Saturday, September 12, 2009

I Read This--AGENTS OF ATLAS (2008) #1-10

Back in the halcyon days of Several Months Ago, I posted in a long and rambling entry here (this assumes I make any other kind of entry save long and rambling, of course) at my utter delight in the miniseries Agents of Atlas and how surprising it was that it was an entertaining read that made me somewhat interested in the exploits of characters minted about 25 years before I was even born and seldom seen since their original runs. It managed to very deftly elude the usual pitfalls of "resurrecting older superheroes" stories (namely bringing the characters back in labored venerating plotting that brings characters long forgotten back with the sort of reverence best left to the return of Jesus Christ and doing very little with them afterwards) set up and interesting status quo for an eventual ongoing (basically, as some wag on the Internet said, "it was the Thunderbolts in reverse.") I was, surprisingly, rather excited by the prospects for an ongoing, and so resolved to sit down with a good size chunk of the first few issues and see how something that worked rather well as an self-contained unit worked when plugged into the ongoing ur-story of the Marvel Universe.

To spoil things out of the gate, the answer is "not well," as Agents of Atlas has already been kicked over into a backing feature, with an eye towards an eventual relaunch sometime later. Apparently, while a very well-regarded series critically, commercially it's not settling the world on fire.

And really, that's not a surprise, as however good it is, the book does demand that one get on board with the adventures of a group of characters first published in the 1950s, with scant appearances since then, working an unconventional plot angle somewhat at odds with the current tenor of superhero comics at the moment.

Not to say Marvel didn't try, of course. The first six issues of the ongoing series tie very heavily into the latest manifestation of the Permanent Crossover, Dark Reign. Dark Reign, aside from being a seminal album by Ronnie James Dio (or maybe Dokken) chronicles the utterly unconvincing rise to power of one Norman Osborn, a man who is posited as an utterly brilliant Machiavellian schemer able to bring Dr. Doom to heel, which is just fine, if you ignore the fact that Normal Osborn spent most of his extant years as a character tooling about in purple goblin booties and an elf mask and occasionally making blood sacrifices to goblin people, which is the kind of thing that utterly brilliant Machiavellian types usually leave to the completely stupid.

Dark Reign is puzzling, as it's not so much a story as a holding pattern dragged across nearly every Marvel book. It goes something like this: In every book almost Norman Osborn sits around looking sinister and pleased with himself for being such a great whopping bastard while his flunkies do all the work. Or, if you're lucky, Osborn puts on a suit of Iron Man armour only slightly more tasteful than his Green Goblin outfit (which he got . . .somehow--apparently Iron Man armour, like plutonium, is available at any corner store) and leads his intensely boring flunkies against people he doesn't like. Meanwhile, in as much of a main story as this whole nonsense can be said to have, Osborn leads a cabal of villains, all of whom are more accomplished than he is in carving out spheres of influence while they quietly wait for him to self-destruct.

And wait. And wait. The initial concept is so ridiculous (and a grand case of Zeitgeist Failure if ever there was one) one begins to wonder if this isn't some deliciously subtle parody of long-term crossovers which ask ever more demanding suspensions of disbelief played completely deadpan, which would almost make it worth it, except this godawful thing is, in all the unfortunate moments this awful, awful crossover has crossed my path, it is, apparently meant to be taken utterly seriously. Basically, it's yet another of these no-fun "superheroes as realistic manques commenting on our current political situation" things which have been strangling the joy out of comics for so long now I don't even like to think about it.

We're going back to Agents of Atlas, I promise. Mind you, this is the hottest thing going in comics right now, so slapping "Dark Reign" on anything is sure to move maybe a few more thousand copies than it would otherwise, in defiance of all logic and/or good taste.

This is a fairly old concept that occasionally mutates into new and more virulent forms. Multi-title crossovers, wherein each bit must be read in a specific order for the story to make any kind of sense are a fairly recent innovation in comics. Initially, the song and dance went something like this: while the story mainly went on through the core titles (say, the X-Men books) in an effort to give another title a bit of a "rub" a chapter will occasionally run through a somewhat unlikely title (say, Power Pack) in an effort to give it a bit of a boost, even if the plot running through the core books (hmm, how about "brutal mass murders") would seem an ill fit for a kiddie book like Power Pack.

That was then. It fell slightly out of fashion in the 90s, when, rather than tie things together in a big crossover (although that still happened) it was easier and on the whole preferable to just have Ghost Rider, Spider-Man, Wolverine or the Punisher show up in the early issues of a book for what is classically termed "faintly little reason," boost the sales, and then get back to what whatever they were doing before.

In between all this there are the distaff cousins of this approach--the launching a raft of titles in the wake of a big crossover, and Marvel's new favourite task, the launching a book in the heart of a crossover. An argument can be made against this approach that it is impossible for a prospective fan to get into a story that has been slaved to another purpose for 5-6 months, meaning that half a year at most has already gone before the book can even begin to carve out its own identity which, in this marketplace is 6 months it may not have the luxury of indulging, but whenever I bring up these points, I am often asked to wait out in the hall.

Anyways, now we finally get to Agents of Atlas proper. Basically, the first 7 issues of the book involve the Atlas Foundation puttering about in the plot structure of Dark Reign, first by trying to run a con on Osborn with some impressive but utterly rubbish weaponry, getting in fights with Bucky America and the New Avengers (now that that book has 60 issues, how can they still be "new," anyways?) This looks and feels completely at odds with the tone of the miniseries and stuff that's almost blatantly calculated to bring in newcomers. For those who were already on board we get a few flashback stories wherein the Agents meet Wolverine in the past (as apparently everyone did at one time or another and just never remembers until later--"Oh yeah, that abrasive guy with the weird hair and the claws. I forgot all about him.") and try to walk back the cat on a time loop/teleporter that may or may not have something to do with Mr. Lao, their dragon/advisor who seems to delight in being cryptic and may or may not be running his own agenda.

These first seven issues feel rather a lot like we're spinning our wheels. We know nothing's going to happen in Dark Reign-ville until the big switch has been pulled, so short of making the Agents looks like punks compared to Super Genius Osborn for several issues and conveniently pissing of the New Avengers, not much gets accomplished. What's more, the flashback story, so completely at odds with the tone of the main story, feels even more dislocated and disjointed, as it seems to have no real connection to what's going on in the main story (it will, but not really until issue 9). Since it's backstory to things involving the Atlas Foundation and the Foundation is in the background while Dark Reign blathers on, it's hard for anything from that story to really "stick."

Likewise another plot element for the book, the addition of Temujin, the Mandarin's son, to the Atlas Foundation (as a backup, should Jimmy Woo get killed in the line of duty) never really jells with what's going on either, and lay the blame for these plot elements not really cohering at the feet of this Dark Reign nonsense, which so completely smothers out the voice of the book that its hard for anything to feel especially consequential.

Things begin to gel a bit better in the seventh issue because we're actually dealing with things relevant to the book we're reading rather than some nebulous concept on the masthead. The Agents fight the Hulk as they try to shut down yet another Atlas Foundation project that's gone a bit rogue. Despite the fact that we're still shuttling guest stars through, this actually feels a bit more in tune with the book, as its done on the book's terms and in its voice, and things gel a bit better. It makes one wonder if perhaps they shouldn't have been doing things this way the whole time. It's a good done-in-one that clears the palate of the awful, awful taste of the Dark Reign business and sets up Issue 9, wherein things finally kick into gear for the book. (Note that things kick into gear in issue 9, rather than issue 1, which would have been the ideal time for things to kick into gear and grab someone's attention, but that's bloody Marvel for you)

In this, we finally start getting back to the core mythology of the book. This is a pretty exciting issue that answers a few lingering continuity questions left over from the miniseries and sets up a more interesting and dynamic conflict than the Agents vs. Norman bloody Osborn (which does neither of them any favours because Dark Reign is absolutely not going to end in the pages of Agents of Atlas, is it?) Had this actually occurred in the first issue, rather than the desultory 7-issue Guest Star Parade that did frighteningly little for the book either in terms of sales and certainly did it no favours creatively, we might be on surer footing for the book, but as its demotion to a backup strip has already been announced, well . . .that ship has obviously sailed.

In any event, better that the book is finally showing the promise the concept showed in the mini. Hopefully, with the future of the book more or less locked in, the powers that be will let it alone and give it the space necessary to establish its own mood and identity without yoking it to yet another dreary crossover that will drag it down more than it could ever possibly raise it up. As it stands, I like where it's beginning to go, I just resent having to grit my teeth over the Dark Reign BS that clogged the pipes up to that point.

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