Monday, May 27, 2013

Review: Avengers Assemble

I chuckled to myself reading the first page of Avengers Assemble, the hardcover collection containing the first eight issues of Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley and Danny Miki's May 2012-launched ongoing monthly of the same name. The first page consists of nothing save a bald guy monologue-ing directly at the reader.
While it seemed like Bendis was maybe making fun of himself—that, or he simply has no sense of irony and didn't realize what he was doing—the book ended up reading like one of the least Brian Michael Bendis-y Brian Michael Bendis books I've ever read. Large sections of it seemed remarkably old-timey, a result, I thought, at least for the first half, of Bendis consciously reaching out to newer, younger readers, perhaps particularly ones lured to the book by it's obvious attempts to reel in fans of last summer's movie, or even of the cartoon series whose name it bears. I can't recall ever reading such a straightforward superhero comic, of the sort that could have come out in the 1990s or 1980s, by Bendis, even during the time when he and Bagley were collaborating on a comic with exactly that remit (Mighty Avengers).

Unexpectedly, the writer whose work it most reminded me of was that of Geoff Johns. It's big, action-packed and just dumb enough around the edges that certain elements can be perceived as either over-the-top awesome or ridiculously juvenile, depending on what angle you view them from and how generous to the writer you want to be. It's dependent on a pretty good working knowledge of the universe's continuity/history, so rather than reinventing the characters as he usually does (often willy-nilly, and to the annoyance of many long-time Marvel readers and fans), Bendis plays the characters all straight and plucks characters, objects and events straight from past Marvel comics, unaltered.

Most Johns-ian of all, however, is the tendency of Bendis throughout this story arc to build beats around big moments, generally the promise of a big fight to come on a last-page splash page, and/or the arrival of a new and perhaps unexpected player or turn of events on a cliffhanging splash page ending, one that will mean more to well-read fans than to newcomers. So the third issue ends with the arrival of Thanos, for example, the fourth with the arrival of the Guardians of The Galaxy.
I've read more of Johns' writing in single issues than in trades, so I'm used to the look and effect of these big, "Oh shit!" moments he tries to end most of his comics on. Bendis is generally bad at endings, moreso with story arcs and miniseries than single issues, but they rarely end with punctuation, let alone exclamation points. I imagine his Johns-like scripting of this series would have proven extremely annoying to readers reading this book as it was serially published, as they were paying $3.99 a pop for comics that were between 20 and 21 pages apiece, pages mostly filled with big, space-wasting splashes. I can't imagine any single chapter takes longer than five minutes to read, even if you read slowly, pausing to scrutinize the lines of Miki-on-Bagley artwork.

As a trade, it reads fine, however—those big, splashy chapter-ending moments like a regular beat of mini-climaxes, cymbal crashes or guitar solos. It was a fast, fleet, action-packed read, almost devoid of Bendis' normal tics, and the sort of comic even his harshest critics might like, in large part because it's so un-Bendisy.

In addition to reading differently serially and as a collection, the book's existence certainly looks different now, in the spring of 2013, than it did last year. Then it was the third Bendis-written Avengers title (following New Avengers and plain, old, adjective-less Avengers), and an obviously cynically produced attempt to cash in on the potential audience the just then debuting movie might entice.

The line-up is that of the movie, and one that doesn't really make much sense without a writer massaging a narrative around it (That is, the plot clearly starts with a particular line-up, and then works backwards to find excuses to get those six Avengers in the same room for eight issues). Ironically, the sheer number of Avengers titles extant at the time made that easier, as if you combined the line-ups from all of the Avengers titles, there was a pretty large pool to work from. Captain America, Iron Man and Thor were in The Avengers' Avengers, and Black Widow and Hawkeye were in Secret Avengers so only The Hulk needed shoe-horned in, and the prevalence of Avengers in the Marvel Universe at the time was sort of driven home by the fact that The Hulk is so often referred to in this comic not as The Hulk, but a Hulk.

Additionally, this was the debut of Hawkeye's movie-inspired new costume. The villain of the piece was Thanos, who starred in the teasing, stinger ending of the Avengers movie, which everyone would have seen and known by the time he shows up in this, and The Guardians of the Galaxy were to be the stars of the next big Marvel Comics-inspired movie, something that was first rumored and then confirmed during the months this book unfolded.

Apparently, the potential audience driven from the movie to this comic book, the most new-reader friendly of the many Avengers titles of spring and summer 2012, never really materialized (at least not in the direct market), and the direct market was loathe to embrace this title. It's initial sales were astronomical (goosed, no doubt, by variant cover schemes, including a few of those popular ones where particular shops could have their shop named on the cover of the comic if they ordered enough), but dropped steadily and quickly.

Looked back on today, the book looks an awful lot like a bridge one, between Bendis' long tenure on the Avengers titles and his work on the just-launched Guardians of the Galaxy title. Here we see Bendis writing the Guardians for the first time (after their relatively long-time association with writers Keith Giffen, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning), and Iron Man Tony Stark flirting with the idea of joining them in outer space, something that would occur in Bendis' Guardians monthly.

It also reads more like a miniseries than an ongoing, and one wonders after the way Bendis constructed it; did he pitch a miniseries, while Marvel wanted to make it ongoing, and just decided to keep it going after Bendis arc ended? Because after the eighth issue, the last chapter of this collection, Avengers Assemble continued in the capable hands of writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Stefano Caselli (I'm trade-waiting their run, so I haven't seen any of it yet, but I know sales have been fairly dismal, something I imagine is due both to their inheriting the perception of the book as a non-essential read directed toward newcomers rather than hardcore Marvel fans who have a half-dozen other, more relevant Avengers titles to follow every month, and the difficulty of continuing to sell this particular grouping of characters as a distinct unit deserving of its own book in the crowded Avengers pack).

So the bald guy Bendising at the reader on the first page is the leader of the latest new version of Marvel's Zodiac, this one a team of super-villains each of which is imbued with the power of a particular symbol of the zodiac (Taurus is a big strong minotaur-looking guy, Aquarius is made out of water, etc.) They are pursuing various artifacts of cosmic power on Earth, at the behest of their master, who gave them their extraordinary powers (It's Thanos, as you've already guessed).

One of those objects is being transported via an army caravan commanded by a General Whedon (Ha ha ha! Get it? Whedon? Like the guy who directed the movie?) that is passing by The Hulk, and thus The Hulk gets involved. The other quintent of Avengers are in two groups; Cap, Iron Man and Thor are Avengers-ing, while Black Widow and Hawkeye are Secret Avengers-ing.

Unsure of who he can trust, Captain America refuses to let them contact any more Avengers, which is the excuse for these six starring in this story arc (Later, most of the other active Avengers will appear, at least in cameos, when these Avengers join the Guardians of the Galaxy in outer space and leave everyone else in charge of defending Earth).

The first half of the story consists of The Avengers versus the new Zodiac, with Bendis writing them surprisingly movie-like, particularly Iron Man, who quips and wisecracks at Spider-Man levels and from Bendis' usual serious version of the character. Once Thanos arrives to collect his cosmic prize and the Guardians follow him, the Guardians and Avengers head out into space to fight aliens (The Badoon) and foil Thanos' plan, which involves...killing a bunch of cosmic Marvel entities that look familiar, but who I'm not all that up on.

It's probably the best Bendis-written Marvel Comic that doesn't have the words "Ultimate" and/or "Spider-Man" anywhere in the title, at least that I've read. It's also the sort of old-school superheroes posing, fighting and operatically emoting comic book story that Bagley excels at, making for a rather rare instance of Bendis using the artist he's working with extremely well, rather than, you know, just having him storyboard conversations.

I think this would work just fine as a comic book for younger readers (like, teens) and newer readers with a curiosity or casual interest in the Avengers inspired by that movie. And for fans of decent superhero comics in general who aren't too terribly concerned with the ongoing mega-plots of the Marvel Universe and the dark, serious espionage thriller style that has dominated so much of the publisher's superhero output since Bendis's purview expanded beyond the Ulimate imprint and into the main Marvel Universe over a decade ago.

Now, let's look at a few particular panels, shall we...?

Okay, so first: Can Hulk do this?
Is it do-able because Thor was touching the hammer when he grabbed it...? Because he lets go during the KRAKAKOOM panel, but maybe by that point it was all gravity?

Also, why didn't Hulk say, "Thor stop hitting Thor's self!" while doing that...?

Here's a page of Black Widow threatening to torture information out of a criminal exercising his constitutional right to remain silent:
That's not cool. I mean, I guess it shows some restraint in that she merely threatens to take a knife, a blowtorch and some tools to his flesh in order to get him to talk instead of actually doing it and all, but, I don't know. I don't have much tolerance for "heroes" torturing villains in comic books anymore. Not when there are fairly regular discussions and arguments about whether or not the United States should be suspending legal protection of suspected criminals or terrorists and whether or not it's permissible to torture certain groups of suspected, unconvicted criminals.

While hardened spy Black Widow is doing that, paragon of virtue Captain America, who represents America's ideals rather than her reality, is right outside the door, either tacitly condoning her behavior or simply ignorant of it. So too is Tony Stark, who is supposedly one of the smartest men in the whole world but doesn't ask any questions when Black Widow walks out of the interrogation room with a bag full of torture implements having broken the suspect who Cap had just failed to get to talk.

Here's Rocket Raccoon, pointing his gun at an alien soldier and threatening him to talk or be shot. The alien complies (I kinda like the way they handle alien language dialogue in this chapter, by the way, translating it like sub-titles in the lower right-hand corner of each panel):
As you can see, he sufficiently frightens the alien, and gets him to talk. But then he goes ahead and murders the then-helpless captive anyway:
As with Black Widow's threat of torture, that's more villain behavior than hero behavior.

Here's a scene Bendis and Bagley wished happened in the movie, so we could see Scarlett Johansson in a state of undress:

Oh hey, no wonder Cap didn't scold Black Widow about threatening to torture that guy:

Finally, here's a rare (for this book, anyway) instance of Tony Stark Bendis-swearing:
What does he call Thanos? What can an "@#$@#$" be...? Well, we know it's a six-letter word, and the the second three letters are the same as the first three letters. What's a three-letter swear word...? Ass, right? That's all I can think of. So Tony says that Thanos isn't a demigod, he's an assass...?

Wait, that can't be right. Because they use the word "ass" in an earlier chapter, when the bald villain mentions having the power to kick Thor's ass. (Also, they'd be using both the "#" and the "$" to stand in for the same letter if it was "ass," and that doesn't make sense).

Okay, I give up: What's a three-letter swear word that isn't ass...?

Anyway, other than those scenes in which Black Widow, Rocket and Cap act like total @#$@#$s, I rather liked this one.


Aki Alaraatikka said...

Yeah, but maybe Cap knew that Black widow would merely IMPLY torturing. Maybe he wanted Hulk to IMPLY smashing. If so, it`s still quite a gamble.

Let me see...

Arsars? Like, a shorter version of arsearse.

Jeremy said...

How do you get so many trades...library card?

Caleb said...


Yeah, I get a LOT of trades via my library (most trades they don't own I can order through them via inter-library loan). The vast majority of the superhero trades I review here (like this one, for example), are library-borrowed.

Most of the superhero trades I buy tend to be either Showcase Presents/Essential collections, or ones by creative teams I like on characters I like (The last few I bought were Morrison and Burnham's Batman Inc and Scott Snyder/Jock/Francavilla Batman: Black Mirror, I think).

Brian Cronin said...

"Is it do-able because Thor was touching the hammer when he grabbed it...?"

Yep, that's it exactly.