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Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers – New Avengers Vol. 7 (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.”

Read our review of The Avengers here.

And so, this is it. The end of Brian Michael Bendis’ first run on New Avengers. And, to the writer’s credit, it actually feels like an ending – something you very rarely get in mainstream comics, particularly when the writer’s going to be producing another book the following month. While I’ve had more than a few issues with the individual chapters in Bendis’ run, I think his New Avengers holds together remarkably well when examined as one big story – because it is one big story. The issues are paragraph breaks in the arcs, which are themselves chapters in the unfolding epic Bendis was weaving through the heart of the Marvel Universe, a bold attempt to redefine “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”for the twenty-first century.

Happily ever after?

Fans might gripe at what Bendis has done to their beloved franchise. I can understand the reasons: his New Avengers is a far cry from Kurt Busiek’s Avengers Assemble, and his characterisation is different. There’s also the fact that Bendis is a writer who refuses to allow his book to drown out his unique authorial voice. While books like Alias and Daredevil (and even Ultimate Spider-Man) might be well-served by his urban plotting and David-Mamet-dialogue, it still feels like a strange fit for the Avengers, even sixty issues after he started writing.

I can understand these complaints, as well as those centring around the way he structured his story. Despite being the flagship title, New Avengers seemed barely able to stand on its own in its final couple of years, with readers seemingly expected to pick up “event” book after event book. It’s a valid criticism, and one I have levelled against his work as well. The story that Bendis is telling would be so much stronger were it allowed to stand on its own two feet, instead of being constantly “tied in” to other books in a cynical attempt to lighten fans’ wallets.

Geez, they're gone for like a year and everything goes to hell...

On the other hand, I think Bendis has been unfairly treated by fans, who seem offended at the very idea of change. It seems that New Avengers was beset on all sides by armchair critics accusing it of not being “the real Avengers” and criticising the changes Bendis had made to the team’s status quo or membership roster. Hell, the internet still seems unable to get over the fact that Spider-Man and Wolverine were allowed to join the team, despite the fact that Bendis was very clearly and very boldly attempting a retool. The irony is that many of these anonymous critics will attack Marvel for its conservatism, and suggesting that no new ideas are ever attempting, missing the fact that Bendis was trying something “new” with the Avengers.

And I honestly admire that. In an era where comic book nostalgia is increasingly strong, with countless titles staring wistfully back towards a mythical and perfect past, it’s nice to see a writer who isn’t afraid to try something new and bold with an established property. Bendis very clearly had an agenda with New Avengers, and that was to push the franchise to the front-and-centre of Marvel’s shared fictional universe, dislodging the X-Men from a pole position they had held since the nineties.

X-over?

Some fans would argue that this wasn’t necessary – that the franchise was just fine where it was, or that Bendis sacrificed something inherent to the nature of the comic book in order to achieve that sort of fame or success. I don’t like that assertion, because I’d argue anything he jettisoned was just window-dressing. I don’t think that the Avengers Mansion was essential to the character of the team, nor a government mandate. I think that Bendis tapped into the heart of the Marvel Universe by basically taking the team and pushing them outside their comfort zone.

In the sixties, what gave the Marvel titles their edge was the fact that they weren’t about the establishment – there was something counter-culture about them. Peter Parker wasn’t a jock, he was a nerd. Bruce Banner was a fugitive. Thor was a god who had been banished to Earth for his arrogance. These weren’t characters who represented the cultural establishment, they were feared and hated despite their heroism. I think that Bendis reworked the Avengersfranchise to play up that attribute, pushing the team outside their comfort zone.

All fired up...

It’s telling that Bendis casts Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, as the voice of reason in all this. It isn’t just because Bendis has written an extremely long run on Ultimate Spider-Man, it’s because the writer recognises something of the Marvel “ideal” in the webslinger who just can’t catch a break. He understands that a large part of Spider-Man’s appeal to the public at large is the sense that he’s the underdog – that the entire world seems a like a sinister Rube Goldberg machine designed to ruin his life. Bendis seems to recognise that his heroism has a stronger appeal because of his circumstances. As he argues in Ultimate Spider-Man, Peter Parker has ever reason to become a villain… but doesn’t. That makes his heroism all the more notable.

Indeed, Bendis casts Spider-Man as the voice of reason, as if to emphasise that he’s putting the whole Avengersteam in the position that made Spider-Man so popular all those years ago. Alarmed at Hawkeye’s plan to assassinate Osborn, a decidedly unheroic act, it’s Peter who gives the group their moral centre, pointing out that the situation is new and that the team is in an uncomfortable position, but one that’s second nature to him at this stage.

Itsy-bitsy spiders...

“I think – you know what? I think you’re cracking up,” he tells Hawkeye. “This is really getting to you. and you don’t know what to do. You’re so used to your old Avengers Mansion and your butler and Tony Stark paying for your spa days that now you have to live like the rest of us… now that you have to feel what’s it’s like to be, you know, me every single day… you’re cracking up.” Later on, Spider-Man even illustrates why this change in circumstances makes the team even more heroic, and why their decision to stick to their principles matters so much more at this point in the story. “It’s easy to be a good guy when everything is hunky-dory. It’s another thing when your resolve is being tested. And your resolve is being tested.”

As much as I might hate the endless string of increasingly pointless crossovers that Bendis seemed to pilot the book through, I have to concede that his ideas are conceptually sound. The Avengers franchise did need retooling, and Bendis actually did that. Leaning on the fourth wall, Bendis actually has Norman Osborn provide the justification for the overhaul, explicitly using phrases like ‘status quo’ and ‘Avengers franchise.’ “I’m talking about changing the status quo because as far as I can tell, the status quo, as it was under Nick Fury and Tony Stark and the Avengers before us… doesn’t work.” He has a fair point. Despite being Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, it was a third-tier franchise behind Spider-Man and the X-Men.

All good for the Hood?

Cynics might argue that the book was selling more individual units before Bendis came on board, but the entire industry has seen a huge slump in sales. While I suspect you can see some of the causes here (including event fatigue, excessive decompression and poorly-structured cross-title plotting), I don’t think you can lay the blame on New Avengers for the entire market falling. There are wider factors that span both major companies, and far beyond even those. The fact that the book climbed relative to all the other DC and Marvel books being published perhaps lends credence to Bendis’ argument.

Still, in fairness to Bendis, he seems to acknowledge the fanboy ire he has provoked. After all, making Norman Osborn your mouth piece suggests a wry sense of humour. Last time, I suggested that the Hood, Bendis’ central villain, could be seen as a parody of the stereotypical whiny and entitled fan, with a disproportionate sense of entitlement from comic books. Here, however, Hood is cast as Bendis, with the other members of the syndicate representing the comic-buying audience, or at least the more vocal fans amongst them.

Avengers Assembled!

“We came to you for a gig,” one of his goon comments, sounding disappointed in the bold new direction. “You promised us some big time–“ Well, Bendis did make the Avengers “Big Time”, didn’t he? Later on, the Wrecker offers the kind of trash talk that Bendis seems to receive on every vocal internet forum, as they speak down to Madame Masque, claiming she and the Hood have turned the whole situation into some kind of mockery. “Babe before we met you, we took on Thor. We took on the Hulk. We took on the Avengers. Back when the name really meant something.”

When Loki offers Parker the Stones of Norn, it almost sounds like Bendis transcribed the conversation he had with editorial on receiving the title. “They say the stones choose the host,” Loki suggests. “But they have been locked away and missing for many years. It would seem they would be eager to accept you. For how long, no one can say.”After all, Bendis’ arrival on the book was originally heralded, but somehow ended up becoming the stuff of explosive internet flame wars. Avengers fans who had been left out in the wasteland had greeted his arrival and the promise of a big push with open arms, but the support of such fanatics is fleeting, as Bendis knows all too well. When the time comes, they are quite likely to just let you down.

Bendis truly was a hotshot writer...

However, despite all these new trappings, Bendis’ story is, at its heart, one of heroes and villains. His heroes will alway be heroes, despite the temptations they might face in the dark midnight of their souls. Villains, on the other hand, will always be villains. There’s a reason that Bendis’ fascinating Dark Reign cannot last, because the villains aren’t the heroes. They lack the trust and support network that unites and bonds our iconic characters, and they also lack the planning and foresight, or willingness to learn and grow. Spider-Man, ever the voice of reason, pretty much predicts how it will go down. “I promise you, I promise, Normon Osborn will overstep and he will fall on his tushy and everyone will see what a maniac he is. He always does.”

Villains are villains. They’ll always lose because they don’t plan ahead. Wrecker has a crucial thought in the middle of an incredibly brutal and pointless confrontation, suggesting, “Let’s think about this. If Harrow’s got enough juice to take out the Sentry… Maybe we don’t have to go all the way through with this. Maybe we can just –“ Juggernaut cuts him off by correctly observing, “Too late now.” Later on, Miss Marvel reprimands Osborn for his impatience and the poor tactic decisions that it leads him to make. “You don’t leave your team in the middle of a battle and go off half-cocked,” she insists. “You’d know that if you knew anything. And that’s why you’ll fail. And you’re crazy.”

Lighten up!

During a battle with the two Captain America, it’s the Living Lazer who realises that the Corruptor probably shouldn’t pause to capture the perfect moment on his not!iPhone. That’s just bad villainy right there. “Stop playing around,” the Lazer advises his colleague. He refuses to be brushed off, correctly pointing out, “No. This is the kinda crap that always gets us in trouble.” Still, despite years of experience, the Corruptor still hasn’t moved past that rather basic type of supervillainy. In most other books, this would seem like lazy writing, but Bendis makes it work as clever commentary on the nature of these bad guys.

While the heroes can be similarly irresponsible, the difference is that they can acknowledge and learn from their mistakes. Bucky isn’t too arrogant to admit that they made a tactical error, and it means he’s less likely to repeat it. The whole situation brewing from Civil War makes it less likely that the heroes will repeat their mistakes again. While Osborn refuses to learn tactics from the “real”Avengers, the superheroes aren’t above adapting strategies from the villains. Finding themselves in reversed roles, Spider-Man is shrewd enough to fall back on using Kingpin’s old strategy to distract Osborn. Even the heroes can turn their underdog position to their advantage, while the villains struggle to win from a position of dominance.

Fightin' finish...

It feels like an era has ended. I’ll be honest, it was a flawed era. The series spent far too long tied into gigantic crossovers, and devoting tie-in issues to fill unnecessary blanks. The status quo changed far too rapidly for any plot or character development to happen within the framework of the series. Truth be told, I am looking forward to seeing Bendis tackle more “traditional” Avengers plots when he takes over the main title with John Romita Jr. illustrating. I’m curious what a Bendis-written “Kang the Conqueror” plot might look like.

Still, I admire the ambition of New Avengers, and I admire its bold willingness to push the title outside its comfort zone. I actually felt more engaged with the title than I did when reading any of Kurt Busiek’s Avengers Assemble. I remarked on the first set of hardcovers that the “new” in New Avengers was not merely an affectation, but a mission statement. While it might not have been a resounding and complete success, I think the first volume really accomplished something.

You might be interested in our reviews of the rest of Brian Michael Bendis’ first New Avengers run:

You might also be interested in Brian Michael Bendis’ other Avengers runs:

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2 Responses

  1. this review is very epic.

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