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How “Star Trek Beyond” Forgot About Black Men

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Star Trek Beyond is a good movie. Some might even say it’s a great movie. It’s certainly a sad movie, since it’s poor Anton Yelchin’s last film, not to mention that the film’s original intent was to honor the legacy of the late Leonard Nimoy. But for everything that’s great about it (“Night on the Yorktown”GET INTO IT, soundtrack lovers), there’s one part that is apt to tickle the brain in an unpleasant way, and you won’t realize it until after you’ve left the movie. You probably won’t even realize what it is that bothered you about certain scenes until weeks or months later.

Or until you read this post.

The thing that probably bothered you was the fact that Idris Elba wasn’t allowed to be Idris Elba. Another thing that probably bothered you was how Elba’s character was indicative of the overall treatment of black men in the Star Trek reboot films. All of this reflects how black men are treated in entertainment and society overall.

Want to figure out how all of this relates to each other? Let’s get into it.

Before you get any further, you should know that there are spoilers in this post, so beware.

Idris Elba vs. Krall

Paramount Pictures/YouTube screengrabs
Paramount Pictures/YouTube screengrabs

When we see a film starring Idris Elba, we’re typically going to see Idris Elba, not Idris Elba as some monster-alien. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Elba being an actor under prosthetics, but it’s really interesting that out of all of the characters and out of all of the non-existent black men we haven’t seen up until now, the one black guy we do see is covered up so we can’t see his moneymaker—his face. This isn’t even discussing the fact that even without the social commentary, the prosthetics just look cheesy. Sorry about it, but Krall, the villain Elba plays, looks like a Power Rangers character. So, so sorry, but it’s just not a breathable looking, moldable mask. Elba couldn’t act through it, so it just made the fact that he was wearing a full-face prosthetic even more apparent and unbearable.

As if the film knew that we as the audience would get tired of hearing Elba put all his acting in his voice to counteract the impossibility of acting through the mask, the film provided us and Elba a reprieve by allowing him to actually act to the camera as the human version of Krall, Balthazar Edison, a former United Earth Military Assault commander. After the U.E.M.A. was dissolved, Edison was grandfathered into the Starfleet program as a starship captain. We see him acting jovially with his crew in an old recording found on his old ship, the U.S.S. Franklin. But that’s the thing; it’s in a old recording. You never see Elba as a human in real time. You just see this in flashback. That’s a problem because it’s yet another way to remove Elba from the movie and Krall/Edison from his own humanity (and possible chance at redemption).

So what does this have to do with the treatment of black men in Star Trek? Well, looking solely at the reboot series, we have yet to see a prominent black male character. The only black speaking male character you have seen throughout this reboot series is doggone Tyler Perry, and that’s because he paid his way in. In Star Trek Beyond, we have one black redshirt and another black guy (another redshirt, but not security) walk onto the bridge. That’s it. In a universe as vast as the Star Trek one, the potential of the series to tell the story of inclusion and humanity in harmony is always limited by the storyteller(s)’ own biases, internal limitations or, maybe in some cases, fears. Even though the film thought it pertinent to show Sulu in a relationship, despite cutting out the actual scene of him kissing his husband, the series as a whole still hasn’t shown a black man in full capacity of himself.

Krall’s death vs. Khan’s redemption

Left to right: Chris Pine plays Kirk and Idris Elba plays Crowl in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment
Left to right: Chris Pine plays Kirk and Idris Elba plays Crowl in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment

How come Krall has to die, but Khan gets to live? In Star Trek Into Darkness, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan (aka John Harrison aka a whitewashed character) gets to go back into cyro sleep, even though he’s literally a weapon. Meanwhile, Krall, who is actually a sympathetic character (As you’ll read later), accidentally kills himself with his own space-age weapon after a series of fights in which Kirk is trying to stop him, if not kill him. Why, though? Why is Khan still alive in this world when Krall is the one who should be shown some sort of olive branch?

Yes, Krall was trying to kill everyone in Yorktown and potentially, everyone in the Federation. But so was Khan. To be honest, the whole “big bad trying to kill everyone” tactic is becoming reductive and, once again, limited thinking as to what the scope of Star Trek can actually encompass. But if a big bad has to die each film, then let that be consistent. Don’t give one villain a reprieve from death and kill Elba and Eric Bana’s villains in the other two movies.

What’s the most annoying part of Krall’s demise is that there was probably somewhere still inside Krall who still wanted to return to the man he was. His main problem was that the Federation left him and his crew out to die. He did what he had to do to survive, and that included him reducing himself down to the lowest of levels to live. Krall as Edison also had another issue that Kirk primarily dealt with; the existentialism of life. Both Kirk and Krall wondered what more there was to their lives, and why they were even doing what they were doing. Both of them had dealt with existentialism even before they sat in the captain’s chair; Kirk was aimless for much of his life before Starfleet, and Edison was a commander in the world’s space army, a post he enjoyed, and then his definition of himself was taken away when Starfleet came. One area Simon Pegg and Doug Jung could have expounded on this shared issue is have Kirk actually try to talk him down during their fight. Kirk could have tried some version of “I’ve felt lost, too”  to appeal to Krall’s humanity (which is still there, since you see him begin to change back into a brown humanoid-type being). Instead, Kirk fails to use this knowledge and is instead focused primarily on stopping Krall by any means necessary.

Krall as the Black Lesson Giver

Chris Pine plays Kirk in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment
Chris Pine plays Kirk in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment

Ultimately, Krall is just another form of the black form used as a lesson giver for a white lead. Krall’s own humanity is never discussed; his humanity is treated in past tense even though you learn his motivations and reasoning behind his anger. Krall’s purpose isn’t to fulfill his own destiny; it’s to help Kirk complete his. Through Krall’s downfall, Kirk comes to the conclusion that his place is with the Enterprise after all. However, there was possibly another way Kirk could have learned this without Krall basically sacrificing himself for Kirk’s story to continue.

Krall’s entire story is something that could have been given 10 times more weight than it was. Krall being a black man who has had his sense of purpose stolen, his mental health denied (because Edison’s existentialism has given way to extreme depression), and his humanity stripped, forcing him to survive by any means necessary, only to be then denied a second chance to course-correct his life, is the black American man’s story in a nutshell. Krall wasn’t just “a monster.” He was a man who had everything taken from him and then was expected to be all right with it. He faced unimaginable things for over 100 years; what did anyone expect for him to become, a saint? After all of your crew dies and you can’t help them, you would also believe Starfleet doesn’t care about you. Starfleet brushing over their role in Krall’s creation sounds just like how America as a whole fails to understand how the country’s original sin still affects black America today. To appropriate a popular phrase, Krall’s life mattered.

What did you think of Star Trek Beyond? I invite you to give me your views on Krall and the film as a whole.

CROSS-POST: “Finding Dory,” Disability Culture, and Collective Access

Post provided by Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project

On June 25th, I saw Finding Dory after reading many positive reviews and recommendations from my disabled friends. I wasn’t disappointed. There was so much to unpack and process when I got home that I decided to write this review/essay.

Finding Dory is film depicts more than disability, it depicts disability culture.*

I tip my crip hat to the artists, writers and directors of this latest gem from Pixar.

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Warning: Spoilers to Finding Dory, Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3

People with disabilities do not see themselves very often reflected in popular culture with authenticity steeped in the lived experience. Not only are many disabled characters played bynon-disabled people; the storytellers are usually non-disabled who craft narratives about disability by using stereotypes and cliched tropes, robbing disabled characters and stories of agency and diversity.

Finding Dory has multiple characters with disabilities that live in the community (the ocean) and in institutions (the aquarium, the quarantine section of the aquarium). The characters are part of ecosystems (the coral reef) integrated with non-disabled aquatic creatures. Best yet, Dory, voiced by Ellen Degeneres, is a disabled character that is front-and-center. She is the hero on a journey.

She saves the day not in spite of but because of her disability.

When was the last time a live-action Hollywood film had this type of disability diversity and this many disabled characters interacting with each other?!?

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3 ways Finding Dory kept it real about the disability experience

#1: Parental anxiety and support

We see Dory as a young Pacific Regal Blue tang with her parents, Jenny and Charlie, voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy.

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Jenny and Charlie are patient parents who help Dory to be upfront about her disability, encouraging her to practice, “Hi, my name is Dory and I suffer from short-term memory loss.” Not a fan of the term “suffer” but anyhoo…Seeing the group of little tangs swimming nearby, I think Jenny and Charlie were preparing Dory as she planned to venture out to socialize with her peer group.  We also see Jenny and Charlie help Dory with her memory by using songs and accommodations such as seashells that enable her to find her way home.

Jenny and Charlie are like many parents of kids with disabilities:

  • They worry about her future
  • They teach her life skills that she will need
  • They are protective about Dory and her safety (“Watch for the undertow!”)
  • They show joy and love of Dory being Dory

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I got very verklempt near the end of the film when Dory was reunited with her parents. Jenny and Charlie re-constructed their environment with rows of shells radiating from their home in the hopes that Dory will find her way back. When I saw the wide shot of their home and the long rows of seashells like streaming sun beams, I thought about Jenny and Charlie’s dedication and labor. They had every confidence that Dory would find them–they did their best at preparing Dory for the outside world and believed in her abilities. I teared up thinking about my parents and the sacrifices they made for me, such as purchasing a van with a lift (no small feat for a middle class family) and various modifications to our home when I started using an electric wheelchair.

#2: Social Exclusion and Ableism

Pixar kept it real, yo! There are the warm fuzzies and SO many feels that are de rigueur for every. Single. Pixar. Film. The filmmakers balanced the feels with moments of cruelty in Finding Dory in the form of Fluke and Rudder, the two sea lions that Marlin and Nemo encounter during their search for Dory.

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Fluke and Rudder (voiced by former cast members from The Wire Iris Elba and Dominic West) are oafish bros who occupy a prime piece of rock real estate near the aquarium. Fluke and Rudder love to sleep and guffaw in a Cockney accent. They help Marlin and Nemo get into the aquarium by calling Becky the loon to transport them via pail of water.

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Fluke and Rudder get the pail by luring in Gerald, a non-verbal sea lion who is clearly a sea lion that’s on the fringes of his social group. Gerald looks a bit goofy with his bushy eyebrows and wide-eyed expression and it reinforces his lower status within a larger hierarchy where verbal and physical ability is privileged. Fluke and Rudder bullies Gerald, taking his pail and aggressively pushing him off their rock. They pretend to include Gerald, but then they bray in their loutish sea lion voices, “Off, off, off,” chasing him from their territory.

The treatment of Gerald didn’t go unnoticed. My friend Heather Ure, a “neurodivergent femme-writer-mom” according to her Twitter bio, tweeted:

I relate to Gerald intensely, his wanting to be accepted and being taken advantage of by faux friends/allies. I was angry for Gerald but was delighted to see him in a scene after the credits where he manages to nestle himself on the rock behind Rudder and Fluke and gives a bit of a snicker. He does have agency and is tenacious in getting his place in the sun.

Isn’t that what we all want and deserve at the end of the day, a rock of one’s own and the warmth of the sun?

In another example of ableism, Marlin the clownfish, voiced by Albert Brooks, did a lot of male fishsplaining in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. Some of it was subtle and came in the form of microaggressions to Dory (when he subtly tried to dissuade Dory from attending Nemo’s field trip because the teacher didn’t want to worry about her safety in case she wandered) and more explicit instances when he blamed Dory for their predicament due to her disability.

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When Fluke and Rudder call Becky, Marlin takes one look at her ‘eccentric’ appearance and automatically discounts her abilities. Marlin’s inability to trust the disabled animals in his life and presume competence leads them into more danger. His doubts of Becky and insistence that he knows what to do is called out by Nemo, his son with a disabled fin.

Only after Nemo points out Marlin’s ableism does he flip the script and ‘thinks like Dory’ as a way to find a creative solution. This is a clear celebration of neurodiversity and neurodivergence. Heather Ure tweeted:

Writer David Chen commented on Finding Dory‘s disability hierarchy in an article where he described both Gerald and Becky:

…it separates animals who are able to speak from those who can’t. The animals who can speak have inner lives, go on adventures, have the ability to help others, possess emotional richness, and generally feel and act like full human beings…Both of these characters feel like cheap jokes. For the kids that are in the audience, they send a pretty clear message: It’s okay to laugh at people who are different, or who aren’t as smart as you are.

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To me, this is part of the disability experience of many people: ableism, social exclusion, discrimination, and segregation. You can laugh, celebrate, feel distressed and disturbed, and think critically at the same time. This is what great art does.

I’m glad the filmmakers included those scenes of ableist mistreatment of Gerald and Becky. I cringed during those scenes but I could appreciate the spectrum of the social experience of disabled people. It’s not all happy endings and the struggle is totes real.

There will always be playground bullies and people who underestimate you. Many disabled people know these subtle and not-so-subtle signs when we are not welcome or accepted: the long sighs, the eye-rolls, the sudden change of plans, the concerns about safety or accommodations, the ‘accidental’ exclusion to a party or meeting, etc.

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Dory may have memory loss, but she can sense frustration by others as if she’s a burden to them. In fact, she blames herself for losing her parents and apologizes constantly to everyone for simply existing and asking for help (i.e., internalized ableism).

The characterization of Gerald and Becky may result in laughs by some in the audience but this could also serve as an opportunity for adults and children to reflect and wonder, “Why did I laugh when Gerald was pushed in the water? Why is it ok to judge Becky’s abilities based on her looks?”

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Pixar films have never shied away from the harsh realities of life. Even with animated films geared for children or featuring young characters, it is a misconception that these films must be positive and idealistic in their storylines and characterization. Think Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro and the moments of violence in Finding Nemo (the death of Coral, Nemo’s mother) or heartbreak and rejection in Toy Story 3 (Lotso the bear being replaced and forgotten).

#3: Collective Access

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The scene that screamed disability culture to me was the one where Destiny (a whale shark with myopia voiced by Kaitlin Olson), Bailey (a beluga whale with a head injury voiced by Ty Burrell) worked together to provide access for Dory who needed someone to guide her through the pipes to find her parents. Dory communicated her needs. Destiny heard her and relayed them Bailey, encouraging him to attempt echolocation.

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Bailey is able to echolocate Dory’s location in the pipe system, relays directions to Destiny, and Destiny speaks to Dory in whale (the language of access through pipes) guiding her all the way with a slight detour into Marlin and Dory.

Patty Berne, Co-Founder and Director of Sins Invalid, described collective access in a June 10, 2015 blog post as one of ten principles of disability justice:

…we value exploring and creating new ways of doing things that go beyond able-bodied/minded normativity. Access needs do not need to be held in shame — we all have various capacities which function differently in various environments…We can share responsibility for our access needs without shame, we can ask our needs be met without compromising our integrity, we can balance autonomy while being in community, we can be unafraid of our vulnerabilities knowing our strengths are respected.

Get a bunch of disabled people together and witness the collective access organically takes place. This isn’t the kind of access mandated by law or provided by an entity or the state. Collective access is community-based and relies on each person’s talents and abilities in a web of interdependence and understanding. It feels good to see people use what they have and share it with others.  I love it when I can provide access to a disabled friend in my own small way like typing or reaching for something. And there’s no hesitation or worry about asking my friends for help because they get it, no lengthy explanation or apologies required.

The scenes of collective access in Finding Dory fill me with such pride and solidarity for these disabled animated sea creatures.

Disabled life forms, doing it for themselves. Each in their own way!!

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Another two demonstrations of collective access occurs when Hank the septopus (voiced by Ed O’Neill) moves the baby stroller through the aquarium w/ Dory inside a sippy cup.

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He’s near the ground navigating while Dory reads the signage and gives him directions.

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Dory does the same when they hijack a truck (you have to see it to believe it) and Hank’s tentacles are on the pedals and wheel. Collective access, ya’ll!

Final Random Thoughts

  • As a wheelchair user, I laughed out loud when Hank stole the truck and said, “Suck it, bipeds!” This is something I’ve uttered a million times.
  • Another major theme is about building families–both chosen families and biological ones.
  • Hank reads to me as an someone with trauma in addition to being an amputee since he does not want to be touched.

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  • It’s nice to see Marlin embrace and respect Dory not out of gratitude (she played a larger role in saving Nemo) but because of who she is by the end of the movie.
  • The ending is wonderful when Dory accepts credit for everything she’s accomplished. She is content and comfortable in her own scales.
  • Note: I am not exactly sure who voiced the roles of Gerald and Becky. In one wiki, Torbin Xan Bullock is listed the voice of Becky. In imdb.com, the same actor is listed as the voice of Gerald.

Like science fiction and fantasy, animation gives flexibility and space for new ways of telling stories and depicting characters. Perhaps that is one reason why Finding Dory is a massively better movie about disability and disability culture without explicitly being framed as one.

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About

Alice Wong is a San Francisco-based disability advocate and Staff Research Associate at the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, UCSF. Currently, she is the Founder and Project Coordinator for the Disability Visibility Project (DVP), a community partnership with StoryCorpsand an online community dedicated to recording, amplifying, and sharing disability stories and culture. She is a co-partner with Andrew Pulrang and Gregg Beratan for #CripTheVote, a non-partisan online campaign encouraging the political participation of people with disabilities. You can find her on Twitter: @SFdirewolf and online: DisabilityVisibilityProject.com

*Footnote: Disability culture is described by scholar Steven E. Brown as:

People with disabilities have forged a group identity.  We share a common history of oppression and a common bond of resilience.  We generate art, music, literature, and other expressions of our lives and our culture, infused from our experience of disability.  Most importantly, we are proud of ourselves as people with disabilities.  We claim our disabilities with pride as part of our identity. We are who we are:  we are people with disabilities.

Other articles/blog posts about Finding Dory

‘Finding Dory,’ Disability, and Me

Elizabeth Picciuto, June 19, 2016, Daily Beast

The One Thing That Bothered Me About ‘Finding Dory’

David Chen, June 19, 2016, SlashFilm.com

‘Finding Dory’ isn’t just about disability — it’s about community and support

Stacia L. Brown, June 24, 2016, The Washington Post

Comic Book Review: “Zodiac Starforce” is Magical Fun

Syopses

• Zodiac Starforce #1

An elite group of teenage girls with magical powers have sworn to protect our planet against dark creatures . . . as long as they can get out of class!

These high-school girls aren’t just combating math tests. They’re also battling monsters! But when an evil force infects leader Emma, she must work with her team to save herself—and the world—from the evil Diana and her mean-girl minions!

* A brand-new creator-owned series from Kevin Panetta (Bravest Warriors) and Paulina Ganucheau (TMNT: New Animated Adventures, Bravest Warriors).

* For fans of Sailor Moon, Buffy, and Lumberjanes!

Writer: Kevin Panetta

Artist: Paulina Ganucheau

Cover Artist: Marguerite Sauvage

• Zodiac Starforce #2

They saved the world two years ago, but when a new, monstrous threat arises, can they put aside their differences and become a team again? Hopefully they can; otherwise team leader Emma, who’s been infected by an evil magical force, is a goner! Will the Zodiac Starforce reunite and enter the dark realm of Nephos to save their captain, or will a fierce rivalry on the volleyball court tear them apart?

Writer: Kevin Panetta

Artist: Paulina Ganucheau

Cover Artist: Kevin Wada

My thoughts: I’m a huge fan of Sailor Moon and Magical Girl things in general (like OG stuff like Magical Girl Pretty Sammy, which I think is probably one of the best iterations of the Tenchi Muyo characters). So when I heard about Zodiac Starforce, consider my interest piqued. Turns out the two issues didn’t disappoint.

Zodaic Starforce is what I have hoped for in an American version of the Magical Girl genre. Americans have tried Magical Girl things before, like with Steven Universe, but contrary to popular opinion (especially opinions about Steven Universe), I never took to any American version of anything magical girl/magical person except for Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and even that was spliced with footage from the actual Japanese production. Zodiac Starforce, though, combines the best elements of Sailor Moon and Steven Universe and puts them together in a way that’s enjoyable for everyone. High school drama? Check. Doll-like girls with bountiful, Princess Jasmine-esque hair? Check. Diversity in race, culture, body size and sexual orientation? Check. Action and humor? Check. All of the above make for an enjoyable series for the modern age.

I’m really fascinated by how the series stars mise en scène, with the girls already in acknowledgement of their powers and having disbanded months (or years?) before. They have to get the team back together when they find out their leader, Emma, has been infected somehow and is on a course for death. Astra, the goddess that gave them their powers, doesn’t give Emma or the team any hope, but the team are adamant about saving their friend and saving the world once again from Cimmeria, the villain the assumed was dead. Or is it Cimmeria? Is it another foe taking Cimmeria’s place?

In any event, I thought it was unique to have the series start in the middle and have us learn about the world the more we read. To that end, though, I hope we learn more about the Starforce’s past, how they were chosen by Astra, who Cimmeria is and how she was defeated the first time.

Overall, Zodiac Starforce is an enjoyable series and I can’t wait to get the next issue.

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Cover art for Zodiac Starforce #1 and #2. Image credits: Dark Horse Comics

TV Review: “The Player” Takes The House

Synopsis (NBC): 

From the executive producers of “The Blacklist” comes the action-packed Las Vegas-set thriller “The Player.” The series co-stars Wesley Snipes as a pit boss and Charity Wakefield as the dealer for a high-stakes game where an organization of wealthy individuals gamble on the ability of former military operative turned security expert Philip Winchester (“Strike Back,” “Fringe”) to stop some of the biggest crimes imaginable from playing out. Can he take them down from the inside and get revenge for the death of his wife, or is it true what they say: The house always wins.

TV Review: “The Muppets”

The Muppets Pilot

Synopsis (ABC): 

The Muppets return to primetime with a contemporary, documentary-style show. For the first time ever, a series  will explore the Muppets’ personal lives and relationships, both at home and at work, as well as romances, breakups, achievements, disappointments, wants and desires. This is a more adult, new Muppet series, for “kids” of all ages.

Comic Book Review: "Archie #1"

Written by: Mark Waid

Art by : Fiona Staples

Synopsis: Change is coming to Riverdale in this can’t-miss kick-off to Archie’s new ongoing series! Familiar faces return in new and unexpected ways in this must-have #1 issue! As the new school year approaches, you’d think Archie Andrews would be looking forward to classes and fun—but nothing is as it seems in the little town of Riverdale. But is this a one-off or a sign of bigger changes awaiting for America’s favorite teens—and the entire town? Find out in this exciting and remarkable first issue!