Monday, July 18, 2016

Review: Avengers: Standoff

This massive, 400-page collection is a bunch of bound comic books, and thus meets at least one of the most generic definitions of the term "graphic novel," and, it certainly has the length and scope of an actual novel. It doesn't read much of anything like a novel though, and really, how could it, given its contents? It collects a trio of Standoff one-shots and then the various chapters that ran through all of Marvel's Avengers and SHIELD-related titled, some completely integral to the plot, some obviously awarded sub-plots so that they could participate in the cross-over (and hopefully earn a sales boost) and at least two that are just sort of there.

The results are therefore quite shaggy, with the protagonist of one chapter disappearing for a long period of time, or becoming the antagonist later. An exciting plot point will be raised, and then the reader might have to wait a few dozen or a hundred pages to return to it. Some scenes repeat verbatim in different chapters, scores of pages between them, because they are necessary to more than one of the ongoing comics they appear in, and Marvel had no guarantee that a reader would read both of those single issues. Some plot points are raised, but not resolved, because they are part of the individual titles' ongoing storylines, not the "Standoff" story arc those titles are temporarily tying in to.

That is perhaps the necessary nature of a big storyline like this, as it was published serially in 15 individual publications, not all of which any given Marvel reader would read all of, but all of which a reader of this particular collection is forced to.

Honestly, I'm not sure which method is the best; I like this method, obviously, as it allows a reader to read the whole she-bang for cheaper (the trade is $50) or free (from your local library, the best way to read corporate comic), and not worry about making sure they are self-curating the best possible reading experience, since it's not like Marvel is going to help the reader make that easy by, like, telling everyone that you don't really need to read th Howling Commandos of SHIELD or Illuminati issues if you weren't already following those titles, as they're connected but trivial.

Then there's the matter of tone–many of these writers write funny superhero comics, but they have different senses of humor and tell very different kind of jokes–and ever-shifting art-styles. If all of these writers weren't somewhere between good and great, and if the artists weren't of similar caliber, I would be tempted to call this collection a mess, but it's not. It's just a little too big, a little shaggy and a little weird as a reading experience, but it tells a pretty solid, pretty dramatic, pretty funny superhero crossover story with a compelling premise, and a minimum of narrative dead-ends (That is, things that you have to read some other book to see how they turn out) and pointless tie-ins (If Marvel really wanted to go big, they could have had an issue of all of the characters who appear herein with solo titles of their own have "Standoff" issues).

So there are 15 individual issues/chapters within this book. There are three Avengers Standoff one-shots that could probably have been published as a 3-issue miniseries, were it not for the publisher's fetishization of the digits 0-12. And so these are sub-titled Welcome To Pleasant Hill, Assault on Pleasant Hill Alpha and Assault on Pleasant Hill Omega. There are two issues apiece of Agents of SHIELD, All-New, All-Different Avengers, Captain America: Sam Wilson, New Avengers and Uncanny Avengers and the previously mentioned single issues of  Howling Commandos and Illuminati.

There are seven writers involved–Frank J. Barbiere, Gary Duggan, Al Ewing, Marc Guggenheim, Nick Spencer, Mark Waid and Joshua Williamson–although Spencer writes the lion's share (five issues, including the three entitled Avengers Standoff), with everyone else scripting one-to-two issues. There are ten different pencils or penciler/inkers, and more inkers than I have fingers to count.

Here is the perhaps overly-detailed synopsis section of this "review." SHIELD Director Maria Hill's plan to create and weaponize a reality-altering Cosmic Cube was leaked by mysterious computer hacker The Whisperer previously, and she had very publicly said SHIELD was abandoning the project. They did not, but rather than making it into a weapon-weapon, they decided to use it for an experiment in fool-proof super-criminal incarceration.

She essentially founded the small, Norman Rockwell painting of a town named Pleasant Hill, and the Cosmic Cube transformed the incarcerated villains so that their appearances completely changed, they had no memories of their previous lives and they now hadve happy, even idyllic lives in a happy, even idyllic community in Connecticut.

Not everyone agrees this plan is quite ethical, especially the villains getting the cube treatment, and one imagines that should they ever wake up, they would be understandably pretty upset with Hill and SHIELD...and in fairly close proximity to a Cosmic Cube. But what are the chances of that happening? Well, this being a superhero comic book, 100%.

Bucky "The Winter Soldier" Barnes returns from space to put a stop to this, tipping off Old Man Steve about it in the process. Hill takes Steve there to see it for himself and try to convince him she's doing the right thing. The Whisperer reveals his secret identity to Sam Wilson (Surprise! It's that guy!) and tells him of Pleasant Hill, so that's three guys who all wear stars and were at one time or another named Captain America on-site.

The villains regain their identities, and all hell breaks loose, as SHIELD has packed the place with villains, including Baron Zemo, our Big Bad for this story (although there's an even worse guy there too).

To give all the Avengers who are not and have never been Captain America something to do, well, The Unity Squad (from Uncanny Avengers) and The Avengers (from All-New, All-Different Avengers) are summoned there under mysterious circumstances, and end up getting cubed themselves. The SHIELD agents (from Agents of SHIELD) are charged with arresting the now outted Whisperer, who calls to Roberto Da Costa's new A.I.M. (which is Avengers Idea Mechanics, from the pages of New Avengers) to rescue him, putting them in conflict with SHIELD.

And the Howling Commandos show up to save one of their members who stuck there and then basically bug out, and The Hood and Titania show up to save Absorbing Man and also bug out, in the Howling Commandos and Illuminati chapters.

I thought the premise was a strong one, even if it felt familiar. I can't place where exactly it originated, but it reminded me of a handful of second- and third-hand, everything-you-know-is-wrong kind of narratives. It is certainly an interesting new twist as presented in the Marvel Universe here by Spencer, however, and is morally murky enough that it's conceivable to see both how it could be considered a good thing by some people and a bad thing by other people (this seems like a better thing for heroes to fight over than the catalyst of either of Marvel's two miniseries entitled Civil War, for example, and while there is some hero vs. hero fighting here, it is mostly of the misunderstanding variety).

This is basically Spencer's story, a three Captain America team-up involving SHIELD and The Avengers, and he does a couple of pretty impressive things, including a surprisingly effective fake-out in his introduction of Pleasant Hill to readers, his presentation of Hill's acknowledgment of just how sketchy all this is and how she plans to live with herself for doing it and the way he manages to keep the story funny while also life-and-death serious.

For example, near the end of the book, Zemo calls upon Kraven The Hunter to seek out the cube, which has become sentient and taken the form of a little girl, and it was at first strange to see Kraven here given the last two places I saw him (The first Unbeatable Squirrel Girl trade, and then the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl/Howard The Duck crossover "Animal House," at the end of which he has reinvented himself as "A Hunter of Hunters" and is last seen pouncing on a fisherman).

Rest assured, while he is presented as a ruthlessly efficient tracker here, he's also perfectly zany in his exact method of capturing this particular prey.

Taken altogether, I think this was a fun read that achieved at least two noteworthy accomplishments. First, it demonstrated that these sorts of big supehero crossover stories, whether line-wide or more franchise specific like this one, can be fun and positive, and need not revolve around mass death and destruction and the ritual sacrifice of characters to make it seem important–the storyline dramatically changes the status quo for Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, it sets up multiple new books that will spin directly out of this storyline and it introduces a new legacy character back into the Marvel Universe, essentially adding to rather than subtracting from the number of heroes.

Secondly, it will serve as a decent sampler story–and, in time, a time capsule–of just where Marvel's Captain America, Avengers and SHIELD-related comics were circa early 2016 or so.

A couple more-or-less random thoughts:

•Glad to see the character who was The Whisperer back in action. That person is a really great character, although that person is kind of difficult to use on a long-term basis, and it seems like it's been a very, very long time since Marvel has known precisely what to do with that character.

•Quicksilver's new costume is terrible, and I don't understand that speed effects artist Ryan Stegman gives him.

•The Unity Squad seems so random now. I haven't read Uncanny Avengers since the first volume, when Rick Remender was writing it, and it has since been relaunched under writer Duggan. The original concept was a team that was half mutant and half non-mutant, a team consisting of both Avengers and X-Men meant to demonstrate the two factions that were at war in Avengers Vs. X-Men were friends now.

They have since added an Inhuman character too in Synapse, and given how Inhumans are basically being presented as just mutants-with-a-different name, when the Unity Squad first appears, they look like just another X-Men team: Rogue, Cable, Quicksilver, Deadpool and Synapse. Later on they meet up with Doctor Voodoo and...The Human Torch Johnny Storm...? He's not mutant or Inhuman, and not an X-Men or an Avenger. So the line-ups only former Avenger is Doctor Voodoo, who is a relatively new character (Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't the superhero formerly known as Brother Voodoo join an Avengers team near the end of Brian Michael Bendis' run on the franchise?) and Quicksilver, who was a mutant.

I can't speak to the quality of the book–although nothing says "X-Men Comic" and "Something Caleb Won't Like At All" to me quite as loudly as the presence of Cable–but it seems to have drifted awfully far from its original premise.

•How bright is Cable's fucking eye, by the way? Stegman draws it like there's a fire burning in the socket, and it's leaping out of it. It doesn't just glow or shine, but it gives off light like a powerful flashlight. How hard must it be to talk to that fucking guy, face to face?

•I like that Orrgo isn't turned into a person, like so many of the others who get imprisoned in Pleasant Hill, but a Pomeranian. Similarly, a shark-themed villain who is never named and never gets any dialogue was turned into an actual shark in the town aquarium.

•Because of their attack on a SHIELD battlecarrier in their rescue of The Whisperer, the U.S. government retaliates against AIM by siccing American Kaiju on them. I've mentioned how awesome this character sounds when the solicits for these issues first became public.

I like kaiju in general, but the pairing of that noun with that particular modifier? Brilliant. High five, writer Al Ewing! We see his origin, in which General Robert L. Maverick (described in a narration box thusly: "Thunderbolt Ross thinks he's kind of heavy-handed") bullies a scientist into shooting Corporate Ziller (GET IT?!) full of a new attempt at the super-soldier serum that contains gamma radiation and even "The Connors formula, for Pete's sake! Lizard serum!"

The result? A Godzilla with a big-ass flag tattoo on his forehead (like Nuke) and a star-spangled underbelly. His roar? "YUUUU! ESSSSS! AAYYY!" (The first word is red, the second white and the third blue).

I don't like his design quite as much as his concept (I think the coloring needs work, personally), but seriously, American Kaiju. I want that thing to have its own book, STAT.

•I didn't think that this was a very good way to return Steve Rogers to his original, more-or-less immortal look. He had previously been stripped of his super-soldier serum, which turned him into a very old man, and so he had returned to being Commander Rogers and working with SHIELD, whereas now he's got the serum back in him and is young and hunky and super-powered again.

It was accomplished via Cosmic Cube, of course, and it's a little awkward, as the transformation is hailed by everyone, Rogers included, as being a good thing, when this entire story is basically all about how using the cube is playing God and is a bad thing.

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