|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