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Avengers: Endless Wartime by Warren Ellis, Mike McKone & Jason Keith (Review)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Warren Ellis is one of the great comic book writers. Ellis works in a bombastic larger-than-life style that is never too beholden to the current continuity of whatever company for which he is currently working and which remains accessible to just about anybody who might want to pick it. His Extremis remains the perfect introduction to Iron Man, while Ultimate Human is the most syner-tastic marketing tie-in ever written, its release coinciding with that of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk.

At the same time, Ellis’ work-for-hire can occasionally feel a little reigned in, a little too relaxed and too casual – lacking the energy and enthusiasm of his stronger work. Sadly, Avengers: Endless Wartime is a book that never quite measures up to its potential. An original graphic novel written by Ellis and illustrated by Mike McKone, Endless Wartime has a wealth of clever ideas, but never manages to get too excited about any of them.

Some men just want to watch the world...

Some men just want to watch the world…

Endless Wartime seems to exist as a graphic novel aimed squarely at fans of The Avengers who might want to pick up a comic book. It’s designed to be accessible and easy-to-understand, something you can just put into somebody’s hands without having to explain the entire shared history of the Marvel Universe. The book even comes with an introduction from Clark Gregg, the actor who plays Agent Phil Coulsen in Marvel’s cinematic and televisual universe.

This isn’t the first time that Marvel has tried to leverage cinematic success into new readers. The Ultimate line launched around the same time that Bryan Singer demonstrated Marvel comics could make sustainable movie franchises with X-Men in 2000. The recent “Season One” initiative was launched with solid talent working on early stories about iconic characters. It’s not too hard to see Endless Wartime as a continuation of that particular approach.

A flying visit...

A flying visit…

And, to be fair, Endless Wartime is a rather satisfying premise. If you want to attract new readers, the best suggestion is to tell good stories that don’t require incredible commitment. Sure, a lot of contemporary comics are great, but it’s very difficult to tell anybody where to start, and what exactly they need to know going in. So have one of the best writers in the business writing an original graphic novel featuring popular characters is a pretty effective hook. “Here’s a stand-alone story written by great writer” is really the best possible answer to “how do I start reading about the Avengers?”

Unfortunately, Ellis struggles a little bit with making Endless Wartime entirely accessible. There’s a lot of early exposition required to bring new readers up to speed, introducing all but the most iconic of the team, and laying out basic comic book storytelling premises that will come in handy later on. “But, yes, I am a genetically stable fusion of human pilot and an alien soldier race from the Large Magellanic Cloud,” Captain Marvel explains helpfully in conversation with Captain America.

A smashing time...

A smashing time…

Indeed, quite a lot of this dialogue is delivered with po-faced sincerity. “Do you ever think about killing Tony Stark?” Danvers jokes at one point. “Now, Carol,” Captain America earnestly replies. “You know I’m not a killer.” It’s a rather awkward exchange which only exists because Ellis needs to convey Captain America’s no-kill rule rather quickly and effectively. Indeed, Ellis stresses the point rather heavily. “Logan, I respect you,” Captain America tells Wolverine at one point. “But don’t tell me I’m like you.” Logan remarks, “Not a killer, you mean?”

To be fair, this is the same sort of problem that Chris Claremont faced when trying to make every single issue accessible to new readers – it often involved lots of information laid out in a somewhat stilted fashion for the reader to digest.  This does create a bit of a structural problem though, due to the law of conversation of detail – given how Captain America stresses repeatedly that he’s not a killer, we know that it has to form part of the climax.

Jumping right into the action...

Jumping right into the action…

This issue might be compounded by the fact that – while Steve Rogers makes a logical point of entry into just about any story about the Avengers – Captain America is just about the least Ellis-friendly protagonist imaginable. Ellis tends to work best writing for smug and cynical self-righteous arrogant leads. Captain America might be a little self-righteous, but he seems far too wholesome to serve as the central character of Ellis’ story here. The result is something of a weird mismatch, where Ellis seems to over-compensate by giving us an overly earnest and overly sincere version of the character.

Endless Wartime also suffers a bit because it feels a little rushed. There are times when it seems like entire scenes are missing. The plot of the story has the Avengers team bouncing between locations dealing with the threat of the day. There are no real plot twists or upsets to be found in the graphic novel, no shock reveals or game-changing moments. There’s never a sense that the world is being turned upside down or that our heroes have just endured a dramatic reversal. It’s all very straight-forward, moving very quickly and precisely towards the climax.

Things look Stark...

Things look Stark…

There’s no real digging or excavating to uncover the truth here. Captain America sees something on the news and goes to take a closer look – it’s a straight line from there to the final page of the story. Ellis seems to concede as much in the book itself. “I mean, we’re not detectives,” Stark muses at one point. “Thank God it’s not a mystery, because we really actually suck at that kind of thing.” That might be the case, but Endless Wartime would work a lot better if the book felt more dynamic or if there were more going on than a really long shared trip to look at something Steve saw on the news.

It’s a shame, because there are some rather clever ideas here, as Ellis throws them out like candy. His version of the Hulk is rather wonderful, as Bruce Banner tries to manage his problem through application of “prozac patches.” While using the Hulk as a focused weapon of mass destruction is hardly an original idea, there’s something rather wonderful about the scene where S.H.I.E.L.D. deploy Banner as a deterrent. “I’m good for another couple of hours,” Banner tells the team. “Didn’t like the idea of being used as a bomb.”

Capping it all off...

Capping it all off…

There’s also some suitably cynical Ellis-esque political commentary, even if War on Terror metaphors in contemporary comics are starting to feel a little old. As the title implies, Endless Wartime is based around the idea of perpetual warfare. In this case, it’s a war passed down from one generation to the next. “What our parents saw here at Skrekklandet taught them that there will never not be war,” the villains helpful explain.

Endless Wartime is populated with problems inherited from old wars. Captain America has visited the enemy base before, in another conflict. Thor has faced these menaces in an earlier life. Even Tony Stark has a long history with warfare. Discussing his father, he concedes that Howard Stark “worked on the Manhattan Project. Started the business.” He essentially shaped the world that Tony was born into, while changing the face of warfare forever.

Assembled Avengers...

Assembled Avengers…

Indeed, Ellis makes the connection with the current War on Terror by suggesting that it is a generational affair. “I react to his ghost badly,” Tony remarks of his father, perhaps evoking the popular perception of the relationship between George W. and George H.W.  Bush. “He did a lot. But somehow he never really did anything.” Born into a wealthy dynasty, and dealing with a history of substance abuse that he has overcome to reach a higher station, Tony Stark is the perfect stand-in for George W. Bush.

Pop psychology has been quick to suggest that George W. Bush’s interest in invading Iraq was rooted in his own father’s failure to do so; that his desire to attain a second term was also rooted in his own father’ failure to do so. Tony’s contemporary experiences mirror that of Bush, landing himself in the middle of a conflict much more complicated than he had originally imagined. “I went in there with some friends a few years ago and decided I could fix it. Kick out the Tabissara, turn the country over to the people. And now look.”

It's not the end of the world...

It’s not the end of the world…

There is a sense of familiarity to these ideas, as Ellis is hitting on a lot of fairly common ideas about the War on Terror and America’s foreign policy. More controversial, and a lot more daring, is Ellis’ solution to these problems. Wolverine is able to end this perpetual conflict, by being willing to do the things that our heroes are not. “I know how to hunt,” he tells Captain America. “You make sure of your kill so it can’t get up and bite you. Same way you end a war. All I did was the things neither of you did.”

It’s a rather brutal plot beat, and a decidedly uncomfortable one. The only way to decisively end this sort of conflict is to do the sort of thing that heroes cannot do. It’s a shocking little sequence, and one that’s hard to digest. That short exchange packs the sort of gut punch that the rest of the graphic novel needed, and it’s a shame it comes so late. It’s an exchange that invites the reader to reach their own conclusions and offers something a bit more challenging and provocative than most commentaries on the War on Terror.

Marvel-ous...

Marvel-ous…

Sadly, these elements don’t quite gel together as well as they might. Endless Wartime is a good idea in principle, stuffed full of clever concepts, but never one that really works on its own terms.

2 Responses

  1. I do agree this isn’t Ellis’s best work, on the Avengers or otherwise (I think his run on Secret Avengers takes that prize for these characters). However, I felt like this was meant to be a more somber book of reflection, as opposed to Ellis’s more energetic outputs.

    For example: Steve Rogers is definitely not your typical Ellis front man, but few comics have captured the loneliness, alienation, and regret Rogers must feel on a daily basis, being a ‘man out of his own time’. I would argue Endless Wartime is one of the best portrayals of Captain America, in particular, in a comic book. It’s one of my favorites. That might have something to do with Ellis’s strength in characterization, which is exactly the kind of writer a book like this needs.

    One point this book also makes is that Captain America is a killer, or, at the very least, has killed. He was involved in World War II. As Wolverine astutely points out, there’s no way he didn’t get through that war without killing. I thought this was a pretty great point. Ellis, essentially, juxtaposes Wolverine and Captain America for much of the book. Wolverine is, essentially, an older, more cynical, and, possibly, more realistic version of Captain America. Both were experimented on to make them better soldiers. Wolverine is the Winter Soldier before there was a Winter Soldier, so the comparisons here make sense, imo.

    I’m a huge Ellis fanboy. I don’t usually pick a favorite song, artist, movie, because it depends on my day-to-day moods. I can say with some confidence that Ellis is my favorite comic writer. I’ve enjoyed his books as well, but I feel he works better in the superhero genre–ironic considering he’s said he doesn’t particularly like writing superhero books. So, some of my opinion might be a little biased. I do enjoy your reviews of Ellis’s work, especially Thunderbolts, which I think is one of the best runs on a mainstream comic. Anyway, thanks and keep up the good work!

    • Thanks Josh!

      Ellis really is phenomenal, isn’t he? I do need to re-read Endless Wartime, but you’re right. His year-long run on Thunderbolts is one of the most influential (and best) Marvel runs of the twenty-first century. I also love his Nextwave. I’m loving his James Bond. And it’s a tragedy that his Hellblazer run was cut so sort. I feel ashamed that I haven’t gotten around to Transmetropolitan yet.

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