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Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers – Dark Avengers (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.”

Dark Avengers actually reads quite well as a self-contained volume. It’s relatively short, running sixteen issues (fourteen of which are collected here, with the other two collected in Utopia) and an annual. It sits between two gigantic crossovers, Secret Invasion and Siege, so it isn’t as frequently derailed as Bendis’ New Avengers was (or even Mighty Avengers was). Instead, it feels like a nice little self-contained chapter in the epic superhero saga that Bendis has been writing for quite some time, dating back to the first issue of New Avengers, an exploration of the modern superhero myth in this cynic world so keen to deconstruct our idols in the wake of classics like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a clever and succinct summary of the themes the author has been exploring, in a fun and dynamic sort of way.

Maybe it should be called “Moodily-lit Avengers”…

For those unaware, Dark Avengers works on a fairly simple premise. In the wake of the last big threat to Earth, the established heroes have fallen out of favour, and public have turned to a new beacon of light in a very dark time. The problem is that the replacement is Norman Osborn. Yes, this Norman Osborn. Taking the brand name “Avengers”, Osborn basically ropes in a band of psychotic, heavily medicated supervillains, gives them a bunch of new costumes and sets out to save the world. It’s a great premise, and the logical conclusion of the comic book fascination with anti-heroes that took hold in the late-eighties through the nineties – here’s a bunch of villains substituting for all your favourite heroes.

Reading the book like this allows the reader to ignore that the transition, shoehorned into the final pages of Secret Invasion, was incredibly silly even by the standards of comic book logic, and just take the idea at its face. And it’s a fascinating one. In many ways, villains are interesting characters to read about, because literally anything can happen, and their psychopathic natures – while making them horrible superheroes – does make them interesting leads. I’d be remiss not to mention the relatively large debt that Bendis owes to Warren Ellis, who took a similar concept in Thunderbolts and made it work. It’s a shame that those stories aren’t in oversized hardcovers like this one, but I digress.

Norman irons out the kinks in his public profile…

In many ways, Dark Avengers feels like a conscious attempt to revisit his Mighty Avengers, the second team book he launched shortly after Civil War. Bendis has been quite fond of this, in tying together his massive superhero saga, hitting the same notes and playing out the same scenes with different actors to produce a unique – and, in each case, telling – result. The most obvious similarity is in the structure and role of the book under Bendis. It’s been frequently noted that his tenure on New Avengers has seen the team tackle relatively street level problems, and he’s been accused of not doing large-scale spectacle quite as well as some of the earlier Avengers authors. Mighty Avengers, right out of the gate, attempted to offer the writer’s more bombastic type of superheroics, and Dark Avengers feels the same way.

In fact, both Mighty Avengers and Dark Avengers feature fairly heavy allusions to an old Iron Man storyline that Bendis apparently has a great deal of fondness for – Doomquest. In Mighty Avengers, Bendis sent Tony Stark and Dr. Doom into the past, much like in that classic story arc. Here, he sends Norman Osborn back with Dr. Doom to the Middle Ages, just like in that earlier story. It’s one of several points in the narrative where Bendis seeks to contrast Osborn to Stark, but it also demonstrates a relatively strong similarity between the leader of the Mighty Avengers and the leader of the Dark Avengers.

Hammer, don’t hurt…

Despite the fact that Osborn is best known as the Green Goblin, the arch foe of Spider-Man, Bendis sets him up as a counterpoint to Tony Stark. It makes sense. Osborn is perhaps the most recognisable corrupt businessman in the Marvel Universe, one of the hallmarks of a good Iron Man foe. In fact, the book plays up the similarities, with Osborn advising a subordinate, “Before I was the me you see, I was a hell of a weapons designer.” That origin story seems pretty familiar, doesn’t it? Apparently touchy about Stark, he insists, “I want all this red and gold out of sight.” It’s interesting that he seldom makes reference to Spider-Man throughout the book (save his encounters with Molecule Man), but Tony Stark irks and inspires him so heavily.

There are other conscious similarities between how Osborn manages his role as team leader, and how Stark took the reigns. Stark was corrupt and reckless enough to rebuild Avengers HQ with government money, a rather vain and (to be frank) greedy decision that came back to bite him. Not the act of an altruistic superhero. Indeed, Stark also used the same sort of coercion that comes so easily to Norman here, forcing heroes to register or face eternal imprisonment. Osborn does something like that in dealing with Ms. Marvel, advising her, “I have the right to order you to take your position, Captain.” Hell the two share the same branding concerns, with Osborn talking about “the Avengers franchise” in public interviews, and picking team members based on their association with popular heroes. Stark picked Ares as a “Thor” and a “Wolverine” after all. Of Daken, Osborn remarks, “He’s our Wolverine.” Hell, even Nick Fury concedes that he used to use psychics to spy on his staff, so Norman’s approach to the job isn’t too different.

Osborn would be Fury-ous to know Ares’ son is a Secret Warrior…

However, Bendis has a great deal of fun in exploring precisely how different Osborn must be from Stark and Fury, the two people to hold the job before him. Fans have made legitimate complaints about how Mark Millar portrayed Iron Man in Civil War, as an almost-fascist. However, Bendis does try to shade the character in a slightly more complex light, or at least attempt to make some excuse for Stark. Linda, discussing her husband, Bob (the Sentry), makes an observation about the type of power these men hold in their hands, “I’ve seen what kind of special man it takes to wield power. To control it. To not let it control you. It takes a special man of integrity and spirit. A ‘one in a million’ man.” She remarks that Captain America was a “one in a million man”, which seems to implicitly suggest that Tony Stark was not. He was flawed, and he failed. But Bendis dares to suggest that Stark’s biggest failure was letting Norman Osborn take control.

For all of Tony’s flaws, and they are severe ones, he is a hero. I think the best aspects of Bendis’ Dark Avengers manage to cast an interesting light on the line between heroes and villains – what are the defining characteristics which set one bunch of characters down a darker path, while their friends walk in the light? It’s a theme that I think Bendis handled really well in a poignant scene towards the end of the Ultimate Clone Saga, where Nick Fury points out that Spider-Man should be a villain – after all he endured, lesser men broke, but he’s defined by his ability to hold himself together. That’swhat it takes, the capacity to hold yourself together. It’s tough, and you won’t always succeed, but so long as you try, you can’t be too bad a person.

Sentry needs to lighten up…

It’s the pressure of expectation that really cracks Norman up, that breaks him. His greatest fear, as expressed by the Molecule Man, is that the entire world is some sort of sinister conspiracy waiting to mock him. “Everybody wants you to fail.” When Nick Fury is confronted with a very public condemnation of his policies, he doesn’t wallow in it, nor does he lock himself away from the world. He dismisses it. “The internet is stalking me,” he jokes, and that’s the end of it. People wanted Fury to fail, and people attacked him, but he endured. He didn’t cave. He didn’t explode under the pressure. He didn’t do anything horrible.

However, Bendis’ truly ingenious observation is that this willingness to collapse at the slightest bit of pressure isn’t a genuine response to the world – it isn’t a sudden realisation that drives them mad, it’s vindication of a long-held opinion. The Molecule Man, a long-forgotten villain, has been hiding away in a small town completely off anybody’s radar. However, he begins to wipe people off the face of the earth, rather than remaining inconspicuous. The Molecule Man personifies his ego and subconscious through familiar faces. “We’re the friends he made,” one suggests. “The friends he deserves.” Another insists, “We’re the friends he should have. If the world were a fair place.” That’s the thing about villains – they can’t get past that one universal truth, and they can’t move on. Heroes overcome it. Villains are trapped by it.

I think every Avengers series is contractually obliged to have Spider-Man in it these days…

Anyway, the facets of his personality suggest that his repeated murders are a cry for attention, a subconscious beacon to the powers that be, asking heroes to come and vanquish him from his home (or try) and vindicate his own failing. They’re a rather blunt form of self-sabotage. “All I want is to be left alone,” he insists. His subconscious corrects him, “You want to fail. You killed all those people. You’re almost begging to be found here.” Victoria Hand even notices the same signs in Osborn himself, recognising a potential relapse. She even argues, “You may be pushing yourself this hard as an excuse to do so.”

The foes that Norman and his team face all seem to resent the world, and are unable to move away from some perceived injustice. There’s the sorceress who can’t ignore a debt that Doom owes her, the Molecule Man who can’t accept the way things are, and even a bunch of Atlantean terrorists who claim to respond to the injustices of the surface world. They all claim to want justice, but go about it in a way that they know will simply draw a response that will vindicate their bitterness and resentment. Perhaps like Osborn is doing.

Shine on, you crazy superhero…

In fairness, I like the other observation that Bendis makes, which something that’s been a bit of a comic book trope for decades, but plays especially well here. To Bendis, heroes work because they support one another. They have complex and reinforced social structures that mean the individual should never really be alone. Bendis has played with this idea before, suggesting Matt Murdock’s isolation from the other heroes contributed to his mental breakdown in Daredevil, and pointing to the Avengers’ failure to even realise that Jessica was missing as one of their biggest mistakes and a hugely disappointing moment for the team. In short, heroes are strong because they stick together, and because they support one another. One might argue the entire situation evolved because a sense of distrust was allowed to fester.

This relates to Osborn because he simply does not have that support structure. While he may have relapsed on his own, it’s clear that Loki – a villain who sits on Osborn’s sinister “Cabal” – is pushing the former supervillain over the edge. The Avengers are too busy trying to kill one another to be an effective team, and even Moonstone’s sexual relations with team members are acts of violence and petty vindictiveness. It’s very telling that Victoria Hand, the only support structure that Norman Osborn has, is the only member of the team pardoned by the authorities and given a new job (as opposed to a prison sentence). She is the only member of the team who has “what it takes” to be hero, because even though she recognises Osborn’s impending breakdown, she tries to help him.

A stripped-down team…

Of course, the irony of all this is that Osborn’s logic is worryingly sane. He defends his actions, as being justifiable in context. “I know the mutants of this world will rise up and kill us,” he rants. “I know that the Hulk will one day decide to destroy everything he sees. I know the Punisher will one day kill the wrong person and set off a chain of events that will lead to nuclear holocaust.” The thing is, none of these are implausible or irrational concerns. They are only prevented by comic book logic. The only reason the fictional Marvel Universe exists is because the laws of narrative distort the situation so that the population is as lucky as possible. Every single one of those ideas could happen – it’s only blind luck that it doesn’t, because if they did the story would end. Norman can’t know that from his position within the story, so his stance makes sense. Of course, as readers, we know that these things don’t happen because it’s a shared universe comic book, and it’s one of the rules, and so his concerns do seem excessive. Like his rise to power, and his attack on Asgard, Bendis shrewdly uses Osborn to attack the concept of suspension of disbelief in comic books. Osborn’s position is cynical, and quasi-realistic, reflecting some trends in comics.

This seems to be the core of Bendis’ story, and his final word on this trend of picking apart heroes, and wondering what happens when they fail. Arguably since Avengers Disassembled, the heroes of the Marvel Universe have consistently and spectacularly failed, as logic tells us anybody in that position must, from time to time. It’s the ultimate “What-If” brought to terrifying life: “what if the heroes screw up?”The answer, Bendis suggests, is simple: things go to hell. So the tropes of comic book superheroes being impossibly heroic and good and decent in the face of impossible odds and temptations must be preserved, even if we know – deep down – it’s illogical, because the universe couldn’t function if we didn’t. If we can’t accept that basic logic, if we continue to pick apart fictional heroes in these superhero stories, then we’ll likely end up as mad as old Norman Osborn.

A gripping read…

That said, as much as I loved the central theme, there are a number of other things the story does well. I love Bendis’ portrayal of Osborn, particularly as a politician. It would be too easy to label the reformed Iron Patriot as a right-wing nutjob appealing to national security to support a fascist agenda, but it’s also interesting to watch him deflect criticism, dismissing them as smears. “So what this really is,” he remarks of Hawkeye’s attempts to sully his name, “is an attempt to dredge up conspiracy in what is supposed to be a time of hope and change.” Those two words, “hope and change”, were buzzwords for another real world politician accused of style over substance (although, most of the accusation against him were insubstantial). At the same time, Osborn talks about how “the Lord” offered him a second chance, courting the religious right.

In fact, I love the way that Bendis does acknowledge superheroes – at least in the form of Sentry, the archetypal superhero – as descendents of the ancient gods, in public imagination, like Morrison, Ellis and Gruenwald have all suggested. Symbollic representations of the best and worst in man, with silly and irrational gifts who so often completed feats far beyond the realm of mere mortals. Much like Norman Osborn’s Dark Reign, Bendis seems to suggest that the cynicism around superheroes will pass, and the myth will endure. Perhaps changing form.

Guess what Osborn brings to the table…

Speaking of Sentry, the very embodiment of the modern hyper-flawed, morally ambiguous and insecure superhero, I did love that Bendis essentially gave us his origin with multiple retcons within the same issue. I thought that it was quite cheeky, to justify and play with such a commonly-used superhero crutch in the context of the story itself. It made me smile. As, to be honest, did most of Bendis handling the team. in particular, Bullseye and Venom. The wonderful wit displayed here makes me sad that Kevin Smith effectively minimised Bullseye’s role in Bendis’ superb Daredevil run. “You know,” he suggests at one point, “it’s too bad I killed my mother in high school… she would have loved this.” There’s a pause. Everybody looks at him. “Kidding,” he confesses, “She wouldn’t a’ cared.”

Dark Avengers perhaps could have used some tighter plotting, I will confess. It might have worked better more clearly defined, and without drifting into crossovers with books like Secret Warriors, but these are minor complaints. I think it might be the best Avengers book that Bendis has ever written, perhaps because of both its short run and its large scale. It’s well worth a look if you’re interested in a modern Avengers story.

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

2 Responses

  1. I’ll defintiely agree with you on that last point, about this series being Bendis’ best Avengers series, because his run on Mighty Avengers was a mess of a book salvaged later by Al Ewing, and his new Avengers was too street level and overly saturated with tons of pages of characters sitting and talking.

    But DA was just the right balance and very interesting to see how things would end considering the team roster he used and their various psychoses to great effect.

    A prime example of that is of course Osborn’s portrayal by Bendis, picking up right where Ellis left off.

    Where I disagree with you is Bendis playing around with the Sentry’s origins.

    It’s funny because I don’t think the Sentry was meant to be used after Paul Jenkins was done with him, as after that, the Sentry as a character was just totally mis-used and abused by Bendis and other writers taking their cues from Bendis on how to write him. The whole bit with multiple origins, even going back to his first major arc in NA, was just a very confusing mess that made no sense, even if it was deliberate on Bendis’ part.

    We already knew the Sentry’s origin based on the information Jenkins gave us. Anything after that was totally unnecessary.
    Sentry got a raw deal, no matter what his mental status was (which we can all agree was definitely psychotic) especially the times he was jobbed out and easily mentally manipulated because he was so ridiculously over-powered that other writers didn’t know how to handle him.

    I think outside of Jenkins, Jeff Parker probably wrote the Sentry the best and with dignity, despite Parker’s Sentry stories being very Silver Age-ish. But that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.

    • Yep, it helps that Dark Avengers plays to Bendis’ strengths as a writer. I always planned to go back to his post-Siege books and finish up a set of reviews, but it’s painfully obvious that Bendis really isn’t a good fit for a stock Avengers book. (Which Mighty Avengers demonstrated, I think.) Dark Avengers is just esoteric enough to work, in that you can have the banter of seriously dysfunctional personalities thrown into stock comic book situations that allows for a juxtaposition which is a lot more difficult with a team of familiar superheroes. (I liked New Avengers because it was the opposite; familiar superheroes thrown into unconventional situations, and the juxtaposition therein. Ask Bendis to writer traditional superheroes and you get a problem.)

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