Bam! Zap!  Comic book kids
clobber the forces of old
Top photo by Janet Durrans for USA TODAY; comics, DC Comics
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 culture.
     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 world cultures.


     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 Gotham Knights.
     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 flight.
     "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 bang.
     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 ( 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 says.
     "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 are.
     "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. 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 13, 2000