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Monday, May 24, 2010

Wonder Man, The Crybaby Fanboy Avenger

Last week saw the release of Avengers #1, the new book by Brian Michael Bendis and John Romita Jr. that returns Marvel's venerable superhero team to a position of public adoration. This is after five years of stories also written largely by Bendis that had the Avengers come upon increasingly hard times, starting with the Scarlet Witch's descent into madness and culminating in Norman Osborn obtaining the official rights to the team. Many fans have wondered if Bendis will be able to write more optimistic Avengers stories, and some have completely dismissed the book before it even launched, including one within the text...

" From my point of view...the super hero civil war, the mutant decimation, the skrull invasion, norman osborn, they have-- they all have one thing in common...they are all the Avengers' fault. "

This whiny fan would be Simon Williams, a.k.a. veteran Avenger Wonder Man. This isn't the first time that Simon has complained about the state of things, either; during the Dark Reign stories in New Avengers, we saw him ranting on national television about how being an Avenger is pointless, Norman is what the public deserves, and God is dead ( seriously ). This was, of course, him whining in lieu of actually joining the other Avengers to fight Norman. ( He would join up with some super-villains in a Lethal Legion mini-series to fight Norman, and eventually get arrested, but I haven't read those issues and can't comment ).

But Simon's refusal to be an Avenger in modern times isn't a brave stand against the heroes' failings-- it's the temper tantrum of a spoiled brat who refuses to have things any way but his. It's the reaction of a character who is seeing the world change around him and, unable to accept that life is hard and that good people can make mistakes, chooses simply to say " Screw you guys, I'm going home. ". That the cover for the next issue has Simon attacking the new team suggests that when he does take action, it will be destructive action, trying to force the Avengers to stop taking scary risks.

Basically, Simon is acting like the stereotypical Avengers fan who rails constantly against Bendis for changing the franchise, but doesn't have any constructive criticisms as to how Bendis could do a better job, ( beyond rambling on about the " Good Ol' Days " ), and refuses to accept any potential merits to what he's doing.

It seems like Bendis would be the type of writer to use this sort of metatextual symbolism on purpose, since his Avengers stories have been almost entirely about the characters trying to determine what their identities are. Wonder Man is especially symbolic of a different era in the Avengers, because he's a character whose backstory is almost exclusively confined to the Avengers books, and who represents the worst of the book being about its own arcane, insular continuity soap opera. He was introduced as a throwaway villain, a character the Masters of Evil used to infiltrate the Avengers, but who developed a conscience and sacrificed himself in the name of redemption. Later, after a long absence where he was believed dead, it was revealed that his iconic energy body couldn't die, so he returned to the team. Since then, he's been involved in various story threads concerning Avengers " office romance ", and aside from an attempt at a solo series in the 1990's, hasn't done much else.

To whit; Simon Williams' brother became a deranged super-villain known as the Grim Reaper. He has another " brother " in the Vision, an android whose brain patterns are derived from his own. Simon had a thing for Vision's wife the Scarlet Witch, to the point of refusing to offer his brain patterns to rebuild a destroyed Vision. When he died a second time, the Witch's love brought him back, and he was gleefully sleeping with his brother's ex before breaking up with her because of her residual feelings for the Vision. Oh, and he's dicked around with a career as a B-List action movie star with the help from Hercules, developed an extremely homoerotic buddy in the Beast, and had a rivalry with Iron Man ( who unknowingly ran his father's company out of business, leading Simon to embezzle funding ).

Amidst all of this, what Simon is devoid of is a compelling character hook on his own. Like many characters on the historical Avengers line-up, he's a C-Lister whose appeal is only in the context of an ensemble cast-- take away his connections to the team, and he's not much more than a badly dressed, exponentially whinier ersatz Superman. Which makes him fine when the Avengers is a book about itself, with the team more preoccupied by who's sleeping with who than with doing their jobs and fighting evil. But Bendis has actually given the team opposition much more significant and lasting than villains against the status quo-- old soap opera plot threads have turned into catastrophic nervous breakdowns taking many lives, increasingly complicated cultural situations have created schisms between former friends, and villains have succeeded by attacking through the system. The heroes like Iron Man who Simon blames for causing the problems were only trying to save lives under circumstances where there were no clear solutions, and even then they paid dearly for it. Simon, on the other hand, has been on the sidelines at best, and simply refusing to do anything at worst.

So, without the classic Avengers makeup, Simon doesn't have much to hang his hat on. Now that it's gone, and can't return to the way it was, he can't ( or won't ) think of anything to do except piss and moan about how things are so scary and complicated. Sound familiar?

While there are many valid criticisms that can be levied at Bendis for his Avengers stories ( and I've made several of them ), I can sympathize with his position. His job, as the writer of the book, is to keep it consistently interesting so that people keep buying it. He's done so by trying a lot of different things, and not all of them have worked, with some even being catastrophic mistakes ( see: the Sentry ). But like the Avengers, he's been in a position where he has to take risks-- the franchise had been reduced to B-List at best shortly before he took over, with little to differentiate it from any other super-team book, so he was brought in to overhaul it. And he, like the Avengers at the start of Heroic Age, has ultimately succeeded into transforming the Avengers into something that's once again important. Many of his online critics, like Wonder Man, don't like the direction of the team but aren't going to risk finding something else to attach their attention to, so they'll just level less-than-constructive criticism at it.

You can practically hear him screaming " Worst. Avengers. Ever! " as a battle cry.


  1. Wonder Man may or may not be a d-bag; I don't know anything about him other than the fact that he has a stupid, stupid costume. But he has a point in the sense that none of the concerns raised over the last five years of stories have actually been addressed. None of the legitimate concerns the SHRA was supposed to take care of have actually changed in any respect. There's still no real checks or balances for people like Sentry or Scarlet Witch. Innocent people will still die in super hero brawls. And the Marvel Universe still has a dogged inability to determine real heroes from sociopaths in masks.

    Which is why I still think Civil War was a bad idea from a storytelling standpoint. You can't ever resolve those concerns and still tell superhero fiction, so you really shouldn't blatantly draw attention to them.

  2. He also has a stupid name. Wonder Man. Worst. Persona. Ever.

  3. At one time, Wonder Man did have something of a character hook -- he was The Atoner, the guy who acknowledged his past faults and tried to make good on them by becoming a true hero.

    Simon was the Avengers who had to overcome the flaws that made him a villain in Avengers v.1 #9. Whether it was risking his life against Ultron, where he'd once served Zemo for fear of death; or coming to terms with the necessity of battle, as when he was shocked by and then understood the more belligerent Ms. Marvel, Simon was the book's story of a flawed person who became better for his association with the Avengers.

    In terms of his commitment and success, he was quite unlike an earlier "reformed villain" Avengers. Wanda, Pietro, and Hawkeye were never particularly villainous to start with, for example, and never spent much time wringing their hands over past crimes. The Swordsman, for his part, was more a Woobie than an Atoner; moreover, he was pretty much led by Englehart's pet character Mantis, and died rather quickly after she dumped him. Simon had the Swordsman's sense of regret and the Kooky Quartet's drive, making for a decent enough character arc.

    And perhaps not coincidentally, Steve Englehart and Jim Shooter both gave us a counterexample around the same period in Moondragon, a character with the origins and initial goals of a hero who eventually fell far short of them. (The implicit sexism here is porobably more than a figment of my oversensitive imagination; both writers also used Tigra as a suspect Avenger often beset by insufficient willpower and courage.)

    In the early WCA, Engelhart even did a fairly good epilogue to Simon's atonement arc, letting him become overconfident at having put his past behind him, and having to re-learn some humility.

    And then, his arc done, Simon just hung around, having become an institution in the book. Eventually he became a kind of hybrid of generically bland superdude and soap opera blocking character, taking up space while derailing the Vision-Wanda romance in John Byrne's and later Kurt Busiek's run. In between, Gerard Jones wrote him in a solo series that tried to give Simon new sins and guilts to atone for, which Busiek later discarded (somewhat unconvincingly). Sporadic attempts to kill him off or otherwise write him away haven't worked either.

    I suppose he's an object lesson in knowing when to dump a character, and in the perils of inertia for a franchise like the Avengers. They're lessons I think Bendis has taken to heart, to the franchise's benefit. While I'm not picking up the latest Bendis Avengers titles, it's primarily my problems with Bendis's plotting and the balance of his ensemble scripting that have driven me away. I can't argue that he hasn't built an Avengers franchise for the 21st century, though, one I look forward to seeing other writers like Ed Brubaker work with.

  4. Thanks for the detailed analysis, Omar. And Mand1, it's worth noting that when I did a google search for this issue, I saw fan art of the character in Wonder Woman's star-spangled one-piece. Somehow it was less creepy than the image I picked of him in his conventional attire. The mixture of red safari jacket, sunglasses, and " W " muscle shirt makes him look less like a superhero, than a guy who hangs out around the bowling alley looking for high school tales.

    E.-- That's true, but Bendis handled the SHRA very well by showing even its proponents acknowledging that it was a necessary evil at best. Note that Tony A.) told the Illuminati that the only reason he wanted to support it was so he could diffuse it, B.) pretty much let the New Avengers go each time they clashed with the Mighty team, and C.) pretty much begged the New team to come back to the fold.

    Tony was willing to sacrifice everything to do what he felt was right, and after his attempts ended up making his worst nightmare come true ( with the SHRA under the control of the most corrupt man possible ), he literally killed himself to set things right. The Tony we have now is a defrosted mind from before he did all that stuff.

  5. Oh, I'm not arguing with Tony; Tony was right. I'm frankly a little sick of the hero-worship of Steve Rogers, when he led a fascist guerrilla insurrection against the American government. Even Bendis, who wrote the most even-handed take on the events that I read (Much better than Millar, JMS, or even Jenkins, who was trying, bless his heart), made Rogers sound like a prick in his own interior monologue. And Bendis no doubt did it completely unintentionally.

    But the substantive issues haven't been dealt with. Which, I suppose, makes it good in hindsight that they were never actually addressed in Civil War itself.

    But back to the instance itself, if Wonder Man is just whining, Rogers really should have had a reply to his concerns.

  6. >The implicit sexism here is porobably more than a figment of my oversensitive imagination; both writers also used Tigra as a suspect Avenger often beset by insufficient willpower and courage.

    Or it might just be Shooter; it doesn't match how Englehart wrote Moondragon when he introduced her to the team, and when he deal with Tigra's courage issues he was continuing the characterization Shooter had given her. Also, Englehart eventually dealt with Tigra's issues, and after a lengthy sub-plot she finally got the noive. If Englehart had only given Tony a heart and Simon a brain, he could've made the hat trick.

  7. I agree that Englehart probably meant for Moondragon to work as someone who was irritatingly blunt and arrogant but usually right. But he also had her rather haughtily ditch the Avengers in the handoff to Conway, and took Thor out of the book as well; that, coupled with her deliberately low likability, pretty much stamped the B-word on the character's forehead.

    Similarly, Englehart may have eventually solved Tigra's cat-soul issues, but he also ditched the Isabella/Claremont take on her as a semi-feral combatant in favor of a thoughtlessly promiscuous interpretation who was actually willing to become Graviton's sex-slave at one point.

    Granted, Englehart presented this as a disturbing problem for Tigra, but he made the same mistake he'd made with Moondragon: giving too much time and emphasis to the negative stereotype than he did to the deconstruction/fix-up part of the plot. Though that was more Tom DeFalco's fault than Englehart's.

    Of course, Shooter and John Byrne did far more in this vein with Moondragon and Tigra, respectively, than Englehart, and never really fixed anything to boot. Englehart has some...odd ideas about femininity, as the quite literal Madonna/whore characterization of Mantis might demonstrate, but I retract the charge of actual sexism.

    Come to think of it, if anyone wants to float the possibility of outright misogyny in an Avengers run, Byrne's WCA might be a strong candidate.

  8. This is a very interesting conversation you guys have come up with. Omar, I would love it if you did a longer study of how Byrne's WCA was misogynist.