Bam! Zap! Comic book kids
clobber the forces of old
Top photo by Janet Durrans for USA TODAY; comics, DC
Hall of artistic justice: The aging Man
of Steel has some young allies in Batman: Gotham Knights writer Devin Grayson,
left, editor Frank Benios and pencil artist Yvel Guichet, who together
produce Relative Heroes
Quirky, young Weinbergs fight
teen angst in 'Relative Heroes'
By Cathy Lynn Grossman
Watch out, civilians!
The 21st century superheroes are after you! They captivate unwary
"civilians" anyone not yet caught up in the comic book
They leap from comic book pages with the strength
of self-awareness, not the superpowers of the past.
They intrigue with plots as dense as opera,
dialogue as astringent as haitai, artwork that kaleidoscopes across
They're spawned by a creative generation whose
only resemblance to the middle-aged-white-man stereotype of a comic
book artist is a commitment to great stories.
New faces, new voices young artiste and
writers, women and minorities are moving out of the independent realm
of alternative and niche market comic books, where they've long drawn loyal
fans, into major roles on mainstream books.
They're aiming at comics' top buyers: 18-
to 24-year olds.
In January, Gen Xer Devin Grayson became the
first woman to be the lead regular writer of a major Batman series, Batman
Last year, Batman publisher DC Comics called
on Shawn Martinbrough, the first ongoing black artist on the flagship Detective
Comics series, to help re-create Gotham City after its fictional demise.
Emblematic of this new wave, DC Comics also
is publishing Relative Heroes, a highly literate superhero book. It's a
six-month miniseries created and owned by Grayson, 29, and pencil artist
Yvel Guichet, 28.
Relative's heroes are the
Weinberg family, a cross-cultural clutch of orphans traveling in a party
of five (yes, their parents die at the opening, Grayson's deliberate nod
to TVs Party of Five).
"Their powers are their problems," says Grayson,
who's close enough to adolescence to recall how exquisitely awful those
years can be.
The superheroes and their Weinberg alter egos:
In a perfect Gen X vision of middle management, Joel
gets a costume, and he gets to drive, but he has no powers of his own beyond
his ability to unleash his siblings in righteous wrath or self preserving
~Temper. Temperamental 12- year old Aviva, who throws thunderbolts
with her tantrums.
~Blindside. Moody Tyson, Aviva's adopted black brother, who
goes invisible because he's "not truly seen by society, as a black man,"
the book says. "He tends to look like me," Guichet says.
~ Allure. Mesmerizing Damara, who disguises her poor self-image
by exuding the paralyzing perfume of beauty.
~ Omni. Inscrutable Cameron, adopted from an alien land, who
thrives by borrowing the powers of his peers.
~ Houston. Joel, the 15-year old narrator of Book I, who keeps
the Weinbergs corralled in a Winnebago ("What could be a more silly, embarrassing
vehicle for a teen?" Grayson asks) on a journey in search of their future.
"The evil forces we live with today are ourselves,"
says Grayson, daughter of a therapist and a sociologist who divorced when
she was 2 years old. Her stories are set in the dark alleys of the psyche.
The Weinbergs' mission is not Superman's fight
for truth, justice and the American way. It is to answer eternal
questions, Grayson says: "What makes a family? What is a family supposed
to do for you in this world?"
At first the dynamic duo of Grayson and Guichet
wanted to name their book The Weinbergs, to attract civilians. But the
corporate powers at DC Comics-adventurous enough to launch a book based
on teens fighting the evils of angst, not violent thugs balked at an
ethnic name with a stereotypical connotation that's more wimpy than whiz
ln the parallel universe of publishing, a
miniseries has to take off fast or die. So Grayson went with the commercial
name Relative Heroes "because I like the pun of it." Grayson, whose
list of special powers on her Web site (www.2kcomics.com) includes "ability
to drink Tabasco right out of the bottle" and "immediately recognizable
at a table of all male creators," was a civilian herself not long ago.
She never read comics until long after graduating
from Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. While she did a research
project for a California health maintenance organization and worked on
a novel at night, Grayson became addicted to comic books through Batman:
The Animated Series on television.
"It was brilliant, highly stylized and very
adult," she says. "I saw Batman talking about father/son relationships.
He had an emotional life. There was a real psychology behind
this mask. I ran to a friend who had a comic book shop and said, 'What's
up with this?' "
Grayson nagged DC Comics for a chance to adapt
her writing skills to the iron discipline of the comic book format. Her
opening came in 1997 when she wrote the story for The Batman Chronicles
No. 7. Next came Catwoman and Nightwing annuals and more.
In her hands, Batman: Gotham Knights takes
a new direction, focusing on the interactions among
key characters surrounding Batman.
"It's a book about relationships. That's
what I write about," Grayson says.
Still, she resists being
"pegged in solely female centric terms," and her Relative Heroes editor,
29-year old Frank Berrios, agrees. Berrios, who is Puerto Rican,
says that when he joined DC Comics five years ago, he found a "community
of writers and artists including many people of color and women."
But the most significant influence on this
diverse group is youth, not heritage, Berrios says. This
is the generation that communicates in a synthesis of art, music and narrative.
"We see the influence of comics in video games
and video in comics. Movies like The Matrix bring in exciting looks where
the music and the art are bright, strong and interesting. Wu-Tang
Clan and rap groups take the energy of comics in another direction," Berrios
"Devin Grayson does a great job of hitting
different levels, waking you up to complexity. She brings an earthiness,
a new sensibility. Things are never what you think they
"Yvel Guichet's art style is very in tune
with youth of today. He can bring in everything from hip-hop to suburban
looks. He's able to capture a lot of emotion. He went much more futuristic
on the design with the muted colors and the quirky, busy costumes."
"When I first started, I had the sense that
the industry was looking for people like me 19 and talented and
off the street," Guichet says. He sees "a new spring of styles coming into
mainstream books. More cartoony. More expressive."
Guichet's crusaders are uneasy in their own
skins. In Book 3, now in stores, the Weinbergs can't figure out how to
wriggle out of their outfits. The artist says: "Usually superhero teens
are born into their powers and know how to fight. These kids don't know
which way to go first."
So much for the socko stories of action and
melodrama, "the adolescent male power fantasies" of the 1930s, '40s
and '50s, when the first generation of writers and artists "made it up
as they went," says DC Comics' resident Batman expert, editor Dennis O'Neil.
O'Neil, at 60 a member of the second generation,
grew up on the classic books when this form was controversial. While social
critics decried the violence and vocabulary, "my dad would buy me a comic
book every week after Sunday Mass."
Once seen as "literature for people who aren't
the sharpest knives in the drawer," comic books now are incorporated into
college curricula, in studies of art, literature and mythology, says
O'Neil, who frequently lectures on campuses. "The third generation
(today's young creators) sees this as an art form equal to jazz or opera.
And no topics are off limits," O'Neil says. Readers are buying the
21st century look, says Karon Flage 33, a founding editor of a 'zine (www.
Sequentialtart.com) for female fans.
Although female writers and artists made inroads
years ago in horror, fantasy, science fiction, Goth and romance comic books,
Flage says, "mainstream comics are the last to catch on. Writers
and artists are always going to bring their own experiences to the table.
Different ideas are going to occur to you if you are a woman or a man or
a black man.
"There are many different ways to tell a story.
'Pow!' and 'Bang!' aren't always the point.
This article appeared in USA TODAY on Monday, March