Sunday, October 3, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Avengers Forever

Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s regular Avengers series from the same time was pretty good, too, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve always thought this 12-issue miniseries Busiek wrote (with an assist from Roger Stern) was even better, or at least, more interesting. And interesting comics are what I am interested in.

I want to mention artist Carlos Pacheco’s work right off the bat so I don’t tack it on as an afterthought at the end, because it’s so vital to the project. I feel like this story, so rooted in Avengers comics past, would’ve been a little too on-the-nose with Perez’s art – I mean, he drew some of the stories this book name-checks; he was there! While I don’t want to minimize Stern’s contribution (although I’m not sure what it was, precisely…plotting assist?), this series is really about Busiek and Pacheco, two guys who’d read those stories when they first came out, now revisiting and re-exploring them from their late-90s perspective. You can tell Pacheco loves those old comics, but his style is fresh and new. I’ve always thought of Pacheco as the ultimate artist of the 90s (which I mean as a sincere compliment, not ironically or sarcastically) – you see in his artwork the clean lines of the Silver Age, the handsome figure work of the Bronze Age, the energy and flair of the Image guys, the stylization of his contemporaries, all combined in an artistic goulash that just screams THIS IS WHAT SUPERHEROES SHOULD LOOK LIKE. Also: guy draws some really dramatic hands, I don’t know how he does it. Just look at them.

Of course, the first thing everybody mentions about this series is the continuity surgery, and Pillock and I had some rollicking back-and-forth about retcons and what-have-you last week. It may surprise you, but I don’t even think the continuity stuff is the most interesting part about this series, but you can’t really not write about it.

On the one hand, where Busiek doesn’t want to step on anybody’s toes in Untold Tales of Spider-Man (it’s about adding history, not retconning it; tidying up a few loose ends but not really making any radical changes), Avengers Forever does have some big, fat, “Everything you know is wrong!” changes that overturn some comics you may have read. Busiek reveals the master manipulator Immortus as being behind a whole mess of important events in Avengers history, from Avengers #2 to “The Crossing.” Along the way, we find out the Vision really was built out of the Human Torch (although the Torch exists as a separate being as well through some time-travel tinkering – Busiek wanted everybody to be happy, here), Kang’s claim that he was behind Hank Pym’s mental breakdowns was a lie (turns out that wasn’t even Kang!), and an old Thor story happened in a totally different way than originally portrayed. So this story does some undemocratic, totally authoritative retcons that don’t play nice, that insist that you take them as canon from now on and retroactively.

Why, then, does it not bristle the way many similar massive retcons do?

Well, to be upfront with you, part of the reason for me is that I’ve never actually been a hardcore Avengers fan (although I know you’ll call me out on the concept of “not a hardcore fan,” Pillock!). I’ve read enough Avengers comics over the years, but I’m not emotionally invested in them the way I am with, say, Fantastic Four or the Flash. So, y’know, you tell me some of the characters in some comics I’ve never read from the 70s and the 90s were Space Phantoms, it’s really no skin off my nose. It was just fun for me to get a quick summary of the 35-year metaplot of the Avengers to that point, additions or no.

But leaving that aside, many fans believe the “Everything you know is wrong!” type retcon to be a show of arrogance. I feel that’s severely overstating things in most cases, but there is an element to it that when you decide to contradict an established storyline, it’s implied that you’re doing so because you know better or you have a better idea.

Yet, I don’t read a drop of vanity in Avengers Forever (well, it’s maybe a little harsh on “The Crossing,” but who wasn’t, in those days?). To read it as hubris, as Busiek imposing his will on over three decades of Avengers history, would be a mistake. I mean, read the thing. This was a labor of love, but it was most certainly a labor! This was something Busiek knocked his brains out over, trying to reconcile nearly every loose end and continuity error (and the whole thing hangs together about as well as it possibly could), and he didn’t do it to write his own name into the Avengers legacy, or even for a No-Prize. He did it for us, we readers of Marvel Comics in the late 90s. The early 90s (even the late 80s, in places) had been pretty unkind to the Avengers, and so Busiek went about fixing holes – “Avengers continuity’s fine, I got it to make sense, I balanced the checkbook and took out the garbage. Let’s carry on, shall we?”

And that carrying on is important, because like I said, I don’t have a deep personal attachment to the Avengers, and so a big continuity patch manual alone isn’t gonna do it for me. Fortunately, Busiek’s got that discipline that I mentioned in talking about Untold Tales, enough discipline not to let it take over the narrative; it’s toward the end as sort of a reward for anyone who’s stuck it out and is interested, but what’s really driving this series is a story.

And what is that story? It’s long and complex and twisty and would take a whole blog post in itself to summarize, so I’ll just cut it down and say: Kang vs. Immortus, for all the marbles. Of course, Kang is Immortus - Kang was a time-travelling warlord, and Immortus was a mysterious, time-travelling manipulator, and eventually it was decided that both of these old Avengers villains were the same guy at different stages of their lives (Immortus is Kang’s future self), working at cross purposes.

What’s so interesting is the animosity between Kang and Immortus. Kang is obsessed with war and conquest, and considers Immortus a feeble academic who’s turned his back on the glory of it all. Immortus, meanwhile, seems embarrassed of Kang the way we might be about our teenage selves. And there’s something to that; although Kang describes himself wearily as “so old…”, there is something childish about Kang and the way he loves war for war’s sake, the way kids just love to play without an agenda. I mean, here’s a guy who likes to conquer galactic empires, but hates running them – he’s the kid who likes getting presents on Christmas morning but never cares enough to play with them!

And yet, there is something almost heroic about Kang here. Partly because Immortus is working an agenda for some higher-ups that involves destroying entire timelines, and so working with Kang is the lesser of two evils for the Avengers. But beyond that, what I find so compelling is that even though Kang knows he must become Immortus (having met him through time travel and all), he fights his destiny. He’s not fighting his future self alone, but inevitability itself. When he crushes the body-swapping device he’s used in past Avengers stories to cheat, the message is clear: "Hope I die before I get old"! Kang is every elementary school kid who doesn’t want to go to middle school, every high schooler who’s afraid of going to college, every twentysomething in love with the privileges of adulthood who doesn’t want to face the responsibilities, and every grown man or woman dreading the day they become a senior citizen. Kang is Peter Pan, and it works – the timestream is his Never-Never Land! He’s fighting adulthood, but not in the form of Captain Hook, because an adult with a hookhand and a pirate ship is still kind of cool. He’s fighting the Robin Williams adult Peter Pan from Hook; it’s bad enough getting old, but do you have to be so boring?

And the most striking thing about it is that Kang wins! The story doesn’t force him to accept his lot in life and mature (which is the knee-jerk way you'd end such a story); he gets separated from Immortus (sort of; if you’ve read it you know it’s trickier than that) and becomes master of his destiny once again. Free to be that child forever! Would it be playing “postmodern games” to read Kang’s refusal to quit as a metaphor for the Avengers franchise itself in this series? Kang doesn't have to get old and boring, and neither do the Avengers; it's telling that Immortus too gets a new lease on life. A new course is charted into the future for the "new" Captain Marvel, and heck, even Libra’s revealed to be still knocking around. I meant it when I said "everybody wins" - I read this series as Busiek and Pacheco saying, “Well, the Avengers had a patchy couple of years there – and if you want to be totally honest, the franchise has always had some inconsistencies, its good times and bad – but we survived. Nothing is broken, because the Avengers still work!”

Avengers forever.


plok said...

TOTALLY agreed on Pacheco! Back in a minute?

Josh said...

never having read this series you make a compelling argument for me to read it. I do love time travel alternate universe stories for the sole purpose that you can do things you cant in normal continuity. And in this case it threads right back into continuity. Interesting. Plus I love Kang.

plok said...

Amusingly, Immortus is absolutely terrible as any sort of villain or character or even piece of backstory by this time...I mean, one longs for Kang's simplcity and brio, really. Immortus gets hauled in all over the place, for all kinds of different purposes that aren't really consistent with one an explaining scheme, a reconciliation device, he's turned into a real mess, he's become the sort of problem that needs an Immortus-style reconciliation! So you get the sense that it's really just him that Busiek and Pacheco are re-making, re-building, practically from the ground a figure of how "continuity" can even be salvaged at all.


So, my favourite bit is that all the Avengers on the trip are all "changed" characters, messes themselves...they all have an in-story explanation for why they are as they are, but that doesn't mean their changes aren't/weren't kind of arbitrary moves on the part of writer/artist teams. Hmm, better post...

plok said...

...I mean, why did Hank Pym come back to the Avengers as Goliath, why did he turn into Yellowjacket, why did Hawkeye ever get a "new costume", why did Captain America become temporarily diffident? To the extent that all these things have in-story "continuity" explanations, they only have 'em because in retrospect they must, because that's how Marvel's continuity works -- except it really doesn't, because it's actually breaking down every time it's forced to say "uh, yeah, this Cap's in a bad mood because of something that happened...uh...let's just say a while ago..." It doesn't work, except we pretend it does. Why did Hank Pym become Yellowjacket? Not because he was crazy, it was because Roy felt like mixing things up. Why did Hank come back to the Avengers as "Goliath", anyway? Not to foreshadow his eventual craziness, that's for sure! Ha, and there's Hawkeye in his "new costume"...everybody remember the new costume? What, nobody?

Why would Rick's subconscious have picked these people?

plok said...

Well, obviously it wasn't Rick at all, was it?

But my favourite's Songbird, obviously, and then because of her also Genis-Vell -- representatives of an open future, a "future present"...and the events of Avengers Forever already exist in the past of every Avenger anyway, all the way back to Goliath, so...

...That means the future's got a chance, at least?

That's a real nice touch. The Avengers are already not screwed up beyond readability in the future, because this all happened a long time ago anyway. Hey, turns out everything you know isn't wrong! But instead everything you knew, turns out to be mostly right after all.

I mean, that's how I read it. Really, I would never have read Avengers comics ever again, if it wasn't for Busiek, and especially in AF. Not only because he was, in essence, replacing previously-existing continuity patches that had all been thrown out and replaced with nothing...but also because it made me think there would be future Avengers comics I'd be pretty much guaranteed of wanting to read. Songbird as Avengers Chair? Hey, I'll wait around to read that...!


plok said...

It was the continuity of Avengers readers, I think, that was being salvaged in: I was a reader of the whole thing in reprints and then-current issues, up until my historical, continuous involvement -- my investment as a longtime fan -- started to get trashed. Then it seemed as though I would simply not continue on into the future as an Avengers reader. But then, AF suggested that there was a fix for that!

Sigh again. You know, I still do not think it's asking too much just to have Songbird in there as I was promised, even if only for a little while. That's clearly not Busiek's fault, though, because I guess I still believe one day there will be such an Avengers line-up. Everything doesn't have to end with whatever dark post-apocalyptic future someone's currently foreshadowing, because that Songbird future's still there too, isn't it?

Justin said...

Oh man, Josh, I don't know, I mean, I KNOW you, and the time travel logistics are just going to KILL you if you read Avengers Forever. Like, there's that rule that when you go back in time in the Marvel Universe you ACTUALLY go to a parallel Earth to negate the grandfather paradox, except Kang/Immortus actually HAS a device that negates that negation, so...

Well, y'know what? Still read this if you ever get the chance, just keep in mind that the time travel stuff will be even MORE illogical than Back to the Future.

Justin said...

I still can't piece together exactly what happens with Captain Marvel and Rick Jones and how it sort of loops around at the end for them, other than, "We're spinning Captain Marvel off into his own ongoing series, largely based off the response to that killer Pacheco redesign, so find some way to make present-day Genis-Vell look like that, okay?"

But by what you've commented on in this series, that's almost in keeping, huh? "Because Kurt Busiek (and Peter David) said so!"

I was quite fond of that Captain Marvel run as well. It's actually the only single series that I have a COMPLETE run of, from first issue to last. Haven't read it in years, so I don't know if it holds up.

Justin said...

And that's a damn good point about Songbird, too, really beautiful effect on Busiek's part. And hey, if you believe Songbird WILL eventually be on the Avengers, I believe Janet van Dyne being alive again was part of that future, so we'll have that to look forward to as well!

plok said...

Not only will Songbird be Avengers Chair, but her romance with Genis-Vell -- the Genis-Vell we fucking saw in Avengers Forever -- will be ahead of her.

That's two birds with one stone.

Now, look out for negativity...but Peter David didn't seem to like AF very much, did he? You know it is a terrible thing, when editors can't make writers play nice. You know I don't think it is asking too much, that Songbird be an Avenger at some point, and that at some later point, a perfectly-good replacement Captain Marvel somehow date her. For, like, any amount of time.

All it requires is that the characters fucking exist in some continuous way that makes anyone give a good god-damn about them, for long enough for that to happen.

But I challenge anyone in this universe or any other, to imagine that PD gave that shit a chance in his CM book. Dude, if this was the Seventies, Wein and Conway would've damn well dealt with that shit, and of their own free will: would've seen story potential in it. Ten years later, Shooter would've forced people to get on board with a WHOLE PLAN. But I'm fucking surprised Peter David didn't have his own Immortus in his shitty Professor Hulk book, just to show...

plok said...

...That he didn't have to care.

BAD FORM REALLY. Even though he didn't have Immortus there. In the end, Peter David saved nothing from his CM for anyone else. Like Claremont without a heart.

plok said...

And if he comes here, Justin: leave him to me. I've got thirty longboxes and a head of steam behind me, plus a certain feeling that eagles ought not to make it their business to swoop down and pick at ants for fun. Ain't they got nothing better to do?

Oh, let 'im come.

plok said...

I am starting to think, in fact...I mean Byrne's too much of a flake to do this, and Busiek ranges far and wide but always acts like a perfect gentleman, and David seems to keep to his own domain, but...

...Why have I got the feeling in my head that I've got to amp up in case someone comes along to smack me down?

It really isn't David, is it? I'm gonna say that he acts reasonably professionally as far as this fan press goes. And of course Busiek behaves as a fan -- though an extremely knowledgeable, creative, and polite one.

So where am I getting this idea?

Justin said...

Oh, I'm not afraid of Peter David. He's got better things to do and bigger bloggers to go after, I'm sure.

The REASON I'd set out not to be too negative wasn't because Busiek linked to me, or because of that one time I said a Winter Guard one-shot sounded kinda dumb and the writer left a comment and I felt a bit of a git because I hadn't actually READ it, only read ABOUT it.

My original concern was that it'd be very easy for me to start going off about what I don't like about current Marvel Comics, and start comparing them with these 90s books, and pretty soon my thesis is COMICS WERE BETTER WHEN I WAS A KID BUT IT'S A TOTAL COINCIDENCE I PROMISE YOU.

But if David somehow were to drop by, I'll referee. I look good in stripes.

Richard Bensam said...

I never did comment on this post, and that was mainly because -- yet again -- plok said nearly everything I would have said, but better. So there's really no need for me to step in!

I will just say, though, that Avengers Forever was the only comic of my adult life that completely brought back the feeling of waiting for each installment of (what later became known as) the Kree-Skrull War to appear. Not just because it was the Avengers again, but also that sense of total confidence in a writer -- knowing he was come through in the end and not having the slightest idea how. It was also the only mainstream comic to which I ever wrote a fan letter.

When it finished, I felt it was the appropriate capstone to having been a Marvel Comics reader, and that I should probably just stop right there and say goodbye for keeps...letting my last experience be this elegant little summary of my favorite Marvel-based memories. I didn't quite manage that, but almost!

Richard Bensam said...

Also (because I'm never going to have another chance to mention this) there was one thing about the Genis/Songbird relationship that's always bothered me. Am I the only one who thinks that the real secret there is that they aren't together in his era? That either he just had a case of cosmic unrequited love, or even worse that they'd been together and broken up but he never let go? Look at his diffidence and discomfort and irritation around her, and note the authorial ellipses when he tells Melissa they're "...together." Like a guy choking back something else? Kurt's way too meticulous with his dialogue for that to be nothing.

Justin said...

You know, I'd never considered that, but now that you mention it I could totally see that! Genis is ALREADY trying to change the past by trying to prevent him and Rick getting bonded. Who's to say he's not also trying to do the same with Songbird? "Yeah, in the future we're an item, so...I'd get used to it if I were you..."

At one point, I thought I might let Final Crisis be MY capstone in the same way, but Morrison Batman & Robin was too enticing to pass up. But now I've sort of given up new comics anyway (at least for the time being).

Justin said...

And anyway, Final Crisis turned out to be a bit disappointing for me. But Superman Beyond was killer-diller.