Religious Privilege and Social Justice

When the topic of religion and social justice movements is brought up, progressive religious believers are quick to point out that there are many believers who support equal rights. This is true; I was a progressive believer myself, so I know this from personal experience. However, I have a problem with the ways in which religious believers from established organized religions are privileged in these settings, the ways in which religious arguments are given preference while secular arguments that point out how religion has contributed to injustices are treated as intolerance. This bothers me as a secular person, a non-religious person, and as an ex-Muslim. In this essay, which contains thoughts that have been in the back of mind for a long time, I aim to explain why.

Religious progressives are on the right side of many issues, favoring equality and human rights for people from many marginalized demographics. However, this doesn’t stop some believers, especially those from established and organized faiths, from taking advantage of their religious privilege to be the main voices in social justice movements, centering religious apologetics in the arguments that are made and emphasizing the compatibility of religion with equal rights. An aspect that makes this situation even more frustrating is that believers will then turn around and say that religion is necessary for justice and morality; repeatedly remind non-religious people (as if we don’t already know) that many religious historical figures were at the forefront of equal rights movements; that allying with religion is a practical step because religions have experience in organizing people for causes. Perhaps the reason you believe that religion is necessary for justice and morality is due to religious privilege and bias. Perhaps the reason you only know about the religious historical figures who fought for equal rights is because religious privilege made them more acceptable to the mainstream in their time periods and helped them be disproportionately represented in history books – the same history books that leave out non-religious people who fought for equality (or leave out their non-religious views) and that attempt to paper over the parts of religious history that inspired bigotry. Perhaps the reason it seems like a practical choice to shape arguments in away that caters to religion is because of religion’s privileged status in society, not because it’s inherently more likely to support equal rights or better at advocating for equal rights than secular groups. In other words, maybe religious progressive are using the existence of religious privilege in larger to society to argue in favor of continued religious privilege within groups that are supposed to be about challenging privilege.

Secularism is essential to equality, because it’s the only position on religion that is truly neutral. Religious progressive realize this when religious conservatives try to insert their religion into all aspects of society. Those of us who favor religious freedom and secularism (whether we are personally religious or not) argue endlessly that secular is not the same as anti-religion; secularism is the neutrality that’s required for everyone’s religious freedom to be protected. It’s high time that religious moderates and progressive realize that this applies to their attempts to insert religion into all aspects of society as well. Some of the things that religious progressives think are neutral really aren’t neutral or welcoming to all. For instance, a prayer that’s basically Abrahamic monotheism with the serial numbers filed off isn’t really inclusive; it’s just inclusive of the dominant strands of established religion, which leaves out a lot of people (not just atheists, but also believers who don’t associate with those religions). Including prayers or invocations by people from minority religions might be inclusive of those who favor those interpretations of those religions, but it’s still not all-inclusive – and it’s especially not inclusive of those who’ve been alienated from those religions due to bigotry. Of course, a private event is not the same as the government, so it does not have to be religiously neutral; however, if you are having an event that purports to be welcoming to all, then secularism should be the default, with religion or atheism-focused events or talks being clear in their intention. Religion shouldn’t be the focus of every event, meeting, or discussion by default. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that religious believers shouldn’t be accepted or included in equal rights movements; I’m saying that these movements shouldn’t privilege established organized religion while pushing people of non-religious views or personal religious beliefs to the side.

Religious privilege can be detrimental, not just to atheists, but also to those of minority faith backgrounds and those who have personal religious beliefs without membership in a particular religion. I grew up in the United States of America (a majority-Christian country) in a Muslim family and doubted organized religion from a young age. Growing up queer in the United States, I couldn’t help noticing that queer equal rights arguments focused on Christianity to a great degree. It really bothered me that so many mainstream arguments regarding queer equal rights were religious interpretation arguments between conservative Christians and liberal Christians. Why exactly should my rights be based on interpretations of a religion I don’t believe in? I saw issues of queer equal rights within Islam largely ignored by Western equal rights groups and websites, because liberals of Christian backgrounds were focused on changing Christianity specifically and their priorities were treated as the movement’s priorities. They might sometimes bring up the issue of including Muslims in queer rights events, due to a desire to be interfaith, but weren’t allies with those of us who expressed more critical views of the faith, in case that alienated the Muslims they wanted to be allies with. Related to the problem with one-sided intersectionality that privileges religion, it felt as though even those who attempted to be interfaith were willing to hold white never-Muslim Christian-background queer people accountable for bigotry against Muslims and other minority faith groups but weren’t willing to hold Muslims and other minority faith groups accountable for bigotry against queer people or women. It bothered me that organized established religions received this special treatment of their inclusion being considered more important than inclusion of people (both believers and nonbelievers in gods) who’ve been alienated by them.

There is the whole argument regarding religious arguments vs. secular arguments for equal rights. The actual content of these arguments (and why I think the secular ones are better) is the topic for another essay, but I do want to briefly address the meta/background arguments that focus on tactics of movements. Believers will often say to atheists that equal rights should be more important to atheists than convincing people to leave religion. Well, I can turn that back around: Equal rights should be more important to believers than converting people to their faith or convincing those alienated from religion to return to it. The status quo seems to prefer arguments that emphasize the compatibility of religion with equal rights rather than holding religious institutions and traditions accountable for bigotry (i.e. saving religion’s reputation is treated as a major goal). Arguing that believers who favor bigotry are “not true believers” is used to dismiss valid criticisms of religion’s role in perpetuating bigotry. There are many of us who believe it is important to discuss the role that religion plays in the discrimination that we face, and it’s not right to tell us to stop sharing our experiences and stories in order to privilege the experiences and stories of those who feel that religion is more beneficial than harmful. Ignoring the role of culture, including religious aspects of culture, in perpetuating bigotry helps it to continue; if some of the most powerful institutions supporting bigotry receive a pass because of their power and influence, that’s a big impediment to improvement. I understand that progressive religious believers will try to argue the religious case for equal rights within their faith, but please realize that arguments regarding whether your religious tradition or holy book is compatible with equal rights should not be the basis of the entire movement, which includes people with varying views on religion. By comparison, secular arguments are relevant regardless of religious belief.

I understand that, for many people, religious belief is a source of great comfort. It was for me as well; I believed that God loved me no matter what anyone else thought. I don’t make fun of religious people for having an “imaginary friend”, because for years my belief in my “imaginary friend” God gave me the strength to keep up hope despite bigotry and other family problems, gave me hope for a better future. This was an entirely personal belief. I considered joining some religious denomination or group, but never felt comfortable enough to sign up; participation in organized religion reminds me of bullying by conservatives, as one person or group is placed in charge of sermonizing, rather than allowing individual belief. I found solitary prayer more fulfilling and comforting. Believing in God does not mean that a person will feel comfortable at an event that privileges certain religions or that includes sermons or prayers. Personal comfort from religion does not justify including organized religion or public displays of religion in every aspect of a movement, and it does not justify exempting incredibly powerful established organized religions from criticism that other powerful societal institutions receive from the same equal rights movements.

In conclusion, I believe that challenging religious privilege is part of social justice, just like challenging other types of privilege. Privileging established organized religion in social justice movements is counter to the idea of being more inclusive and intersectional, because it leaves out many people who don’t believe in the religions or religious interpretations whose believers have appointed themselves as the leaders. If we’re trying to be more inclusive, then we can’t perpetuate religious privilege in movements that are supposed to be about supporting equal rights for the marginalized.

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Acknowledgements and Recommended Reading

This is an essay I’ve been meaning to write for a long time, but recent conversations on Twitter with Alex Gabriel prompted me to finally write it.

Alex Gabriel writes a blog,[1] including the following essays that came up during the conversation: “I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?”;[2] “Jesus was not a queer ally: why I can’t take LGBT-affirming Christianity seriously (and why queer spaces must remain secular)”;[3] and “Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement”.[4] Gabriel makes important points about religious allies in queer spaces, bad apologetics, and the importance of secularism.

Greta Christina, on her blog,[5] wrote “Being an Atheist in the Queer Community”[6] and “How To Be An Ally with Atheists”[7] offering the view of someone who’s been involved in both the queer and atheist communities.

Heina Dadabhoy, on their blog,[8] offers an ex-Muslim perspective on this issue in “It Shouldn’t Have to Be So Hard to Be a Queer Atheist” explaining how bizarre it is to hear all praise and no criticism of religion at an LGBT event.[9]

[Originally written: 01 November 2015 – links have been updated]

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References

[1] Alex Gabriel’s blog Godlessness in Theory can be found at https://the-orbit.net/godlessness/.

[2] Gabriel, Alex. “I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?” Godlessness in Theory, 17 November 2014. http://the-orbit.net/godlessness/2014/11/17/im-sorry-todays-atheist-movement-has-inspired-abuse-are-you-sorry-your-religion-has/

[3] Gabriel, Alex. “Jesus was not a queer ally: why I can’t take LGBT-affirming Christianity seriously (and why queer spaces must remain secular)”. Godlessness in Theory, Posted on 7 December 2014. http://the-orbit.net/godlessness/2014/12/07/jesus-was-not-a-queer-ally/

[4] Gabriel, Alex. “Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement”. Godlessness in Theory, 31 October 2015. http://the-orbit.net/godlessness/2015/10/31/why-i-still-need-the-atheist-movement/

[5] Greta Christina’s Blog can be found at http://the-orbit.net/greta/.

[6] Christina, Greta. “Being an Atheist in the Queer Community”. Greta Christina’s Blog, 15 December 2008. http://the-orbit.net/greta/2008/12/15/being-an-atheist-in-the-queer-community/

[7] Christina, Greta. “How To Be An Ally with Atheists”. Greta Christina’s Blog, 16 December 2008. http://the-orbit.net/greta/2008/12/16/how-to-be-an-ally-with-atheists/

[8] Heina Dadaboy’s blog Heinous Dealings can be found at http://the-orbit.net/heinous/.

[9] Dadabhoy, Heina. “It Shouldn’t Have to Be So Hard to Be a Queer Atheist”. Henous Dealings, 8 December 2014. http://the-orbit.net/heinous/2014/12/08/lgbt-religion/

Queer Power Rangers

One of my favorite television shows when I was a child was Power Rangers.[1] Like many people my age, I grew up with it; it was one of the first stories I was a fan of, one of my first fandoms before I knew what fandom was. I watched three series of the show (the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Power Rangers Turbo, and Power Rangers in Space) as well as the two movies (Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie and Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie). There was a regrettable gap in my devotion, as I skipped much of Power Rangers Zeo. From the beginning of the original series to the end of Power Rangers in Space was a period of about five years, during which I was five to ten years old, and I was a fan of the show after it was no longer considered cool among my classmates. Kimberly from the first series was my role model and (now that I look back on it) probably unknowingly my first childhood crush. I’ll even confess that when I was in tenth grade at the age of fifteen, I watched a Power Rangers marathon during spring break and enjoyed it. I think the episodes were from the Dino Thunder series. I remember that Tommy Oliver, one of my favorite characters from the older series and one of the longest-running characters on the show, was back as a teacher of the current Rangers. All of this is to say that Power Rangers was near and dear to my heart, and I still look back on it fondly. (The fact that the show is apparently still running, with new incarnations, puts a smile on my face.) They were superheroes who saved the world from evil, and I wanted to be like them.

My enjoyment of Power Rangers included an element of imagination, of course. I didn’t write fan fiction, back then, but I certainly made up stories in my own mind based on the world and characters, as fans of many stories do. Some of these stories included romance, specifically same-sex romance. There is nothing wrong with this, and I look back on it with the same nostalgia, humor, and thankfulness that I feel about many of my favorite childhood stories. Because of discrimination, however, it is not just a cute matter of a child enjoying making up stories, but a personal example related to the issue of representation in children’s media. Whenever there are discussions about representation, one of the most frequent arguments that people use to dismiss concerns about a lack of diversity (especially a lack of LGBTQIAP+/queer characters) is that it’s not appropriate in a children’s show. Some, seeking perhaps to be a bit more diplomatic, will say that while there’s nothing wrong with being LGBTQIAP+, children don’t care about these kinds of things or won’t really notice the sexual orientation or gender identity of the characters. I must disagree with this assertion.

I distinctly remember shipping the Power Rangers in same-sex relationships; I even had a piece of paper on which I wrote down the names of all the Power Rangers whose stories I’d watched and matched them with each other. I went looking around my room for this list a few years after writing it, and dearly wish I still had it as a keepsake. Though I matched all of the Rangers (even inventing, if I remember correctly, some original characters when the numbers came out uneven, not being familiar with polyamorous relationships at the time) there were two couples who were my favorites: Jason and Tommy from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Andros and Zhane from Power Rangers in Space. I also liked the relationships between Kimberly and Trini, and Billy and Zach from Mighty Morphin and Ashley and Cassie, and Carlos and TJ from Space. The first series was on when I was five to seven years old, and so my feelings about Jason and Tommy were inklings, little thoughts about their closeness and care for each other. By the time Power Rangers in Space was on, however, I was a few years older and there no question of my intention in my imaginings. I remember, around the age of ten, thinking of Andros and Zhane as a couple. I remember imagining romantic scenes between them, scenes which even included sexual content that was passionate (though very inaccurate, given my lack of knowledge on the subject at that age). Their relationship, though it was my own imagining, meant a lot to me, and I spent what I remember as quite a lot of time thinking about them. They were my Remus Lupin and Sirius Black before I read Harry Potter; they were my One True Pairing (OTP)[2] before I knew what an OTP was.

My goal in writing this is to emphasize that this interest in same-sex relationships was in my mind from a young age and even predated understanding of my own orientation. This isn’t some later invention, an adult’s interpretation upon looking back on favorite childhood stories, but something that I thought of at the time. I certainly have more knowledge and understanding with which to analyze stories than I did back then, and a larger vocabulary with which to express my thoughts; however, the feeling that same-sex relationships made sense and should be in the story were there from early on. When people say that children don’t think of sexual orientation or gender identity, they’re incorrect, often because they are basing the statement on their own experiences without considering that other people’s experiences growing up may have been different.

For some of us, the portrayal of characters in the canons of our favorite stories seemed to be incomplete, not reflecting the reality of what we felt about ourselves and the world. For some of us, the friendship between characters of the same sex developing into romance made just as much sense, if not more, than the friendship between one female and one male character developing into romance. For some of us, our own imaginings provided an alternate universe in which we could explore our own thoughts and feelings within the familiarity of a beloved story.

For some of us, the Power Rangers were queer.

[Originally Written: 18 January 2014]

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References

[1] “Power Rangers”. Wikipedia Entry. Retrieved on 18 January 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_Rangers. cf. “Power Rangers (series)” entry at the Ranger Wiki, which can be found at http://powerrangers.wikia.com/wiki/Power_Rangers_(Series).

[2] “One True Pairing”. Fanlore. Retrieved on 18 January 2014 from http://fanlore.org/wiki/One_True_Pairing.

Book Review: Young Avengers, Volume One

WRITER: Allan Heinberg

ARTISTS: Jim Cheung, Michasel Gaydos, Neal Adams, Gena Ha, Jae Lee, Bill Sienkiewicz, Pasqual Ferry

COLOR ARTISTS: Jim Cheung, Jose Villarrubia, Justin Ponsor, Art Lyon, June Chung, Dave McCaig

LETTERER: Cory Petit

EDITOR: Stephanie Moore, Molly Lazer, Aubrey Sitterson, Andy Schmidt, Tom Brevoort

“Who the #*&% are the Young Avengers?” (J. Jonah Jameson, Young Avengers, Vol. 1 #1)[1]

“You were right. They are fanboys.” (Kat Farrell to Jessica Jones, Young Avengers, Vol. 1 #1)[2]

Who are the Young Avengers? They’re a team of teenage superheroes who’ve been showing up in the news, including in a Daily Bugle article written by Kat Farrell, who christened them with their team name. I really enjoyed volume two of this superhero team’s comics, [3] and so was very excited to read about how their story first began. This volume unfolds over thirteen issues (twelve in the main series, with Young Avengers Special #1 in between #8 and #9) and it was in many ways similar to and in many ways different from the story I’d already read. I thought it was about time that I write a review, as I’m continuing to read the Young Avengers canon.

The story begins with news reports about a team of teenagers that have been dressing up like the Avengers and acting like superheroes. The group comes together after the Avengers disbanded in a previous Marvel Comics crossover event story.[4] Lots of people are wondering who they are and what they’re up to. Kat Farrell wants an interview, and so Jessica Jones/Jewel has the assignment of getting the Young Avengers to agree to talk to her. The older Avengers want to find and stop the Young Avengers, out of concern for their safety. There are all kinds of weird things going on, including one of the team being revealed as the person who will grow up to be the villain Kang the Conqueror and an epic battle between the Skrull and Kree empires over a character who doesn’t want to side with either of them. The interactions between the Avengers and Young Avengers were interesting to read, with realistic motivations on both sides. Regarding the Kang storyline, I’m generally frustrated by stories with a character who’s destined to become evil (and not too fond of fate or prophecy elements in general) but it’s very heart-wrenching as we see a character make certain decisions about his own future in the hopes of saving his friends in the present. The battle between the two empires gives us some information about Teddy, and I like the element of him wanting to decide his future for himself. There’s a rather fun and funny ending, despite how dire the situation seems at first. Overall, the plot of the story is a little hectic at times, but definitely interesting and fun, with a decent amount of quieter moments and character development to get the reader invested in our superhero team.

The Young Avengers are all really interesting. Some characters are the same as the ones in volume two, while others are different. The story begins with a group of four: Nathaniel Richards/Iron Lad, Elijah “Eli” Bradley/Patriot, William “Billy” Kaplan, and Theodore “Teddy” Altman. Nathaniel is interesting, and his story is very sad. Faced with knowledge about the villain he’ll become, he has to decide what to do and what to tell his friends. Despite not usually liking storylines about fate, and despite some confusing parts of the story, I found him a very sympathetic character as he tries to figure out the best course of action. Eli is the grandson of the original Captain America, Isaiah Bradley. The formula that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America was originally tested on African-Americans, and Isaiah Bradley was one of the test subjects. He ended up being the last one alive and secretly went on a mission to stop the Nazi Super Soldier program. For his trouble, he was imprisoned at Leavenworth, and then released years later. The story is meant as a reference to the actual use of African-Americans as test subjects in unethical medical testing throughout our history. Eli becomes a superhero and calls himself Patriot to honor his grandfather and continue fighting the good fight. He’s a great character with a great backstory, but I was troubled by how the explanation of his powers was handled. The original explanation was great just the way it was (a good combination of fun and serious elements, addressing discrimination in a fascinating story) but the creators went down an unnecessary plot-twist tangent that (perhaps unintentionally) contained some stereotypes that often show up in stories with African-American characters. What makes it even more frustrating was that the story went full circle, with him eventually getting his powers in the same way that was originally explained, so I’m not sure why they went down that tangent in the first place, instead of using that space for a different story arc for Eli, perhaps regarding his relationships with his family or friends. Overall, Eli himself is a great character I’d love to read more about. Billy gets some more backstory in this volume, as we find out about him being bullied in school and finding out that he’s the son of Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch. Teddy also gets some backstory, as well as a big story arc in this volume. We find out he used to use his powers to impersonate celebrities to gain popularity with his friends, but he eventually decided it wasn’t right. Teddy finds out that he’s not human, and neither is the mother who raised him his whole life. He is half-Kree, half-Skrull. His mom Mrs. Altman is Skrull and was Teddy’s birth mother’s nursemaid. Teddy’s original title and name is Prince Dorrek VIII, and his allegiance is wanted by both the Kree and Skrull empires. He’s not particularly interested in either proposition, thinking of Earth as his home. It’s a nice story with references to finding one’s own identity. Later, in volume two, Noh-Varr calls him as “Teddy, Adoptive of Earth”, a fitting title.[5] The relationship between Billy and Teddy is fun, as usual. There’s a hilarious coming out passage, in which Billy is about to tell his parents he’s a superhero, but they think he’s trying to come out about his sexual orientation, which they already know. They hug and welcome Teddy to the family. It’s the kind of coming out, met with acceptance and love, that many LGBTQ kids and teens wish they could have. In the article “Comics Pride: 50 Comics and Characters That Resonate with LGBT Readers”, Andrew Wheeler described their story as “an It Gets Better for the superhero set”[6] and I wholeheartedly agree.

Soon after the story starts, Katherine “Kate” Bishop/Hawkeye and Cassandra “Cassie” Lang/Stature join the team. Kate gets some character development in this volume, as we find out what motivated her to become a superhero and how she inherits Clint Barton/Hawkeye’s bow and superhero name. She’s the only member of the team without superpowers, but her story shows that bravery and morality (not superpowers) are what matter most. Her interactions with the other characters are fun to read as well. Hers was another origin story that contained some elements that are stereotypical, this time for female characters. We find out that she was motivated to become a superhero after she herself was attacked, and it’s a common trope for female character to become motivated after being attacked, especially after sexual assault. This part of her story isn’t really addressed further, though I do like the little acknowledgement that it’s not the victim’s fault and that bad things can happen to everyone. Cassie has an interesting family story, as the daughter of a superhero who’s no longer alive. She doesn’t get along with her stepfather, and her mother is concerned about her. (There’s an interesting bit in which we find out Cassie’s mother’s reason for being concerned about her, and it adds some depth, instead of just being a case of the parents conveniently getting in the way to provide an obstacle for the teenage character.) Cassie is determined and doesn’t let anything stand in her way, not even the Avengers themselves. The next to join the team is the Vision, who’s a bit of a confusing character, having as he does the Vision’s programming and Nathaniel’s emotions and memory, but his story is an interesting introduction with potential for exploring how a person figures out who they really are. The last person to join the team in this volume is Thomas “Tommy” Shepherd/Speed, the twin brother of Billy Kaplan. Tommy is behind bars after destroying his school, but the Young Avengers break him out, so he can help them rescue Teddy. He doesn’t get a big story, but there is some interaction between the twin brothers.

The way the older Avengers were incorporated into the story was done well. When a new set of characters are introduced into a universe, it can be tempting to rely too much on already-beloved characters to carry the story, taking the safe option by focusing on characters with a large fanbase. The creators of this comic judiciously avoided that problem by maintaining the focus on the teenage cast, with participation by the older characters in a way that made sense. Most prominent among the older Avengers is Steve Rogers/Captain America (who acts very much like a concerned parent). His concern for the younger superheroes is not just there for a few laughs and to provide a convenient obstacle (though the situation does have these effects as well). It’s explained in the beginning that Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes was killed during World War Two. As J. Jonah Jameson remarks about the aftermath of Bucky’s death (in a funny line for such a serious situation) “From then on, kid sidekicks only showed up in comic books.”[7] It was interesting to read a story in which a group of superheroes are actually discouraging teenagers from joining their own chosen profession.

The writing and artwork is really enjoyable. It definitely kept me reading. There are some really hilarious and moving conversations between the characters, as well as panels with beautiful artwork. It’s been really enjoyable to read these characters as written and drawn by various creators, as imagined by different people. Despite creative differences between the volumes, I found it very easy to get back into the world.

With regards to diversity, I enjoyed the attempts to be inclusive in both volumes one and two, despite some of the issues. Racial diversity was addressed with Eli’s backstory, and despite the misstep with the odd tangent, there are lots of passages that acknowledge racial discrimination in a relevant way. Unfortunately, unlike volume two, there aren’t multiple non-white characters in the main team. (Technically, Teddy’s a shape-shifted who can look however he wants, but he usually has light skin.) The creators of both volumes have kept up the tradition of a United States-themed superhero leading the team, just as Steve Rogers/Captain America led the Avengers. The fact that Eli Bradley (in volume one) and America Chavez (in volume two) are both non-white characters is welcome and reflects the idea that anyone, of any race, can be a leader and anyone can don the red, white, and blue of the United States. (As a side note, there’s an excellent line by Luke Cage addressing the lack of racial diversity in superhero stories. The Avengers see news reports about the Young Avengers yet again, indicating that the teens didn’t follow the adults’ instructions to disband their group. While watching the news broadcast, Peter Parker/Spider-Man says, in response to a comment by Cage regarding Patriot’s uniform, “You know his name?” Cage responds, “You think there are so many black super heroes running around that I can’t remember their names?”[8] Hopefully, we’re moving toward a future when we can honestly answer “Yes” in response to that rhetorical question.) With regards to LGBTQ characters, there aren’t as many in this volume as there are in volume two (which reversed the usual convention by making the entire team non-heterosexual), and once again, there aren’t any transgender characters (a demographic that often gets even less representation than homosexual characters). On the positive side, the same-sex relationship in the story was the main romance, not pushed to the side in favor of focusing on heterosexual characters’ romances. There are multiple female characters, though there are still more male than female characters on the team. The interactions between the female characters were really great to read. Generally, there are valid criticisms that can be made, in addition to the ones already mentioned, but the Young Avengers series is one that’s moving superhero comics in a good direction.

Overall, volume one was really fun to read. It has its merits and flaws, just as the second volume does, though they differ in their strengths and weaknesses. The Young Avengers have become one of my favorite superhero teams, and it’s always great to find a new story that earns a special place in my heart.

[Originally Written: 26 July 2014]

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References

[1] Heinberg, Allan; Cheung, Jim; et al. “Young Avengers Vol. 1 #1: ‘Sidekicks’”. 9 February 2005. In: Young Avengers: Ultimate Collection. Marvel, 2013 (second printing). [ISBN: 978-0-7851-4907-1]

[2] Young Avengers Vol. 1 #1: “Sidekicks”

[3] EAS. Book Review: ‘Young Avengers’ Volume 2 (By Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, et al)”. Homeworld Journal, 16 May 2016. https://homeworldjournal.wordpress.com/2016/05/16/book-review-young-avengers-volume-two/

[4] “Avengers Disassembled”. Marvel Database wiki entry. Retrieved on 24 July 2014 from http://marvel.wikia.com/Avengers_Disassembled.

[5] Gillen, Kieron; McKelvie, Jamie; et al. “Young Avengers Vol. 1 #7: ‘Breakfast Meet’”. 2013. In: Young Avengers, Vol. 2: Alternative Culture. Marvel, 2014. [ISBN: 978-0-7851-6709-9]

[6] Wheeler, Andrew. “Comics Pride: 50 Comics and Characters That Resonate with LGBT Readers”. Posted on 29 June 2012 at Comics Alliance. Retrieved on 25 July 2014 from http://comicsalliance.com/comics-pride-month-50-most-important-lgbt-comics-characters/.

[7] Young Avengers Vol. 1 #1 “Sidekicks”.

[8] Heinberg, Allan; Cheung, Jim; et al. “Young Avengers Vol. 1 #7: ‘Secret Identities (Part 1 of 2)’”. 2005. In: Young Avengers: Ultimate Collection. Marvel, 2013 (second printing).

Book Review: Young Avengers, Volume Two

WRITER: Kieron Gillen

ARTISTS: Jamie McKelvie, Mike Norton, Kate Brown, Emma Vieceli, Lee Loughridge, Christian Ward, Annie Wu, Jordie Bellaire, Becky Cloonan, Ming Doyle, Maris Wicks, Joe Quinones

COLOR ARTIST: Matthew Wilson

LETTERER: Clayton Cowles

EDITORS: Jacob Thomas, Jon Moisan, Lauren Sankovitch

“I’m not going to spend the rest of my life in the phone booth. I’m not living a lie.” (Theodore “Teddy” Altman/Hulkling, Young Avengers, Volume 2)[1]

“Kate Bishop’s Interdimensional Journal. Week Five. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote, ‘I hope we get home in time for my birthday.’ I was joking. I write it again, this time with all seriousness: I hope we get home in time for my birthday. Let’s go one further: I hope we get home at all. We’ve seen astounding sights that catch my breath and will haunt me for life. Mayfly dimensions full of horrors craving to be more than a tiny fragment of time. Desperate dimensions fully of fears, all time running out. The interdimensions, hungering after what we were lucky enough to be born into. It’s awful for everyone. Even Chavez is exhausted. Barely anyone’s sleeping, and when they do, what they dream of makes them wish they hadn’t. ‘Gaze not down the rabbit hole, in case you become a rabbit,’ as Loki said. Everyone rolled their eyes. And then there was the dimension with the rabbits. Oh God. I have nightmares about rabbits. I’ve had bad times. We all have. But this is the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do. These days … Everyone just wishes they would end. Except the days when we wish it could go on forever.” (Katherine “Kate” Bishop/Hawkeye, Young Avengers, Volume 2)[2]

“This story has a happier ending than that.” (Loki, Young Avengers, Volume 2)[3]

Superheroes are awesome, and there’s a superhero comic series that has reaffirmed my interest in and excitement for the genre. I recently read the second volume of Young Avengers, a comic series with teenaged superheroes with some similarities to characters from the adult Avengers. Young Avengers was created by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung, and first appeared in comics in April 2005. The series I just read is volume two of Young Avengers (part of the Marvel NOW! relaunch), by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie, plus contributions from several others. Volume two includes a short preview story “The New World” from Marvel NOW! Point One #1[4] and twelve issues.[5] (I do intend to read the other comics in the series, but the three books that contain Volume Two were the ones I could get my hands on first.)

As our story starts, we have a group of friends who used to be a superhero team but have given up the superhero life after previous events (which I don’t know about yet, not having read the earlier story, but it’s mentioned that friends of theirs have died). There’s America Chavez/Miss America, Loki Laufeyson, Theodore “Teddy” Altman/Hulkling, William “Billy” Kaplan/Wiccan, Katherine “Kate” Bishop/Hawkeye, Noh-Varr/Marvel Boy, and David Alleyne/Prodigy. Of course, their decision to not be superheroes can’t last for long. The preview story shows a strange meeting between Loki and Miss America, in which it seems Loki is up to something and trying to get Chavez to work together with him. She refuses quite forcefully, blasting him through a wall. Then, we go to Kate Bishop and Noh-Varr, who’ve just woken up after a night together and are attacked by Skrulls. Meanwhile, we see that Teddy has been sneaking out and being a superhero secretly in disguise, using his shape-changing abilities. Billy, Teddy’s boyfriend, is upset at first. They have an argument, but then make up. Billy decides to do something nice for Teddy by bringing back his late mother, by finding another version of her from an alternate universe. Danger, adventure, and hilarious superhero tropes ensue.

This is, above all, just a fun story with fun characters that made me smile. Our characters go on a journey across multiple parallel universes to defeat evil, facing off against different rivals. They have to stay away from Earth in their own universe, because their parents are being mind-controlled by a monster “Mother” (a monster who looks like Teddy’s mother, but really isn’t). There is also some trouble in Billy and Teddy’s relationship, as Teddy has an existential crisis, wondering if he’s just a manifestation of Billy’s power and desire, rather than a separate individual person (since Billy has the power to change reality with his powers). In between the fights against villains and existential crises, the friends do fun things like having pancake breakfasts, posting on social medial sites, and joking around with each other. The writing and artwork go well together, conveying the story in a way that kept me reading and wanting to know more.

The plot of the story had some issues, but also some good elements. There were several points in the story when something would be mentioned that was really interesting and had the potential for interesting world building or depth, but that didn’t happen. For instance, the creators attempted to include several characters who were working behind the scenes to manipulate the situation, but their motivations and the foreshadowing were done in a way which only made partial sense. The last two chapters (issues #14 and #15) felt like a dash to tie up plot threads before the end of the series. As a side note, the villain’s actions of brainwashing the adults, leading to the teens having to save the universe, was a bit clichéd, but I admit I probably feel this way due to seeing this trope many times over the past couple of decades. A younger reader who is part of the intended demographic for this book might not have gotten use to this trope yet, so I don’t hold that against the book. On the positive side, there were some parts of the plot that were fun. There were superhero elements that were really funny. These teenagers are aware of adult superheroes, and their knowledge of the superhero tropes made some of the narration amusing. There were elements that showed them having experiences that are common among teenagers, despite the fact that they are heroes. There were some romance tropes that might have seemed clichéd in other stories, but which I thought were appropriate here. Since these tropes are usually in romance stories with heterosexual characters, including them in a story with a same-sex couple made it seem sweet and welcome, rather than something we’ve seen many times before. Though a few didn’t work as well, most of them did, and left me smiling broadly. The fact that the characters were aware of and commented on the various tropes in the story was hilarious.

The character development was generally interesting, but also left me wanting to know more. America Chavez is a really fascinating character, and the inclusion of some backstory about her towards the end of the story made me want to read more stories about her. Kate Bishop and Noh-Varr are mostly shown in their relationship, but both of them were really fun. Many of their comments during conversation are hilarious, including Kate’s concern about not being young enough (due to not being a teenager anymore) and Noh-Varr’s comments about Earth and humans. Billy and Teddy were incredibly sweet together, and their romance plays an important role in the story. David Alleyne was fascinating, and it’s suggested that he is in some other superhero comics, other than Young Avengers. His storyline in this volume was very quickly resolved toward the end, and I really want to know more about him. Loki seems to have a complicated backstory, which was curious but which I didn’t know much about. I’m hoping that volume one and other comics with these characters will provide more backstory and character development, because all of these characters fascinated me and made me feel that there’s great potential for other stories.

Lastly, I’d like to discuss the inclusion of non-straight characters in the story. I’m not going to lie; approximately ninety percent of my desire to read this series was based on hearing that there are gay characters and a same-sex couple. I already loved superheroes (especially the X-Men), but when deciding which of the many superhero comics to read, knowing that this series is known for including gay characters was a factor in my decision to read this right away. I heard about the Young Avengers from an image that’s been going around Tumblr showing one of the letters from the letters column in volume one, issue #7 of Young Avengers. In it, Sef Farrow writes about a nephew of his who is gay and for whom the comics provided hope, due to the inclusion of gay teenagers. He wrote, in part, “A light in the darkness—a life-line to grab—call it what you will. I call it hope.”[6] Right at the beginning of the story, we find out that Billy’s parents (before being mind-controlled by the villain) are totally accepting of their son’s sexual orientation, and have even allowed his boyfriend Teddy to move in with the family. For many LGBTQ teens, this acceptance is hoped for, and sometimes never arrives; including it in this story was a welcome and happy escape to a better world. One of the elements of superhero stories that appeals to us is the wish-fulfillment of being powerful and able to do great things, and the fact that this other form of wish-fulfillment (acceptance, when some of the readers may be LGBTQ teens who aren’t accepted by this families) is included in this story gives me hope. Billy and Teddy’s relationship has some common romance tropes (e.g. the breakup followed by the inevitable reconciliation, love as a magical force, sometimes extremely-sweet cliché dialogue, their love for each other motivating their actions and being a pivotal part of the story), but most are fun to read about. Since we usually see these tropes in stories with romances between heterosexual characters, to see them portrayed with a same-sex couple was sweet. These elements are so common in our popular culture that including them in a story with a same-sex couple makes me feel included, shows that stories about LGBTQ people aren’t so different or weird, just as touching as stories about cisgender heterosexual people. The creators even include the hilarious trope in which it’s revealed that most of the main characters are not heterosexual, an inversion of the common all-heterosexual cast found in many stories. I think it would have been even better to also include more development for the other characters, besides Billy and Teddy, and also to include transgender characters. Most importantly, the characters get to be interesting and do many things, not just be “the LGBTQ character”. They get to be brave, complex, funny, and fun to read about.

Ultimately, Young Avengers has reaffirmed my interest in superhero stories. This volume was such a fun experience and has given me hope for the future of the genre, for its potential to be more inclusive and diverse. Despite some issues with the plot, there’s lost to love in this story. When I started writing this review, I didn’t have volume one, but now I do. I can’t wait to read it and hope that another installment of this superhero team will endear them to me even more.

[Originally Written: 30 May 2014]

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References

[1] Gillen, Kieron; McKelvie, Jamie; et al. “#1: Style > Substance”. 2013. In: Young Avengers Vol. 1: Style > Substance. Marvel, 2013. [ISBN 978-0-7851-6708-2]

[2] Gillen, Kieron; McKelvie, Jamie; et al. “#8: The University of Multiple Lives”. 2013. In: Young Avengers Vol. 2: Alternative Culture. Marvel, 2014. [ISBN 978-0-7851-6709-9]

[3] Gillen, Kieron; McKelvie, Jamie; et al. “#12: ‘Young Avengers’ Part One”. 2013. In: Young Avengers Vol. 3: Mic-Drop at the Edge of Time and Space. Marvel, 2014. [ISBN 978-0-7851-8530-7]

[4] “Marvel NOW! Point One Vol 1 1”. Marvel Database Wiki entry. Retrieved on 30 May 2014 from http://marvel.wikia.com/Marvel_NOW!_Point_One_Vol_1_1.

[5] “Young Avengers Vol 2”. Marvel Database Wiki entry. Retrieved on 30 May 2014 from http://marvel.wikia.com/Young_Avengers_Vol_2.

[6] Letter from Sef Farrow (Virginia Beach, VA). In: Heinberg A, DiVito A, Hennessey D, et al. Young Avengers Vol. 1 # 7 “Secret Identities (Part 1 of 2)”. Marvel, October 2005.