"Next Avengers" (part 1)
Marvel's superteam returns in the first issue of the fourth volume of this venerable title.
The “Heroic Age” banner that is spread across many a Marvel cover this month is the mark of a return to normalcy in the publisher’s superhero universe--a restoration of the days when the clearly defined forces of good battled the distinctly different armies of evil. For the time being, the heroes can now go about their business without looking over their shoulders in fear of a Skrull invasion, the reign of Norman Osborn, or the Superhero Registration Act. With the Marvel books finally free from this long line of overarching plotlines, it’s also a victory for the traditional comics fan.
The re-launched Avengers series by Brian Michael Bendis and John Romita Jr. revels in its role as the centerpiece of Marvel’s effort to kick it back old school. A quick glance at Romita’s art alone is enough to see that this is something quite different than much of the Avengers material released in the last five years. His clean, stylized imagery would never have suited the look of a story from the Dark Reign era, but it is quite appropriate for the more upbeat period into which the team has now entered.
Bendis’s writing, too, oozes an optimism he’s not been able to exercise much during his tenure as architect of the Marvel Universe. Gone from his dialogue is the gallows humor that marked most of his New Avengers scripts, replaced by cheerful jokes and words of encouragement between teammates. A multitude of characters express their gratitude to Steve Rogers for being selected to serve on one of the new Avengers teams, as the original Captain America delivers a rousing speech about the importance of heroes in stirring the hearts of public.
The resonance of Steve’s message takes a hit, however, once Bendis shifts his opening story conflict into gear. Rather than a tale showcasing the new team’s ability to inspire, it appears that the reconstituted Avengers’ first mission will be a time-traveling romp with their old nemesis Kang. Not only does the upcoming adventure feel lifted from the plot of Back to the Future II, but it promises to take the heroes away from the new world that has just been established for them. I’m reminded of the misstep Bendis made in the opening Dark Avengers arc in which Osborn’s media-ready squad was quickly whisked away from the public eye for an irrelevant scuffle with Morgan le Fay.
Despite this sudden change, Bendis still manages to end the issue on a high note with the first chapter of a prose feature that offers an “oral history” of the Avengers. Comprised mostly of faux interviews with prominent Marvel characters, the piece offers a unique and witty take on the formation of the franchise’s original lineup. Compared with the recently released Avengers: The Origin, I much prefer the fresh approach to the retelling taken here.
Additionally, this text section caused me to consider how well Avengers #1 might work as an introduction to someone interested in getting into Marvel comics. While I may not be wild about the specific story that is brewing, Bendis has succeeded in crafting a comic markedly different in tone from his previous fare. This issue is old-fashioned superheroics, suitable for both new readers and strays seeking their way back into the fold.
Up to now, my general opinion of Brian Michael Bendis's superhero comics work has been that he has no idea how to write superhero comics--which one might consider a significant flaw unless, of course, one happened to be a Marvel editor. He can't write action scenes, and he can't put together a plot--both of which are fairly important to the genre. Less important is the ability to write limp pastiches of Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet screenplays, and yet that's what we've had over the past few years.
But wait! Now we have an editorial mandate. Everything is to be part of the Heroic Age, a return to the bright and dynamic adventure stories of the superhero genre's origins, and an explicit rejection of the grim-and-gritty nonsense of the past few years. Surely if there's a time for Bendis to put away his attempts at realism, to stop trying to turn the Avengers into a crime comic, and to embrace the four-colour brilliance of the genre, that time is now!
This issue opens with a group of junior Avengers murdering an old man. In the rain.
It might be useful, at this point, for someone to produce a handy checklist, in the manner of those lists Marvel produce to tell you which comics have nothing to do with the crossover of the month but that they want you to buy anyway. Hang on, I'll do it.
Handy-Dandy “Bendis Can't Write for Toffee”Checklist:
- Homogenous Dialogue: Clearly, it is more "realistic" for everyone to sound the same. Even quasi-mythical Norse gods, who should sound like comedy Ren Faire enthusiasts,* get the same speech patterns as everyone else. Who knew? On the other hand, Thor does get one panel where his syntax is so garbled that I'm not sure he's even speaking English--so perhaps Bendis is trying (something other than my patience, obviously).
- Plot is for Sissies: The Avengers spend half the issue talking about the Avengers, then Kang attacks them in their own home for a page, then Kang spends the last half of the issue talking about the Avengers. Sigh.
- Real Heroes Stand Around Doing Nothing: The Avengers do a bit of rubble-clearing in Chicago at one point, but for the rest of the comic they Stand Around Doing Nothing--almost as if David Finch had never gone away. There's a brief bit of excitement when Kang attacks, but then it's straight back to the important work of Standing Around Doing Nothing. Now Romita Jr is a pretty dynamic artist, so I can only assume that this standing around business is scripted for some clever Postmodern reason that I'm too thick to understand.
- Redundant Dialogue: Why say what you mean when you can instead say the same thing over and over again, or perhaps merely babble a load of gibberish? It may not be "realistic," but I tend to prefer it when Earth's Mightiest Heroes aren't stammering imbeciles. Or is that just me?
- Referring to Previous Storylines by Their Published Titles: Wonder Man reels off a list of Bendis-era stories, which is just about as sensible as soldiers in 1915 referring to "World War One," but I suppose it's a handy way of pointing readers towards the collected editions. Perhaps in a few months we'll dispense with the charade altogether and just have characters plugging the books directly to the audience like that bit in The Truman Show.
- Splash Pages Are Awesome. And Easy to Write: In all fairness, there are only three proper splash pages this issue, and all have a valid storytelling point--so, yeah, we can't count this one. Look at me being all fair and balanced like a proper journalist.
- Willful Disregard of Storylines Not Written by Bendis: "For the first time ever, our needs are one," says Kang as he explains the threat facing the world--apparently forgetting that he already did this speech in Avengers #457 in 2001 (or that it's more or less the entire plot of Avengers Forever, a story that perhaps Bendis isn't allowed to read** for fear that the sheer brilliance of it will melt his face like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark).
John Romita Jr. tries his best and, for the most part, succeeds. His effortless grasp of characterization makes even Standing Around Doing Nothing look good. We even get a fight scene this issue, and JRJR's art begins to crackle at that point as his style is well suited to pages of big things exploding and super-persons slapping each other about on an epic scale. Alas, the "fight" consists of three panels of action and one of Standing Around Doing Nothing, so it's not quite epic as such.
One also has to single out Dean White's coloring, which has all the appearance of having been done with actual watercolours or inks, and is either a pleasing bit of old school artistry or a fiendishly clever bit of technological wizardry. Either way, it's an impressive job. Klaus Janson completes the trio of solid artists and the result is a great looking comic, which only makes the wasted potential all the more bitter a disappointment.
Rounding out the $3.99 package, a bargain at a quarter of the price, we get a text piece written by Bendis. Imagine four pages of that writing, without any pretty pictures as a distraction.
All in all, Avengers (volume four) #1 is your standard Brian Michael Bendis Avengers comic, which will tell you all you need to know about whether you should buy it or not. If you like how the franchise has been
* Which is part of what we love about Thor and the gang, obviously.
** I have this worry that we're heading for some kind of sequel to Avengers Forever, which, given how well Bendis understood the original Sentry miniseries, will be something akin to a war crime.
What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!