Teenagers with superpowers have always intrigued me. When I started collecting comics as a child, I was drawn to superhuman teens because I thought that when I hit puberty, super powers would kick in and I’d become a superhero. While that clearly didn’t happen (to YOUR knowledge), becoming an adult can still be a tough and emotional time (at 31, I’m still not done with the process). Imagine going through the difficulties of pubescence while looking strikingly different from those around you. No, I’m not talking about a giant pimple on the nose, I’m talking about red, metallic skin.
Avengers Academy was an interesting series because it threw together a handful of traumatized teens that the Avengers believed were most likely to become the next Masters of Evil. So what did Hank Pym and company do with these troubled kids? Put them on a team together and decided to train them! Ken Mack was a big, red young man with nearly impervious skin and a cranium that looked like a skull. Not only would he have scared the crap out of your dinner guests, but the poor young man couldn’t feel physical sensations. An awesome character with an unfortunate appearance, Mettle has the only red skull that deserves the D-List spotlight.
Created by Christos Gage and Mike McKone, Ken Mack first appeared in Avengers Academy #1, cover dated August 2010. Ken was a Hawaiian teenager surfing the waves when he was accidentally knocked unconscious by another surfer’s board. Though Ken’s friends brought him to safety, they were horrified by his appearance. The skin on Ken’s face, the site of the board’s impact, was already crumbling away and revealing a layer of shiny, red “skin” underneath. This incident, and many others just like it involving teenagers with newfound powers, caught the attention of Norman Osborne, who was in charge of national security at the time (which still doesn’t sound quite as ridiculous as “President Trump”).
Osborne had experiments conducted on Ken and the other teenagers in order to make them more powerful, regardless of the dangers involved. Unfortunately, the tests caused the skin condition that started on Ken’s face to spread all over his body. Not only did Ken look like a cross between the Red Skull and Colossus, but he had gained super-strength. Osborne was likely going to use the test subjects for his own nefarious purposes, but never had the chance because he very publicly went crazy and was imprisoned on The Raft. To avoid further psychological damage to the teens, Hank Pym decided to give them a positive purpose so that they wouldn’t become villains in the future (oh please, teenagers are villainous enough just the way they are).
The first few issues of Avengers Academy had me captivated because the quality of life for some of those kids was not promising. Jenny, who called herself Hazmat, constantly generated radiation, so she had to wear a containment suit at all times outside of her lead-lined bedroom. Veil, who could turn into various gaseous forms, was losing her molecular stability and would eventually become a completely intangible gas (alternate code-name – Fart-in-the-wind Girl). Mettle…well, he initially seemed to cope with his situation pretty well. Ken was a laid back guy who loved to laugh and was genuinely interested in learning what the instructors at the academy could teach him. When the other trainees picked on him, he shrugged off their comments and had the most positive attitude on the team. It wound up being quite a shock to see Ken’s reaction to Osborne when the two met again because, for the first time, Mettle showed his angry side.
During a visit to The Raft, Hazmat caused a power outage and she, Mettle, and Veil snuck away from the team in order to visit Osborne’s cell. When the three entered Norman’s room, Mettle lifted the villain by the neck and berated him for the pain he had caused the three. It seemed that the repressed anger over his appearance was beginning to come to the surface. Still training to be a force for good, however, Mettle was an asset in battle, and even learned how to deflect bullets off of his body and angle them so that they wouldn’t strike innocent bystanders.
During a fight against Korvac, the kids’ minds were temporarily transferred into their adult bodies in order to combat the villain with years of experience in their memories. Ken instinctively punched a hole through Korvac’s body and, through the kids’ combined efforts, the villain was defeated. This incident, however, scared Ken because, while in his adult body, he felt that killing had become something natural – something that he did often. His fear worsened when, during the events of Fear Itself, Ken witnessed the murder of innocent civilians who he was trying to protect. In response, Mettle broke a large, metal pole out of the ground and threw it at the enemy responsible for the murders. The pole penetrated the villain’s torso, killing him. Though Ken worried about his capacity to kill, the Avenger, Tigra, assured him that it was because he was worried about growing up to be a killer that proved he had a good heart (and quite a deadly pitching arm, apparently).
Until he joined Avengers Academy, Ken had been a peaceful teenager. His parents were pacifists and their influence had clearly rubbed off on the boy. I imagine the laid back attitude of a Hawaiian native, simply enjoying fun in the sun and living a carefree life (but then the horrible reality of New Jersey awakens me to my own screams). It was interesting, though somewhat sad, to watch Mettle’s life drastically change so quickly; the boy was not afforded much time to acclimate to his new condition.
Thankfully, not all was depressing for Ken. Though he and Hazmat initially didn’t get along, the two began to form a close relationship because of their similar situations – they both understood feeling isolated from the rest of the world and that seemed to bring them closer together. The two found comfort in each other and eventually agreed to date. It was wonderful to watch their relationship grow over the course of Avengers Academy (and since Mettle was immune to the effects of radiation, more things grew than just the relationship).
While Ken’s physical situation was certainly unfortunate, he was a kind young man surrounded by new friends, mentors, and a girl who genuinely cared for his well-being. Once he began dating Jenny, Ken stopped fearing his future and seemed happy with the present. He was getting along with all of his teammates and training to be an Avenger – Ken definitely had a bright future ahead of him. That is, until he didn’t. Goddammit, Marvel…
Mettle and Hazmat, along with many other teenaged heroes such as X-23 and Darkhawk, awoke to the voice of the villain, Arcade. He explained to the teens that they were completely cut off from civilization. In a twisted game of Battle-Royale-meets-Survivor, Arcade told the kids that they were going to have to kill each other for necessities such as food and water. The 16 teens were trapped on an island for 30 days and at the end, only one of them would walk away. In a disturbing twist, Arcade decided to let the kids decide which of them would die first. Hazmat and some of the other heroes immediately attacked the villain, but to no avail. Arcade telekinetically lifted Hazmat and began to rip her apart, but Mettle shouted for him to stop, then volunteered to be the first to die. Arcade dropped Jenny and caused Ken to explode in a bloody mess of guts and bones.
Geez, that was sad…and abrupt. Ken was one of the sweetest characters that I’ve ever read about and it was upsetting to watch him die, though I had a feeling that he would be killed first. He had many difficulties in his short time as a super hero and found himself doing things that were uncharacteristic for a boy that had lived a peaceful life, but I believe that his inner-conflicts are what helped make him such a great character. The amount of care that Mettle showed for those around him proved that he was really a gentle person despite his frightening appearance. Though Jenny had an angry temperament and Ken was an easygoing individual, the two were always there for each other and somehow seemed to be a perfect match. While it was certainly sad to see him die, it was no surprise that Ken sacrificed himself for Jenny, and that final, selfless act is a true testament to the kind of young man that Ken Mack was.
Mettle appeared in two alternate-universe stories but has never appeared outside of Marvel Comics. I suppose that’s understandable because the teenager was written for less than three years before getting killed, so he never had a chance to be utilized in videogames or cartoons. Unfortunately, it’s been more than three years since Mettle died and none of the Avengers Academy kids have made many, if any, appearances since the three different series that featured them were cancelled. I still have hope that one day Mettle will be resurrected, however, because someone with such tough skin and a sweet heart makes a unique character well worth having in the Marvel Universe.