Sunday, 19 May 2013

On "Age Of Ultron Book 8"

Not an unlettered page from Age Of Ultron Book 8, but a side as printed in the finished product.
  
As a story, Age of Ultron Book 8 is anything but enthralling. Yet what it tells us about the 21st century superhero comic is never less than fascinating. The age's taken-for-granted assumptions about what makes for a superior superbook have rarely been as obviously played out. In short, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Brandon Peterson have produced a textbook exemplar of the genre's dominant model of storytelling. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the largely wordless mass brawl which makes up the comic's final 40%. To take but the single example of the book's penultimate page - above -  Bendis and Peterson have reduced their narrative to a sequence of  exceptionally familiar cliches. No attempt has been made to use this material in a way that's either innovative or informing. Quite the contrary is true. After all, Helicarriers crashing onto cities, and in particular onto New York, have been an exceptionally familiar sight since the Eighties. That Peterson has lent this alt-timeline's version of a flying aircraft carrier dramatically larger engines hardly passes for ingenuity. This is storytelling reduced to nothing but the regurgitation of the genre's most familiar, and most-mined out, traditions. As such, it seems to represent the belief that the superhero book works best as a literal-minded, dead-hearted trawl through the most obvious and hackneyed aspects of its own past. As if these were religious icons representing eternally vital truths, their very presence is presumed to be implicitly inspiring. Why then spoil the purity of the experience with anything more than trace elements of a story, let alone the contaminants of character and feeling? 


Peterson's art certainly isn't concerned with telling a story. Spectacle is his priority, and nothing but. With the money-shot of the broken-backed Helicarrier coming way before any other consideration, the artist crams in the page's remaining three panels without any concern for sense or emotion. If the second and fourth panels convey little but stock images of posing superpeople, then the third is effectively indecipherable. Given that it's a struggle to be sure that it's actually depicting the Helicarrier's fall, there's certainly no hope that it might convey a sense of jeopardy, or scale, or even fannish awe. To even decipher the figure of what finally appears to be Wolverine leaping into the air above Manhattan takes a ridiculously disproportionate effort. Similarly, the second panel hasn't been designed to show us anything of the detail of what's happening to Logan and the almost-imperceptible figure of Sue Richards. You'd imagine that an enkindled superhero would be worthy of attention, and yet all that counts here is that Wolverine looks blokeishly thrilling. Beyond that, the panel is essentially meaningless. Are these two escaping or trapped? Are they somehow working together or have they been separated? Is there a plan or is it every super-person for themselves? When even the basic facts of where and what are ignored, the possibility of grasping the characters' emotional state, and thereby being moved by what's on show, disappears. Reducing plot and character to the residual levels found in hardcore pornography, Peterson focuses on what really matters; a Big Dumb Explosion in an entirely-familiar scenario.


There are a relatively small number of artists who might have made something worthwhile, and even improbably impressive, out of the boilerplated images in Bendis's script. Perhaps a more recognisable New York might have been presented to us, and a point-of-view chosen which emphasised the vulnerability of the city and the terrible inevitability of its fate. Indeed, it's hard not to think about alternatives when Peterson has plumped for the single most obvious option. Yet it can't be said that there's anything in Bendis's contribution which might make us care about the Helicarrier's fate. For quite literally, there is no script. Despite having produced a story which offers little reason to care about this supposedly shattering event, Bendis has chosen to let the cliches carry the weight of the narrative. It's a deeply puzzling choice. Surely an author as experienced as Bendis must have recognised how troublesomely alienating his set-up would be? With a cast of uninspired and unsympathetic knock-offs inhabiting a just-introduced and soon-to-be-scrapped alt-timeline,  AOU#8 was inevitably going to be a tough sell. Inexplicably, Bendis avoids adding anything of clarity, depth, or even novelty to this page. As with Peterson's art, the writer's choice of the least inspired alternative does at least spark thoughts of how the page might have been improved. In fact, the final 8 pages of this issue could function brilliantly as a writing exercise. How might conversation, or third person narration, or overlapping shards of dialogue, or any one of a host of narrative options, be used to make something distinct and special out of this humdrum indulgence?



But of course, AOU8 isn't about story, or character, or ingenuity, or indeed anything but the most familiar and least challenging of beats and twists. Instead, it's a deeply uninspired and comfortingly enervating confection. Given the principles that inform its storytelling, it couldn't be anything else. Yet as Gore Vidal's wise old owl quite rightly declared, shit has its own integrity, and that's a quality that AOU8 undoubtedly possesses. Who could believe that there was even a trace of cynicism in creators whose work is so consistently flaccid and bromidic? No, AOU8 is too purposeful in its incompetence to be anything other than an entirely sincere expression of a catastrophically devitalising narrative paradigm. One day, the industry will look back in amazement and wonder how this approach ever became so ubiquitous. But until then, this is what perplexingly passes for excellence in a line-leading crossover book. Even though its flaws are so ridiculously obvious, it's the flagship title of the line.

To be concluded soon, with a look at another of this week's comics

32 comments:

  1. Do you remember the "Marvel Try-Out Book" of the early eighties? A giant unfinished Spider-Man comic that wannabes could write, pencil, and ink and submit to Marvel as a sample? It'd be fun to take the eight wordless pages and treat them as a "Try-Out Book" for writers. Maybe allow for cut-and-paste of panels and make it an editor test as well.

    I'm tempted to try it, see what can be done...

    ("What if the story were narrated throughout by someone doing a Stan Lee impression?" "How about the whole thing is told from the perspective of Ultron's cousin, Walter the Wobot?" "I've got it! Profanity! Lots and lots of profanity!")

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    1. Hello Harvey:- It's hard not to think of the MTOB, isn't it? By the same token, my mind keep going back to the unscripted pages that used to handed out to the likes of Thomas and O'Neil in the Sixties when Lee was looking for assistants.

      I could understand why a truly remarkable page might be left free of copy. I can understand why a specific effect might demand the same. But here .... It takes a fantastic faith in the power of genre cliches to not try to bring this sequence to life.

      Plus, I must say, I love the idea of Walter as Wultron's cousin. I don't know if you've seen the following cartoon on the TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics Tumblr, but I think AOU would've been greatly improved by the addition of all the robots therein. If you're going to go for the generically spectacular, that's the way to go.

      "I'm tempted to try it, see what can be done..."

      It's a great idea. I think it would be almost impossible to make the page less entertaining through doing so.

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    2. Interesting you should make that comparison, as the Hitch issues positively reek of large portions of the script being rewritten after the art had been completed.

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    3. Hello Aaron:- I heard it's so. It would certainly be tough for AOU to not have been re-written when the first five issues at least were written and drawn/inked at the end of 2011. Lots of changes in the MU since then ....

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  2. > "As such, [Age of Ultron" seems to represent the belief that the superhero book works best as a literal-minded, dead-hearted trawl through the most obvious and hackneyed aspects of its own past."

    I just wish that perfect sentence was short enough to tweet unedited.

    I waiting for this crappy thing to end so I can 1) write about it and then 2) sell it on eBay.

    - Mr. Oyola

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    1. Hello Osvaldo:- Thank you:)

      I ought to say that I am finding AOU fascinating. Not as a story, but as an expression of a world-view that I find it almost impossible to come to terms with. It is, as I tried to say above, a comic that's entirely without cynicism. Those who call it nothing but a moneygrab are, I'm, sure, quite wrong.

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    2. Hey! I get it. I am still buying it. I feel like I am rubbernecking when I do. . . I am not sure what the point of it is. . . I think it can be both earnest AND a money grab. . . though not sure how well it is selling. I have herd nothing but bad things about it even from people less critical than we are . . . but my guess is that even those without blogs are trapped in the cycle of completing it.

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    3. Hello Osvaldo:- I think there's no doubt that the book is being bought not just by folks who like it, but also by those who enjoy the business of guessing what comes next. I'm not sure that matters in terms of such a .... disappointing story. Yet Marvel have promised - promised! - that this series will result in major changes for the MU. Now, we've heard that before, of course, and yet the time travel aspect of AOU would allow the company to indulge in a measure, great or small, of housecleaning, if not redevelopment.

      I can't say it's a hook I care one way or another about, but it must seak to alot of readers.

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  3. The sparkling fellow is supposed to be Wolverine? He looks fab-u-lous! I see the Helicarrier isn't the only thing getting a little Brokeback!

    In all seriousness, I thought the sparkling fellow was the Space Phantom and I still wonder why Sir Ram from the Knights of Wundagore is attacking zombie Iron Man.

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    1. Hello Michael:- Yes, that "sparkling fellow" is actually A MAN WHO'S ON FIRE!!!!! Of course, that minor matter is of no interest to the storytellers ar all. It quite astonishes me that the bar for the spectacular is now so high that A SUPERHERO ON FIRE is lent no importance at all.

      That might be an alt-Earth Sir Ram for all I could say. I put AOU8 down last night and, like the memory of a corrected alt-timeline, I'm struggling to recall the detail of what occured. But then, genre inflections that aren't grounded in emotion, or even novelty, are hard to allocate memory cells to.

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  4. Oh, how sad I am that I packed this in with issue two. Are we sure the copy didn't just drop off? In the old days Stan would announce such a sequence as being 'so pulse-poundingly powerful that no words would do it justice'. 'Brain-deadeningly boring' doesn't have the same ring, I suppose.

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    1. Hello Martin:- Well, you read a large number of comics for me over at TooDangerousForAGirl. It's only fair I try to return at least something of the favour.

      If memory strikes, there's pages and pages of largely-wordless panels at the book's end. It would be tough to try to parody AOU#8 ....

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  5. Wolverine shows no physical indication of burning. He regenerates, but he isn't immune to burning. I guess his hair is totally immune to fire damage.
    Wolverine doesn't have a shadow. I have no point of reference. Is he flying? Leaping? Running? What is his mode of movement? You can't tell by that panel. Where is he?

    The Invisible Woman is cowering in her bubble? Really? In the past, she has proven to be one of the most powerful heroes in the MU. She is the First Lady of the MU.

    What is happening in the 3rd panel? Why is it there?

    I don't like being nit-picky, it isn't my first reaction. But this page is a perfectly distilled example of why I don't buy comics anymore. Once in a while when I find a good recommendation (your lists have been great) I track down a TPB.

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    1. Hello Teresa:- Thanks for the kind words about the lists of recommendations. I was just thinking that I'd like to put up another one. I'm kneedeep in terrific books which I'll sadly never have the time to review as they deserve.

      I can only agree with everything you say about the storytelling on the page. How odd it is, that there's so little curiousity for story and character on show there. When even the sight, as I know I've said, of a man on fire standing on a flying aircraft tumbling into NYC is of little interest to writer or artist .... well, perhaps I'm just out of step with the times :)

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  6. Hello Colin,

    Referring to the Helicarrier crashing as the "money shot"...just sent me into gales of laughter.

    It...it's so appropriate.

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    1. Hello Sally:- Thank you for saying that :)

      You know, it just seemed so appropriate. I wish it didn't.

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  7. Suddenly, Bryan Hitch's artwork on this series doesn't seem so phoned in. A bit awkward or stilted, perhaps, and still just page after page of angst and crumbling buildings, but at least it was distinctive and coherent.

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    1. Hello Anrew;- It does seem that Mr Hitch was less-than-excited about the subject matter of at least some of the scripts he was sent for AOU. I can't blame him. It would take an entirely-Rumpish mind to get excited about illustrating those first five issues. I can't help but feel that the fault lies with the story and not the art.

      Ironically, Hitch would've been perfect for the page under discussion in the above. Having pretty much established the modern-era widescreen style in The Authority, shots such as a tumbling Helicarrier would've played to some of his strengths. Odd then that he wasn't asked - as he Tweeted just this week - to work on the second half of the series. It seems he completed his contributions at the end of 2011!

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  8. I'm a big fan of wordless comics, there's a certain purity to reading pictures which tickles a different part of my brain.

    This... we'll it's laid out like a comic page, but I'll be damned if I can decipher a narrative from it. There's no feeling of sequence to it.

    I didn't even recognise Wolverine until you mentioned it was him!

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    1. Hello Mark:- I couldn't agree with you more. A finely-executed wordless sequence can be worth the price of entry on its own. But as you say, this is not well-executed.

      Sigh, and sigh again ...

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  9. It's reasonable, or even necessary, to think that AGE OF ULTRON is set in an alternate timeline, but it isn't.

    I accidentally bought UNCANNY AVENGERS #8AU today, and the text page confirmed that Bendis is using the single-timeline approach: Wolverine time travels into the past, kills Pym, changes the present, etc., etc.

    The single-timeline approach to time travel stories might have been generally abandoned long ago because the resulting paradoxes made no sense, but that hasn't stopped Bendis from using it in Avengers stories.

    I'm guessing that the exact time at which the event is taking place doesn't matter, because all that does matter is the ending, which will establish whether changes to the timeline remain in place.

    Whether those changes will make sense to readers who want the time travel storyline to make sense and adhere to the principle that changing the past is impossible won't matter.

    SRS

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    1. Hello Steven:- "I'm guessing that the exact time at which the event is taking place doesn't matter, because all that does matter is the ending, which will establish whether changes to the timeline remain in place."

      It's a fine point. (By alt-timeline, I merely meant "not the one we're familiar with.) I fear that sense is not something that BMB tends to care too much about, or rather, that sentiment rather than sense drives a great deal of his storytelling. And as such, he seems to find no problem in having characters behave in ways which make no sense at all. What counts is the Big Emotional Payoff, although I never find it easy to buy into melodrama for its own sake. His use of time travel follows the same basic principle; it doesn't have to make sense, and it doesn't even have to be structured in order to obscure the nonsense. As you say, it just has to arrive in a place which provides a fannish payoff.

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  10. Reading different Age Of Ultron reviews is my new favourite thing to do these days on the comics internet. I don't have anything to say that hasn't already been said - I hope that if you read the whole thing, you would know that that's Wolverine down there, from this page alone you could never tell. Also, yes, the whole image is stock but it still should be MORE EXCITING. There is a way to do bumd, loud, bombastic things that you've already seen before and do them in a way that makes you go "man, that was dumb, loud, bombastic and I have seen something similar before, but this was still cool, dangit".

    I also really enjoyed this read:
    http://www.crisisoninfinitemidlives.com/2013/05/17/grandpa-flashpoint-age-of-ultron-8-review/

    After reading your takes on AOU, I thought that nothing at all was happening in this series. Apparently, there's also too much happening. And I wouldn't understand a damn thing about it.

    Say what you will about DC (and sadly, they keep doing ever more stuff I can't really defend them for), but at least they'll keep their Trinity War contained within three series that are already happening. And I was able to fully get into comics with the New 52 reboot. Now I'm like 20 months in and on the internet reading blogs 'n stuff and Marvel still seems impenetrable. And way too expensive with 3.99 and double shipping. I'll keep getting HAWKGUY, that's awesome and different and self-contained.

    And I'll keep browsing AOU reviews , this stuff is gold. Thanks for the things you go through to provide me entertainment. :)

    - Björn

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    1. Hello Björn - I too have been reading alot of AOU reviews. As unbelievable as I find it, I've so far read 26! One of the things I had wanted to discuss, but which I ran out of time for, was the fact that most of them were in some way unhappy with it, but none related it to the storytelling. Yet the methods used, I suspect, were causing much of that unhappiness.

      I agree that the page could have been COOL!!!! But then, I think it could've been COOL!!! and still been smart, dense, clever too.

      My take on AOU is that there's hardlyu anything at all, although just about everything that is going on is .... rather dumb, actually.

      Shamefully, I wasn't aware that the long-trailed Trinity War had already kicked off. You've reminded me to go off to Comixology and find out what's going on.

      As for providing you with entertainment, I do my best :)

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  11. Well, cool, smart, densse AND clever...that's a lot to ask. I may be in a generous mood today but some days I'm ok with settling for "decent formula". It's when not even that is achieved that there's a big problem.

    As you've propably already discovered, Trinity War has not yet actually started. It will run across Justice League 22&23, Justice League Dark 22&23 and JLA 6&7. Which shows remarkable restraint on the part of DC. I'm glad they decided to go this route but a little surprised, frankly. Surely publishers prove often enough that they are in this for quick cash via sales-boosting tricks. And slapping "Death Of The Family" or "Flashpoint" or "AvX" on any cover will almost certainly double the sales of said title. I'm not quite sure why they would pass on that opportunity, but again, works for me as a reader. I was debating with myself whether I would get a seperate 3.99 super summer spectacular crossover miniseries that already annoyed me before even happening...but then I saw the announcement and thought: "Oonly 6 issues? Maybe this won't be decompressed as hell. And, hey, I'm already getting these. JL has become better, JLA rocks and Lemire on JLD can do no wrong. Alright, bring it." :)

    - Björn

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    1. Hello Bjorn:- I know it seems like a lot to ask for, and yet writers such as Ewing, Simone, Cornell, Williams, Waid et al manage it pretty much every time. I can't believethat there aren't more such creators out there. If the reader settles for OK or worse, then OK or worse is what the market will deliver, because, let's face it, it's a damn sight easier to deliver.

      Although, yes, there are times when a well-wrought potboiler is worth the price of entry.

      I agree with you about the virtues of limiting the scale of crossovers. By the same token, I can understand why the industry finds it hard to resist making the extra money. That is, after all, the point of business and it's a hard market with beancounters forever peering over shoulders in search of quarterly profits.

      Let's hope a miracle occurs and TW isn't just a truly limited series, but one which avoids decompression too :)

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    2. Well, I go back and forth on that and I've propably contradicted myself in your comments section alone like at least three times. I understand and support what you're saying and sometimes I do feel kind of guilty liking something that I know isn't objectively all that good. I also do enjoy critical discourse to an almost ridiculous degree (I guess that's a qurik of people who've done a BA with focus on "literary criticism"; I can totally enjoy myself reading duelling reviews of some theatre play I've never actually seen...or, you know, Age Of Ultron). Then again, I'll do a 180 on the spot and be fine with saying "Screw what Colin Smith might think about this, I'm gonna enjoy my Deathstroke book now because DEATHSTROKE and for those 15 minutes, all I'll analyze is the bodycount- we can always do that highbrow thing tomorrow".

      Great, now I feel like an idiot and a terrible human being all ot once. I'll go read some, eh, Proust immediately.

      One more question to bug you with, partially related to this: have you read any of the Valiant titles other than Archer & Armstrong, which I know you've reviewed? X-O Manowar and Bloodshot are most certainly guilty of what you accuse AOU and BSG and several other titles of - and still they work, I do think. I'm in all likelihood not knowledgeable enough of the craft to have actual insight, but just recently I tought about how absurd it is that we're at #13 of X-O now, with no character development whatsoever since the very first issue, and that I'm still captivated by that stuff. It's paper-thin and all action and everyone loves it, 5 star reviews all around. But honestly: it. should. not. work. I'd like to know why it does. The closest I've come to a comparison is what Stephen King said about Robert E. Howard - not a good writer if you take writing seriously, yet so brash and tough that "the force and fury of his writing [...] seems so highly charged with energy that it nearly gives off sparks". Like that punk band that can't really play their instruments but grabs you nonetheless, hits you right in the face and never lets go.

      If there's ever an "annoying commenters get their wishes" contest, I'd like a Valiant review, please. :)

      - Björn

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    3. Hello Bjorn:- I fear, as the most recent post on this bloke testifies, TooBusyThinking is disappearing on a sabbatical for a few months. So I won't have a chance to review any Valiant books for a good while. Perhaps in the autumn, if the blog is alive again then.

      I can only agree wholeheartedly about the screw-that-Colin-Smith argument. I honestly have no interest at all in changing anyone's mind. All I'm trying to do is express my own opinions in as clear a way as possible. I know that folks who do that often come across as wanting to change other people's opinions, but that's not what I'm about. And if ANY book cheers you up, then why shouldn't you be reading it? Brecht used to argue that the green-covered Penguin-published detective novels he so loved were both a comfort and an inspiration to him. Gawd knows, I've enough rubbish in my own reading ...

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    4. And of course I did not notice that, blabbering on instead. Hope the blog comes back. Always a joy to read and one of the few where I actually feel compelled to leave a comment or try to engage in a discussion. Thanks for always answering to everthing and everyone, as well. It's not the norm and very much welcomed.

      Take good care while you're away. :)

      - Björn

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    5. Hello Bjorn:- Thank you for the kind words! I can think of nothing more generous than a visitor to the blog who often disagrees and yet finds something of worth to return for. You take good care of yourself too.

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  12. "Reducing plot and character to the residual levels found in hardcore pornography, Peterson focuses on what really matters; a Big Dumb Explosion in an entirely-familiar scenario."

    It's harsh, but nothing truer can be said about Bendis's comics. Except in porn, they have the sense to end when the "explosions" stop. Bendis's comics end in a big anti-climax but with the empty promise of better things to come.

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    1. Hello Joe:- It can also be seen as BMB's greatest strength when he's working in his Marvel-Event-style; he's a master of providing the fan-lure, the what-comes-next enigma that hauls the devoted back even when they're not actually enjoying the product itself. I say that without snark; it IS a vital skill in today's marketplace and he does it as well as anyone.

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