One thing that I always found hard to swallow about X-Men was how the government was so hardline anti-mutant. I guess it makes sense if you’re maintaining the whole mutants-as-civil-rights or mutants-as-militant-queers metaphors, but Marvel never seemed to want to go all in with those metaphors, so the question still lingers: Why not draft the mutants, get a bunch of superpowered cops and soldiers of their own?
In Virginia Paine’s world, when kids and teenagers started manifesting strange and potent abilities, the US government saw an opportunity instead of a threat. Enter the ERA, a government organization dedicated to recruiting and training these youth – and using them as superpowered covert-ops teams.
But why would a bunch of queer youth of color sign up to be underage assassins for a government that hates them? They usually don’t have a choice. Think Xavier’s School for Talented Youngsters meets a juvenile detention center. This is not a patriotic comic, and that goes a long way in my book.
As far as comics with weird names go, The WHYs takes the cake. Comics tend to use catchy acronyms with awkward meanings – think S.H.I.E.L.D. – but “WHY” isn’t catchy at all. It must stand for something practical then, right? Nope. It stands for “Weaponized Human Youth”, which is a really weird thing to call people with superpowers. What happens when they become adults? What if their powers don’t make good weapons? Granted, the name was coined by the United States government, which tends to suck at naming things, so it’s maybe realistic in that regard. But to make that the title of your comic? I feel like you could do better.
Nonetheless, the comic is engaging from the outset, telling the story of Luisa Reyes, a girl whose latent pyrokinesis inadvertently set her on fire during an argument with her girlfriend. When the ERA shows up at her hospital bed offering her safety and training – and enough money to lift her family out of poverty – she finds it hard to refuse.
A lot of effort has been invested over the years in trying to make superhero comics more “realistic”. Like in most genres dominated by frustrated manboys, this “realism” tends to amount to little more than grunge textures, cuss words, and pointless gore. Paine’s realism, on the other hand, has more verisimilitude to me – the government’s manipulating and using brown kids, queer kids, immigrant kids? That’s the kind of shit I recognize from my own life.
And the strength of this comic is the kids. The allies – and enemies – that Luisa makes at the ERA training school are people I almost recognize, written with such a lively voice that they seem real. The comparison that comes immediately to mind is Young Avengers, another comic with a cast of superhuman queer teenagers. But the Young Avengers speak like they were written by a 40 year old dad trying to imitate his kids, and the WHYs are the real deal.
The writing’s not always perfect. Sometimes it seems like characters emotionally overreact to situations, and I’m still not totally sure why Luisa hated Paul when she first met him. And of course there’s the unfunny “what file?” running joke where no one told Luisa how to read the ERA’s personnel file on her. But still, Paine’s writing is more enjoyable to read than anything put out by Marvel or DC.
The major question left by the comic is where it’s going. Given how negatively the ERA has been portrayed thus far, I’m assuming it’s not going to be a spy story played straight. What does Agent Makewell have planned? What happened in Canada that led to the expulsion of all the indigenous people? Will Luisa and her friends figure out how to escape this fucked-up system? Will they make it work for them? Is there any possibility of a poly resolution to the Luisa-Kit-Mara love triangle?
Final verdict: Being stuck in a coercive government program doesn’t diminish the charm of these characters, nor does it create an atmosphere of depressing grimness. If you’ve wanted a more realistic “realistic” superhero comic, this is it.