Alasdair Stuart writes for Bleeding Cool
Youngblood Issue 75
Story by John McLaughlin
Art by Jon Malin
Colours by Ross Hughes
Letters by Rus Wooten
Script Assistance by Manolis Vamvounis
Published by Image
The thing that’s always interested me about Youngblood is the idea of the superhero as media icon. It’s something a lot of other books have used at one time or another, but Youngblood’s unusual in that it was worked into the series’ fabric from the beginning. Certainly other series have used it and used it to both comment on and parody the worst excesses of the superhero genre, John Smith’s New Statesmen springs to mind, but few series have opted to do it in quite so straight forward a manner as Youngblood. They’re a team who operate in the public eye. That changes them, and the public’s perception of them. Concept in place, up we get and off at the gallop.
Of course the book has a lot of baggage, due to both its creator and the never ending cycle of issue 1s it seemed to labor under in the 1990s, but that’s really not worth going over yet again. Instead, let’s look at issue 75.
A recurrent plot line that dealt with journalist Gail Cook working on a piece on the team comes to a head here, with the article not only being published but its prose getting woven in and out of the action. I’m a sucker for a good bit of epistemological bad guy punching and it’s used particularly cleverly here to do two entirely different things.
The first is to provide a contrast not only to the issue’s action but to the moments where the façade slips and we see the people behind the masks.
There’s a particularly nice moment early on, which you see the start of above, where Vogue is complaining about the issue whilst in the field, and it’s only after the mission’s concluded that we see the piece of the article on her, and what upset her (Some of the lines she cites from the piece may sound familiar to regular Bleeding Cool readers by the way…). The text pieces neatly counterpoint and provide context to several of these moments and that elevates the characters and provides a different perspective on their actions. It doesn’t necessarily make them likeable but it’s a neat mechanic that brings something extra to the table.
The second very clever thing the script pulls off is to not only establish the issue as a jumping on point but place that jumping on point in context, not only with the characters on the team but the ones that used to be there. This leads to a double page spread of the original Youngblood, which crosses a couple of rather surprising metafictional boundaries. It’s not only a change of pace in the issue and a logical element of Gail’s piece, but also an acknowledgement of the book’s occasionally very shaky past, the hilarious design choices of the time and the characters no longer present. So, a fictional magazine article about a fictional team of superheroes becomes a means of honoring and acknowledging an actual comic book’s past. That’s rather clever, and I rather like it. It’s doubled back on itself too, as a good chunk of the issue explores the ongoing struggles of the new Shaft to be an effective leader and, just to really ruin his day, the return of his predecessor to effectively sweep the team out from under him. It’s not quite X-Men level spandex angst (‘spangst’?) but the book does fragile super-egos very well.
There are some lovely throw away ideas scattered through the issue too, the ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ that are Youngblood’s bread and butter. The black and white superhuman gangsters released when a library digitized its film noir collection you see above are great fun but personally, I want to see the story where they win back Vegas from hyper-dimensional gamblers, or at the very least the attack of the Mall Pageant Dolls.
The dialogue’s snappy too, especially Die Hard, who’s written here as a laconic, unflappable old soldier with a good sideline in ‘In heaven’s name, what am I doing?’ style thought bubbles. There’ are some clunkers, however, with Cougar in particular suffering from the horrific illness of being a tedious character and the new Shaft having two personality modes; ‘Angry’ and ‘Assertive’. The book also features a couple of magnificent sound effects that are either horrific, wonderful, or live exactly on the line that divides the two. One of them is below:
LAASSH! will never stop making me smile. The other is so unutterably magnificent that, like the Matrix, you really need to discover it yourself. Trust me, it’s worth it.
These minor problems aside, the script does its best throughout and that’s usually more than enough. Even what I suspect is an editorially mandated ‘young blood’ name drop in the final text piece is so cringeworthy it actually reads as an editorially mandated horrible closing pun for the magazine article. Which is fiercely clever, slightly worrying, or most likely, both.
Jon Malin’s art is arguably the one area where the book’s self-referential nature falls in on itself. He’s good, and the scene with the former Shaft (I’m sorry, I re-wrote that multiple times and there’s no way to make it sound good, except perhaps ‘The Artist Formerly Known As Shaft’) briefing the team has a couple of neat visual tricks in it but overall it feels too static, too Liefieldian to really engage with. It’s a shame, especially as Ross Hughes’ colors are exactly the sort of bright, sharp, futuristic shades that a book like this demands.
Youngblood 75 isn’t perfect, what is, but it’s easily the most interesting the book’s been for a long time. This is smartly written superheroics, with one foot in the past, one eye on the nearest camera and the other looking at a smarter, more interesting future. Based on this issue, it absolutely deserves to get there.