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Kurt Busiek’s Avengers – Avengers Forever (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.”

Read our review of The Avengers here.

In many ways, to me, Kurt Busiek’s Avengers run represents comic book nostalgia given form. I can’t help but read it as an attempt to call back to the “good old days” of mainstream comic books, with all the illogical and insane twists and an old-school approach to dialogue and characterisation. On the best of days, I’ve found his approach giddy and enjoyable – it’s hard not to get caught up in his genuine enthusiasm for the material. However, when Marvel gave Busiek a twelve-issue Avengers miniseries, it seemed inevitable that the writer wouldn’t just seek to nostalgically emulate the past, but tie it all together as well. In this respect, as it weaves through decades of Avengers continuity, Avengers Forever feels almost like continuity porn. Hardcore continuity porn.

Avengers! Avenge!

I know a little about the Avengers. I’m reading up on them as Joss Whedon’s Avengers grows near. I am roughly familiar with the team history. I know the big plots. I recognise, for example, when Busiek opts to use the Captain America from the famous Secret Empire storyline, or Hank Pym in the form of the psychotic Yellowjacket. These aspects of continuity I am familiar enough with. I can even pick most of the foes from this collection out of a line-up. I don’t have a doctorate in Avengers history, though – nor do I pretend to. And, truth be told, the first half of the series actually reads quite well as a story exploring the team’s history – full of loving references, but never getting too entangled in events long past.

So Avengers Forever loses me at about the halfway point, when Busiek stops using the twelve-issue miniseries to tell a story, but as a means to retroactively “tidy up” storylines that everyone (from publisher to reader) would rather forget. I’m a bit wishy-washy on the issue continuity – I don’t believe that basic continuity excludes new readers, but I don’t believe that it makes for a good story crutch. It’s nice to build on what came before, but exposition and elaboration over events that happened in the past are unnecessary at the best of times. Including a throwaway line which explains that Iron Man is a recovering alcoholic helps his characterisation and doesn’t detract from the story at hand. On the other hand, devoting an entire issue in a twelve-part series to explaining how every crazy event in the team’s history was the result of one crazier villainous plan just kills momentum and confuses readers (like moi) with a very basic level of Marvel comprehension.

He Kang, He Saw, He Conquered...

I’ve argued before and I’ll argue again that this focus on specific minutia is damaging the medium, playing to older fans and locking newer fans out of comic books. If a kid asked me to recommend an Avengers comic book and I came back with Avengers Forever, I can assure you that they’d probably never pick up another comic book again in their life. Avengers Forever isn’t intended as a book for new readers, but it isn’t intended as a book for casual readers either. It’s a book for hardcore fans who know their issue numbers inside out – and even I can’t help feeling a little bit locked out of it all. And I will freely concede that I’m a geek, that I have a very casual knowledge of the characters and their back stories, and their important arcs – even if, as a reader born in the eighties, these old issues aren’t always easily available to me in an affordable format.

Comic book publishers make mistakes. Frequently. Unlike with movie series like James Bond or Batman, comic book writers can’t just “reboot” after a mistake like that. They have to work around the mistake that they’ve made in order to steer the story in a worthwhile direction. Even DC’s various “reboots” all have in-story explanations like Flashpoint or Crisis on Infinite Earths. However, I don’t see the benefit to anyone in dwelling on those mistakes or seeking to waste valuable time filling in gaps that nobody cares about. I’ll bet the readers were glad to see the end of those particular storylines, and certainly didn’t want to see them again – especially in a modern book.

Stars in his eyes...

The Crossing was a mistake. Feeling that the Avengers franchise was out-of-touch, the editors at marvel decided to effectively clean out the line. They turned Iron Man into a murderer, introduced “teenage Tony” and exiled the characters from continuity. Until, a few years later, they realised their mistake and brought back the characters in Heroes Reborn. Now, if you’ve read any major Marvel title over the past five years, you could be forgiven for never realising that anything like that had ever happened. It’s in the past, best forgotten about. After all, we don’t spend a few hours everyday remarking on how stupid parachute pants were – we just don’t wear them anymore. Life moves on.

However, Avengers Forever makes a valiant attempt to retroactively “fix” bad decisions like that. And, in fairness, Kurt Busiek is the right author to attempt something like that, because Kurt Busiek is the master of comic book continuity. He knows his timelines inside and out. He picked up writing duties on Avengers shortly after Heroes Reborn and fairly effectively wrote around the matter – I think there’s one brief explanation and few cryptic references, but that’s it directly after the event itself. Here, however, he seems to consciously try to repair some of the damage done to the franchise and the characters.

Doors to the past...

So he writes off these plots as not “really” being the Avengers, but being the subtle manipulations of a time-traveling supervillain. If you’ve watched The Simpsons, you’ll recognise that he’s pretty much saying “a wizard did it” – which is just lazy writing. However, that’s not the problem. The problem is that he spends an entire issue explaining to us exactly which wizard did what. Iron Man’s out-of-character behaviour at the end of The Kree-Skrull War? Immortus “instilling him with a sense of xenophobia.” Any subsequent jerkiness was the result of this interference, which “made the armoured avenger short-tempered, even cruel.” He then explains exactly what happened in The Crossing – which is kinda boring, because I’ve never read it (and most who have were so scarred that I’m not sure they’d want to return to it).

Hell, he even uses it to re-write Hank Pym’s convoluted mental history (which has been exaggerated to the point where it’s his defining characteristic). Although this meddling didn’t cause his breakdown, It did deepen and worsen it. “No one caused your breakdowns, Henry Pym,” the captured shapeshifter assures him. “We just lied to you. It just made things all the more convincing to back them up with a lie you wanted to believe.”

Maybe they should call him "Grey Panther"?

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but it does bother me. It’s exactly the kind of insular comic book continuity obsession that alienates the mainstream. Anyone reading my reviews of New Avengers will know that I have enough problems with storylines dependent on concurrent plots in different titles to make sense. Here the storyline is dependent on fragments from over thirty-odd years of rich comic book history. I’m not interested in the “byzantine schemes” of a master villain which exist through convoluted narrative structure to make every line in every comic technically true (especially since it results in something even more confusing).

Which is a shame, because there is actually, against all odds, a lot to like here. There are no thought balloons and the hokier elements of Busiek’s writing seem to be toned down. In fact, for the first three issues – when Busiek was using existing references to continuity to tell a story and explaining everything he needed to – the book seems like it might have been aimed at a wider market than the hardcore Avengers fans. Sometimes things do get a little bit too out of hand, but he reigns it in.

Not everything that glitters is gold...

Busiek actually does better when he deals with the awkward recent past and the “sunnier times ahead.” It’s fun to see, for example, Busiek’s distortions of traditional heroes serving the conquering legions of Rickard Jones and the army that the Time Keepers assemble (versions from “every divergent reality that turned dark and destructive!”). In particular, the opening few chapters explore various potential pasts and futures which – while a little on the nose – fit very well thematically. Particularly opting to make Nixon a Skrull imposter (calling to mind Secret Empire, Marvel’s take on Watergate) or the scenes with Black Panther and the Martian invasion (where the character must make a strategic decision whether the team stands for live or death). These moments are simplistic, but effective.

It’s interesting to read Busiek’s handling of the main antagonists of the story – the Time Keepers – as a twisted take on Marvel editorial. After all, they oversea (and “prune”) the Marvel Universe, developing and cutting short certain trends and series within it for their own ends. They make sure, pretty much, that the Marvel Universe doesn’t grow or develop too fast. They are responsible for pretty much everything. However, Busiek could have told us that without spending so much time outlining each and every example.

Nixon is out of this world...

There are moments where I am not sure if the series is too cheesy or just cheesy enough. It walks the line a little bit. The fact that Hawkeye actually utters the line “The supreme intelligence? On a dune buggy?!” gives some indication. At its best, it’s hugely enjoyable old-school fun that isn’t afraid of being wonderfully silly. Carlos Pacheco does some fantastic work, a fitting counterpart to George Perez’s work on the regular Avengers title at the same time. There are times, to be honest, when I wanted to stop reading the words and focus on the art.

Avengers Forever might be the book for somebody. It’s very highly regarded, on-line by people who – I freely concede – know their Avengers history far better than I do. I found it tedious and overly referential, awkward and over-stated. Busiek does great character work (witness his bunch of time-snatched Avengers, for example, and the excellent Kang-centric issue which focuses too much on continuity), but it’s overshadowed by a desire to explain everything. I have no doubt Busiek can do that, but it locks a lot of us (myself included) out. I feel like I’m a child who has been invited to a birthday party by a some other kid’s mother – I can see all the other kids having fun, but I don’t know anybody there.

Capping it all off...

Note: Kurt Busiek retweeted this review last night, very kindly. He also very politely pointed out that I imputed motives to him that he didn’t have. I apologise – and wish to clearly state that everything here is (of course) my own opinion on reading the book. It doesn’t reflect what actually happened – I can’t know why creative teams make the decisions that they make, I can only try to deduce it from the material at hand.

Nevertheless, I was perhaps a bit flippant, so I’ve revised the text, and offer my sincerest apologies to the author. I was entirely too flippant, and no disrespect was intended. After all, I have found his work on the characters interesting enough to buy and read and review all of the oversized hardcovers.

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

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

One Response

  1. The “fix” Avengers Forever resorts to for The Crossing totally doesn’t work because Space Phantoms were only able to assume subjects that already existed!

    So if all the newly introduced characters were Space Phantoms who were they templates of?

    Another conceit of their powers was that when they return to Limbo they always materialise exactly where their subject was specifically shunted to there but this definitely wasn’t shown for any of the characters they were supposedly masquerading as during either story.

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