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Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Volume 1 (Review)

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.”

It’s fascinating how Marvel managed to effectively reinvent the Avengers franchise over the better part of the last decade, pushing the title to the centre of their publishing line and revitalising it – both through Mark Millar’s alternate-continuity Ultimates and Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers. Both were poles apart from the type of books fans associated with the property, favouring sweeping and blockbuster storytelling in the place of the more conventional soap opera antics. As such, Joe Casey’s miniseries, offering a reflection on the first few years of the team, feels like something of a polite acknowledgment of the legacy of the team, and an attempt to celebrate their history together.

Not quite a train wreck…

I don’t like stories that rely on decades of old continuity to tell their story. I don’t mind the occasional non-intrusive reference, and I like continuity of character, but both can be accomplished without making the reader feel excluded because they haven’t read an issue published before they were born. Such an approach is toxic and counter-productive, and is one of several major problems with the medium as it stands, in my humble opinion.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for Joe Casey to tell a “behind the scenes” look at the origin of the Avengers that is accessible. While every event in Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ Marvels can be cross-referenced in the history of the Marvel Universe, nobody feels left out because they didn’t read the story. Here, however, you have jarring scene transitions and awkward dialogue references that are hard to piece together. Characters reference events we didn’t see in this collection (“you had him!” Iron Man yells at Thor after a single splash-page fight with the Hulk, “and you let him go!”) which makes it all seem quite jarring. More than that, though, the collection seems almost proud of the level of geek knowledge it possesses, and the way it proposes to revisit this key moment of Marvel history – now with more paperwork!

Mightiest heroes made of earth…

“Secret origins” can work. You can tell a new story based around an old story that is compelling in its own right. However, when you promise to tell me the behind the scenes story of how the Avengers really became “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”, I want an epic. This is a story featuring the green giant who claims to be “the strongest there is”, the Norse God of Thunder, the embodiment of American nationality, the ultimate technocrat and one of the world’s greatest scientific minds! This should blow my mind. If they’re coming together to overcome something, it either needs to be bigger or smarter or more insightful than any other dramatic obstacle thrown in their path before.

Instead, it’s bureaucracy. Bureacracy is boring when played as drama. It’s even more boring and far more silly when you involve men in tights in the whole affair. Iron Man welcomes his guests to the Mansion and, as the first order of business, advises them, “these envelopes contain both our charter and a proposed draft of our by-laws.” I hated when Kurt Busiek’s Avengers focused on the administration of the team, and it’s no different here. “I, for one, shall not succumb to the hypocrisy of midgard bureaucracy,” Thor remarks. I, for one, agree with him. Ant-Man, for example, suggests, “The sooner we can get past these administrative hassles, the sooner we get to work for real.”And yet we somehow spend the next seven issues fixated on them.

I’ll drink to that…

Avengers: Earthiest Mightiest Pencil-Pushers! There’s no problem that can’t be solved with a little extra paper-work. The Hulk’s rampage a potential embarrassment? “We’re looking into retroactive removal of his participation in all pertinent documents.” I realise the pro-active superhero is an impossibility, but perhaps a better idea might be to actually deal with the Hulk rather than revising him out of your history. When Iron Man exploits a convenient loophole around Captain America, Thor is disgusted, “But any achievement on the basis of a contractual technicality… there is very little honour in that.” I disagree, but it does make for dull reading.

There are other subplots at play here, but the only potentially interesting one is Captain America’s fixation on Baron Zemo, the crazy Nazi who killed (well, mostly) Steve’s partner, Bucky Barnes. It’s a nice little take on the character, as he struggles with his own internal rage and tries to balance his personal desire for vengeance with his plans to see justice done. It would, however, carry more weight if the execution weren’t so ham-fisted it was painful. “I’ve never intentionally taken another man’s life,” Steve explains, at one point. “Even in war.” He was a soldier. It was his job to kill the enemy. While you don’t need to go to the extremes that Mark Millar did, I think Ed Brubaker’s portrayal of the character in Captain America was perfect – he was a soldier who served in an actual war, and who paid the cost, carrying it with a great dignity.

Mon Capitan…

Indeed, Captain America’s arc is perhaps the most fascinating in the context of the Avengers, but Joe Casey seems to botch it almost completely. There’s a nice scene with Steve visiting a Vietnam War Memorial, which is ruined when Rick Jones asks him how long they plan to be there. “For as long as it takes for me to read every name on this wall. For as long as it takes to acknowledge every solider that died… in a war that I missed.” Sometimes less is more, particularly when you’re going for an emotional impact.

But that’s really the problem with everything here. All the angst goes up to eleven. The characters are like children, unable to cope in any reasonable way with the real world. It’s hard not to hear a note of exasperation in Iron Man’s voice as Captain America mopes around, “Dear God…!” He sounds like he’s running a creche. There’s something ridiculously over-wrought about the way that he advises Captain America, “So if you walk out that door… you’re risking everything we’ve built here.” (He might as well have gone on, “And don’t you dare come back, Steve Rogers, you hear?”)

Avengers assembly!

The sad fact is that Casey misses any number of great opportunities to add some depth. For example, if Tony Stark thinks he’s working with a psychotic who has delusions of grandeur, the scene where Thor reveals Asgard to Stark should be a much a bigger deal. It turns Stark’s world upside down, and it should feel like a genuine pay-off rather than a half-hearted story point seemingly remembered at the last minute and shoehorned in there. There are any number of potentially fascinating dynamics to explore in the group, but so many of them just end up feeling kinda perfunctory.

Another problem with this story is the way that it updates the Avengers origin. It gives us some superficial acknowledgments to the fact that the world has moved on since these original tales appeared. Special Agent Murch uses a mobile phone, for example, and Stark has a personal computer. And the characters still act like they were lifted out of the sixties. There’s no hint of complexity or development in transposing the characters, no sense of the complexity that shifting these decidedly sixties creations through time might serve to create. Captain America is aghast at watching Fear Factor and Heavy Metal on his television – that’s a very lazy way of demonstrating how out of touch he might be. (Hell, I recoil at both those things.)

Smashing!

There’s no justifying the awkward social attitudes the stick out like a sore thumb, especially Hank Pym’s possessive sexism, which seems to have been casually borrowed from a Sean Connery Bond film. He remarks that he’d like to stick around, “But I also have a responsibility for the safety of my partner…” Because, you know, she’s a woman and can’t take care of herself or make her own decisions. He also warns Stark, “And don’t blame her, this was my call.” Don’t worry, woman, Hank Pym’s here to spare you the hassle of thinking or taking responsibility for your actions. You could argue this is an attempt to portray Pym as a flawed character (and none-too-subtlely insinuate a strain of misogyny that would lead to the infamous wife-beating incident), but the simple fact is that nobody seems to notice or care. Everyone is just sorta cool with it, which you might (unfortunately) expect from a sixties comic book, but not one so recent.

You could argue that Casey is attempting to stay true to his source material, but that’s a terrible defense. Why update the story at all, in that case? Why add mobile phones and computers and Fear Factor? You add those things because you think they make the story more relevent. So why not change the casual sexism? Why not add a bit more character to what were relatively shallow characters? It’s this sort of attitude that makes me skeptical of nostalgic comic books. They’re too often blindly unquestioning and only dare to make superficial revisions, ignoring the more awkward subtext of the outdated originals.

Thor’s one hell of a Norse nurse…

On the other hand, I love Scott Kolins and his work here (as you can see) is awesome. I love his cartoony work, and it suits projects like this, that play up the more fantastic aspects of superheroes rather than more gritty or grounded takes. The colours are vibrant and the style suits the material. Quite simply, it looks good.

But I’m not convinced. I find it hard to believe that this was the best an author could do when asked to take us back to the roots of The Avengers, and I’m thoroughly dumbfounded by the sheer lack of ambition of it all. I can forgive a lot, but this sort of smug complacency coasting by a vague affection of the past without any real substance is something that’s just bad.

Our reviews of both volumes of Joe Casey’s Earth’s Mightiest Heroes might be of interest:

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