Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The F***ed Up History of Sidekicks

"Youth is the only sexy tragedy. It's James Dean jumping into his Porsche Spyder, it's Marilyn heading off to bed." 
- Michael Cunningham

Brat Pack has been criminally under-appreciated for far too long...  

Rick Veitch's groundbreaking works on the dissection of the superhero myth (The One, Brat Pack, Maximortal) were released at the epicenter of teen angst, and his work was gritty in a style that seems to have been completely co-opted by the newest wave of Comics Journal darlings... With or without a cape or mask, his borderline underground style has beed copied ad infinitum without so much as a thank you. And that doesn't even begin to address the many mainstream superhero works derived from his incendiary ideas.

Stephen R. Bissette's new book, Teen Angels & New Mutants, was originally begun as a companion article for the aborted, hardcover edition of Brat Pack. It quickly expanded into a total dissemination of the sidekick phenomenon –considering every sociological condition that contributed to the real world environment that indulged them. Way more than a loving tribute to the work of a dear friend, this is the absolute, authoritative text on the subject, and should be required reading in every Sociology of Media program.

The figures we idolize as youths rarely maintain our admiration as we get older.

Actions or abilities that embody a sense of the heroic are removed from the rosy filter of adolescence and exposed to the experience and cynicism of adulthood. In the nearly forty years that I've been alive, it has been my privilege to meet many of my idols. Some lived up to expectations, some disappointed, but each encounter taught me something about my own frame of mind before and after that meeting. In several instances I've been granted a second audience with these same individuals. That's a whole different experience than meeting them for the first time, because each is a different person the second time around. The sphere of influence will hopefully have changed and, to be truthful, if the same people who impressed me as a twelve year old continue to do so as a forty year old, that might signal an atrophy of my mental advancement.

In some instances, they've advanced as well.

On rare occasions, our mutual growths have found another intersection. While this example more than fits my rediscovery of boyhood idol Steve Bissette, it also encapsulates his latest work. Teen Angels & New Mutants is a reintroduction to the kid sidekicks of comics. It juxtaposes their creation with the media of their day, and traces the marketing behind their ascension with such thorough research, that you will know not only where the term "Teenager" comes from, you might wish you didn't. What began for me as a series of 25 pages in each direction on my subway commute became a voracious obsession with completing the book as soon as possible. And when I finished it, I went back and began reading it again.

Bissette has served a meal of the richest literary food, but managed to make it easily digestible. The risk of tackling any subject with this depth of research is that of delivering a self-indulgent, lifeless, academic essay. Thankfully (possibly miraculously), that's not what happened. Teen Angels is easy to read, often shocking and above all, interesting. For those who would entertain a career in comics, this book is invaluable as a massive, encyclopaedic resource; it demystifies the lore in a straight-forward, but literary manner. For those more interested in the cultural aspects of the subject of sidekicks or even teenagers in general, here's a 400 page crash-course on teen pop culture, the fetishism of childhood and the impact of the independent press on sequential publishing.

While it uses Brat Pack as the major reference point, the scope of this study covers all media, and incorporates much uncomfortable reference. The media orgy that surrounded the death of Jon Benet Ramsey is likened to the sweeps-week reveal of under-age pornstar Traci Lords, and the too young, too soon deaths of Marylin Monroe and James Dean. A Clockwork Orange is presented as a herald of the boy bands craze, and the etymology of "juvenile delinquent" is traced back to the popularity among European youth of Verlaine's post-mortem publishing of the writings of Artaud Rimbeau. The secret history of early comics is revealed to be a history of street gang culture, itself a sort of rite of passage for impoverished, urban youth –society's sidekicks, if you will.

In other words, "thorough" doesn't even begin to describe it.

I'm not easily impressed, and while I'm possibly prone to fanboy zeal when presented with a rare opportunity to laud a work I feel is worthy, I don't know that it is possible to overrate this book. It is a work unique to the subject matter, and I speak not only of the genre of comic book analysis, but of pop-culture autopsy. Bissette has pioneered a new field of criticism nearly thirty years after he helped reinvent the horror comic. With this project, as author, he has attained equal footing with former collaborator Alan Moore, and if they don't give him an Eisner Award for this, they might as well quit handing them out all together.

TEEN ANGELS & NEW MUTANTS: Rick Veitch's BRATPACK and the Art, Karma, and Commerce of Killing Sidekicks by STEPHEN R. BISSETTE is available from Black Coat Press for $30.95. It is also available from It is meant as a companion to the collected Brat Pack by Rick Veitch, also available from

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