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Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers – New Avengers Vol. 5-6 (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

April (and a little bit of May) are “Avengers month” at the m0vie blog. In anticipation of Joss Whedon’s superhero epic, we’ll have a variety of articles and reviews published looking at various aspects of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”

You know, at this stage I’m wondering what an Avengers book might look that wasn’t plowing from one event (Secret Invasion), through another event (Dark Reign), towards yet another event (Siege). I actually quite enjoyed Bendis’ opening two arcs on New Avengers, before the book effectively became the primary tie-in to whatever big crossover event was happening in the Marvel Universe on a given month. It was Grant Morrison who once wrote that every panel in a comic book should be an event, and I agree – stand-alone series don’t gain any extra validity by tying themselves in to a big crisis crossover. Make the stories themselves compelling and worry about the “event” later.

The evil empire…

So we get seven issues at the start of this collection to tie into Bendis’ big crossover event, Secret Invasion. This is the one that the writer has been teasing since he first started on the title. In fact, several of the issues collected here seem to be intended to convince the audience that this was clearly what the writer had planned all along. We get flashbacks set between scenes throughout Bendis’ tenure, as if to prove this is really what he intended all along. It’s a clever idea to contextualise the present situation, but it also betrays a certain lack of faith the writer has in either himself or his audience.

Secret Invasion as an event is built around the idea that our heroes have been replaced with evil space-shifting aliens. There’s been a sense of paranoia created among the superhero community, which has not been helped by events since Civil War. Certain key players will be revealed to be Skrull agents – some will be “sleepers” and so the shock revelation might be able to avoid any conflicts with earlier characterisation, but some will have been working undercover all along.

The Hood just put one in his Skrull…

When a writer wants to make a shock reveal like that, they have two options. They can throw the twist at the audience, and let it stand on what’s been written before. A good twist actually plays off audience expectations, but perfectly fits everything we’ve seen before. You might argue that a great twist is something that audience was given ever reason to suspect, but the writer was still able to conceal through sleight of hand. In that case, everything that came before should fit perfectly with the reveal and shouldn’t require too much exposition and explanation. If anything, this should cue a “oh! so that’s why…!” reaction from the audience.

Bendis doesn’t allow his twists to stand by themselves. He doesn’t encourage readers to think about everything they’ve seen so far, and to look at it in a new light, because he simply offers up his own “secret history” in the tie-in issues. If you’re struggling to see how Spider-Woman could really have been the Skrull Queen all along, don’t worry – we get an entire issue devoted to spelling it out, like a collection of deleted scenes cut from earlier issues. So, either Bendis doesn’t trust his writing enough to let all the stuff he wrote before Secret Invasion stand on its own two feet, or he doesn’t trust his audience enough to see that it does all make sense in context.

So Sue him if he can’t help but tell them…

It doesn’t help that quite a lot of the expository issues are overlong and quite padded. The idea that the Skrulls cloned Reed Richards to help them outwit Reed Richards’ detection methods is quite clever, but we didn’t need more than an issue devoted to it (especially since we know how it plays out). The same sort of thing for Jessica Drew’s infiltration of the New Avengers. She was a double-agent, we get it. And then there are two random issues devoted to Spider-Man and an imposter Captain America in the Savage Land that go into the Skrull’s plans in way too much detail. They honestly weren’t so complex we needed it explained to us in such detail. Similarly, we didn’t need an entire issue dedicated to shenanigans in the House of M reality.

There are a few nice touches, though. For example, I like the idea that – up until House of M – mutants were practically the biggest concern for the Skrulls, ahead of even the Avengers. “A fight against an army of earth’s mutants we cannot win,” the Queen outlines to her followers, reflecting the fact that (at least until Bendis took over the Avengers franchise) Marvel’s premiere publishing line was the X-Men. I wonder how painful it must be that the Skrulls never really seem too concerned about the Fantastic Four (despite their long history with them – perhaps a way of conceding that the Four were not (at the time) one of Marvel’s premiere properties.

Dark Avengers indeed…

I also quite like some of the ideas that Bendis suggests throughout the issues. In particular, the idea that the Avengers are fixating on the potential (but as yet unproven) Skrull invasion as a way of avoiding the rather harsh reality they have found themselves in. “I’m not as convinced as you that we’re involved in this conspiracy,” Maya assures Wolverine. “This Skrull thing. I think you — all of you — want to be so you don’t have to think about what a disaster our lives have become.” Indeed, Jessica urges Luke to give up his childish act of defiance and “grow up” in order to become a proper father. Perhaps it’s true, as Bendis suggests – it’s childish to expect superhero characters to jump straight back into standard action plots after being so brutally deconstructed by Civil War. That said, superheroes exist to be a little childish. They are fantasy figures, after all. Sometimes they can bounce from a crisis of relevance like that to thwarting an alien invasion.

It’s interesting that the Secret Invasion tie-ins begin and end with two issues devoted to Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, drawn by Michael Gaydos, who worked on Alias with Bendis. Indeed, the first Dark Reign arc also focuses heavily on the couple’s attempt to get their child back. A lot of commentators seem frustrated with the way that Bendis has elevated both characters within the Avengers, but I have difficulty in determining how Bendis’ use of those two characters in the book differs from the way past Avengers writers have used the book to develop characters who have had difficulty carrying their own on-going. For example, there was a time when the treatment of Hawkeye or the Vision in the pages of The Avengers was similar to the way that Bendis handles Cage and Jones, with those characters receiving development here.

He’s going to be Fury-ous when he realises how he was duped…

It’s the nature of a team book to favour smaller characters over those who have their own on-goings. Bucky Barnes is being nearly perfectly written by Ed Brubaker over in Captain America, while Matt Fraction is giving Tony Stark a wonderful emotional character arc in The Invincible Iron Man, so devoting too much space to those team members in a book like this might seem a bit of a waste. I’d love to see Bendis write a Luke Cage on-going – especially since one imagines the series would play to the writer’s strengths like his Daredevil or Alias runs did.

In the meantime, while the two characters do take a large amount of the spotlight, it isn’t as if they monopolise it. Indeed, there’s a nice subplot following Dr. Strange, who remains (if you’ll pardon the pun) strangely without a title, and an early character-focused issue based around Maya. There’s no denying that Bendis is playing favourites, but isn’t that part of the appeal of writing an Avengers book? If the Justice League can be argued to be about the “big seven” and the celebrity factor, you could just as easily argue that the Avengersis about giving other characters a chance at the spotlight they might not otherwise have.

Hungry like the Wolverine…

Which, I suppose, brings us nicely to Dark Reign. Later in the month, I’m going to talk about Bendis’ Dark Avengers, and I’ll go into it a bit more there, but I actually have very little problem with the core concept of Dark Reign, at least as a structures “Marvel Comics Event.” There are a whole host of story issues one could easily have about crazy old Norman Osborn being made the “top cop” of the Marvel Universe (simply because he shot somebody), but we won’t dig too deeply into that here. Why I like Dark Reign is because of the relative freedom it gives writers working on their own series.

It’s more of a “theme” than a great big honkin’ event, and it allows writers to pretty much do their own thing. Rick Remender used Dark Reign as a springboard for “Frankencastle”, while Jonathan Hickman started his acclaimed Fantastic Four run there. Even Matt Fraction was able to use the themes to play with Tony Stark’s character over on The Invincible Iron Man. Rather than a specific event, with particular character doing particular things at particular moments, Dark Reign represented a broad direction that books were asked to follow, but which allowed a huge amount of latitude. So I have no problem with Dark Reign, save perhaps the observation that the plot developments to get there were a tad forced and it could have lasted a bit longer (as it seems there’s barely enough time to explore one status quo before the next blows into town).

Long live the queen…

Here’s the thing about Dark Reign and Bendis’ New Avengers: very simply, the idea just works for the series. From the outset, Bendis’ take on the iconic team was an attempt to refactor and reposition them, avoiding nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia and trying something that hadn’t been tried before. The “new” in the title is not an affectation. From the outset, with the group coming to doubt S.H.I.E.L.D. in their opening mission, through to their time as fugitives from Tony Stark and now with their time resisting Norman Osborn, this group of Avengers have been positioned as outsiders in the Marvel Universe. This in stark contrast to the general role of “establishment” superheroes the team has traditionally adopted as a status quo, and it’s one that Bendis works quite well.

“Let’s be honest,” one character observes, “this isn’t the Avengers.” To an extent, that’s a fair observation. The team have spent most of the run doing decidedly un-Avenger-ly things, like fleeing the law or taking part in Luke Cage’s “impact policing” program. I don’t find anything wrong with such an approach – indeed I respect Bendis for attempting something outside the norm for the flagship book. It’s rare to see a lot of experimentation in major comic book titles, but I think Bendis’ paradigm shift was a lot riskier than it appeared in hindsight. He deserves credit. Plus, there’s something remarkably charming about the Avengers looking for a parking space for their hi-tech jet. Hawkeye complains, “I’m looking for a rooftop that doesn’t have fifty air conditioners and satellite dishes and whatever those round spinning things are.”

Always dealing with the fallout from some big event…

To be frank, it’s actually quite a solid comic book when the book is afforded an opportunity to tell its own story. It seem like it has just been tie-in issue after tie-in issue linked to event after event, and the book seems structured to react to the big events within the shared universe rather than really contribute to them. So, in the midst of Dark Reign, it’s great to see the book actually tell its own large-scale superhero story that doesn’t feature a vignette into a minor occurence linked to some catastrophic crossover or huge event.

Search for the Sorcerer Supreme is just a nice little story. A lot of people have complained since Bendis took over the book that it has served to over-expose icons like Spider-Man or Wolverine, but this story is actually built around the type of lesser-known monthly-comic-book-less superhero that the title used to garner attention by featuring. In the past, the book would provide character arcs for characters who didn’t have on-going titles, like Hawkeye, so it’s nice to see Bendis tell a story very much built around Stephen Strange. Strange is easily one of the most recognisable characters at Marvel with a very infrequent publishing schedule, often relegated to team books and miniseries and guest appearances. It’s nice to have an arc built around magic in the Marvel Universe, which also works in the Hood in an efficient and effective manner.

All the best superheroes have daddy issues…

And, as much as I may tire for the relentless long-form plot that Bendis is brewing, covering the rise and fall and fall and rise of the heroes of the Marvel pantheon, there’s no denying his obvious skill. The writer draws his fair share of detractors, and I’ll concede that he isn’t the most adept writer of bombastic superhero action there is, but he’s certainly one of the people with a true mastery of the artform. He knows how to build and structure a story so it flows, with his dialogue having a natural rhythm to it.

Notice, for example, the great skill with which the artist has constructed his self-referencing saga. Within this individual, sixty-odd issue series and its spin-offs, there are panels and beats which exist to echo and resonate with what came before, building a subtle but tangible web. Here, for example, we get a moment of the New Avengers finding out about the new “official” Dark Avengers on television. This scene, crossing over with Bendis’ Dark Avengers, calls to mind the earlier television-watching overlap between New Avengers and Mighty Avengers. It’s the third public unveiling of a team branded “the Avengers” in so sort a time. The Cabal, Norman Osborn’s secret group, is designed to mirror Tony Stark’s Illuminati down to the individual members. It’s history repeating itself, a snake eating its own tale, a pattern visible from a distance even in this very same comic book. It’s a clever stylistic touch, this perpetual self-referencing, and one that illustrates Bendis knows what he’s doing. On the other hand, it does squeeze out a lot of the room for the book to tell its own stories. And, to be honest, this repetition only contributes to the “been there and done that” fatigue that is slowly creeping in.

New and improved!

Still, I do like Bendis’ characterisation, another bone of contention with his detractors. In particular, I love the rather wonderful way Bendis offers us an effective commentary on Tony Stark, even though the hero doesn’t really appear in Dark Reign. “He signed the tower and the Avengers over to S.H.I.E.L.D. so S.H.I.E.L.D. would pay for it. So he lost it.” It’s a wonderful illustration of Tony’s reckless arrogance and self-confidence that the futurist couldn’t foresee a situation where he’d lose control. It’s small touches like this that make the series – a nice moment with “Bucky Cap” and a sniper rifle during a tense showdown, for example, or Spider-Man’s monologuing during the Free Comic Book Day issue.

Indeed, one can detect Bendis’ frustration with the then-current re-write of Spider-Man’s history in the pages of New Avengers. Making a deal with the devil to save Aunt May’s live and preserve his secret identity, which he paid for with his marriage, it’s a sore point for many Spider-Man fans to this day. One gets the sense that Bendis, writer of the superb Ultimate Spider-Man, feels some of that pain. In fact, he almost immediately has Spider-Man reveal his secret identity to his team-mates, effectively making his secret identity a loosely-kept superhero secret again. and then Bendis has some fun with the marriage thing. I loved Peter reassure Luke Cage that his respect for the institution of marriage means that Luke has nothing to worry about when he discovers that his wife holds a torch for Peter. “I believe in the – the statues of marriage or the institution. Yeah, the institution. I’m all about it.” It’s a great line that prods at the way editorial handled the act of breaking up Spider-Man and Mary Jane, somehow figuring a divorce would send the wrong message, but a deal with the devil is the way to go.

A tangled romantic web…

It’s just a shame so much of this series has been spent dealing with these big comic book events. I want to read stories about characters on a team called the New Avengers, rather than a bunch of single-issue stories that depend on a bunch of other comics for context, but feel rather pointless of themselves. It’s telling that Search for the Sorcerer Supreme was the first time I’ve really enjoyed the book on its own terms in quite a while, and it looks like the title is going to get swept up in the next gigantic universe-changing super-plot. I feel like a book of this profile should be an event of itself, rather than acting in service of one.

But what do I know?

Not quite magical…

I kinda wonder if, in the relaunch following Siege, these stories might be able to stand better on their own two feet. Because Bendis is a more-than-capable storyteller, it’s just that the book never feels especially important in its own right, as if it exists to add shading to “bigger” stories. Ah well. We’re almost at the end now.

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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