Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Avengers, the Best of Bendis' Run


It was recently announced that Brian Michael Bendis is going to be leaving the Avengers. It sounds like he's leaving both titles, and the new Avengers Assemble series after he completes the first arc. You can see what I read here.

I have to say I'm very disappointed about this. I know hating Bendis has become an official sport to some people, or even a well calculated science -- but I definitely was not one of those people. There's a reason his run on the Avengers lasted so long, with him supposedly finishing his run with 200 issues under his belt. Bendis pretty much revolutionized the Avengers since he took over. While I'll admit he made some mistakes along the way - the sum total of his run is very impressive! The Avengers went from what I'd wager was an average selling title - to a franchise that has since eclipsed the X-Men in popularity. That is no small feat; and I wanted to highlight some of my favorite moments from his run on the series.

Spider-Man & Wolverine


Bendis' first 4 issue story arc depicted the end of the Avengers - as the Scarlet Witch lost all control of her powers, killing several heroes - and utterly shattering the team. Avengers: Disassembled, though, lead to a bold new era for the Avengers franchise - as it was rechristened "The New Avengers" - Bendis would bring to bear his dialogue heavy, thoughtful and also erratic storytelling to the series, changing it forever.

One of the biggest changes was the addition of characters who fans immediately decried as not being Avengers material. Spider-Man and Wolverine where probably the most high profile examples of this.

Spider-Man had always been the loner of the Marvel Universe. He had tried joining the Fantastic Four in Amazing Spider-Man #1, but couldn't make it work. In Spider-Man Annual #3, he tried to join the Avengers as well -- but failed there too. When a large scale prison riot exploded - the heroes that came to the rescue would become the basis for the "New Avengers". Captain America, seeing their presence at the event as some kind of destiny, wouldn't take no for an answer: and that included Spider-Man.


Wolverine joined up soon after, running into the New Avengers during their first mission in the Savage Land. While always dedicated to the X-Men first - Wolverine became just as loyal to Captain America's group as he had been to Xavier's. Even though Wolverine clashed with Cap and the Avengers, especially since Wolverine is a known killer (of bad guys); Iron Man convinced Captain America to have him join, because their new group where facing some much darker and more subversive threats - something an old hat espionage killer could be useful with.

Really, though, that was all just context for forcing these characters onto the book. There's really no reason Wolverine and Spider-Man couldn't have worked, being on the book, long before -- it was the adherence to the previous status quo, and those early Spider-Man team-rejection issues, that had prevented it until now. With Wolverine and Spider-Man on the book - the surge in popularity of the title can no doubt be attributed to them being there. It's made a huge improvement to Spider-Man's character, giving him fellow heroes he can rely on; and while Wolverine is now currently serving on 3 to 4 different teams - I always looked at his presence on the Avengers as the place he was sleeping, or hanging out, and would eventually show up for work with the X-Men later. They are comic book characters, after all. Can't we have a little suspension of disbelief, in the name of fun? Bendis has pointedly used Wolverine and Spider-Man as the humorists for the group. I think it's proved pretty beneficial over all..

Luke Cage


One of the best re-inventions brought into the new Bendis-led era of the Avengers was that of Luke Cage. The former Hero for Hire, Luke Cage possesses unbreakable skin; making him very powerful and a good fit to any super hero team. Yet Luke was the definition of a different kind of Avenger. He was street level, usually working to keep his neighborhood safe. Yet when he joined the New Avengers - Luke brought that kind of on-the street, help the common man mentality to the group. There was one issue that particularly highlighted this - as it showed the Avengers going to one of the most crime-ridden streets in Detroit, and simply stood there. Supposedly this is similar to a police tactic - showing overwhelming force in a troubled area, to scare off the criminal element. Supposedly, even though the show of force is temporary, there's still a reduction in the level of crime later on after they have left. (I'm only saying what they explained in the issue. I don't know if police has really used this kind of tactic or not. It sounds like it could work, though.)

There was one moment I knew Luke Cage belonged on the team -- when the New Avengers where in Japan, fighting against a horde of Ninjas. They where fighting at the very top of a high-rise building, and at one point Luke went off and fell all the way down to street level. Not only did he get back up and run right back in the building, but in a humorous moment he silently took the elevator, waiting until it reached the top. Once the doors opened he simply stated he was back, like falling off the roof was nothing.


With Luke being on the team - the introduction of his girlfriend, Jessica Jones, became a welcome addition. Jessica previously starred in a solo Marvel MAX series called Alias. Jessica Jones was conceived as a one-time Super Hero who worked as a private investigator; dealing with cases that involved Super Heroes. Since the series was part of Marvel's mature MAX Line, Bendis was able to cut loose and develop this wonderfully rich and foul mouthed woman. During the series she started dating Luke Cage, and stuck with him when he joined the New Avengers. The Alias series drew to a close, and while Jessica is still the famous swear-filled woman, the appropriately censored (F$%~) wording solved most issues. And while Jessica is Super Powered, her whole thing, from the Aliases series, is about being out of the Super Hero game. While she'd pitch in whenever there was trouble, she has nonetheless remained the tight-less supporting character of the series. She and Luke eventually had a baby together, and tied the knot in the first New Avengers Annual.


Luke became a true leader, though, during the Super Human Civil War. In one of Bendis' best single issues, they showed Luke Cage being informed by Iron Man and the government that he would have to register himself as a super-hero, or face imprisonment. A split had driven the New Avengers into two camps -- Iron Man's government sponsored Avengers, and Captain America's rebels, who refused to participate. Luke Cage had just recently gotten married and had a new baby girl. His morals, though, would never let him sign up for governmental intrusion into their personal lives. So on the night the Super Human Registration Act went into Law, Luke sent Jessica and the baby away, and obstinately stayed in his home, defiantly saying that he was going to do nothing - and see if the Government would go ahead and arrest him for just being himself. They did - and true to form Luke heroically fought back, and eventually joined up with Captain America and the other rebelling Super Heroes.


The Civil War put a permanent wedge between Iron Man and Captain America's camps -- even after Iron Man's side won. Captain America had surrendered himself to authorities - and was tragically shot dead by a sniper on the court house steps. In his stead Luke took command on the remaining rebel heroes. Down and out, on the run from the law, Luke lead the New Avengers in some of their most heroic moments.

Ares, God of War


With the Avengers split up between Luke Cage's group and Iron Man's - a new Government-sponsored Avengers stepped up, in a series called "Mighty Avengers". A new character was recruited to the team - Ares, the Greek God of War. There had been a mini-series earlier that had depicted the fall of Olympus - and Gods like Ares where now stuck on the mortal plane. Ares shifted from a typical enemy of Thor and Hercules - to a father trying to raise his young son, Phobos. Ares is hired by Iron Man to be on the Avengers - figuring that his super-powered and vicious attitude could prove an asset. (It was suggested he was like a mix between Wolverine and Thor). Ares actually proved to be a very likable character. He fought bravely for the good guys, putting his talents as the God of War to good use. His first appearance written by Bendis had some great moments, as the Mighty Avengers fought against an iteration of Ultron -- giving him the chance to show off his comedically awesome and vicious fighting style.



One of the best parts about Ares, though, was his role as as single father. He hadn't joined the Avengers out of the good of his heart - they where offering him a pay check. His son, Phobos, though, would take a path away from his father - when he's recruited by Nick Fury as one of his "Secret Warriors". The young Phobos' skill? He's the son of Ares -- accordingly, like in mythology, Phobos is the God of Fear. Nick Fury was able to teach the young boy about his powers - as he worked on secret missions as part of the Secret Warriors. Even though this took Phobos on a different path from his father (who Ares couldn't really relate to, Phobos being more sensitive) - they still managed to remain on good terms; with Phobos reacting strongly when his father was eventually killed in a later storyline.

Secret Invasion


Secret Invasion seemed to be the culmination of a lot of planning and secrecy. Major revelations HAD to be kept under wraps - as the ultimate guessing game for comics took place. You see, the Marvel Universe over the last several years has been silently invaded. Prominent characters and heroes have been replaced by Sleeper Agents - alien shapeshifters, known as Skrulls; who once where revealed, was it too late to stop them.

This storyline was very well timed - being a natural out-growth of the War on Terrorism we where all living through. Where in real life we where questioning who around us could possibly be a terrorist - this series reflected those societal fears, as suddenly every Super Hero could secretly be a Skrull. There where plenty of heroes to choose from, too! Any hero acting out of character was suddenly a major suspect - Tony Stark, because of his actions during the Civil War, being the most obvious choice. Any Avenger who fans had said could never be Avengers -- maybe they where right? The reveals turned out very well, and nearly broke both sets of Avengers.

The biggest upset, though, was in the aftermath of the invasion - as Norman Osborn, who made the killing shot against the Skrull Queen on national television, suddenly became the recipient of unparalleled fanfare and public trust.

The Dark Avengers


Again mirroring real life issues, but through comic book characters, we saw Norman Osborn, aka the Green Goblin, become a national hero. He dismantled S.H.I.E.L.D. and replaced it with his own organization, dubbed H.A.M.M.E.R. - and became America's top cop, taking Iron Man's place. The public either simply didn't know, or didn't care, that Osborn was once the Green Goblin, a notorious foe of Spider-Man. Yet after being scared into thinking anyone around you could be an invading shapeshifting alien - ignoring Osborn's past mental instability was easy. If this sounds like it's some kind of analogy to George Bush, and the unprecedented powers he was given to fight the "War on Terror" - then it shows you're paying attention. Certainly not a direct analogy - but one that nicely mirrored the frustration many of us where feeling in real life.



In the biggest and most elaborate "F@#$ you!" to the Avengers (who where now on the run), Osborn created his own dark version of the Avengers - who starred in the new title "Dark Avengers". Criminals where propped up, acting dark mirror images of the Avengers. The psychopath Bullseye was dressed up as Hawkeye. Venom was made to look more like Spider-Man. Wolverine's angry son, Daken, took up the classic brown and gold costume his father use to wear. Less than perfect heros from the Mighty Avengers, Ares and the Sentry, helped with the transition of the cast. And Norman Osborn? He dressed himself up as the Iron Patriot, spray-painting an Ironman suit like the American flag - and portraying HIS Avengers as the Super Heroes the public could trust!


It was simply a great series - as we saw Osborn corrupt every part of the Marvel Universe he could touch. The New Avengers shined during this time, as they acted as the usual foil to Osborn's plans. Eventually Osborn would crash and burn, trying to launch an unprovoked Siege of Asgard - where he finally broke down as was seen as the madman he really was. What? An analogy the invasion of Iraq? Now you're just imagining it.

Spider-Woman


Jessica Drew, aka Spider-Woman, has always been somewhat of a difficult character to get a grasp on. Having no direct connection to Spider-Man probably doesn't help - but her original solo-series has been a fan favorite by many -- though by none more than Brian Michael Bendis. Her stylish costume and hair apparently being highlights for him - Spider-Woman's inclusion in the opening issues of New Avengers was surprising, but welcome. Ever since her popularity faded, she's nonetheless remained a well liked supporting character, acting as a Private Eye for years. Her inclusion up-front as one of the New Avengers finally meant the character was getting her due - and Bendis didn't disappoint with her being the most mysterious and engaging of the cast.


A Spider-Woman Origin mini-series was done as well, updating her origins - and explaining her very convoluted past in a more simple manner. Long story short - Jessica was experimented on by her father, which gave her Spider-Powers. The terrorist organization Hydra took control of Jessica and turned her into an assassin to kill Nick Fury. She failed - but was subsequently recruited by Fury as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Now joining the New Avengers - Spider-Woman supposedly was working two sides of a dangerous scenario - as Hydra recruited her again to spy on the Avengers; yet she accepted under the authority of Nick Fury - who wanted the then down-and-out Jessica Drew to play Hydra's offer against them. She's essentially a double-double agent.

After the Origin mini-series, a new on-going series was promised - with Bendis and legendary Daredevil collaborator Alex Maleev rejoining Bendis on art. The series simply never materialized - which was confusing and disappointing. No explanation was given - but there was a reason for that. During the Secret Invasion, one of the biggest revelations was that Jessica Drew was in fact always a Skrull - the Skrull Queen, no less! That was why the on-going solo series never got off the ground - they had originally planned to reveal Spider-Woman as a Skrull in the first issue, but ultimately couldn't justify selling a Spider-Woman series that wasn't actually starring the real Spider-Woman. As it turned out, it just made the revelation during Secret Invasion more powerful - and made the betrayal even more vicious.

The real Jessica Drew, though, would be revealed at the end of Secret Invasion - alive and well, but now suddenly in a world she hardly recognizes. She eventually joins up with the New Avengers - but her presence on the team is not easy. Her identity had been co-opted in the worst possible way -- and worst yet was that the whole world had seen her face (the Skrull Queen) as the leader of the invasion. It's like having the face of Hitler.


So angered by what a horrible mess her life has become - Jessica is given an opportunity to put her anger and rage to good use - as she's approached by Abigail Brand, Director of S.W.O.R.D. - the government organization in charge of policing aliens on Earth. Brand wants to make Jessica an Agent of S.W.O.R.D. - with the mandate of hunting down the remaining Skrulls hiding on Earth.


The series was just wonderful! The art of Alex Maleev was better than ever - as he mixed a dynamic and stunning new visual style into his already impressive sketchy-art. The first Skrull Jessica tracks down leads her to the Island Nation of Madripoor - a fictional port of call for criminals in Southeast Asia.


The series was doing something especially revolutionary - as Marvel was attempting to do the series both as a digital animated comic, and a regular series. Each issue would be available in both formats. It was an ambitious idea, but it didn't seem to gain as much traction as Marvel might have liked. (It's much easier to simply animate comic-storylines that are already made, instead of doing one concurrently with a monthly series.) What's worse is how this drained Maleev dry. After 7 issues the series ended, with Maleev having enough. It was understandable - he had done essentially 2 year's worth of art, designing for both the monthly book and the animated comic. The series just wouldn't have been the same without Maleev - so instead of bringing in another artist, the Spider-Woman series ended after only 7 issues. It a darn good 7 issues, though.

The Sentry's Fall


During the Siege mini-series, the Sentry, the Golden Hero, finally came tumbling down as the massive threat he really was. Bob Reynolds is a psychologically sick man - an agoraphobic schizophrenic, but with the Powers of a God. His introduction at the beginning of New Avengers was surprising - as Bendis took a character, originally conceived as an elaborate April Fools joke - as Marvel originally purported the Sentry as a long lost Super Hero from the 60s, and integrated him into the Marvel Universe proper. He was a cool concept, but Bendis has never been known for his tact when depicting the mentally challenged. Suffering from some issues myself, I've never felt particularly offended by anything Bendis wrote -- but I knew full well a lot of liberties where being taken when depicting the Sentry's mental troubles. It usually just was used as a way to not make the Sentry the be-all, fix-all hero he purportedly could be, given his power levels.


The Sentry remained one of Bendis' less developed concepts - until the Dark Avengers, where Norman Osborn (being crazy himself), was able to relate to Bob and gain his trust. The Sentry's true origins where revealed, exposing him as the less than noble hero he pretends to be - and during the Siege mini-series, Bob finally went over the edge, by ripping Ares completely in half (it was quite bloody), and going power mad. I simply LOVED the Spider-Look, crawling out of his mouth, showing his decent and transformation into the Void.

The Sentry's tenure as an Avenger probably stands as the most convoluted and frustrating parts of Bendis' Avengers run. But that finale battle, when Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man finally put Bob down -- that was a really great moment.

New Avengers Finale


After years of building up the New Avengers as the premiere super-team, after the Siege mini-series the title would be split up between a more classic Avengers group (putting Captain America, Thor, and Iron man back together again), which would regrettably split the popularity of the New Avengers title. Before that happened, though, we got one last chance to see Bendis' New Avengers embark on a mission before the status-quo change - taking care of the villainous Hood, who after Siege was left powerless and on the run. After years of dealing with this guy, it felt incredibly refreshing to see Luke Cage's team track him down. It was made even better by the incredible art of Bryan Hitch - this one-shot finale issue put a satisfying cap on the series thus far.

Avengers #12.1


Bendis has often been accused of building stories almost exclusively made to be long multi-issue arcs. Thats why this Point One issue of Avengers seemed to high-light for me how good a writer Bendis can be at times - and this point one issue would be an excellent example of Bendis giving his A-Game, and within just a 20-page story. The issue essentially revolved around Spider-Woman going missing while on a mission for S.W.O.R.D. Spider-Woman, since properly returning to the fold after Secret Invasion, has regrettably been disenfranchised ever since then. Her Spider-Woman series seemed to be fulfilling the long-promised spot-light for her - but as explained before, the series only lasted 7 issues. Jessica Drew has been seemingly sidelined all this time - so her focus in this issue was very welcome. The story featured the appearance of a lot of different villains - and essentially serves as a prelude to the Ultron-arc coming up this Summer of 1012. This issue is even going to be offered for free this May as part of Free Comic Book Day - just in time for that story arc. It was a good issue, probably the best contained example of Bendis at the top of his game, especially alongside the incredible art of Bryan Hitch.

Squirrel Girl


Squirrel Girl has been somewhat of a fan favorite since joining the perpetual loser team: The Great Lakes Avengers! A joke team if ever there was one. Dan Slott did a mini-series starring the team, adding Squirrel Girl to the group. Despite being created by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko - Squirrel Girl has been a dismissed loser character for as long as she's existed. Even her premiere story by Ditko was annoying - as it featured Doreen Green, able to command Squirrels, defeat Doctor Doom. Doctor Doom is pretty much the Darth Vader of the Marvel Universe, on par with the Fantastic Four and the Avengers. A running joke has been that since Steve Ditko wrote that debut issue, it automatically is in continuity - so Squirrel Girl automatically PWNS Doctor Doom!


Anyway - Bendis surprisingly brought Doreen into the New Avengers title, which could have felt out of place given the less joking nature of the series. Bendis had a good excuse to bring her in, though! She was hired as the babysitter to Jessica Jones' and Luke Cage's baby. They needed a babysitter who had super powers - and despite the goofy idea of her being able to command Squirrels, Bendis was able to integrate her as a supporting character on the team. He even conceived the idea of Doreen and Wolverine having a romantic untold past! So what could have been a hamfisted inclusion onto the team became an equal parts humorous and sensible plot point. Doreen got to prove herself very soon - protecting her infant charge during a Nazi attack on New York.

Ultron


This is a very simple comment - but a noteworthy one, defining the different approach Bendis brought to the Avengers from the very start. In his opening issues, in Avengers Disassembled, robot Ultrons appeared, attacking the Avengers. For all of Ultron's many appearances over the years - every single writer has re-hashed Ultron's backstory. Over and over again. Bendis pointed that out, to stream-line the narrative, he wouldn't explain Ultron's origins. He's a power-mad robot out to destroy humanity - you don't necessarily need to know that much about him. That's a simple thing - but in 30+ years no other writer has depicted Ultron so simply. It was simply refreshing to see that kind of narrative shift - which for good of ill, for some people, this stream-lined approach to the series has no doubt helped make it more easily accessible to new fans and readers.

Returning Heroes


One of Bendis' biggest and justified criticisms has been his killing off of characters. During Avengers Disassembled, that story killed off several great characters, seemingly for no reason. Hawkeye's death was probably the most prominent and famous one - as Clint did a pointless suicide run on an invading army, which ultimately was made even more pointless by the fact the invading army was a conjured creation of the now insane Scarlet Witch.

Bendis made up for it, though, bringing Hawkeye back in spectacular fashion during the House of M mini-series, where the alteration to reality allowed Bendis to slip an alive Clint Barton back among the living. And not to treat his return lightly, Bendis took a long, long time before even putting Clint back into his traditional Hawkeye uniform. Hawkeye's death was simply pointless - but his return from the dead made all the difference.


The original Vision was also one of the victims of Avengers Disassembled. But recently Tony Stark brought him back out, apparently having been tinkering with him in his spare time. No big story arc or fan fare - the Vision is just back. ...Ta da! It was just a cool and smartly delivered moment - and the Vision's return just feels like a return to form, bringing back such a beloved and classic Avenger.

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