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Kurt Busiek’s (& George Perez’s) Avengers – Avengers Assemble! Vol. 2 (Ultron Unlimited) (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.”

I want to enjoy Kurt Busiek’s Avengers run. It’s apparently one of the better Avengers runs out there. In fact, I can actually see the reasons why one would fall in love with it. It has great characters, great villains and great stories, written by a writer who adores the subject matter and an artist who is among the best in the business. And yet I can’t help but feel locked out of the series, as if this is a book intended for those who like a particular style of old comics – rather than those seeking accessible and fresh takes on classic characters coming together to fight evil. This second volume is perhaps the highlight of the run, collecting – as it does – the Ultron Unlimited storyarc, perhaps regarded as Busiek’s finest hour on the title (with only Avengers Forever and The Kang Dynasty competing, depending on who you ask).

Boy, is his face red...

There is a sense of nostalgia running through the title. For example, the opening arc, guest-starring the Thunderbolts, traces the anecdotal history of one of its locations as long ago as the sixties. Hawkeye gives us a rather intimate history of the locale, explaining events “way back in 1966” as if they happened yesterday, only to set up an entirely new villain to confront the two teams. I’m not sure I needed the info dump, especially when it’s rather clumsily introduced as exposition. I know that comics are old. I know that Marvel has been publishing a long time, and that Kurt Busiek is familiar with the rich history. However, I don’t want to feel like the one guy reading the comic who left out as Busiek talks about events that took place in books published forty years ago.

I explained in my review of the first volume that there’s a reason why Busiek adopted a nostalgia-heavy approach. It was a way of re-establishing core traditional values at the end of a decade which had seen the company stray too far from them. The nostalgia is a polite way of letting the reader know that they can get comfortable, that things are back to the “same old, same old”. While I appreciate the context, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. I am as tired as comic books constantly promising to radically overhaul the status quo, but there’s something disappointingly mundane about a series whose entire operating procedure is designed not to change or evolve – but to actively and consciously regress, both in terms of style and characterisation. We’re reminded, for instance, of the one time that Black Panther betrayed the Avengers – but the matter is dealt with in the next three panels, making it somewhat redundant.

Iron Man is having a blast...

Busiek does play with modern concepts. For example, there’s Captain America’s energy shield on show here, and he does invent the Triune Understanding – a cult that leverages its celebrity members to gain mainstream appeal. That second plot point would go on to almost smother the run over the subsequent few years, so heavy-handed and awkward it became. However, for the most part, Busiek is looking backwards. Busiek and Perez seem to take great joy in references to past events and complicated flashbacks. I am not sure, for example, that I needed a three-page flashback of Hank Pym’s history when “he invented Ultron” would have done the job much more efficiently.

There’s something depressing when Busiek finds himself using the team’s bureaucracy as a plot point, such as when he has the Avengers confronted by a crisis… of what to do when Captain America misses a meeting! It’s like that episode of 24 where Jack Bauer nips out for an early lunch! Or the James Bond movie where Bond can’t report to duty because he’s taking a late-night cookery class! “But he’s Avengers’ Chairman, which creates a problem,” Iron Man moans, already developing hints of the up-tight “workin’-for-the-man” jerk who would start constructing extra-dimensional internment camps in Civil War. Seriously? You have an entire fictional universe packed with wonder and excitement, and we get stuck into Avengers meeting by-laws? There are more efficient ways to turn the Scarlet Witch into a leader, and ones which are much less boring.

Ultimate evil?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not looking for mindless action or anything like it. Indeed, this collection contains perhaps my favourite issue of Busiek’s entire run, Hi, Honey… I’m Hooooome! It’s essentially the Avengers as a buddy sit-com, with the Hank “the mutant party machine” McCoy popping in to visit his hetrosexual life partner, Wonderman. It’s corny and goofy and all sorts of ridiculous, but it kinda works because of the innocence of it all. Perez and Busiek are clearly having a fun time – I love the look on Captain America’s face as the sound of a crash comes from the room that the Beast has just bounded into. “That – wasn’t furniture,” Wanda observes.

Part of it is that Busiek actually writes quite a decent Hank McCoy. The Beast has long been a favourite of mine. There’s something about his big blue exuberance, and his furry appearance (whether the one shown here or in New X-Men). There’s also a sense, and it’s one that Busiek nails here, that the Beast is actually comfortable in his own skin. Despite his physical deformities, he takes it all in his stride. “I had to realise what felt right for me,” he explains to his best friend at one point in this collection. As a teenager, that sort of attitude was wonderful – I can’t help thinking that maybe a few other mutants could do with an attitude like that.

You gotta admire his boundless enthusiasm...

With Ultron Unlimited taking up the final four issues of the collection, Hank Pym gets quite a bit of coverage here. Pym is an interesting character, in that I’m hardpressed to think of a character who has undergone so much change, not in his own book, but as part of a larger team book. Of course, the character will never be able to live down that one time he slapped his wife (with Mark Millar turning him into a bona fides wife-beater in The Ultimates), but he’s a character who (despite never really being a-list) writers continually return to. Which is fascinating, given that he’s not your typical superhero (“superheroing was never my first love,” he confesses at one point).

Busiek’s fondness for Pym is quite obvious. Pym took up two slots on Busiek’s time-lost team in Avengers Forever and would go on to have a rather strange character arc in the later Avengers Assemble! collections. Here Busiek tries in his own way to excuse some of Pym’s many past failures (suggesting that Ultron’s first attack “mentally weakened” the hero), but also comes up with a rather ingenious link between the inventor and his supervillain “son”. The notion that the pair share the same brain patterns (that Hank modelled his AI’s brainwaves on himself) makes almost perfect sense, and it’s a great addition to the mythos.

Ultron has Pym to Hank...

Early in Ultron Unlimited, Busiek establishes the psychotic robot as a threat by having him completely wipe out a small European nation. It really says something about the book that you need to wipe out an entire country to make it clear that the threat is really bloody serious, especially given all the corny stuff beforehand. If Busiek attempted the same thing today, I suspect a lot of people would call it cheap or lazy, and they’d have a point. However, Perez’s artwork hits the moment perfectly. It is horrifying and devastating. And, to be fair to Busiek, it works, precisely because Busiek has shown such restraint dealing with violence and darkness.

And Ultron looks like a real threat.

"My life-size action figure collection is almost complete!"

Until he opens his mouth and comes out with statements like, “the total, irrevocable destruction of the human race is at hand!” You know, as opposed to all those partial, revocable genocides that supervillains do all the time. He speaks like a sixties supervillain, using exclamations like “bah!” I’m surprised that he doesn’t have a little robot moustache to twirl as he remarks that minor disruption “means nothing!” Seriously, he’s an evil genocidal robot – and he speaks like a pantomime villain. I can practically read the faux British accent in his dialogue.

Every step that Busiek takes to establish Ultron as a force to be reckoned with is undermined by another factor. His genocide is rendered a lot less scary when he speaks like a pupil of Supervillain Eloquotion 1o1. The fact that there are numerous robotic clones of him (458 at least) is undermined by the fact that Busiek draws our attention to that one time that Daredevil kicked his robot ass. You really shouldn’t bring that up, by the way, because it was a great moment.

Hammer time!

So either you treat the moment with the respect it deserves (and it undermines the threat Ultron poses to an entire team of superheroes including a god – because he got has ass kicked by a street-level hero) or you dismiss it as ridiculous (which makes it look like a cheap shot because, even it was ridiculous, it was still awesome). “Daredevil? Hmp,” Justice remarks, as Busiek makes it clear he plans to belittle that scene, “How did he beat Ultron?”

The answer, in case you’re interested, is “with a stick”. This is from Ann Nocenti and John Romita Jr. run on Daredevil, as part of the Acts of Vengeance crossover. While not quite as good as some of the more iconic runs (Miller, Bendis, Brubaker), I think Nocenti deserves a higher profile. There’s a more detailed rundown here, but here is the essential page:

Sticking it to the man...

Still, Ultron Unlimited flows along quite well. It packs a lot of action, features some decent development and packs a nerdy little conclusion that was foreshadowed by events earlier in the hardcover. The story has a dramatic heft to it that most of the rest of the collection can only aspire to. In fairness, Busiek acknowledges that he likes his subplots (perhaps too much), as he breaks the fourth wall to tell his artist, “we’ve got a sub plot to set up first, though…” George Perez voiced the same concern I’ve had repeatedly in reviewing this run, as he asks, “action now?”

Perez continues to do great work, to the point where he’s the book’s true attraction. His own fixation on the Scarlett Witch continues – here she appears not only in bondage, but also doing “one of the traditional dances of her childhood” (complete with gratuitous boob shot, by the way). Still, nobody does detail like Perez, and all of his scenes do look fantastic. Check out some of the screenshots, if you don’t believe me.

Awesome...

Busiek’s run is one of pure nostalgia. Perhaps I’m not the right person to appreciate it, even though I will concede that it has the odd corny charm now and again. It’s perhaps a product of its time, an attempt to reaffirm the core colourful properties of superhero comics after the nineties. There’s a wonderful line which perhaps captures the philosophy of the series perfectly, as Firestar remarks that trashing a bunch of mad scientists (AIM – Advanced Ideas in Mechanics) is “way more fun than fighting drug dealers, street gangs and muggers!” And, to be fair, it is. I love a bit of fun in my superhero comics. It just feels a bit overburdened here with continuity and slavish references.

So, if you’re into this sort of thing, it’s grand. However, for modern readers, it isn’t the most accessible comic book series in the history of the world. Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison channel nostalgia much more efficiently at DC, without locking out more modern fans of the genre. Still, there’s a lot to admire in the work Busiek and Perez have done, and I promise I’ll try to be more positive as I continue through Busiek’s tenure on the Avengers.

You might be interested in our reviews of the rest of Busiek’s run, collected in a series of “Avengers Assemble” oversized hardcovers:

You might also be interested in our reviews of his other Avengers-related stories:

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