Header image artist: Valerio Schiti, colors: Marte Gracia
Spoilers ahead! For Marvel’s current event – Empyre – and eventually the entire relationship arc of Hulking & Wiccan (or billyteddy if you’re 🤗) dating back to their first appearance in Young Avengers #1 (2005).
You might have seen recently that Marvel has had it’s reportedly “first-ever same-sex wedding between gay superheroes.” Whether or not that statement is true depends on how much you care about semantics. Jean-Paul Beaubier (aka Northstar), Marvel’s first out gay superhero, wed his longtime boyfriend, Kyle Jinadu, in the pages of Astonishing X-Men #51 back in 2012 – but Kyle isn’t a superhero, so technically the statement still stands.
The more recent milestone was revealed on August 5th in Emprye #4 (Marvel’s current intergalactic line-wide cross-over event), as a surprise splash-page ending – the rare, good kind that leaves you shocked with warmth and excitement and joyful affirmation.
Teddy Altman a.k.a Dorrek VIII (Hulkling) and Billy Kaplan (Wiccan) – former teen superheroes and quite possibly the most wholesome couple in recorded comics history – are revealed to no longer be long-time boyfriends and later fiances, but now officially husbands after eloping in Las Vegas in front of their friends, former teammates, and even in-universe versions of their original comic creators.
And in September, we're promised a one-shot – Empyre: Aftermath Avengers – aimed at properly exploring and celebrating their wedding in full.
It’s a sweet, earned moment for the characters and readers who have followed their journey for the last 15 years – and it is no small feat that Marvel is publishing a line-wide cross-over (meaning all or most of their published titles participate in it) helmed by out queer leads and centering their relationship amidst the interstellar drama.
But how did we get here? And who are these adorable superpowered boys?
“Big 2” comics (that’s typically Marvel & DC – though it’s less and less relevant every year as creator-owned and indie comics blossom) can be complicated to dive into. They have decades-long publishing histories, characters that weave in and out of numerous series, and continuity that is often shaken, twisted, forgotten, and then re-written altogether. But these comics are also fun! And occasionally, very gay!
So if your interest is piqued at these sweet, soft boys and you’re looking for a primer on their relationship through the last 15 years of comics – abridging messy distractions like plot and, yes, even more line-wide cross-over events – well… I’m here to write it 🥰
Young Avengers (2005-2006)
Brief publishing background
Young Avengers debuted in 2005 as part of a new wave of Avengers comics spilling out of the status-quo scrambling Avengers Disassembled event that saw the death of several Avengers and the official disbanding of the team. Disassembled is a controversial event for many reasons, some of which we’ll probably come back to when relevant! The important takeaway is that in the end, the Avengers as they’d been known for several decades were no longer – allowing Marvel (and writer Brian Michael Bendis) to launch entirely new lines of Avengers comics with new rosters and tones, and in the case of Young Avengers, new characters altogether.
Young Avengers was co-created by first-time Marvel writer Allan Heinberg and veteran comics artist Jim Cheung. At the time, Allan was a writer and producer on The O.C. that had recently written into the show his own love of comics via one of the characters, Seth. Allan weaved a number of comics references into the show, including naming a side-character Mr. Bendis after the writer architecting Avengers Disassembled and the new line coming out of it. When Marvel editors came across an interview Allan gave espousing his love of comics, they reportedly called him up and gave him a blank slate to write whatever he wanted.
Allan – an out gay writer – and Jim ended up creating a series that would go on to win a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book in 2006 for it’s first run featuring two gay leads (Billy and Teddy!).
It would only get exponentially gayer in its second run years later helmed by writer Kieron Gillen (who’s shared his own journey with coming out as bisexual) and artist Jamie McKelvie – two of my favorite creators in comics today. The running joke in that volume became that no one on the team was entirely straight – so it’s unsurprising that Young Avengers would go on to win it’s second GLAAD Media award in 2014.
Young Avengers has been one of the most important contributors to queer representation in mainstream comics over the years – and both volumes are some of my favorite comic series of all time. That said, for the purpose of these posts I'm looking mostly at the development of Hulkling & Wiccan’s relationship, and may be pretty breezy with most everything else.
When you have the time and interest, you should absolutely read Young Avengers in full – both volumes are available on Marvel Unlimited!
Young Avengers starts out with a mystery centered on a question:
"WHO THE #*&% ARE THE YOUNG AVENGERS?" asks Daily Bugle's J. Jonah Jameson (of Spider-Man lore). He and reporter Kat Farrell want to know – and they've solicited ex-superhero and current P.I. Jessica Jones (whose excellent Netflix show you might have seen) to help them find out. Jessica also happens to be pregnant, which will become relevant further down the line.
We get our first appearance of Teddy (Hulkling) and Billy (Wiccan) here in the newspaper cover photo, but they're still an enigma at this point. And you'll notice that their designs – along with those of their two other teammates, Eli (Patriot) and Nate (Iron Lad) – are decidedly derivative. Hulkling truly appears to be a Bruce Banner lookalike Hulk here, and Wiccan – who is actually going by the name Asgardian at this point – is dressed like a teen Thor cosplaying as the Greek God Hermes.
It's all part of the central themes that Young Avengers will explore: what does it mean to carry forward an Avengers' legacy? Who and how do you have to be?
Jessica and Kat make a plan to reach out to some Avengers contacts to learn what they can about the teen heroes, but as soon as they head out they're met with this beautiful, ridiculous, very gay dramatic entrance:
It's the hand on the waist and the cocked leg for me. This pose was clearly architected for maximum homoromantic vibes, and we thank Jim Cheung for that. After the private rooftop chat with Jessica (they want to shut the kids down to keep them from getting hurt), their exit has even queerer implications. Repeating the same pose, Tony and Steve blast off as Jessica asks, "How do I get in touch with you guys?" – "Ask your boyfriend," Tony replies. And you can just about picture Luke Cage (the focus of another underrated Netflix show canceled too soon) in his other arm.
We'll also see a direct parallel to this pose reflected in Iron Lad and Patriot (their analogs) a few pages later – and honestly, I can't get enough of it.
But that's getting slightly ahead of the action! The next scene we cut to is a wedding party being held hostage at gunpoint inside of a church, and an even more dramatic – and disastrous – entrance from the young heroes.
This is our first real introduction to the initial Young Avengers lineup, and it's a perfect foil to the enigmatic and heroic photo the issue opens on. What appeared to be a coordinated and valiant group is revealed immediately to be exactly what you would expect from teen superheroes – goofiness, uncertainty, recklessness and a penchant for thrill.
Despite a lack of experience and total disregard for de-escalation, the Young Avengers do alright subduing the gunmen at first. Asgardian relies on mystical lightning, Hulkling on his strength and fearsomely intimidating hulkishness.
Right before the tide of the battle is about to turn against them, we get the first interaction between Teddy and Billy – and of course, it's midst-of-the-battle flirting. Right from the very start, it's subtly established that Billy and Teddy are involved and it's sweet and tender and a great bit of tight writing.
Shortly thereafter – largely due to the messy disregard from our young heroes – the bad guys get the upper-hand. The sister to the bride, Kate Bishop, is held at gunpoint – but she's a resourceful and capable girl and frees herself with the help of one of Patriot's throwing stars that she snatched up from the ground earlier.
Kate and Eli exchange some banter, and if this were Big Mostly Het Universe I would go on about their dynamic and romantic tension (which is fun and frustrating in different ways), but I digress.
Thanks to Kate they turn the tide around again and squash the hostage crisis. The Young Avengers decide to skedaddle before getting overrun by both reporters and police, though Jessica Jones and Kat do manage to catch them on their way out and Jessica hands Teddy a business card in case they ever want to talk.
Billy and Teddy are both starstruck at hearing her name. After all, Jessica Jones was an Avenger once (then known as Jewel – sort of*), which is one of my favorite aspects of Billy and Teddy's characters – they're both fanboys. That trait carries through to their current portrayals, where we've recently seen Teddy relaxing at home with X-Men comics on the floor of his bedroom.
*You won't find Jessica Jones a.k.a. Jewel a.k.a. Knightress as a team member in published Avengers comics up to this point. She was established as a former superhero and ex-Avenger as a retcon (that's a retroactive change to continuity) in her debut comic series Alias by Brian Michael Bendis, which is an incredible series and the basis for the Netflix show.
Importantly, as the boys flee the crime scene, I would like to point out a particular distinction in the way Billy transports his boyfriend compared to the way we've seen Iron Man/Iron Lad travel with their platonic Americana buddies:
The kids head back to the ruins of Avengers mansion – abandoned after the events of Disassembled – and get into an argument. We learn why they've come together: Iron Lad knows that Kang the Conquerer (long-time time-traveling Avenger's villain) will be coming to the present-day timeline, and there are no Avengers to stop him. How does Iron Lad know this? Well... it turns out he's a younger version of Kang himself.
The most important thing about the opening of the next issue is that I'm immediately proven wrong about Billy & Teddy not doing the hold-my-boyfriend-by-the-hip-while-flying thing, because here it is in a cut-back to their escape from church, a glorious double whammy with Nate/Eli:
Did Allan and Jim invent homoromantic superhero flight? I find no evidence to the contrary.
To breeze through some plot (not because you shouldn't read it! It's excellent! We just haven't the time):
- Kate is at the hospital, but she's relatively unharmed so she isn't being prioritized
- A blonde teenage girl, Cassie Lang, comes up to her on the curb outside looking to find the Young Avengers – she's the daughter of Ant-Man (Scott Lang), and she wants to join them. Scott was killed in Disassembled, one of its many controversial deaths, leaving Cassie alone with her mom and stepdad.
- Nate, who is really a young Kang, is being grilled by the adult Avengers back at the mansion. We learn his backstory – Older Kang used time travel to intervene in a moment of bullying from his adolescence, gave his younger self the rundown on his future of villainy, gifted him a time-travel suit, and was shocked when Nate immediately fled into the timestream to find some help in stopping... Older Him.
- In present day, Nate finds a mostly destroyed Vision (another Disassembled casualty) and activates his programming.
Phew – back to the gays, who are back to flying together at arm's length :( but Billy also soothes Teddy's insecurity about being too heavy :).
They run into Patriot, who is attempting to single-handedly stop an armed getaway van. He gets shot, but it's okay – he's (allegedly?) bulletproof! Billy and Teddy dust up with the bad guys, and we get a parallel with the previous church battle wherein Billy desperately worries about Teddy's safety.
It turns out these guys were selling Mutant Growth Hormone (MGH) in the park, a drug that can give normal people superpowers for a short while. As a fun aside, it may or may not have served as the conceptual inspiration for the recent Netflix original film, Project Power.
The kids head back to Avengers Mansion, where coincidentally Cassie and Kate are similarly breaking-and-entering to try and find them. Banter and arguments ensue – Patriot in particular doesn't want two "young" (they're all basically the same age), "powerless" (both Cassie and Kate are trained combatants, and in Cassie's case... a bit more) girls joining them.
Cassie, understandably, gets emotional at Patriot attempting to strong arm her out of there – the place where here father died and she spent many a weekend growing up – and she suddenly has a giant growth spurt. Like, a very big one. It turns out Cassie had been stealing her dad's Pym Particles (which make you change size) for years, but they'd never seemed to activate until this very moment.
Issues #3 - 5
Nate and the Avengers come out onto the lawn to find a giant Cassie and some confused teenagers. They exchange proper introductions, and we learn that Nate recruited the other 3 boys as part of the Avengers Failsafe Program recovered from the Vision's hard drive. Eli, Billy, and Teddy have some kind of vague connection to the Avengers legacy, and in the event of the Avengers disbanding, they were marked as the "next wave" of heroes.
Eli's connection is clear – his grandfather is Isaiah Bradley, the original Black Captain America (whose story of being experimented on is, in part, a reference to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study). Billy and Teddy are much less certain – neither knows much about their powers or why they have them.
Eventually a giant android named the Growing Man crashes the party at the mansion looking for Nate on behalf of Kang, and a battle ensues. When it turns out that Billy's lightning doesn't affect the Growing Man (who has split into many little Growing Men at this point), Nate encourages him to use his "other powers" and we see Billy work some kind of magic to briefly disable the androids.
Nate decides to reveal himself to the androids, who recognize him as their master – and they call out to their true master, Kang, across the timestream to alert him. The Avengers bamboozle the teens into hiding in a locked safe room by telling them they are going to "train" them in order to keep them out of the fray, and Kang makes his grand appearance.
More battling with the adult Avengers while the kids slowly piece together that they've been duped. Please enjoy these close-up moments of the boys making the most of an opportunity to get in a workout, as well as a parallel in their face-smacking dumbfoundedness:
Kate eventually breaks the kids out of their prison and they all gear up to go fight Kang. Kate, who up to this point has been running around New York in just her bridesmaid dress, decides to upgrade – and it's an incredible ensemble.
Kate's superhero identity will fluctuate for a while – as will all of the Young Avengers' – but she'll eventually go on to become the better Hawkeye in comics continuity and the friendship she'll develop with Clint Barton (the original) will be sincere and iconic. She'll also be the focus of the developing Disney+ show Hawkeye, where she inherits the mantle from MCU's Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).
The kids make it out of the mansion where they're confronted by the Avengers, who want to turn Nate over to Kang. If they don't, they'll be dramatically altering the timestream, and Kang has already given them a preview of the outcome. For one thing, Jessica Jones is no longer pregnant with her and Luke Cage's child (and she's understandably extremely distraught at that).
The kids tussle with the Avengers to give Nate a chance to escape, and Iron Man (very recklessly) blasts Hulkling out the sky. Billy is very upset – as am I! Unfortunately, almost all of their characterization and the hinting of their relationship, has been expressed up to this point via their traumatic responses to each other's harm. Please give them a day off.
We also learn, after Hulkling crashes down to the Earth, that he's a shapeshifter – and we see his "default" human form for the first time!
Nate comes back with an unconscious Iron Man, because he didn't want to let Tony Stark fall out of the sky to his death (what a nice boy). Sadly, it turns out that Kang can control Nate's armor (he built it, after all) and he uses it to knock out all of the present heroes.
Just before Kang can take Nate back through a time portal, Cassie embiggens! She was hiding out in tiny shrunken form. She knocks Kang through the portal and almost falls in herself. Nate saves her, they share a kiss. Then another kiss. It's a straight romance, but I do love that good teen angst in all its forms.
They only have a few moments before Kang re-appears, so they convince Nate to escape without his armor (so Kang can't track or control him) and the remaining team squares up against the time-traveller. Things are dire, and we get some really nice insight into the nature of Billy's magic – and his sweet, supportive relationship with Teddy.
Billy's power is literally to put his desires out into the universe and manifest them. And Teddy helps him through a focusing exercise to imagine what it will feel like to have his goal achieved. How beautifully, powerfully gay.
The battle continues. Kate is a badass and disables Kang's tech with a well-placed arrow. She's about to face off against him with her sword, but Kang gets the better of her and takes the sword. She's fifteen, and he's had literally untold millennia to train in combat so it's understandable.
Nate shows up again to surrender, but it's actually Teddy! And he quickly hulks out and sucker punches Kang. This is the first time we see him use his shapeshifting ability to fully impersonate another person. Kang slices him up pretty bad, and if you had "Billy screams out Teddy's name in fear and horror" on your bingo card, well congratulations that's number four. I'll save you the trauma of yet another image.
The next two panels are pretty emotional, as Billy makes what he likely believes to be a final stand against Kang. He's still reeling from Teddy's injury (don't worry, Teddy assures him, it'll heal), and goes into directionless spell-caster mode. All he can manage to muster is "I want to stop Kang" repeated over and over again, and you can really feel the desperation as you read it.
I really appreciate the visual treatment of Billy's spell-casting, with the words all running into each other in equal parts distress and willful focus.
Kang would have killed Billy, but he gets taken out from an ion blast that comes from off-panel. You'd think Nate just returned but no... it's actually a teen Vision! That's right, Young Avengers did teen Visions long before the critically acclaimed (and truly enthralling) The Vision comic series by Tom King – which is also part of the inspiration for the upcoming WandaVision Disney+ show.
It turns out this Vision is actually an amalgamation of Iron Lad's armor (which he left behind on the battlefield to escape Kang) and the original Vision's programming (which Nate integrated into his armor to learn about the Avengers Failsafe Program). Because of this, Kang is able to quickly take over control of the Vision, and refit him into Kang's own time-warping armor, just about sealing the fate of the remaining heroes.
Just before he can take them all out, he's impaled from behind with a sword. Nate did come back this time.
Welp, it turns out that killing the future version of yourself, who is responsible for you going back in time in the first place, does a major whammy on the timestream. The Young Avengers won... and everything around them is changed again. The Avengers are all dead – as indicated by Avengers Mansion turning into a packed superhero cemetery – and soon the Young Avengers might fade from existence too.
The only thing that might fix things is Nate going back to his original timeline and undoing these events altogether – which he has no desire to do. The team decides they're to have Billy use magic to wipe Nate's memory and then send Nate back via Kang's left-over tech. Nate pounces on Billy as he starts to cast the spell, which activates protective boyfriend outrage #5! Things get worse, though, as Billy starts to fade from existence...
Soon after, Teddy starts to fade away as well – which seals the deal for Nate. He re-activates his armor, bringing back the Vision, and asks the Vision to send him back to his original timeline.
He's going to go back and live out his future, knowing that he'll forget his time with the Young Avengers and end up becoming Kang the Conqueror. He asks his friends in advance to forgive him for his future crimes, and he and Cassie share another tender moment where she promises to remind him of his true self when they meet again.
I have to include the following page, because it really gets me every time:
Things mostly return to normal after Nate walks through the portal. Time seems to snap back to the way it was right before adult Kang showed up at the mansion (rather than, say, before Nate showed up in the past the first time). The Young Avengers are surprised to find that they still have their outfits and memories of their time with Nate, and the adult Avengers do too – Jessica Jones lampshades away the logical inconsistencies with a "See, this is why I hate time travel."
The adults give the kids no uncertain terms – they won't train them, and if they suit up in those uniforms again, they'll shut them down. Everyone heads home pretty dejected, though Kate holds onto the notion that they'll come together again.
Several weeks later, we see the kids gather in their civvies to hear out an impassioned Kate and Cassie. Please enjoy this collection of casual BillyTeddy close-ups:
On the next page –although it may seem strange after nearly 6 full issues – we actually get our first textual confirmation that Billy and Teddy are indeed in a relationship, as Kate makes a very underrated and sophisticated observation about Billy's current code name Asgardian.
Is it problematic to name yourself after a religion in which you have no foundational belief, practice, or belonging simply for aesthetic? Well, it's not the best.
Heinberg was asked about this in a now-archived interview:
Heinberg: It turns out that code names are the trickiest part of creating new characters. When Kate suggests "Wiccan" to Billy in Young Avengers #6, she, like me, was not thinking in terms of the specific religious practice of Wicca, but rather attempting to find a suitable counterpart for the word "witch." It was certainly not my intention to offend anyone with "Wiccan." And since adopting the code name, rest assured Billy has been doing his Wiccan homework, so keep reading...
Intentions aside, Billy has indeed maintained the name Wiccan for the last 15 years. A few later writers have explored this thread a bit more, with Billy eventually admitting to doing his research on the religion of Wicca, but it still not being his faith.
Much like the Scarlett Witch got her own very witch-lore focused series, I'm hoping one day Billy does too – thoughtfully navigating the intersection of his Jewish background, Wicca influences, and own secular approach to reconciling magic in the Marvel universe.
But for now, back in Young Avengers #6, we get the kids deciding to rebrand themselves and relaunch in... only very slightly different costumes than their previous iteration (thanks to Kate's designer fashion house connections, which I truly think I deserve).
Yes, Teddy is the gay that decided the only way to revolutionize his look was to bleach his hair blonde (via shapeshifting). Honestly, all of these costumes are comically similar to their prior versions, but I most respect Billy's strong aesthetic desire to always maintain a particularly-tattered red cloak at all times.
And that's the first half of the original Young Avengers run! It is both full of good soft boyfriends and shockingly devoid of much textual queerness – but hey, this book was juggling a lot of plot and characters and it's delightful every step of the way.
Things get a least a bit gayer in part II, the next (and final) six issues of Young Avengers vol. 1! After that I'll go through the various Young Avengers event tie-ins and cross-overs that published after this run, and then get to the extremely gay, incredible, iconic, immortal Young Avengers vol. 2 that came out over 6 years after the end of this first volume. It was well, well worth the wait 💗
Ready for Part Two?
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