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Kurt Busiek’s Avengers – Avengers Assemble! Vol. 3 (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.

And so we reach the end of George Perez’s tenure as artist on Kurt Busiek’s Avengers run. Many would claim that the book would never really recover from the loss of the artist, though Busiek would produce over twenty subsequent issues and arguably the climax of his entire run in The Kang Dynasty. I am, to be honest, not quite so sure that this represents a turning point for the series, but I do confess that Perez would be sorely missed as the series moved through a rake of guest artists in the months that would follow. (In fact, I’ll confess to being quite fond of Busiek’s final year or two on the title.

An Avengers Assembly...

Perez doesn’t get a chance to really go out in a blaze of glory. There’s no iconic Avengers story trapped within these pages (as the first volume had Once an Avenger and the second had Ultron Unlimited). Instead, the series began to feel like an extended and protracted soap opera – a feeling that would carry through the fourth volume, until I was actually glad to see a fifteen-issue mega arc to round out Busiek’s tenure. It seemed a lot more focused tahn teh stories found here.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some good ideas contained in here, especially in the early chapters. The first couple of stories find the team fighting on an unfamiliar battlefield – they find themselves under attack not against the backdrop of famous landmarks, but instead in the court of public opinion. It’s an interesting set up – as one character notes, it’s the status quo of the X-Men to find themselves hated by the very people they protect, so it’s fascinating to see that core concept carried over to more conventional heroes.

To what Nefaria purpose?

I think that Avengers Forever make a pretty solid argument that Busiek is a fan of the uncertainty that surrounded Captain America in the seventies – confronted by the Marvel Universe’s version of the Watergate Scandal, the hero lost faith in the values that he’d sworn to uphold. There’s an element of that which bleeds through here, as Steve finds himself becoming extremely frustrated. He’s normally the paragon of virtue and balance, but he’s clearly a little bitter that he’s stuck here, “busy doing the job they’re criticising.”

Similarly, Busiek’s Thor is always fun to read – even doing tasks as banal as fetching the mail (“this doth be the last of it,” he declares). So it’s fun to see the God of Thunder get just a bit frustrated with the press, smashing a camera with his hammer and refusing to apologise. Busiek comprehends that Thor is, fundamentally, a Norse god – he’s different from us in so many ways, he’s effectively “slumming” it with us. While he’s never demanded worship, surely he at least deserves a little respect?

Being honest, I never thought I’d praise the weird Vision-Wanda-Simon love triangle element that Busiek has pushed on us for the past two books. However, here he handles it with a decent amount of maturity (only the one obligatory “comic book resolving differences” punch is thrown) and with, as ever, solid character work. You come to understand all three parties involved in the dynamic, and it makes a weird bit of sense. It’s a nice bookend, and I’d be really happy if Busiek just left that particular subplot just die rather than letting it run on forever like a Chris Claremont story thread.

Can they iron out their differences?

I have to say, though, I’m not really too convinced by Busiek’s work on Tony Stark. The author was writing Iron Man at about the same time – so perhaps the author was offering a more comrpehensive perspective of the hero in his own book. Here, Tony exists pretty much to spout exposition and to be either the voice of reason or antagonism based on the context of the scene. He spouts lines repeatedly about how “I don’t like magic” and “mythological gods unnerve me.” I know that it’s the nature of team books to be fairly reductive, but Busiek did some fairly fascinating work with Captain America and Thor, so it feels like Tony is just a little short-changed. Here he almost seems like a whiny technophile rather than an industrial genius.

The above are good bits. The rest of it is a bit more mixed. The Triune Understanding subplot is starting to grate on me, if only because the “self-help movement” might as well actually be called Scientology. The idea of a cult attracting superheroes as spokespeople and icons rather than celebrities is an interesting idea, but it seems like Busiek has the plot on the backburner, just ticking idly away and eating page space until it can come into play later on.

Triathlon was leaps and bounds ahead of the other applicants...

The cute factor is starting to wear off Busiek’s writing style. Hearing that the Avengers are “as good as their word” should be reserved for bedtime stories rather than transitional panels. Similarly, there’s only so much you can use “and so” as a scene change without it seeming awkward. And then there’s the redundant thought balloons. I freely concede that my dislike of them is irrational, and probably betrays a lack of familiarity with classic comic books. I know that they can provide interesting character insights – but it’s a little pointless to use them to show Iron Man thinking “uh-oh.”

Similarly, I get that the Avengers work well as a team. I also get that groups of villains traditionally don’t work well as a team. I don’t need Captain America to defeat a bunch of over-worldly villains using the power of friendship. It’s not that it’s a bad idea per se (in fact, the whole “evil alliances are inherently unstable” bit is kinda the point of Dark Reign), it’s just handled here in a manner that’s far too “on the nose”.

In fairness to Busiek, I do quite enjoy the meta-fictional subtext he gives the adventure. One villain, steeping in continuity, describes himself and his hostage as “anachronisms, whose dreams, whose purpose has been left behind by time and progress – left behind like so much dust.” He could be talking as much about the kind of stories and story-telling tools that Busiek is using. Indeed, Busiek has a younger character admit that she’s moved away from the “legends” she heard in her youth because she’s grown up, “I was determined to be modern, to reject the legends I was mocked for.”

Not-so-Secret Avengers...

I’ve always liked the idea that superheroes are a modern mythology. Perhaps some modern styles are an attempt to help an inherently immature genre to grow up, and that they might rob the heroes of their power – eroding the eternal appeal of these archetypes to serve the immediate demands of modern comic fans. It’s similar to the ground that Grant Morrison covered in his run on JLA. In fact, the back story for Busiek’s new character Silverclaw can’t help but remind me of Grant Morrison’s original hero Aztek in the nineties.

Silverclaw explains about her father, her shared stories with her when she was younger. “He told me of a prophecy — about how a great threat would come from a long time past — and that as the only child of the gods, I’d have to stand against it.” That’s pretty much Aztek’s entire character arc, and he was Morrison’s unique creation on JLA just as much Silverclaw was Busiek’s on Avengers. Of course, it’s also a fairly standard comic book archetype, but Busiek’s comments on mythology led me to foster a bit of a connection.

That said, it doesn’t help that the surrounding story is just a little bit disappointing, though. And why – when translating dialogue from Spanish – does Busiek have the characters translate “loco” as “loco”? I’m not kidding, a solider actually says (in Spanish), “your story -it’s loco.” Again, this isn’t a problem with Busiek’s writing, it’s a common trope in translating foreign languages (writers, for example, might not translate “mon ami” from French while translating everything else). It’s a minor complaint, I freely concede, but it does bug me slightly.

No pointing having an Avenger phoning it in...

Still Busiek’s “affirmative action” subplot is fascinating. Indeed, it seems quite astute in the modern day-and-age where race is increasingly an issue in American mainstream comics – specifically around the under-representation of non-white characters. Busiek has a point when he suggests that lobbying to get a black character included in an ensemble is pointless if they are going to serve as, to quote Falcon, “the world’s mightiest token.” Busiek is correct to have the Black Panther point out that there’s no point in appointing a standard-bearer and that this probably isn’t the forum for this debate:

My place in the team was always as an Avenger, not as a black Avenger and to make me, or any other black hero, a showpiece for the crowds would only bring the tensions that plague America within the walls of the Avengers Mansion itself.

He’s also correct to point out that, unfortunately, there isn’t a wide bed of ethnic superheroes to draw from. And, given how difficult it is to introduce any new characters regardless of their race, gender or sexuality, that traps a lot of mainstream comic book writers in a catch-22 situation. There aren’t too many old characters to use, but new characters don’t tend to be popular enough to catch on. Look at the difficulty and backlash Brian Michael Bendis faced in radically overhauling the team, moving away from the old favourites.

Meet the "new" Avenger...

Writers like Brian Michael Bendis and Greg Rucka have been doing sterling work over the last couple of years working with and creating a diverse portfolio of characters – and I feel that those authors didn’t create or use any of them simply to seem politically correct or consciously diverse, they created or used them because they seemed a good fit. It’s a bit of a shame that Triathlon was never really pushed to the fore after Busiek left, relegated to books like The Initiative.

I have to admit that I quite like how Busiek compares his affirmative action quota protestors with anti-mutant rights protests. “No genefreaks! Stop the mutant agenda!” some protestors declare. Busiek makes it clear that these are two distinct groups, but having them both protest together in the same crowd illustrates that affirmative action is itself a form of racism.

It’s a complex issue, and – to be fair – Busiek doesn’t opt out of it. That said, it’s a thorny issue. I think that the notion of “affirmative action” in the context of a comic book is different than in the real world. In the real world, you remedy inequality by improving access to education and facilities, affording equality of opportunity. It’s slow, but it generally works. As jobs are vacated and people retire, a the social structure should begin to more closely reflect a country’s demographic composition. In comics, the same doesn’t hold true because comic book characters are immortal and can’t be “replaced.” Look at the controversy Brian Michael Bendis generated on elevating a minority character to succeed white Peter Parker in Ultimate Spider-Man. I know this is a hotly contested issue – and I don’t want to comment too much on my restricted understanding of American racial politics in a review of a comic book, but I thought it was worth pointing out.

Not always an explosive read...

The stories are, for the most part, decently entertaining. They’re hokey fun, sort of superhero bedtime stories. I can understand why Busiek opts for them, and why fans love them, but they do seem to archetypal for me. They fit the conventional superhero mold a little too perfectly, and it’s a parade of Marvel Universe continuity. I have no problem with this, but I would just love to see a reasonably accessible Avengers run, which didn’t depend on years of in-depth knowledge of the Marvel Universe. (Bendis’ New Avengers has the same problem, relying too hevaily on concurrent (rather than past) continuity.)

As an aside, it’s interesting aside to note that Busiek does a fair amount of weird foreshadowing in these issues, perhaps suggesting that the writer is years ahead of his time. “It is difficult to imagine Genosha ever being a happy place,” Quicksilver confesses to his sister, years before Grant Morrison would wipe out the entire country in his opening issue of New X-Men. There’s even a slight hint at the recently-launched Secret Avengers, with one issue featuring an (admittedly fake) Captain America putting together a stealthy bunch of Avengers for a top secret mission, including an Ant Man (who isn’t Hank Pym) and a cosmic hero.

Not a team player?

Perez continues to do downright stunning work on a consistent basis. Of course, it’s easy to see the work appeals to him – he relishes the opportunity, for example, to illustrate She-Hulk in a chainmail bikini (as an “armoured Amazon”). All joking about his own tastes aside, Perez did sterling work here, and the body of work stands to his credit. He was the perfect match for Busiek, in that both seemed to share a synergy that was lost after Perez departed. I admire the up-coming issues simply because they have more focus, but the artwork is never as consistent as it was under Perez.

At this stage of the game, you know what you’re getting. It’s corny and ridiculous and inward-looking, but it’s also well-characterised and occasionally thoughtful. It’s not perfect, but it’s a slice of true old-fashioned nostalgia – served entirely straight.

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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