Outlawed #1: Ballad of a Teenage Superhero

Outlawed 1 Cover by Pepe Larraz and David Curiel depicting Ms. Marvel, Nova, and Spider-Man

Outlawed #1, by Ewing, Jacinto, and Grundetjern, is an ambitious one-shot, meant to disrupt the status quo of the Marvel Universe. At least, the status quo for teen superheroes: superheroes whose superpowers don’t quite translate to systemic power.

Outlawed #1

Clayton Cowles (letterer), Eve L. Ewing (writer), Espen Grundetjern (colorist), and Kim Jacinto (artist), Pepe Larraz and David Curiel (cover artists)
Marvel Comics
March 18, 2020

Outlawed 1 Cover by Pepe Larraz and David Curiel depicting Ms. Marvel, Nova, and Spider-Man

Outlawed opens with a Congressional hearing on S.315, the Underage Superhuman Welfare Act. Following the Coles Disaster (named for Kamala Khan’s Jersey City, New Jersey high school), teen heroes Spider-Man (a costumed Miles Morales), Riri Williams, Falcon (Joaquin Torres), Nadia Van Dyne, and Nova (Sam Alexander) testify before the Subcommittee on Superhumans and Public Safety. Eve Ewing’s dialogue demonstrates that she has the range to give each of these characters a distinct voice. Kim Jacinto’s pencils manage to capture Miles’s annoyance (even through his full face mask), Riri’s disaffection, Joaquin’s confusion, Nadia’s nerves, and Sam’s anger. Unfortunately, here and later in the book, the absence of consistently detailed backgrounds from Jacinto is made more apparent by Espen Grundetjern’s dynamic (and often distracting) colors.

I do appreciate how Jacinto and Grundetjern make the teen heroes look like teenagers when they’re dressed down in civilian clothes. They actually look like they’re in high school. Further, Kamala Khan looks like Kamala and Miles looks like Miles, which is to say, they’re recognizable even if they don’t quite look (or sound) like they do in their respective solo series: I can tell who these characters are meant to be without editorial boxes or labels or explicit use of their names in dialogue (I would have liked these for some of the Champions, though, there are a lot of them).

Throughout most of Outlawed, Kamala and Miles are undercover while the costumed Champions patrol the Coles campus. They’re all there for Ailana Kabua, a 16-year-old girl from the Marshall Islands who is simultaneously specific and generic enough to be an individual and represent environmental activists at large. Kabua is at Coles Academic High School to give a keynote, of which I would’ve loved to have heard (or read) more, but the creative team cuts her off. The issue, as a whole, lacks a singular, cogent political message. Instead, it tries to tackle every issue that affects teenagers, largely through Nova, and, in doing so, loses its potency.

Panel from Outlawed #1 by Eve L. Ewing (writer), Kim Jacinto and Espen Grundetjern (artists), and Clayton Cowles (letterer) depicting Sam Alexander (Nova) testifying during a congressional hearing

Meanwhile, Kabua is being targeted by the Roxxon Corporation. Coming out of War of the Realms, which I’m not sure the target audience of this book will have read (I didn’t, and Ewing even inserts a note about how Riri didn’t), Roxxon has a dragon. The dragon doesn’t represent some bigger, systemic thing. It’s a weapon. One used by an evil corporation, which could have been evil on its own, sans dragon. The dragon is too fantastical to represent the immediate dangers that young people are actually up against, many of which Nova names in his testimony. The dragon isn’t starvation or warfare, and it isn’t gun violence. There are Roxxon henchmen armed with guns. There are more immediate, realistic villains.

Panel from Outlawed #1 by Eve L. Ewing (writer), Kim Jacinto and Espen Grundetjern (artists), and Clayton Cowles (letterer) depicting Bombshell running from men shooting at her

As the team, which includes all of the teen heroes above plus Bombshell (Lana Baumgartner), Power Man (Victor Alvarez), Pinpoint (Qureshi Gupta), and Viv Vision, fights the dragon, the dialogue drops off. So does the team’s communication. It’s kind of hard to believe that a team that has existed for the better part of four years in our time, albeit with different members over that time, doesn’t work better together. The creative team doesn’t have as much time behind it. They produce a lot of dynamic action, which in turn produces some unintentional body horror during the big fight. There’s always, admittedly, body horror involved in Kamala Khan’s power set, but she doesn’t really get to show off her powers as she escorts Kabua through her school. As her team narrowly defeats the dragon, Kamala is injured off-panel.

Panel from Outlawed #1 by Eve L. Ewing (writer), Kim Jacinto and Espen Grundetjern (artists), and Clayton Cowles (letterer) depicting Viv Vision, Power Man, Pinpoint, and Wasp during the big fight

Ultimately, the Coles Disaster doesn’t seem to have been unavoidable, which makes it difficult to sympathize with the heroes. Had Kamala delegated leadership to someone outside Coles, would the building not have collapsed on her? Had Victor, Qureshi, and Riri agreed on a plan of action, would Viv had gotten so angry that she very nearly killed her teammates? Had some of the more experienced Champions, like Miles or Sam or Nadia (who have all had solo titles), stepped up sooner, would there have been a disaster on which the adults would capitalize to make the Child Hero Reconnaissance and Disruption Law Enforcement Task Force (a.k.a. C.R.A.D.L.E.)?

The only reason a team like this wouldn’t have succeeded, it seems (and this may very well prove to be untrue in Champions), is because it’s made up of teenagers. Nevermind their cumulative experience and power sets. There, of course, has to be a narrative reason to outlaw teen superheroes — that’s the event — but I’m not sure it had to be this. Adults with power have never needed this much of an excuse to police teenagers, especially not teens of marginalized identities. And the possibility that there might have been a different, better way to tell this story, one that would resonate more with the young audience to which it’s clearly trying to appeal, is what makes this issue disappointing.

What would have been the major revelation at the end of the issue was spoiled back in January, when it was pretty casually dropped into an interview SYFY did with New Warriors miniseries writer Daniel Kibblesmith (Loki). SYFY asked about the effect that S.315 a.k.a. Kamala’s Law — named after Kamala — would have on the titles spinning out of Outlawed. In addition to New Warriors from Kibblesmith and Luciano Vecchio (who worked with Ewing on Ironheart) and Power Pack miniseries from Ryan North (Unbeatable Squirrel Girl) and Nico Leon (Ms. Marvel), Champions will relaunch as an ongoing under Ewing and Simone Di Meo. Outlawed might as well have been titled Champions #0.

Although disappointed by Outlawed, I’m optimistic about the iteration of Champions spinning out of it. While it would be unfair to place the weight of my expectations on Eve Ewing alone — and acknowledging the importance of the artists and editors working with her — I do think it’s important that this team, which is predominantly made up of minoritized characters, is being written by a Black woman. In 2016, the same year that Marvel revived the Champions title, Nilah Magruder became the first Black woman to write for Marvel. Since then, Magruder, Roxane Gay, Yona Harvey, Nnedi Okorafor, and Ewing have contributed to Marvel’s canon in spin-offs (like World of Wakanda), miniseries (Marvel Rising, Marvel Team-Up), and solo titles (Shuri and Ironheart). Of those, Ewing and Vecchio’s Ironheart ran the longest, clocking in at 12 issues.

While neither Mark Waid nor Jim Zub had exceptionally long tenures writing Champions, I’m hoping Ewing gets as many issues as they did if not more, not just because she’s the first Black woman to write a conventional, ongoing team book for Marvel but also because Outlawed makes it feel like Ewing and the Champions are just getting started.