Sporadic Sequential
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Avengers Detached

Lately I've been on a superhero reading streak. Every time I go to the local library, there's a new Marvel or DC hardcover staring out at me and I'm helpless to resist taking it home with me. It's like being twelve years old again and walking into a comic specialty shop with an unlimited allowance. At some point I'm sure the novelty will wear off and I'll cease to be seduced by the slick production values of these hardback collections, but for now I'm enjoying (in a total junk food way) binging on superhero comics after not reading them much over the past few years.

My latest "I know this isn't going to work out well" superhero dalliance was Marvel's oversized New Avengers Volume 2 collection. I didn't expect to like this, as I never enjoyed the few superhero comics by Brian Michael Bendis I tried back when he first started writing at Marvel. Also, my recollection of the issues collected in this book (New Avengers 11-20 and Annual 1) is that they weren't very well received back when they originally came out. Nevertheless, I thought I'd give the book a try. After all, the book has consistently been one of Marvel's top sellers since it launched, and it features many of Marvel's most popular characters in one book, so I was curious to see how this effort to perform a "JLA" makeover on the Avengers turned out.

Amazingly, it was even worse than I imagined. And not just in an "omigod I can't believe they did that to my favorite character" fanboy-outrage kind of way (although there was plenty of that as well) but on a level of basic craft. Here are a couple of the worst parts from the book.

I had just started reading the book when this panel confronted me on the fourth page:

I made it about halfway down the panel (right around "Can't do that.") when I wondered, "Where the heck are these word balloons coming from?" I continued on and grimaced at the lame attempt at banter ("You think this double 'D' on my chest stands for French colloquialisms?") Finally I made my way to the bottom of the panel and found the two speakers buried beneath the stack of word balloons.

Having made my way through that panel, I moved on to the next one, only to find a different problem:

Now we're much too close to one of the speakers (AHHHH! EXTREME CLOSE-UP!!!), treated to a lovely shot of...the back of Daredevil's cheek? And once again, the entire panel is being overwhelmed by speech balloons.

Here's what the whole page looks like:

I really don't get the composition of that page. Is there anything that guides the reader's eye from panel to panel? It looks like reader is just left to assume that he should read down, then go all the way back up to the top of the next panel, down, back up to the top of the next panel, and so on, until all the text has been consumed. I don't see anything in the artwork itself that assists the reader in following the flow of events. So really, the figures and background are incidental; the backgrounds could be completely blank and the page would have much the same impact. And even if there was no visually dynamic way to construct this conversation, I would think at the very least that arranging the panels horizontally rather than vertically would have been more effective. That way the eye could take in both the characters and the dialogue simultaneously without having the characters so poorly cropped by an ill-chosen layout.

I suppose one could argue that at least Bendis is trying something different — shooting his scenes in "NarrowScope" when everyone else is going for widescreen — but I'd argue that effectiveness must always trump experimentation. Otherwise they're just empty attempts at standing out.

Here's another device that not only falls flat but also detracts from the main scene. In issue #15, Bendis has Ms. Marvel narrate events via her blog entries. It's a cute idea that seems smart (this way we'll be able to get inside Ms. Marvel's head to hear what she's thinking without having to resort to out-of-fashion thought balloons) but it falls apart once you think about it. The biggest problem is that since these are blog posts, they'd all have to be written after the events we're witnessing, so it removes us from the immediacy of the action. We're no longer watching a superhero fight a supervillain as it happens; now we're reviewing the postgame reel with commentary from the winning team. Secondly, the blog text can get so wordy that it slows down the action, transforming what should be a tense situation into a tedious recap:

Compare the blog device with more traditional expository dialogue in superhero comics. As clunky as it could get, at least spoken exposition allowed for the illusion that the words were being uttered while the action took place. Often the dialogue didn't work if you took the time to say it out loud (would anyone really have time to deliver the speeches and soliloquies that superheroes spouted in between punches?) but it was still a better option than yanking the reader out of the present with after-the-fact analysis.

Again, the blog idea has potential, but I think it would work better as an extra. Why not write it up as a full-fledged blog post for Marvel's website, or append it to the back of the book like the text pieces in Watchmen? Wedging the blog commentary into the superhero action only succeeds in watering down both components.

The problem of pulling readers out of the action is a frequent flaw in the book's first half. In addition to the sequences already shown, there's a fight in the first arc between the Avengers and a bunch of ninjas but the action is cut short when Luke Cage falls off the top penthouse suite they're in. Rather than follow the fight that's still raging, we track Cage as he slowly takes the elevator back up to the top of the skyscraper. It's a funny bit, but again, it pulls us out of the action. (Perhaps it's not much of a loss since the fight scene was indecipherable anyway thanks to David Finch's confused staging of the action. In fact, Finch's staging is so cluttered that characters in the book have to turn and draw your attention to the fact that Cage is about to topple over the balcony's ledge, because otherwise it's not clear what's going on.) And in a later arc illustrated by Frank Cho, we're treated to an issue-long conversation between Captain America and Spider-Woman where they recap her dealings as a double agent. Again, there's lots of mulling over events that happened in the past, with much of the information presented via nothing more than two talking heads. Exciting! It's like Bendis thought a narrated summary of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' excellent Sleeper series (but with Jessica Drew substituted in for Holden Carver) would make for an entertaining read.

The closest Bendis comes to telling a straight-ahead superhero action story without the various levels of removal is in the "Collective" arc where the Avengers face off against a mysterious threat whose power levels they can barely even comprehend. But even this arc gets off to a slow start, with the entire first chapter devoted to the perspective of SHIELD agents observing all of the action. Once the Avengers are called in (and the art duties shift from Steve McNiven to Mike Deodato) the pace picks up considerably (at least after the unintentionally hilarious scene of the Avengers standing around on a street corner in a rough neighborhood performing "imapct policing" has passed) and we actually see superheroes using their superpowers in the present without ruminating on their actions or blogging about events that transpired in the past.

The "Collective" story arc ultimately fails to be satisfying, though, mainly because it can't simply be content with just telling an adventure in its own right. The story also has to serve as a follow-up to one of Marvel's previous mega-events, House of M. Apparently when the Scarlet Witch wished away (almost) all mutants, the banished mutant powers were all just floating around in space until a random guy in Alaska with the latent mutant power of plot device activation energy absorption unwittingly sucked them all in. Then the random guy (now referred to as The Collective, but not The Collective Man, because that would be too awesome) wandered around destroying things (and Canadian superteams) until he remembered that the real point of his creation was to give Magneto his powers back right before Magneto tragically died in a helicopter explosion, at least until Final Crisis #6 comes out and ties up all the loose ends. Also, Xorn.

If you can ignore all the House of M housekeeping, though, it's not a bad superhero arc: The Avengers are outclassed; Iron Man seems to be making progress talking to their unknown adversary until Ms. Marvel butts in; Spider-Man is held captive by SHIELD; and the Avengers go up against rotting zombie mutants. The art by Deodato is a little sketchy and unfinished, but it has some nice moments, such as the previously mentioned zombie scene, which is positively Wrightsonian.

One thing that surprised me reading this is that Bendis' trademarked dialogue tics didn't annoy me as much as they had in the past. Perhaps that's because he's finally learned how to use contractions, something his earlier works seemed strangely averse to. There's still a penchant for coming up with "clever" dialogue that sounds out of place, though, especially when it comes out of the mouth of certain characters. For example, is there anyone who imagines that Viper would ever speak like this?

She also refers to the Silver Samurai (full name Kenuichio Harada) as "Ken" and "Kenny," which just sounds oddly out of character. Has Viper ever been shown being that familiar or flirtatious with the Silver Samurai before?

There's also this panel that amused me greatly, where Tony Stark is unable to come up with the antonym of "liability":

Ha ha ha! Tony Stark is an idiot who can't think of the word "asset"!

It should be obvious that I didn't think New Avengers was very good, but I'm still glad that I took the time to read it. I'm always curious about books like this that dominate the sales charts but don't do well in terms of critical reception. (I'm going to assume that the explanation for this book's sales dominance has something to do with its featuring fan-favorite characters such as Spider-Man and Wolverine, as well as its ongoing central "importance" in terms of the overall framework of the Marvel universe.) And even though I didn't like the book, I still derived a secondary sort of enjoyment from the unintentional humor provided by its spectacular badness. It's kind of like how an awful movie could be transformed into something fun by the cast and commentary of Mystery Science Theater 3000. In fact, I couldn't help but wonder what Joel or Mike and the 'bots would have done with the astonishingly bad acting in scenes like this one:

Man, that double-spread scene cracks me up every time I see it. Such dramatic close-ups! Such bad facial expressions! Such cheap reliance on reusing the same image over and over again! (And for someone who suposedly has so much experience being a secret agent on both sides of the law, Spider-Woman really doesn't know how to act nonchalant. It's like she went to the Joey Tribbiani school of spying: "When you find yourself in a tight spot, make sure to open your mouth wide and look completely stunned. It'll distract people from whatever it is you don't want them to notice.") And I think that image of the Viper glaring at Spider-Woman will haunt me for weeks to come:


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