Saturday, May 5, 2007

Avengers Assemble!: A Pseudo-Critical History of The Avengers - Part VI

Master of the World

While ‘Heroes Reborn’ had sold bucket loads of copies, The Avengers as a whole had become derailed, and so it was left to writer Kurt Busiek and artist George Perez to return the group to their former glory with yet another new series. They brought back the classic line-up, the classic costumes, and many of the classic foes. More importantly, they put a great deal of thought into their stories, eschewing pin-ups and ‘shock events’ in favour of careful craftsmanship. Busiek, with his encyclopedic knowledge of Avengers history, is never short of a story to tell, but far from simply re-hashing the old stories, Busiek is adept at working out what makes the characters tick. Perez’s artwork is not quite as pretty as his first run but the amount of detail more than makes up for it. In a move that almost seems as if it were designed to point out the vapidity of ‘Heroes Reborn’ the opening pages of issue v.3 #1 has Perez drawing the various Avengers fighting in no less than thirteen different locations. Perez backs up this effort in the very next issue when he re-designs 39 costumes! Together, Busiek and Perez brought back the fun the series had during the 1970s and early 1980s, while upping the ante for a generation who had grown up on video games and movie blockbusters.

A major part of their efforts was to expand the scale and location of the Avengers’ battles. When the Avengers faced down the cosmic-level menace of Michael Korvac the whole battle was confined to a house in suburban New York, but now the size of the threat is proportional to the size of the battlefield. In the key stories of the Busiek/Perez run the Avengers fight Count Nefaria in the Alberta mountains, Morgan Le Fey in the English highlands, and Ultron in the fictional Baltic nation of Slorenia. In each case, about a dozen or more heroes are thrown at the villains, bouncing off in all directions. Perez’s eye for detail makes each of these locations distinctive, and his artwork clearly shows the effects that the ravages of combat have on the scenery. However, the biggest battle of them all takes place in the fifteen-part ‘The Kang Dynasty’ (issues v.3 #41-55), in which Kang declares war on 21st century Earth. In this story, we see the Avengers travel to New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Canada, Siberia, France, and outer space in order to stop Kang and his various armies. Perez has left by this time, although the fact that five different artists are used to complete the story adds to its scope.

While all these villains, particularly Kang and Ultron, have no qualms about killing, mass murder is not their ultimate goal. In fact, all of them plan to preserve life, but to re-make it in their own image. Morgan Le Fay wants to be ruler of a medieval society, Ultron wants to create a world of mechanical life with himself as the ‘patriarch’, Count Nefaria wants to irradiate the world so that they will treat him with respect, and Kang wants to turn the human race into an intergalactic army. Hence, the Avengers are not fighting to save the world per se, but are fighting to save it from being re-ordered to the will of their enemies. Despite their ambitions for a new and ‘better’ world, these villains are not the visionaries they would like to think they are. Captain America calls Kang a ‘miserable, jacked-up little tin Hitler…’ (v. 3 #52) and like the Third Reich Kang’s world consists of concentration camps, axes of evil, and theories of the ubermensch. When Captain America, now a giant symbol of liberty, faces down Kang in issues #52-53, we may as well be back in 1941 (or at least 1964-65). As we shall see with Geoff Johns’ run there’s a sense in which drawing such close parallels with Nazi fascism places the Avengers somewhat behind the times. Instead, what pushed Busiek’s stories forward were the new angles he placed on the characters’ emotional pasts.

Time To Think

One relationship that Busiek would pick up and put a new shine on was the love triangle between the Scarlet Witch, the Vision and Wonder Man, who the Vision’s mind was based upon. Since we last saw them together in issue #255 the Vision and Wanda’s lives have been rather haphazard – they moved to the West Coast, the Vision’s memory was erased, he moved back to the East Coast (thus effectively ending their marriage), Wonder Man declared his love for Wanda, Wonder Man died… again, and the Vision and Wanda were transported to an alternate reality. In issue v.3 #2, Busiek has Wanda mysteriously resurrect Wonder Man, which would seem to further complicate matters. In fact, Busiek manages to bring it all to a head. The Vision is jealous of Wanda and Simon’s burgeoning relationship, but not for the obvious reason. To the Vision’s mind, their relationship is the ultimate proof that his entire identity is merely a facsimile of Simon’s, revealing him ‘as nothing, as less than nothing…. A copy that is no longer necessary, now that the original is back.’ (v.3 #23) Wonder Man, however, has a different point of view. ‘You got a clean slate –,’ he tells the Vision, after a long recount of his numerous mistakes, ‘You got to be the person I lost – the boy I was before I went wrong.’ (v.3 #23) That seems to be exactly the thing that the Vision needed to hear, because when he returns to the Avengers he is a much more contented android. ‘I have accepted that I am responsible for my own life,’ he tells Wanda, ‘my own happiness,’ (v. 3 #31). Now it is Wanda and Simon who are seemingly cast adrift, unsure of where they are headed. The resolution to their relationship comes, strangely enough, in one of Kang’s concentration camps. ‘It wasn’t the kind of love either of us thought,’ says Simon, ‘More like –,’ ‘More like what we really are is old, old friends,’ Wanda replies (v.3 #51). It’s the clearest, most peaceful thought that either of them has had in years.

If the Vision and company are relieved to put the past behind them, that’s nothing compared to what Henry Pym feels when he finally puts his evil creation Ultron down for good. In issue v.3 #22, Hank makes the startling revelation that he based the mass-murdering robot’s brain patterns on his own. The Vision was haunted by the idea that he was simply ‘the reflection’ (v.3 #23), but Hank’s reflection is a grinning, metal mask ‘stripped of conscience, of morality… what I must think – somewhere deep inside –,’ (v.3 #22) Like the Vision though, he comes to accept that he is more than what the other side of the mirror shows him. ‘You’re not me – you’re just a bad experiment --,’ he shouts as he tears Ultron to pieces, ‘and here and now – I’m ending it!’ (v.3 #22) The image of a sweat-soaked, breathless Hank collapsing into Jan’s arms is a reminder that winning the day is as much about relief as it is about triumph. One ghost still remains in the closet though – Yellowjacket. One may have thought that this had been done and dusted in the 1980s, but Busiek shows there is still one stone left unturned. He reveals that Yellowjacket represented Hank’s ‘impulsive, emotional, expressive side’ (Annual 2001), his desire to be the bravest, most fearless hero of them all. When Henry Pym locked his Yellowjacket costume away, he closed off a part of him self that he needed to confront; the post-YJ Hank, by contrast, is too cautious, too over-protective. With Jan’s help, Hank finally accepts that ‘there’ll always be someone braver out there – someone more powerful… someone smarter too,’ and that all he needs to be is ‘the best Hank Pym’ he can be (Annual 2001). Following this revelation, Hank takes up the Yellowjacket moniker again, reasoning that ‘it’s as Yellowjacket that I had my worst problems – so it’s as Yellowjacket that I’ll face them…,’ (v.3 #45) The result is a strangely more exuberant Hank than the one we have become used to, but after all the problems he has faced, who is going to hold that against him?

While Busiek’s tales of redemption for the older members work well, those for the newer breed are somewhat less interesting. The over-eager Justice is struck with a bad case of hero-worship, to the point where he is almost ready to quit the Avengers because he doesn’t think he can measure up. He finally feels like an important part of the team when he helps Hank beat Ultron, but this development hardly wins any points for originality and the story would probably have worked just as well if Hank had found another way to win. Triathlon, meanwhile, is the latest in an assembly line of Avengers with shady backgrounds, although to Busiek’s credit, he does show how it can be pretty weary to be the outsider. Triathlon, of course, ends up saving the earth, the universe, and all that, but like Justice, just when he feels he is part of the team, his time with them comes to an end. It seems that, in the case of the older Avengers, Busiek has a talent for turning the convoluted into the complex; however, his own additions travel along fairly standard story arcs, after which they really have nowhere left to go. Considering that Busiek’s other main successes have been Marvels, which was a re-telling of the history of the Marvel Universe, and Astro City, which was based around a re-imagining of heroic archetypes, one could postulate that he does his best work when the groundwork is already laid out for him (this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, after all, Shakespeare never came up with his own plots). By the end of ‘The Kang Dynasty’ Busiek has tied up a lot of the loose ends that other writers had left for him, so it’s not surprising that he decides to make his exit. He had, however, left the Avengers in much better shape than he found them.

I’ll Be Watching Over You

‘Trust men, and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.’[26] So says the last panel of writer Geoff Johns’ final issue of The Avengers (v.3 #76), and it describes his twenty-issue run in a nutshell. It begins with the United Nations asking the Avengers to take charge of the entire world, and ends with Ant-Man finally accepting the Jack of Hearts as an Avenger. And through it all, there are several cases where the characters place their trust in those they may have doubted or mistrusted in the past, who each in turn prove able to repay that trust.

In ‘World Trust’ (issues v.3 #57-60) the United Nations, having decided that they are ill-equipped to deal with a state of global emergency, ‘relinquish the reins of leadership’ (v.3 #57) to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Despite the team’s predominantly American membership, the implication is that the Avengers are the super-powered equivalent of the UN: a supra-national entity that the world’s governments can call upon to restore order. ‘America. China. Even Iraq, for God’s sake -’ says the recently returned Henry Gyrich, ‘they all trust the Avengers.’ (v.3 #58) Actually, one of the messages of Johns’ run is that governments as a whole can not be trusted; trust is always built face-to-face. When Gyrich is hanging around the Avengers as a government representative they all treat him like something they just stepped in, whereas when the Falcon takes him aside to perform a secret mission for him, he comes through. Similarly, in ‘World Trust’, when the UN delegates are too busy looking out for national interests to address the global emergency, Iron Man defuses the situation by removing his facemask to reveal that he is Anthony Stark, billionaire industrialist. Most notably, in the aftermath of the ‘Red Zone’ incident (issues v.3 #65-70), in which the U.S. Government had an indirect hand, trust is rebuilt through a one-on-one chat between Captain America and the US President.[27] ‘If there are any other bio-weapons labs in the country –,’ says the Captain, ‘I trust they are being shut down.’ (v.3 #70) ‘We’re already in the process of finding out,’ replies the President, ‘And if we make a mistake of any kind again – I trust you will be there to help us correct it.’ Governments can be dangerous once they hide behind their offices; while trust is an important quality, one needs to stare them in the eye every now and then.

If trust is an important quality to have, being able to repay that trust is equally important. At the start of ‘Red Zone’, Cap promises a young boy whose parents have just been killed by the virus that ‘we’re going to get you home’. (v.3 #65) Five issues later, we see the young boy safe in hospital, the Vision’s hand on his shoulder. ‘You’re going home soon,’ he tells the boy, ‘Captain America gave you his word. And the Avengers always help him keep it.’ (v.3 #70) Part of learning to repay people’s trust is repaying that of your teammates. When Ant-Man and the Jack of Hearts are throwing childish insults at each other, Cap quickly breaks it up and stresses the importance of them getting along. ‘We work together as a team. We strive for perfection. So leave your faults at the mansion door.’ (v.3 #57) Iron Man and the Black Panther demonstrate this when they put aside their mutual distrust and work together to stop the ‘Red Zone’ virus. Standing behind Cap when he breaks up the feuding Avengers is the Falcon, his arms crossed and a stern expression on his face. The Falcon is Johns’ exemplar of someone who can be trusted to do the right thing by his teammates. ‘Now I live by a different set of words.’ he tells the reader in v.3 #64, “Avengers Assemble.” It means go in fighting – and watch each other’s backs.’ In particular, the trust between Captain America and the Falcon has reached the point where they do not even question each other’s judgments. ‘You proved yourself to Falcon --,’ says Cap to Gyrich, ‘meaning you proved yourself to me.’ (v.3 #70)

While it’s true that Johns’ stories are able to convey his respect for the characters, too often they seem like stooges to the story’s main message. The ongoing feud between Ant-Man and the Jack of Hearts seems particularly forced, and they both come off looking like jerks (although issue v.3 #62, which shows that they have more in common than they think, is one of the better issues of the run). Gyrich’s new-found humility before Cap and the Falcon is like watching a fish learn how to tap-dance - particularly given his conceit during ‘World Trust’ - and the strong distrust between Iron Man and the Black Panther makes you wonder if you missed the story where the Panther personally ripped apart the circuit board of every computer in Stark Industries. Finally, the revelation the Red Skull is behind the ‘bio-terrorist’ attack in ‘Red Zone’ is mildly disappointing. While the message behind the menace of the Skull, ‘treat all men with respect’, is certainly as applicable now as it was during the rise of Nazi Germany, the Skull’s fascist policies and racist remarks seem almost anachronistic when compared to the murky, messy problems that America faces in the post 9/11 era. All of this is not to say that the Johns’ run is a bad one – the stories are thoughtful and Johns does a good job of handling the changes in artist every second issue - it’s just that, more often than not, it seems the characters are saying what the creators think we want to hear.

OK, Ya Li’l Pishers… Time To End This

Johns’ successor as Avengers writer, Chuck Austen, quickly allows Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to regress to the level of fifteen year-olds, with his blend of self-congratulatory jokes, references to teen-slasher movies, and lengthy dialogues on pubescent-like sexual fantasies.[28] Austen’s first story, ‘Lionheart of Avalon’ (v.3 #77-81), deals chiefly with the subject of violence against women, and manages to muff it completely. The hero of the piece is Kelsey Leigh, a British mother of two, who becomes the new Captain Britain after she is beaten to death trying to defend Captain America from the villainous Wrecking Crew. Let it be noted that Kelsey already carries a disfiguring scar upon her face as the result of trying to defend herself from a burglar/rapist several years ago. And then Kelsey strikes out a third time when she is given the opportunity to carry the sword Excalibur, and is promptly forbidden to reveal that she is alive to her two children, lest they die a horrible death. Apparently, as Cap says, a mother of two defending her self is a pretty ‘stupid’ thing to do. Continuing on the mixed messages, Hawkeye encourages Cap to re-think his position on beating up super-powered women on the basis that chivalry is outdated, but then, when Kelsey dies, charges off like the proverbial white knight to fight the entire Wrecking Crew. At least Hawkeye doesn’t come off like a Neanderthal like poor Hank Pym, who twenty years after his breakdown, suddenly looks like he is going to throttle Jan at any moment. And it seems now that Hank is a mother-hating misogynist: ‘I have no trouble at all believing a mother would abandon her kids.’ he says in reference to Kelsey’s new-found powers, ‘She’s given power, freedom, and a new look all in one flash. A lot of women would jump at that.’ (v.3 #82)

Austen’s second story-line, ‘Once An Invader’ (v.3 #82-84), is a slight improvement, in which Austen uses the Invaders moniker to comment on modern-day American imperialism, as the New Invaders, led by Captain America-wannabe the U.S. Agent, overthrow a Middle Eastern government.[29] However, given the complexity of the subject, the level of political analysis is sadly lacking, going no further than lines such as ‘To truly honor the country… you must honor the world’ (v.3 #84). Austen also repeats Johns’ mistake by tying the Invaders to the Red Skull (‘He had some good ideas’ says the Agent (v.3 #84)), which blithely papers over the differences between Nazi fascism and US foreign policy. Now approaching issue #500, The Avengers really needed a good shake-up. Without a doubt they would soon receive it.

Few stories in Avengers history have divided fans as much as Brian Michael Bendis and David Finch’s ‘Chaos’, which ran through issues #500-503 (the title returned to its original numbering at this point). The advance publicity proclaimed drastic changes to the make-up of the Avengers, with some old favourites slated to bite the dust and marquee characters such as Spider-Man and Wolverine earmarked as their replacements. The unprecedented buzz surrounding the book, provided by the combination of the internet and Bendis’ relatively high industry profile, also gave fans plenty of opportunity to voice their distaste, with Bendis, by all reports, being subject to a barrage of personal attacks as he promised to wreak havoc upon the team. And wreak havoc he did. By the time the Avengers slink off into the sunset in issue #503, Ant-Man and Hawkeye are dead, the Vision has been ripped in half, the Wasp is incapacitated, She-Hulk has gone berserk, and the woman behind all the madness, the Scarlet Witch, has been reduced to a mindless vegetable.

Whereas over two hundred issues ago, Simonson and Buscema had dismantled the Avengers with barely a whimper, Bendis and Finch rain hell on the team. Disaster follows upon disaster to nightmarish effect: a decrepit Jack of Hearts blows up the mansion, an Avengers quinjet destroys what’s left, a Kree armada attacks, and so on. While Bendis is renowned for his dialogue, he knows when to keep quiet and let the events take their proper space. The long, vertical panels showing Captain America watching, in shock and despair, as the Vision flies the quinjet kamikaze-style into the mansion, are truly gut-wrenching. But as with the Simonson/Buscema story, the Avengers are attacked mentally as well as physically. This most obviously manifests itself in incidents like Iron Man threatening to kill a UN delegate, but more broadly, the extraordinary sequence of events leads to questions about the team’s modus operandi. ‘We had it coming…’ says Hawkeye, ‘We’re all about whatever is in front of us that second, and then we’re on to the next thing.’ (#501) Hawkeye’s words echo Ms. Marvel’s claim in Annual #10 that the Avengers are too inclined to take things at face value. And ultimately, the Scarlet Witch’s breakdown is partly caused by the Avengers not helping Wanda come fully to terms with the loss of her children, which she had inexplicably willed into existence.[30]

All these changes led to Bendis being heavily criticized for disrespecting the Avengers’ past, with such criticisms probably carrying more weight due to ‘Chaos’ being Bendis’ first Avengers story. But in fact, ‘Chaos’ draws heavily upon the characters’ past, from key events such as Tony Stark’s battle with alcoholism to lesser known stories such as John Byrne’s ‘Dark Scarlet Witch’ saga, which was told over in Avengers West Coast. After the Scarlet Witch has been carried off by her father Magneto, and the Avengers say their goodbyes, there is a flashback to issue #16, in which the Scarlet Witch, along with Quicksilver and Hawkeye, first joins the Avengers. While it’s a reminder of a happier, simpler time, notably some of the panels are missing, as the story focuses in on Wanda and Pietro’s induction into the team. And therein lies the crux of what ‘Chaos’ is trying to achieve – it is not writing over history, but taking only the parts it needs to move the Avengers forward. In the end, history is nothing but what you make of it.

Coda: All Those Possibilities…

In issue #10 of the Avengers Forever series, the Time-Keepers tell the Avengers that, because of the threat that humanity poses to the multiverse, they will isolate humanity, destroying all but the minimum of timelines which are necessary. When Captain America asks in what percentage of timelines humanity actually turns bad, they reply that ‘Forty-two percent of existing timelines are thus damaged by humanity.’ (Avengers Forever #10) Captain America is outraged, ‘That’s less than half?!... We probably won’t do these things, in most realities, we don’t… that’s not justice!‘

We have seen the Avengers go through good and bad times; they have been both a help and a hindrance to the world and to themselves. But through it all there’s the belief that, more often that not, things will turn out OK. What matters to them is that others be free to realize their full potential, wherever it may lead them. While there’s a certain appeal to having everything the way you like it, forever and ever, life goes on, and new possibilities are opened up.[31] Some will work, and some will not - fate has a ‘quirky’ way of working sometimes. ‘It’s the new Avengers! Hooray!!’ shout the crowds as Captain America and his ‘kooky quartet’ step into the limelight for the first time (#16, reprinted in #503). What could possibly be more positive than that?

Covers copyright Marvel Comics

[26] Johns is quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson.
[27] George W. Bush, though in Marvel tradition he is never named.
[28] Artist Olivier Coipel’s predilection for child-like faces, while fine when he is drawing for other writers, doesn’t help matters.
[29] The original Invaders, which included Captain America and the Sub-Mariner among its members, actually banded together to fight against the Nazi and Japanese invasions in World War II.
[30] Children?! Yes, the Vision and the Scarlet Witch had twin boys, but it was revealed years later that it was actually impossible for an android to procreate, and that Wanda had used her hex powers to create them. Once the children were destroyed, Wanda had no memory of them, until a chance remark by the Wasp brought the pain of her loss flooding back.
[31] And yes, for the record, I think the Avengers have too many members.

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