The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 34: Still. More. Avengers. Sigh…

I’m about as sick of talking about the Avengers as Charlie Sheen is of being sane. But an unanticipated result of Brian Bendis’ commercial success on Avengers was the spin-off book. Or I should say spin-off books. Lots and lots of books. I should say that although this period had a lot of spin-offs, for the most part they felt like natural, organic parts to the larger story that Marvel was telling at the time. I happen to like this period (Civil War/Secret Invasion/Dark Reign) of Marvel’s history, as I felt that it flowed together quite well, and that everything served a larger purpose.

Breasts. Evil, evil breasts.

Mighty Avengers – The Ultron Initiative, Venom Bomb, Secret Invasion Book 1 and 2

This was also written by Bendis, and was a direct result of the events that took place in Marvel’s Civil War cross over. At this point in the storyline, this team was the “official” Avengers team, and basically filled the more “traditional” Avengers role: They only took care of planetary threats, were sanctioned by the government, etc. This book was a little bigger, a little more epic than the New Avengers book. It also attempted to break some new stars, specifically Ms. Marvel and Ares. I think it succeeded with the latter, but maybe not as much with the former. This book started with a bang. The Ultron arc is awesome, in the truest sense of the word. It’s a big-time, world is about to end, Avengers story, and with incredible art by Frank “I can create better breasts than God” Cho, and it stands up well as one of the better self-contained Avengers stories of the past few years. The Venom story is also good, but gets a little bogged down with some of the subplots of what’s happening with the other Avengers team. After that, the book becomes just another Brian Bendis Avengers book, and it loses a lot of the scope and wide-screen adventure that the first two arcs had. All in all it’s a good superhero book, and the first arc in particular is a barn burner.

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Eeeevil. So very evil.

Dark Avengers – Assemble, Molecule Man, Siege

If Mighty Avengers was a response to Civil War, then Dark Avengers was a response to the Secret Invasion storyline. Quickly then: The supervillain formerly known as the Green Goblin has somehow become in charge of America’s security. As such, he leads a new team that he calls “Avengers”. In actuality, the new team is composed of criminals, posing as popular heroes (Moonstone as Ms. Marvel, Bullseye as Hawkeye, Venom as Spider-Man), as well as Ares and the Sentry, and of course Norman himself. I would have thought that the fans would have been up in arms over this, but for the most part people embraced this, and so did I. I don’t think this would have worked so well without the years of set up that Bendis had prepared us with beforehand, but by the time this storyline came out it felt as a very organic part to the epic that Bendis was crafting. Even though the team is composed of nothing but villains, Bendis still makes you care about them, if by care you mean ” I REALLY can’t wait until someone comes along and kicks their ass”. By this point Mike Deodato had evolved into one of the better superhero artists on the market, and his work here is exemplary.

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Because training child soldiers is always a good idea.

Avengers: The Initiative – Basic Training, Killed In Action, Secret Invasion, Disassembled

Yep, another spinoff, this one coming out of Civil War. So now every hero has to “register” with the government, and The Initiative the government’s way of training all these new heroes. This was writer Dan Slott’s first big book, and he did a nice job with it. He put familiar faces like Tigra, Hank Pym, and Justice in as the trainers, and then threw a combination of new and old (but still not well-known) characters in as the students. When I started rereading this, I think I thought I would be getting rid of these. But I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoy this book, mostly for its engaging character development. Slott is pulling out all the stops in trying to get us to love these new characters, and for the most part it works. Unfortunately, the book is not without its problems. Like his previous work on She-Hulk, the book did start to get bogged down with sub-plots. Because so much was happening in the Marvel Universe at the time, it feels as if this book was being pulled in too many directions at times. That being said, it’s still an enjoyable read, if not entirely essential.

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Young Avengers – Sidekicks, Family Matters

This book started not long after the original New Avengers title started, and shares the bleak “Our heroes are gone, what will we do” vibe that Bendis’ book did for a time. The premise is that a group of young heroes with costumes and code names reminiscent to Avengers of the past is patrolling the city, and Jessica Jones (formerly of Alias fame) is trying to get to the bottom of it. And so are Captain America and Iron Man.

This is a very good teen superhero book. It’s more superhero than teen, but it’s still quite good, and easily the equal (if not better) than DC’s recent Teen Titans books. The question is this: Why would trained, experienced combat fighters like Iron Man and Captain America let untrained children dress up and fight crime. The answer: They wouldn’t. Which of course leads to conflict, which is something that teen superhero books often lack. What is forgotten is that no matter how powerful these people are, they’re still kids, and should act like them. I don’t mean have scenes with them making out with each other, or playing X-Box all the time. YA avoids these clichés (thankfully), but it does show them acting the way teens do: erratically, but trying to do the right thing. Allen Heinberg and Jim Cheung did a beautiful job with this series, and it’s nice to see that they’re currently in the middle of another one with the same characters.

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Next up: NOT AVENGERS! YAY!

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The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 33: More Avengers

Avengers West Coat – Vision Quest

I’m really not sure how it’s possible that I only have one West Coast Avengers trade, as I loved this book in the late ’80s when it originally came out.This trade focuses on John Byrne’s run on the book. There are lots of interesting stuff here: The first appearance of the Great Lakes Avengers, the foreshadowing of Scarlet Witch’s eventual meltdown, and a complete retcon of the origin of the Vision. Plus John Byrne’s pencils were great on this run. I’m definitely looking for more trades from this era ASAP.

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Avengers – Red Zone

It didn’t take Marvel long to try to scoop DC’s Geoff Johns up for one of their books, but for some reason the pairing never seemed to click. His run got a LOT of online heat from fans, and proved to be controversial. Nothing like what was to come when Brian Michael Bendis took over the book, but at this point, Marvel still hadn’t quite cottoned to the fact that if they wanted the Avengers to become a top-tier book, they were going to need to do some serious changing. So while Johns run is edgier than previous writer’s attempts to reboot the Avengers, it still comes across as slightly forced. That being said, I did enjoy this far more than I thought I would. The “big reveal” of the arc’s villain still comes across as quite hackneyed, and not well-thought out at all, but it’s still quite a good read. Some good character moments between Black Panther and Iron Man as well. There are a few other trades from Johns’ run that I may track down now.

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New Avengers – Breakout, The Sentry, Secrets & Lies, The Collective, Civil War, Revolution, The Trust, Secret Invasion Books 1 & 2, Power, Search For The Sorcerer supreme, Powerloss, Siege, New Avengers

So it’s 2004, and Marvel finally realizes that the Avengers are done. Not the concept, but the team as it currently stood. The book had been running on fumes for quite a while, and even bringing in superstar writer Geoff Johns to revive the teams fortunes hadn’t grown any traction with fans. The book was is in the doldrums. Enter Brian Michael Bendis. By this point, Bendis had garnered some serious goodwill among Marvel fans for his runs on Daredevil, Alias, and Ultimate Spider-Man. But he had never really tackled anything with quite as big a potential scope as the Avengers. Could he pull it off? Could he make the Avengers relevant again?

From a commercial standpoint, the answer was unequivocably yes. Not only did he make the Avengers relevant again, Marvel essentially rebuilt the entire framework of the Marvel Universe around the work Bendis did on New Avengers. It became Marvel’s flagship book, usurping Spider-Man and X-Men as the top draws at the company. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the title’s success had a large part to do with Marvel realizing that an Avengers movie could work.

From a quality standpoint, the answer is a little more complicated. It’s Brian Bendis. Which means the book went from becoming a light-hearted adventure-of-the-week book to a dark, conspiracy-laden, dialogue-heavy, noir thriller. Whether you liked it had a lot to do with how much you liked Brian Bendis’ writing. I for one loved it, and still do. In fact, my appreciation of what he’s done for the book has only increased upon revisiting the work.

The first thing Bendis realized is that if he was to make this work, if he was to completely revitalize the very concept of the Avengers, he was going to have to make some tough choices. And so he threw out the baby with the bath water. In fact, he didn’t just throw out the baby, he drowned it at the bottom of the tub. He damaged Avengers Mansion, killed fan-favourite character Hawkeye (and didn’t just kill him, but gave him one of the most ignoble deaths a well-known character has ever gotten, and dismantled the team.

Enter New Avengers. The premise here was to organically grow a “street-level” team of some of Marvel’s top characters, as well as some of Bendis’ favourites. And so perennial C listers Luke Cage and Spider-Woman joined team stalwarts Iron Man and Captain America. In addition, he also brought triple A listers Wolverine and Spider-Man into the fold to garner the favour of casual fans. He also threw the Sentry into the mix, just to provide some tension. This doesn’t sound so crazy now, but at the time all of these changes were considered blasphemy, and the changes Bendis brought to the Avengers were probably the most radical since the mid-’60’s. He also provided an opportunity for more casual fans to experience the adventures of their favourites  without having to actually follow what was happening in their own books. Even though I love the team, I’m the first one to admit that not only was this not your daddy’s Avengers, it really wasn’t the Avengers at all. The team didn’t have any type of government mandate, almost never went on patrol, and really just stumbled from adventure to adventure. And for me, that was ok. And still is.

Those looking for holes to poke won’t have to look far however. While there is some long-term plotting here (the buildup to Secret Invasion, the slow recreation of Luke Cage becoming one of Marvel’s top-tier heroes), and some ideas took almost 4 years to pay off, it does seem as if Bendis viewed what was happening in the rest of the Marvel Universe as somewhat of an inconvenience. The Civil War storyline in particular seemed to take Bendis by surprise, though he deftly brought it into his master plan relatively painlessly. I’ll also never fully believe Bendis’ claims that he had the entire arc of Spider-Woman’s character planned out in advance, as the events of Secret Invasion seemed to fly in the face of reason. And while I happen to enjoy Bendis’ Mametian maelstroms of dialogue, they’re not for everyone, and one of the major criticisms of the book was (and still is) that it’s heavy on exposition, low on action. I think that was a legitimate comment at one point, but Bendis seems to have captured a solid middle ground now, blending character development with action much better than he did at the start of his run. Another critique that is often made of the book is the art. Although David Finch garnered few complaints when he started the book, he handed the reigns over to darker, more stylized artists like Lenil Yu and Alex Maleev, whose work seems to have antagonized long-time fans. Again, this happens to be a matter of taste. I happen to think Alex Maleev is one of comics unheralded geniuses, but those looking for a more traditional, detailed look weren’t happy.

For the most part, Bendis’ New Avengers has been a wholly entertaining thrill ride of a superhero comic book. Though not for everybody, I think it’s really set the bar a little higher for what is possible  (and also necessary in order to capture a modern audience) with team superhero books in the 21st century.

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Next up: Wow. More Avengers. Whee.