For the sake of transparency: Creator/writer/artist/publisher George Morrow contacted me about a month ago, asking very nicely if I would read a free digital copy of his YA graphic novel TDSA: The Teenaged Defending Squad of America and review it here on the blog. Never one to turn down new or free or independent or obscure comicbook material, I agreed. What follows, then, is the promised review.
I'm not sure what the last young adult book I read was, but I'm sure it was when I was a young adult. I've worked with kids in my adult life, but never teenagers or even preteens, so I am fairly disconnected from that world. I don't know what's popular amongst modern twelve-and-ups, let alone kids of that age who're into superhero comicbooks. What titles sell in that age range? Does that information even exist anywhere? How could it?
Anyway, in assessing TDSA: The Teenaged Defending Squad of America, it's hard for me to judge it on YA-specific criteria, such as how appropriate it is, how popular it might be within the target age group, etc. I can make educated guesses, and they'd probably be not distant from the truth, but that's not the lens through which I read it. I tried to take it at face value, with the understanding that it would be necessarily a bit simpler in its storytelling and more vanilla in its content.
Even with those considerations in mind, it's not a very strong comicbook. Though the seeds of some good ideas and underlying messages are present, George Morrow doesn't follow through on any of them or flesh them out enough. It is almost an examination of the dangers of teenaged celebrity, and/or those of children trying to live like adults. But ultimately the kids who make up the titular superhero team don't really suffer any consequences for their lifestyle. Throughout the book, they teeter on the edge of having their violent and dangerous jobs ruin other aspects of their lives, but in the end everything is peachy and everyone gets exactly what they want.
Which is too bad, because a book aimed at modern teenagers discussing how overwhelming, challenging, scary, and destructive fame can be sounds like a really good idea to me. These days, when becoming a celebrity is sometimes as simple as putting a hilarious home video online and having it noticed by the right corner of the Internet, the message of how suddenly and dramatically that kind of attention can uproot your world is a valuable one. And it's all here, in theory. Jack Kempostowski, the main character, misses class and watches his grades fall steadily once he signs up with the TDSA. His best friend, Lori Rosenbaum, who also arbitrarily decides to be a superhero, almost loses her girlfriend over it. They both fight with their parents, and strain under the pressures of their new schedules and secrets, until finally they are inches away from breaking down completely. But they never do, and by the book's conclusion they've got their parents' support, help from their employers with getting out of school, and not only does Lori's girlfriend stick around but Jack gets one of his own. So the message at the close of TDSA isn't "be careful what you wish for" but "everything works out even when you make reckless decisions and then lie about them."
The narrative follows Jack and Lori as they learn about the new teenaged superhero team in their town, force their way in by interrupting a fight and winning through blind luck, and then almost ruin their lives before ending up with perfect ones, as described above. It's a little unfocused, introducing new threads and characters at odd times and often for reasons I can't explain. Partway through the book, it becomes apparent that the government agency in charge of TDSA are actually villains, but that storyline isn't resolved within the pages of this novel, left dangling for, I imagine, a hypothetical sequel. The problem with that, though, is that what we get here is confusion with no payoff, especially frustrating for a plot point introduced so late in the game. There's a lot of stuff like that, with the narrative jumping around and several scenes that do very little to progress any of the myriad conflicts.
There are other, smaller things, like the blandness of the main supervillains' plans, the sparse and jarring use of curse words, or the repetitive jokes that don't even quite land the first time, but much of that is nitpicking. My core problem with the writing was the lack of focus and lack of consequence. But even with those issues, the script was stronger overall than the art.
Morrow is, by his own admission, not much of an artist, which only serves to further weaken the story. This is, after all, a superhero book, so there are many big, multi-page fights scenes involved. However, Morrow renders them so sketchily and/or confusingly that I often have no idea what's happening, who's doing what to whom. There are major characters who I still couldn't tell you what their powers are. I'm pretty sure Dynamo Boy's only ability is to suck at throwing a bolas. But it's true with every fight, no matter who's involved, that there are always at least a handful of indecipherable panels. It's too big a percentage of the story to be drawn so weakly.
Bodies are disproportionate, faces are largely featureless, and the costume designs are far too generic (though that goes with the generic pseudonyms almost everybody has). And because they are all done in black and white, but with an absence of much detail, there is a general lack of energy to the visuals.
Though it had the potential to be a book with an important message delivered clearly, TDSA: The Teenaged Defending Squad of America chose instead to be a silly, sometimes-meandering story about two kids whose dreams come true for no reason. I think the nugget of a solid project exists here, but it would need a complete overhaul with a new ending, artist, and focus. But hey, as I said, maybe if I were twelve none of this stuff would matter to me. I can't judge it from that point of view, but my best guess is that even a kid would find this all pretty dull and disappointing.