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How Marvel Kept the Young Avengers Waiting For Allan Heinberg

This week, the Young Avengers return to the Marvel Universe with their original creative team in “Avengers: The Children’s Crusade” #1 by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung. It’s a story that’s been in the works for a long time — Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada was teasing script samples in September 2008 — and finally picks up the long-dormant major plot threads left dangling with these characters since the conclusion of “Young Avengers.”

That conclusion happened four years ago, however, and despite how much time that has passed, all of those mysteries about Speed and Wiccan and the Scarlet Witch and Hulkling and crew still haven’t been tied up by other writers. They’ve been referenced and teased, but for the most part the toys are in the exact same grooves in the sandbox where he left them. Why — and how — did this happen?

Allan Heinberg isn’t a writer with a lot of credits to his name in comics. Granted, his IMDB profile is way more prolific, but his comics oeuvre is pretty small: he started out with the very successful “Young Avengers” ongoing in 2005, of which he eventually did twelve issues. During that time, he teamed with studiomate and friend Geoff Johns on five issues of “JLA” bridging “Identity” and “Infinite Crisis.” After that event, he rebooted the “Wonder Woman” title, which he wrote for four issues before the book collapsed into delays. He was replaced by Jodi Picoult and his fifth issue finally came out months later in the form of an annual.

So yeah, he’s definitely got deadline problems, but he’s also a really good writer. “Young Avengers” was a comic that shouldn’t have worked: teen sidekicks are traditionally a DC thing, anyway. But it came out in 2005 during a period of time where the readership was open to massive change — Bucky’s back as a crazy Russian assassin, the Avengers live in a tower with Luke Cage, Wolverine and Spider-Man.

That, combined with the fact that Heinberg and Cheung’s comic was just really damn good, and within twelve issues he’d successfully popularized a set of characters from (largely) whole cloth that have hung around every major Marvel event since, as well as playing parts in a few other ongoings (for instance, Stature and Vision joined Dan Slott’s “Mighty Avengers”).

In the meantime, Zeb Wells wrote a “Civil War” tie-in crossing the team over with the Runaways, while Christopher Yost wrote a similar tie-in for “Secret Invasion” and Paul Cornell wrote one for “Dark Reign.” All of these books operated by exploring the relationship between the characters and the event; for instance, the “Secret Invasion” tie-in explored Hulkling’s half-Skrull heritage in the context of the Skrull invasion, while “Dark Reign” explored, much like the rest of the Marvel Universe, the idea of sinister heroic doppelgangers upending the system.

All of these stories provided relevant stories for the characters without progressing or touching on Heinberg’s dangling plot lines too much — a feat largely possible due to the Marvel event machine, because it would continue to produce situations where there were stories to be told about the Young Avengers, but those stories could deal largely with the event itself and keep the characters pristine for Heinberg’s eventual return.

It’s an interesting way to deal with creator absence, and one I don’t think has been tried before. I know DC waited a while to pull the trigger on any sort of continuation of Jeph Loeb’s “Hush” until it was pretty sure he wasn’t going back to the company anytime soon, and Paul Dini started to use him. It’s a problem they’re facing with Batwoman as well, as Greg Rucka’s departure from the Big Two in general has left the Alice plotline dangling — and according to J.H. Williams III, that’s how it’ll stay unless Rucka says there’s no chance he’ll ever return.

It’s a radical departure from the times when a creator leaving a title usually meant someone came in and retconned everything the last dude did, and certainly a big sign of the continual refocusing on creators in the superhero comics marketplace. While the interim “Young Avengers” books sold fairly well, they didn’t come anywhere near to the original series, nor to what I expect “Children’s Crusade” will sell — and this is largely because while Wells, Yost and Cornell are all good writers, the Young Avengers and their associated stories still belong to Heinberg, at least until he officially passes the baton the characters are his to be lent out. Editorial knows it, the creators know it and the readers know it. I imagine this is a paradigm we’ll see well into the future.

As for “Children’s Crusade” itself — how is it? Well, it hasn’t skipped a beat. A new lettering font is the only noticeable reminder that this isn’t “Young Avengers” #13, and the way Steve and Tony appear (in their pre-”Civil War” outfits) would set this in 2006 rather than 2010, although there’s a helpful note on the first page that this does take place in the Heroic Age and all will be made clear later. Heinberg’s character work is as sharp as ever, and Cheung’s art as consistent as always. That this is a really good comic isn’t a surprise; that Marvel gave the creators and characters room to breathe to ensure that this would come out as Heinberg and Cheung intended, well… that kind of is, and it’s a happy one.

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