Teen Angst Wasteland: the enduring appeal of teen superheroes

Did you know that Ron Richards is an avid 90210 fan ? Well he is, and he’s not alone. While I’m currently uninterested, I have to admit that back when I first arrived in California 13 years ago, I used to enjoy teasing my Californian friends by making them watch the original version of this series. Something about drinking too much while watching terrible teen actors get all melodramatic, and loudly explaining to my friends that, as Californians, this is their cultural heritage, their true gift to the world (my sense of humor can be ever so slightly mean like that). Anyway, although I no longer want to watch the perambulations of these vapid TV shows, I still enjoy a glimpse into the world of teens.

As a small child in gloomy London, my interest in glamorous American teenage superheroes began early. One of my childhood memories of reading comics is sitting in the back of the car, on a family holiday to Holland. This involved driving to Dover, taking a ferry to France, then driving a hell of a lot more (this is pre Channel Tunnel). It was nighttime, and as I desperately tried to read as much of the Teen Titans comic as I could by the light of the passing lamps on the highway, I realized that pretty soon I’d get carsick. It was in this moment that I figured out that I’d rather read a little longer than avoid getting nauseous. That was how much I wanted to soak up these stories of super powered teenagers by George Perez and Marv Wolfman. It was a payment I was willing to make.

As a teenager, I gravitated towards the Uncanny X-Men. At the time I couldn’t have pinpointed why I like the mutants so much, but in retrospect, I can see how their struggle with their new found mutant powers, mirrored my own experiences with my changing physiology. As puberty hit, and my body changed, my moods swung, and everything seemed suddenly much more confusing. I embraced the young mutant’s journey as my own, unconsciously identifying with them and feeling supported by knowing that this could all turn out okay (great eve, if I developed a power… you can’t imagine how disappointed I was to just get older and bigger, instead of developing a mutant power. But I digress.) With that literary love affair already in full swing, when the New Mutants came out I was ready to jump on the bandwagon, but it wasn’t until Bill Seinkeiwicz began drawing them that I really got into it. His bold, expressionist artwork expressed every dramatic aspect of their story. It just worked for me.

Those are some “teen” books that I enjoyed as a pre-teen and a teenager, the expected age for consumers of this kind of media. On schedule, as I got older, my tastes broadened and changed, encompassing different mediums and genres within comic books. But throughout this growth, and despite my best efforts, I found that I still gravitated towards comic books aimed at teens.

When it came out, despite my embarrassment at being seen to read another series aimed at teenagers, the first series of Runaways jumped out at me immediately. Those covers were delightful, and the interiors had a fluidity and plasticity that made them very visually appealing. But the story was what kept me going for a good long while. As long as Brian K. Vaughan was writing, I was reading. His characters were strong, consistent, and (strangely) also capable of growth, development and change. It could be that this is what made them so damn interesting, the fact that they were still open to figuring out who they were. We’re all in this world, trying to find out who we are, but as teens, that process is far more intense, far more obvious. In Runaways, we got to watch a group of young people find their own standards of decency, even when it meant going against their families. While they were figuring out their newfound powers and lives, they were also having to figure out a way to live when everything they thought they’d known was different. Even for an adult, long out of the awkward teen years, this journey was enthralling.

Did you watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I did. From the first episode, I liked watching the feisty little girl kick the crap out of the big, scary vampires. At the time, it wasn’t cool or ironic for an adult to do so, it was creepy and weird (at least that’s what my friends said.) Remember this is pre-Twilight and True Blood and what have you – it was just strange. But I liked it, and I still do. I like the dialogue, I like the banter, and I like the way the most alien characters ask the questions that say the most about humanity. The comic book (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8) carries on this pattern and takes it further. The characters make mistakes, they try to be good. They’re human and despite any powers (and sometimes because of those powers), they can’t always be as honorable as they’d like to be. But they’re striving to be good, and kind, and considerate, in a world where their most horrific fears are brought to life in the most literal sense of the word. A guy doesn’t just turn mean after you sleep with him, he also turns into a sadistic, murdering vampire. Annoying college roommates aren’t just annoying, they’re also soul-sucking demons who deserve to live in hell. Every idea is explored and expanded, in the most literal ways. Unlike regular teenagers, there are very few metaphorical nightmares, because there are far too many flesh and blood ones roaming their world. It’s a damn good premise for a comic book.

My local comic book store owner; James found me the entire run of Intimates. That is what a great guy he is. He said he knew that I’d love it, and he wanted to share it because he loved it too. Ordinarily I have a hard time with people being able to figure me out that easily, but in this instance, I’m glad that James knew I’d like it, because otherwise I’d never have picked this run up. Over 12 issues, we follow this school of potential teenage super hero through classes, vacations, dates, and secret origin stories. If only this had been an ongoing comic book instead of a limited run, we might have had time to watch this entire universe unfold organically, like the layered piece of comic book origami it seemed to hint at. Instead we only catch a glimpse of the depth and intensity of their path. The pressures they face from their family and teachers to succeed, as well as the weight of their past, of their home and their history, shape who the characters are. This complex storytelling approach, combines with the graphical treatment of the book, plenty of quick cuts, and magazine-like packed covers, to create a book that speaks of the mindset of these science fiction teenagers more accurately than any other medium has before. It packs a punch, and uses comic books to convey exactly the kind of chaos that is crammed into the head of the average teenager at any given moment, let alone a super powered teenager who’s been dumped into a dubious “super hero training” school.

It’s a pretty reasonable thing for a kid to like Teen Titans or the New Mutants, it’s even to be expected that a teenager would want to read comic books about teenagers. At the time I started reading them, I was too young to understand whether these were well-depicted characters, well-rounded characters, or well-honed plot lines, all I knew is that these were super cool people and I envied them their power-filled lives. So I can understand why I liked comic books about teenagers when was one myself. What has confounded me is that I continue to enjoy well-crafted comic books about teenager superheroes. My standards might be higher now, I’m probably somewhat more critical about quality, but I still gravitate towards this genre. Some people would say that all comic books are aimed at teenagers, but let’s ignore that fallacy. I’m talking about comic books written specifically about and targeted at teenagers, which appeal to me, an adult foreigner… Why do I still want to read about kids? I used to think that it might be because I grew up in London, and the depiction of American teen life will always fascinate me –  it’s got an exotic, unfamiliar feel. If this is true, then it’s an anthropological curiosity, and I don’t have to feel silly at all… Or perhaps if I’m honest, I am pretty immature, and like a lot of adults, while I’m very glad to be where I am, it’s fun to look at how far I’ve come. Even as an adult, I still remember what it’s like to have a lot less options in my life, to wrestle with a confusion that stems from a fundamentally different perception of the world. Comic books about teenagers will always remind me of that time, and immersing myself in those stories can be a kind of vacation from my serious adult life.

Sonia Harris grew up in London, pretending to be a grown-up. Then she moved to San Francisco, and gradually discovered how deeply immature she could be. She’s become increasingly juvenile ever since. You can contact her via email, sonia@ifanboy.com.


  1. Love it. Even though I would never have admitted it, New Mutants was my favorite comic in my teens, over the X-Men.

    I think comics will always be most comfortable in that adolescent niche. Most adults just don’t have the attention span (or time) to read comcs with the same passion that kids and teens can.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments concerning the Runaways. The post-BKV issues have also been good, though.

  3. Do not move, at least if you like comics.

  4. I enjoyed your article, but was surprised, given the topic, you made no mention of the Legion of Super-Heroes.  Did you ever give them a try as a teen?  Does the fact that they’re teens in the future add an extra, complicating factor to anything they might tell us about teens today?

  5. Superhero teen comic characters are especially interesting, since they’re the only ones allowed to grow older.  Spider-man, Kitty Pride, Robin/Nightwing, Kid-Flash, The "New" (now old) Teen Titans, the original New Mutants, the original X-Men, et cetera.  

    They show overall the most change as characters, so I wonder if there is something possibly more compelling about and relatable about them.

  6. Myself, I have a general disregard for teen angst and drama series. Probably stemming from the tide of such shows and books I was subjected to as a child. I found the stereotypes that were supposed to be my ideal, or at least play to my mind set, to be insulting and cliche. I’ve never been able to shake that early impression completely, though I’ve managed to find some teen books that are quite good. the best currently being published is Dynamo 5.

  7. As long as the book is good I don’t mind if it’s about teens or not.

  8. @powerdad – I like what you pointed out about being relatable, and that is probably why I dislike the Young Avengers so much, their whole genesis seemed forced and calculated to be a response to the Teen Titans. There were way too many cliche moments from modern culture thrown in, and the characters just arent fleshed out enough. A teen Vision? Really?

  9. Young Justice.  Best.  Teen.  Book.  Ever.

  10. I haven’t read any of the books listed on this page.  As a 30 year old, I find it increasingly difficult to connect with these young characters.  The only exception to that appears to be Red Robin, who is currently behaving like someone twice his age.  My stodginess knows no bounds.

  11. Thanks,  k5blazer (if that is your real name — that joke never gets old!), but you’ve made me think here. I actually liked the first TP of Young Avengers, but more for the superhero action and situations, although I did enjoy young Kang. The eventual resolution for his character was a little weird.

    But would any of these characters "grow" into the adult roles?  Right now I don’t see it, I guess only time will tell.

    Runaways almost feels like Powerpack to me, and those Power Pack kids will always be kids. Although I seem to recall a comment from Louise Simonson that she wanted to do the Power Pack comic in which every year the comic came out the kids would age a year.  This never happened, and would be very interesting now since the first issue was published 25 years ago.

  12. Despite my enjoyment of Runaways and Young Avengers, I no longer find stories about teenagers to be particularly exciting. I know where they’re coming from and I know exactly why their viewpoint is limited.

  13. @Diabhol, I can see that. In fact this discussion makes me think of Mike’s "Enough Fighting Already!" article, in so far as sometime when the same themes/stories are told over and over again they loose their appeal.