Make Mine Marvel, Malapropist: Fewer Winks, More Man-Thing

In which my friend (and EPA co-writer) Nathan and I resume our discussion of Marvel comics in 2010.

Greg: Nathan, it’s been months (can you believe it?) since we discussed Marvel’s theoretically status-quo-shattering event Siege and speculated about the shape of Marvel books to come. Now that the future is here, let’s talk about what’s new with Marvel comics–starting with Avengers, (debatably) the company’s flagship title.

As you know, we haven’t had a comic called plain old Avengers on the racks for several years now, but the series is back, with writer Brian Michael Bendis still at the helm. (And I don’t know if you’ve heard, but a movie’s on the way too.) There’s a weird clumsiness to the first few issues of the relaunch, with everything feeling vaguely miscalculated despite Bendis having written a series involving many of these characters for the last several years. Most Avengers speak with the same sort of glib quipiness–a criticism that has been leveled at Bendis before, and while I don’t think it’s true of his best work, in this case it sticks.

Bendis also isn’t playing to his strengths, if issues #1-3 are an indication. Avengers ought to read like a summer blockbuster, and the intimate character moments that Bendis specialized in throughout Ultimate Spider-Man or the intricate plotting and slow-burn pacing of his Daredevil run wouldn’t be as appropriate for this title. But what we get instead reads like a Bendis comic for readers who don’t like Bendis comics: a cramped, throw-it-and-the-wall-see-what-sticks approach that so far involves super-folks from different realities/timelines popping in and getting their asses kicked. Again, he’s been writing comics featuring Marvel’s biggest characters for years now, but more than anything that came before, this reads like Bendis trying to write a big, bold, willfully over-the-top Marvel book. Which is admirable (and something I want to like) but man, the execution–.

John Romita Jr., a favorite artist of mine, also underperforms; compare his Avengers layouts to his work on last year’s Kick-Ass and I think you’ll agree that Romita seems to have devoted a great deal more care to the latter. (Though Kick-Ass is still probably a worse comic, all things considered.)

I had similar grievances about Bendis’s other Avengers title, the new New Avengers book devoted to slightly-more street-level heroes and threats–oddly-paced, a jumble of competing concepts. But I actually found the most recent issue, #3, to be a blast, with its bickering demons, classic Marvel-type slugfest, and passing of the Bechdel test. That, and Stuart Immonen seems to get better and better as a penciller with each project he takes on.

New Avengers can afford to be a little goofier, and is, and to a point, it works. And yet this title also reads like Bendis making a quilt from patches of older Marvel yarns—what we get is not a proper standalone narrative (which I guess would be equivalent to him weaving something from scratch? Overwhelmed by my own metaphor now), a story with its own distinct sense of place and purpose, but something that’s closer to homage. This isn’t a problem limited to Bendis’s titles, or to Marvel books—the same is true of most DC stuff, at like a toxic level—but man, the sheer self-reflexivity of this stuff is depressing.

Of all the new books Marvel has relaunched or revamped in the past few months, I think Jeff Parker and Kev Walker‘s Thunderbolts is one of the best, and it doesn’t suffer from the lack of novelty that’s keeping me from really enjoying Bendis’s Avengers titles. (I’m starting to stray from Matt Fraction and Salvador Laroccca’s Invincible Iron Man, incidentally, as Larocca’s ugly, sterile-looking photo ref’d art seems to get uglier and more sterile-looking by the issue.)

I read a blog post a few months ago likening Fraction’s (too brief) stint on Punisher War Journal as a Marvel Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, with Fraction and co-writer Rick Remender putting Frank Castle on the fringe of larger events and generally reveling in the absurdities of the superhero genre. Something similar is happening, I think, with Thunderbolts.

The title started about a decade ago as a sort-of stunt (villains pose as heroes, some start to like it), and has become an unlikely mainstay of the Marvel line. The Thunderbolts have been through several different incarnations since (out-and-out heroes, villains perceived to be heroes but still doing basically evils stuff), and Parker’s take is a new variation on older themes: the Avenger Luke Cage leads a semi-cooperative supervillain reform program. Which also includes Man-Thing.

Once Parker’s run concludes, Cage, Juggernaut, etc. are going to be essentially the same characters they were at the beginning, and the same characters they were before that. But with this series, at least, there’s a sense of possibility (illusory or not, does it matter?)–Parker’s putting forth an anything-goes gonzo approach to superhero storytelling that makes good use of characters from all across the Marvel U. (Parker even writes a likable, interesting USAgent!) Are you digging this book too? Enjoying the Avengers titles more than I am? Also feeling the despair of the long-term superhero reader, to whom very little can ever seem truly new?

Nathan: I decided to wait on this until after I read last week’s Avengers #4, to really see if the book is fulfilling its promise of delivering old-school Avengers action. All I can say is how right I turned out to be about this whole “Heroic Age” deal being a DC-ification of the Marvel universe. Don’t see it? Let me explain.

Did you ever read DC’s first stab at a weekly series, 52? It was a book meant to explain what happened in the one-year gap between when the ultraviolent nostalgia piece Infinite Crisis ended and the new status quo “One Year Later,” and it was written by the most staggeringly talented committee to ever collaborate on a comic book: Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns, Mark Waid and Grant Morrison. At first, the title 52 seemed to refer to the number of total issues, but the big twist at the end of the series was that the DC multiverse, having thought to have been basically consolidated 20 years back in Crisis On Infinite Earths, was back, and this time there were 52 alternate earths, many of them corresponding to classic alternate universe tales ranging from The Dark Knight Returns to Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew. The idea was that on occasion these alternate universe tales, which were once meant to be self-contained, could cross over to some degree, so we got stories like the Kingdom Come Superman showing up in issues of JSA.

What does this have to do with Bendis’ Avengers? Well, I can’t be sure, but I have a feeling that Bendis is trying at something similar here by having the Age Of Apocalypse Four Horsemen and Killraven show up. I remember there’s even a large splash page that features a number of additional alternate universes, with well-known offshoots like Spider-Girl, Spider-Man 2099, the Maestro Hulk, etc. So basically this is like the 52, and I wonder if Bendis’ first arc will end with this team of Avengers looking forward to more alternate universe threats from the Marvel back catalog (just as the New Avengers formed basically to round up escaped prisoners from the Raft prison).

There’s a reason I don’t want Marvel to be like DC. Exiles and this new Spider-Man video game aside, big alternate universe adventures aren’t Marvel’s forte. But then again neither did this “Heroic Age” seem to match the Marvel disposition either. I hate to say it, but I think Bendis doesn’t have enough material for one Avengers book, let alone two. As for New Avengers, Dr. Strange will always be one of my favorite characters, but I’m right behind you on the constant fucking winks and nods to every crevice of Marvel lore. While it was nice to see some Spider-Man/Thing banter, I will allow one (1) conversation about the use of the phrase “It’s Clobberin’ Time” before I give up this book. Supposedly this is the arc that puts proper strictures on magic users in the Marvel universe, but every single writer from Brian K. Vaughn onward has basically tried doing the same thing to little effect–we all know by now that magic is supposed to be science that’s too technologically advanced for us to understand, so why rob it of that x-factor? Who knows, maybe he’ll come up with a really cool concept, but Bendis hasn’t really offered any real head-twisters since Norman Osborn took charge (do you agree with me now that Dark Reign could have stood to go on another year?).

I haven’t been reading Parker’s Thunderbolts, which has gone through more iterations than even you suggest (you forget to mention a brief period where the book became about a “Fight Club” for superheroes). I will make sure to check it out when it comes out in trade. Do you think this version of the Thunderbolts is here to stay for longer than a year this time? And while we’re at it, what do you think of the Red Hulk joining the Avengers?

Despite the current meandering storyline, I still really like Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man and consider it one of the best Marvel books (I’m also looking forward to his upcoming Thor run). Jonathan Hickman is the real deal as well: if you haven’t read S.H.I.E.L.D., you really need to, and his Fantastic Four is shaping up to be one of the best runs on the book ever. And Jason Aaron…I just read his first issue of Wolverine and it rocked. I really wish there was some way they could let Aaron be the only guy on Wolverine, just as I wish that they would streamline the Batman titles to one book so Morrison would be the only guy writing him. But I’m afraid the market disagrees with me. Anyway, all of the above books are better than any of the Avengers books, although Secret Avengers has an interesting vibe, even if Mike Deodato tries his damndest to make Valkyrie look like a hooker.

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One Comment on “Make Mine Marvel, Malapropist: Fewer Winks, More Man-Thing”

  1. […] Fewer Winks, More Man-Thing – pt. 2 In which my friend (and EPA co-writer) Nathan and I continue our discussion of Marvel comics in 2010. The Red Hulk Greg: Interesting that you mention both the Red Hulk and the DC-ification of Marvel. […]

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