It’s a cliché to bemoan our youth-obsessed culture here in the United States, and has been for quite some time. Unfortunately, that does not stop people from complaining about the abundance of media devoted to the young, teenagers in particular. Superhero stories have often been a haven for this demographic, though, and a few writers at Geeks OUT decided to discuss the importance of teen superheroes and representation.
1) Did you read superhero stories as a teenager? Who were some of the characters you looked up to at that time?
Trish McNeely: I didn't read comics until my 20s, but you better believe I watched Cartoon Network growing up like it was my job! So, my favorite teen heroes were definitely the characters in Sailor Moon!
I wanted to be as smart as Sailor Mercury, as sassy as Sailor Mars, as badass as Sailor Jupiter, and for some reason I wanted to pretend to be late for class (I never was...) and get all wigged out and rush around like a chicken with its head cut off while a kitty yelled at me for being so irresponsible! Ha ha!
Amanda Malamut: I didn’t read comics as a teenager. I was much more of a Saturday morning cartoon kind of gal. My favorites to watch were Spider-Man and X-Men. Rogue and Storm were my favorites from that era.
Trish: For the record, Amanda, those were my favorite Saturday morning cartoons, too! Nineties cartoon Rogue was my absolute favorite character...and my first lesbian awakening (tee hee). And #HairGoals!
Alexa Cassaro: I watched Pokémon, Sailor Moon, and Digimon when I was a wee Alexa; all have teen heroes or main characters. I lucked out and was five years old when these animes became huge, so I grew up being proud otaku trash.
Something about Ash Ketchum [affected me]. He loves his Pokémon with all his heart, and projects that through training his Pokémon. Not one Pokémon is left behind. He cares so much for them that he saves them when they are sick or potentially dying. Then, when he sees that a Pokémon is ready to go a new path, he [sets] them free (Butterfree is the best example, or the episode where he was going to set Pikachu free). Ash Ketchum even helps Team Rocket out once in a blue moon (in the episode “Battle Aboard the St. Anne”). Looking back now, he was a mofo, rescuing and rehabbing Pokémon, and telling off the douchebags who mistreat Pokémon and making them learn lessons without weapons. How much better than that can it get?
Also not gonna lie, Sailor Moon totally helped me remember the planet order.
And learn I was gay af later on in life and that Sailor Uranus is my idol. She came out as a nonbinary character and I was like I UNDERSTAND WHO I AM NOW.
Devin Whitlock: I read superheroes in grade school and middle school, but most of the heroes I read were older, like Superman. I was a huge Vertigo reader in high school and college, which helped me understand my sexuality more than mainstream superhero comics ever could at the time. It’s why Enigma will always have a special place in my heart.
2) Do you think representation of teenagers matters? Why or why not?
Gavin: Heck, yeah. Youth representation of all stripes is important. Developing readers should have the opportunity to see themselves, their peers, and others explored in fiction. A spectrum of diverse characters exists in [media], but there's always room for more.
Amanda: I think representation of teenagers in superhero comics matters a lot! It’s important to see yourself in what you read, and comics are no exception. One of the things that I love about comics is how they are a reflection of the readers and of society. Teenagers should be able to see themselves in Sailor Moon, X-Men, and everything in between.
Alexa: Duh, of course they matter! [Teenagers] are in this weird, angsty part of their lives that’s like “waaaah no one likes me, meeehhhh I don’t know who I am, wahhhhh no one understands me but this trashy music and ugly haircut, noooooo, you can’t tell me what to do I’m almost a sorta adult!” But through these weird fake wannabe-existential exclamations are real emotions that they are just coming to terms with, ESPECIALLY MORALS. Therefore, they come to moments of realization to where they must make important decisions that could change who they are early on. For example, Ash didn’t have to put up with Pikachu’s early attitude, but he did. He may have never learned the lesson of understanding others if he chose to release Pikachu in the first episode. Usagi didn’t have to listen to Luna, and Mamo-Chan never had to go back to Usagi, but they followed their true inner emotions and made decisions that shaped who they were: Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask. They have ALL the same feels that we learned to cope with in middle school and high school (especially learning about love and how to show physical affection without being a douchebag). How are teens going to learn how to cope through stories of adults running around in their underwear being serious all the time or punching each other? Plus, teens make friends and hide secrets in the most dramatic ways. (CliffsNotes version of why I always have a teen main character: PURE TEEN ANGST.) God bless the small, angry, feisty teens fighting for their love interests in the purest ways.
Gavin: When I think of my own representation [when I was a teenager], I was greatly affected by Alice in Nightmare on Elm Street and Buffy.
I earnestly feel that anything that makes me a good person is rooted in my experience watching Buffy. My upbringing was majorly screwed up and I didn't realize it, or realize I could correct it, until I watched Buffy.
I needed that influence of Buffy — as well as Faith, Willow, Xander, Amy, Anya, Cordelia, heck, even Harmony — to self actualize.
But Alice's story [in Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and 5] is one of an abused introvert who grows and becomes strong through horrific circumstances, and that resonated with me more than any other teen character. I liked Barbara Gordon in Batman: The Animated Series because her journey was about proving her abilities to herself as well as to Batman and her father. I loved that she had a stuffed teddy bear named Wubby. ALL that is closer to my experience. Plus, I've worked in libraries.
Devin: I originally singled out superhero stories in forming the question, because there are plenty of indie comics and autobiographical comics that speak to the “teenage experience” that you outline, Alexa, (not that it’s a monolith), but pride themselves on realism. Superhero stories have in many ways been defined by how far or how close they distance themselves from reality. Trish, you brought up how Saturday morning cartoons provided you with role models (and not just with hair); Sailor Moon helped you and Alexa understand what kind of people you could be. Would you all say that teen superheroes are meant to be more aspirational for their respective audiences?
Alexa: I would say yes. It’s one of those “if they can get through this issue, then so can I” type of situations. Superheroes give them the built-up confidence without the powers. Especially since the heroes come from a typical, relatable lifestyle, like my favorite ditzy, always-late, food-loving, crybaby: Usagi. And seeing her get her stuff together (not always, but most of the time) when she must fight for justice is so empowering. I [developed] self love [because of] her. I was always late (still am) and usually a mental mess, and her accepting herself the way she was and then — BAM! She’s defending the universe! — made me realize that, yes, I have flaws but I can still accomplish what I want. As a cartoonist, I can say nothing is better than readers gaining self-love from your characters or thanking you for giving them strength or for understanding them without even knowing them. It’s a real honor.
Trish: Absolutely! The beauty about teenage characters is that teen readers are able to identify with them on some level, but they also challenge the growth of the natural process of teen maturity through the struggles they face and the lessons they learn. I remember being a teen watching Sailor Moon and being like, yes! I want to be like these characters! I'm not yet, but I can be!
3) Who are some current teen superhero characters that have made an impression on you? Some of the classic teen superhero characters?
Gavin: Miles Morales is all I can think of that is current. I really got into Runaways. Avengers Academy...but no particular individuals leap out at me…
Trish: Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson definitely made an impression. Here is a girl who is sassy, Muslim, and just wants to fit in with her non-Muslim, white peers...but in the end she embraces her culture, her skin color, and her responsibility to use her power for fighting evil, instead of using it to fit in. She embraces her individuality, and inspires other teens to do the same.
Amanda: Currently, Ms. Marvel has had a huge impression on me. Our superheroes should be a reflection of our society, and I think that Ms. Marvel is the perfect embodiment and representation of how diverse our country is. White straight men are not the norm in real life; they shouldn’t be the norm in comics.
Jubilee [from the X-Men] and Sailor Moon have made huge impressions on me. These teenage girls can be goofy, klutzy, and also can kick some major ass. These imperfect characters make it easier for me to see them as people and see myself within their stories.
Alexa: Currently, Eren Jaeger and Armin Arlert. (I SAID IT, I’M ATTACK ON TITAN TRASH) But not only are both wee babes, but they fight with pure emotion, for their fallen friends, and to save the last of humanity. When they start, they are probably no older than 18. They have to watch friends die, kill friends who betray them, and watch people snap: things that are mad serious when you really analyze them. Eren fights with pure honor for his family and friends, and is the type who cries when furious (so you know he’s truthful and serious). I favor Armin more because he had the choice to become an engineer or a soldier. He chose to become a soldier to fight beside Eren and Mikasa. He is the one who really cries in fear and is very sensitive. I love how a main character is sweet and sensitive, because what about all those boys out there that are made fun of for being sensitive and crying? Well, now then can say, “F YOU ‘cause Armin helps kill titans!”
Wow, I need to calm down and shut up.
Trish: Alexa!!! NEVER!!!!! PLEASE, DON'T EVER STOP TALKING!!!
I LOVE ATTACK ON TITAN!!!!
[Also,] Mikasa. Hng. She was the background on my phone for a hot minute. (A very hot minute indeed bites knuckle.)
Devin: I’m glad Spider-Man and X-Men were brought up earlier, because they are the quintessential teen superheroes, despite being more than forty years old. The most recent teen superheroes I’ve noticed are Ms. Marvel and the new Blue Beetle, Jaime Reyes, who also improve the landscape considerably by virtue of not being white. The new Aqualad is black and gay.
I mentioned how Engima helped me discover my own sexuality growing up, and Alexa wrote about how Sailor Uranus had a similar effect. We’ve come a long way from Northstar, thankfully, and this is why I defend Iceman coming out and will always have a soft spot for Bunker. That’s another important factor when detailing the importance of teen superheroes: How important is it for gay teenagers to be represented?
Trish: Teen queer representation is incredibly important! While society is embracing queer culture more, it's still hard growing up as queer and not finding a safe place to escape to, or find inspiration in. Queer teens need a hero they can identify with and look up to. And if they have any questions on whether or not it's OK to be gay, these heroes can shout to the rooftops: “Yes!” This is especially important here in the Bible Belt, where being queer is still seen as "sinful" or "dirty." I love how the new comic series Paper Girls has a gay character from the future who — when revealing his sexual identity and gets the reaction "gross" from one of the main teen girl characters, Mac — gently tells her, don't worry about it, you come from a messed-up era. The story is originally set in 1988, and his words can help readers know that it is being, and will continue to be, normalized in the future.
Alexa: Being a teen and being LGBT are both such difficult things to handle in that point in life for many. Heroes that are both show they can get their feelings together and become something better than what they thought or what others say. LGBT teens need that boost the most.
Amanda: People need to see themselves in what they read and what they watch. When queer teens don’t have the physical space to feel safe (like what Trish wrote), representation through comics, television, and online media gives teens an outlet to feel safe and a platform to communicate with people who are just like them.
Have we forgotten to mention any of your favorite teen heroes? Feel free to mention them in the comments below!