[The following article has a trigger warning for mentions of violence, specifically against queer characters. It contains spoilers for all Young Avengers arcs, especially involving Teddy's genealogy and source of power, including the first crossover with The Runaways during Marvel's Civil War Arc. Finally, it contains spoilers for some characters from The Runaway's backstories.]
This fall, I fell irrevocably in love with a fictional character. An immensely flawed, sometimes selfish fictional character with poor decision making skills, nonetheless, but none of that seemed to affect my love for him. He was such a real character, more so than so many other characters I’ve encountered over the years. His name was Billy Kaplan and I was totally smitten.
I suppose we could say I started down this path in the late summer, when comics became a very avid part of my daily life. I had grown up with a father who was obsessed with collecting comics, so they had always been sort of a constant presence, but they really began to show their merits to me this year. I started off with DC Comics, mainly because, compared to Marvel, DC storylines are much easier to follow as a new comic book reader (DC has, somewhat infamously, rebooted its entire universe so many times).
One of the main things that turned me from gobbling up all the DC comics I could find to immersing myself into the more complicated but definitely better thought-out and put-together story lines of Marvel were two names: Billy Kaplan and Teddy Altman.
Of course, you recognize the former from my earlier waxing poetic, but let me fill you in on Billy Kaplan. He’s a teenage Captain America fan boy, who makes references to The Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter. He just so happens to also have the power to bend reality and is a member of the teenage superhero group the Young Avengers. He’s also technically the son of the Scarlett Witch (and I use the term “technically” because it’s all this mumbo-jumbo about souls and magic that we’re not going to get into), whom, if you read comics, you know is a very powerful member of the Avengers.
Teddy Altman is a half-Kree, half-Skrull destined to bring peace between the two alien races currently at war and is Billy’s team mate. Oh, and his father is Captain Marvel.
He’s also Billy’s boyfriend.
Yes, Billy Kaplan and Teddy Altman are in a relationship, have been since early on in the series. And not in the way that is fandom dissecting every little moment between the two male characters and inventing a secret relationship. These two characters are canonically queer and canonically in a relationship.
I was, quite obviously, ecstatic when I found out about this relationship. It’s not a secret that the world of comic books is largely by men for men and typically, the men who comic book companies target aren’t very interested in reading about a developing queer relationship between two teenage males. But here these two are, holding each other when they were upset, calling each other “boyfriend” and sharing in-panel kisses.
There may already be a handful of queer characters in comic books but I think these two are particularly important. Why? First off, they are extremely relatable. They experience the normal self-conflict any other teenager would. They spend a lot of time second-guessing their decisions and experience a fair share of self-doubt and lack of confidence. They also go through the same troubles as other queer youths: they struggle with coming out and with being harassed because of their sexuality. They share traits with any person who has been a teenager or currently is a teenager, whether said person is queer or not.
Secondly, perhaps most importantly, Billy and Teddy may be queer characters but that is not their defining trait. They are teenage superheroes that are also queer, not queer teenage superheroes. Furthermore, Billy and Teddy are not queer for the sake of diversity.
When I finally finished the main arc, as well as the special series and “The Children’s Crusade”, I was so pleased with the way Marvel had handled the portrayal of this queer relationship. It was so real and, aside from the lack of an in-panel kiss until long into the canon reveal of the relationship, progressed as any other comic book relationship would. So I decided to read the two crossovers my beloved Young Avengers had with another group of teenage superheroes known as The Runaways.
That was a mistake.
I’ve never read The Runaways before but what I understood from the crossovers was that they are a group of children who ran away from home because their parents were super villains. This series also boasts a pair of queer characters. Xavin is technically what we would consider genderfluid. Xavin is a Skrull, who are a race of shape-shifting aliens, who goes back and forth from being male to being female. Xavin does prefer a female form, however, because he is engaged to Karolina Dean, who is, herself, a lesbian.
These two groups of teenagers meet for the first time during the Civil War (an arc in the Marvel Universe in which superheroes were asked to register their secret identities with the government, you can read more about this very successful arc here) and here’s where Marvel starts to regress after all the progress it’s made in its portrayal of Billy and Teddy: the boys, along with Xavin and Karolina, are kidnapped and tortured by a sadistic villain. Now, the comic explains this story as the four of them being unregistered “aliens” so there is no law saying that they can’t be kidnapped and experimented on. It was, however, not lost on me (and many others) that the four teenagers kidnapped were all the queer characters in the issue.
Now, I suppose this would affect me less if it made sense and was in character, but the whole situation is horribly out of character. Billy is the most powerful member of the Young Avengers. So much so that the Avengers themselves are afraid of Billy’s full potential. One could also argue that Teddy is second most powerful. Yet, they are easily incapacitated, taken aboard an alien aircraft and viciously tortured. It almost physically hurts to read through the pages where Billy begs for Teddy to stop being cut open and having his organs harvested.
And they don’t even save themselves. Billy, Teddy, Xavin and Karolina are helpless until the leftover group of entirely heterosexual and cisgender characters burst in to save the day.
There are countless reasons why I hate this crossover but the one that sticks out the most is this: the LGBT* community is not helpless. This storyline helps perpetuate the stereotype that we are. It helps spread the idea that we need “allies” in the heterosexual and cisgender community to further our cause. We don’t; we are fully capable of taking care of ourselves.
It’s not like the media doesn’t already paint the LGBT* community as helpless. So many queer representations (and there aren’t very many) in our modern media, such as television and movies, seem to subscribe to the idea that we need the big, strong majority that is cisgender heterosexual people to get anywhere, to be anything, to make the changes we want to make. As a community that already faces discrimination and hardships each days, is what we really need right now is another media outlet telling us we can’t do these things on our own?
All in all, Marvel seems to have missed the point.
The first issue of the new Young Avengers arc has just been released and I’m hoping Marvel can redeem themselves from this horrible, problematic crossover it published. It’s safe to say, however, that I don’t expect much and my opinion on Billy and Teddy and their contribution to queer representation in the media has been changed forever.