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Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers – New Avengers Vol. 3-4 (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

This is the eighth in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s continuity (and, in particular at their “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.

And now we’re entering a continuity-heavy area. You have been warned. As if we’ve been in a continuity-free zone for the past couple of weeks, remarks you, trusted reader. This is where my little experiment to venture deep into the heart of Marvel’s comic book continuity becomes a little bit more complicated and a little bit more difficult. Whereas the first part of Bendis’ run on New Avengers was relatively stand-alone (while still drawing on decades of events and continuity), it’s at this point the series becomes irrevocably intertwined with the on-going events at the heart of the Marvel Universe. It’s been described as “a spine”, and that’s pretty much exactly what it is: it’s a support structure which ties together the big Marvel events year-on-year, a thread that joins events like Civil War and Secret Invasion and Siege to each other and the greater fictional universe.

Wolverine learns the hard way not to bring claws to a gun fight...

This selection of Bendis’ New Avengers basically serves as connecting tissue between Marvel’s two big events. This leaves no actual room in the book for any independent storytelling. To give you an idea of how tightly woven the structure of the series is into Marvel’s big event machine, it goes from providing an epilogue to Civil War to offering a prologue for Secret Invasion within the same six-issue arc (The Revolution). The fact that Bendis employs non-linear storytelling, jumping both backwards and forwards means that that particular arc manages to be both things at once. Structurally, it’s very clever – the past and the future coexisting in the present – but it doesn’t help the feeling of fatigue setting in. I’m barely through on of the big three events and I’m already worn out.

Let’s be honest, there’s no way to justify following this run by itself. It’s really pointless. It’s like watching the World Cup via highlights on the nightly news, instead of following the games live. I’m not necessarily the person who is satisfied with such an approach – I like stories that stand on their own two feet. Much as I may appreciate a story which makes a nod to a wider shared continuity in a smart manner which facilitates its own storytelling (for example, Brubaker’s run on Daredevil), I am distinctly uncomfortable at the notion that a story is somehow “too big” to be contained within a single narrative – because that’s what individual comic books are. Single narratives can stretch a cross a film trilogy – Star Wars being the most obvious example – but not across several simultaneous books, because each has its own history and characters and perspective, unfolding at the same time (month-on-month) rather than sequentially. Mighty Avengers and New Avengers are two distinct narratives of the same event, but I feel disappointed that neither stands independently, as they cannot be fused perfectly either. In essence, it’s hard to construct a single story out of all this.

When the world seems to smile, like a big shirtless guy, that's Namoré...

The first chunk of issues is devoted to texturising Marvel’s big Civil War event. I remarked in reviewing it that it felt somewhat compressed and disconnected, lacking texture or nuance – instead offering bombast. At the same time, I noted in my earlier review of Bendis’ tenure on New Avengers that the author works much better with individual characters than with a big, sprawling team. So, this weird combination should be perfect, right? On some levels, it is – it’s nice to see Bendis focusing on individual characters again, and one gets the sense that it’s with intimate surroundings that he works best.

For example, his work with Iron Man here is arguably the most fascinating – he actually manages to create an almost plausible motivation for Iron Man’s actions here, and makes Tony Stark an almost tragic figure as we watch his attempts to bring peace implode in The Illuminati and listen to his justifications in The Confession. I’m not particularly convinced how the events of Doomquest (a time travelling adventure with zombies and Doctor Doom) exactly foreshadowed a conflict between superheroes, beyond a desire to connect this to a beloved story from the character’s past (and, based on the homage in Bendis’ Doom arc in the Mighty Avengers, it’s probably one the author has a fondness for – plus an excuse for Alex Maleev to draw zombies) – but Bendis does attempt to reactively give Tony the explicit motivation he lacked in the main miniseries (where it seemed he was being emotionally manipulated by a dead kid’s mother). “It wasn’t worth it,” seems a fitting sentiment for the way things turned out.

Tony discovers that symmetry is a bitch...

It’s a shame that this sort of character development couldn’t be squeezed into Mark Millar’s main miniseries. It’s still a stretch to believe that two lifelong friends like Iron Man and Captain America ended up so bitter and willing to kill each other (particularly using violence as their first recourse, rather than actually trying to hammer it out), but the chapters here do add much needed depth to Tony Stark’s side of the story. The event has cast a somewhat long shadow over the character (arguably only truly being explored and closed off in Matt Fraction’s The Invincible Iron Man – indeed, the title even borrows some of the imagery from The Confession, as seen above). The fact that this cloud has hung so long over Tony is somewhat ironic, since the powers that be originally declared that there was no right or wrong side to the debate.

It’s fun to see Bendis re-team with Alex Maleev, whose grainy art style suits the ambiguity of The Illuminati and The Confession, both stories which see Iron Man dealing with the fact that he is, essentially, a super villain – trying to subtly control and manipulate the world. He undoubtedly has the best intentions, but his methodology is more akin to the foes that he faces on a monthly basis, with secret meetings and power structures, rationalising immediate deaths as means to prevent greater long-term losses.

Tony must have been pretty spaced out if he thought that his Illuminati idea was going to work...

On the other hand, his Captain-America-themed one-shot isn’t exactly essential reading – not withstanding the fact that such a profile piece was probably best handled by Ed Brubaker (who instead found himself dealing with Cap’s supporting cast). It’s disappointing that Bendis doesn’t really give the reader any deeper motivation or insight than “civil liberties are good” for Cap’s actions (which essentially amount to terrorism, so can’t have been easy for him). The assumption seems to be that he doesn’t need to justify himself because he’s just that damn right. The Sentry one-shot is just odd… as if Bendis felt obliged to provide one-shots to the members of his ensemble that don’t have stand-alone books (though, in fairness, the Luke Cage and Jessica Jones issues are solid). I was absolutely fascinated by Bendis’ portrayal of Sentry in the first run of issues, but it seems that there’s really only one angle to the guy. He’s uncertain, he runs away, he finds some people who don’t remember him, he’s convinced to come back. Nothing exactly ground-breaking here.

In fairness to Bendis, he strictures his story cleverly. There’s a lot of interesting perspective-related stuff going on here – events, big and small, occurring in crossovers like Civil War or other books like Mighty Avengers or even in the pages of this same book, filtered and viewed from different angles. Indeed, the Illuminati one-shot and mini-series is dedicated to offering a unique perspective on the history of the Marvel Universe, a “behind the scenes” view through the eyes of Tony Stark and his cadre at an assortment of iconic Marvel moments (the Kree-Skull War, the Beyonder, the Infinity Gauntlet – don’t worry, I have no idea what these events are either). It gives the illusion that New Avengers is basically one side of a multi-faceted story, which Bendis has made clear was his intention. However, the problem is that little of the material here stands alone. Events occur over the course of the arcs contained here – a Venom invasion of New York, or the return of Ultron – which ultimately have little bearing on the narrative in this particular book. They simply serve to make the story that Bendis is telling dependent on a wider saga. And that robs the story of some of its potency and of its own narrative cohesion.

They'll let anybody into the Avengers these days...

Bendis does, however, set in motion his own storyline – one which will be unique to New Avengers and probably won’t require reading another on-going series or big event to wrap up. Similar to what he did with Sentry, Bendis takes a quirky character featured in a respected miniseries and fits them into the wider canvass of the fiction universe he has found himself in charge of. The Hood is essentially a modern supervillian, a typical criminal mastermind and strategist filtered through the lens of Bendis’ noir background. Indeed, the whole series goes noir here, with gritty pencil work from artist Leinel Yu standing in stark contrast to the crisp earlier work from David Finch and Steve McNiven. Bendis puts his characters at street-level, which is a bold move for a franchise like the Avengers, a superhero team that has faced foes as vast as Galactus or Kang the Conquerer. Here, they find themselves somewhat demoted to taking extremely well-organised street crime.

It’s undoubtedly the bravest move of Bendis’ tenure, but I’m not necessarily won over. One would imagine that Bendis, renowned for his work on Daredevil, would work almost perfectly in this sort of grim-and-gritty setting, with the team operating out of what appears to be a derelict house and foiling attempted convenience store robberies. The truth is that it doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable for a bunch of heroes like this – even if Bendis has removed the higher-tier characters like Captain America or Iron Man. They still jet set around the world and face an alien invasion, so there’s a weird dissonance in seeing them tackle the low-key stuff.

They call him Mellow Yellow...

There is, however, some clever stuff going on here. In fact, there’s a section – in the aftermath of The Revolution arc – that the series appears to be going a far more interesting direction than it actually is. Addressing his defeated colleagues, Iron Man can’t rationalise what they are doing. What do they hope to gain by resisting? “Are you just rebelling against us because you just don’t know what to do?” he suggests. It’s a powerful moment, and one which nails the wonderful metaphysical conundrum in which this band of heroes find themselves. “What if there is no real bad guy?” Iron Fist wonders, “What if it’s all just upside down?”

It’s a big question. What is a hero without villains, which is clearly what the New Avengers appear to be now? Seriously, if there are no more villains out there, what exactly are the heroes to do? Are they just engaging in conflict because that’s all they know how to do? Are they, as Doctor Strange suggests in the Illuminati one-shot, simply “counter-establishment”? Is this whole cycle, the modern history of the Marvel Universe, a sort of middle-life crisis, all stemming from the weird sense of anomie among the superheroes? Is it a question of identity? Are these characters so afraid that they might have to reflect and evaluate themselves without some colourful and silly bad guys to oppose?

Cap assembles his Avengers...

Spidey seems to provide Bendis’ answer to this brief dark midnight of the superhero soul with an astute suggestion, “We need some bad guys to punch.” And Bendis dutifully provides them. In spades. Suddenly there are tonnes of bad guys around, from Avengers classics (Ultron, Venom and Doctor Doom in Mighty Avengers) to new takes on classic conventions (the Hood in New Avengers). Still, one has to wonder what might have happened had Bendis not provided such a convenient safety net – there might have been interesting questions asked, and curious answers provided.

Still, it’s an interesting chapter in the on-going saga or meta-epic of the Marvel Universe. The heroes become the anti-heroes. The would-be heroic champions of virtue must face their inherently contradictory nature: they are vigilantes, and criminal; they are a reaction against a restrictive modern society, and the steadfast defenders of it; they are paragons of individualism and personal triumph, yet completely interdependent. If this is the modern history of comic books distilled into a snappy five-year story, this is the point at which the idealism of the Silver Age parts with the grim and gritty violence and bloodlust of the eighties and nineties. “Modern”, “cutting edge”, “darker and edgier” are all words that would describe this period in the life cycle of the superhero, and things are getting darker – because the darker things get, the more we love it.

Always a Strange one, that one...

Indeed, things are so dark that the heroes themselves “call upon darker forces than [they] would normally use”, to quote Doctor Stephen Strange. In particular, the violence carried out by the Hood on Tigra (and filmed for the pleasure of a baying audience – perhaps we see ourselves grimly reflected) calls to mind the sort of violence against women which defined the start of the modern age of comic books – the era of women in refrigerators.

Indeed, the Hood – like Bendis’ other appropriated character, Sentry – is highly metaphorical in the context of this introspective examination of comic books. He’s a young man granted power and sway over the universe that he doesn’t quite understand and almost certainly doesn’t respect – in a way, he’s the image of the type of fanboy that comics actively pander to (a fact alluded to by the entirely forced “kick-ass” nature of his introduction, where he effortlessly guns an established villain, defeats Wolverine and beats up another superhero, before mastermind a huge bankrobbery and a large-scale jail break). The Hood is, with his guns blazing and super-platter combination of “bad ass” superpowers, essentially a glorified fanboy who has been granted a seemingly mystical control over the comic book industry. At this stage of his career, Bendis was undoubtedly well aware that a rabid fanboy could instantly turn into a demon if provoked. And it’s those rabid fanboys who are the most vocal opponents of any sort of innovation or exploration of the characters, and would rather have standard good-guy-against-bad-guy narratives. The Hood is the kid who always knows how to do things properly (his way) and always wins, no matter what – because he’s entitled.

All good in the Hood?

I like this meta-reading of Bendis’ run. It’s smart and it makes the collection quite important. I think it’s silly to suggest that all Bendis sought to accomplish with this run was the realisation of a boyhood dream, I think there’s a underlying meaning to the story that Bendis has installed, running through the core of the Marvel Universe. But the darkest moments lie ahead of us still.

When crafting the series, Bendis was always vocal on how he intended it to be a rich sampling of the Marvel Universe, and here he transforms his New Avengers into a truly representative bunch. Without Iron Man or Captain America (and the group never having Thor), Bendis makes sure to provide a rich sampling of the Marvel Universe, embracing everything from its kung-fu heroes like The Immortal Iron Fist to the street-level heroics of Luke Cage to the mutant values of Wolverine or the mass appeal of Spider-Man to mysticism and magic with Doctor Strange – it seems that Bendis is attempting to create something of a unified power block within the universe, reconciling all these facets together, like Stark attempted. Of course, as the author, Bendis has quite a bit more success in his efforts.

Apparently the Hulk didn't get invited to Tony Stark's brain trust...

But Bendis is a solid writer, despite his problems with book – which, again, could simply come from my own perspective on it. I would sit there and read his witty banter all day – there’s a beautiful sequence with The Illuminati discussing their married lives and the bliss of that most sacred union which just works wonderfully, even amid the spectacle of the rest of the miniseries. This is water-cooler superheroics, what the guys in tights do when they aren’t taking on big dumb lugs with ridiculous names – it’s kind of moment which hints at how great it would have been had Bendis allowed the series a little bit of room to breath between the big events.

While we’re discussing The Illuminati – a one-shot and a miniseries put together by Bendis where Tony Stark and a “dream team” of big-brained power brokers (Professor X, Black Bolt, Reed Richards, Doctor Strange and Namor) come together to tidy up the mess left by big events in Marvel – it’s worth noting the wonderful character work that Bendis mixes in with the tonnes and tonnes of continuity porn. There’s a moment where Reed Richards assembles the strongest device in the universe, but can’t will it to destroy itself; there’s a discussion with Charles Xavier about how he could have single-handedly solved the crisis in mutant-human relations which underpins the X-Men franchise, but won’t; there’s the tragedy of a king who cannot speak facing the consequences of his actions.


And all of this leads us neatly into Secret Invasion, the absolutely massive crossover event that Bendis has been planning since the moment he landed the New Avengers book. I’ll save a lot of my thoughts for that particular review and retrospective, but it’s interesting to note here that Bendis and Marvel did not opt for a redesign of the Skrull race to make them seem more modern or to allow them to fit in better in this modern age of comic books. They’re still ridiculous-looking green humanoid aliens with strange chins – you can’t get any more Silver-Age-y than that, can you? It couldn’t be any further from the redesign that Bryan Hitch gave the creatures over on The Ultimates. It would have been easy to given these genetically-redesigned threats a new badass appearance, but they’ve maintained their familiar look for a reason – amid the paranoia and the fear that our heroes have been replaced by villains, they’re a reminder that these are, after all, just comic books and not to be taken too seriously. After all, there’s nothing worse than being pretentious about pop culture, is there?

I’ll be honest. I’m a little worn out by all this. I’m starting to doubt my attempt to familiarise myself with the workings at the heart of the Marvel Universe. I’m just simply not comfortable with this style of protracted, dependent storytelling – where each story is designed not to serve as a story of itself, but as a support column for another story. It’s fascinating to look at and think about, but it doesn’t lend itself to a satisfying reading experience. Perhaps I was better suited to remain at the fringe with titles like Daredevil. I think I might stick to that in future. Still, I’ve got a long way to go before I reach the finish point on this chapter of nerdy self-discovery. I am only standing ankle-deep in the pool of Marvel continuity, with the future reaching out to me and calling. I’m not sure I’ll make it back, but I’ll keep going.

Anyway, next week I’ll be looking at Bendis’ run on Mighty Avengers. We’ll then be taking a bit of a step sideways with the cosmic crossover Annihilation: Conquest before we head on in for the second of his big Marvel crossover events, Secret Invasion, followed by War of Kings. Almost there! Stay with me, 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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