also writes Duncan as a thoughtful guy who is surprisingly focused on explicit consent and respecting his partner’s comfort levels. I know, not the characteristics I generally ascribe to an amoral criminal, either. Take a look at panel three:
“I’m not sure what you’ve seen on the internet, but sex is not about some special position, or particular act or anything like that.”
He said that shit, and I was like, ‘YES. I love you, Duncan. Despite your unfortunate name, you are my new favorite bro. I’m not even pissed about how cheesy everything else on this page is. You are the coolest.”
Because, let’s be real, the idea that only a specific sex act constitutes ‘real’ sex and everything else is foreplay/’hooking up’ is a very real problem. Queer sex involving two female-bodied people is often considered not to ‘count,’ and there’s this common mentality towards heterosexual sex and queer sex involving two male-bodied people stipulating that unless penetrative sex has occurred, you haven’t had sex with one another. Basically, if you want to have sex and a dick is involved in the encounter, it needs to enter an orifice in the other person’s groin region.
Which is like, “whaaaaaaaaaaat?”
I think we’ve pretty firmly established at this point that gender identity and sexual orientation can be fluid. The way people want to have sex is sometimes related to those aspects of identity in addition to power dynamics (which, hey, are also fluid), so why the hell do we have a hard and fast understanding of what constitutes ‘real’ sex??? It makes literally no sense.
Anyway, Duncan? Clearly establishes himself as a super-cool dude who knows what’s up (once you get through the introduction, that is). He’s also honest, candidly self-aware, and reflects on his past villainous deeds with regret but without diminishing his responsibility for what he’s done by claiming to “be a different person now.” Even after he’s revealed himself to still be pretty amoral, it’s difficult to stay mad at the guy.
Woolfson tackles the issue of ‘coming out’ from a refreshing perspective. There’s no drama, no severed friendships, but he still demonstrates the ways that homophobia still frequently appears in people who consider themselves ‘tolerant’ (“I’m not homophobic, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss homosexuality with children”). We see how one person being open about their sexuality can help others feel safe to do so, as well, which reaffirms the importance of coming-out and personal queer narratives. All in all, a great read!