It wasn’t a run, it was a decathlon.
On the surface this manifestation of Dark Avengers failed to live up to the standards set by its sibling Avenger titles. It lasted only fifteen issues and had an uneven first arc that didn’t know what it wanted to be. For anyone who isn’t down with the current age of huge franchise umbrellas this title stands prime as an example of how slapping “Avengers” across something doesn’t always work.
Of course, I don’t see it like that. The big number in this comic owes its enormity to the Thunderbolts, the memorable team of villains-turned-heroes that defected from leader Baron Helmut Zemo and forged their own path. Although a Dark Avengers comic would have rocked in the ’90s, it’s important to remember that the Thunderbolts got us a here in an extremely roundabout way. The numbering means nothing, but in the chaotic mess that is life and comics we got some brilliantly fun superhero stories via this title.
At 11 years-old I was a comic fan but not a comic reader, and yet Thunderbolts sent such palpable ripples through comicdom in 1997 that even fifth graders had heard about the fake superheroes led by a purple-clad Nazi. When I started becoming more of a reader I dabbled in “Caged Angels” by Ellis/Deodato and even grabbed a few issues of the Andy Diggle run when it had a crossover with Deadpool. When Jeff Parker took over the title during the later stages of the really, really good Osborn era, I didn’t really take notice until others told me to. However, once I started reading I haven’t missed an issue since. In fact I’ve spent a few spare hours digging through bargain bins trying to snatch up as many back issues that I can.
Parker’s run on Thunderbolts had a single quirk that made it one of the best in the last few years, it didn’t give a fuck about setting a standard. In fact that was the standard. Every time a pattern in plotting or story flow would emerge a whole new concept would originate. These were not sporadic or frenzied changes for the sake of art, but measured switch-ups that added both gravity and levity to the tale of a bunch of convicts forced to fight crime. Parker (and main contributors Declan Shalvey and Kev Walker) melded all the things that made Thunderbolts great and treated the Marvel Universe like a disposable playground.
So, yeah. Dark Avengers #190. Don’t kid yourself, It’s still Jeff Parker’s Thunderbolts. They stripped away the classic characters (except the lovely Moonstone, of course), and restocked it with a bunch of Avengers doppelgängers with the combined personality of an avocado, but it’s still got that bad guys doing good things vibe that worked so well for so many issues.
I contend that the last arc of Dark Avengers (#184-190) would have made a better event comic than Age of Ultron. They share some of the same qualities, such as a wonky alternate reality, an evil Iron Man, a dead Thor, a ruinous NYC and just about every heavy hitter represented in some way. The arc moved slowly, splintering and reuniting the team in a chaotic war between Marvel heroes that escalated to the point where the Big Apple has been sliced into partitioned zones run by Spider-Man, Thing, Iron Man and Doc Strange, among others. The displaced anti-heroes, accidentally sent there by Man-Thing, not only have to gather their bearings but try to avoid dying in the crossfire of an ugly, messy war between former friends.
The move to put the newly minted Dark Avengers in an alternate space felt wrong when I read issue #184, but after the finale I applaud Park and artist Neil Edwards for isolating the team in order to define them. Even under Osborn in the recent (New) Avengers stories this team appeared forced and un-congealed, and yet at the end it really felt like they were a unit. Dark Avengers biggest problem resided in one its greatest strengths — the tie-in to the Avengers brand. By dressing these no-names up in familiar garb and giving them code-names only a couple clicks away from their well-known counterparts Marvel rooted them in familiarity but didn’t give them enough to stand on their own. Sure, Trick Shot and Boomerang are very similar characters, but at least Boomer has the idiosyncrasies to set him apart. That other guy is just faux-Hawkeye.
That’s the source of Parker’s greatest challenge in Dark Avengers, and by the end he succeeded even if the sales numbers didn’t imply that. He took a bunch of no-names and planted the seeds for them to grow into their own mighty oaks. He put U.S. Agent in a wheelchair and took him out again, elevated June Covington to the Scarlet Witch of science (and John Walker’s puppeteer, apparently), took the super boring Dark Spider-Man and made the monster with a god complex hilariously tiny and gave the even more boring robot-clone Ragnarok an awesome “Heisenberg” look. Some of these developments are minor and nearly frivolous, but for a bunch low-tier characters any fresh development is welcome.
While I never jumped completely aboard Neil Edwards’ style and approach it’s undeniable he improved a lot since taking over some art duties when the title switched over to its current incarnation. The weird physics and sloppy action scenes still bother me a lot, but Edwards does his best work in capturing the inherent oddity of a Jeff Parker script. This last issue is fairly busy, and Edwards makes sure the flow and clarity is adequate enough to get the point across. Some of the page layouts are efficient, some are not, but he generally succeeds in building a world where familiar characters have gone mad.
Even more than the character work this title always knew how to spin old concepts into something novel and exciting. I will never forget the death of Fixer, a story that redefined superhero death, one of the most trodden tropes in all of comics. Parker has a gift for taking something like time-travel and distilling it into
something better. In this current arc he took the concept of alternate dimensions and spun it into a concept that resonates. Hell, he even managed to tie it into both Uncanny Avengers and Secret Avengers, which seemed like an impossibility if you only read the first couple issues of this arc. I read a lot of fiction. It takes a lot to surprise me. This surprised me. Kudos.
There are a multitude of things I loved about this 50-plus issue run, and it’s clear there is something about the tone, feel and look of this comic that appealed to me over the last few years. The characters were great as they were random, the plots kept me on my toes and the art embodied pure and hectic joy. Dark Avengers and its predecessor took a look at the everyday terra forma of having incredible abilities and made me a fan of protagonists who use slang and have petty, underhanded schemes that only serve themselves. Though I look forward to July’s Superior Foes of Spider-Man to carry on this aura I finally need to accept that the time, place and people that created one of my favorite runs is now over.
Am I nostalgic? Yeah. Am I sad? Hell no. My long boxes aren’t going anywhere, and it’s only a matter of time before something else captures my attention, and my heart, like Thunderbolts/Dark Avengers. It’s just going to take a handful of perfect pieces. Boomerang is probably one of them.
Jamil Scalese is just like you — an avid comics reader and lover of sequential art. Residing in Pittsburgh, PA, he is an unapologetic Deadpool fan, devotee of the Food Network and proud member of Steelers Nation. Check out his original, ongoing webcomic And Then There Were Zombies and follow his subpar tweeting at @jamilscalese.