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Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Volume 2 (Review)

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.”

Written by Joe Casey, Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, both volumes of it, can’t help but feel like an attempt to appease nostalgic fans, with a conscious throwback to simpler and more idealistic times, published while Mark Millar was deconstructing The Ultimates and Brian Michael Bendis was putting together the New Avengers. Both of those books represented something bold and new for a franchise that had been at the heart (but rarely the fore) of the Marvel Universe for decades, and both of which were undoubtedly controversial to older fans, offering a strange new direction for the series and its characters. Essentially an “untold” history of the team, drawing from classic published stories, Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes feels like a bone given to those fans uncomfortable at the very notion of change.

Looking for the blessing of the Trinity...

I respect Marvel for doing it. The think that makes me really uncomfortable about comic book fans is the strange sense of entitlement, coupled with a fear of change. Everything needs to remain the same, because Marvel “owes” that to their readers and all that nonsense. I don’t like that approach. If I am fond of a particular piece of comic book history, I can re-read the story. Or I can daydream about it in a nostalgic sense. I don’t believe that things should never change, nor do I believe that the past should be treated as a sacred temple, some sort of pinnacle of brilliance that will never be matched, let alone surpassed.

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean I like “new for the sake new” or that I don’t appreciate or respect classic comics. I can concede, for example, that Bendis’ work on New Avengers is significantly flawed (although it is also filled with interesting ideas and clever concepts). I guess that I am attempting to make the point that this sort of heavy fixation on the past does make me a bit uncomfortable, if only because the stories as written were a product of their time, and attempting to retell them, or to confine yourself to their logic, might be counter-productive in a world that has changed so radically.

The Vision's chequered past comes back to haunt him...

Like the first volume, Joe Casey uses the book as an opportunity to chart the history of the team. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Volume 1 focused on the founding members of the team, the matinee idols, the group you’ll be seeing on the big screen this very summer: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Volume 2 follows a significantly different roster, from a very different period of time. It focuses on characters like Hawkeye, Black Panther, Hank Pym, the Wasp and the Vision – all characters who came to be associated with The Avengers as a franchise. In fact, I dare say that Casey’s line-up here is far more interesting than in the original book – at least from the point of view of defining the team.

Iron Man, Thor and Captain America have never had difficulty holding down their own books. In fact, it’s easy to point to solo adventures and collections featuring the characters, and even long runs. While you may think of them when you hear the name “Avengers”, the three exist very much independently in the public consciousness. On the other hand, characters like Hawkeye and Black Panther have had difficulty holding down long-running books (with Black Panther hijacking Daredevil recently and Hawkeye published in a string of miniseries), while characters like the Vision and Hank Pym have their own personal development so closely integrated with the team that it’s really hard to separate them.

Who you callin' Yellow?

You could make the argument, and legitimately so, that this line-up is perhaps the definitive Avengers team, a group of individuals who really came into their own because of their teamwork, rather than a bucnh of big names who worked together between their solo adventures. In many ways, to return to the nostalgia point above, this feels like a conscious response to Bendis’ New Avengers, which famously filled the team with big-name stars like Spider-Man and Wolverine. Of course, Bendis’ books sell well, and it’s hard not read a subtle rejoinder in Casey’s introduction. He states that the relative financial success of the franchise is at an all-time high, but then goes on to dismiss the massive impact that success has had. “But believe me,” he insists, “that’s got nothing to do with how great a gig it is.” He’s right, of course it doesn’t, but it feels a little strange to bring up the issue of sales only to dismiss it.

There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I like the idea of diversity in the Marvel line. That said, I do feel a bit uncomfortable with the execution of this whole adventure. It seems like Casey is attempting to remain faithful to the original stories, referencing old adventures and giving us several pages of team history in the first issue (in an awkwardly stilted fashion); but the writer is also trying to make them seem a bit more relevent and “up to date”, trying to make those original stories seem somehow deeper and more complex than they were when published. It’s a dangerous sort of revisionism that Casey is playing with, and I think he’d be better served to opt for one approach or the other, rather than trying to blend fidelity to the original material and making an attempt to modernise the stories.

Dresscode casual...

Two of the most awkward insertions that Casey makes involve the public’s reaction to the team and the possibility of a High School shooting. Casey plays up the public’s mistrust of the Avengers here, in order to make the team feel a little bit more beaten-down and under-siege. “I dunno,” one observer remarks, “I heard it’s not even human–“ Another responds, “I can’t believe they made that… thing an Avenger…!” The problem is that those sorts of remarks aren’t the type of comments that one associates with the Avengers, it feels like Casey is cribbing lines of Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men. Everybody (comic book reader and non-comic book reader alike) knows that this sort of fantastic racism is a trait that made the early X-Men stories so special, so it feels a little cheeky to see it used here.

Things do get slightly more awkward when Casey attempts to insert a High School shooting into Black Panther’s famous undercover stint at school. Those sorts of events are tragic and horrific, and the shake countries to their core. It’s a bit strange to see one of these while Hawkeye is making cheesy jokes like referring to an AIM scientist as “Professor Beekeeper.” It just doesn’t sit especially well, and it does feel like a cheap attempt to prove that these characters matter. Of course they matter, but you can’t treat the potential murder of young children by a young child with the sincerity it deserves while playing all those hokey old tropes entirely straight.

Do the Avengers need to go underground?

However, the biggest problem in the book is Hank Pym. Pym had a fairly controversial mental breakdown in the seventies, and it’s one that has defined his character ever since. Pop culture, if aware of Hank at all, knows him as “the wifebeating one.” However, the character’s mental breakdown was written a long time ago, before research for stories like this was a common practice. So there are some uncomfortable moments and implications that reflect a society uncomfortable and ill-at-ease with mental illness.

So, Casey is rewriting that saga. One might expect that the author would exercise due diligence and offer a slightly more nuanced portrayal, or at least remedy a lot of the problems people see with the story in hindsight. This isn’t the seventies. We know more about mental illness. We are more aware of the gender issues the unhealthy relationship with Wasp might involve. So any author working on the topic needs to tread very freakin’ carefully, right? Instead, Casey blasts on full throttle.

Keeping an eye on the situation...

A qualified professional describes his illness as “some form of severe schizophrenia.” The mental disease might have a few similarities with how schizophrenia is frequently presented in the media, but it is not anything like real schizophrenia. Such a mistake was lazy when the story was originally written. It’s almost offensive now. As is the whole Yellowjacket and Wasp “romance”, which begins with Hank Pym abducting Wasp (regardless of how Nick Fury may dismiss it) and involves all manner of unpleasant threats from the new and improved Hank Pym. “We might as well get this party started–!” he remarks, about to force himself on Janet.

You might argue that Casey is attempting to expose these interactions as truly sinister rather than relatively playful, but it’s hard to reconcile when he gives the character dialogue like, “I mean, if you people don’t want to be friends, I can get on that bandwagon too… Might be fun to beat the holy hell out of the Avengers.” While this sort of interaction (and the really stupid facade that the Avengers play along with) might have worked in a comic book plotted four decades ago, they don’t work today. And Casey’s attempts to put them beside more modern ideas like the High School shooting or the War on Terror (“science terrorists are a new level of threat for us,” Agent Murch explains, “of course, it’s all by-product of an environment where you people feel the need to play super hero”) just makes them even more difficult to take seriously.

Married to the team...

I think that’s my problem with attempting to modernise classic tales and old stories. If you want to do it, you need the courage of your convictions. If you want to put Hank Pym through a breakdown as severe as that, you need to have him face the consequences like Mark Millar did in The Ultimates. It looks stupid to see the team welcome back as unstable a team member as Pym, given the harm he has caused, and the high-pressure situations the team finds themselves in. We can suspend our disbelief in reading the original tale because of its age, but this is a more modern story that tries to have more modern sensibilities. It just doesn’t work.

Despite all this though, Casey has a firm grasp of the key players. I get the sense the writer, like Dan Slott on The Mighty Avengers, harbours a deep affection for Hank Pym, and appreciate the effort that the book goes to in order to demonstrate how much of an asset a man like Pym would be in combat, suggesting that his weaknesses are merely the man holding back. “They’re not human,” he tells himself, facing an armada of robots, “so don’t hold back, Pym… you don’t have to… not this time…” In many ways, Casey paints Pym as the very spirit of the Avengers, with the character conceding, “It’s become my whole life.”

Going through the Vision for a shortcut...

There are nice little moments with Black Panther and the Vision, who is in “a constant state of becoming.” Sure, some of the plots are rather hokey (as they were when published), but Casey does understand the core of these characters, and it shows. He clearly loves this team, and you can feel it in reading the book that he’s having a hoot writing them all.

Still, I do feel more than a bit uncomfortable reading Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Volume 2, if only because it illustrates that sometimes the past is best left in the past, and it’s futile to hope that it can be transposed to the present. Still, there was a time when the line-up featured in this book was bold and brave and new, so maybe there’s hope yet. Not all change is bad.

Our reviews of both volumes of Joe Casey’s Earth’s Mightiest Heroes might be of interest:

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