illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000 digital 
illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000
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Art by Chip Zdarsky. Copyright 2002.

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The kids are not all right -- but is the series?

Writer: Devin Grayson
Artists: Yvel Guichet, Aaron Sowd, Mark Propst, Norm Rapmond
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Colorist: Bob Schwager
Six-issue miniseries
Published by DC Comics, January-June 2000
$2.50 each

Reviewed by Gregory Dickens

"Grownups just don't get it," teenage Joel Weinberg thinks as he drives his family's Winnebago from the pursuing "cops, child protective services, the military, the D.E.O, and a handful of supervillains." Joel's fuming at the perception that kids have it easy and don't stress over "the hypocrisy of the system or mortality or existential crises."

He's just lost his parents to a car wreck and decides to pile up his super-powered siblings and baby sitter into the RV, head to Metropolis and ask Superman to ... well, that's a little vague. Just what are they hoping Superman can do? Joel makes no bones about his hopes. A full-on comic fanboy, he recognizes that the death of parents is, in many comics, the start of an origin with a capital "O," the chain of events leading up to a super hero career.

Little sister Aviva wonders if Superman can bring their parents back from the dead. Adopted brother Tyson, "cousin" Cam, and baby sitter Damara go along to keep the family together. But all follow Joel's focus to find Superman and accept his rationale that Superman helps people who need help and surely a family of orphaned powered kids is something to which he can relate.
"They're going cross-country; RELATIVE HEROES is a road-trip story."

They're going cross-country; RELATIVE HEROES is a road-trip story. The cops are after them because Tyson is suspected of murder in a gang-related incident. The protective services want to keep the kids from hurting themselves, the military is wary of powered kids tearing through the States, the Department of Extranormal perations has a vested interest in Cam and the supervillains are D.E.O operatives. They're really not "supervillains," per se, but since Joel sees the family as a super hero group, the bad guys by default become archenemies, nemeses, and the like. Joel's role-playing, reeling from the shock of being orphaned and, hey, a team leader has to act.

So they run. And run. And run.

The momentum of the quest in RELATIVE HEROES is carried along by some brisk energy throughout. Guichet's pencils are liquid; postures, expressions, panel architecture and figure positioning make the story snap. In parallel to the kids' manic pace and chaos, the art has a zest to it nowhere better exemplified than in their costumes. Multitextured, multicolored, multipatterned, they grow on even an old grump like me who usually expects costumes to -- in some way -- communicate the wearers' power. Still, they don't immediately scream of an obvious influence, which is always good. The initial depiction of Superman is well done, using close-ups on his hand, his logo and a bit of cape, instead of a staid splash page revelation.

What hurts RELATIVE HEROES is the writing. This is a good set-up: a complete coming-of-age story with many a comic tradition (innocent powered folk running from the well-intentioned, the Feds and their pasts; a romantic triangle; a virtual WWII bomber crew of mixed personalities) using different narrators per issue to cement the characters -- and a few familiar cameos (Superman and Catwoman in a BATMAN CHRONICLES offshoot) -- along the way.

Grayson works in some clever bits. The black adopted brother Tyson can become invisible. When he affirms he'd rather be unseen than confront polar-opposite expectations and then literally fades from view, Ralph Ellison's INVISIBLE MAN leaps to mind. When he faces an emotional obstacle, he doesn't make it go away. He makes himself go away. Because he can easily isolate himself, he debates internally why he should make any effort to keep ties to his families, both biological and secondary and it's a strength of the comic.
"I'll accept a Jewish girl believing in the Easter Bunny, but an eleven-year-old with political pessimism sounds comical, disrupting the mood of her asides."

Unfortunately, the other Weinbergs fall short. Aviva looks eight years old, talks like she's 15 and claims to be 11. Her narration includes the encroaching doubt of "Santa ... the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny and the president of the United States." I'll accept a Jewish girl believing in the Easter Bunny, but an eleven-year-old with political pessimism sounds comical, disrupting the mood of her asides. Aviva encapsulates the crisis of maturity in a "normal" kid, but her apparent precociousness undercuts it. She ain't normal, even if you take away her powers and those of her family. She's philosophizing instead of mourning and it doesn't make enough of a counter to Joel's emotional block.

Baby-sitter Damara is blessed with glamour, so she can sway folks to do her bidding or fall for her outright. But what little we see of her outside the glamour is no grotesque deformity (and credit Grayson for that reserve). But neither is her natural form unseemly. She only has a crisis of identity because her artificial form is so attractive, but there's no reason for her to drop the glamour at any time. And if, as it's implied, she's had the glamour all her life, it's as natural to her as her biological form. How can she have developed a distinction, and why would she fret about it?

The problem here is in over-reaching. RELATIVE HEROES is dense because there's a lot attempting to be said. I don't mean a word-count, but so much earnestness is being doled out in a limited space, with five kids dealing with loss, powers, yearnings, shadowy government guys, sibling feuding, sudden maturity, and the aforementioned 'hypocrisy of the system or mortality or existential crises.' There's also the looming question of just to do with Superman once they find him and what happens after that. The elements collide, instead of bolstering each other.

There's a lot said about the definition and obligations of family. Damara is betrothed to a Greek god once she reaches age 17, Cam is revealed as an alien and a brother to the plant he carries around, there's Tyson of course and Joel, who's ignoring his grandfather's advice in lieu of Superman's. But the effort to make a statement of belonging is stretched.

The variety of characters, while making for a great visual, falls into sitcom exaggeration. Damara's a Wiccan, Tyson's black, Cam's the alien, Aviva's the brooding preteen and Joel is revealed to be gay because, well, being a white male would make him the boring one. This makes everyone into a representative of minority. A character barely registering as third-tier is introduced and involved in the rescue of Cam for no other reason than to show Joel is gay. A stock tight-squeeze corridor scene leads to them dating.

It's not enough he's an orphaned comic fan with delusions of being a hero, crossing the country with his family and being chased by all manner of authority figures in a search of Superman and the delay of his emotional outburst. No, he's made into a gayorphaned, comic fan with delusions of heroing crossing the country with his family and being chased by all manner of authority figures in a search of Superman and the delay of his emotional outburst.

There's also an unsettling lack of reaction to death during their journey. Joel makes Cam fight alone against a Greek deity so he can learn how to control his powers but a bystander dies. No one reacts to this. A gang member is killed by the military in front of the Weinbergs. Again, no reaction. These kids are being surrounded suddenly by death with nil ramifications. We get their thoughts on death as an existential puzzle, but not their response to actually seeing it. The kids come off as callous or oblivious when their thoughts show them to be considerate and observant. The discrepancy is jarring.

Worse, at the end of the series, no one is changed. Secrets are revealed, sure, but is Aviva more hopeful, Damara more sure of herself, Tyson more secure of his place? Do we take Joel's burgeoning relationship for emotional strength? More poignant may have been some change in his perception of comics or heroes, not an awkward revelation of his sexuality. They may have a stronger communal bond, but are the individuals (focused upon intently in each issue) better defined or altered? Like a recipe's spices, the personas are used to tell a story, and, once their addition is measured, put back on the shelves.

RELATIVE HEROES is too much of a good thing. Without the shallow pinups or mindless violence of many hero comics, the Weinbergs offer some rumination on maturity and kinship. But six issues compress the ambitious material, confusing character expression for character development. Ultimately, it's not much different from Marvel's NEW MUTANTS, which had the luxury of an open-ended run to give the elements more elbowroom. The Weinbergs may make for a good family, but not for a satisfying read.

Not recommended

Gregory Dickens is a staff writer for PopImage.

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