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Three Characteristics Every Teen Superhero Book Should Have

An analysis on what makes a great teen superhero book; turns out it's not all acne medication and highschool crushes.

For those of you who read my column last week about the qualities that make team superhero books great, the format of this article should be easy to follow. However, for those late to the party, I'll explain: in this series of columns, I'm going to take a deeper look into the qualities make certain genres of comics good.

While these lists aren't meant to be a checklist for writers to follow when exploring a new character, I felt that there were common threads among books that would separate the good from the bad. This week, I've decided to move on to analyze the teen superhero book and the qualities that makes certain examples great.

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While I had a hard time finding a bad teen hero book that lasted longer than it should have, there are a number of titles that just seemed to hover around mediocre. However, there were certain things that I found that elevates titles like Invincible, Blue Beetle, Amazing Spider-Man and Static past the realm of "merely okay" into something more. You'll find the list below. Because really, if we can't recognize greatness, what's the point of analyzing comics?

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Foils

Young Justice
Young Justice

English poet John Donne once wrote "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." This holds true in comics as it does any other medium, as the success of a character is often linked to his (or her) supporting cast. This is especially true in teen superhero books, as interactions with others in a time of social and physical development makes for great storytelling.

Similarly to how team books need various archetypes to make the cogs in the group work together, a teen book needs a rich supporting cast for the protagonist to bounce off of. Whether it's a best friend, a love interest, an arch-nemesis or a role model, a teen hero cannot thrive on his own. Part of what makes teen heroes so interesting is the fact that they're growing all the time, and having them do that by themselves runs the risk of having the lessons learned look a bit too unrealistic.

Much like how teenagers who think they know everything may keep making the same destructive mistakes, a teen hero without a supporting cast may come off as annoying, or have trouble conquering their problems.

Real Issues

While every teen doesn't go through huge helpings of drama, there's a good chance that they will face things that they have no idea how to handle. Besides problems that happen when "on the job," a good teen superhero book should have issues that real teens face.

However, it can be difficult to balance drama with a "regular" superhero plot line: writers must be careful, lest they turn their book into a "very special issue" month after month. Still, books have explored themes like suicide, sexual experimentation and peer pressure successfully before; letting them flood a book is a quick way to make things unrealistic.

Part of the appeal of teen superheroes is the juxtaposition between a "real" life and the life of a costumed crime-fighter; having the protagonist balance both is key to the understanding of the book. This doesn't mean that they have to react in a normal way, however: characters like Cassandra Cain highlight their lack of a "normal" teenage life by the way they react to otherwise mundane situations.

The Passage of Time

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While awkwardness is a big part of the teen superhero genre, no one likes a character that is mired in the mud, unable to move forward. Part of what makes teen characters great is that we get to grow with them. We are there for their creation as unstable, reckless youth, and we get to see them evolve into someone a little more capable and confident.

Characters who remain stuck in one place for too long run the danger of becoming stale with the audience: making the same mistake over and over again rarely makes for compelling storytelling.

Instead, we must be given a sense of progress, even if the teenage isn't going to grow up right away. In some cases, we can see the passage of time quite literally, like the evolution of Dick Grayson from Robin to Nightwing to Batman. Other times, the flow is more subtle, like Mark Grayson's transition from high school student to college dropout to intergalactic warrior.

Even still, characters may not grow physically at all, like Jaime Reyes, but the transition from awkward teen to confident hero is evident.

The Wrap-up

Part of what makes teen superheroes great is that it harkens back to a time when everything was still new and waiting to be discovered. Teen heroes are competent enough to handle themselves, but vulnerable enough to be overwhelmed by issues that they have no idea how to face. There's a good potential for drama because they there's a lack of confidence and certainty that only comes with age.

As always, this list isn't meant to be definitive: the bottom line is that a book will be great depending on how a writer interprets these tropes and uses them to his/her advantage. A book hitting all these bases can still be boring if there isn't a good writer backing them up; hopefully creative souls, like the ones behind DC's relaunch of Young Justice, Static, Blue Beetle and the Legion of Super-Heroes, will keep us reliving our high school days for decades to come.

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Matt Demers is a Toronto comics columnist and a staff writer for Comic Vine. You can follow him on Twitter and Tumblr; he likes messages!