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Summer's in full swing, and for the walking collections of sweat, saliva and spunk that are our nation's teenagers, it's a vivid time to be alive. Bodies are on full display, generally at either the best or worst condition they'll ever be in. Minds are alive with new and not altogether safe ideas and desires. In brief, it's damn weird to be a teenager. The creators of three very different ongoing comic-book series understand this, and in order to get at the fantastic world of young America, they've gotten fantastic right back at them. Superhuman abilities, bizarre mutations -- if that doesn't sum up summer vacation, what does?

Invincible is indie writer Robert Kirkman's stab at the teen superhero genre, and as such it mines the familiar "high-school student discovers he has super powers" territory. But Mark Grayson, the alter ego of the titular hero, is no brooding, nerdy Peter Parker. He's a good-lookin' dude who takes to superherodom like a varsity lacrosse phenom takes to the cheerleading squad. Within weeks of his post-pubescent power-up, he's gliding around the skies of his suburb, thwarting diamond heists, joining forces with his superstar superhero dad (no need to hide his secret identity from his folks -- they're cheering him on like soccer moms), and fitting right in with the spandex set's popular clique, the Teen Team.

The pleasures of this series are best enjoyed by people comfortable with the conventions of the genre -- if you're unconvinced that a teenage superdude would use his powers to fight crime as opposed to, say, stealing OxyContin, this may not be the book for you. However, Kirkman's let'sgetonwithitalready pacing and, especially, his innovative decision to make the star of the book not a brainy outcast but the type of kid who blasts Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good" while driving his Escalade around the high school parking lot gives the series a breezy, devil-may-care attitude all its own. The art chores have been ably handled by both Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, but it's colorist Bill Crabtree's bright pastel palette that both ties the series to its four-color roots and gives it a uniquely forward-looking spin.

While Kirkman's success with superhero material in Invincible has helped win him a shot at the big franchise characters -- "the big time," at least in terms of salary if not artistic merit -- writer Brian Wood's path took him in the opposite direction. Originally tapped to write the "street-level" X-Men spinoff NYX, an ugly falling-out with Marvel left a gigless Wood free to parlay his own ideas for the series into a creator-owned title of his own. That title is Demo, a collaboration with artist Becky Cloonan and an occasionally frustrating but always intriguing look at the human half of the superhuman equation.

Demo's teen and twentysomething protagonists are all busy dealing with angry parents, working shit jobs to pay rent, trying to find someone who likes them for them -- you know, real life stuff, which in the crazy mixed-up world of American genre comics is as outlandish as a midtown battle between Namor & the Human Torch would be in our own. Essentially an anthology series, Demo pares a basic superhero concept -- telekinesis, super-strength, indestructibility -- down to a cold, hard essence in each unconnected, stand-alone issue; we watch as the parade of lead characters (the type of kids you see at all-ages hardcore shows) use or refuse to use these abilities in a too-real world that's complicated enough as it is.

Wood imbues the series with a kind of high-school non-conformist didacticism that sometimes rings shallow, regardless of how well it suits the angry young men and women in the stories; he aims for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" but every now and then lapses into "Parents Just Don't Understand." However, each successive issue thus far has been stronger than the last: Demo #5 strongly undermines the self-imposed exile-on-main-street status of its shapeshifting lead; #6 adds an uncomfortably unresolved element of horror to the mix; and #7 presents an Iraq War vignette in which a refusenik sharpshooter's justifiable reticence clashes with the equally justifiable anger and resentment of both his fellow soldiers and his near-destitute wife back home.

Whether these ambiguities were intentional on Wood's part is debatable (our sympathies in the soldier's story are clearly meant to fall with him, not with the other troops whose lives he risks through his (in)actions), but their presence in the series a welcome one. The characters don't know all the answers, nor should they, for we don't know them all either. Cloonan's art, meanwhile, is a slow-burning revelation: Her restless, relentless experimentation with line quality and character and her willingness to switch gears entirely from story to story offer a rare glimpse of an artist growing before our eyes. Demo is slightly more than halfway through its 12-issue run, and its final issues' prospects are promising.

Looming large over the entire teen-fantastic landscape -- or, more appropriately, sucking the rest of the sub-subgenre into its inescapable maw -- is Charles Burns's epic tale of adolescent sex and dread, Black Hole. Glacially produced over the course of well over a decade (its penultimate eleventh issue was released this spring), Burns's magnum opus appears to aim for the last word on the teenage terror of difference, and I can think of no reason why it shouldn't have it. Only a handful of contemporary comics equal or even approach its crystalline clarity of purpose and diamond-hard excellence of execution.

Black Hole takes place during the pot-smoke-shrouded '70s, the time of the first post-baby boom, post-divorce generation of teens and ground zero for the adolescent experience as we know it today. Burns eschews Happy Days-esque That '70s Show phoniness, examining instead the sordid, borderline frightening sexual undercurrent that was omnipresent in the youth culture of that era, whether you were a painted-face Bowiephile or a burnout with LED ZEP scrawled on your notebook. An unnamed venereal disease that only affects teenagers is slowly wending its destructive way through Seattle-area teens, causing grotesque mutations -- lizardlike tails, new orifices, profound facial disfigurement -- no two alike.

In chronicling the lives of Keith (the type of nondescript kid you think you might have sat next to in biology but aren't quite sure) and Chris (the gorgeous, untouchable popular girl who like as not is the most fucked-up person in school), Burns creates an evocation of teendom that's almost physical in its power to conjure up the emotions and sensations of that turbulent time in all of our lives. It's a world where adults are nonexistent, love is as immediate and painful as a puncture wound, sex is simultaneously repulsive and irresistible, and the concept of a better, or even merely different, tomorrow is entirely alien.

The hermetically-sealed, ecstatic panic of the adolescent mind is perhaps best evoked in the outcast community of diseased kids, who scrape together desperately needed money only to buy booze, porn, and junk food. That may be what you want when you're seventeen, but you can't live off of it; as an onlooker, you'd laugh at it if it weren't so tragically realistic. It's all brought home with Burns's vivid black-and-white art. Burns wields the cleanest line in comics, and it gives the proceedings not the murky feel of a dream half-remembered remembered but the terrible eroticism of a you-are-there nocturnal-emission-cum-nightmare. It's like living in a blacklight poster. As an artist, and as a writer, Burns teaches one of comics' oldest lessons: When it comes to evoking what it is to be a teenager, sometimes metaphor can be realer than reality.

-- Sean T. Collins



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