Tuesday, June 28, 2005

All things considered, Joanna Lumley was better.

What it was about New Avengers that kept me coming back, month after month, after finishing each issue and thinking to myself, “Well, that wasn’t very good” and thinking that maybe I should spend my money on something that I actually enjoyed instead, wasn’t anything about the book itself. Instead, it was the strange want of completion and giving the series a fair hearing that led me to own all the issues published to date. And with the (delayed) release last week of the sixth issue, the conclusion of the first story arc, “Breakout!”, I have to tell you all something: New Avengers? Not very good.

The problem, in a way, is that it’s not actually bad. If it was bad, the way that, say, the same creative team’s “Avengers Disassembled” was bad, then it would be much easier to drop it and not give it any further thought. But, despite the sloppy artwork, uncomfortable dialogue and unusual pacing of “Breakout!”, New Avengers still somehow represents a large step forward from last summer’s awkward “Yes, nothing may make sense and everyone may be acting out of character, but that’s the point, don’t you see?” self-conscious event (A trick repeated by Bendis for this year’s “House of M”, interestingly enough – If nothing else, it’s an interesting way around the claim that you don’t write characters in the same way that their fans expect them to be written). And that, maybe, was another reason that I (and other fans, judging by the online reaction that I’ve seen) stuck with the book for so long; I kept convincing myself that it was going to get better.

Saleswise, of course, there’s no reason for anyone at Marvel to think that there’s that much room for improvement. The title has been a best seller since its launch, helped no doubt by the fact that every single issue so far – and for the next four issues as well, for that matter – has had a variant cover for the completists and Marvel Zombies amongst us, and one of the most talked about Marvel books of the year. To Marvel, the book is a smash hit success, and in a way, it’s hard to argue with that. It achieves its aim, definitely, which seems to be purely to sell very well; certainly, there’s nothing within the content of the series that suggests that the all-star line-up of Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man and Wolverine have any reason to team up to fight crime, making it seem all the more obvious that the book’s core cast were decided as cynical sales grab as much as anything else.

The odd line-up of the team is addressed, in strange fashion, in an exchange between Captain America and Iron Man in the sixth issue. Explaining his invitation to Wolverine to join the team, Iron Man says “Cap, you said this team came together by… fate. Your word. Just like the original Avengers… Right? Yes. Well, the original Avengers didn’t truly come together… until that one last ingredient came into the mix. We needed one last ingredient. And then when we found youYou were that one thing. But for this situation, in this world… He is you. He is our missing ingredient.” Now, ignoring the odd… Odd? Yes. Odd speech pattern that Iron Man seems to have developed – truly, Bendis’s dialogue stylizations have devolved into self-parody by this point, something painfully obvious in both Captain America and Jarvis’s dialogue in the series, as both characters were two of the few Marvel characters to have recognizable voices, as broad brushed as they may have been – what’s striking about Iron Man’s speech is that it doesn’t make sense in the context of the story. Captain America was the missing ingredient in the original Avengers because he was the one that stopped the other characters’ in-fighting, took the leadership role, and dedicated himself to the team when the others wouldn’t. Wolverine, by contrast, hasn’t done anything with the new team other than fight with them. In reality, all that they have in common is that both were sales boosters who appeared in each series’ fourth issue. But that’s enough, right? Or, rather, “that’s enough… Right? Yes.”

Storywise, New Avengers feels oddly stilted, trying to rush the story at points while still feeling decompressed at others. Plots are introduced and then abandoned – perhaps, one feels, looking at the Spider-Man: Breakout mini-series already in progress, for the purpose of spinning them off into new books for the faithful to faithfully spend their dollars on – or resolved in ways that border on the goofy, which jars with the tone of the rest of the book (A jail full of supervillains all turn stool pigeon when bribed with donuts, for example). The main thrust of the book, which only really appears at the end of the first story arc, has a flimsy and fairly obvious political bent. Someone in SHIELD – which, we’re reminded more than once, is “a world-order, peacekeeping task force” just like the UN - is involved in shady dealings, illegally stockpiling banned weapon materials as well as supposedly dead supervillains for reasons yet to be explained. The new Avengers are the only ones who know this, and vow to get to the bottom of this conspiracy as the 90s return in full effect: Trust No-One! The Truth Is Out There!

Of course, perhaps this nostalgia in the story is inspired by artist David Finch’s work on the book, which reaches back to the halcyon days of Image and brings back all the wrong things: The paper cut faces? Check. The bad anatomy (Check out the cover to the fourth issue)? That’s there, too. And – maybe most distressingly – the entirely inconsistent look of the central characters returns, as well. One of the more amusing by-products of Finch’s lack of attention to detail comes from wondering where Luke Cage’s goatee disappears to in certain scenes (It’s clearly gone at the start of the third issue, despite it having been evident at the cliffhanger at the end of the second. Luckily, though, it returns in the second half of that issue. In the fourth issue, it appears on the second and third panels of one page, but is gone by the fifth panel). When your attention starts to wander, you can spend some imagination in that direction and make your version of the book infinitely more entertaining. For those who may complain that a goatee beard is a small thing to keep consistant and should be overlooked, there’s also that scene in the third issue where Captain America isn’t wearing a mask for the first and third pages of a conversation, but is for the second. Maybe his cheeks got cold suddenly. And then he felt too warm again. Suddenly.

There’s something in the art mistakes like that that speaks to the quality of the book. Like I said, it’s not bad, it’s just… not very good. It feels as if it needs an editor (which is unusual, as Tom Brevoort, whose name runs on the front page of every issue is normally as much of a stamp of quality as Marvel has) to curb the flat dialogue and the heroes’ facial hair problems. It feels as if it’s a book that’s been rushed out to meet a sales projection, without that much care, and that translates into a book that is hard to care about.