Sunday, September 15, 2013

Review: Avengers: Mythos

Despite the title, this collection is only partially composed of the Mythos origin one-shots by Paul Jenkins and Paolo Rivera, with the remainder of the stories filling it being five Avengers Origins one-shots, each by a different creative team. Regardless of which publishing initiative the comics originally came from, the main throughline is that each of the seven stories deals with the origin story of an Avenger, from founders like Thor and Ant-Man to relative newcomer Luke Cage, and as a whole the book functions as a sort of Avengers 101, a helpful guide to some of the characters you'll likely encounter when reading any of Marvel's many Avengers books or big crossover/event stories.

In most cases, better versions of the stories can be found elsewhere, but not packaged altogether so conveniently.

Let's break them down story by story, and of the whole simply say that it is of professional if unremarkably quality, a good, solid bit of escapism that points to other, better comics and readies the curious for immersion into bigger, wilder stories featuring the same characters.

Mythos: Captain America
By Paul Jenkins and Paolo Rivera

Marvel's Mythos line was one of several attempts to package their most popular characters in a way that would be new-reader friendly, with "most popular" meaning those that were or were most likely to be adapted into films. Jenkins wrote them all, condensing the characters' origins and careers in general into single one shots, while the incredibly talented Rivera drew them, working in a painted style that suggested a certain amount of prestige, but tended to lack the virtues and vitality of his drawn work.

The motley crew that earned the treatment, which repeated some of the goals of the Ultimate line (only in-continuity, and in a one-off instance instead of an ongoing one) and pre-figured the goals of the Season One original graphic novels), included not only Cap and The Hulk, but also Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, the X-Men and Ghost Rider (These are all collected together in the Marvel: Mythos, which may or may not be in print any longer because, you know, Marvel).

This one's from 2008, and the premise features a still-young Steve Rogers in the year 2008, strolling across a street to a VFW and, on his way, remembering his life story, which he narrates to readers along the way. This is the story you're probably already pretty familiar with, whether from the comics from the 2011 movie.

Skinny, 4-F kid willing to be a lab rat, successful experiment granting him super-soldier status, spy plot making sure he'd be the last such super-soldier, PR effort and real soldier, ally Bucky, the last adventure which (seemingly) ended both of their lives, re-discovery by the nascent Avengers team, finding his place as the leader of the current generation of superheroes, calling on the experience and knowledge gained during World War II.

He's at a veterans dinner at the VFW, talking to a fellow veteran during all this time. It's a very talky story, with a lot of telling (or reminding, really) rather than showing, but it gets it's job done pretty quickly and efficiently. The main innovations Jenkins adds are to spend a considerable amount of time on Cap's incredibly depressing childhood (they didn't call it The Depression for nothing!) and on his interaction with the other veterans at the dinner.

I'm curious about the Captain America stories of the future, in, say, another ten years or so, when almost all of those who fought in the war aren't around anymore. There will come a time pretty soon when Captain America is the last surviving soldier of World War II (with the exception of some other Marvel characters, of course), and stories like these will be impossible to tell in quite the same way.

Mythos: Hulk
By Paul Jenkins and Paolo Rivera

The 2006 Hulk issue was an all-around stronger piece of comics, with Jenkins focusing on a single incident of the Hulk's life—his birth in the Gamma Bomb test, and what went on just before and just after—and mostly ignored narration for letting the already modern mythic events tell the story all by themselves.

Jenkins pays special attention to the relationship between the angry, acid-tongued scientist Bruce Banner, the imperious General "Thunderbolt" Ross and his daughter Betty Ross, who the two men fight bitterly over. General Ross clearly goes out of his way and takes things rather far to make life miserable for Banner and to keep him from Betty, but the way Jenkins writes Banner, it makes Ross' actions understandable, if not relatable. Banner is pretty insufferable, and its Betty who deserves the readers' sympathy—she's the one who has to put up with these two.

Again, you know exactly how things go down here, with Banner impulsively but heroically rushing out on the testing site to save Rick Jones (here an intern doing some painting, listening to "It's Not Easy Being Green" on his walkman, and thus oblivious to what's going on around him), and being turned into the monstrous Hulk.

Rivera's Hulk takes many cues from Jack Kirby's, and while that character's depiction has changed quite a bit over the years—rather remarkably so, given the fat that his basic design is simply "big, green, muscular guy in torn purple pants—Rivera's retains the broad, thick body and large, square-like head that gave Kirby's Hulk his distinct look, the look most artists to follow him deviated rather dramatically from.

Avengers Origins: Ant-Man and The Wasp 
By Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Stephanie Hans

I really rather enjoyed writer Fred Van Lente's take on Ant-Man's origin way back in Marvel Adventures Superheroes #6 and Roger Langridge's portrayal of the character and The Wasp during his short run on Thor: The Might Avenger with Chris Samnee. It was hard not to contrast this with those other stories of the early Ant-Man, and thus find this one a little wanting.

Aguirre-Sacasa's script has some lighter, funnier moments to it—as in an instance where a shrunken-for-the-first-time Henry Pym wonders what to do next while a gigantic mouse looms behind him, or when he has a flustered conversation with Janet Van Dyne through a cracked doorway, trying to hide the giant ant tugging at his pant-leg—but the story is told with a more-or-less straight face, which isn't the easiest face to keep while discussing the origins of the character called "Ant-Man."

The funniest parts may not have been intentional. The writer repeatedly asks rhetorical questions about insects before answering them in the narration and the story: "Do insects dream?" and "Do insects have a destiny?" and so on. It ends with "Do insects love? Yes...these two do."

The story seems to take place within and around the early Ant-Man stories, which I've yet to read, despite having my eye on an Essentials volume containing them for literally years now, detailing Pym's early scientific successes in the fields of shrinking and ant-controlling and his romance with Jane Van Dyne, who, here at least, borders on stalking him. (If they ever finish and release an Ant-Man movie, it's easy to imagine her in a magic pixie girl role in it or its sequel).

I didn't really care for Hans' realistic, painterly work; it matches that done by Rivera in the previous story, but while those dealt with elements of the fantastic occasionally intersecting with the real world, this story is set in fantastic locales, and is chock-full of giant ants, a giant monster, a shrinking man, a shrinking woman, and it has more than one super-costume in it.  Hans likewise has a hard time selling some of the comic moments, which play in one's imagination more than on the page, as the art and words combine to suggest them, not detail them.

Avengers Origins: Vision
By Kyle Higgins & Alec Siegel and Stephane Perger

The origin of maybe my least favorite Avenger of all time! There are few things I hate to read about more than androids with the emotional lives of teenagers; I like The Vision even less than The Red Tornado, only in that The Vision has a more garish and ugly costume (I like Golden Age Vision's look okay though).

This story seems to be set almost entirely within an issue, or part of an issue, of The Avengers, of which I've never read. Ultron builds, grows and teaches The Vision, programming him with powers to take down a fairly weak squad of Avengers, and then sicks Vision on them.

Then it's The Vision vs. The Wasp, Pym as Goliath (Hoo boy, did their relationship change between these two stories!), Hawkeye and The Black Panther, and not only should the powerful android mop the floor with these guys, he does—the only reason he doesn't kill them is that he's introduced to the concept of love through much of the fight, and then turns on his creator Ultron.

As an all-fight action comic, there's little to complain about here, and, as a hater of emotional androids, I was relieved that at no point did The Vision shed any tears. Perger's art was pretty nice, maintaining the painted look, and while the backgrounds disappear almost constantly, much of the issue is set outside at night in the rainstorm, and or there are bright flashes of light, so that The Vision's sports-team color scheme is muted and, on the whole, he looks much more dramatic than usual, with Perger lengthening his cape when necessary and often blotting out the features of his face (or at least his eyes) in order to give him a mysterious, stoic, not-really-there look.

Avengers Origins: Luke Cage
By Adam Glass & Mike Benson and Dalibor Talajic

The major outlier among the other origin stories, Luke Cage's origin is of relatively recent vintage (he was created by Archie Goodwin, John Romita Sr. and George Tuska in 1972; the next most recent character included in this volume is The Vision, who was re-created in '68, but was based on a Golden Age Timely character from 1940). He's also the only one in the book to join the Avengers after the 1960s; in fact, he didn't join the team until 2005's New Avengers.

Glass and Benson's script follows Jenkins' Captain America script rather closely in form, telling Cage's origin story (which bears some parallels to Cap's) from prison to experiment to escape to flirtation with crime to Hero for Hire, ending in the modern day, with a sort of coda in which Cage continues to try and atone for a mistake he made during his life of crime and being forgiven by his victim.

Having never read the original stories this one is based on, once again I'm uncertain as to how faithful it's being, but given that Cage's archenemy on the outside is named Stryker-with-a-Y, it sure seems like it's a re-telling of something from the 1970s.

From here on in, the book loses its painted style, save for the covers, slivers of which are used as the cover for the collection. Talajic's art is perhaps the best in the book. It's certainly the most straightforward in terms of comic bookishness, and he does a pretty good job of updating the time period during the story (It seems like this Cage grew up in the '80s, rather than the '60s).

Avengers Origins: Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver
By Sean McKeever and Mirco Pierfederici 

Okay, they may technically be Avengers, but they're mutants, and they got their start with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, which makes these two X-Men characters, which makes them confusing and annoying.

McKeever tells their story from childhood until their debut as Avengers, with the bulk of attention spent on their relationship with Magneto, whose secret connection to them wasn't yet known to all parties at the time (although Quicksilver suspects). Their main conflict comes from not really having their heart in the whole "Evil" part of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

As with the Cage story, the artwork in this oen is particularly comic-book-y, but perhaps in a more generic, less stylized way.

The story stands out as particularly complicated, but that's due more to the fact that their story is particularly complicated, coming out of the soap operatic X-Men franchise, and their inclusion in the Avengers by second-generation Marvel creators, while so many of the other Avengers getting the origin treatment here were originally created as stars of their own features, and thus had a pretty straightforward, simplicity to their powers and origins.

The question about Scarlet Witch that has always haunted me remains unanswered: What exactly is that thing she wears on her head and, like, what's it's deal, exactly...?

Avengers Origins: Thor 
By Kathryn Immonen, Al Barrionuevo and Michel Lacombe & Mark Pennington

The bulk of this story stars the young Thor and the young Loki, and it's set in Asgard. Odin commissions the creation of Mjolnir and a few other trinkets, and the hammer sits there, un-pick-up-able, while Thor and Loki have their various interpersonal conflicts and. When shit finally goes down, Thor finds the inner-strength he needs (and the right motivation) to pick up Mjolnir and start kicking ass. But he kicks so much ass, and does so in such an arrogant way, that he gets cast down to Midgard and, well, I'd suggest you pick up Thor: The Mighty Avenger for more of his adventures on Earth.

Immonen wisely starts and more-or-less completes her story before the story of the Marvel Thor really begins, with his time on Earth, and Barrionuevo's pencils are fine, evoking a bit of Brian Hitch, but are nothing remarkable, and his Asgard seems more like a Xena, Warrior Princess set than the sort of sci-fi fantasy realm of Kirby's creation.

On further reflection, the line-up of characters chosen for inclusion here is a rather odd one, isn't it? The Avengers Origins series is from 2012, the same year as the movie, but movie Avengers Iron Man, Hawkeye and Black Widow are absent, while the only movie Avenger who had an Avengers Origins issue produced was Thor. And The Hulk, who is in the movie, is included here, even though he's never really been a member of the team for any great length of time, and was merely present at their origin (As was Iron Man who, again, isn't represented).

And, again, Cage sticks out as being the odd Avenger out, although perhaps they decided to produce an origin issue focusing on him instead of, say, Hawkeye or Iron Man, simply because his origins is much more obscure than that of, say, Tony Stark.

All in all, it's a decent enough intro eight Marvel superheroes. None of the stories stand out as being particularly great ones, but then, none of them are at all poor ones either.

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