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posted December 12, 2011
Brian Michael Bendis, Daniel Acuna
Marvel Comics, comic book, 40 pages, November 2011, $3.99
Perhaps the oddest thing about the Avengers property becoming Marvel's flagship title the last few years is that there's no underlying concept involved in its execution. It's Marvel's biggest superheroes (and some of its stronger supporting characters) teaming up to take on various super-baddie threats... and that's really about it, as far as I can tell. It's not a family, it's not a community, it's not a certain way of doing things; it's everybody the fans think are cool put into the same room. In a similar vein, the writer Brian Michael Bendis recently announcing the conclusion of his run with that property surprised only in that there's little in the way of a dramatic arc -- at least not one I can see, from several steps back -- that would indicate he was close to wrapping up whatever personal, creative business he might have brought to the series several years ago. In most ways that count, the defining characteristics of this comic book series lies in how it resists past signifiers. For all that it defines the current superhero mainstream, Avengers
is one contrary comic book.
This specific, and for me latest, issue in what is now I believe three or more interconnected series separated by adjectives or lack thereof, features one of those stories where the Avengers names a new team line-up. This periodic exercise joins punching Ultron, foiling Kang and relaunching from issue #1 as things that are as close to a recurring element as the super-team has ever offered. We're supposed to believe that the world awaits news of the line-up breathlessly, although I'd have to imagine there'd be some hype-related weariness setting in about the time Dr. Druid joined the squad. It's very action-light as far as modern superhero comics go (Captain America and Black Panther destroy a robot in the course of a civil discussion) and it's sort of light, period. Are they really doing 20 pages of story now in these $4 comic books? Because despite the 40 pages listed above, the other half of the comic is previews and ads. That would seem to me to place significant strain on the always-tenuous relationship between the devoted readership and their hobby of choice, although there's admittedly always a bit of strain there. In the 20 pages that is actually the lead story of Avengers
#19, the characters bicker a bit, there's a lot of Bendis-style Mametian banter, there's the reintroduction of a superhero I didn't know had gone missing (Vision, decades ago Marvel's must buzzed-about character) and Daniel Acuna draws a significant number of smiling superheroes, some of whom look way sillier than others.
It's a perfectly pleasant reading experience, reading something like this, as long as you still have some degree of familiarity with and interest in the basic terrain -- or can at least fake it. The level of basic craft, as is the case with most superhero comics these days, seems high to me, particularly if you measure it by comparing the baseline competence of the dialogue and artwork against similar expressions of craft in different media. That's something that wasn't always the case with different periods of these comics' publication history, as hard as it is for older fans and true believers to admit. But in addition to getting not a whole lot of story movement out of the 20 pages of comics being offered readers, I found the entire experience slightly... untethered, maybe. Whatever word means "it never really catches hold." I no longer know the baseline personalities for the various Marvel superhero characters, and to presume they should be exactly the same as I remember them seems silly to me. They shouldn't be; more importantly, they just aren't. The thing is, I wasn't getting a whole lot of distinctive impressions of any kind from this comic book regarding the characters featured, let alone familiar ones. The Black Panther, for instance, didn't sound or feel any different to me than a half dozen other characters in the book. The resulting notion that everything I was reading was an empty exercise on some level was a hard one to avoid.
I have a hunch as to why these comics work that way. Brian Michael Bendis has a strong, distinctive approach to superhero material, rooted in the bounce of dialogue and the intrusion of elements of adult sophistication on what is, let's face it, some pretty childish basic business. This suggests to me that whatever traits the characters are supposed to exhibit, whatever investment in their current predicament they're supposed to display, in many cases these things aren't as powerful as the lines on the page and the present moment placed before them by the writer. I also suspect this may not be noticeable to fans of the current material as they a) may not really care if they get an impression of exactly what Spider-Woman may be like or get a feel for the thematic underpinnings of the super-team's feud with Norman Osborn, b) may genuinely enjoy the playfulness that comes with the characters bouncing off one another in this fashion, as if they themselves are in on a joke being played, the target of which seems to be the dire, earnest, heavy atmosphere inherent to many of these comics from the 1970s onward. There's something very Stan Lee to that. I bet several years of playful banter and raised eyebrows and verbal stoppages and double-entendres and knowing asides goes down a lot easier than the dry-humping of Armageddon and the constant threat of egos being snuffed that drove the superhero comic books I read as a kid. If I were to become a fan of such comics now, I wonder if this is the only kind I could bear to read.