By Kelly Kanayama
There are two things you need to know about Youngblood #1 right off the bat:
- It features a character called Shaft, who, unlike the famed movie detective of the same name, is a white redheaded man who kills a guy by throwing a pen at him in a shopping mall.
- It wants you to believe in a world where an ex-gymnast who is 5 feet 9 inches of pure muscle weighs 140 pounds.
As you may have guessed from the above fun facts, Youngblood #1, which came out in 1992, is a first issue that demonstrates a, uh, tenuous relationship with reality – or, more specifically, with the gap between reality and realism, into which this comic plummets in a bombastic shower of pouches, big hair, and cross-hatching.
Because this is a Rob Liefeld joint. (Well, mostly. The comic credits him with creating the characters and with “Plot, pencils, and inks”, but credits “dialogue” to Hank Kanalz and “color design” to Brian Murray.) And not just any Rob Liefeld joint, but the flagship title of the then-newly launched Image Comics. What Youngblood #1 presumably set out to represent was a fresh, no-holds-barred direction for mainstream superhero comics publishing: “young blood,” if you like, as embodied in Liefeld and his Image co-founders.
Thus it attempted to inject some realism into its titular team of superheroes by portraying them as celebrities; Liefeld’s stated intent was to flesh out “a realistic approach to superheroes,” where they would be as famous as movie stars or pop music giants. The members of Youngblood therefore got mobbed by paparazzi, bedded the hottest babes, and, in later issues, negotiated endorsement deals and photo ops with their agents in between beating the crap out of improbably shoulder-padded supervillains or foreign political leaders.
….Didn’t I mention that half of Youngblood was essentially a superpowered military intervention team that worked for the US government? Oops. Now you know, I guess.
Although I referred to Youngblood as a superteam, it’s really two teams in one: a “home team” that deals with domestic threats like supervillains breaking out of maximum security supervillain prisons, and an “away team” that deals with international situations like thinly veiled fictionalizations of Saddam Hussein – sorry, “Hassan Kussein” – who the US government doesn’t much care for. Issue #1 makes this division between the home and away teams clear through a surprisingly clever printing trick. The issue contains one story about the home team and another story about the away team, but these stories are flipped upside down from each other, if that makes sense.
That is, readers would start by reading one story and then turn to the back cover and flip the book upside down to read the other. As a result, the stories coexist in a space that doesn’t prioritize the home team over the away team or vice versa, since there is no definitive “first” or “second” story in this issue; the decision on which is which is left to the reader.
If only the narrative content of Youngblood #1 had lived up to this. Sadly, it is stupid as hell. There’s little suspense to be had, just a bunch of folks with big thighs beating up robots and people while shouting poorly-thought-out code names at each other. I’ll go through everyone’s superhero names in a second, but first I must note that one of the members of Youngblood goes by “Combat”. So, basically, “Fight Man”. That’s the level of innovation we’re working with here.
Your roster for Youngblood #1 is:
- Brahma, a huge blonde guy with super-strength
- Sentinel, a guy whose super-high-tech armor allows him to fly around and punch things real hard
- Riptide, a woman with a boring blue strapless leotard and water manipulation powers whose name unfortunately makes me think of bad diarrhea – e.g. “I think the chicken was undercooked, because I unleashed an absolute riptide in that bathroom” – which I realize is a me problem, but still
- Psi-Fire (in the 90s you were legally required to name one member of your superteam “Psi-something”), a man with telepathic and flight powers who uses the former to murder Fictional Saddam Hussein by making his head explode
- Cougar, a super-strong guy with animalistic facial features and hella sideburns who is definitely not Sabretooth
- The aforementioned Combat, who has cool metal arms, super-strength, and white hair that goes around his whole face except for the chin, like an Amish guy who started shaving off his beard but gave up after about three minutes.
- Vogue, a Russian ex-gymnast who, according to her official Youngblood #1 trading card, “is a master of hand-to-hand combat for most disciplines of martial arts” and is also not too shabby with “throwing knives and shurikens”
- Shaft, an “expert marksman and weapons master” according to his official trading card, who gets his superhero name from his mastery of the bow and arrow (like Hawkeye but definitely not Hawkeye) and whose real name is Jeff
- Badrock (called “Bedrock” in this first issue, but it’s changed to “Badrock” after that), a teenager whose body is made of stone
- Chapel, a guy with a huge gun who paints a skull shape over his face and who loves boning hot babes
- Diehard, who wears full-body and full-face armor, flies, and doesn’t seem to talk much
- Photon, who has an alien-looking V-shaped head and I guess has light powers based on the name, although they’re not used at all in this issue
America is in good, non-copyright-infringing hands.
About those trading cards: Youngblood #1 shipped with official trading cards that featured headshots of its heroes or photo-op-style images of the team members at work – there’s that celebrity thing again – a move that underscored its intended future status as a collectible item. As anyone who lived through Beanie Babies knows all too well, though, creating products to be collectibles is a recipe for financial ruin, because that’s not how collectibles work. A product becomes collectible because it’s rare and/or because it stands as a signifier for some greater institution/phenomenon/whatever. E.g. World War II memorabilia isn’t collectible simply because it’s old and looks cool, but because it’s associated with a major historical event. That is, collectibles are invested with collectibility after the fact by the consumer, so Liefeld et al.’s efforts to create “collectible” comics and related paraphernalia were by nature an exercise in futility.
Yet while the trading cards didn’t help to propel Youngblood #1 to prized collectible status, they are useful in illuminating the particulars of the “realistic” world that Liefeld wanted to bring to life. On the backs of the cards with headshots were biographical details, heights, and weights of the characters on the front. Remember that second point I mentioned at the beginning of this article? That ex-gymnast who clocked in at 5’9” and 140 pounds? That’s Vogue, who is also an expert martial artist and looks like this:
NOTE: I know weight/height correlations can vary wildly, and I really don’t want to suggest that any actual person is the “right” or “wrong” weight for their size – because who am I, a person with zero medical training whatsoever, to make that call? I am, ultimately, a dork making jokes about Rob Liefeld, the lowest-hanging fruit in comics criticism.
That said, if we take a look at that trading card, Vogue is working with a lot of muscle. Muscle is denser than fat, and to support her superheroic activities and general physical frame, Vogue must have pretty strong bones. You know the bit in 30 Rock where Jack dates that lady who has hollow bones? Vogue has the opposite, whatever that may be.
I have no firsthand experience of what extremely fit and/or muscular people might weigh; last week I did a full program (about 45 minutes) of butt exercises for the first time in months, and for several days afterwards I made the “OOH-WAH-AH-AH-AH” noise from “Down With The Sickness” every time I bent down. However, thanks to some Googling, I can tell you that the wrestler Asuka is billed at a height of 5’3” and a weight of 137 pounds. She isn’t built exactly like Vogue, because very few human beings who survive to adulthood could possibly be built like a Liefeld drawing, but a bit of quick math suggests that a 5-foot-9 woman with that level of visible musculature would weigh more than 140 pounds.
This sounds like a minor quibble that I’m blowing out of proportion – in fairness, I did recently finish a PhD in comics studies, and what else do you think we do all day? And while one way-off guesstimate regarding human body weight isn’t a huge deal in itself, it does indicate a much broader problem: namely, what do comics think is “realistic”?
Liefeld said he wanted Youngblood to be a “realistic” treatment of superheroes. We’ve heard that echoed throughout contemporary comics, from Bendis and Oeming’s Powers to Millar and Hitch’s The Ultimates to Ennis, Robertson, and Braun’s The Boys: varying degrees of insight and impact, yes, but all perhaps more indebted than they realize to the template that Youngblood #1 set out almost 30 years ago.
I’m not suggesting that these comics followed directly in Liefeld’s footsteps; The Boys, for instance, takes quite a dim view of US interventionist policy in the Middle East, and expresses this through the notion of superheroes being incredible dickwads. But its notion of superheroes as celebrities? You can trace that back to Youngblood. Likewise Ultimates, wherein Thor is a resident DJ/artist at a club and Captain America is angrily jingoistic, not to mention The Authority, which focuses on a superhero team sanctioned by the US government to go HAM on foreign infrastructures as long as the end result fills America’s coffers and missile silos – Youngblood is in their genes. Altered, reshaped, subverted, sure, but it’s there. (And to be subversive, don’t you need to have something to subvert?)
But part of that is a distorted view of what constitutes reality, or realism. This is a world where “realistically” superheroes should be celebrities and yet “realistically” women must be under a certain weight, no matter how muscular they are, in order to not be…unsexy? Undiminished? Un-subjugatable? Honestly, I can’t find the exact term, but it leaves an odd taste in my mouth. What I do know is that this version of realism feels like it only acknowledges elements that serve the creator; superheroes are beloved by the press no matter what they do, even if they use a pen to murder a guy in full view of the public, but women can’t exist in big numbers for whatever reason.
Considering how much of contemporary mainstream comics has been influenced by a professed move towards “realistic” narratives, it’s worth asking the questions that Youngblood #1 raises but never answers. Whose reality? Realistic for whose benefit? And what does this version of realism require us to ignore?
Writer/Artist: Rob Liefeld
Colourist: Digital Chameleon
Letterer: Diane Valentino
Dr Kelly Kanayama is a writer and comics scholar who is literally writing the book on Garth Ennis. Don’t believe me? Have a look at her Patreon page here! You can also find Kelly on Twitter here, highly recommended.
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