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Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers – New Avengers Vol. 1-2 (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

This is the first in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of continuity. Get an overview of what I’m trying to take a look at here.

Alright. I figure I sound a bit hypocritical complaining about the impact of big events on Marvel’s storytelling continuity without reading said big events. Well, actually, I don’t think I’m a hypocrite – I think it’s perfectly reasonably that a reader should be able to pick up Ed Brubaker’s Captain America without having to worry about Mark Millar’s massive Civil War crossover which they either don’t know enough to care about or know enough not to care about. However, I feel like maybe – just maybe – I should try to ride this “cross-continuity” thing out just once and see if the story somehow justifies the damage it causes to the cohesion of individual runs.  Yes, I’m going to jump head-first into the event-populated minefield of continuity which is recent Marvel history, and I will be using New Avengers as a checklist to that. I’m going down the rabbit hole, following the arc from Civil War through to Siege.

Sentry is responsible for the Carnage in this run...

I figure I read DC’s Blackest Night, so this is the least I owe to Marvel, right? Although, in fairness, that was the climax of Geoff Johns’ superb Green Lantern work which I had been reading anyway. Still, try anything once – if I enjoy it, I’ll stick with it. If not… well, I guess it’s back to the fringe of the Marvel Universe for me!

My plan is to follow Bendis’ “Avengers” books (New/Mighty/Dark Avengers) from the first arc in New Avengers (Breakout) through to the finale of Marvel’s Dark Reign event (Siege), while reading the events themselves (Civil War/Secret Invasion/Siege). I won’t pretend to read all the tie-ins, just the ones written by Bendis and any I just happen to have in my collection (snippets from Captain America and The Immortal Iron Fist come to mind). It should also be borne in mind that I have a pre-existing bias against this type of storytelling, but one I will attempt to keep in check. To quote the great J. Michael Straczynski, who departed Thor because of the jumble of Marvel continuity (perhaps burnt by his experience during his run on Spider-Man):

The one concern at the back of my head was that of being pulled into a Big Event that could affect the forward momentum of the book and alter its direction. I’ve said elsewhere that in many cases — and this isn’t just Marvel, the trend is pandemic — such an event can sometimes result in the individual books serving the event, rather than the other way around, and you have to spend months and issues afterward stitching everything back together. I’m the kind of writer who likes to write in a straight line and know for certain the terrain he’s standing upon.

Why am I picking Bendis’ Avengers as a jumping off point? Because since he was handed the keys to the franchise after his success on Daredevil and Ultimate Spider-Man, he has used the property as a lynchpin to the Marvel Universe. If you wanted to know what was going on, this was the book to follow. As such, it seems the logical choice. And since this is (at least technically) a review of the start of the run rather than a mission statement (although Bendis does have Captain America offer this band of crusaders their own objective, “helping people the need help” – in many ways his conversation with Iron Man in the third issue sounds like a pitch for a rebranding of the name), I should probably actually discuss New Avengers a bit.

Always willing to lend a Hand...

I see what Bendis is trying to do. The “New” in New Avengers is not an affectation, it’s a statement. This is an attempt to rebuild the franchise from scratch, from the ground up. It’s childish to suggest that the team here was selected merely because Bendis dreamed the team up when he was eight years old. Although I don’t doubt that his personal preferences played a key role, there’s something somewhat great afoot here.

It has been shrewdly observed that Marvel has attempted to have the Avengers supplant the X-Men as the biggest superhero team under their publishing banner (whether through a conscious attempt to marginalise them within the greater universe, exiling them from continuity and mega-crossover events, or simply through a coincidental slump in quality):

In my previous essay, I touched upon the fact that Bendis’ take on the Avengers has been very similar Chris Claremont’s enduring X-Men formula. Both storytelling engines use long stories with extensive subplots and no designated end. Both have an ensemble cast that mix characters across various age, experience, and personality archetypes ( in addition to an even larger supporting cast ). And both the New Avengers and the Classic Claremont X-Men have the heroes as underdogs and outlaws struggling against a nebulous enemy that can’t ever be defeated. One might consider it redundant for Marvel to take their #2 team franchise and twist it into an imitation of their #1. I’d be surprised this complaint hasn’t been leveled more often at Marvel, but for the fact that the company has handicapped the X-Men franchise on a level that seems almost calculated to make the Avengers more significant.

Regardless of whether you dismiss this perspective as paranoid suspicion, Marvel must have looked at the massive success that everyone’s favourite merry band of mutants had received in the wake of Bryan Singer’s X-Men films and thought that The Avengers could be an even more profitable franchise. Look at the success of films centred around a bunch of characters who have little pop culture impact outside the team (save maybe Wolverine) and think of the possibilities of putting together a rake of already firmly established superheroes.

Shocking...

The ending of Iron Man established that Marvel had already decided that The Avengers had potential as a cross-media franchise (so much potential that they were publicising a film four summers – and four more  big-budget films (The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger) – away before a single one of the films had been hit), so I think it’s fair to say that this idea had been brewing quite a while. If one looks at it from this perspective – that of Marvel attempting to cement The Avengers as a brand in their own right and as the core of their fictional universe – a lot of the logic behind New Avengers falls into place. Brian Michael Bendis was, with the exception of Mark Millar, the most prominent writer at Marvel – so it seemed logical to move him over.

If you look at the lineup of the New Avengers, you can see that it plays to perhaps the key strength of the Marvel Universe – change and evolution. To make my point, let’s examine the line-up of the team’s counterpart over at DC, The Justice League. Despite disastrous (Justice League: Detroit) and divisive (Justice League International) experiments, the core of the team – and what people think of when they think of the team – are the “big three” of the DCU (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman), the two supporting characters who launched the Silver Age (Flash and Green Lantern) and the legacy Golden Age characters (Hawkman and Aquaman). That’s the heart of the team, with various alterations throughout the years, and it has stayed relatively static because… well, the importance of those characters has remained over the years. Batman and Superman will always be the biggest characters. Flash and Green Lantern will always be just underneath them. It doesn’t matter how successful a quirky property is – Geoff Johns’ Booster Gold, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man – these characters will always be the core of the DC universe, whether due to inherent interest in them, good writing or simply a conceited effort by the editors. The DC universe, perhaps due to its legacy, is relatively static.

And Thor isn't even on the team...

Marvel, on the other hand, has seen the popularity of its characters rise and fall over the years. Spider-Man and Captain America will always be popular, but Daredevil has found himself in the spotlight in the eighties, before drifting out to return again in the naughties. Wolverine has seen his soar in the past twenty-five years. The Punisher was on a similar trend, but it appears that his own popularity has dropped significantly in recent years. Meanwhile, the X-Men themselves have fluttered between popular characters at the heart of the universe and effectively exiles from continuity more often than Hank Pym has changed his superhero code name. The Marvel Universe is still static, but its focus is dynamic – it changes and is adaptable. Daredevil, for example, is at the heart of the Marvel Universe this year with his massive crossover Shadowland, despite spending years out of publication and emerging only in the last decade from the periphery of the fictional universe.

In order for The Avengers to represent the Marvel Universe in the same way as the Justice League does over at DC, and in order to stand at the centre of the shared Marvel Universe, its composition needs to reflect the core of that fictional universe (indeed, Iron Man justifies his selection of Avengers by describing them as “a little more realistic in the ways of the world”, suggesting that the group they are replacing as somewhat out of touch). If you look at the line-up, most of the members have already had (or will have) their own films released, arguably an indicator of pop culture interest. Spider-Man has a trilogy. Wolverine was in a trilogy and got his own film. Iron Man has had two movies. Captain America will be arriving next year. Considering Ronin was originally intended to be Daredevil (and the group’s invitation to him to join), it should be pointed out that the character already had not only a movie, but a franchise.

Spider-Man endures his own "dark rain"...

Of course, this doesn’t mean the idea is conceptually sound. If you don’t like it, you don’t like. But there is a logic at work behind the redesign of the franchise, and a purpose in mind. I have my own misgivings about the manner in which Bendis aligned his series as the “spine” of the Marvel Universe (particularly gvien the trend towards gigantic events, over and over… and over again), but I can see what he was doing and what Marvel was doing. Being honest, the franchise wasn’t as sturdy before this as most fans would make out. It was relatively insular and soap opera-esque – which is grand, if that’s what you want, and arguably suits a secondary or tertiary title. However, the fact that the title was being promoted to a flagship meant that these elements simply had to be exercised. And, it worked, at least in terms of establishing the property as important and successful by the standards of the medium:

What resulted was a change to the Avengers franchise that even the most skeptical fans will admit was a sales success. While the Avengers title had been barely squeaking into the Top 25 comics each month, New Avengers shot to a consistent spot on the Top 10.

These changes reflect the ones that Marvel needed from the line. However, Bendis himself was also attempting new things with the book at a conceptual level. The inclusion of Luke Cage and Spider-Woman arguably reflected personal preference, but were also necessitated by the meta-epic he was carving over the Marvel Universe (specifically Secret Invasion, which was as conceptually fascinating as it was ultimately disappointing) that couldn’t be filled by the “big name” characters (for example, there would have been riots in the street had Captain America been a Skrull secret agent).

A Void at all costs...

Sentry is a curious experiment by Bendis, and perhaps one that doesn’t work out – as a Superman analogue, it fits to have him on a Justice League analogue team, and it’s fascinating to have him there as a comic book character on the super team, just as a bit of commentary on what it is Bendis is doing. In fact, I’d argue that Sentry is perhaps the most important character of this meta-epic that Bendis is telling. It’s no coincidence that his first major act in the series is to kill of Carnage, who is perhaps an embodiment of the excess and mindless violence that defined the 1990s, nor that Bendis using his arc, Sentry, to play with meta-fiction – with the character discovering he’s a comic book character and meeting his writer, Paul Jenkins (who, it seems – as a comic book writer – was tasked with keeping the myth alive and reinventing it). Sentry is a glorified Silver Age cliche – he’s the all purpose hero with a power for everything. But he’s plagued with the problems the genre faces today – introspection and self-doubt. In many ways, it’s easy to wish he could just get on with being a superhero, much as one might wish that the entire core of the Avengers could just get on with being superheroes before all this introspection intervenes. Plus, it helps that the character was relatively new (despite initially pretending to be really, really old) and therefore Bendis had him to pretty much do whatever he wanted.

Part of the strategy of moving the Avengers property to the centre of the Marvel Universe was making it the “backbone” of on-going Marvel continuity. The problem with a backbone, if you think about it, is that it doesn’t really do anything. It protects nerves and connects everything, supporting vital functions – but it doesn’t really serve a function of itself: the legs and shoulders come out of it, it supports the head and the ribcage, but it isn’t a prominent bone of itself (though it is critically important). Bendis used the books to tie everything together – for example, his Avenger books essentially became a selection of one-shots during Civil War and Secret Invasion), but the fact is that not too much actually happened. In many cases, they added to and improved the event du jour at Marvel, but never really moved it on (although they did heavily foreshadow and, to some extent, dealt with fallout).

It’s arguably a symptom of the event-driven nature of comics, but it’s still a weakness. And yet it’s equally a quirk, somethign that instills a rare flavour in the work. For all the damage it does to a writer’s capacity to tell their own story and weave their own narrative, it offers the unique opportunity to explore a central plot from several different perspectives. It’s a fascinating idea, but sadly one that has never really been explored properly and more often than not comes across a cheap attempt to grab cash. But I’ll discuss this theory of interlocking narratives as we reach what might be termed the Civil War era of Marvel’s modern age, when Bendis was trying to use the book (and its sister, Mighty Avengers) as a window through which to glimpse the unfolding chaos.

Sorry, Wolverine hasn't had time to change between the fifteen other crossovers this week...

Whereas a lot of comparisons can be made, for example, between Bendis’ relaunch of The Avengers and Grant Morrison’s tenure on the Justice League, it’s interesting to note the differences. Morrison was happy to take on board the event in on-going titles (Superman’s energy-based powers, for example, or the replacing of Wonder Woman with her mother), he never tied his stories directly into on-going DC continuity (though he would draw on the legacy of the fictional universe for his stories). His run was a self-contained epic. By contrast, Bendis structures his work to play into larger events within the universe, devoting space in his run to crossover arcs like Civil War, Secret Invasion, World War Hulk, Dark Reign and possibly a few others. I’ve outline before how I think this weakens a narrative and can interfere with an author’s on-going narrative. Here, however, Bendis is a major player in each of these events, so it’s clear that he intends for them the fit together. This doesn’t prevent feelings of arc fatigue, nor a general weariness and a sense that stories never actually conclude with any real element of closure.

On the other hand, there is something grand going on here. As I’ll explore in looking at the books (and, indeed, the events) in detail, the story doesn’t always work “at ground level” as it were. There are a million-and-one narrative problems with each big event and each big storyline, many of them fundamental. However, if you zoom out (and maybe squint a bit), a grand picture reveals itself. Bendis and Marvel are crafting a story of the medium in the twenty-first century – a meta-epic, a reflective comic book, pop culture once again devouring itself. It’s the superhero genre looking for its own identity, reflecting on a gradual darkening of popular culture.

Just when things look Stark...

We’re offered conflict for the sake of conflict, and ideological struggle that is ultimately pointless and serves only to indulge our thirst for superhero-on-superhero violence (Civil War), and are then presented with the cold, hard fact that the heroes of our generation have effectively been replaced by villains literally wearing their faces (Secret Invasion), and ultimately by a new crop of hard-boiled, on-the-edge anti-heroes (Dark Reign). And the worst part? All of this is our own damn fault. Much as the public in this epic endorse Norman Osborn for his “heroism”, so we bought Punisher comics and those trashy Wolverine issues. We brought this on ourselves. We deserve this.

Of course, astute readers may make the point that Grant Morrison gave us that analogy in a single miniseries with Final Crisis, where the embodiment of darkness tries to destroy the universe, and they’d be right. Morrison’s work is arguably more subtle and nuanced than that found here – told through quiet metaphor and obscure reference (with caveman Batman thrown in for extra measure). However, there’s something more direct about Marvel’s recounting of recent comic book history, something that some might unkindly label as “blunt” or “simplistic”, but instead seems more earnest. It’s all well and good for Superman and the multiverse to best the vampiric representation of darkness within comic book storytelling, but that doesn’t resolve the superhero genre’s issues of identity. These are the things which have to be frustratingly and often painfully worked out.

Well, at least they saved on tux hire...

From the very beginning the book establishes itself as consciously at war with itself. Not in the in-your-face sort of way that Mark Millar would demonstrate with Civil War, but more in a “trapped between past and future” sort of way. The series put the characters back in their costumes with glee – note Electro’s decision to don his costume in the opening arc (“costume or no costume?” in the first scene of the series), or the reversion of various heroes and villains to their old attire – but frequently find themselves in a world which has arguably outgrown them. Emma Frost herself refers to “the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants”, a rather “old school” description (modern continuity favours the more ambiguous “Brotherhood of Mutants”, because Magneto doesn’t see himself or his followers as evil). There are tonnes of little touches with suggest that New Avengers is mired in the decades of continuity that proceeded it – Bendis isn’t crafting anything from whole cloth, and won’t offend you by pretending he is.

Still, it’s an attempt to do something new with the franchise. This might not necessary gel with those expecting a more nostalgic Avengers run, but maybe that’s the point – Bendis has no time for nostalgia. During his much more celebrated run on Daredevil, Bendis either creates or borrows a definition of nostalgia for Milla to use:

Nostalgia is a state of inarticulate contempt for the present and fear for the future.

It feels strangely apt in referring to his run on New Avengers, which would have begun at about the same time. This is a book written in a genre that has just emerged from a troubling decade (the nineties were a tough decade for just about everyone except the X-Men) and has no idea what the future holds. In interviews, Mark Millar himself attributes the success of Marvel’s Ultimate line to the fact that mainstream Marvel continuity was such a jumbled mess at the time (and suggests that part of the reason that the Ultimate line has slowed down of late is because the mainstream continuity is now the place to be again).

This approach has drawn a lot of criticism to Bendis’ work, with people suggesting that he has moved the franchise too far from its roots or has commercialised it too much – arguments Bendis himself parodies when the new team announces its formation in Spin, with J. Jonah Jameson – the ultimate cynic – bemoaning “how far the bar for a hero has fallen.” Although Bendis has Jameson complain about the grim and gritty additions to the team – “a wanted murderer, an alleged ex-member of a global terrorist organisation, and a convicted heroin dealer” – which is perhaps Bendis’ way of pointing out that the Avengers has always been home to a diverse range of costumed characters, with former terrorists (Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver) and reformed criminals (Hawkeye) among the most iconic ‘classic’ members.

Huh, I guess I had probably start talking about the run of issues collected, shouldn’t I?

Bendis' Magneto is poles apart from Morrison's conception of the character...

This is a story about a gap in Marvel continuity. Which is probably a bit of a bummer for anyone reading expecting regular programming. The group of icons and misfits here is, Captain America suggests, “assembled by fate” – Iron Man himself concedes that “the Avengers left a hole. The hole is filled.” Indeed, it is suggested that “there needs to be an Avengers”. In a way, this is but a stopgap measure, an attempt by the Marvel universe to somehow compensate for the world of moral complexity coming this way – it couldn’t rebuild the Avengers, so it crafted a substitute as best it could.

From the initial arc, Breakout, Bendis makes his agenda clear. This is a comic book that is well aware of how hokey the genre devices it uses are, but uses them anyway. (“You don’t go to the Savage Land without crashing,” Spider-Man observes, just before the plane crashes; as he hangs captive he suggests someone “yammer on with the big, evil plan”.) This isn’t deconstruction or anything so serious – in fact, all the tropes are played entirely straight, just commented upon (“That is so me it’s not even funny,” Peter Parker comments when he discovers he has been recruited to the first ever unpaid Avengers squad). Indeed, one villain cuts off a colleague who suggests that having the Avengers captive presents an opportunity with “No experiments. Kill them. Kill them right now.” This style of self-referential writing isn’t everyone’s taste and can seem awkward or gratuitous in the wrong hans, but I quite enjoy it. This is a straight-up superhero story, it’s just filtered through the lens of a writer who has experienced decades of such stories.

Indeed, Bendis builds the series into Marvel continuity from the start. Although it would eventually become a support structure of Marvel’s big events, even early on Bendis is toying with decades of continuity – Ronin deals with the same Yakusa clan from Wolverine’s complicated past and The Collective exists solely to “tidy up” the mess of X-Men continuity left by Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men and to follow up to Bendis’ House of M. Ignoring the fact that things like “Magneto as Xorn” don’t need resolving in the first place (and, to be honest, deserved a better and more logical explanation than this), this point in the run is where the series gets sloppy – hell, it gets a little bit messy. The plot doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense and the book descends into a collection of action scenes.

Ronin takes matters in Hand...

I’ve heard it said that Bendis can’t write team books, and – to a certain extent – I can understand that. His strength seems to be, based on this and other runs, individual characters or moments between a pair of characters, rather than writing the group as a group, if that makes sense. He devotes a considerable chunk of this section of his run, for example, to giving us insight into Bob Reynolds as the Sentry, or a perspective on Spider-Woman or even offering us a chance to view what Luke Cage has to bring to the table (“impact policing”, in an inspired scene which perhaps illustrates why Bendis loves the character so much). Although his dialogue is fairly divisive, I could read pages of conversations between pairs of his characters – Iron Man explaining what it is to be an Avenger to Wolverine, for example, or Iron Man and Maria Hill trading jibes or even Luke Cage and Spider-Man discussing how to beat Electro. It’s the little moments that Bendis writes wonderfully – Spider-Man curled up, cowering on a wall as J. Jonah Jameson walks into the building, or Spider-Woman soothing a cumbersome superhero called “the Wrecker”, uncreatively enough. It’s a shame that he doesn’t manage the big stuff better, but such is life.

It’s interesting to see Bendis pepper the start of his run with hints and foreshadowing of things coming to pass – the end of Breakout reveals that there’s a conspiracy at play and there are other hints of Secret Invasion seeded gently in the title (Sentry vs. Super-Skull, for example, or Daredevil admitting he’d still have problems even if “we saved Earth from an alien invasion”). It doesn’t fit together perfectly – you’d imagine Civil War would be more heavily foreshadowed than a line or two in The Collective, the final arc before the event kicks off – but Bendis succeeds at making the title important in the continuity tapestry that is the Marvel Universe.

This collection finishes up just before we enter Civil War and the Marvel Universe’s epic saga kicks into fully throttle, so here seems an appropriate place to stop. Next week, I’ll be branching off a bit to take a look at Greg Pak’s Planet Hulk, which was happening roughly around the same time as the end of this run. The following week, I’ll be back with a review of Mark Millar’s Civil War and after that World War Hulk before returning to the stretch of New Avengers which leads through the war and into the following big event that Bendis has planned out – Secret Invasion. All of these articles are written from the perspective of a (relative) layman who has never really attempted to follow comic book continuity before. Stay tuned, true believers.

You might be interested in our reviews of the rest of Brian Michael Bendis’ first New Avengers run:

You might also be interested in Brian Michael Bendis’ other Avengers runs:

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