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Kurt Busiek’s and George Perez’s Avengers – Avengers/JLA (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.

Avengers/JLA is about as nerdy as a comic book crossover can get. Really. It takes two teams of superheroes which were both formed to allow existing heroes to team up… and then teams those two teams up. It’s pure geek chic, after all. I have no shame in admitting that I enjoyed on a purely fanboyish level, my inner eight-year-old ecstatic at the idea of taking so many toys out of so many different boxes and bashing them together which such delightful cheer. It’s not an essential story, nor a brilliant one, nor a creative one – but it does exactly what it says on the tin. It gives us a gigantic crossover between two of the more recognisable Marvel and DC superhero teams.

The very definition of awesome...

I suppose that Kurt Busiek and George Perez make good choices to work on this. Both writer and artist have a long pedigree at each of the two companies, and each knows the universe and the material remarkably well. Busiek, of course, relaunched the Avengers at Marvel (and offered us the superb Marvels miniseries) as well as relaunching Superman after Infinite Crisis. Perez himself was the chief artist on a long and appreciated Avengers run with Busiek and had also drawn perhaps the most essential DC universe story of all time – Crisis on Infinite Earths. These impressive bodies of work notwithstanding, both are perfectly qualified for the job because they love the characters.

Busiek knows his continuity inside out, and Perez can draw detail like nobody’s business. The oversized edition from DC is perhaps the best way to read this book, as it allows you to drink in some of Perez’s superb work. It’s rendered beautifully. Even when the story and dialogue are just a little bit flakey, you need only study the art to be swept off your feet. It’s presented in a wonderful way.

Play spot the hero...

Busiek, as the writer, knows that he isn’t reinventing the wheel here. It’s a giant inter-company crossover, not an acclaimed reimagining. The plot is really just dressing, following the patterns of other gigantic comic book events. In the opening pages, the same anti-matter universe is destroyed as was destroyed at the start of Crisis on Infinite Earths. The two teams don’t work together off the bat – contrived circumstances are constructed to ensure that fans are treated to long and ominous confrontations in which all characters are well represented. There’s a traditional “quest” narrative which sees the teams essentially competing for items plucked from the mythology of both universes, but there’s also a second narrative which sees the teams uniting to save reality itself.

It’s interesting how Busiek contrasts not only the characters, but the very outlooks of the worlds that they inhabit. The Flash arrives in the Marvel Universe only to find himself lynched by an anti-mutant mob. When the Avengers land in Metropolis, they are greeted by screaming fans who just want their autographs. It might a very reductive impression of the worlds portrayed across the two companies, but that doesn’t mean that it is in any way inaccurate.

Metron shares a universe...

The Marvel Universe is, by its very nature, darker and grittier. “If I lived over there?” the Flash asks on returning to the Justice League satellite. “I’d want to get out, too.” Superman doesn’t have to see too much of it to realise that “it’s not a nice place.” It’s a world where people with gifts are hunted and feared, and the heroes are barely tolerated, let alone appreciated (it’s worth noting that this miniseries was published a few years before the Marvel Universe fully tore apart these characters and their ideas or heroism in events like Civil War and World War Hulk).

Superman is less than impressed with the notoriously flawed superheroes who inhabit this world. “If those were its heroes, I’m not impressed,” he remarks after their first encounter, going on to describe the Avengers as “a sorry, disgraceful shambles.” Indeed, this world creates an under-siege mindset in the characters that inhabit it. As they are about to venture to the DC universe, Captain America warns his colleagues that, “it’s likely we’ll be met with hostility.”

Captain America steps up to bat...

By contrast, the DC universe is a far brighter place. It runs on far more hokey science, for example. “It makes no sense,” Iron Man remarks of the Flash’s cosmic treadmill, a sixties sci-fi conceit if ever there was one. “It wouldn’t work back home.” However, the differences are deeper than that. “They do honour their heroes well here,” Thor remarks, while Quicksilver – forever persecuted as a mutant – is amazed to visit the Flash Museum. Captain America is not convinced by the facade, and argues that the heroes of the DC universe tower over the citizens that inhabit it like gods.

Busiek acknowledges that the it’s wrong to attempt to compare the two fictional worlds, or to argue one is better or worse than the other. Although the JLA as a team seem more effective and stronger than the Avengers, he does have Aquaman put it in context: “The heroes here seem less powerful, in general, then at home. And their world’s stacked against them – so it seem like they’ve just got to fight amazingly hard to keep things on an even keel.” It explains why it might be harsh to measure the two against each other – which would be a foolish choice, but you know that some fans will. Towards the end of the crossover, Superman himself adequately sums up the differences in philosophy between the two universes, stating that they are brothers in arms “whether we fear we do too much – or not enough.” Guess which side is which.

The big blue boy scouts share a moment...

There are times when Busiek does push the boat out a little bit too far. In the early stages of the crossover, Busiek writes Superman and Captain America as jerks, who are confrontational for the sake of being confrontational. Superman decries Captain America’s “phony, sanctimonious pose”, while the Avenger describes the Kryptonian as an “over-muscled, high-and-mighty pretty boy.” In the story, Busiek explains this as the result of the universes melding and possibly some outside influence thrown into the mix. It’s also more than likely the author was using the characters to mock hardcore DC or Marvel fans who irrationally hate the other company for any number of exaggerated reasons. Whatever the concept, it gets very old very fast – Superman seems to spend most of the crossover in dire need of a chill pill. Until he gets to hold Captain America’s shield and Thor’s hammer. That’s just cool.

Busiek is wonderful at chopping and changing various characters and storypoints from the comic books, drawing from a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of both universes. He knows that the crossover is running purely on the thrill of seeing all these characters in the same panel, so he teases us with any number of intriguing fantasy combinations. He never allows them to bog down the whole crossover, but provides any number of fleeting and tantalising glimpses. My personal favourites includes Darkseid (who, we’re told, is “worse than Thanos”) holding the Infinity Gauntlet for a page, or a quick panel of Lobo tearing into the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, or Amazo and Ultron bonded together. I’m pretty sure I missed a whole host of similar references, but Busiek knows the audience that he is pitching this towards – and it never reaches the same levels of “inside baseball” as, say, Avengers Forever.

Uh-oh...

Even the DC and Marvel characters he pairs up are inspired – there’s virtually something wonderful about each combination who share a panel. For example, seeing Green Lantern and Iron Man walking into a meeting together calls to mind the suggestion that they perhaps perfect counterparts to each other. Iron Man and Batman share a short bit as the two billionaires on each team, one a weapon’s manufacturer and the other who has vowed never to use a gun. Wonder Woman, from a mythical island, goes to Asgard. The happily married Sue and Ralph Dibny provide an effective contrast to Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne. Aquaman comments on Victor Von Doom, “This is no way for a monarch to act.” There’s a lot to think about and digest in those compositions, and it’s clear that Busiek and Perez put these panels together with a lot of thought.

Take, for example, the way that Busiek pairs Batman and Captain America. One might think that the idealistic Superman would make the perfect counterpart for the First Avenger – and, in a way, the two do take on the burden of speaking for their universes. However, Captain America is – Busiek suggests – a better foil to Batman. By comparing the most idealistic Marvel character to the most cynical DC character, he makes a wonderful point of comparison between both fictional universes – Batman would be relatively normal in the Marvel Universe and Captain America would be fairly average (perhaps even a little cynical) in the DC Universe.

Explosive action...

But it goes deeper than that. Ignoring for a moment how cool their “meta” fight is (they consider fighting, but decide that they’ll fight each other to a standstill, so just decide to team up instead), Busiek hits on some fairly fundamental points of comparison between the two. “You… lost a partner?” Captain America suggests as he stumbles across the memorial for Jason Todd in the Batcave – calling to mind the death of Bucky in the Second World War. When Captain America reveals an ace up his sleeve, Batman acknowledges that he too is a master strategist. “You were more prepared than you seemed,” he concedes. The collection opens with Batman telepathically coordinating a Justice League assault, and it ends with Captain America telepathically directing both the League and the Avengers. They’re quite alike, but born on different worlds.

What’s interesting is how Busiek is able to use the most cringeworthy moments in the history of each character as part of the plot of the story. Confronted with the responsibility of restoring the two continuities, the characters each face their own futures – a veritable selection of awkward moments that even the nerdier amongst the audience would like to forget, mostly from “the dark age of comic books” (that period in the nineties Busiek and many others would rather forget). “And in the end,” the narration remarks, “their minds are overwhelmed with death and betrayal and madness — and even the images of hope, warmth and love are scant comfort.” Iron Man remembers his murderous days in the Crossing, Hal Jordan remembers the time he massacred the Green Lantern Corps. Batman remembers A Death in the Family. These are all sore points for the fans and the characters, moments which have hung over the heads of the characters and the continuity for a long time.

A crossover...

Here Busiek makes the decision of the heroes to set things back to the way they were a more nuanced and tragic one. This isn’t just Standard Superhero Operating Procedures 101, this is something with real and tangible consequences for them. Hal Jordan and Barry Allen make the choice to go back, knowing that they will die (well, at least for a while – both have since returned). Indeed, much like in Alex Ross’ miniseries Justice, Busiek has Hal Jordan reject a comfortable but fake reality in order to confront a harsher real world. This is poetic, given that it was Hal’s construction of an elaborate fantasy when he was unable to deal with his own reality is what led to his death.

What’s interesting is that Busiek basically uses the opportunity to make an argument not only in favour of sticking to established continuity even when difficult, but also to defend the seeming static portrayal of these characters at the same time. He argues, quite astutely, that any progressive changes to these characters are ultimately overwritten anyway. Notice, for example, the many appearances of Superman during the climactic fight (at one stage, he grows a mullet and then becomes “electric blue” Superman – the point that Thor can’t recognise him as Superman). Busiek would argue that – since we inevitably return to the same template, we shouldn’t change it too much.

Let's you and him fight!

“Twenty minutes ago, we never had children,” the Scarlet Witch explains, facing a life which is rapidly shifting before her eyes. “In five minutes, we may not ever have been married. Don’t you see? We can’t preserve the way things are. But if we try to restore what was…” To Busiek, if we “try to restore what was”, we can keep the comic book industry afloat. None of any of these cosmetic or “cutting edge” changes to characters are sustainable (“we can’t preserve the way things are”), so we are best to leave the classics as they work best.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. It’s a fun crossover.It comes complete with a smaller supplemental book which includes all manner of juicy, nerdy extras. There’s the infamous “shouting match” that resulted from the original eighties attempt at a Marvel/DC crossover (with the two companies blaming each other rather loudly for the deal falling through), but there’s also George Perez’s original artwork for the first issue of that proposed miniseries, complete with notes. Perez also annotes his artwork on the main series – better allowing the reader to appreciate his level of detail (including cameos for the Joker and Wolverine).

Details are sketchy at best...

Other extras include material from Busiek, such as his original pitch and the proposed “alternate” third chapter, which would have seen the characters swap universes. I’m kinda curious to see what Marvel’s Superman or DC’s Hulk would look like, but perhaps it would have been one gimmick too far. Anyway, the extras are superb.

So, Avengers/JLA succeeds as an inter-company crossover, which is surprisingly difficult given the bureaucracy surrounding them (consult the extras for an idea of the scale of the administrative hurdles facing Busiek and Perez). It doesn’t necessarily need any excess thought beyond “oooh, this is cool”. While it contains countless easter eggs, it isn’t as dense as Avengers Forever and is quite accessible for anybody with a passing knowledge of the DC and Marvel Universes. It does exactly what it says on the tin.

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:

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2 Responses

  1. I have all those crossover comics and this really was the best one out of them all.

    • I think you might be right.

      In terms of Marvel crossovers, this is probably the best I’ve read. Maybe Mutant Massacre comes close. Or the origin Annihilation series.

      I’ll concede to preferring DC’s character-centric crossovers better, but this probably stronger than Blackest Night or Flashpoint. Oddly, I think Busiek’s use of meta-fictional devices was more in keeping with those DC crossovers than the more direct political allegories Marvel tends to favour.

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