The combination of “1990s” and “comics” tends to produce a negative reaction from the less troglodytic segements of fandom, and not without justification. It was an era when the confluence of unfortunate trends and speculative mania damn near succeeded in choking the funnybook biz to death with a flood of nigh-unreadable gimmicky nonsense.
The sheer volume of undercooked, overprinted crap relased during the decade has made the 1990s the “go to” era for easy-peasy, fire and forget Nobody’s Favorite posts. The books are easy to find (though very difficult to get rid of, to the lament of retailers and would-be investment barons), rarely lasted more than a few issues, and are packed to the gutters with identikit badasses sporting ludicrous names and laughable levels of overaccessorization.
Yet as much as snarky riffs on “1990s comics” have become the mother-in-law jokes of comics commentary, those broad dismissive strokes neglect the many good (if not great) works to emerge from that period. I’m not just referring to the wealth of quality “indie” books (“non-spandex stuff” in vulgar parlance) which emerged during those years, but also a small number of mainstream superhero titles which managed to think outside the pander box.
Grant Morrison’s relaunch of JLA is probably the most widely recognized of these efforts — alongside Garth Ennis’s Hitman, James Robinson’s Starman, and Kurt Busiek’s Thunderbolts — but there were plenty of lower profile, shorter-lived works which attempted to swim against the currents of uninspired crap. The majority seemed to originate out of DC, though that might just be my failing memory filtered through my reading biases at the time — ephemeral little gems like Chase, Major Bummer, Chronos, and the subject of this week’s column…
…Dan Raspler’s and Dev Madan’s Young Heroes in Love.
To be honest, my first reaction to seeing the house ads for this 1997 attempt to mix Gen X hook-up melodrama with light-hearted superheroics was a resounding “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” As a johnny-come-lately remnant of a dying subculture who watched his peers embrace the mass marketed trapping of hipness over the course of a single intersession, I viewed the whole 1990s alterna-splosion phenomenon with a highly jaundiced eye. It was bad enough having to suffer that silliness in my everyday life; I didn’t need it to insinuate itself into my avenues of escapism as well.
Then again, it wasn’t like there was a lot of competition for my comic-buying dollar at the time and Madan’s animation-inspired art sure stood out against the sea of residual “Image-style” cover acts on the stands. In the end, I was glad I was able to suppress my knee-jerk revulsion towards perceived demographic pandering, because YHIL turned out to be a highly enjoyable read.
The book focused on a team of twentysomething superhumans — Bonfire (an incendiary fangirl journalist), Monstergirl (a manipulative shapechanger), Junior (a diminutive science geek), Offramp (a gruff and grungy teleporter), Frostbite (a frost elf with a fondness nipple rings, tribal tats, and low-cut speedos), Thunderhead (a super-strong rocker with oversized hands and, later, electrical powers) and Zip-Kid (a size-changing Jersey princess sporting some of Star Sapphire’s castoff Silver Age duds) — led by Hard Drive, a big-chinned control freak with telekinetic/telepathic powers.
While the promo material and cover blurbs played up the bed (and desk and…um…boxing glove) hopping antics of the various team members, these elements were merely parts of a larger network of personal and professional relationships fueled by character-driven melodrama. Imagine the Giffen/DeMatteis era Justice League by way of Melrose Place and run through a 1990s “indie” film filter and you have a decent idea of where YHIL was coming from.
As entertaining as the concept was, the execution was a bit uneven over the title’s eighteen issue run and particularly noticable when read without the wait between monthly installments. Characterizations and sub-plots had an unfortunate tendency to be over- and under-emphasized over the course of multiple issues, in which tracks were laid then inexplicably pulled up or abandoned. (For example, what was ulterior motive for Monstergirl’s mindgames and multiple seductions? Was she supposed to be a hero, villain, or just the victim of some sloppy writing?) The series also developed some serious pacing problems after the first few issues, with the final twelve issues lurching fitfully through a roster of fill-in artists towards a hasty and somewhat unsatisfying conclusion…followed by a bizzare DC One Million crossover in the final issue because eventbook uber alles.
(That “midpoint muddle” was not unique to YHIL. Many of the title’s inevitably doomed peers also underwent similiar change-ups and odd moments of narrative drift, which I suspect were attempts to tack against the winds of an inhospitable marketplace.)
Young Heroes in Love may not have been a flawless masterpiece or particularly groundbreaking (although it was a lot bolder regarding same-sex relationships than most current mainstream superhero titles are), but it was entertaining, enjoyable, and — most importantly — it didn’t actively insult the intelligence of the reader or pander to him or her with continuity wank parsed as EPIC IMPORTANCE. It was fun, disposable entertainment (mostly) unbeholden to a linewide master plan, as much a rarity then as it is today.
Young Heroes in Love had — and still has — a substantial cult following which kind of puts the like to the Nobody Else’s Favorite tag, but the lack of any trade collections (thanks to its odd status as a creator “semi-owned” property set within the DC Universe) and fandom’s short collective memory more than justifies its inclusion, if only for evangelical purposes.