Sunday, December 5, 2010

Way Back When--HEROES REBORN: AVENGERS (1996-1997)

Time was, in the 90's you could measure the health of the Avengers line of titles (now Marvel's flagship book, ironically enough) in relation to the X-Men books. Back when X-Men ruled the roost, the Avengers took their cues from the X-Books in subtle, yet immediately recognisable ways. The X-Men started wearing bomber jackets? The Avengers started wearing bomber jackets whether it made sense for them to do it or not (we're looking at you, Black Knight) The X-Men start getting manga-style costumes? The Avengers get manga-styled costumes, and the Wasp turned into . . .well, we're still not sure about that. We've tried hard to forget it.

By the time the mid-90's rolled around, the Avengers were in . . .well, questionable shape. Mark Waid was doing great work on Captain America, Warren Ellis was turning Thor into He-Man and writing about worldengines for what I'm certain he thought was a good reason at the time, and Iron Man was auguring into the ground.

The fulcrum for the first attempt to fix everything was The Crossing, a multi-title crossover so bewildering, insane and ultimately confusing it has no Wikipedia entry. This is a deliberate choice, of course, as no one in their right might really wants to read any of it ever again, never mind to make any sense out of what happened. I vaguely remember it, which is exactly the way that I prefer it. I don't think they crossed anything, but I'm not going to read it again to be sure.

Anyways, shockingly, this didn't work. In fact, it left things in even more of a dire state than before, especially considering Marvel had just hit bankruptcy and the comics market had imploded. What to do?

Well, the higher ups at Marvel decided to let Rob Liefeld fix everything. I realise I write a lot of long articles and sometimes important points get lost so I better repeat that at a frequency understood by everyone:


Mind you, and this is a bit of a disclaimer, Rob Liefeld is not the Antichrist of comics, despite what you've heard. I would actually put him somewhere along the lines of Fletcher Hanks and the guy from Hamlet 2 who once assessed himself as a man with all of the drive to succeed and none of the talent. For all the crap I have, will, and will ever talk about Liefeld, the man genuinely loves comics, and loves what he does, even if to the rest of the world our response is " . . .the hell?" Which probably puts him closest of all to Jim Balent maybe.

Enter Heroes Reborn, a fresh start for the core series of the Marvel Universe. One could say they had nothing to lose, really. Anyways, Rob Liefeld and a cast of dozens (Including Jim Valentino, Chap Yaep, Ian Churchill and Jeph Loeb) got unleashed on the Avengers. And while everyone looks at his Captain America run as a nadir, one misses so much by ignoring the Avengers as is it, to borrow a phrase from Achewood, "a big hot tranny mess."

Now, longtime readers of the Prattle (both of them) know that if there's one thing your buddy Kazekage can't resist, it's a trainwreck. Avengers is all this and so much more, as it is a book that turns--quickly--into the Flying Dutchman--somehow sailing on long after the crew is dead.

How did this happen? One is tempted to say "Because Rob Liefeld," and leave it at that, but of course, the answer is so much richer than that. Jim Valentino leaves early on, taking with him any story direction that had been planned up to now, leaving Jeph Loeb to do what he always does--enable the artist to draw whatever he wants and to hell with any coherence in the plot. Then, when Rob Liefeld got fired from all his Heroes Reborn books, Jim Lee took over and dutifully saw them through to the end by putting Walt Simonson on the book.

Now, Walt is a good hand in writing as well as pencils, but there is a definite and perceptible enthusiasm gap when he's writing something that isn't personally of interest to him. In fact, the only thing he really takes much of an interest in is taking the piss out of Liefeld's Thor-speak, which is actually pretty damn funny.

But that's all behind the scenes. Let's cut right to the heart of this thing! Our story begins with Avengers #1, wherein the Avengers, SHIELD'S officially-sponsored fighting team (boy, good thing they didn't do that again, huh?) and if we're talking about a new team and it's a train wreck, it's time for a ROLL CALL!

CAPTAIN AMERICA--Captain America was presently over in Liefeld's cap book getting astonishing man-boobs, and is given to outbursts like "DAMN HIM! He took everything from me! Everything I held dear . . .everything I loved . . .everything, except my soul!" I try to work this into conversations from time to time, whether it belongs there or not.

SWORDSMAN--I have no idea why the first Blackadder is in the Avengers. The Swordsman does very little and has a slight inferiority complex that causes him to try to step to the Hulk in a few issues, and the Hulk breaks his arms and the Swordsman is essentially written out of the book. He is later revealed to be the Heroes Reborn-earth counterpart of Deadpool, because Joe Kelly happened to be writing that book. It was the first interesting thing they did with him.

HAWKEYE--Was there anyone who didn't see this at the time and say, "Hey, why does Wolverine have a bow, now?" Hawkeye's identity was supposed to be some kind of big mystery in the book at the time, but the whole thing gets cast aside and Hawkeye's identity is revealed to be . . .well, the same guy he is all the time.

HELLCAT--Was there anyone who didn't see this at the time and say, "Hey, why is Feral from X-Force in the Avengers, now?" Apparently Hellcat sold her soul to be a demonic furry or something. It's not really gone into a great deal of detail (you're shocked by this, I can tell) and she tries to steal Scarlet Witch's soul and gets killed under circumstances not entirely clear (again, shocking considering what a Watchmen-esque tightly-plotted narrative this has been so far) and figures in to this not at all.

SCARLET WITCH--For a year, the Scarlet Witch was put on a bus and I didn't have to read about her. For me, this is a long-held dream. In this book, the Scarlet Witch is even more useless than usual, however, she's integral to the plot and the Enchantress' daughter for some reason. Turns evil in the middle of the run, but it doesn't really matter all that much, and that is my worst nightmare.

VISION--The Vision is talking like Warlock for most of this book. He gets sidelined by the second issue and does nothing of import for the rest of the series.

THOR--The intent, as I understand was to portray Thor as a more authentic Norse god--always interested in plundering villages and wenching and shit like that. In practice it's a little garbled, as is his depiction as occasionally Thor is 12 feet tall and occasionally not, occasionally his hammer's as long as sledgehammer and sometimes not, and sometimes her has a cape. Later on, a more recognizable Thor comes along and the HR-Thor goes nuts and turns evil upon being exposed as a clone. Good thing they didn't do that again, huh?

There's a few others who end up Avengers--Iron Man joins up to make up the numbers, the Wasp becomes a superhero completely out of nowhere and Ant-Man is stuck in the Vision's mouth and oh my head, let's just get this over with.

Issue 1 begins with what should have been a sign of things to come, as the Avengers show up to get Thor out of a block of amber, which is helpfully coloured to look like ice for maximum confusion. Upon getting out, Loki shows up and tricks Thor into fighting the Avengers, then Loki's lack of follow-through lets him down again and Thor's like "Yeah, y'know what? Let's just team up." Liefeld draws everyone as being very happy by this. I'm happy too. Oh, and the Enchantress shows up wearing an outfit that would make Avengylene feel naked and says the Scarlet Witch was her daughter.

Issues 2 and 3: Kang shows up and beats up the Avengers, deactivating the Vision and stealing all their weapons in one of the most bewilderingly choreographed fights ever. It turns out Kang is doing all this to impress Mantis, but no one really knows why and it ultimately doesn't matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. Oh and Loki beats up Agatha Harkness is more Scarlet Witch subplottery and none of it makes much sense or means a damn thing, ultimately, and is best left ignored until we really have to fret over it.

Issues 4 and 5: The big fight with the Hulk, which is what I wonder was all Liefeld really wanted to do in the first place. In the midst of a whole bouillabaisse of subplots, the Hulk comes in, buck naked (either his crotch is obscured by a lot of crosshatching or the Hulk has pubes like sage grass, and really, I don't want to speculate either way) with emo-bangs and beats the shit out of all of the Avengers, crippling Swordsman (because running up and shanking the Hulk was always going to work) until finally we get an issue-long fight between Thor and the Hulk which I remember for perhaps the only good bit in the whole book: Thor continually mistakes Hulk for a cave troll which is pretty hilarious to me in the same way as the line "HULK HIT EYEBALL MAN IN EYE!" and the whole things inconclusively for the first Heroes Reborn linewide crossover, Industrial Revolution, wherein everyone gets together to shut down a gamma reactor as gamma radiation seems to be used for everything from powering small homes to lasering the hair off men's ballsacks on Heroes Reborn Earth, even though when misused (or in this case "used") it could blow up the Earth, so locking and tagging it out isn't an option.

We come back to subplots aplenty as the Avengers break away from SHIELD and Iron Man joins, and more subplots and Loki sitting around stewing while he works on his now hopelessly insanely convoluted master plan to get back at the Avengers, which somehow involves Wonder Man and the Lethal Legion showing up at Avengers Mansion and the Scarlet Witch has turned evil sometime they couldn't bother to depict on-panel and then . . .

Walt Simonson comes on and my attempts to summarise this in a coherent manner crash, burn, and fail. The Lethal Legion get their asses kicked, Loki makes Kang and Mantis melt away, the Masters of evil show up and get their asses kicked and turn stupid before the Avengers eyes and Hellcat takes over the Scarlet Witch's body, then the real Thor shows up and there are a lot of scenes where everyone says that they have no a clue what's going on. I know how they feel.

Anyways, the whole thing ends up with HR-Thor dying, Loki and Odin blowing up and Galactus finally shows up at the end, which as I understand it was pretty much the only goddamn thing they'd actually planned out. It's a big fight, and since plans are in place to re-integrate the Heroes Reborn characters back into the regular universe, it's all more or less moot.

So, there you have it. This was the thing that was supposed to save the franchise. What would end up saving the franchise was what came next--Kurt Busiek and George Perez on Avengers, doing big and more reasonably coherent stories and generally not treating it like an ADD-addled fanfic one can't be bothered to finish. This . . .well, this was marginally less incompetent than what came before it, but lord you couldn't call it "good," could you?


C. Elam said...

Oh sweet Jesus, I was fine until you invoked "HULK HIT EYEBALL MAN IN EYE!" and then I lost it completely in a haze of giggles. That was one of the funniest things I've ever read.

...Oh, these books? I think I read the first issue, though this Lethal Legion/Masters of Evil switcharoo sounds familiar.

Kazekage said...

If you can pick up this trade for $4 new, as I did, it's totally worth it, as you will read it and laugh and laugh and laugh . . .all the time. Do you know what it's like to laugh like that?

Raymond Burr says he does.

Yeah, it was . . .bewildering, to say the least, as about a dozen subpots die in an the space of ten pages. For all he was basically journeyman-ing it here, Simonson was mercilessly efficient in getting things streamlined.