Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Batman Ends: My Thoughts on the Much-Hyped BATMAN BEGINS

In evaluating BATMAN BEGINS, an important point right up front is that, louder-than-informed claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the film is not an adaptation of any version of the Batman from the long-running comics. The filmmakers radically altered most of the fundamental elements of the character, retaining only the most superficial.

So where to begin?

Unbelievably ill-conceived. That's it. BATMAN BEGINS is a film that, rather than picking a story and sticking to it, tries to be everything to all people and ends up being nothing as a consequence.


This one had a lot of potential, and it was hard to watch it fall apart as it went along. Some grumble-inducing moments notwithstanding, it's actually quite good in the early going. It's engaging, well-constructed, and despite a lot of high-fallutin' monologues about the psychology of fear, doesn't really come across as overly pretentious. The first indication of trouble, however, occurs in this early part of the movie. Bruce Wayne, our future Batman, has been in training with the League of Shadows, a ninja-style group led by Ras al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). Upon his "graduation," Ras explains his master plan, offering an utterly incoherent rant about "destroying Gotham," Bruce's home city, for no apparent reason other than that it is "corrupt." As Watanabe rambled, I started giggling. That the film, in standard Hollywood tell-you-what-you're-supposed-to-think-about-what-you're-seeing fashion, presents this as a very somber, serious moment only added to the joke. Bruce, having listened to this, then turns to Ducard (Liam Neeson), the man who'd recruited him into the League, and asks, totally deadpan, if he really believes in all of this, at which point my giggles turned into outright laughter, shared by others in the theater. It's an embarrassingly idiotic moment that immediately took me out of the mood that had been established.

Though this early misstep unfortunately foreshadows things to come, the film, in real time, bounces back fairly quickly from it. Back in Gotham, we have uber-boss Carmine "The Roman" Falcone, a powerful gangster whom the filmmakers establish as the virtual monarch of Gotham, a guy who runs everything in a corrupt sewer of a city. At one point he threatens to shoot Bruce in a restaurant full of city officials, convincingly explaining that he could do so with impunity. Why the filmmakers bothered spending so much time and energy setting him up is anyone's guess though, because nothing much ever comes of it. They could have built a movie (or an entire series of movies) around Bruce's efforts to clean up the town as they'd established it. More importantly, the first part of the film gives every indication that this is exactly what we're in for. Instead, the mighty Falcone is decimated by the Batman in mere minutes, in ludicrously implausible fashion, none of his power helping him a bit.

The quick disposal of Falcone after so much set-up is very poor storytelling and, for the viewer, quite jarring. It's a broken promise. Director Christopher Nolan has spent the entire film suggesting to the audience that the process of bringing down the gangster is going to be a real fasten-your-seatbelts epic and the focus of the film then, in only minutes, it's suddenly over and the film is off on an entirely new tangent. If this new tangent was better, of course, this would be somewhat excusable.

It isn't better.

It isn't even good.

Nolan and David Goyer, the film's screenwriters, tried to take BEGINS in two diametrically opposed--and irreconcilable--directions. The end-product is a cut-and-pasted mess, drawing both from great and solidly grounded Batman material like Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One" (which should have been this movie) and very bad, very dated, and embarrassing comic book stuff from yesteryear featuring motiveless, pretentious, overblown, super-villains with some incredibly idiotic (and laughably inefficient) plot to "destroy" something.[1] When it kicks into this second phase--the new post-Falcone tangent--every minute of the movie seems to be worse than the one before.

The movie essentially disintegrates from the moment Bruce dons the Batman mask. Sitting in the theater, you can almost physically feel the film's IQ drop. Christian Bale, who had done an admirable (if largely unexceptional) Bruce Wayne, never comes close to getting a handle on his characters' alter ego, his Batman voice and persona being phoned in from the Keanu Reeves School of Acting. When Bruce becomes Batman, all he has to do to rid Gotham of the mighty Falcone is rough up a dozen of his men[2] who are, at the time, in the middle of completing an illegal drug transaction then attack Falcone, leaving the gangster chained and beaten senseless at the scene of the crime. This, along with some evidence gathered by the Batman that would be inadmissible in any court in the civilized world will, we're told, send Falcone away forever. Uh huh. Then Nolan and Goyer get into the meat of Phase Two (rancid pork, in this case): Ra's al Ghul returns, still looking to "destroy Gotham" for no real reason. His means of doing so is the most ludicrous item in a film filled with ludicrous items and the final hour of the movie is dedicated to a lot of empty standard-issue Hollywood sound and fury as the plot plays itself out. Unforgivably, the film's last scene is a straight steal of the great ending of Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One," which, by spoiling the scene for some future filmmaker who may one day want to make a real Batman movie, only serves to rub salt in the wound this film had created.

I have no tolerance for this sort of thing anymore. If I hadn't been with a friend, I probably would have left long before the movie was over. In the final analysis, BATMAN BEGINS is inferior in pretty much every way to the original Burton flick and is even less of a Batman movie. For my part, I hope it's going to be ending, rather than beginning, a Batman franchise. I'm rather fond of the character and have had quite enough of Hollywood dragging him through the mud.

--j.

---

[1] A depressing possibility is that the filmmakers may have thought they were actually playing to the comic-reading audience with this kind of rot, when, in fact, this sort of mindless plot went out of fashion in the medium over 30 years ago. More generally, even with the recent spate of good comic book movies, the level of sophistication in the source books almost always exceeds, by a significant margin, what is committed to film.

[2] This, like all of the scenes of violence in the film, is remarkably badly done on every level--direction, camera-work, editing, even sound. It's assembled in such a way that it's impossible to tell what's happening until its over.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Essentially Pointless: A Review of Essential Avengers #1, 2, & 3

Comics' Silver Age could be fairly redubbed "The Marvel Age". It was the 1960s, and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were at the height of their powers. Marvel was the vanguard of the Age, and Stan and Jack were the vanguard of Marvel. Their collaboration was one of the high points of the form, a form they virtually re-invented in those years. So ripe was their talent in those heady days of glorious four-color mayhem that it's impossible to say, with any certainty, that the pair of them would have been unable to produce an illustrated version of the phone book that would have been anything less than a must read.

And yet they couldn't do anything with the Avengers.

Neither, it seems, could anyone else who worked on the team in their formative years. Taken together, the first three Essential Avengers books, reprinting the first five-and-a-half years of the adventures of "Earth's Mightiest Heroes," are a harrowing experience. Even so dedicated a fan as I of All Things Silver Age Marvel found them agonizingly dull and tedious. From practically the beginning, reading them became merely obligatory for me--I did it only so I could say I'd done it.

The book's crippling problems begin with the inaugural issue, a stunning piece of phone-it-in hack-work that unfortunately sets the standard for most of what is to follow.

The characters who will make up the Avengers come together for the first time by what is, even by the standards of the day, an absurd fluke. The story opens with Loki scheming against Thor, as usual. Physically stranded on Asgard's "dreaded Isle of Silence," Loki sends his "disembodied self" to Earth to seek out his nemesis, in hopes of luring the thunder god back to Asgard for another round of one-on-one. Unfortunately, Thor is then in his mortal guise of lame physician Don Blake--hardly a match for Loki. Getting Blake to turn into Thor would seem a small matter--as Thor had earlier admonished Loki never to interfere in the affairs of men, it could probably be accomplished by simply projecting that "disembodied self" into Blake's presence and saying "Hey, I'm interfering in the affairs of men again!" Instead, Loki resorts to an unbelievably convoluted plot involving framing the Hulk for attempting to wreck a train, the idea being that, as word of the incident spreads, Thor will hear of it and come to meet the Hulk in battle. How this would lure Thor to the Isle of Silence is anyone's guess, but that's the set-up, and Loki, self-described "master schemer," seems quite proud of it.

All seems to be going according to plan at first, as the incident with the train hits the national news. Suddenly, a fly in the ointment appears in the form of Rick Jones, sometime Hulk sidekick, who, reading the story in the paper, gets on the radio and attempts to call in the Fantastic Four to find the Hulk. Loki is horrified! "The Fantastc Four will ruin everything!" Of course they could "ruin everything" in exactly the same way merely by hearing about the incident on the news and deciding to get involved on their own, exactly as Loki wanted to happen with Thor, but we're apparently to presume the FF either don't bother to follow the news or are indifferent to the danger posed by a rampaging monster. Stan and Jack need an excuse for the soon-to-be Avengers to come together, so they have Loki scramble Jones' radio signal, sending it to a frequency to which Blake is then listening. Unless Blake has, as his hobby, listening to random dead radio frequencies, this means the signal was broadcast to thousands of listeners of a regular radio station (one that apparently doesn't carry the news), but Stan nevertheless assures us that, "unsuspected by Loki, others have also heard the radio message..." (A bright boy, that "master schemer."). The others include Iron Man and Hank "Ant Man" Pym, with his gal-pal sidekick the Wasp, all of whom, along with Thor, pack their bags and head out west.

Arriving simultaneously at Jones' HQ, the heroic quartet are no sooner in the same room together than Loki, seeking battle only with Thor, puts that "master schemer" brain of his into action to try to seperate Thor from the pack. Noticing a moment when Thor is looking out the window, Loki sends a mental image of the Hulk skipping by. Thor doesn't even bother to tell anyone else ("No need for me to disturb the others!")--he just steps outside and gives chase. When he discovers it isn't the real Hulk, he deduces (sans any real evidence) that only Loki could be responsible, and, without a word of explanation to anyone, disappears to Asgard to face his arch-foe, leaving the remaining characters to hunt down and needlessly battle an innocent-of-attempted-train-wrecking Hulk.

And so on. Most of the rest of the book is dedicated to a two-front slugfest, Thor vs. Loki, and everyone else vs. the Hulk (who is discovered working as a circus clown!). In the end, Thor brings Loki to earth and exposes his scheming. Though Loki is, quite literally, a god, Ant Man dumps him in a lead-lined tank from which, Ant Man confidently assures everyone, he will be incapable of escaping. The end.

But not before this crucial exchange:

Ant Man: "If we combined forces, we could be almost unbeatable!"

Iron Man: "Work as a team? Why not? I'm for it!"

Thor: "There is much good we might do!"

So, with even the Hulk favoring the idea, they form the Avengers.

"I pity the guy who tries to beat us!"
--Hulk

The events of the first Avengers book form the basis of what will become a 40+ year series. Or, to put it more precisely, they
don't. Traditionally, an origin story is intended to provide the starring characters with a motivation, a reason for what they do. With the Avengers, no further thought seems to have gone into this all-important tale than the dollar-driven need to appropriate the gimmick of rival DC's successful Justice League (throwing a bunch of the companies' popular characters into a team). Is there really any need for a team such as the Avengers (much less one established on a permanent basis)? Perhaps one could make a case for it, but the origin story doesn't even try to do so. It's just about Loki, portrayed as a decidedly un-masterful "master schemer," messing around with Thor for the umpteenth time, and being smacked down by Thor, again for the umpteenth time. The book begins without a usable premise. It isn't about anything.

Now, if you ask a die-hard Avengers fan about the team's premise, you'll hear something about it being Earth's mightiest heroes coming together to protect the world from superhuman threats too powerful and dangerous to face individually. While this could theoretically work,[1] one of the things made abundantly clear by the team's first 68 issues is that this interpretation is of much later vintage, and wasn't at all what Stan and Jack or any of the subsequent creators during this period had in mind. What we're presented with, instead, is a random group of diverse characters who come together on an astonishingly contrived fluke, decide to stay together for no reason, and create a team that has no point and, hence, nothing to do.[2]

This lack of a usable premise made creating stories for the Avengers all but impossible. In practice, they simply stumble upon their "adventures"--or, to put it more precisely, their fights--or have them otherwise thrust upon them. The model of the first issue becomes a pattern with the next: At the beginning of issue #2, the Space Phantom, a new villain, appears, intent on destroying "the Avengers," even though the Avengers haven't yet done anything as a team except deciding to found the Avengers--certainly not an event that would have reached the ears of a "Space Phantom.". This establishes what will become the book's signature "plot", if the word may be so abused: Villains just show up intent on "destroying" them, they fight back. That (and variations on it) is almost exclusively what passes for an Avengers "adventure" for years afterwards.[3]

This opens the book to another interesting criticism. Reading through the endless repetition of this same story issue after issue, one inevitably comes to the realization that if the team would simply disband, all of the troubles catalogued in the pages of their book could be avoided. Thor thought forming the team was a good idea because "there is much good we might do," but what the pattern of their "adventures" suggest is, in fact, just the opposite; that their mere existence as a team is pernicious. For five-and-a-half years, it prompts the emergence of one public menace after another. Perhaps worse than this, it encourages existing menaces to become even bigger menaces in response. The Avengers, by combining, set off a sort of superhuman arms-race.

This latter element emerges in Avengers #3, where the Hulk, having left the team at the end of the previous issue, meets and is talked into partnering up with Namor, the Sub Mariner, who tells him "our first mission shall be"--what else?--"to deliver a smashing defeat to the accursed Avengers" (As fate would have it, the Namor/Hulk tag-team doesn't survive its first encounter with the Avengers, but Namor returns, alone, with another destroy-the-Avengers plot in issue #4, and the Hulk returns, also alone, to attack them again in #5.).

The sixth issue takes the superhuman arms race to the next level. We're introduced to Baron Zemo, one of Captain America's old enemies from the war, who's still nursing an old grudge against Cap for--I kid you not--super-gluing a hood to his head. Learning Captain America has now reappeared, he founds the Masters of Evil, a new team of superbeings made up of old enemies of the individual members of the Avengers and devoted to destroying the team. This inaugurates what will become a
very tedious series of encounters between the two teams, which consumes most of the next year of the book's run. The Enchantress and the Executioner show up and volunteer for Zemo's gang. Zemo creates Wonder Man as "a living engine of destruction" to destroy the Avengers. Immortus appears from nowhere and volunteers to help destroy the Avengers. And on and on. Of the book's history covered by the first three Essential volumes, this period is the hardest on the reader.

Stan had been tinkering with the team's line-up from the beginning--he needed
something to write, after all. The Hulk left after the second issue. Captain America
joined two issues later. In #16, Stan puts the Masters of Evil business to bed for a while, and Iron Man suggests, to the apparent approval of Giant Man and the Wasp, completely disbanding the team. They change their tune only when Hawkeye turns up wanting to join, opening the door to the possibility of replacements. Still, the entire original roster decides to leave the team, and, in one stroke, "Earth's mightiest heroes" are shorn of all their might.[4] Only Captain America, the weakest Avenger,[5] remains to head a trio of reformed villains (the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Hawkeye). Any one of the departing "powerhouse" members was more powerful than the entirety of the new team, and there's much implied by their casual willingness to disband, then, barring that, to leave the team so shorthanded merely because they want, in Iron Man's words, "a rest."

With the new team, Stan imports, from the Fantastic Four, the idea of bickering characters, a device particularly ill suited for this book. There was some of this in the early issues, but it was mostly just arguing with the Hulk (or because of the Hulk). For the most part, the early Avengers actually got along. They weren't "friends"[6]--they didn't even reveal their real identities to one another--but they weren't arguing all the time, and they frequently expressed their mutual admiration for one another. Perhaps because this tended to make them as dull as dishwater (and more probably because Stan was attempting to recreate the success of the FF in their pages), the bickering character angle appeared with a vengeance after the original members leave. Hawkeye is a mouthy jerk who doesn't get along with anyone. Both he and Quicksilver are constantly scheming to take leadership of the team away from Captain America--they each want it for themselves. Cap himself doesn't even seem to want to be there anymore--he wants to run off and join SHIELD. At one point (issue #22), he
does abandon the team, returning only when Kang, who'd earlier been introduced into the series, appears again, intent on--you guessed it--destroying the Avengers (for what was, at that point, the third time). Who can blame him for wanting to leave? Even with the original line-up, the members of the team have no ties that would serve to keep them together in adversity. They weren't family, they weren't friends, they have (subsequent baseless claims to the contrary notwithstanding) no overriding mission to which they could idealistically subscribe. The constant bickering makes this already critical flaw much worse by making the already-pointless task of being part of the team very unpleasant. They can't stand to be in the same room with one another, and, reading through the issues sequentially, the reader can't understand why they'd bother to try.

With the new team in place, the old pattern returns--they're immediately drawn into a Mole Man plot to destroy the Avengers. Two issues later, the Swordsman shows up, trying to join the Avengers in order to use their clout as a cover for his criminal activities. When they decline his offer, he sets about trying to "trap" one of them, in order to make the others accept his membership! The Swordsman is just that, a guy with a sword, and no superpowers, but he proves to be no end of trouble for the once-mighty Avengers. Next, another villainous team-up, as the Mandarin, one of Iron Man's arch foes, forcibly conscripts the Swordsman: "I merely desire to destroy the Avengers! And I have selected you to be my agent!" Why? This is classic: "...my most hated enemy--Iron Man--may one day return to them! And when he does, I want you there, as a member of the Avengers--to smash him from within!" Then, the Masters of Evil return, repeating the process that had earlier empowered Wonder Man to create Power Man, yet another engine of destruction with the same old mission: Destroy the Avengers! Kang returns again, same goal. And on and on.

In the middle of this latest dreary cycle, Stan, in one story, stumbles upon a
very intriguing notion. In issue #18, the Avengers respond to what they think is a request for aid from a rebel group battling the communist government of Sin-Cong (a fictional central Asian nation), and, by the end of the story, have overthrown that government.[7] The implications of super-powered characters carrying out such an act were rich with story potential, indeed, and, in fact, the story seems to chart a bold new direction for the team. When Cap announces his decision to take the team to Sin-Cong, Quicksilver, backed by the Scarlet Witch, sees this as outside the traditional scope of the team's activities and asks "why need we concern ourselves with international affairs?"

Hawkeye: "Let me spell it out for you! We're supposed to avenge injustice, right? Well, when liberty's threatened, justice goes down the drain! That's it in a nutshell!"

At the stories' conclusion, Captain America makes it even more explicit, addressing the people of Sin-Cong:

"...be always on your guard! Their [the communists'] goal is nothing less than total world conquest and world enslavement! Only constant vigilance and devotion to freedom can stop them! And remember--the Avengers always stand ready to do their part!"

Unfortunately, Stan was simply using this as a plot device, and this intriguing theme was immediately dropped. It remained largely unexplored in any depth until the birth of "The Authority" in the 1990s.

Issue #26 and 27 offers a break from the "destroy the Avengers" cycle, but, unfortunately, not a break from the hackwork-level plotting. Here, the Avengers repel a genuine menace, a plot by the ocean-dwelling Attuma to attack the surface world. The story begins as the Sub Mariner has apparently just wrecked a ship at sea and declared his intention to do bad things to New York. The Wasp, on board the wreck and with no other means of warning the mainland, sets off in flight to sound the alarm. On the way, she stops for a moment to float on the surface and rest, and just happens to pick the one stretch of water, in the whole, wide ocean, in which Attuma has moored his undersea headquarters. He captures her, decides she's a spy, immediately tells her his entire plan (another bright boy), then locks her up. She
escapes, makes it to a radio, and calls in the Avengers, who promptly flatten the would-be conqueror. The Avengers' method of "uncovering" Attuma's plot--simply
stumbling upon it via outrageous one-in-a-million coincidence--becomes their standard one.

The next issue has the Wasp once again taken captive, this time by the Collector, whose variation on "destroy the Avengers" is, as his name suggests, to "collect" them, permanently displaying them in his own little museum. #29 has the Black Widow, newly brainwashed by the KGB, sent back to the U.S.: "Your first objective shall be... to destroy the Avengers!!" Recruiting the Swordsman and Power Man, she spends the next two issues in the attempt. The book continues to wander aimlessly throughout the rest of Stan's run. Stan's last issue (#34) has the team investigating a bank robbery, and introduces the Living Laser, who, taking one look at the Wasp, falls madly in love with her; by the end of the issue, he's taken her captive--the third villain to do so in the last 7 issues.

With #35, Roy Thomas takes over writing chores. In the period of his run covered by the second and third Essential volumes (#35-#68), he continues to tell the same old story, but, as he goes along, he at least begins to tell it in different ways. He puts more focus on characterization, and frequently sprinkles his recitations of the book's tired formula with many wonderful little moments that serve to raise them far above the book's usual standard. Such touches allow him to somewhat sidestep the team's inherent pointlessness, and, by doing this, he allows the reader to do the same. At its best, his work here is the artistic equivalent of alchemy; he manages to make some little something out of a whole lot of nothing.

Unfortunately, Thomas is not often at his best in these tales, so, for the reader of the Essential volumes, there's still that whole lot of nothing to contend with. I'm a big fan of Thomas' work, and I'm sort of sad I didn't read some of his issues here outside of the context of the rest of the series. I suspect collecting the run together does an injustice to the handful of issues that could, if ingested in isolation, passably serve as brainless entertainment. By the time you get to them in the Essential format, you've read the same old story until you're sick to death of it, and the book's structural problems, which remain throughout Thomas' tenure, have been forcibly drilled into you until they've come to overwhelm any virtue one may have found in an individual issue. Thomas' work, as a consequence, isn't nearly as interesting in collected form as it might be to a reader unpoisoned by the rest of the series, who was picking up a given issue for the first time.

Shortly after he takes the reins, Thomas imports Hercules into the team, after the Masters of Evil's veteran Enchantress works some of her trademark hoodoo upon him in order to get him to "destroy all five of the accursed Avengers." Having traveled to Earth without the permission of Zeus, he's sentenced to remain there in banishment for a period of one year, and, the Enchantress' spell having ended, decides to become an Avenger. At this point, Thomas seems to decide that, when it comes to villains, what's good for the Fantastic Four is good for the Avengers; over the course of several issues, he imports, in direct succession, the Thinker, Namor, the Mole Man, Diablo, and Dragon Man. In #43, he has the commies create and unleash the Red Guardian to "destroy Captain America." The commie superman takes Hawkeye captive in order to lure Cap and the other Avengers into a trap. Agonizingly tired (and ridiculous) plot elements aside, the book becomes much more readable here, with some good character moments, and great artwork from John Buscema. Unfortunately, the spell is immediately broken by King Sized Avengers #1, still another dreary "destroy the Avengers" plot, which reunited most of the Avengers from the past, and featured no less than six re-re-retread villains.

Next, Thomas embarks upon a series of stories wherein old enemies of the invididual Avengers reappear for more "destroying." Issue #45, with the Super Adaptoid: "Captain America must die! That is the mission I was created for!" Issue #46, the Human Top, now redubbed the Whirlwind: "...it is time to re-establish my reputation--and what better way to do it than by destroying the one who captured me? Goliath must die--so that the wondrous Whirlwind can live!" With issue #47, it's Magneto, pursuing Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch: "...know this--if you choose to live as Avengers, you shall also die as Avengers!" The next three issues continue the Magneto plot, but are centrally concerned with an irrelevant plotline concerning Hercules' solo battle with Typhon, a new character, said to be an old enemy of the Olympian gods: "Now, 'tis time to destroy you!" As it to close this loop, issue #51 is another return engagement for the Collector, an enemy of all Avengers.

Thomas had been playing with the membership during this period, having Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch leave to rejoin Magneto, then having Hercules, upon the defeat of Typhon, remain on Olympus. At the end of #52, the Black Panther joins the team, having been recruited by Captain America. The next issue puts a Thomasian twist on the standard plot; the Panther arrives at Avengers' mansion, all set to join the team, and discovers that they've all been murdered, a crime of which he's immediately accused. As it turns out, of course, they haven't been murdered; only made to look as though they were dead. The villain is the Grim Reaper, whose goal is... well, you know it by now. After openly disclosing his intention to murder the Avengers, he inexplicably chooses merely to stun them, then, with the team helpless before him, to leave them there, appearing dead, rather than actually killing them. The Black Panther escapes police custody, fights it out with the Reaper (who, for the sake of plot convenience, tells him the Avengers can be reawakened and exactly how to do it), and saves the day.

Next up is the conclusion of a crossover with the X-Men, the first part of which is not reprinted. Its only noteworthy attribute is a good twist at the end wherein the Toad finally gets tired of being slapped around by Magneto, and gives him, quite literally, the boot. The cover alone on #54 made me want to skip it. Yes, it's yet another Masters of Evil story. Their "destroy" attempt runs on for two issues, this time. They're led by future Avengers arch-foe Ultron, in his debut, making their activities represent his own first "destroy" attempt. Issue #56 has Cap playing with Dr. Doom's time machine, as an excuse to rehash Zemo's World War II destruction of Cap's former sidekick Bucky (Cap's constant angst over this event, which had become tiresome within a few pages of its first being introduced, had been dragging on for over four years, at this point). This helps set up King Sized Avengers #2, yet another variation on "destroy the Avengers," which just has to be read to be believed; qualitatively, it's probably the lowest point of Thomas' run. The next issue introduces the Vision, an android who appears from nowhere intent on "destroying the Avengers." At the moment of truth, however, he locks up and, for reasons he can't understand, doesn't want to hurt them--now, he feels compelled to lead them to his master, who, he tells them, is Ultron. It's a trap, of course--the Vision has been programmed by Ultron to react this way--but the Avengers, bright as ever, go right along with him and fall into it. With the team on the verge of becoming toast, the Vision then saves the day, confronting Ultron and defeating him. Though this is a strictly by-the-numbers formula story, it's bookended by a great opening page, the poetic reveal of the Vision, and an epilogue in conclusion that has to be one of the best last pages ever, a marvelous use of Shelley's "Ozymandias." Exposing an Avengers-level audience to such a literary classic, alone, deserves some sort of prize.

The oft-heralded issue #58, "Even An Android Can Cry," turns out to be another dud, but, with this issue, John Buscema's already-great artwork kicks into serious overdrive, setting a remarkably high standard that is maintained, through Buscema and three subsequent artists (Gene Colan, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Sal Buscema), for the remainder of the run covered by the third Essential volume. Colan is the best of the batch, but all of the artists are in top form, and these are beautiful issues to look at. Unfortunately, this beauty is wasted on a book that remains mired in telling the same old story. As it rolls along, Goliath becomes Yellowjacket, Hawkeye becomes Goliath, Hank suffers temporary insanity and marries Jan, the Black Panther gets an issue-length unrelated-to-the-Avengers solo story. Egghead, the Thinker, and the Puppet Master return, this time as a team and sporting a sattelite-mounted death-ray capable of destroying a city. What they're up to with it is anyone's guess, though, because, while they spend a good deal of their time over the course of these issues cackling over their grand scheme, Thomas, doesn't even bother to reveal what it is (The story is apparently only part of a crossover with the Sub Mariner, and the non-Avenger issues are not included). From there, the Swordsman returns yet again, Egghead returns, Ultron returns yet again, and, finally, the third Essential Avenger book mercifully comes to a close.

One reviewer of the first Essential volume put the matter of the early Avengers bluntly; it's the kind of trash critics of comics would use as evidence of the lack of redeeming merit in the form. Memories of Roger Stern's run in the 1980s excepted, I've never been much of an Avengers fan. I didn't really dislike the book; it was just something I hadn't often found to be as engaging as other things I read. I'm a huge fan of Silver Age Marvel material, warts and all, but, prior to the Essentials, I'd only read a handful of Avengers issues from this period. I was astonished by how bad the book, as a whole, really was. Its defining characteristic is, quite literally, its awfulness. It isn't awful in a fun way, either, which is a virtue possessed by several Marvel books of the period.[8] It's awful in a dry, monotonous, ridiculous, mind-numbingly dull way that left me wondering how on earth it survived more than a few months, much less for 40+ years. I could have reviewed these issues much more appropriately with but a single word (one that certainly wouldn't pass Comic Code scrutiny), but after the unbelievable drudgery involved in reading the three volumes back-to-back, it's almost as though I felt compelled to take revenge on them in some way. I realized, as I began to write this review, that the Masters of Evil and Ultron and even the Space Phantom suddenly made a lot more sense to me, their oft-repeated goal seeming a lot nobler. I'd entered the Essential Avengers as an ordinary writer and comics fan; I came out the other end as a partisan of the Avengers' villains, wishing this awful, awful book could just be made to go away.

--j.

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[1] A few years later, it did work, in spectacular fashion, in the Defenders.

[2] Compare the Avengers to the X-Men, whose book debuted the same month as theirs. "X-Men" was about an enigmatic professor's efforts to secretly recruit and train an army of natural born super-beings--mutants--to help protect mankind from other mutant super-beings. The world they're trying to protect hates and fears them, to use the oft-quoted phrase, and, for contrast, the ideological conflict between the professors' approach to it and that of mutant supremacist Magneto is set up almost immediately. Besides telling a great story, a marvelous metaphorical richness underpins the proceedings. The X-Men was a book
about something.

I'm leaving out a lot in that description, of course, but even that helps make the point--there's that much to leave out. The Avengers, on the other hand, is "about," to quote the nail-on-the-head assessment of a usenet poster, "a bunch of random heroes fighting a bunch of random villains." Period.

[3] That "almost exclusively" is not hyperbole. It's nearly impossible to overstate the degree to which the book relies upon this. A few noteworthy points, here: Every title Marvel was producing at the time occasionally featured revenge stories. The hero would foil some dastardly plot by the villain, the villain would return to try to "destroy" the hero in revenge. In the Avengers, however, the villain skips the hero-foils-their-plot stage--from his very first appearance, frequently with no motive or higher goal that's ever more than hinted at, he goes right to the destroy-the-hero stage. And, of course, the Avengers rely upon this same "plot" more than all of the other Marvel books of the time combined--it's virtually the only thing that happens in the Avengers.

[4] Maybe the originals weren't technically "Earth's Mightiest Heroes," but with powerhouses like Thor, Giant Man, Iron Man, and the Hulk on board, it's probable that no one was going to dispute the notion to their faces.

[5] Captain America, with no superpowers, is completely out of his class in the early Avengers. Stan's method of compensating for this does the team no favors. In #4, Cap, even after being frozen for nearly 20 years, single-handedly trashes the entire team. Iron Man, Thor, or Giant Man should be able to drop Cap like a bad habit with--quite literally--the flip of a finger. Instead, in #9,
all three of them are shown having to struggle to hold back an angry Cap. Iron Man: "Cap stop! Uhhh--! It's like trying to hold back a tornado!" Issue #10 opens with Cap again in combat--this time, mock combat--with the other Avengers, and, again, he is able to avoid being tagged by them for nearly a minute. And so on.

[6] They make no pretense of interacting with one another as friends, either. Perhaps the most embarrassingly silly thing in the early Avengers is that they run the team like it's some kind of Elk's Lodge, everything handled with strict formality. They meet once a week and, instead of just talking over whatever business is pending (what little there ever is), they designate a chairman to direct the meeting, which is handled as though it was a court, with titles, formal language, rules, and so forth. Though they came together only by accident, decided to found the team in an entirely arbitrary fashion, and spend all their time battling menaces that only come into existence to destroy the team, the members act as though being an Avenger is some sort of major honor, and are often insufferably full of themselves. One would think, from the way they talk, that they're an elite, carrying on some age-old tradition, and that they'd had to struggle for decades to achieve their position as a member. One particularly hilarious moment comes when Iron Man, after failing to answer an Avengers summons due to events in his own book, is sternly reprimanded by the team. Thor passes sentence: "You are hereby suspended from all Avengers activity and duties for one week! You may go now!" (Oh, NO! NOT THAT!) So when the Masters of Evil attack, in that same issue, the Avengers are short one of their most powerful members. What heroes! In one issue, when they're trying to remember whose turn it is to direct a meeting, the Wasp complains: "Personally, I think it's silly not to have a permanent leader." Iron Man replies "Silly, perhaps, but more democratic!" This concern with "democracy," however, departs along with the original members, and Cap is made, for all intents and purposes, the Maximal Leader and final authority on all matters with regard to the team.

[7] "The Commissar," the evil commie head-of-state in Sing-Cong, had faked the rebel broadcast hoping to lure the team to his country so he could "destroy" them.

[8] Many of the individual problems with the Avengers--those identified here and the legion left unmentioned--are also present, to varying degrees, in other Marvel books of the time. They stand out so sharply in the Avengers because the book has, quite literally, nothing else to offer, no counterbalancing benefit to allow one to look past the problems.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

King Conan: Epic Interrupted

For a while now, I've had a complete run of "King Conan/Conan the King," gathered from Ebay shortly after I returned to comics after years without them. When I was younger, I'd read the book only very occasionally, mostly just the earliest issues. I'm a huge Conan fan and since my return to comics suffer recurring periods of barbarous frenzy wherein I consume massive quantities of the Cimmerian's Hyborian Age mayhem. I came into my "King Conan" run toward the end of one of these spells and was content to re-visit some of the early issues I'd experienced in my youth before putting the lot of them in a box for another day. That day came a few weeks ago. I've been reading through the series from the beginning and I've just struck gold in the form of Alan Zelenetz and Marc Silvestri.

Marvel seems to have wanted "King Conan" to be something more than just a run-of-the-mill adventure comic. The larger page-count, quarterly (later bimonthly) publication and dollar cover price (at a time when 40 cents was the industry standard) attest to this. One of the shortcomings of the early "King Conan" though, is that it doesn't seem to have an identity of its own. It's quite readable and, for the most part, quite good but generous format aside, it's written as just another Conan book. The focus is on simple, straightforward action/adventure stories with no depth and little character development. There are stand-alone stories and a few multi-part story arcs but nothing ever really seems to happen. An adventure concludes, a rigid status quo is restored and there things sit until the next threat emerges in the following issue.

All of this changes when Zelenetz comes on board with issue #16. Jim Owsley, the new editor of the book, devoted a significant portion of the letters page in #17 to describing the wild enthusiasm with which Zelenetz and he went about planning the coming run over lunch:

"Well, we talked and talked. The more we talked, the more great ideas were suggested. The excitement grew. By the time we were done, Al's eyes were blazing, his heart was racing, and he was standing atop our table, butter knife in hand, screaming in barbaric rage.

"Well, not exactly. But he did kill a perfectly good tree taking a zillion pages of notes, and there were hushed whispers of the words 'epic' and 'magnificence.' You see, we're going to blow 'King Conan' up and start over; and we're doing it with dynamite."

What follows lives up to this hype and then some. The run is striking in its maturity and complexity. The characters evolve from status-quo-locked stock one-noters to fully realized individuals who grow and change with events in their lives. The supporting cast, previously little more than background noise, is significantly expanded and fleshed out in wonderful detail. Subplots abound. The book immediately takes on the air of an epic; the reader can't help but feel as though a grand tale is unfolding and each new installment is a delight. The book, for the first time, acquires a soul of its own. It would be hard to overstate how much I enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, the spell is broken rather roughly with issue #29. Don Kraar takes over as writer and immediately abandons the course which had been charted by Zelenetz and Marc Silvestri. The shift is jarring and Kraar's seeming effort to destroy, by the quickest, crudest means possible, much of what his predecessors had built is very off-putting.

In issue #20, Conan's son Conn was apparently killed in an ambush by unknown sorcery-aided assailants. Unknown to his family, Conn survived and, in a series of back-up stories, experienced several solo adventures, ending in his decision not to return to Acquilonia. He spits out his silver spoon in grand fashion and determines to make his own way in the world. It was a great set-up for what should have one day been a Conn solo series and Owsley makes plain in one letters page that the character's absence from "King Conan" is meant to be for the foreseeable future.

Kraar returns Conn in his very first issue.

When, by that point, last seen, Conn had been in far-away Hyrkania; he'd discovered that he had a half-brother there, had taken a wife and, when war threatened, had signed up, while his brother had departed for Acquilonia. What became of the war, Conn's service in it, his brother, his wife or anything else in this storyline is anyone's guess. Kraar offers no explanation--he just has Conn appear in Acquilonia, only a few issues after the above-outlined storyline, having apparently journeyed there in the company of a traveling jester.

Zelenetz and Silvestri had sent Trocero, Conan's loyal advisor, home to his wife from whom he'd been separated for many years while in Conan's service. A significant portion of #26 is devoted to his flashback-filled journey home as he reminisces upon various events in his life, concluding with an emotional reunion with his wife. It would have been a good end to Trocero's story and, at the very least, seems intended to have retired him for a time. Kraar simply returns Trocero to the Acquilonian court. Again, no explanation. He's just there and only three issues after he left.

One of the book's ongoing subplots had been a secret romance between Conan's 16-year-old daughter Radegund and Leonidas, one of Conan's elite Black Dragon knights. After failing to protect Conan from a would-be assassin, Leonidas resigns from the Black Dragons out of shame. With his slot cleared, Conan embarks upon filling it, putting would-be recruits through hellish (and hilarious) tests. Meanwhile, Leonidas, having left the court, continues to correspond with Radegund. Kraar opens his second issue on the book with Leonidas suddenly once again a member of the Black Dragons, no explanation. Worse, he immediately proceeds to have Leonidas and all of the Black Dragons whom Zelenetz and Silvestri had been developing killed in an ambush by Picts.

At the time she met Leonidas, Radegund had been chafing from her forced betrothal to Pepin, an androgynous fop whom Conan holds in contempt. Pepin's father Maloric was an Aquilonian nobleman who, we learn, had been plotting against Conan for some time. He'd been the one who had arranged for the attack that had apparently killed Conn. Aiding him had been a powerful, nameless wizard who had his own developing story and still-undisclosed motives for wanting to kill Conan in some particularly grisly fashion. Maloric's impatience eventually leads to the dissolution of their partnership and each continue their separate plots against Conan. The wizard, in another plot thread, has been searching for a ring which, we're led to believe, is a source of great power. At one point, a spell he's worked is undone by an outside force, which is shown to be an unidentified child wielding the very ring for which the wizard had been searching. On still another front, Conan, after the seeming death of Conn, emotionally abandons his wife Zenobia and as time goes by, she seems very much on the verge of opening an illicit romance with Lysander, a soldier and the only survivor of the ambush that seemed to kill Conn. Persistent entreaties by Zenobia to promote Lysander arouse Conan's suspicions. One day while the two are out riding, he draws his sword, puts it at Lysander's throat and demands to know why Zenobia is so persistent an advocate for the man's advancement. Conan probably knows the score yet he accepts Lysander's explanation, that Zenobia feels close to him because he was the last person to see Conn alive. Most surprisingly, Conan then assigns him as Zenobia's personal bodyguard, a position he hadn't sought. Conan's proffered rationale is that he currently has no slots available in his Black Dragon force but Lysander learns a few pages later that Conan has promised Maloric he would suggest the androgynous Pepin for that very team. An implied approval of the affair? Possibly. It's a fine example of the multi-layered plotting the book was featuring throughout this run and is something that should have played itself out over time. Conan's son Taurus, meanwhile, had been developed into a devilish piece of work, a sinister schemer who, all but disowned by his father, obsessively pursued knowledge of black magic. An incomplete incantation leaves him with a goat hoof in place of his left foot.

Virtually all of this is dropped without comment when Kraar assumes writing duties. Out of frustration, I initially stopped reading his run only two issues into it; if I'd been buying the comic as it was published, I would have stopped there as well. I waited a few days to give myself some breathing room then returned to read up to the end of #32, where I've again stopped. In the first four Kraar issues (with Mike Docherty assuming art duties and Larry Hama as editor), there isn't a single mention of Maloric, the wizard, Lysander, Pepin, Taurus, Conn's wife, Conn's recently-discovered half-brother or any of the related plot threads--it's all just swept away, much of the pre-Zelenetz status quo reestablished by fiat in only two issues.
To assume authorial control of a book after such a stellar run is obviously an unenviable task for any creative team and Kraar/Docherty were in an even worse position given that it's clear their predecessors' run was so abruptly terminated only because someone at Marvel who didn't like it had the power to pull the plug on it. Kraar's story arc in these issues, dealing with a large-scale invasion of Acquilonia, is probably not a bad one as such things go but I didn't connect with it on any level. I'd probably have to read it outside the context of these developments to appreciate it.

"Conan the King" is going back in the box for now. After I've let it sit for awhile, I'll no doubt return and perhaps I'll be able to render a different judgment when the memories have faded.

--j.