Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. Except for these next few weeks. The tables have turned onto the other foot as Chase prepares for his impending nuptials, and it falls to him to question and Mark to answer. Chase doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Mark. In fact, he might just ask him about things he knows nothing about just to watch him squirm.
Why is Young Animal the best hope for the renewed relevance of superhero comics?
Real quick: Young Animal is a DC Comics imprint that debuted in September of 2016. Curated by Gerard Way under the editorial guidance of Vertigo group editor Jamie S. Rich, Young Animal purports itself to be creating “comics for dangerous humans.” The imprint’s announcement was met with both excitement and skepticism based on Way’s involvement. Way is best known as the frontman of the band My Chemical Romance, so there were those who questioned the business sense of putting a musician in charge of a high-profile line of comics.
Of course, those criticisms often ignored Way’s experience and accomplishments. Way attended and graduated from the School of Visual Arts; his design of My Chemical Romance’s limited edition package for The Black Parade was nominated for a Grammy in 2008 ; and Umbrella Academy, his series with artist Gabriel Bá, received an Eisner Award for Best Limited Series in 2008. Way knows his way around comics and he knows how to curate an aesthetic, and – based on the critical reception the current Young Animal line-up has been welcomed with – this all seems to be going pretty well.
What exactly does it mean for Young Animal to be curated? In the early development of Young Animal, Way brought the DC Comics characters he wanted to feature to Co-Publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee for approval . He then set about hand-picking the creative talent that would best fit each book along with former Vertigo Comics Vice President/executive editor Shelly Bond (who had worked at Vertigo since its launch ) and editor Molly Mahan .
There appears to be a pre-established idea of what Young Animal’s direction should be which is guiding the executive and creative choices being made. Way has expressed his admiration for the “experimental 80s and 90s takes on superheroes”  and there’s one word in comics that’s practically considered synonymous with those words: Vertigo.
The Vertigo imprint sprung up in 1993 around weirder, more experimental superhero work, such as Shade the Changing Man, Sandman, Swamp Thing, and Doom Patrol. These books were meant “to entice teens and adults who were moving away from superheroes, but still wanted to read comics” . However, there was an issue with “some readers stay[ing- away… because of [the] big DC bullet on the cover” of those books. So they received their own imprint under Karen Berger in order to properly brand them for the readership.
The imprint has evolved from its own corner of the DC Universe into a line featuring purely original, creator-owned work that doesn’t have room for the weird superhero takes outside of an occasional Sandman redux. Young Animal, drawing from that well of inspiration in crafting its own experimental and mature superhero line, is starting off with the goal of emulating the early Vertigo line and staying within the DC Universe. Bond’s previous involvement and the current editorial guidance of Rich and Mahan with Young Animal would support that the imprint’s direction is a conscious emulation of early Vertigo by Way and DC Comics.That makes a powerful statement that weird, mature, and/or experimental takes belong as a continued part of DC Comics.
None of that means anything, though, if the books aren’t good. Aggregate sites aren’t the “be-all, end-all” of quality indication, but it is worth mentioning that the four Young Animal series currently maintain average critic ratings that range from 7.7 to 8.7 out of 10 on Comic Book Round Up . As for sales, the Young Animal books aren’t blowing up at comic shops; the February issues of Mother Panic, Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye, and Shade the Changing Girl each sold fewer than 15k copies . The first collected editions of these books are due out over the course of this summer, so their performance in bookstores and on Amazon will likely determine the longevity of the imprint.
I’ll put a personal stamp on it: I like these books. They’re the only ones I’m picking up regularly right now. I want their collections to sell like bottled water in the desert because, as it’s stated in the question, they’re a much needed shot in the arm for superhero comics to remain relevant. But for superhero comics to be relevant we first have to consider who they are meant to be relevant to. Who is the readership? If Young Animal is in the business of making “comics for dangerous humans,” then who are these dangerous humans? Based on the first crop of titles, the answer might very well be “young women.”
All four titles feature female leads or co-leads and focus in part on their relationships to their fathers/father-figures. The four women leading these books are all at different points in their lives in addition to existing in different genres. There’s a diversity of experience at play that makes Loma Shade’s tale of high school alienation stand worlds apart from the glitz and the violence of Violet Paige’s disaffected socialite life. Telling more than one kind of story with more than one kind of woman opens up these characters to having real flaws. Flaws are often how readers connect with a character, so presenting a variety of interesting, flawed female characters opens these comics (and potentially more superhero comics) up to a wider audience of female readers in the LCS, the bookstore, and online that might not have had their attention captured by Wonder Woman or Squirrel Girl.
Here are two examples of easy ways to pitch Young Animal’s current line-up to potential new readers:
- Shade the Changing Girl: an alien, Loma Shade, possesses the body of a comatose “mean girl” and has to navigate a hostile social circle in high school. The mystery element about how Shade’s host was put into her coma makes this a book that may appeal to fans of Pretty Little Liars.
- Mother Panic: a socialite with a dark past and a penchant for body modification returns to Gotham to get revenge on the upper crust. The focus on artifice in upper class social dynamics and the villain’s penchant for violent tableaus may appeal to fans of Gossip Girl and/or Hannibal.
These books don’t sound alike at all. One puts the “alien” in “teen alienation” and the other plays like a scuzzy, modern update Batman: Year One. They don’t appear to be for the same audience at all, which is important. There’s going to be overlap because people can have varied interests, but the audience for Young Animal is further expanded instead of trying to zero in on a group with one or two specific instances.
Of course, the creators matter an awful lot here. Writer, artist, colorist, letterer… They all contribute toward crafting a book. The creative teams on these books were chosen for their ability to bring something unique to their books. Let’s look at Shade the Changing Girl for a specific example.
Cecil Castellucci is a novelist and comics writer specializing in YA/romance who had also done sporadic work for DC Comics in the last few years in anthologies like Sensation Comics and Young Romance. Way wanted her to take on Shade the Changing Girl because he recognized her work as “pretty hardcore and visceral, so [he] knew she was going to bring that to the book” . And the guiding hand of Shelly Bond (before her position with Vertigo was eliminated ) was there to attach artist Marley Zarcone to the book . Castelluci, Zarcone, and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick hadn’t all worked together before starting work on the book, but they now “run a pinterest board for Shade inspiration” . It’s worth noting this since it doesn’t happen very often in the realm of superhero comics: every creator on this book is a woman. There’s something to be appreciated about a creative team being kept consistent and allowed to bond in this way in an era of art teams being switched out like tires on a stock car.
Young Animal employs different tactics from other superhero comics publishers and these tactics show long-term strategy. It has debuted four titles starring very different women and features a fair amount of diversity working behind the page. It also respects the importance of a consistent creative team enough to recently place Doom Patrol on hiatus  rather than employ co-writers or fill-ins to rush the book out. While a fill-in issue would get out on time, it will only sell for a month. The eventual collection it will belong to will sell forever. It’s a clear shot across the bow in search of an audience that might not necessarily visit comics shops.
(The Young Animal trade dress does not feature the DC Comics logo on the cover of the first trade paperback volumes.)
As great as some comics shops may be, they’re still a niche market. Amazon and bookstores are where the real mainstream lives, so accessible superhero and superhero-adjacent comics pursuing a segment of that wider, mainstream audience is the best hope for them to remain relevant. That’s what Young Animal appears to be doing while DC also services their primary direct market audience with their Rebirth line-up of superhero comics.
If things go well, we might see Young Animal expand and push the industry’s other major superhero publisher towards trying something similar that places a strong editorial vision and steady creative teams at the forefront of courting a new audience. Unfortunately, we won’t know how this is all going to shake-out until the trade paperbacks are released. A rising tide raises all ships, so success for Young Animal is going to mean success for everyone provided the right lessons are learned from it. Let’s try to make sure that happens.