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Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers – Mighty Avengers: Assemble & Secret Invasion (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

This is the ninth in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s core continuity (and in particular 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. Get an overview of what I’m trying to take a look at here.

After the schism of Civil War, a title like Mighty Avengers makes sense on some level. If you’ve pitted heroes against heroes in a contest that you’ve deemed to be allegedly subjective (Marvel’s editorial policy was that there was no right or wrong side to the conflict), then it makes sense to follow the winners as well as the losers. The post-Civil War issues of Bendis’ New Avengers followed those heroes who had fought against registration of superheroes and lost, and Mighty Avengers was launched to offer us an on-going narrative featuring the winning side. It also seems to be a conscious nostalgic effort on the part of author Bendis, perhaps a response to the criticism that his early work on New Avengers steered clear of conventional Avengers storylines – occupied as they were with Japanese ganglands, prison breakouts and Sentry’s inter-personal issues. Here, Bendis seems to be consciously focusing on classic Silver Age devices – in the first run of issues, the State-sanctioned Avengers team faces classic foes like Ultron, the Symbiotes and even Doctor Doom. The problem is that Bendis isn’t necessarily comfortable drafting conventional superheroic fare.

Ultron puts Tony in touch with his feminine side…

Despite the apparently conventional nature of the storylines – which are far more formulaic and conventional than his past Avengers work – Bendis plays with the formula just a little bit. Most notable, he makes a conscious departure from the established tradition of the formation of an Avengers Team, showing us Iron Man and Carol Danvers picking their team of Avengers – Stark’s careful and meticulous planning and brand managing at odds with Steve’s believe in “fate” bringing the original New Avengers together. It’s interesting to hear the characters discuss the Avengers as a brand within the book, reflecting the way that Marvel has recently approached the franchise. “We need a ‘Thor’,” Iron Man admits. “You need a ‘Wolverine’ too,” Carol adds. “And a ninja,” Stark suggests later on. “In this day and age? You have to have a ninja.” Prospective team members are screened depending on how they conform to these archetypes – the Black Widow is “kind of a Wolverine” and Ares is “a Wolverine and a Thor” or, depending on your cynicism, “Thor-Lite”.

It’s all perfectly regulated and controlled – “a military operation” – even as far as the fashion (“It’s time for you to pick a new you,” the Wasp informs a distraught Wonder Man, who confesses, “I like my look”, as if that makes a difference). Hell, Janet even considers “matching uniforms” for the team, as if to negate their individual characters. As opposed to the characters over in New Avengers, where the majority of characters have their own book and – therefore – distinct identity, here Bendis populates his cast with the homeless. Sure, Carol Danvers and Iron Man have their own books, but the rest of the cast are consciously adrift without the title. In many ways, they are Bendis’ to do with as he pleases.

Tony was still rather green at this whole “Director of SHIELD” business…

To be honest, Mighty Avengers is probably the weakest link in Bendis’ chain of continuity that I’ve read so far. I might be underselling it to describe it as “conventional” – to his credit, Bendis does play with form here. He employs the device that he’s been particularly fond of during his management of the Avengers franchise, showing us snippets of a scene from multiple perspectives, or incomplete flashback. Indeed, the wonderful appeal of Mighty Avengers, at least when it was first proposed, was the idea that it would offer an intwined and balanced narrative with Bendis’ simultaneous work over in New Avengers. Two books, running simultaneously, offering one perspective from the government-approved Mighty Avengers team working in the Avengers tower, and the other offering a street-level view – with the truth of events presumably being revealed somewhere in the middle?

That’s a fascinating idea and one which, I’ll be honest, enticed me to venture down this path deep into the heart of modern Marvel continuity. I figured that such an idea – if executed skilfully – could perhaps justify tangling everything up in a mess and joining two narratives together, making the storylines dance a swirl around each other like graceful swans. Maybe, if this idea would be pulled off, I would finally see the appeal of the crossover as an event – that it could demonstrated to me that stunting multiple narritivies by making them unashamedly codependent would somehow be justified by creating a whole somewhat bigger than the sum of its parts. that’s what inspired me to just jump on in and spend some time at the convoluted, messed-up heart of the Marvel Universe.

Carnage on the streets of New York…

Sadly, Bendis doesn’t quite pull it off. There were apparently some shipping problems that prevented Mighty Avengers from going out as often as it should have (the most painful consequence being that the resolution of the “Venom Bomb” chapter of The Infiltration was resolved in flashback in New Avengers before the corresponding issue of Mighty Avengers had even hit the shelf), so perhaps the series were not as interlinked as they might have been. Still, based on the overlap between New Avengers and The Return of Ultron arc (which basically involves the fugitive team turning on the television to catch a rant from the supervillain while chillaxing in a hotel), my faith isn’t entirely restored. That barely qualifies as a crossover (it’s the type of crossover which has no consequence – like a “red skies crossover”), let alone an interlocked narrative. So the narrative experiment doesn’t quite work – but it seems that there was never really a serious attempt to follow through with it.

Another aspect of experimentation that Bendis offers up here is admittedly a small one, but one perhaps best suited to the inherently retro appeal of the series: Bendis attempts to single-handedly reintroduce the thought bubble into mainstream comics. I know this is a silly gripe, and I really should get over it, but it just doesn’t work. I can udnerstand, for example, that there’s nothing objectively sillier about a cloud of a character’s thoughts than there is about a little yellow caption box of a character’s thoughts. I can understand the reasoning which says that they are no more or less ridiculous than other storytelling tools:

We are often privy to dramatic characters’ unspoken thoughts via narration or voiceover in literature or film, or soliloquy in theatre. Thought bubbles seem a reasonable, comparable method of representing the archetypal ‘internal monologue’ within comic pages. Yet, thought bubbles are somehow seen as unsophisticated, in comparison to captions or, inexplicably, speech bubbles.

Maybe it’s the association. Having read more than a few Golden and Silver Age Comic Books, I am familiar with the classic use of bubbles. And it’s terrible. Think of the worst expository dialogue or voice-over in film and multiple it ten times – that’s how bad the vast majority of these bubbles are; and there are some worse still. I realise I shouldn’t let past misuse of the form justify an irrational dislike, but I think that the forty or fifty years of misuse have lead to a negative association, and one that it will take a great deal of effort to overcome.

Crimes against humanity? What about crimes against fashion? Seriously, that green cloak is so seventies…

In fairness to Bendis, some of his balloons he uses will – particularly showing characters responding to each other (Hank Pym’s snide comments he’s too terrified to verbalise, for example) – but most of them are just pointless and redundant. And a little condescending. When Tony refers to fate as something “Rogers was really into”, we don’t need a thought ballon from Carol (“You’re calling Captain America Rogers now?”) to draw our attention to the fact that he’s now referring to his dead former best friend by his surname. We also don’t need a full page of Doctor Doom’s internal monologue as he cycles through his “generically evil plan #2819”. Bendis is traditionally a great writer of character, but it seems that it’s because he writes organic dialogue rather than cluing us into what he characters are thinking. Frankly, his dialogue is good enough to make most his balloons redundent, so they just end up as clutter. Thankfully, they appear to slowly fade out when we reach his Secret Invasion tie-ins. Which is good.

Ignoring the fact that more of Bendis’ ideas in this collection sink than swim, there’s also a more fundamental problem at work here. I suggested in my earlier reviews of his Avengers work that Bendis might not be the best writer to offer up a conventional team story and that the best thing about his run on New Avengers was how he played to his own strengths and found something interesting to do with the team (as well as writing very good character-based one-shots). Even keeping the fact that the series didn’t go to print as often as it should have (between the end of Civil War in January 2007 and the start of Secret Invasion in June 2008, the series only shipped 11 issues), the plot work still feels hyper-condensed, especially in the second arc – The Infiltration. Big events happen, there’s a jumble of panels, the problem is miraculously resolved and something else happens. there are great moments here – Time Is On No One’s Side, for example, a time-travel issue which see Iron Man and Doom trapped in the early history of the Marvel Universe (in a nod to Doomquest, a classic storyarc), illustrated in a retro ‘dotty’ style – but these are brushed aside to cram even more in.

Not exactly classy for a guy who calls himself “Doctor Von Doom”…

It doesn’t necessarily help that Bendis’ Doctor Doom simply doesn’t ‘feel’ right. I’m not talking about delusions of decency or anything so ridiculous, it’s just strange to hear him say stuff like, “shut your cow-mouth”. It just feels wrong, somehow. Which is a shame, because Bendis generally has a good grip on character – particularly his two leads here (Iron Man and Ms. Marvel), and also some fun work with Ares and Hank Pym (though I could do without Ares’ somewhat comically-played misogyny).

Although it is nice to see Bendis getting back on track with his take on the Sentry. Bendis very clearly has a plan for the character, who he is treating as a stand-in for the identity crisis that the superhero genre has had over the past few decades. Iron Man treats him as a character learning the ropes, who needs to be great again – “Bob, in the right situation, will grow to be a Thor. He’s this close to being one of the all-time greats …” Indeed, like the superhero as a concept, it seems we’ve forgotten the power of the archetype. “No one knows his true power and potential.” While the invading Skrulls consider what to do about sentry, they may as well be discussing what to do about all the heroes. “We simply wait for him to self-destruct,” one observes. Indeed, superviallins don’t need to destroy the heroes themselves. “The humans are doing our work for us.” Yep, all those nerds buying those anti-heroes and pumping up the stock of dark age substitutes, they’ve done more damage to the notion of the superhero than any villain ever could. Indeed, if he does present a problem, they plan simply to emotionally manipulate him – playing up his angst – in order to wound him, rather than launching a direct assault. In a way it’s fitting that Bendis is finally doing something with the character as he enters Secret Invasion which – fundamentally – is an arc about heroes who aren’t heroes at all.

Provoke him at your Doom…

However, there’s hope. Sentry’s watchtower was on top the Avengers’ headquarters all along – we just needed to remember that it was. To remember that he was a hero, just like, Bendis suggests, we need to remember what superheroes used to be, before they found themselves lost in the flood of nineties violence and nihilism. Sentry is a character who has the power to remake the world (even reviving his deceased wife), but is too uncertain of himself (“wobbly”, to borrow an adjective from Carol) to do so.

Indeed, it isn’t just the Sentry who has forgotten how to be a hero. When Hank Pym, returned to Earth asks Carol what had happened in his absence, we are treated to a series of splash pages of how far the concept of heroism has fallen during his imprisonment. All the big events are included: House of M, Civil War, The Death of Captain America, World War Hulk and Secret Invasion. Indeed, Hank seems almost the perfect choice for Bendis to use in his examination of how deconstructed and taken apart the Marvel universe has been in recent years – although his personal and interpersonal issues were remarkable at the time, now most heroes are as messed up as he was. As Norman Osborn and his lackeys remark at the funeral service while looking at Iron Man of all people, “How the mighty have fallen.” This has not been a good decade to be a hero.

It’s a Mar-Vell…

And yet, for every death there is a rebirth. We know Hank will go on to reinvent himself in his wife’s name. The death of Captain Marvel might yet lead Noh-Varr to greatness. Hell, even inside Hank’s conflicted and often messed-up head, there was still enough grace and dignity to convince the Skrull posing as him to become a hero. For all his flaws, as one of the most “broken” of heroes, there was still heroism in his very essence.

Whatever my misgivings about the first eleven issues, I will concede that the Secret Invasion tie-ins are actually quite solid. Note that, from this point of the review/discussion, there will be spoilers. You have been warned.

Being faster than a speeding bullet isn’t an essential perk when you’re invulnerable…

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes – the tie-ins. Rather than focusing on the two Avengers teams during Bendis’ Secret Invasion crossover – as both teams were a key part of that event’s central narrative – Bendis instead offers us a series of character vignettes, giving us an idea of what particular characters were up to in the build-up to the event. These little bits and pieces essentially tie together Bendis’ tenure as chief writer of the Marvel Universe together, as we follow Nick Fury from the fallout of Bendis’ Secret War miniseries to the present, discover who organised the breakout in the very first scene of New Avengers and discover how Hank Pym and Electra were replaced by Skrulls. The revelations are pretty pedestrian, but it’s the character stuff which works.

I have a soft spot for the poor failure of a man which Mark Millar offered as his version of Hank Pym in The Ultimates. The character was a loser who was unable to cope with feeling “small”, and his decisions led him to humiliation after humiliation. He was a pretty horrible character (have a long and abusive relationship with his ex-wife), but ended up so pathetic it was hard not to feel sorry for him. Bendis offers a similar portrait of the man here. He’s a scientist who can’t give a lecture without being asked about his time with The Avengers, who is constantly overshadowed by men like Reed Richards and Tony Stark. He ends up sleeping with one of his students as his marriage disintegrates (again), which ultimately leads to his capture. How is it that one Skrull sums him up? “A man who thinks he’s smarter and more heroic than he actually is.”

These character moments are the best of the run, and proof that Bendis is stronger with smaller, more personal stories than with big events themselves. Some of the Skrull infiltration one-shots are a bit redundant – did we need a profile piece on the Elektra Skrull? probably not – but even when they are they are far more focused and carefully written than his larger attempts at big events herein. I respect Bendis’ work on New Avengers because it doesn’t conform to the standarded paint-by-numbers super-team sagas which defined superhero team-ups like The Avengers or The Justice League. It appears that it may have been because Bendis simply isn’t comfortably writing those kinds of stories. It doesn’t diminish his other work in any way, but it does serve to make Mighty Avengers less than required reading.

Nothing suggestive about that at all, then…

By the way, I can’t help remarking that one of the more disappointing aspects of Mighty Avengers is the somewhat conventional style in which the female members of the team are illustrated. Bendis prides himself on writing strong female characters – and he does (despite what certain events may lead commentators to believe) – but the first run of issues (particularly artwork by Cho) illustrates his female characters with dimensions physically impossible. I know that the first run of issues on New Avengers featuring artwork by David Finch and Steve McNiven offered this sort of standard “comic book women” type approach to female anatomy, but not in such an exaggerated manner (there’s a shot (above) of Ms. Marvel astride a rocket, for example). With Mighty Avengers seemingly designed to feel old-fashioned and retro, it’s worth considering that perhaps some conventional approaches to comic books are best left in the past. Other than that, the artwork is fairly solid. You can tell where Mark Bagley stepped in to pick up the slack on the second arc, and the Secret Invasion oneshots are handled by a slew of guest artists (any collaboration between Bendis and Alex Maleev is welcome).

Mighty Avengers was an experiment, and arguably a valid one – it was brave to toy around with the conventions of comic book story telling, but more than a little disappointing that Bendis couldn’t pull it off. Still, the redemption of Hank Pym is interesting enough that I might follow Dan Slott’s run on the title through to Siege, which is going to be the climax of my wham-bam tour of mainstream Marvel continuity: I’ve followed nearly five years worth of stories and I am no more convinced of this style of big event storytelling than I was at the start. But I’ll save my conclusions for my final review in this saga, which is likely a good bit away, since I appear to have caught up with Marvel’s release schedule.

We’re almost through this. Next week we’re returning to outer space with the cosmic crossover Annihilation: Conquest. Just Secret Invasion left to go after that – though we may take a look at War of Kings the following week if we get a chance. And then Utopia to follow, finally. Don’t worry, I’ll be back to pick up my trudge through Marvel’s complicated mainstream continuity over the past five years, but we’re near the end of this phase of the experiment. Stay tuned, true believers.

You might be interested in our reviews of Brian Michael Bendis’ other Avengers work:

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