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West Coast Avengers Omnibus, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

I’ve never been especially fond of the classic Avengers. The group has always seemed particularly insular and self-centred for a comic book superhero team, with so much emphasis on their by-laws and regulations, their posh fifth avenue mansion and the strange sense of pride that second-tier characters like Hawkeye seem to place on their own importance within the Avengers franchise. There have been great runs, and there have been comics that I have enjoyed a great deal, but I will concede that I am not a fan of the Silver and Bronze Age Avengers aesthetic.

West Coast Avengers is a clear attempt to develop the franchise, to give Marvel a second high-profile Avengers book. Launched in 1984 and running for a decade, the book followed the establishment of a second superhero team branded on the classic Avengers model. Of course, part of me suspects that this was all just a plan to get Hawkeye out of the mansion (“you and Mockingbird can relocate quickly… and the sooner you do — the sooner our west coast team is operational — the better!” Vision insists).

There are moments of wry self-awareness in West Coast Avengers, but far too much of it reads far too earnestly.

And yet somehow this guy has appeared in two of the biggest superhero blockbusters of the past five years...

And yet somehow this guy has appeared in two of the biggest superhero blockbusters of the past five years…

I should be clear about a few things first. I am a massive fan of writer Steve Englehart. I loved his run on Detective Comics, and I think that it is very clearly a milestone in the evolution of Batman as a character. It does things with the character that had never been done before, but which seemed so incredibly obvious in hindsight, establishing a complex internal psychology for Batman that formed the basis of a lot of better-known stories that would follow. So I was hoping for something similar from Englehart’s Avengers. I didn’t get it.

Artist Al Milgrom comes in for a lot of criticism from comic book fans. I’ve never really had too much problem with his work. I don’t think that Milgrom was ever the best artist working at Marvel, but I respect that he was a steady workhorse who could produce an impressive volume of work at a reasonable quality. His panels may seem a bit too static, and his characters often seem a little lifeless, but his layout and structuring is solid – nobody is ever confused about what is happening in an Al Milgrom comic.

Tigra throwdown...

Tigra throwdown…

Milgrom’s West Coast Avengers has a particularly cartoonish look to it. I won’t argue that it’s perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it works in the context of the comic. There aren’t too many iconic visuals or eye-popping moments, but the comic is told well and it flows smoothly enough with a consistent and clear art style. It’s not going to blow anybody’s socks off, but I think that Milgrom deserves a lot more credit and respect than he typically receives.

There are a lot of reasons that West Coast Avengers seems like a great idea. For one thing, putting Hawkeye in charge of his own franchise of the Avengers sounds like it should be hilarious. While Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye is one of the best comics being published at the moment, I’m not a huge fan of the classic version of Hawkeye. There’s just something strangely unsettling about a guy who bases so much of his self-interest in the fact that he gets to hang around with celebrity superheroes.

Because this is the man you send to Los Angeles to establish your franchise...

Because this is the man you send to Los Angeles to establish your franchise…

Hawkeye is the guy who has photos of himself on his office walls, shaking hands with Thor or Captain America or Iron Man. That can’t help but seem a little sad. Hawkeye is so invested in the Avengers – and his membership of the team – that he considers the mansion as “home” – or, at least, his “home away from home.” When he marries Mockingbird, he pretty much assumes that gets her a ticket on to the Avengers. “So don’t think you’re getting any kind of special treatment!” he assures her. “The fact that we’re husband and wife has nothing to do with your status as an Avenger!”

Of course, it’s hard to take his assertion at face value. When another competent no-name heroine (named Firebird) comes along and wants to join the team, Hawkeye overlooks her entirely. Apparently you need either brand recognition or to sleep with Hawkeye if you want on to his super team. To be fair, Hawkeye argues there are other reasons Firebird didn’t make the cut. Explaining why he picked the Thing – who repeatedly refused to join – over Firebird, Hawkeye offers, “And he’s the Thing! We know what he can do, and we don’t know her!”

We all have our demons...

We all have our demons…

In other words, if Hawkeye doesn’t know you, you don’t get on his superhero team. From the time that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby launched it, The Avengers has always been a book about the weird class structure of the Marvel Universe. It’s sort of like Downton Abbey but with sillier costumes and dodgier writing. It’s very clear that the Avengers operate on something like a rigid superhero class structure, and Hawkeye – as somebody on the upper rungs – has a vested interest in minimising social mobility.

Indeed, it’s suggested that the team would happily ignore good ideas if they don’t seem proper. When Hank Pym volunteers to hang around and use his vast technical abilities to assist the team in saving lives, Iron Man is quite adamant that this sort of thing just isn’t done. “Look, I didn’t mean to sound elitist — but I guess I am! You and I helped form this group — and Avengers shouldn’t work for Avengers!” Jarvis is clearly just the hired help. Those sorts of menial jobs are for the lower classes, the little people. Even suggesting Hank might do paperwork or lab work demeans him somehow.

Metal-to-metal...

Metal-to-metal…

That said, Tony concedes to himself that this might not be the only reason he’s uncomfortable with Pym helping out. “Or — is the real reason my feeling that I demeaned him already, by moving in on Jan after they were divorced?” It makes the whole Avengers scene seem creepy and incestuous – something that Englehart doesn’t help when he has Tigra try to work her way through the men on the team. Although we’ll get to Tigra and the whole host of problems surrounding her portrayal in a moment.

Even Jim Rhodes, working with the Avengers for the first time, picks up on this clique-ishness. “I hope I wasn’t too rude back there — but, man, it feels awfully weird hanging out with people who think they’ve known you for years.” There’s a sense that the Avengers are – as Tony Stark suggested at one of their earliest meetings – just a bunch of friends who hang out because they have god-like powers and all that. They band together to protect one another and reinforce each other’s ego.

Tigra's troubles really kicked into high-gear when Kraven decided tiger-stripe pants were the fashion of 1985...

Tigra’s troubles really kicked into high-gear when Kraven decided tiger-stripe pants were the fashion of 1985…

When Iron Man is subjected to press criticism for his handling of an attack by Power Man, the team rallies around him. “Don’t let all this bad press get you down,” Wonder Man reassures him. “The media can’t wait for one of us to have an off-day!” Never mind that the criticism might be legitimate, or that maybe Iron Man could have handled the situation better. The team has to race to protect its own from the nasty outsiders bullying the poor helpless superheroes.

Indeed, Hawkeye seems to treat public confidence as something to be manipulated and manoeuvred, rather than earned through honesty and hard work. There’s never any question in Hawkeye’s mind that the greater good is always what is best for the Avengers. What is good for the Avengers is good for America, apparently. So he’s more concerned about the team’s image than he is about saving lives and earning the public’s trust.

Shaky ground...

Shaky ground…

When Wonder Man defeats Ultron, Hawkeye isn’t happy that a genocidal menace has been beaten and the world is safer than it was the day before. No. Hawkeye is just happy that he has accomplished something he can use to bolster his own self-esteem and assert his own competence over the “other” Avengers. “This’ll blow their minds!” Hawkeye brags. “This is somethin’ the West Coast Avengers did that they never could!”

When his recruitment drive fails to earn traction, he laments, “Nobody wants to risk their rep on a group still as untested as ours!” Never mind that trying save lives should probably be a worthy end of itself. When Wonder Man comes clean to the American public about his sordid history, Hawkeye is immediately put on the defensive. “That’s no way to help the West Coast Avengers gain public confidence!” he accuses Wonder Man. Never mind whether the public had a right to know. The institution of the Avengers needs to be protected.

Ain't nuthin' but a Thing...

Ain’t nuthin’ but a Thing…

Indeed, West Coast Avengers has the same fixation on by-laws and regulations as so many of these Avengers comics. Hawkeye is so fixated on the six-person membership rule that he doesn’t consider the team fully formed until it has six members. When he discovers seven Avengers at the same table, he gets paranoid. “If you’re keeping to the six-member limit, who gets bounced?!” You can tell that part of Hawkeye is terrified at the prospect of losing his snazzy parking space or butler service.

It’s absurd. You would imagine that a team should figure out the optimal number of members designed on its current configuration. There should be flexibility and it should be organic. A comic book should not devote so much space to discussing the mandated number of members. That said, we spend three pages at the start of The Attraction Between Two Bodies talking about costume changes for the characters. Can’t we just assume that the characters optimised their appearances between issues?

Breaking down barriers...

Breaking down barriers…

Everything feels so soulless and shallow here, which is a bit of a shame. The opening four-issue miniseries by Roger Stern has just a hint of satirical brilliance to it. The notion of moving a team of Avengers to Los Angeles is ingenious. After all, given how self-important the Avengers are, they are a perfect fit for show business. When Stern’s miniseries assembles the team, there is a clear emphasis on show business. Simon Williams is working as a stunt man. Tigra is a model. Even Jim Rhodes is “playing” the role of Iron Man.

This is a cynical exercise in branding and franchising, so Hawkeye’s difficulties setting up the team seem delightfully wry. You’d imagine that people in garish outfits who insist on their own self-importance would be right at home in Hollywood. One of the better gags in the miniseries has one of Gravitron’s lovers offering a cutting criticism of the megalomaniac supervillain. “What a bore!” she muses, as if suggesting that it takes more than just some razzle-dazzle and a snazzy outfit to impress in Hollywood.

A smashing time...

A smashing time…

In contrast, these rough edges get smoothed out when Steve Englehart takes over. The comic immediately seems to lose interest in its West Coast setting – barring the occasional gag about Simon Williams’ career. The commentary descends into cheap name-dripping and references. Williams gets to work with Arnold Schwarzburger on a knock-off of Conan: The Barbarian, produced by “Dino” who is reduced to the most crass of ethnic stereotypes. “Fo’get-a da cheaters!” Dino appeals to Tigra. “I make-a you a star!”

West Coast Avengers also suffers from being too mired in continuity. One of my main criticisms of Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers work has been that it never feels like it is telling its own story – it’s always anchored in some other story going on elsewhere, tying in to other on-going storylines to the point where it doesn’t feel like the narrative is ever running under its own steam.

Robot wars...

Robot wars…

The first four-part miniseries launches out of the main Avengers book, with reference to the threat posed by the Dire Wraiths. Along the way, the book finds time to reference Walt Simonson’s iconic Thor run or Denny O’Neil’s Iron Man work. The first two issues of the regular monthly comic exist as a crossover with Vision and the Scarlet Witch. The book devotes so much time to various continuity loose ends that a substantial portion of its page-count is devoted to flashback, with quite a few helpful asterisks pointing to the source of various plot points.

It feels like Englehart is less interested in telling the story of the team than focusing on baggage left over for various team-members. He devotes considerable space to Wonder Man’s origin, offering what at first appears to be a retcon to blot out the character’s criminal past, but what ultimately turns out to be a reinforcement. It’s a nice idea, but it’s not strong enough to justify the time or energy devoted to re-writing a decades-old comic and then un-re-writing it. To describe it as convoluted feels like an understatement.

The mother of all personal problems...

The mother of all personal problems…

Similarly, Englehart’s use of Tigra seems… awkward. Tigra is a character who comes with a certain amount of baggage, being an anthropomorphised tiger who jumps around in a bikini. She’s a character who comes with her own issues and baggage, making her tough work for even seasoned comic book writers. Englehart, for some reason I can’t begin to fathom, decides to drop a boatload of gender issues on top of Tigra’s character arc, and the results are not pretty.

Englehart casts Tigra in a less-than-flattering light. She tries to hook up with most of the men on the West Coast Avengers team. (The exception is Hawkeye – apparently even Tigra has standards.) Anyway, this isn’t a problem of itself – it might be nice to have a sexually-confident young superheroine who isn’t afraid or ashamed of her sex drive. Unfortunately, Englehart slut-shames her, suggesting that both Wonder Man and Hank Pym are the victims of her crazy and unreasonable sex drive.

Hell and back...

Hell and back…

As if to underscore just how deeply “wrong” Tigra’s sexual hyper-drive is, Englehart has Tony Stark (hardly the paradigm of good judgement in the Marvel Universe) refuse to go to bed with her. In another quick scene, as Tigra makes out with one of her lovers, Englehart and Milgrom frame the shot to include another of her partners walking oblivious by the window. The narrative condemns Tigra’s approach to sex, suggesting that she is causing unfair harm to the men wrapped up in her sexual antics. There’s never any suggestion that Pym or Wonder Man might have unrealistic expectations from their liaisons.

In West Coast Avengers, the proper view of sex is one centred on the expectations of male characters. Tony Stark suspects that he might have seduced Janet Van Dyne too soon after her divorce. However, Tony’s concerns are not motivated by any suggestion his courtship of Janet might have been opportunistic or predatory. Instead, he’s worried that it might offend Hank, as if hank can claim some proprietary ownership of his ex-wife.

Going ape...

Going ape…

This is bad enough by itself – there’s a rather creepy undercurrent to Englehart’s decision to cast Tigra’s sex drive (absent from the other female members of the cast) as completely negative. However, it gets worse when he decides to throw feminism into the mix. Kissing some random guy in Los Angeles, Tigra muses, “Whatever other failings I may have, I do like men–! And men like me! I’d never have been this free if I’d stayed Greer Nelson the feminist!”

The most charitable way to characterise Englehart’s exploration of Tigra’s feminism is as a rather mean-spirited take-that directed at the sort of radical feminist movement that was so frequently exaggerated and distorted in the mainstream press. This run came out a few years ahead of Andrea Dworkin’s oft-sensationalised Intercourse, and Englehart seems to be equating feminism with a cynical and restrained view of female sexuality.

Fly-boys...

Fly-boys…

However, given some of the problems in the second half of Englehart’s run involving another female character, it’s hard to write off Tigra’s observations and viewpoint as parody of excess. After all, Englehart adopts a markedly different approach to Tigra’s view of feminism than he does to the Grim Reaper’s racism. The Grim Reaper’s racism is immediately called out and criticised by the narrative. Tigra’s commentary on feminism is allowed to stand completely without comment.

As such, Englehart’s asides and attempts to characterise Greer Nelson’s feminism as some sort of puritanical prudishness seem like bitter jabs at the feminist movement. It’s incredibly shallow and unsettling, immediately dating the run and playing up all sorts of unfortunate sexist stereotypes about the medium and genre. Given my respect for Englehart’s Strange Apparitions, I can’t help but feel disappointed in the writer.

Yep, Tigra, I don't like it any more than you do...

Yep, Tigra, I don’t like it any more than you do…

That said, the only character arc which really lands, albeit somewhat clumsily, is the reconciliation between Hank Pym and his genocidal robot creation Ultron. Of course, Englehart doesn’t do the robot any favours by portraying him as an equal partner with second-tier baddie the Grim Reaper, but it is interesting to see a version of Ultron who isn’t completely bent on destroying mankind, and who can offer Hank Pym some small measure of reassurance.

Indeed, Englehart gives us some nice Freudian insights into Pym’s dysfunction, even drawing a connection between the failure of Hank’s marriage to Janet and the strain that children put on even a healthy marriage. “Did those things cause your divorce?” Ultron wonders, idly. “Every child feels guilty when his parents separate, of course…” The image of Ultron with his head screwed on backwards is somewhat surreal, but there’s something undeniably cute about Hank and his creation getting to spend some quality “father-son” time.

The very Vision of happiness...

The very Vision of happiness…

West Coast Avengers can’t help but feel like a wasted opportunity. The Avengers has always been a book about superheroes who get off on their status as superheroes, living the life of the privileged and accruing all manner of prestige by association with the group – sort of like the opposite of the X-Men. Moving that sort of culture to Los Angeles, the home of Hollywood and spin and image management, provides some fertile story-telling ground, but the book never really explores that potential. Instead, it’s just another Avengers book, complete with its own baggage.

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9 Responses

  1. This may very well be one of the worst articles I have ever read. It’s a book about people in costumes hitting other people in other costumes. It’s a pre-Dark Age comic. Comics can, do, and did have meaning and depth, sure, but your retrospective/analysis is far, far into seeing what you want to see territory. Hell, you don’t even bother actually reviewing the book so much as you focus on harping on Clint or the very concept of the Avengers.

    In short: Get over yourself.

    • Thanks John. I too find the internet is much better when everybody agrees with me and nobody has opinions and stuff.

      Just because it’s a pre-Dark Age comic doesn’t mean that it automatically gets a pass on any sort of analysis. That’s massively insulting to the great and thoughtful work of artists and writers on those sorts of book, people who have constructed narratives that hold together and don’t have any of the massive problems that plague this run. Englehart’s Strange Apparitions, for example, is a building block of modern comics, and one of the cornerstones of a sophisticated understanding of Batman. I’d be lying if I said his work on Batman didn’t excite me about his West Coast Avengers work.

      (Similarly, I think Lee and Ditko’s Spider-Man holds up to this sort of in-depth analysis, as does Claremont’s X-Men or Walt Simonson’s Thor, to pick some rather obvious examples – but also Gerber’s Defenders or Kirby’s solo Captain America. Just because it is older than ten or twenty years doesn’t mean it gets a pass on exploring any of the subtext in the work.)

      As far as “what I want to see” territory, that’s a valid enough criticism – but I fail to see how “I’d want to see a less sexist Avengers comic” is somehow unfair game. I like to read comics. I like to read comics. I would like more of the stuff that makes this run good and less of what makes it bad. And most of my “I’d like to see” stuff consists of “more of the stuff that worked here” – more of the Pym/Ultron stuff, more of the Hollywood setting, more of the exploration of the Avengers as a franchise.

      I’m more than happy to engage with you on this. So how is my argument invalid? Am I misreading Englehart’s treatment of Tigra? Is he really being subversively feminist? How about his handling of other female characters? Am I missing a vital piece of the puzzle that invalidates my logic? Am I wrong to suggest that Hawkeye acts like an entitled douche who measures his self-worth by membership of a group that lives in a mansion in the middle of New York?

      I’d like to think I quoted a variety of examples and dialogue backing up my point. Are these invalid? Are these out of context? Did I miss a crucial line which makes all of them ironic? Or was Englehart setting it all up for a brutal subversion, a big dramatic twist?

  2. tigra is the most awsomest avengers there is so your review is dumb

  3. Great article, will poke around here for more of your stuff on comics!

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