Sunday, March 29, 2009

I Read This--AGENTS OF ATLAS (2007)

FACT: All too often, owing to my generally stubborn and contrary nature, things that I might actually enjoy I have to be dragged to in very much the same way meth dealers are dragged out of their trailers by police officers.

FACT 2: Nostalgia exercises in comics are usually dreadful, excruciating things. Roy Thomas, especially, is notorious for this kind of thing--in later years, his work was characterised by characters who were dragged into present day continuity for scarcely understood reasons, and all of these characters spoke in dialogue meant to constantly remind you that these characters were from the 1940s or 50s because that's all they would talk about. That I need glasses today probably owes to the fact that I've rolled my eyes over many a story such as these.

FACT 3: Owing to Marvel's 2000-era stance of pissing all over their past for short term gain or revamping them into God knows what, the idea of doing a six issue miniseries about characters from the late 1940s, early 1950s--before there was even a proto-Marvel Comics as we know them, seemed . . .very odd, indeed, for current-era Marvel. It's the kind of idea, as Paul O'Brien once said, that Bill Jemas would have shot out of a cannon.

With all these facts on the table then, let's have a look at Agents of Atlas, a book that I am surely the last person on Earth to both read and enjoy. Sorry y'all--takes me rather long to get on the bandwagon these days.

Agents of Atlas is, at its heart, and attempt to make What If #9 ("What If The Avengers Had Formed In The 1950s?") into a workable, long-term premise. The whole 1950's Avengers thing ended up having a long shelf-life, despite being negated in both the original What If issue and later on in Avengers Forever. On some level, fans (or fans who later became creators) just like to see disused 50's heroes that didn't catch on at the time gathered together as a team to fight evil.

Comics--the only place where anachronism can be an asset.

Agents takes the position that the 1950s Avengers existed and didn't get negated--they simply went underground and worked together for a few months, then disbanded, going their separate ways and ending up in the rather curious circumstances. Jimmy Woo is now a SHIELD agent and now very brain-dead after leading a disastrous raid into one of the bases of his old foe, the Yellow--excuse me, Golden Claw. It's his journey, which is back and also forwards, that is the spine of the miniseries and the heart of the writer's approach as well, and it's worth quoting writer Jeff Parker in full here:

"But one of the themes of this whole storyline is the Second Chance. Life passes by and windows of opportunity close. Maybe, just maybe, if you stick to your guns and never give up on your goal, even in the final inning a window will open up again. And though you've been tainted by a grey world, that doesn't outweigh your time as a young optimistic idealist who could inspire some of the strangest people on Earth to go charging into the demon pit with you."

The Second Chance is the common link that runs through each of our main characters. Gorilla Man gets a second chance at being where he belongs and feeling useful again. Venus learns about her past and even when confronted with a shocking truth, finds the will to go on. Marvel Boy--er, Bob--doubly alienated from Earth and his adopted home, finds a place to belong again. Namora gets a second chance at life, as does Jimmy Woo--in their case, literally. By the end of the book, everyone not only has had their second chances (in some cases, third or fourth) but the book ends with a new sense of purpose that not only sets up a new series (man, lucky how that worked out, eh?) but infuses the entire book with a real sense of promise and new potential.

In short, it makes the book less of a nostalgia exercise as it's less about establishing how The Past Was So Great and more about establishing these characters and their history in the present and providing them with an interesting future direction (and really, one that gives the team a tangible reason to continue to exist, which is more than you usually get from these kinds of stories) that I'm intrigued enough by to give the ongoing a chance.

Mind you, it's not perfect--the eye-rolling dated references have been replaced by eye-rolling woefully puerile stuff about Venus making everyone horny and Namora wanting to bang her cousin, which is all rather silly and doesn't add very much to the proceedings because we get it, already, thank you. But it's a minor blemish, and considering how badly things could have gone, it's a minor miracle that that's my sole complaint.

That's enough about the story, I think--I'd rather not spoil all of it as much as encourage you to read it. Marvel hardcover of Agents of Atlas is quite a treat--not only, do you get the complete miniseries, no only do you get all the promo stuff and design sketches that led up to the mini series, but you get the most copious and thorough amount of reprints I think I've ever seen, especially given the relative obscurity of these characters. In brief:

Marvel Mystery Comics #82--From 1947, the first appearance of Namora, during a time when distaff female characters were being tried out in features of their own. It's your standard Golden Age story, which means it's ropey and somewhat crazy, and Namora doesn't help her case as being an empowering role model for girls by getting captured very quickly, but Sub-Mariner gets knocked out by a mook with a slapjack, so really, no one comes off that well here.

Venus #1--From 1948, the first appearance of Venus and the beginning of a very odd (if not outright batshit crazy) comic. Venus is deeply bored with the whole goddess thing and decides to go stand in a busy New York Street. Wouldn't you know--a magazine mogul just happens along, decides she's nuts but gives her an editing job anyway, and the romance comic-esque engine of this comic starts, which later on in the run ends up as a horror comic. God knows why. Weird and all over the place as Golden Age stories tend to be, these post GA, pre-Silver Age stories tend to be even more nutty.

Marvel Boy #1--Marvel Boy comes to Earth from Uranus and flashes bright lights in people's eyes as they giggle relentlessly when he tells them where he's from. This is a pretty odd story, hinging on a very obscure point of law involving instant continents, that then turns into a battle with pirates and subterranean aliens who Marvel Boy inadvertently pisses off and has to fight. Marvel Boy doesn't really distinguish himself here--the whole story resolves itself while Marvel Boy acts fairly passively, to be honest. Also, I find his short pants disturbing.

Men's Adventures #26--Never let it be said that "comics aren't for kids" hasn't been a meme for, like, ever. This is the first appearance of Gorilla Man, which is not to be confused with the 18 other Gorilla Men they had around this time. Ken Hale goes into the jungle looking for the mythic Gorilla Man that continues to haunt his dreams, and in a shocking twist (and by "shocking" I mean "you could see it coming a mile away") learns that deep down in our hearts, we are all Gorilla Men. No, actually that's not what happens. It's a typical Atlas-era horror story, which depends on the twin tactics of a Twilight Zone ending and Stan Lee's overwrought purple prose (written in second person--the keystone of all quality prose) to work.

Menace #11--The Human Robot (not called that) makes his first appearance in another twist-ending extravaganza from the purple pen of Stan Lee (again doing the second-person narration thing) and some uncharacteristically moody artwork from John Romita. Basically, a robot takes his orders a bit too literally, and wacky hi-jinks ensue. There's not much to say about this one, except that Lee seems to have a nervous breakdown trying to sell the ending as something Very Frightening Indeed.

Yellow Claw #1--The first appearance of Jimmy Woo, the Yellow Claw (who is absolutely positively not Fu Manchu, because Atlas would have had to pay someone for that), and a whole mess of genteel racism from bygone days. Notable for its time because comics where the titular character was a villain were fairly rare and that our hero is Chinese himself, Yellow Claw is and otherwise forgettable attempt to blend the Yellow Peril stuff of the Fu Manchu stories with the equally didn't-this-turn-out-to-be-a-bugaboo spectre of Communism, and why in the name of GOD is every Chinese person coloured such a weird shade of canary yellow, but the artwork by Joe Maneely is quite amazing in terms of the level of detail, though his Black Knight run is a little more my speed.

Finally, the reprints end where it all began with What If #9, which started the whole ball rolling, as it were. It's not a story that's aged particularly well--Alan Kupperberg and Bill Black make every attempt at a likeness frightening and wrong and Don Glut's scripting is terrible in a late Roy Thomas kind of way--3D Man makes '50's references the whole time in case we forget when the story's supposed to take place and Gorilla Man is a stock Ben Grimm "bitching about what a monster I have become and fighting with everyone" type and no one else has a particularly engaging personality, and the whole thing gets retconned at the end. Nevertheless, I'm glad it's here, if only because a) I finally get to read it at last and b) it was the jump off point for Agents of Atlas and was so much what I feared it could be and was very thankful it wasn't.

(I should also add here--it has an appearance by 1950's Soviet super villain Electro, and holy cow . . .that the Soviets decided to create an agent who is:

1) Green
2) Wears a big red pair of y-fronts
3) Has big red EVIL EYES
4) Wears a . . .fez?

. . .was a fearsome enough foe is pretty much everything that is goofily awesome about comics)

All in all, this was a surprise, and gets my highest recommendation. Hopefully when I check out the ongoing here soonish, it'll continue in a like vein.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Jeff Parker seems to have a talent for reaching back into the dustier parts of Marvel's archives without coming off as yet another Geoff Johns - his "X-Men: First Class" books have been similarly well-received. I think it's because, as you pointed out, he's not really telling these stories out of a sense of nostalgia; the impetus behind "Agents of Atlas" seems to be exploring whether these characters have anything to contribute to today's Marvel Universe, rather than reworking said universe to allow the inclusion of otherwise-archaic figures.

Kazekage said...

Well, he makes these older characters relevant, whereas John and Roy Thomas before him never let us once forget that these characters were from the past, all bust having them stand there and say "I sure am from the 1940s!"

I need to sit down and read some First Class--I'm rather impressed with Parker's work and I'm keen to see what he can do with the early days of X-Men (alas, I know--no Factor Three.) What I think he does in Agents of Atlas is acknowledge their past, but also contextualise them as viable characters in the presence, rather than just have them as walking legacy markers.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

And that's the paradox at the heart of the Dan DiDio Approach To Superheroes: if you bring Hal Jordan back and then "update" him for a modern audience, you've got... well, Kyle Rayner with a face-lift. The "old guard" heroes are at least partially defined by the age they lived in, and recontextualizing them strips them of the very thing you're trying to evoke.

I grew tired of "First Class" during its initial run - the point seemed to be along the lines of those last few pre-Claremont issues, with the random team-ups and so on. Okay for what it was, but again, too mired in the past (as a setting, not necessarily in terms of continuity) to do anything I'd really be interested in. (The Colleen Coover backups, on the other hand, were excellent.)

Kazekage said...

You don't even have that, really--in Hal Jordan you have a great character who absolutely spoke to and embodied the best qualities the the readership, ideally, should strive for.

In the late 1950s.

The problem is, Hal Jordan didn't speak to readers who'd come up later in in the 70's 80's and 90's which is why they tried so many long-term replacement GLs in the first damn place. If he worked, it wouldn't have been neccessary to keep finding alternates, would it?

Well, in First Class' defence, there wasn't much to be mined from those early X-men days--there's not much there there, honestly. I never read much of First Class, but what I read was competent and fairly polite, except for the Coover backups, which frankly I'd have love to have seen a whole issue of them.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

It all goes back to what Alan Moore said about nostalgia: it only really works if the thing you're longing for is gone beyond retrieval. Going back to post-Phoenix Claremont X-Men, you'd have those occasional scenes where Cyclops and the others would think about Jean, and miss her, and... okay, being a Claremont book it'd be absurdly verbose, but at least you could feel there was a genuine emotion behind it all.

It's the same with the DCU oldies, really... I'm reminded of Robinson's "Starman" because Jack Knight was absolutely not the same hero his father was, but Robinson had this great way of validating both of them - you'd respect Ted because of his history, but you'd also see Jack as the One and Only Starman, with all his faults.

Or a series... those were surprisingly well-executed.

Kazekage said...

I think, given the fact that the more people like Geoff Johns and company try to bring back the bygone days of yoke, the further away it gets. It's not totally lost, but it's funny that it retreats the further they run towards it.

Well, that was back when DC actually believed in the whole "legacy hero" deal, didn't they. And for any legacy to be worth reading about, you need to create a worthwhile lineage, all the way through, if that makes any sense. Nowadays, of course, you just bring Barry Allen back and keep telling everyone he's great until people give up questioning exactly why this was neccessary.

I thought so as well, and given Coover's pedigree, the last gasp of Marvel's more experimental period.

Kazekage said...

I think, given the fact that the more people like Geoff Johns and company try to bring back the bygone days of yoke, the further away it gets. It's not totally lost, but it's funny that it retreats the further they run towards it.

Well, that was back when DC actually believed in the whole "legacy hero" deal, didn't they. And for any legacy to be worth reading about, you need to create a worthwhile lineage, all the way through, if that makes any sense. Nowadays, of course, you just bring Barry Allen back and keep telling everyone he's great until people give up questioning exactly why this was neccessary.

I thought so as well, and given Coover's pedigree, the last gasp of Marvel's more experimental period.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

The really sad bit? In about ten years, we'll get a new generation of writers who grew up with Kyle Rayner and Wally West. And in the tradition of their predecessors, they'll ditch the Silver Age guys for their heroes, and DC will have tread in its own footsteps for years and years. Forget any hope of seeing third-generation heroes.

I never thought I'd miss Jemas - at all - but Marvel lost a lot of creative energy after the regime change. They've been playing it ridiculously safe for years ever since, and that's largely responsible for my general apathy towards the Big Two right now.

Kazekage said...

Well, we only have the Silver Age fans to blame for that, don't we? I mean, once they showed that so long as you were the one swinging the weight, you could do Whatever You Wanted (even if it was completely stupid) there's no getting the toothpaste back in the tube.So long as the primary creative force is fans-as-creators who basically want to write fanfic under an official aegis, we're pretty much subject to their shims.

I miss Jemas before Marville. Man, if he'd never thought he had any business writing and just kept his mouth shut, it'd be a lot easier to accept him as Marvels' White Knight.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Can there really be that many Silver Age fans still reading (and more importantly, buying) comics, though? How is it that they're being perceived as the ideal target audience?

I'd say driving more than half of Marvel's writing pool to exclusive deals with DC was the absolute worst thing he ever did: it left Marvel open to over-Millarization, and flooded DC with talent that singularly failed to work within strict editorial mandates.

Kazekage said...

Well, I don't know, really. There's more than enough who are writing them, however, and therein lies the problem.

Yeah, but to be fair, Didio's mandates are as imbecilic as Jemas' at his worst, and no writer can be expected to do their best work under those circumstances, and what do you know--that's been made explicit.

Making Millar the font of ideas for your company? Well, anyone who knows anything would never let that happen. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

But even writers have to comply with the (admittedly very low) standards of the market - if people weren't buying these books, even someone like Geoff Johns would be out of work.

Reportedly, the major difference between DiDio and Quesada as EICs is that Quesada mandates events but doesn't force his talent to participate (ie: the now-standard practice of using miniseries to tie into crossovers without derailing the core books), while DiDio expects his writers to conform to pre-established plots (which is probably why Countdown imploded the way it did).

The sad thing is, after the Morrison-led exodus to DC, who else did they have?

Kazekage said...

But how many of those fans would you trade for the wider market comics used to reach? Give me comics read by a wide cross-section of people and available to wide cross-section of people over this kind of homogenized pandering any day.

Of course, one could argue that running title-specific miniseries to to do the heavy crossover lifting only or the core book to have to pick up the resultant mess later on only muddles things even more, but asking me to choose which one is "better" is a lot like asking me whether I want to be stabbed or shot to death.

Jeff Parker? Mind you, he'll never get a crack at it, but one can hope.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I think it was Paul O'Brien who wryly noted that back in the '60s, X-Men was cancelled for low sales - their last issue scored 200,000 readers. Go figure. :) The question, I think, is whether it's even possible to access that wider market anymore: with the advent of new mediums that can, in many ways, deliver the same kind of narrative more effectively, what do comics have to offer the common reader besides specific masterpieces like "Sandman"?

Has that ever happened, though? I mean, I don't recall Spider-Man ever reacting to "House of M" outside his specific miniseries; likewise, none of the core X-Men books even mentioned the Skrull invasion.

I'm cautious on relying too much on Jeff Parker - he hasn't really proven himself to me yet... besides, we've seen where handing the kingdom's keys to a single writer leads.

Kazekage said...

Yeah, the irony has not escaped me that, going back to sometime around when I was born, a book like Rawhide Kid which was a reprint book--had better circulation than any of Diamond's top 10 today. It may be too late, but that shouldn't excuse the industry from trying--what do they have to lose, at this point?

It's not a consistent thing, but quite often sudden intrusions happen or someone guest stars and you're expected to know why everyone hates him.

I don't think he should get he keys to the kingdom (God knows, I don't want another Bendis or Millar) but it wouldn't hurt to acknowledge and encourage that there might be other approaches besides the grinding joylessness of Millardis.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Oh, eww, I just flashed back to that horrible, horrible Rawhide Kid remake. You know, The Gay One. Oh God was that a dark day at the House of Bad Ideas.

I think the problem with the current state of the comics market is that there's a very strong illusion that everything's fine - because whenever sales dip a bit, some stunt or other puts them right back on top. All well and good, except that (very limited) bag of tricks is going to run out sooner or later. And by then it might be too late to change things.

Dialogue often clues you in, though...

Not as long as the frathouse mentality rules Marvel. As with any clique, you're either in or you're out and it has very little to do with who you are or what you can do.

Kazekage said...

I'm sorry, Diana. He's going to forever be linked to that miniseries, isn't he?

But are the sales stunts really working very well though? Seems like there's an awful lot of them now, and they go on for ages. And even if they work . . .well, to what extent? Comics are still shedding readers and the audience shrinks and shrinks. It's a holding action at best, and not a great one, either.

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes the dialogue's so oblique that one is lost without a map.

And we're working on almost ten years of this, now. Man that's depressing. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Until the end of time, I'm afraid.

That's the interesting thing: according to O'Brien's sales chart analyses, they're only working in very, very specific ways - the Obama/Spidey team-up, for example, generated an enormous boost for Spider-Man... but next issue it went right back to normal and the decline continued. My guess would be that these momentary boosts offset the erosion to some extent, which may explain why it's become such a routine tactic.


The only saving grace at this point is that there are about a dozen books seeing print right now that are quite good. How long that'll last is anyone's guess...

Kazekage said...

Weighing him down like Marley's chains. :)

But it's just plugging up leaks. The boat's obviously still sinking and if you do these kind of stunts relentlessly, they stop being stunts and lose their lustre. How long can this trick really continue to pay off, if we're honest?

Well, yeah. But just ten? That's . . .a bit like we're seeing light from a beautiful star, but the star died some time ago.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

There's an S&M joke I could make there, and I won't, because we're better than that. (But not by much.) :)

I suppose we'll find out. Not much longer is my guess: again, I'm reasonably sure Cap #600's the first domino.

Quite true. And if I'm being totally honest? Even those dozen books aren't good enough that I couldn't drop them if I had to. If I had to stop reading mainstream comics altogether, something tells me I'd deal just fine.

Kazekage said...

Although the metaphor of sadomasochism is very appropos as applied to comics fans.

I think so. Or at least it's a substantial crack in the dam, and a lesson that if you're going to hype an event, there better be some "there" there.

The soft bigotry of low expectations, then? It's sad that we've gotten to a point where the best comics can manage on a good day is "sorta OK" isn't it?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

After Rob Liefeld, Chuck Austen, Jeph Loeb and Jim Balent, I imagine their pain threshold is so high they can slow-dance on burning glass.

Unfortunately, there's something fundamentally wrong with their metholodgy for conceiving and executing crossovers, so much so that painfully few events can be read outside their immediate context and come off as proper stories.

Mind you, that's only because I'm currently in a place where I have alternatives similar enough that the contrast in terms of quality is all the more obvious. If Marvel or DC could put out a book on the level of "Narbonic" or "Order of the Stick", maybe that would justify giving them the benefit of the doubt. But they don't.

Kazekage said...

I begin to feel rather invincible myself, now that you mention it. :)

More's the pity. Thing is, crossovers--even bad ones--used to be vaguely complete reads if you read them collected. 1 Trade, if you're lucky. But now? 15 TRADES, if you're lucky. What . . .the . . .hell?

Heavens no. It's telling that the two trades I'm most looking forward to in the next few months are Empowered #5 (if only it would GET HERE) and the next Achewood collection. It seems like for anything interesting now you have to go far off the reservation now, eh?