Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Entry 62: The Young Protectors

I usually don’t like romance as a genre very much. Sure, I can enjoy romance, if it’s handled well, but the usual will they/won’t they or who will he/she choose?-type plots tend to bore me to pieces. For me to embrace any kind of romance story there’s got to be something else going on, either a depth of storytelling that I can get into, or some non-romance elements that can provide balance and make the story fun. A little bit of both those qualities are what drew me into The Young Protectors.

Technically this comic has a subtitle and is properly known as The Young Protectors: Engaging the Enemy, but that’s a bit long and cumbersome. As of this writing there aren’t any other comics under The Young Protectors title that I need to distinguish from the one I’m writing about, so rather than insisting on writing the full title every time, I’m just going to go with the title that I use in my head, so The Young Protectors it is. (Even though Engaging the Enemy might possibly be more accurate, if I take the time to sort through a bunch of pedantic rules that I don’t actually care about.)

At the risk of sounding monotonous by repeatedly bringing things back to Strong Female Protagonist, I’m going to draw a parallel between that comic and The Young Protectors. Both comics take place in a world that had comic book superheroes before there were real ones, and I would say that both comics try to provide a “realistic” depiction of what a world full of superpowered individuals might look like. However, while Strong Female Protagonist deals with the sociopolitical ramifications of superpowers, The Young Protectors gets more personal, getting into superpowers’ emotional and interpersonal ramifications.

In order to talk about The Young Protectors I’m going to have away some parts of the story. As usual I’ll do my best to avoid describing specific plot points, but if you want to go into the comic with as few preconceived notions as possible, it might be a good idea to just go read it right now. The archive’s not too cumbersome, and this pos will still be here waiting for you when you get back. If you need a little more convincing, then proceed here at your own risk.

Our main character is Kyle, a young gay superhero who has multiple reasons to feel ashamed of and hide his sexuality. The comic introduces him as he begins a relationship with Duncan, a charming older supervillain known as the Annihilator. Here’s where I get into the realm of spoilers, though if you’re an insightful reader I’m not telling you anything you wouldn’t suspect from the get-go: When a suave villain seeks out a naive, inexperienced and emotionally vulnerable hero, it’s foolish not to think that the villain has some sort of ulterior motive.

It’s clear that Duncan is manipulating Kyle throughout their time together, though his purpose is kept obscure for quite a while. Thus, the reader is placed in a similar position to Kyle, unsure to what extent Duncan can be taken at his word, how far he’s stretching the truth, and whether he cares about Kyle at all or is merely putting on a convincing act.

Though the comic focuses on Kyle, Duncan is the more interesting character. As is true in many superhero stories, the villain is the one who drives the plot, the one who receives the most complex development and who has the greatest potential for change and personal growth. Wondering just what is going on in Duncan’s head is probably my favorite part of reading The Young Protectors, and I feel that some of the comic’s best moments are those when it’s clear Duncan is trying to figure himself out just as much as we are.

The Young Protectors inhabits a realm of moral ambiguity. Villainous actions may have noble motivations, but they’re mixed with selfish ones. No one is pure; most of the characters, whether heroes or villains, are in some ways altruistic and in some ways self-serving. Which side a character falls on seems to depend as much on how they want to present themselves and be seen by others as it depends on their actions or purposes.

In the context of a grand conflict between good and evil, wherein the characters possess supernatural qualities that lift them beyond the realm of ordinary humans, what The Young Protectors does best is bring that heightened conflict, those huge issues, down to an individual level. This comic really explores the impact that superpowers, and all that they imply, would have on people’s personal lives. The isolation that comes from being different, the shame and self-hatred that arise when powers are misused, whether deliberately or unintentionally, and the camaraderie that forms when hurt and isolated people find and support one another, all make themselves clear.

Though the relationship between Kyle and Duncan is what drives the story, for me the heart of The Young Protectors is really Kyle’s friendship with his other teammates. For much of the beginning, it’s easy to assume they all connect on a fairly shallow level… the conversations and interactions we see tend toward the banal, which doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of a deeper connection, but neither does it indicate that there necessarily is one. It’s not until Kyle truly needs their support that the strength of his connection with them becomes clear. When it does, though, it’s in a series of reassurances that are so sincere I actually teared up while reading. The unconditional love and acceptance depicted among these kids is first-rate.

One thing I appreciate in The Young Protectors is the diversity of superheroes represented. Fully have of the team Kyle belongs to consists of people of color. Now, The Young Protectors isn’t perfect in this regard. The main characters are two white dudes, and the cast is overwhelmingly male, but then I’m one of those people who will not be satisfied until non-white, non-male protagonists have become utterly commonplace. So I won’t let The Young Protectors slide just because it’s more diverse than it could be, but I will acknowledge that it’s significantly more inclusive than most of your run-of-the-mill comics. If you went to see a superhero movie and only half of the main cast was white, that would be pretty remarkable.

In this respect, The Young Protectors is representative of its time period. Though many cultural forces are driving for more inclusive representation, white and male is still the “default setting” in much of media. I don’t mean to vilify The Young Protectors for not being diverse enough for my ideals (an action which would be especially silly since I probably wouldn’t even mention it if the comic made less effort at diversity). I simply want to acknowledge the gap between the way things are now and the way I hope things will become.

The Young Protectors can get a bit melodramatic at times, with dialog that’s just a little too direct and unselfaware for my tastes, but it comes from a place of sincerity. The occasional cringe-inducing exchange is the price you pay for a comic that so embraces the artless emotional honesty of its young protagonist. I’m too cynical to read strictly for the sake of enjoying the romance, but I also find it a little too easy to get caught up in the romance for me to maintain emotional distance from the characters. Part of me really wants the villain to redeem himself, but another part of me would much rather see him suffer consequences for his cruel and manipulative actions.

The tone of this comic is such that I’m anticipating an eventual happy ending, albeit with some sacrifices and major character development along the way. My hope is that the journey to get there will convince me that a happy ending is a good idea. Being surprised by a story is one of my absolute favorite things, so if something shows up in The Young Protectors that I’m not already anticipating, I’ll be delighted to let it change my opinion of the direction the comic could take.

For the meantime, I’m just going to keep reading and keep enjoying what I already know I like: heroes being friends and looking out for each other, and villains playing mind games of obscure purpose and uncertain moral rationale.

The Young Protectors is written by Alex Woolfson, with art by Adam DeKraker (pencils) and Veronica Gandini (color). Navigating the website can be a tad bit annoying if you’re already caught up, since there’s no home page that shows the latest installment. What I do is get to the beginning of the comic and then click “last” to see the page that’s been posted most recently. Scratch that. This is a link you can use to get to the most recent installment. You can also subscribe by RSS or some other means, thus bypassing the need to navigate through the archive altogether.

I know that, upon hearing “gay superhero romance,” some people will immediately want to check it out and others will want to avoid it at all costs. This post, though, is for everyone else, the people who wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to a gay superhero romance comic, but might read one if it’s good enough or has other elements that they might enjoy. I know I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me personally, The Young Protectors offers enough excitement on a variety of levels that I’ll always be glad I gave myself a chance to try it out.

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  1. Disclosure: I'm an unapologetically huge fan of The Young Protectors. I enjoyed this review because I share many of your tastes. I'm an adult and I've read a lot of paranormal, thriller, romance, adventure, all of it. However, I was somewhat new to webcomics and it was the mix you point toward that hooked me into this comic so deeply.

    I very much echo your point, "Though the relationship between Kyle and Duncan is what drives the story, for me the heart of The Young Protectors is really Kyle’s friendship with his other teammates. It is mostly a balance between these various elements that I enjoy most, along with Alex Woolfson's continuing ability to surprise me. Something I value highly as a reader.

    You also mentioned dialog being a bit direct and 'un-self-aware'. Just my personal opinion, but I think an author can choose one or the other. Characters can wink at the audience with their cleverness, or they can believe whole heartedly IN the world and the events in which they are living. I think in this particular case, the choice of a sincerity, one that occasionally borders on (as you say) the melodramatic, works very well -- with this genre, these character relationships and this world. I think it's the intense 'sincerity' that allows us as readers to invest in the team's friendships as we do.

    Thanks for this thoughtful and review. Very much enjoyed.

    1. The ability to of an author to surprise me is something I highly value, as well.

      There's definitely a matter of author choice and personal preference when evaluating the mode of dialog. This is a case where my preference likely wouldn't match up with the author or much of the audience of the comic, but I can definitely respect an artistic choice even if it differs from one that would have better suited my own tastes.

      Thank you for commenting. I'm glad you enjoyed my post.

  2. "The main characters are two white dudes, and the cast is overwhelmingly male, but then I’m one of those people who will not be satisfied until non-white, non-male protagonists have become utterly commonplace."

    Kyle doesn't get any diversity points for being, you know, teh gay?

    1. To be honest, not really. Much as I believe it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate homosexuality, and to create works with gay protagonists, I don’t think white gay men are a sufficient vector for true progress. An important vector? Certainly. But it’s not enough.

      The “default setting” in our culture is straight, white, and male. We tend to assume that someone will be all those things unless we have evidence showing otherwise. And I find that a lot of media will be willing to stray from one of those qualities… have some female characters, some people of color, some gay people… but rarely people who differ from the default in more than one area. I’ve also heard some criticisms of gay activism movements from gay people of color, claiming that they don’t find much representation or acceptance in mainstream gay culture. So I think we all, as a culture, need to start mixing those categories more. It will take a concerted effort on behalf of a large portion of creators to reach a point where all kinds of diversity are commonly accepted and found in popular media.

      I don’t want to single out The Young Protectors; I love it and appreciate the effort it makes. My criticism mostly has to do with the cultural norms that I dislike and which I see reflected in the comic. Of course, all media reflects the culture in which it’s created, so that’s hardly a problem unique to this one comic. Rather than a condemnation, I’d like to think of it as a call to action for future creators to work more diversity of various forms into everything they make.

      This was a surprisingly long answer to your question, (and possibly overly rambly; I’m jetlagged at the moment so I apologize for any incoherence) but I wanted to elaborate a little so you’d know where I was coming from rather than just replying “kind of, but not really” and not give you any kind of explanation.