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Sunday, November 8, 2009

New Avengers Five Years New Retrospective: My Bottom 10

When I started chronicling the ten things I liked best about Bendis' Avengers, I knew that in fairness, I would have to write a list of things that I thought were mistakes. Earlier I compared Bendis' Avengers to Chris Claremont' old X-Men, and the biggest strength of both is also their biggest weakness; they produce a massive output of writing and take a lot of chances. Not all of these risks will pan out, otherwise there won't be risks. But even though Claremont did many ill-conceived things like a year of stories following the wanderings of the individual members of a disbanded X-Men, he also made the team the It superhero team comic for many years. I feel that Bendis is very similar in the way he approaches the Avengers.

That said, here are the ten things about the Bendis Avengers that bombed, again in no particular order...

10.) The return of the 70's and 80's looks. Since Marvel writers are basically doing professional fan fiction, they're definitely going to bring in the trappings of their favorite eras. In Bendis' case, this is sometimes good, and has resuscitated characters like Luke Cage, Jessica Drew ( at least, the one we THOUGHT was Jessica Drew ), Mockingbird, Namor, Brother Voodoo, and even characters handled by collaborating writers like Ms. Marvel. The downside is that most of them have returned in their nostalgic looks-- looks which were better left in the Bronze Age. Simple looks involving skintight fabric and bright colors in solid patterns worked back then, but the era of hyper-rendering superhero artists has called for more intricate designs, and the era of identity-politics-conscious writers makes the notion of wearing a costume a special statement and not a default wardrobe. . Ms. Marvel, an Air Force woman and outspoken feminist, wouldn't be prancing around in a swimsuit and hooker boots. Namor, the king of Atlantis, should have better fashion sense than a black wetsuit with a disco-style open chest. And there is little to nothing that says " Spider " about Spider-Woman's costume, a rather bland red number. Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster that Luke Cage isn't wearing the tiara and puffy yellow jacket again...

9.) Jessica Drew's return. I praised the revelation that the Spider-Woman who joined the team earlier was really the Skrull Queen in disguise. I'm not going to praise the return of the original, who has been Lost in Space all this time and is now moping about being usurped by an alien empress. I wasn't terribly fond of the issues of her solo comic which I read, but she's just a waste of whiny space in New Avengers.

8.) Ronin. Bendis and Joe Quesada designed a great superhero ninja look that to this date hasn't found an appropriate character. If Ronin were Daredevil as was originally planned, it would be a great fit. But the changes ended up making the character Maya Lopez with padded masculine muscles, and then proceeded to drop that plot for almost a year. When Ronin returned, it was worn by an even less appropriate character-- Clint Barton, formerly Hawkeye. It's bad enough that a Japanese-style ninja costume be taken by a non-Japanese character ( and seriously, we need more Asian and Asian American heroes and heroines besides stereotypes like Sunfire.. Secret Identities shows us how much potential there is in that identity space ), but at least Matt Murdoch and Maya Lopez have prior background in Japanese culture and ninjutsu. This is a completely different skill set from a backwoods American carny who trained in archery and hand-to-hand-combat, who now is apparently a master of the katana. I buy that about as well as I buy Chris Farley as a ninja, but at least that was meant to be funny.

7.) Secret Invasion-era New and Mighty Avengers issues. I loved the main Secret Invasion series, but it rendered the Avengers books themselves as repositories for tie-in material. Some of this was good work that illuminated the seeds planted for the Skrulls' Invasion. Most of it was, as befits most tie-ins to crossovers, filler material that didn't advance anything dramatically and just served to keep the titles going. I'm glad that for Captain America's book, they're focusing exclusively on the Reborn even until it finishes ( even if it's still looking to replace the improved Cap with the old model...but more on that in another post ).

6.) House of M. I've already mentioned how this crossover kneecapped the X-Books, but it just wasn't good as a story in and of itself. it starts promising enough, with the Avengers and X-Men teaming up to take care of the Scarlet Witch situation ( one way or another, creating an interesting ethical dillema )....but then we go into Wanda's Bizarro world, and the next six issues have the heroes puttering around the alternative universe like fools, gradually regaining their original memories only to completely fail to put the world back. In the end, Wanda causes the problem and Wanda fixes it; everyone else is just peripheral. For the first mega-crossover in years, it was a tremendous letdown.

5.) Dr. Strange. Similar scenario, where the heroes do nothing but hand-wring until the climactic moment where they fail. To this date, Dr. Strange failed to detect Wanda's madness, failed to cure it once it became epidemic, chickened out of the Civil War, and used dark magic to fight the Hulk only to get smacked down himself. As far as Sorcerer Supremes go, he went from being the New York Yankees of magic to the New York Mets. Thankfully, Brother Voodoo has taken his place so he may retire with dignity.

4.) The reasoning presented behind Wolverine's Avengers membership. I actually like having Logan on the Avengers-- he's a cosmopolitan character who can work in a lot of settings, and on a team book the writers are less likely to wallow in his nonsensical spider web of a backstory. But Tony Stark brought him onto the team because he's " able to get to a place where we can't "-- i.e., killing the bad guys. This is really wrong for two reasons; one, because heroes should consider lethal force the last resort, not the pre-emptive one. And two, because neither Tony or Captain America needs to get their new Canadian friend to do their dirty work. Cap had to kill plenty of Nazis in The Deuce, and Tony's origin involved him burning his way out of the POW camp in Vietnam/now Afghanistan/eventually Iran. Neither man likes doing it, but they aren't chicken about it either.

3.) The Hood's return. Because this character isn't the Hood. The Hood we know and love, the one created for the MAX imprint by Brian K. Vaughan and Kyle Hotz, was a realistically dysfunctional young man with a deeply messy personal life, who lucked into magic powers as a means to make something of his life. He was a unique and deep character....the one who appeared in New Avengers is just a Kingpin substitute, with dialogue far more melodramatic than a nineteen-year-old petty crook who never finished school would have. It would have been much better to get a new character, as opposed to taking one who doesn't fit the role at all and diluting him.

2.) The Sentry. Yes, we know he's Superman as a schizophrenic agoraphobe, and I admit that's a really compelling hook...or, at least, WAS a really compelling hook. But in practice he's just been a hindrance, a deus ex machina who occasionally doesn't come into play because he's huddled in a fetal position due to a psychotic episode. His own wife said " find a way to power him down, or kill him before he kills us all ". Now if only someone would GET AROUND TO DOING THAT, that would be a good sentiment.

And the number one worst thing to happen in New Avengers ( which actually IS the worst thing... )

1.) Clint Barton's return. Had Hawkeye stayed dead in Avengers Disassembled, it would have been a satisfying heroic sacrifice. Since he's come back from the dead--twice consecutively-- he's just been a morally defective wanker. He slept with an amnesiac Scarlet Witch, didn't tell her who he really was, then ditched her the next morning-- given her mental situation, an act that could/should get him convicted for rape. He returned in the Ronin costume simply because it was there, and hasn't stopped wearing it despite having no background in ninjutsu. And he's gone after Norman Osborn in the most ineffectual way possible, first by ranting at him on the television with all the airtight debating strategy of a man with a " End of the World " sandwich board, then by trying to pull a hit on the guy, as if murdering an appointed official ( even an evil one ) would solve anything in the long term. I literally laughed out loud when Clint got the crap kicked out of him in his attempt to assassinate Norman; since I used to like the character, I wish I could enjoy him for more than schadenfreude.

One more essay to go, then I'll have five essays for five years...


  1. Interestingly, all of these might boil down to two meta-concerns with Bendis's writing: 1) He's bad at letting go of pet characters even when the plot or characterization aren't really there; and 2) He's still not that good at writing genuine ensembles.

    The first of these is a problem almost every writer has to some degree or another, because their tastes and concerns will somewhere diverge from the reader's. Even Grant Morrison can't let go of Animal Man or the Scottish Mirror Master, who'll turn up in any DC book not titled "Batman" that he writes after while. And his Batman run has involved pulling in a lot of Silver Age stuff many fans and pros have found deeply embarrassing for several decades.

    Bendis's Bronze Age commitments have meant that a number of characters prominent in that era -- Jessica Drew, Hawkeye, Cage -- will keep being spotlighted. Similarly, the Sentry and Hood seem to have been brought in because Bendis likes the miniseries that introduced them a lot, but to keep using them he's had to fudge so much that the results aren't terribly inspiring.

    The second is a bit bigger as problems go: Bendis does seem to throw out ensemble dynamics for single-character or dyadic cOnflicts between two individuals almost every time. His plots don't generally hinge on teamwork solutions, and his big character moments are almost never born of group dynamics. You tend to get one or two strong characters running away with the scene or the plot while everyone else plays a background role.

    This was especially pronounced in House of M, but its been an imbalance detectable in the bulk of his Avengers stories to date. Characters run off on their own, like Barton or Cage against Norman; prvate meetings between two characters drive plot turns, as with the Karla/Noh-Varr sex in Dark Avengers or the Osborn/Victoria two-handers that set the agenda in every Dark Avengers story.

    He's not really good at convincing dramatic interactions bigger than two characters. Oddly, this is part of why his dialogue has the flow and ebb it does; it's also why there's a lot of Bendis dialogue that, contrary to your prior post, isn't about characters engaging with one another. This second stuff isn't what the reader remembers, though, because it's mostly peanut gallery comments from whichever characters aren't part of the two-shot at the center of his big scenes.

    The unfortunate problem stemming from this is that he's yet to write a working group action scene that isn't either a chaotic, personality-free mob-on-mob brawl (which badly hurt his execution of the Hood's Syndicate idea) or end up being about one or two characetrs whose efforts make everyone else's actions moot (Doc Strange literally handwaving away the Hood's mob, or the big Avengers vs. Ultron action scene turning into Ares vs. Ultron with Hank Pym in the non-action gadgeteer role).

    Bendis, again, likes individuality a bit too much to really produce a good sense of the Avengers' gestalt. But hey, other books have hadsimilar problems. Remember Morrison's Batman in that other book where he featured, the one where Batman kept having to save six colorful incompetents even though they were otherwise meant to be his peers?

  2. >and seriously, we need more Asian and Asian American heroes and heroines besides stereotypes like Sunfire

    Yeah, 'cause there's nothing stereotypical about samurai.

    If you want more Asian heroes, you need Greg Pak to write more comics. Between Amadeus Cho & Jake Oh he's doing his best to fill this gap.

    >Thankfully, Brother Voodoo has taken his place so he may retire with dignity.

    More importantly, now he can be written by Mark Waid and we'll see if losing his title can be a case of lemonade from lemons.

    Also? First time "Brother Voodoo" and "dignity" shared a sentence.

    >He was a unique and deep character....the one who appeared in New Avengers is just a Kingpin substitute, with dialogue far more melodramatic than a nineteen-year-old petty crook who never finished school would have.

    Don't forget he went from being a guy who could walk on air and turn invisible (for brief periods) to a typical do-anything magical-powered guy.

    >Had Hawkeye stayed dead in Avengers Disassembled, it would have been a satisfying heroic sacrifice.

    No, it would have been a half-assed heroic sacrifice. Which is still better than what we got.

    >he's yet to write a working group action scene that isn't either a chaotic, personality-free mob-on-mob brawl (which badly hurt his execution of the Hood's Syndicate idea)

    New Avengers Annual#2 is the closest to working so far. It was less chaotic than usual, at least.