Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Way Back When: AVENGERS FOREVER (1998-2000)

When we finally write the book on comics history (well, we have--many times over--but stick with me here) hopefully when people speak of the 90s and get over their hate-gasm for the wretched excesses of the first half of the decade (of which there were many) and how it nearly killed the comics business and the 800 other things you always here right after someone says "The 90s," they will talk about the back half of the decade, and what the most influential superhero book of the time was.

Grant Morrison's JLA. Because before then, the idea seemed to be to toss out every single element of Marvel and DC's long history in a fevered mania to ape whatever Image was doing at the time, because whatever people tell you, just about any business will default to "ape whatever's selling as hard as you can for as long as you can" if they're desperate enough.

But JLA was different--it showed that you could work with elements of the past with an eye towards the future and create something that was vital and felt "now" without completely abandoning what had gone before. It used history, but wasn't beholden to it.

With the benefit of 14 years, of course, we can see that fine distinction, like the imitators of Watchmen, Dark Knight, and Miracleman before them, that the wrong lessons were learnt, and ultimately what you end up with is stuff like Alex Ross' output post 2000 and Geoff Johns at his deadly worst (or as it is known to be called elsewhere, Flash: Rebirth)

But at the time, this looked like a way forward, especially for Marvel, which limped into the mid-90s with all the grace and elegance of a drunken socialite who can't stop vomiting all over herself. Heroes Reborn ended up beyond a joke, the X-Books (long the spine of the Marvel line) were starting their end-of-90s flailing for direction, and the only thing with any kind of excitement around it were assumed-to-be-mid-list books like Heroes For Hire and Thunderbolts.

We've talked about Thunderbolts here at the Prattle before, and it's a great exemplar of this trend, in that it took something from Marvel's history, recapitulated it into something fresh and new and created a pretty compelling storytelling engine out of it.

So, said Marvel, this Kurt Busiek fella's on to something (accusations of him being responsible for killing comics came later, of course) and the Heroes Reborn business was ignominiously winding down as JLA's star was on the rise, so why not let him apply that balance of appreciation for the history of comics and his ability to tell new stories with those elements and let him have a go with it with Avengers, formerly a flagship book that has spent of the 90's fouling its own nest in various brutal, embarrassing ways.

And so they did, and sure enough, Avengers' sales went up. Part of that was due to Busiek's writing, but equal time must be given to George Perez returning to the book and really bring his A-game (even if he took no great pains to hide his obsession with seeing Scarlet Witch in bondage) and it was a good fit--Busiek would find these odd corners of the Marvel Universe and pull a story out of them (The Doomsday Man? Really?) and for the most part, they were fresh enough and presented in such as way as to where one didn't need a course in Marvel History to understand what the hell was going on. Not always, of course (The Triune Understanding/Traithlon/3-D Man running plot never really came together, ever) but enough to where the book was stronger in ways it hadn't been back when they were all wearing bomber jackets and were drawn by Mike Deodato Jr.

So strong was the Avengers brand, that at the turn of the millennium, Marvel spun off another year-long series that could be best described as Busiek's love letter to the breadth of Avengers history, Avengers Forever. I collected Avengers Forever when the issues first came out (probably missed a few, as the whole business of chasing them around three newsstands--remember those?--could be problematic at times) and at the time, I wasn't particularly impressed.

But recently, I was in a nostalgic mood, found the hardcover collection for cheap, and decided to pick it up, deciding that even if the story still didn't appeal to me, Carlos Pacheco's frankly amazing art would still carry the day.

And the verdict is--I liked it, but not as much as I thought I might. The art is stunning, and the time-travel device gives the story freedom to do some really cool things and bring some stuff to the table one wouldn't expect. But structurally there are some real problems--most especially there are two issues worth of infodumps near the end of the book--exactly when things should be ramping up for the epic conclusion--that just grind things to a halt, and for what?

Basically so we can explain why the Vision and the Human Torch can be the same guy, more or less. Oh, and to completely handwave The Crossing, without going into too much detail, which would make this book worth it even if the rest of it was dreck.

Here's the bottom-line plot--Eternal pain in the ass Rick Jones is crippled and suffering from some kind of Mysterious Disease and it's somehow tied to when he used some sort of Locked-Up Human Potential to end the Kree-Skrull War (which always struck me as a slightly flaccid ending to that particular saga, but that's a rant for another time) in trying to cure him, Jones gets tied up in a brain-melting complicated plot involving Kang, Immortus (might he possibly be my least favourite character ever, even against Red She-Hulk? I believe he might.) a cabal of time-traveling aliens from What If? called the Time Keepers, Libra from the Zodiac, and Jerry Mathers as the Cleaver.

OK, not that last one.

Anyways, one thing leads to another, and a team of Avengers pulled from various eras of their history pops into existence. From the (mostly) present day, we have Giant-Man and the Wasp; from the time when Roy Thomas was using Hank Pym to write Roy Thomas fanfiction we have Yellowjacket in his original iteration (another failed chapter of many wherein people try to get me to give a damn about Henry Pym) ; Captain Marvel (Genis-Vell, who would get another series spun-off from this book, and in fact Avengers Forever sets up most of the status quo of that series) ; Hawkeye, fresh off his stint as Goliath (I never did work out what the point of that was) post Kree-Skrull War; Captain America, shell-shocked and raw from the climax of Steve Englehart's Secret Empire story; and Songbird from Thunderbolts, who from what I can tell from the backmatter, was put in there basically because she was cute.

And soon enough, the structure of the series is set up--reluctantly, the Avengers team up with Kang to stop Immortus from killing Rick Jones because he is the key to some terrible destiny for mankind. Kang teams up with the Avengers to prevent himself from ever turning into Immortus as he is fated to do (this is the beginning of Busiek slowly turning Kang into marvel's Grand Admiral Thrawn) and generally, it's one big chase through time into space.

Just as well, really, as the more you try to think your way through the plot and Immortus' machinations and oh dear lord how much continuity are we trying to resolve now, the more your head's liable to hurt. So rather than confront that, let's concentrate on the more effective bits for the moment: The War of the Worlds Avengers from issue #4, wherein a group of Avengers featuring Killraven and the Crimson Dynamo battle back Martian invaders; The return of the 1950s Avengers in issue #5 (only to be immediately deleted from continuity, of course that didn't last very long); A side trip to Marvel's Old West (Y'know--Pacheco does a pretty good Western story . . .they should let him do one again sometime) and finally the footnote-busting final battle between every Avenger that ever was vs. a legion of alternate universe Avengers.

On a micro-level, we get some good character bits along the way as well: Hawkeye gets his first taste of leadership (prefiguring his run as leader of the West Coast Avengers and the Thunderbolts); Captain America gets a measure of his confidence back; Captain Marvel tries (and fails) to avoid his destined fate; and Songbird demonstrates some amazing competence and fits so well in the Avengers that it's a damn shame that whole thing never ended up happening.

Oh yes, and we get a mention of my favorite totally inconsequential Avengers villain ever--Oort the Living Comet, whose only appearance featured the Avengers yelling that they'd never heard of him. I think that's just wonderful.

That's what works and makes it a nice humming-along kinda read. What doesn't work as well are the aforementioned infodumps that threaten to crush the story flat. Couple this with the time-travel gimmick, which threatens to convolute the present story even without the damn retcons, and you get a story that as soon as it slows down becomes somewhat impossible to follow. Doesn't help that some of these retcons threaten to skirt close to Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart fanfic, either.

And most damning, the idea of Immortus as prime mover of the story means this story turns on exactly why I hate and despise Immortus--damn near every Immortus story I've read features him as a walking Get Out Of Continuity Free Card, wherein he's just there to look enigmatic and explain why Everything You Know Is Wrong and patch over some writer's mistake. That, to me is not a character--that's plotting spackle in a funny purple hat.

But so long as the story concentrates on its strengths--epic stuff that spans the breadth of Avengers history (this was also what JLA/Avengers did very well with as well, and they were written by the same guy, too . . .hmmm . . .) it manages to be a gripping read with enough stuff to give the longtime readers a rush of nostalgia and hopefully, by shining some light into seldom-visited corners of the Marvel Universe, maybe got some people excited by the potential they saw there and encouraged them to explore further.

In short, people who like this sort of thing will find that it is the sort of thing that they like. It's not as strong ultimately as Avengers was during the same time, but it's not bad either, and well worth a look, even if only for the art.

And Oort the Living Comet. Mustn't forget about him.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

My first exposure to Immortus/Kang/That Pharaoh Guy was in the '90s X-Men cartoon, that arc where Bishop, Cable and Apocalypse are time-traveling all over each other. Which pretty much set the tone for every Kang story I've ever read since. :)

It's a noble effort on Busiek's part, but it's apparently remembered more for sweeping the Crossing under the rug (not an unworthy goal, of course) than for anything that was actually done with the characters or the plot...

Kazekage said...

Oh lord--was that that brain-busting one where Apocalypse was in the centre of time and was collecting telepaths? Because that may have been the most mind-boggling time travel story I've seen, and I can explain ontological paradoxes. :)

Well, Pacheco's art is excellent, and there's some decent bits in there and good on him for sweeping away The Crossing (an awful, awful, fucking story) but yeah . . .really, Kang Dynasty is a more effective story.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Yep. That was the one. Plot like an Escher painting. :)

Of course, now I'm wondering if that had a hand in reinforcing the use of Big Stories to wallpaper over previous Big Stories - Bendis started his Eternal Chain of Suck four years later, and with the Avengers yet again.

Kazekage said...

Yeah, that episode had some cool things, but trying to follow the plot made my head nearly explode and probably explained better than anything why direct adaptations of what was going on in the comics weren't a great idea.

Well, it's been a leitmotif since the 70's really, when the first group of fan-creators hit the scene--there are a LOT of stories which exist solely to fix other stories. It's been a problem ever since the Vision was a re-purposed Golden Age Human Torch, except he wasn't then he was and oh dear I've gone cross-eyed. Without a guiding hand to really rein that tendency in or make it feel a bit more organic in terms of story flow, it's gotten less gussied up as time has gone on.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Actually, that's the interesting part: I'd always thought it was an attempt to adapt "The Twelve", but the episodes aired in 1995 and "The Twelve" only started in 2000. Fox was trying to warn us! :)

The thing about the Roy Thomas era, though, was that there was a legitimate gap between the genesis of the Marvel Universe and everything that came before. I'd go so far as to say that might've been the only time those sorts of retcons were necessary, just for the sake of having a coherent pre-narrative history for Marvel. Of course, everything that came later just kept changing the past to suit the present rather than move forward.

Kazekage said...

Man, we shoulda listened! :) "The Twelve" was one of the most godawful X-crossover stories I think I've ever read, even worse than "Fall of the Mutants" and "Onslaught" put together, and the damn thing seemed to drag on forever. This was only 4 episodes, and so was more tolerable by default. :)

True, but there didn't necessarily have to be any bridge linking pre-Marvel and Marvel current, except for those thin strands that did--Cap and Sub-Mariner. Nothing of consequence really happened when Cap, the Torch and the Sub-Mariner were brought back in the 50's (I mean, Steve Englehart got a good story out of the 50's cap, but still) but once you opened that door, there was no closing it and then you have bloody Marvel Boy and Toro pestering the Fantastic Four. There's such a thing as going too far and treating every bit of past detritus as important, as DC has shown us . . .

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

In our defense, it's Fox: how often are they right? About anything? ;)

Thankfully, "The Twelve" took place during my "leave of absence", and after seeing Paul's take on it at the old X-Axis, I'm quite secure in the knowledge that I have absolutely no reason to go bin-hunting for that story. :)

I think that, at the time they reintroduced Cap, the character's pre-Marvel history was fresh enough to readers that it would've been imported wholesale in their heads anyway - might as well try to make use of it.

Of course, in retrospect, given the Big Two's utter inability to do away with something and not pick it back up a little further down the line, perhaps they would've been better off just leaving well enough alone...

Kazekage said...

Uhm . . . Batman: The Animated Series? ;)

Really, no one has, at all, except if you really want to experience all the pre-Morrison floundering the X-Books were doing before he came along with a new paradigm that . . .they completely ignored after he left and went back to floundering again.

50's Cap? Maybe so. OG Cap? I'm not sure--they may have had some vague memory there was a Captain America, but they probably didn't remember much beyond that. Besides--there wasn't any continuity to bring along--it didn't really work that way pre Silver Age.

. . .and that's why, despite the fact that the Sentry apparently dying pleases me greatly, I just know someone is passionate enough to bring him back later so he can tell The Ultimate Sentry Story.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Ohh... touche, my friend. Touche. :)

I suppose there might be some academic merit to going over those old trainwrecks - breaking down the narrative to see exactly what doesn't work and why, that sort of thing - but I prefer to do those sorts of in-depth analyses with stories I actually like. :)

Given the fact that Hitler was apparently running around as a supervillain in the Silver Age, you never know...

Oh lord, let's not and say we did. Please. Only the Sentry could be so toxic a character that he continues to diminish others in his blasted funeral issue.

Kazekage said...

Sometimes I get in a good riposte!

I don't know--I try to do a balance of both here at the Prattle in the name of not burning out and balancing it out in between the ripping to shreds of things.

Hitler apparently thought running around with a purple pillowcase on his head would further the cause of National Socialism, which says a lot about his state of mind at the time . . .

I think it's time we finally send Paul Jenkins out on an ice floe. Ever since that Hulk annual wherein She-Hulk had to stop Hulk from having sex with her, any good he's done is massively outweighed by the bad, bad, bad stories he's left in his wake.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

How's that approach working for you? Because the Sentry's scheduled for a comeback any day now. ;)

How Lee and Kirby refrained from turning it into a syphilis PSA, I'll never know. :)

An ice floe's too kind. I say we book him a nice, long vacation at Annie Wilkes' house. Because dear God I didn't know about that Hulk annual, and I really wish I could be that person again...

Kazekage said...

I intend to have my fingers in my ears shouting "LA LA LA LA" when that happens. :)

I bet it'd go like this: "Don't stick it where it doesn't belong, True Beleiever! Excelsior!" ;)

Yeah, that Hulk annual managed to do more damage to the whole Hulk concept than the two years of Jeph Loeb stories so far. I said it, and I mean it: Paul Jenkins is worse than Jeph Loeb.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I imagine we Marvel readers do that so often we're mistaken for deaf show choirs...

Wasn't that the moral of Spider-Man's rivalry with Skip Westcott? :)

Hmm. I think we need to quantify that statement. Oh, Paul Jenkins is a horrible hack, no question there, but is he Romulus-bad? Hush-bad? I'm not sure. Of course, Loeb can at least lay claim to one or two stories that hold up (just barely) under scrutiny - I'm not sure Jenkins can say the same.

Kazekage said...

"Tonight! On a Very Special Episode of Glee . . ."

*ahem* Why do you think the web fluid is so sticky, Diana? ;)

Hmm . . .maybe I spoke in haste. That said, I find page after page of Captain America being upbraided for not knowing what MySpace is, or She-Hulk coming on to the Hulk wearing a black fucking eye he gave her (yes, this did happen) or the Sentry having a tumble with Rogue despite that being a very big deal for her character . . .yeah, actually that's way more intellectually insulting to me than the Blob eating the Wasp, Thunderbolt Ross' vanishing Rulk mustche, or Superman acting all pedo over Supergirl. Because I know to expect utter shite from Jeph Loeb. :)You don't want to think that kind of stupidity and incompetence is contagious, honestly.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Oy, that show. Nice music, but the storylines seem to be written by Ozzy Osbourne for maximum WTF value.

Boo-urns, good sir. Boo-urns. :)

I think Loeb came off as more of a surprise, though - the general consensus is that he used to be, if not genuinely good, at least tolerable on some level. Of cuorse, the real Clash of the Titans is Paul Jenkins vs. Chuck Austen. Discuss. ;)

Kazekage said...

Y'know, I've never seen it. It's one of those things that seems to occur well out of my little bubble. :)

It wouldn't be the first time someone's made that correlation, Diana. And Marvel printed it. :)

The thing is, I think in retrospect, most all that's down to Tim Sale, who at least made sure it all looked purdy even if it didn't make a lick of sense, which it didn't.

As to the winner between Jenkins and Austen, well obviously--whoever wins, we all lose. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Trust me, you're not missing much. :)

They printed "Marville" too, doesn't mean we should take that at face value either. ;)

Someone mentioned that a while back, actually - along with the more tangible fact that Loeb's TV resume doesn't exactly sparkle either, given that his last major project involved tanking perhaps the most promising bit of genre TV of the last decade...

Unless they annihilate each other like two colliding Vortices of Doom, leaving the world a better place. :)

Kazekage said...

Yes, but it's part of a pattern of at-best questionable judgment, innit?

And yet, thanks to the Peter Principle, Jeph Loeb is now in charge of making dreck for ABC Family, which is just as well, since it's Disney's cable landfill anyways. Every man does rise to his or her level if mediocrity.

The first time two wrongs ever made a right, eh? ;)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

It depends - if I squint a bit, I could perhaps see the merit in making Peter Parker a victim of molestation: not for the sake of the Drama, but because there's a message there about someone who's victimized in a very specific way and overcomes it. Of course, this being the House of Bad Ideas, I very much doubt they'd be capable of not sensationalizing it. Anyone who thinks putting Norman Osborn's O-Face on-panel needs to have his brain defragmented.

Just another name to watch out for come pilot season, along with JJ Abrams...

Quite. :)

Kazekage said...

Yeah, the main problem I have is that when someone mentions the idea of something that's being done and one considers the people responsible for carrying it off one can only see disaster and one would best prefer they just didn't bother rather than doing it, screwing it up, and proving me right. :)

If "Good Times" taught us anything it's that JJ's are to be feared . . . :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Exactly. It's a sensitive subject, and it could theoretically be done properly, but I wouldn't trust Marvel or DC to handle the situation well. Or at all, to be honest. Way too many examples of rape being sensationalized or stereotyped or used as cheap backstory drama for me to believe that they could pull it off.

Indeed. :)

Kazekage said...

Yeah, I think it's time to put it back on the shelf, all things considered, because dear GOD no one writing comics at the moment has any idea how to deploy it properly.