Review: Young Shadow by Ben Sears

With Young Shadow, Ben Sears continues his Double Plus collection of middle grade adventure comics. For those of us who entered the world of comics through the superhero genre, Young Shadow is a fresh realization of what the genre can do. Sears creates a story that is both reminiscent and original. He establishes a world that embraces the superhero style without any irony. The end result is a fast paced story that is a fun, page-turning read for a reader of any age. But I think there is something special about the construction of this book. It works to both reflect and remind, perhaps landing differently for readers across the spectrum, but still capturing for each a specific feeling I can best describe as sincerity.

Shadow, or perhaps more appropriately, Young Shadow is the teenage protector of the futuristic Bolt City, designed using some of the elements of the prototypical stacked city of many futuristic stories, but decidedly pueblo-influenced. Bolt City is indeed futuristic, but Sears does play on dichotomy. The buildings don't necessarily look high tech - it's not a shiny city, and the rounded edges and textures suggest that the material could be stone or brick as opposed to the metallic and glass sheen we'd see in many futurescapes. There is a mix of both new and traditional technology. The result is an intriguing setting that the reader has to take notice of during the story. It’s more than just the backdrop; it helps to define the ambition of the plot.

In Bolt City, Shadow patrols the rooftops, lurks in dark alleys, and keeps an eye on the city’s powerful. Sears strikes the perfect chord with Shadow’s righteousness. He chews the scenery just enough. He has the unwavering moral code of a kid looking at a corrupt world with disgust. Shadow’s adventures are fun and fast paced. Sears creates a set of antagonists that also serve as some of the book’s comic relief. Over the course of the book, Shadow clashes with a group of animal-abusing crust punks, gets a haircut, stumbles upon a major secret, meets a cool new alley, and combats an alliance of technologically-enhanced street gangs of which the aforementioned crust punks become bumbling members. Throughout the book, Shadow, and eventually his new ally, Spiral, prove to be far more skilled than the corrupt adults who run Bolt City, cop and criminal alike. 

Sears deliberately embraces the hallmarks of the genre. I don’t want to spend too much time getting into Young Shadow’s stylistic ancestors, but I do think it’s important to note that Sears succeeds in harnessing the best part of the tradition rather than working in opposition to it. On the surface, of course, it’s easy to see obvious Batman connections for Shadow, himself a righteous and somewhat sacrificial urban vigilante protecting Bolt City in the darker hours. But there are also some hints of manga and anime; the technological aspect of the book coupled with the near-futuristic setting of Bolt City make me think of great Japanese adventure stories like Akira or Alita: Battle Angel. Sears’ character design also hints ever so slightly at a manga influence, but still filtered through his own unique lens. More than anything else, though, when I read Young Shadow, I felt connotations of the videogames of my youth, particularly Mega Man. Something about Shadow’s oversized gear gave me strong Mega Man vibes, strengthened, of course, by his battles against monstrous costumed villains. There is such a beautiful, natural flow to the book, and at times I truly felt like I was immersed in an 8-bit platformer adventure game ready to take on the next boss.

Ben Sears brings his recognizable style to this project. He works in a two-tone color scheme of jet black inks and a yellowish orange. It’s sharp and clear, but the yellow-orange color is such an unnatural shade that it heightens the youthful feel of the book. It’s such a funky color that it almost makes you feel like it was the only color Sears had lying around. Such a little detail captures the tone of the book perfectly. The way it is deliberately constructed brings a level of authenticity to the book. It feels like Sears put himself into the mind of his readers and harnesses their creativity.

Sears' style is impeccably suited for a middle grades book because of that type of familiarity. It’s rough, but not in a messy way. Sears always brings a kind of sketchbook cartoon feel to his work, almost in the vein of Calvin and Hobbes meets Adventure Time. There is a special beauty about it that I struggle to define properly, but it looks like it came from the pencil of the very audience for whom it was intended, and I find that to be delightful. Most superhero books are too sharp, too clean, even if they lean towards the grittier end of things. They can be almost too precise. It takes a team of artists to put together an issue, but this project is 100% Sears. The singularity of consumption brings an entirely different feel to Young Shadow than other superhero stories, and that element of unity allows Sears to accomplish more in one hundred twenty-five pages than it seems like he should have been able to. But he does so by skipping unnecessary exposition. The book is almost all rising action. The pace is tight, and we immediately jump into Shadow's world. Certainly, there is some familiarity that helps propel this narrative, but kudos to Sears for seizing on those concepts and allowing the plot to shine as a result.

There is always handwringing about the direction of comics and the inclusion of newer, younger readers. And those debates are often a little short sighted, not for the least of reasons that the people bemoaning the lack of younger readers of “comics” specifically use the word to mean “direct market big two superhero books,” willfully ignoring the fact that that younger readers have been flocking to manga and OGNs for years. But, I would be lying if I told you I hadn't wrung out the proverbial hand or two worrying about what would become of Superman for the next generation. Young Shadow assuages many of my fears, though. Sears embraces the genre, tips his hat in a few places, and creates something that fully functions as a superhero story that subsection of readers would comprehend and appreciate. That isn’t necessarily something happening often in the YA graphic novel market. For all the creativity behind the critically and commercially successful series of graphic novels DC has produced as part of its two young adult imprints, most of them remove the superhero aspect from those characters. They’re fun. I think I’ve liked every one I’ve read. But they amount to Elseworlds for Kids, and I can’t help but mourn the fact that revamping these characters to make them vital and relevant for younger audiences resulted in excising a core part of their DNA. 

And, fundamentally, that leads me to what I appreciate most about Young Shadow. It’s a superhero comic, through and through. It is definitely intended for a young audience, but older readers can both appreciate it on face and revel in the nostalgia. If you’re a superhero reader pushing forty, and Young Shadow doesn’t conjure feeling that immediately transport you to your own sixth grade sketchbook, then I feel sorry for you. It’s that kind of book, and I’m unlikely to do it justice simply by writing about it. Sears finds a way to embrace the tropes of the superhero genre without falling victim to its trappings. It feels right. It feels like the kind of book we deserve. It’s unabashedly clad it its own optimism without being corny or artificial. Quite the contrary, it is the sincerity at the heart of Young Shadow that propels the read. The reader is immediately invested in the youthful protagonist. He reminds us not only of what we know, but of how we saw those heroes when we were Shadow’s age. Young Shadow is proof that a book can be both serious and optimistic without sacrificing either, and it functions as an antidote to the shallow nihilism that has plagued superhero books for the past thirty years.

While we're at it, someone please give this man a Teen Titans book already.

Young Shadow
by Ben Sears
Published by Fantagraphics