My gateway into superheroes were Saturday morning cartoons: the Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and X-Men animated series from the 90s. These sparked an interest in the characters at a young age, and while I watched them religiously it was not until my late teens that I started picking up comics regularly. Until then I would occasionally pick up a random issue here and there, but these books were always somewhat impenetrable, either old back issues or random recent releases out of context from surrounding issues. They hinted at stories that preceded a given issue, or ended on a cliffhanger to which I never got to see the resolution.
This being a pre-blog and pre-Wiki internet, to learn more I spent hours on character and team-devoted web pages like Titans Tower and a now-defunct Encyclopedia of the DC Universe, which meticulously documented the publishing history and important plot points for big event books, individual characters and teams. I knew the differences between the Pre and Post Crisis Superman before ever picking up a single Superman comic.
I spent years pouring over the “Ultimate Guides” to Spider-Man and X-Men, which outlined individual character bios, powers, technology, and significant stories.
My favorite thing about discovering superhero comics was the endless world to discover. Every new character introduced a new mystery to uncover. Every story built on preceding histories. These worlds were so vast, so seemingly endless and sparked my imagination.
The first comics I got into seriously were Peter David & Todd Nauck’s Young Justice and then Geoff Johns’ and Mike McKone’s Teen Titans relaunch in 2003.
I loved these stories because they focused on my favorite characters: the young underdogs who were also discovering the wider superhero universe they inhabited. Their boldness and irreverence for the established heroes made it easier to discover the greater universe as these characters themselves discovered it. As sidekicks and newer characters, they had less baggage and tragedy than their more established mentors.
Ever since those heady days of research and countless hours diving into fictional histories there has always been that feeling, even now, nearly 20 years after becoming a regular reader, there is more to discover.
It is this sense of discovery that was so exciting me as I read Young Offenders, the Kickstarter-funded recent release from writer Mark Stack and artist Mike Becker.
Becker & Stack wonderfully throw readers into the world with minimal exposition–it’s a universe of superheroes, but all of the real heroes disappeared following a recent disaster, leaving earth undefended and vulnerable to attack, which, inevitably, comes early on in this issue.
Stack’s writing intelligently eschews caption boxes or long exposition on who the characters are, and instead introduces the individual members of the team in action, either in conversation with one another or in conflict. We quickly get the impression, for example, that guitarist Victor Ruiz is a former kid sidekick no longer introduced in superheroics, and wants to simply focus on his music, despite the pushing of his friend to step up to help save the world from her cataclysmic vision.
Introduced with a similar air of casual familiarity, but somewhat more fanfare is Colin Rhodes, who is presented by Becker crashing down a wall to investigate the ruins of this universe’s Justice League-type super team, the Defenders United. No real background is given, but the
dialogue lets readers understand his backstory a bit, a washout son of super powered parents and friends with other heroes. He is doing someone a favor, but seemingly reluctantly and not without sarcasm. Stack’s writing is smart, both dropping basic info about the character and also defining his personality, which comes in conflict with the Lark.
The sequence in Defenders United HQ between Colin and The Lark is probably my favorite in the book, because it so expertly illustrates the concept and themes of the book, and lets Mike Becker’s art carry the narrative. Lark is the former-Robin-type to this world’s owl-themed Batman archetype. Serious and eager to prove herself, she comes into conflict with the irreverent and super-powered Colin. As they talk, Becker drapes the panel with the evocative silhouette of her mentor, her own shadow standing in tiny contrast to the towering presence of her father.
Several of the characters in this story are concepts introduced in some of Stack’s previously created short comics and other projects, which were loosely connected, and none of which I have read except for “Joey in the Wilderness,” and the short 8-page story “HERAKLES.” But none of it really matters to the story he tells here, except for the basic idea that this is a connected universe of superheroes with a rich background. By doling out piecemeal info about the backgrounds of our cast and this world’s history, Young Offenders takes me back to those days of discovery where I spent hours trying to find out more and connecting multiple threads.
Even the title of this book is not explicitly explained, but it is dropped by one of their opponents’ in a combined moment of action and explanation. Superhero activity is now monitored and legislated by some kind of government body, and these teens are deemed as young offenders–unlawfully using powers without being deputized and registered. It’s an interesting wrinkle to this establishing issue, immediately putting our heroes at odds with authority, exactly the kind of place a group of teens should be. To do the right thing, they have to break a few rules.
Stack’s plot and character interactions are expertly crafted, belying his relatively young age and level of experience in creating comics, and for the most part he never sacrifices the forward momentum of the story or its action to explain what is going on, instead, he utilizes each page to serve multiple purposes, whether that is establishing his characters’ personalities and relationships, or setting up the larger conflicts.
Becker’s slick and stylized art lends a kinetic energy to the proceedings. In action scenes he isn’t afraid to stretch the characters’ limbs to sell the action, and never restricts himself to any rigid structure to the page. It is clear he knows the visual language of comics and how to guide the readers’ eye across the page and how to pace individual panels and pages as a whole, so that splash pages are appropriately dramatic and exciting. I never found myself confused on how one image led to another, which can be a common issue for self-published and small-press books of this nature.
Jodie Troutman’s letters are also appropriately layed out, and work in harmony with Becker’s art to help move the story along. The balloons and letters have a hand-written feel to them, which adds to the underdog feeling of the entire production.
There are moments that are drop-dead gorgeous, like Victor performing his music or the page where Fallout, the mindless beast of a villain in the issue, is sucked into an interdimensional portal. Becker knows how to tell a superhero story. His color choices are excellent. Though taking place almost exclusively at night, the issue is vibrant and the colors pop. Channeling the optimism and energy of youth, the art reflects the bombast and energy these characters display.
Just as important in a first issue is the ability to define the look of a world and its character. And Mike Becker’s visuals are excellent. He is able to both draw on the existing iconography established by the worlds of DC and Marvel but also present them in his own unique, modern, and imaginative way. There is a sense of design unity to the costumes we see, with outfits comprised of geometric shapes and patterns and bold colors. The glimpses we get of some his more far-out sci-fi and fantasy elements also hint at the fun and imagination he brings to his work. Relatively reserved here, Becker’s art hints at the kind of big ideas that are possible in this world and with these characters.
And that, ultimately, is what I love about superhero comics and what drew me into them at a young age–the excitement that there is more discovery to be made.
If you want to read more work from these two, you can dive into some of Mark Stack’s other work at his Weekend Warrior gumroad shop, which includes the beautiful story The Scent of May Rain. Mike Becker frequently posts art on his twitter and started posting a weekly web comic strip over on Instagram.
Young Offenders digital copies were made available to Kickstarter backers with physical copies due for shipment January ’21. Keep an eye on Stack’s twitter feed and gumroad shop for public release–and make sure to help support this issue so we can see more of the Young Offenders!