Tuesday, February 23, 2016

So it turns out that Marvel's 2011 miniseries Vengeance is pretty much the best thing ever.

When Marvel first solicited the six-part miniseries Vengeance back in spring of 2011, I remembered thinking that it might be something to check out in trade eventually. It was written by Joe Casey, a very good writer of comic books, and it was drawn by Nick Dragotta, a very good drawer of comic books, and while I didn't have any idea of what it was about–something about the children of supervillains?–a strong creative team is pretty much all you really need to get me to check a book out. In the good old days of $2.99 Marvel comics, I probably would have bought it and read it off the shelves every month, since Marvel had by that point already increased the price of almost all of their books to $3.99, I put it on my Wait For The Trade List.

About five years passed before I finally got around to that trade. I don't know if it's just me personally, or if this phenomenon extends to other potential consumers, but often times once I move a comic book series from my mental Buy Serially Upon Each Issue's Release list to my Wait For The Trade List, I may never actually get around to buying and reading that trade.

I actually had a pretty hard time even finding a collection of Vengeance, which is apparently out of print now (?), and the copy I ended up ordering from a third-party vendor on Amazon was a rather beat-up copy that was discarded from the collection of a county library.

When I finally read it, I was shocked: It was great.

Marvel's published a lot of great comics in the past five years or so, many of the ones I've enjoyed the most being the quirkier, comedy series, with Jonathan Hickman's Avengers and New Avengers being the outlier, a big, crazy, melodramatic, high-stakes, totally serious superhero saga. Vengeance is closer to those Avengers books than the likes of, say, Superior Foes of Spider-Man or the last volume of She-Hulk or Squirrel Girl, both in its relative seriousness and its grand scale. But it's a really wild story, with incredibly disparate, constantly-moving pieces that only gradually come together to form a whole.

It's got deep connections to the history of the Avengers, exploiting a great, unexplored concept from Avengers #1 that apparently Casey was the first person to think had potential, it's got a huge cast of new characters, it's got interesting takes on many long-lived Marvel characters, and it's maybe the single coolest comic Marvel has published since Grant Morrison left the publisher to return to DC (Interestingly, Casey uses two of the characters Morrison co-creted for his New X-Men run, and another of the ensemble cast bears some resemblance to Morrison and J.G. Jones' Marvel Boy; hell, the main heroes in the comic even reminded me of The Invisibles a bit).

Now, the precise reason that I found the series' quality so shocking was that it didn't seem to have much in the way of an impact on the Marvel Universe or within the Marvel comics line. With the exception of the Casey and Dragotta America Chavez/Miss America–who went on to star in Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's 2013-2014 Young Avengers, and then Secret Wars' iteration of A-Force is now appearing in The Ultiamtes–no aspect of this comic was carried forward. That seems strange in large part not only because the series was so damn good, and not only because it was so damn ripe for further exploitations, but because it all but ends with the promise of future adventures, one of the leads looking at the reader and smirking that we haven't heard the last of them.
But apparently we had heard the last of them–or, at least, everyone but Miss America.

What happened?


Before pondering that, perhaps it's best to discuss what Vengeance is about.

The plot concerns three different teams of super-powered characters, each with their own agendas that are at cross-purposes.

The first of these teams is The Teen Brigade. That is the team that kinda sorta accidentally created the Avengers in 1963's Avengers #1, when teenager Rick Jones and his fellow young radio enthusiasts (nerds) tried to radio The Fantastic Four and alert them of the need to stop The Hulk, but the message was instead picked up by Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man and The Wasp.

According to The Ultimate Nullifier, the leader of the Teen Brigade of Vengeance, his line-up is but one of the nine or ten Brigades that have existed since World War I, "each one committed to the heroes of their era without them ever being aware of just how much is actually happening behind the scenes."

The Ultimate Nullifier is a young, sexy, brash, Marvel Boy-esque hero who wears a tight-fitting version of Captain America's chain-mail and star shirt, which reveals his sleeves of tattoos. While he's got some sweet martial arts movies, his weapons of choice are a pair of space age-pistols that temporarily rob any super-person they hit of their superpowers (thus the codename). His Brigade includes what appear to be a dozen or so teen hackers, but the name characters include the super-strong, invulnerable, flying powerhouse Miss America (whose personality here seems completely different from the quiet, angry version of Young Avengers) and former Xavier Academy students Beak and Angel, both of whom lack their physical mutations and powers, because this was published during the "No More Mutants" era of X-Men history, falling as it did between House of M and Avengers Vs. X-Men.

The second team is The Defenders, specifically the iteration of the team from the Casey co-written 2008 miniseries, The Last Defenders. That is, She-Hulk, The Son of Satan (in a somewhat goofy-looking superhero costume), Atlantean warlord Krang and the new Nighthawk, former SHIELD agent Joaquin Pennysworth (with original Nighthawk Kyle Richmond as their behind-the-scenes man). If the Teen Brigade fights in the shadows, The Defenders fight in the limelight, like most superhero teams, and are working to defend the status quo, whether they think of their mission in those terms or not.

And the third team is The Young Masters (of Evil): The Executioner, Egghead, The Radioactive Kid, Mako and a new, female version of The Black Knight, complete with her own Ebony Blade. Their goal? To kill off the older generation of supervillains in order to replace them, in a sort of Darwinian power-play.

That's already a lot of plates spinning, but Casey has more, including The In-Betweener (given a new, younger and hipper form), who is pursued by a numberless hoard of voracious extra-dimensional monsters; a World War II Era experiment spearheaded by The Red Skull to see see if ordinary people can be turned into superheroes against heir will; and a former SHIELD agent whose mind is in the body of another, older man and...Well, it's complicated, okay?

Each issue has at least one villainous guest-star–Magneto, Lady Bullseye, Doctor Octopus and some of the Sinister Six, little kid Loki and Doctor Doom's son Kristoff–who are generally the targets of the Young Masters in one way or another.

While the plot may be somewhat dizzying–and I can't recall the last time I've read a superhero comic where I literally had no idea what might happen on the next page, let along the next issue–what the series was actually about is a lot more clear. Essentially, it's a story of the clash of generations, as the young heroes and young villains each have different world views about their predecessors, and how to proceed in a world that needs changed as much as it does protected. Beyond a simple generation gap conflict, Vengeance is more about the shock of the new, which stresses that such shock is itself something of an endless cycle. Remember, part of the action takes place during World War II, while in the present the Young Masters of the 21st century want to replace the old order of Baby Boomer villains.


But enough about Casey; how about that Dragotta? His work on the series is pretty incredible. Not only does he have a wide variety of characters to draw–one often hears how much more challenging it is to draw a team book than to draw a solo book, but here Dragotta's not just drawing a team book, but a teams book–and particular iterations of them to stick with (Doctor Octopus, for example, is the one whose body is almost completely useless, from just before the time he "died"), he also gets to/has to design a whole mess of new characters.

I've already mentioned Ultimate Nullifier, although I suppose I should also mention the fact that he looks an awful lot like a Paul Pope character.

Dragotta's Miss America is as different from later designs of her as her personality here is seems to later uses of the character. A statuesque Amazon threatening to fall out of her overly-fashionable star-spangled gear, I occasionally found myself wondering why she wore such a skimpy outfit into her many battles (America does about 90% of the Teen Brigades battling) until I realized that the way Dragotta draws her top draped over her breasts forms Captain America's original shield.
That's kind of ingenious, actually.

My favorite of the new characters, at least from a strictly design point-of-view, is The Black Knight, who wears medieval armor integrated with modern clothes (like a tank top with the Knight's sigil on it). I liked that the armor was such a specific, distinct style of armor though. Like, Dragotta didn't just draw her with the sort of armor that might immediately appear in your imagination when you think of a knight, but it looks like he went through books on armor to find the coolest, or the least-frequently-drawn-in-comics style.

As I mentioned earlier, Son of Satan wears his Last Defenders superhero costume in this series, and while I'm not crazy about the costume (the helmet seems a little too football, and what's with the second set of down-pointing horns? Are they supposed to suggest an inverted pentagram? Because they don't quite do so), Dragotta's plain clothes Daimon Hellstrom is also pretty awesome...
...and when he is suited-up for superheroics, he's at least always driving his chariot pulled by flaming demon horses. If only he had his pitchfork...! (I confess I'm a huge fan of the character's original iteration and comics appearance, but find the character getting more and more watered-down with every appearance after those initial ones).


So, to reiterate: Great story, great art, great new characters and an all-around a great concept.

So why did Casey and Dragotta's story of the Teen Brigade last exactly six issues, and generate no sequels miniseries or an ongoing? Why haven't we seen more of any of these characters, aside from Miss America, whose presence in books like Young Avengers would seem to indicate a break with the Brigade?

I don't know, but I can offer some guesses.

The most immediate problem is that the book was called Vengeance and not, like, anything else. An abstract word more-or-less chosen at random, Vengeance is essentially a meaningless title: Marvel might as well have called the series Justice, Sadness, Empathy, Weather, Jurisprudence, Villains, Chairs, Horses or Comic Book Miniseries.

For the life of me, I can't imagine why it wasn't called The Teen Brigade, particularly since that seems like something a major comic book publisher would want to use as the title of a comic every decade or so, if only to keep the trademark or whatever. Did they think that sounded too cheesy? What about just Brigade, or were they afraid someone might confuse the book with Rob Liefeld's stupid-looking book 1992 book with the same name?
Sorry; did I just hurt your eyes?
Something with the word "Avengers" somewhere in the title might have also made some sense, particularly form a marketing point-of-view: There was no Young Avengers comic being published at the time, or if they didn't want to use that title for a new team, they could have gone with New Young Avengers or All-New Young Avengers.

But really, Teen Brigade would have been fine and, honestly, Vengeance is about as generic and meaningless a title as one could choose, meaning they could hardly have done worse if they tried.

The covers, ironically, also seem like they might have presented a problem. These are the covers:

As you can see, they are just a half-dozen portrait-style images of bit-players in the overall story. Magneto and The Red Skull do appear, the latter on quite a few pages. Bullseye's corpse appears in issue two, and Lady Bullseye shows up to chase the Young Masters away from the body (a still alive Bullseye, like the one on the cover, appears in exactly one panel, illustrating a reference to the character when he was still alive. Doctor Octopus appears, but not that version of the character. Likewise Loki appears, but not in the form shown on the cover. And as for Doom, well, the image seems to be that of Victor Von Doom, but the guy in the Doom armor in this comic book series is his son.

Oh, and here's the variant, which shows the six characters apparently teaming up, which has even less to do with the series:
Why publish a miniseries featuring three superhero teams and not put any of those teams or any of those characters on the covers?

Well, there's a three-paragraph afterword of sorts by editor Tom Brennan explaining the genesis of the series which, apparently, all came down to those covers.

"Late last year, Marvel Editorial had a wonderful problem," Brennan's piece beings. "We had come into possession of the six pieces you see above spotlighting our most famous villains and wanted to use them as covers for a project, but couldn't figure out what that project could be."

Brennan showed the pieces to Casey and asked if he had any ideas, and this is the story that resulted. In retrospect, it seems more like those six villains were worked–or perhaps shoehorned–into Casey's story, rather than serving as the starting point from which all this business with the Teen Brigade and Young Masters and Defenders and The In-Betweener was extrapolated from, but, at least according to Brennan, these images, as little as they have to do with the story they covered, were the reason Marvel published it at all.

Finally, aside from a lame, meaningless title and generic covers that didn't even hint at the contents of the comics, I wonder if Vengeance wasn't also simply a victim of poor timing.

Looking back, the first issue of the series was solicited for July of 2011, the same month that Marvel's crossover event series Fear Itself published its fourth issue (and there were 11 different miniseries tie-ins being published that month, plus most of the Marvel Universe line of books were also tying into Fear Itself that month), while the Spider-Man franchise was heading into the "Spider-Island" event and the X-titles were facing the upheaval of "Schism." When Marvel solicited the sixth and final issue of the series for its December 2011 release in late September, they were already referring to the book as "a sleeper hit," so sales of the first issue or two must have been pretty poor.

Incidentally, not only was it competing against a super-crowded field of Marvel books (including a relaunch of The Defenders, which would have replaced the team in this series), September 2011 was the launch of DC's New 52 initiative. There couldn't have been that much oxygen left for such a strange series as this to breathe, particularly when it was being essentially un-marketed.

But whatever the reason we're not reading the 50th issue of Joe Casey and Nick Dragotta's Teen Brigade this month*, Vengeance is a great series, and you should hunt it down if you haven't yet read it.

*Aw, who am I kidding? There's no way a Marvel series could reach a 50th issues these days. Even if the miniseries lead directly into an ongoing, chances are Marvel would have already relaunched it with a new #1 at least once before Secret Wars, during which they would have canceled it like they did all of their titles and then relaunched it again. So, if Marvel was publishing a theoretical Teen Brigade book, we'd probably be on, like, issue #3 of its third or fourth volume by now.


Chris Bowden said...

You should also check out Dark Reign: Zodiac if you already havent, a prequel of sorts

SallyP said...

Actually...this does look good! And I don't remember it at all!

The Ultimate Nullifier did show up in Young Avengers when Gillen was writing it, as a bit of a jerk. It was great.

Nacho said...

Read your piece yesterday, went to the comic store just to say hello to the owner, found by accident a copy of this comic (in spanish), bought it. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Amazon/comixology has an e-edition for 10 bucks. Definitely going to check that out.