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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

New Avengers: Five Years New Retrospective-- 10 Things that Worked

( Note; this will be the third in a series of five essays, celebrating five years of New Avengers. I presume I could do more, or less for that matter, but I like symmetry. So there.

A friend of mine, in response to the first Five Years New essay, wrote a thoughtful response onhow New Avengers relates to Avengers history, and how it now IS Avengrs history. Realizing that Brian Michael Bendis has been writing the comic for five years leads me to two conclusions;

1.) I'm getting old, since I remember an era when the Avengers was just called the Avengers, Clint Barton called himself Hawkeye, and we were almost going to call John Kerry president, and

2.) New Avengers has been around so long now that even if Bendis leaves the title, it's still become entrenched in the comic's history, and the book is not going to go back to the way it used to be.

In other words, the people still whining about Bendis being the worst Avengers writer ever had the final nail put in the coffin of their hopes for a retro revival. For many readers, New Avengers IS the Avengers. If they started reading with Bendis, their first frame of reference for the comic is a team with Wolverine and Spider-Man. If they were long-time Avengers fans who have been following the book, they've gotten further and further away from a point where bringing back a team of familiar second-stringers would be a viable choice. This isn't a statement about the New Avengers' quality, so much as an assertion of fact; New Avengers isn't going anywhere.

As for assertions about the book's quality; well, I'm going to do this in two parts. The first part here is a discussion, Letterman-style, of the ten things that Bendis has done right with the title. The second part will be the ten things he's done that I didn't think succeeded. Positives first though, since that's an inherently rebellious act on the internet.

The Top 10 Best Contributions Brian Michael Bendis has made to the Avengers

10.) Veranke. From the start of the reboot, new recruit Spider-Woman's loyalties were in question, and readers were asked to wonder wether or not she was really on the Avengers' side. Based on the information given, the answers available were; no, yes, kind of, and No To The Millionth Power. The latter occured when it was revealed that she was not actually Spider-Woman, but Queen Veranke of the Skrull Empire in disguise. Even if you didn't believe that Jessica Drew was doing things for the right reasons, we were given plenty of evidence to believe that at least she wasn't a Skrull impostor. That she was, and that still it made sense in hindsight, was an impressive feat-- and gives re-readings of older New Avengers issues a really creepy undercurrent.

9.) Bendis-speak. Bendis' unique style of dialogue, admitted by the author as influenced by David Mamet, tends to be polarizing-- you either love his back-and-forths or hate it. I'm in the love category, because he pays more attention to conversational rhythm than most comic book scripters. Individual quotes may not be as spectacular, but dialogues flow marvelously-- and while others have criticized the way he writes characters from a non-American-lower-middle class background, I think it's a strength of his-- characters like Namor, Ares, and even Dr. Doom sound like they're actually engaging with the person they're talking to, instead of just going into monologue and tying it into whoever's nearby.

8.) The Cabal.While a secret society of heroic metahuman kings and visionaries proved to be a huge mistake on the part of the characters ( and IMO, a mistake on the part of the writers ), Norman's own group worked much better. Like Jesus if the Son of God were about sinning in every way possible instead of the other way around, Norman has united many different groups for a common cause-- ruling the world. Of course, the various megalomaniacs in Norman's Inner Circle don't like being subordinate to the once and future Green Goblin, so their secret meetings are always an entertaining display of tension and disdain. Thus far two of Norman's Cabal have betrayed him, and there's three more to go-- and from what the solicitations, Victor's the next, leading to a war of the tin tyrants.

7.) The Luke Cage/Jessica Jones marriage. Amidst the overwhelming darkness of the past few years of Marvel, this has been one of the great bright spots. The fact that it's Marvel's first mixed-race marriage isn't important ( well, it's a great thing for representations, but it's just background that doesn't overshadow the characters' individual depths ), here we have two heroic characters who've had hard lives finding solace in each other. Their marriage has been troubled by the shit they've had to deal with as outlaws, especially with their baby involved-- but they've ultimately managed to become closer due to the adversity, not drift apart. If Spider-Man remembered that he was married at one point, he'd regret selling that to the devil after seeing Luke and Jess as a dynamic and likable 'ship.

6.) Avenging Ares. The moral complications of the Marvel Universe have made it so that a public Avengers team can not only have a villainous God of War on the team, but have him in a capacity where he doesn't even need to feign recriminations. Michael Avon Oeming made Ares a complex character, and Bendis gave him the spotlight-- and in a capacity where his love of battle and gratuitous violence always steal the show. Tony Stark called him a mix between Wolverine and Thor, but he's more like the video game character Kratos-- angry and dangerous but more often than not pointed at people who deserve it ( as opposed to that game's Ares, who's more like the old Marvel Ares )At the same time, he does have redeeming qualities beyond pointing his axe at the right targets-- he's trying to be a good single father and do honest work, even if it's for a reprehensible human being like Norman Osborn. Hopefully when Norman falls, Ares won't go with him.

5.) The Iron Patriot. Say, for a moment, that evil is analogous to sugar content, and villains are deserts. Norman Osborn as the costumed maniac Green Goblin is like a good solid milk chocolate bar. Norman as a more realistic corporate shark is like a Nutrageous, loaded with extra peanut butter and caramel. Norman dressed up in a patriot-colored Iron Man suit and swindling the public into thinking that he's America's greatest hero is a Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake. And that Norman combined with the fact that he now believes he's America's greatest hero without acting any less depraved? That's like getting high fructose corn syrup injected directly into your jugular vein.

4.) Iron Man's rise to power. In recent years, Iron Man has gone from a dependable B-Lister to Marvel's A-List. Obviously the excellent movie and RDJ are the main causes, but he's also gotten a lot of great writing in recent years ( even amidst Civil War, when more than half of Marvel's staff felt that he needed a swastika on his armor ). Bendis may not write Tony's solo book, but he always wrote a dynamic Iron Man in the Avengers-- a character whose mistakes come from the fact that he's trying to do good on a much greater scale than any other hero. One of the best scenes in Bendis' run is the moment in New Avengers where he solemnly addresses Luke Cage's team, asking them if they have a better idea how to help the world than him. Unfortunately for him, they don't/can't answer.

It's also worth noting that Bendis' Iron Man scenes are written with a unique display of Tony in the armor-- they show him as a floating VR self in a womb of monitors. Sometimes artists make it look like he's a little fairy floating in a hollow suit, but overall it's a clever way to display the character's abilities.

3.) Luke Cage. It is a great thing that a hero who started out as a Hero For Hire with a tiara, poofy yellow jacket, and endless supply of stereotypical one-liners ( " Where's my money, honey? " ) could eventually take up the reins of Captain America. Luke 's easily the most heroic of the New Avengers, and he often does so simply through stoicism-- refusing to give in, be it to misguided heroes or outright bastards. In the latest issues, he's stood up to Norman while dying of a heart attack.

2.) The Dark Avengers. A perversely entertaining outgrowth of not only Warren Ellis' excellent Thunderbolts, but the direction of the Marvel Universe in general. In Civil War, the super-villains took an unfortunate backseat to the heroes' petty squabbling. Now they've come back at full force, even stealing their enemies' intellectual properties. Not only is Dark Avengers a great series, but it's helped several characters get a new lease-- it's good to see Bullseye moving his agenda beyond killing Daredevil's girlfriends.

And the Number One Good Thing;

1.) Luke Cage in the Elevator, Circa the Ronin Arc. Thrown out a skyscraper window by ninjas, Luke must get back to the upstairs fight-- but first he must take the elevator and listen to a rendition of Matthe wWilder's biggest and debatably only musical hit, Break my Stride. Normally music flops in comics, but this scene used the lyrics to add insult to Cage's injury.

Okay, it's not in a particular order, but these are still the things I liked.

1 comment:

  1. Cage remains an interesting case study in how Bendis approaches the Avengers books. Yes, he stands up for things, but those things are generally small-picture causes. At heart, he's still more a neighborhood hero than a world-saver, a family man rather than a globetrotting adventurer. He can stand up to Norman at great personal cost, but this has essentially zero political impact on the scale at which Norman's Cabal really operates.

    What's curious in Bendis's stories is that the Big Picture is almost always the place wickedness flourishes. Tony was a noble guy, true, but it's Bendis who set him up for his fall in Secret Invasion. Bendis distrusts powerful institutions, it's clear. His heroes tend to screw up when they run big things -- Daredevil as Kingpin of Hell's Kitchen, Tony as SHIELD Director, and Nick Fury as...also SHIELD Director.

    Likewise, they tend to cross moral lines when Bendis has them trying to alter the Big Picture, as we see in House of M with Pietro and Crazy-Wanda, with Ronin trying to assassinate Norman Osborn, and with Fury trying to knock out Lucia von Bardas only to end up brainwashing his own allies to cover his ass. All of those characters had noble ends in mind, but all of them chose world-shaking means...and compromised themselves into moral and practical failure. (Doctor Strange is a muddled version of this point, since it's still not obvious to me what he specifically did that was so terribly wrong.)

    And they're redeemed by turning into scrappy, small-group outsiders. The New Avengers or Fury's Secret Warriors are standout examples here. And Doctor Strange, cosmopolitan mage and man of the many worlds, is replaced by Doctor Voodoo, practitioner of a regional mysticism and a man who only seems to travel to Franco-African concentration areas like Haiti and New Orleans.

    Villains, by contrast, do better by staying to their worse natures; Bendis's Kingpin fell because he sentimentally kept his son around, for example, and Norman seems to end up betrayed the more often he uncharacteristically trusts the rest of his Cabal to honor a simple and beneficial agreement. Bendis's world is fundamentally unjust at the level of whole societies and institutions, and redeemable at the level of individual relationships and localist or off-the-grid social action. Cage can keep his streets drug free by patrolling and building neighborly trust over a few blocks, but Matt Murdock can't run all the crime out of New York City without making matters as bad or worse.

    In a lot of ways, that's why I might argue that Bendis still isn't really much of an Avengers writer: he just doesn't believe in the kind of mission that makes sense of a global superteam of high-powered expert superheroes. He doesn't seem to believe that anyone in their right mind would fight to save the whole world, but that heroism is about modesty of scale instead. Overall, he's a bit of a left-libertarian: he doesn't like megacorporations, he doesn't like governments, and he doesn't like anything big in general. It's why his global-scale Avengers team started as a dysfunctional bunch who kept cutting the New Avengers breaks and then a front for Norman Osborn's crew of lunatic murderers. (Note that it's the two old-school world-shaking powerhouses, Sentry and Ares, who side with Norman.)

    Bendis's Avengers are, in the end, too small. He's won reader identification and sales success by rejecting the very notion of sweeping, visionary concepts or stories. That may say something broader about the appeal of such ideologies in 21st century America, but at some deeper level it suggests a distrust of even the corporate concept of an "America" or an Avengers for all.