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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New Avengers: 5 Years New Retrospective--Storytelling Engine

In November, Marvel's popular comic series New Avengers will have been running for five years. If you count its run as starting when writer Brian Michael Bendis did the old Avengers book's final arc, it's been going since August 2004. In this time, the Avengers have become the most popular/profitable franchise Marvel has, supplanting even the X-Men. They've gone from one book to four; New was followed by Mighty, The Initiative, and now Dark.They've also become the flagship of the shared universe, dictating the way all the other books go.

Needless to say, the New Avengers have been subject to intense criticism. To be fair, much of this is internet criticism, which is about as intellectually sound as three-year-olds whining about how they want macaroni and cheese instead of Chef Boyardee. But valid points have also been made about the errors of Bendis and Marvel's direction. I happen to agree with many of the individual criticisms, but not enough that I would lose interest in the franchise overall. In fact, Bendis' Avengers may have made me the most intellectually engaged in a Marvel franchise's progress that I've ever been; the contradictions are part of what make it so fascinating and enjoyable.

The most common criticism of New Avengers as a series that I've seen is that it isn't new, other than as repackaging the Avengers in a darker and edgier setting. John Seavey, a very insightful comic blogger who coined the term " Storytelling Engine " in reference to an ongoing series' underyling " blueprint ", derided New Avengers in his essay on the Old Avengers. He commented that by excising the old Avengers' storytelling engine, the New Avengers have ended up a random group of superheroes that use some Avengers trappings.

I submit to Mr. Seavey that the void left by the old Avengers' long history is the point.

One thing that has always bothered me about superhero comics is how they so easily slip into taking their fantastical, convoluted genre history for granted. They're stories where you have grown men and women who dress in bright, revealing spandex, have amazing powers and gadgets, and fight evil across realms of magic, aliens, gods, and more. To a person who's familiar with superheroes, this is par for the course. To a person who's not familiar with superheroes, it's either incredibly awesome or incredibly stupid, depending on how the creators make it across.

The Old Avengers was a book whose storytelling engine so often put it in the " incredibly stupid category ". This is not to diminish the fine work the title's many writers and artists have done over the years, but to acknowledge that it was the kind of book that existed in a space where superheroes were business as usual. The original line-up was an attempt to ape DC's Justice League and have all the A-List heroes in one monthly book; however, at the time the Marvel Universe was still very new and didn't have a well-defined A-List. What's more, Marvel's heroes were much rougher around the edges in personality than DC's; where DC's Justice League was like the country club of superheroes with its affluent, pretty, well-adjusted white guys, Marvel's heroes tended to be significantly more anti-social. Spider-Man was not put on the original team, the Fantastic Four were already a cohesive family unit, and the Hulk left in the second issue after realizing that the prettier members hated him. So the line-up became a home for second-string heroes, and cycled through a growing base of possible members repeatedly. Like a sports team, the membership varied regularly, but the status quo was always there; they would always be the A-List superhero team, the bright-and-shiny public heroes that lived in Tony Stark's New York Mansion, had an official charter and regular meetings, and fought evil within the confines of the law.

Bendis' Avengers has that history, but it's used in a much more self-conscious way that allows for increased story potential; in his series, being a super-hero is not a fixed identity, but one that has been challenged by world events, and one that the characters work to redefine. When the series starts, the Old Avengers have disbanded after one of their most trusted members went crazy and used omnipotent power to kill, injure, discredit, and otherwise traumatize many of her comrades. A breakout at a supervillain prison creates a setting where a new group of heroes band together, and decide to take on the Avengers name again. But they don't slip so easily into the role, because they're much more aware of the complexity of the larger world. The stakes are higher than for the Old Avengers; the super-villain underworld has done their own organizing, the government is watching the superhero community with their own agenda in mind, and even the Avengers themselves have their own closets full of skeletons.

Critics have accused Bendis of crassly trying to make the Avengers into an A-List team, most notably by admitting members like Spider-Man and Wolverine. I would be a complete idiot if I denied the marketing value of putting Wolverine on an Avengers team, but it isn't without story purpose. The New Avengers want to establish new value as a symbol, and their membership establishes that. The initial line-up of the team is led by Captain America and Iron Man, original Avengers who represent Greatest Generation idealism and futurist realism, respectively. Spider-Man finally joins the team, the isolated nerd given a chance to prove himself after years of treading water as a working-class vigilante. The membership extends to the other spheres of the superhero community, as we have prominent urban hero Luke Cage ( once a blaxploitation stereotype " Hero-for-Hire ", now given a chance to truly prove his worth ), duplicitious SHIELD Agent Spider-Woman ( an explicit link to the conspiracy theory storylines ), omnipotent yet agoraphobic Superman analogue Sentry ( a hero who could have been great were it not for his mental illnesses, now given a chance to actually be great ), and pragmatically lethal X-Man Wolverine as a link between the two brands. It's a mix of A-List and B-List heroes across multiple parts of the Marvel Universe, that's a calculated appeal in-universe to make super-heroes cool again.

Of course, things don't actually turn out that way for the characters; hurbis is another big theme. In trying to control their meaning to the world, the heroes tend to create more problems. One the series ties into Mark Millar's Civil War storyline, this reaches a head as the heroes split into in-group and out-group. Iron Man is the in-group, who believes that by joining the system he can control it for the benefit of the people, by making superheroes a legitimate function of the law. Captain America is the other side, thinking that the heroes work best when they have autonomy and serve ideals instead of rules. From here the series splits off into two, with New Avengers being the underground resistance, and Mighty Avengers being Iron Man's attempt to make a fully legit team with complete control over their representation. This fails catastrophically for Iron Man, and he ends up being disgraced and replaced by Norman Osborn, which leads to Dark Avengers; villains using this kind of PR manipulation to pass as heroes.

Storywise, this owes much of its influence to the Ultimates, the cynically satirical alternative take on the Avengers. However, while the Ultimates redesigned the heroes from scratch, New Avengers engages with the history of the Marvel Universe; this is not a story about the dawn of the Age of Heroes, but the attempt to start a new one. And while the Ultimates was almost completely self-contained, Avengers has the task of setting the standard for the other Marvel Comics. The other major component to New Avengers is the storytelling style pioneered by Chris Claremont in his foundational X-Men stories; long, soap-operatic sagas with continual progression and no inherent end. By merging the two styles, it creates something unique; an ongoing superhero saga about the attempt to define superhero identity, and the many pitfalls along the way.

I'll be analyzing key Avengers stories from recent years to further try to understand where this is all headed.


  1. EXCELLENT POST! I think you've touched on most of the reasons why the New Avengers is indeed the "new" Avengers, and not retreading of previous waters.

    I have to say... going over the basiscs here, there's far more positives than negatives. Really, Bendis has done a bang-up job.

  2. Thank you for the kind words, Predabot. I'll be examining both positives and negatives in subsequent analyses, but I agree that the negatives are well outweighed.

  3. On the other hand, you've identified the element that bothers me most about Bendis's revamp of the Avenegrs line, to wit: it's so busy agonizing over what it is to be a superhero it never gets around to telling fucking superhero stories.

    Increasingly, it seems like Disassembled opened a question to which Bendis has no available answer. What is it to e a superhero? Frankly, I don't think Bendis much ,likes superheroes. He likes his tragic types and his professionalized head-busters, but he likes them by the standards of nonsuperhero genres like noir and blaxploitation. The gap between Bendis's favored genres and the genre in which he's putatively working ends up the subject of his stories, with Norman Osborn achieving success primarily by wearing a business suit and Luke Cage, a superhero whose trappings were always those of a blaxploitation/detective story hybrid, becoming the new face of the Avengers while the costumed folks are out-of-control louts like Clint Barton or ineffectual naifs like Spider-Man and Bendis's Captain America. It's telling that the book with the most trappings of the superhero genre is Dark Avengers, no less than Bendis's utter deconstruction of the superhero genre by making the protagonists into nothing more than gaudily costumed fascist thugs.

    In that regard, Bendis's work on the franchise is very much like Civil War, which gleefully pointed out the difference between a psuedo-realist genre and the superhero genre by pulling the rug from under the superhero genre.

    That's quite interesting if you're not writing an in-continuity superhero comic, but when you are, it just looks like you've missed the point of your own vocation. And lo and behold, years later Marvel's writers -- Bendis included -- are still trying to hash out what happens after Civl War. And Dissassembled, for that matter.

    They're not generative of stories so much as they are generative of metacommentary while the actual stories meander, deliberately fail to resolve, and otherwise miss the boat narratively. I suppose you can call that bug a feature, and financially Marvel certainyl have to see it as a feature, but it does create the secondary narrative problem that stories don't achieve narrative closure (even by serial standards) so much as they continue to generate fallout, in this case further crossovers and further comics.

    You mentioned Claremont, and this is what ultimately undid him, too. Those later X-books with no endings in sight were far weaker as stories, especially in retrospect. The amount of fudging and synthesis Mike Carey's doing even now t bring the kudzu of Claremont's work into some sort of coherence has comprised years of inside X-baseball at this point, and he's still not done.

    In essence, you've made a case that Bendis's Avengers revamp might have been better as an essay about the Avengers franchise than as the franchise itself.

  4. Thank you for commenting, Omar. I should note that I started writing this essay with you in mind, because there hasn't been much discussion of New Avengers' meaning as a larger symbol of the Marvel line, and I wanted to offer a counterpoint to your criticisms. ( Which I did because I wanted to challenge myself-- taking on an intellectual opponent of much greater wisdom, as opposed to, say, the Iron Man Message Board ).

    The question of the New Avengers' actual success rate has been something I've monitored closely when rereading the strips of recent years, and I've noticed that they've had several successes on the smaller scale ( the first Sentry arc, the Cage/Jessica Jones wedding, the Mighty Avengers' takedown of Dr.Doom, the rescue of the characters usurped by Skrulls, and more )-- it's the big picture where they've struggled. Which can be frustrating, but also has a definite romantic appeal-- they aren't ignoring problems on the macro scale, and even if they ultimately fail to solve them, they're not giving up, either.

    Compare this to the way the X-Men ended up post-Claremont, where now they've basically adopted Magneto's isolationist politics. ( And I have an essay on House of M planned about how part of the Avengers' resurgence is due to the X-Men being dismantled on a level that almost seems intentional ).

  5. I think the problem is more critical, and nicely illuminated by the use of Seavey's "storytelling engine" model. Remmeber, the engine ahs to generate actual stories for the characters involved.

    With the old Avengers, the engine was reductively simple, and right there in the hyperbolic banner description: the Avengers exist "to fight the foes no single super-hero could defeat." If some huge superhuman threat to the general populace appears, the Avengers get dibs because that's the entire reason they're around.

    Essentially they were a well-funded, fully-staffed superhero response team. (Being funded and connected explains why "outsider" heroes like Spider-Man and Cage weren't added to the roster; the Avengers need Quinjets and Stark's money far more than "street smarts.")

    So that was the very simple formula for writing an Avengers story: come up with a threat that requires an entire team of publicly tolerated or even loved heroes.

    And aside from the Grim Reaper and the early Ultron, the bulk of their enemies followed the format: they were basically macro-scale public enemies, guys who wanted to brutally rewrite the world map like Kang, every iteration of Ultron after his first, and so forth. Even the Masters of Evil first appeared paralyzing all of Manhattan because anything less wouldn't have gotten the Avengers called in.

    The difficulty of the current setup is that I can't really discern where a New Avengers plot comes from. I can't explain the logic of arc A or arc B being in this particular book, with these particular characters, except rarely. And because of that, their stories generally do require other sources to start and, increasingly, more and more new titles to follow through on.

    There's a meta-story engine with the entire Avengers franchise that's about superheroing in the age of politics-by-media, but bizarrely New Avengers has ended up as the title with the very least reason to have the particular stories within the meta-story. Mighty Avengers has been, pretty consistently from Slott to Bendis, the old-model Avengers. Dark Avengers is the deconstruction. And New Avengers?

    Well, it has stories that showcase individual characters on the roster, really, stories that end up ther ebecause the characters don't have solo titles. If Doctor Strange has his own book, the new Sorceror Supreme story isn't a New Avengers story. If Cage has his own, is the Hood parallel really in need of huge crowds of badly-choreographed combatants?

    The problem of New Avengers is the lack of a gestalt reason for the book to have the plots it gets. There's nothing particularly special about this dynamic, and not many of its arcs seem to really have anything to do with the team's outsider status.

    It's a book without a real engine, ironically enough; that's part of why the plots don't usually let the NA characters win, especially after Civil War. That sort of closure is far easier to give to other books that have properly generative premises, that is, books that make plots happen. The NA is just where other books' and events' stories stop off to give the characters something to do for 22 pages.

  6. Good essay! I get what you're saying about the New Avengers being a book about the ambiguity of being a public super-hero in a decidedly non-idealistic age, and I think there could be an interesting book about that, even an interesting Avengers book...

    But I don't get the feeling that it's the book Bendis is writing. I really feel pretty strongly that he's writing a book he wants to write, using the characters he's interested in, and he's putting "Avengers" in the title because, well, Marvel's marketing department says so. :) Which, fair enough, and I'm not saying it's a bad series (although I do have my quibbles with it, mostly related to too much "decompression" and not enough action)...I'm just saying it's not really an Avengers series.

    As I've said in the past, it's really (especially post-Civil War) a pretty decent reboot of the Defenders that happens to have the wrong title. (They're even using Doctor Strange's mansion as their HQ!)

  7. Thank you very much for responding, John. I think that the identity/media themes show up more in the early Mighty and the current Dark issues, both of which are beloved hero teams. But there's a large part of New that's devoted to the heroes being self-conscious about what face they're putting forward. The early arcs are the tension between Captain America's idealism and Iron Man's pragmatism; remember that Tony didn't want to make a New Avengers ( and even stuck to the crackpot excuse of not having the money to fund them ), but Cap thought it was destiny. After Civil War, the New Avengers are trying to carry on Cap's legacy after his demise, while trying to find the truth about the Skrull conspiracy ( and not trusting each other in the process ). And Dark Reign has them in outright war with Norman and his team, waged as much through PR as fisticuffs.

    The problem is that Mighty and Dark both have very clear agendas, while the New Avengers are constantly troubled. Luke Cage was conflicted between his duties as a father and husband and his desire to uncover the truth about the tragedies around him; Clint Barton isn't conflicted, but he's about as credible as a man on the street with a sandwich board reading " The World Is Ending ". Like Rorscach, except not awesome at all.

  8. Great essay. I've been considering picking up Bendis' Avengers collections (his runs on New/Mighty/Dark) in those oversized books they've been releasing, because I sense there's a meta-epic in them. I've heard mixed things about his saga (mostly that he has difficulty, as a writer, drafting a team book rather than an individual book), and was a little bit concerned that he appears to be using the title as a sort of "continuity spine", serving to bear the weight of various other stories (devoting an arc, for example, to sort out the Xorn mess and devoting his titles to single-character spotlights for big events).

    My only question is whether these books can be read without the big crossover tie-ins: Civil War, Secret Invasion, Siege? There is enough money to be spent without factoring in even more books.