Sunday, 29 December 2013

On"Avengers" #24

Please be warned, spoilers ahead;

If only an entertaining comic could be bolted together from a characterless sequence of widescreen set-pieces, then Avengers #24 would be a masterpiece. Working with four noticably disparate artists, writer Jonathan Hickman matches a series of would-be spectacular SciFi backdrops with a string of obscurely-explained and cliche-saturated events. Sadly, the result is anything but a compelling and satisfying adventure, although the sense of the boxes on a corporate to-do list having been successfully ticked off does emanate from the comic's final page.

It's not as if Hickman hasn't made any kind of effort at all. Quite the opposite is true. His script features time travel, a dystopic future metropolis, a superhero-only barbecue on top of Avengers Tower, a planet-saving plot hatched in a hi-tech base on Mars, and a showdown in space with a rogue planet that's barrelling towards Earth. We're even given the sight of our globe and the celestial weapon that's been targeted at it somehow being "married" together so that the apocalypse is forestalled. The last sounds like an intriguing conceit in itself, and yet the supposedly cathartic trick is played out without foreshadowing or plausibility. The end of the world was once again approaching. A future incarnation of War Machine designed a mysterious defence. Thor lashed out at something that looks like a big metal button. An enigmatic machine whose function had never been discussed was activated. Voila, the Earth was saved!  That it had never been convincingly in jeopardy only helps to emphasise how unimpressive its saving is. A case study in the difference between a well-worked plot and an array of ill-played beats, Rogue Planet Part One fails to offer a single moment of credible emotion, let alone tension and surprise. Things happen, and then they stop happening, and that's where the issue ends.

What's perhaps most remarkable about Hickman's work on The Avengers is the way in which he rejects the core aspects of the Marvel Revolution of the early Sixties. Prior to Lee, Kirby and Ditko's mutual achievements, the superhero comic had tended to present protagonists who shared the same my-country-tis-of-thee world-view. Only the most misguided, disordered or despicable of characters could look at America and perceive anything other than a shining - if occasionally very mildly flawed - city on the hill. What gamechanging titles such as the Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man did was to lend each individual super-person a personality and agenda of their own. Suddenly the Marvel Universe was marked by unavoidable conflict and a then-invigorating diversity of opinion. Peter Parker and Stephen Strange could perceive the very same situation in radically different ways, while even would-be world conquerors such as Namor and Doctor Doom would understand events from often radically diverging perspectives. Suddenly there was an exciting - and at moments even disconcerting -  absence of a single way in which society was to be understood. No matter how politically cautious - and at first downright reactionary - the first Marvel books were, they served as a melodramatically-charged challenge to the very idea of an all-encompassing status quo.

No matter how baffling the counterculture's embrace of Marvel's Sixties characters can now seem, the implicit radicalism of the superhero that existed as an individual rather than an expression of the powers-that-be was at the time quite obvious and beguiling. It was a departure which left even the most charming of typical Silver Age narratives seeming constricted and banal. Even the inspiring quirkiness of, for example, John Broome's Flash scripts would ultimately appear redundant in comparison. As smart and compelling as its pseudo-scientific plot-beats could be, and as charming and beguiling as the Flash's adventures so often were, Barry Allen's worldview was largely that of Clark Kent, or Ray Palmer, or pretty much any other DC headlining character. Their world was by its very nature a placid, constraining, and essentially conservative one. Little could ever threaten to question or change it, and so little ultimately mattered. Over at Marvel, there was always the prospect of a character arriving whose point-of-view could transform the way in which everything was perceived. In that sense, diversity and difference, character and relationships, have - ever since FF #1 - been at the heart of the very best of the superbook.

For some inexplicable reason, Hickman has chosen in the likes of his interminable Infinity crossover books to abandon this defining quality of character. Put simply, he appears quite uninterested in anything other than the broadest of personality differences. Beyond their costumes and power-sets, his cast are largely interchangeable, while emotion is a quality that's avoided in all but its most restricted and blokeish aspects. In essence, Hickman's current work for Marvel hearkens back the very same emotionally flat and unchallenging tales which once so exhausted the patience of Stan Lee and his closest collaborators. His are in essence stories which appear designed to appeal to an audience of prepubescent boys who, quite understandably, love super-powers and distrust emotions. Yet Hickman also peppers his pages with story-slowing references to chaos and complexity while leaving them denuded of charm. As such, the virtues of the early Silver Age are stymied by the pretensions of the present day, and the result is a comic that's neither innocent nor challenging, exhilarating or genuinely thoughtful and moving. In truth, Hickman's work at the moment is the worst of all worlds, being both showy and hollow.

And so, Hickman takes the Claremont-pioneered tradition of the superhero picnic and reduces everyone involved to the most general of stereotypes. Not for him the business of using a social situation to define and further the character and relationships of those involved. Instead, he reduces the mass of his Avengers to boyish, slathering idiots, and in doing so, trades the well-established differences between them for a few facile gags about hots dogs and laddish challenges. At the same time, Hickman generates the thinnest of laughs through the simple process of reversing our expectations of the likes of Thor and the Hulk, who are portrayed unconvincingly as the master of the barbecue and a burger waiter. Reducing The Avengers to a sit-com's cast of exuberant kids and well-meaning and yet somewhat absurd authority figures might generate a cheesy laugh or two, but it relies on the reader dumping everything they know about the cast on the page. Cannonball has regressed to a twenty-something brat-comedy stereotype, Thor is given to discussing hot dogs as if he's never been acquainted with their typical contents before, and the The Hulk - The Hulk - has become the hapless dogsbody who brings the troops their party food. Conversation exists only to create a space-filling mood or to deliver exposition. When Spider-Woman and Captain Marvel are shown discussing their newfound taste for beer-pies, it tells us nothing about either woman and very little indeed about their relationship. The exchange just sits there on the page, filling up a frame with a vague sense of a quip-loaded chumminess, as if a mandated quota of Bendis-like banter had had to be mechanically fulfilled.

Without that concern for character, for example, a station on Mars is just a building in a desert. After all, the culture is saturated with examples of the third planet being used in a way that is - or at least once was - innovative and involving. To offer a Mars that serves as nothing but a pit stop for blandly heroic costumed crimefighters is to advertise how deadhearted and derivative Hickman's work is. Nothing of importance would have been changed had the location of the Avenger' preparations for battle been shifted to Phobos or the asteroid belt, a layby in Kansas or a church-hall in Middlesex. (Indeed, the latter two might at least have had the advantage of an unfamiliar setting for yet another superhero confrontation.) But then, nothing much would have changed had the supermen on the page been exchanged for any other comparable figures. Why then is there a talking shop on Mars in Avengers #24, in which Silver Age super-stereotypes plot their Silver Age super-schemes?  What is it that Hickman assumes is to be gained from this absence of character matched to such flatly-presented settings and crassly plotted sequences? How strange, that Marvel's flagship books should be helmed by a writer who has stripped out of his work the irremovable essence of the company's greatest achievements. Replace Reed Richards with Tony Stark in the Galactus Trilogy, Peter Parker with Matt Murdock in Amazing Spider-Man #33, Cyclops with Captain America in the Phoenix Saga, the White Queen with Rogue in Morrison's X-Men run, and everything would change. Remove New York from the first, the flooding under-river lair from the second, the Moon from the third and the X-Mansion from the last, and the stories would be fundamentally different. But excise most of the characters and settings from Hickman's Rogue Planet and the event machine would simply grind on regardless.

Hickman has regressed the players on the centre-stage of the Marvel Universe back towards the conformity and uniformity of pre-Fantastic Four superhero stories. All the hysterical inter-textuality and the knowing pop-takes on sociological and scientific concepts can't obscure how empty and tedious his tales currently are. They lack character and so they lack heart, and without either, they lack pretty much everything else of value too. Hickman's plots may be superficially intricate, but they don't matter at all. When you've seen a big bloke in a silly costume hitting a machine with a hammer once, you've pretty much reached the limit of how surprising and impressive it can be. Once you've seen Captain America inspiring a crowd of costumes because he's, well, Captain America, the effect becomes enervating rather than rousing. Once you've seen a crowd of superpeople swapping vacuous jibes for the sake of it, the habit becomes stupefyingly predictable and uninvolving.

Me, I was rooting for the Earth to be destroyed. Maybe that would have inspired an interesting thought or even - brace yourself, fan-boys - a convincing emotion or two from a few of the book's huge and perpetually wooden cast.



  1. Once again youve saved me from something I would doubtless have viewed as a waste of my non existent disposable cash. Hickmans work has always intrigued me, based on the largely positive responses I saw to his independent work, though never enough to actually stump up cash for it. I am left wondering at the current criteria for being hired as a comics writer by Marvel and DC. Is it simply that you have strung several words together in a comic previously, quality immaterial? Is creating something worth reading accidental rather than intentional from the company viewpoint? Is it simply about creating an enormous amount of product to keep Disney and Warner happy? It's interesting to remember that many of the biggest characters are better known for their movies or tv shows then they have ever been as comics characters.

    1. Hello Peter:- It's fascinating, that Marvel would see a movie such as The Avengers succeed in part because of its character work and then produce comics which ignore so much of that lesson. Mr Hickman's work on the Fantastic Four had all the problems with clarity and sense that his Avengers scripts do. But those problems were in part compensated for the warmth of the relationship between the various members of the Richards' extended family. The Avengers reflects the worst of his work without the virtues of what he's done elsewhere. Indeed, that's why I didn't mention the art in this issue; the problems with these Avengers books has nothing to do with the art. Why would Marvel opt for an approach which is runs against its best traditions while clearly alienating all but the devotee? I have no doubt that writer and company have a clear and reasoned strategy here, but I'm completely at a loss to understand it.

      There are of course some very fine writers working at both Marvel and DC. That little of the work at the latter company is of any worth - to my own taste - surely reflects the compny rather than many of those who work for it. Marvel is a quite different case. There's no questioning that it's hired a whole range of fine writers - including Mr Hickman, who's work on the likes of Manhattan Project is invigorting - and given them considerable leeway. There's great books out there from Fraction, Ewing, Gillen, Waid and so on. The problems often actually lie in the long-term event strategy and the work that appears in certain frontline franchises.

      Ah, well, you won't be throwing away your money on Avengers 24. May I recommend the latest edition of Daredevil? It's an absolute stormer.

  2. 'The event machine...' Love it, thanks Colin, I think you've put your finger on just why Hickman's work feels so wrong, so empty

    I do wonder, though, if it's not a case of Hickman choosing to abandon character, so much as - in the same way you acknowledge he works to include plenty of incident - doing his best. Perhaps he simply can't conjure up the individuated personalities and resulting character dynamics because he's not sufficiently invested in the Marvel Universe, with creator-owned books being where his heart lies. Or it could be the apparently relentless demand of Marvel to produce more pages - extra titles, biweekly books. Presumably Hickman is contracted to produce a certain number of script pages each month. I wonder if his work wouldn't be more engaging were it not spread across a number of different (ugh) properties rather than simply the Avengers line.

    I'd certainly rather see a bunch of differing viewpoints on the authorial side, rather than have one massive, empty, supposed story told across several books.

    Truth be told, mind, two Avengers books, tops, would be enough - Mighty Avengers and an Avengers West Coast kind of thing.

    1. Hello Martin:- There are two things that I always try to keep in mind when discussing Mr Hickman's Avengers work. Firstly, they sell by the shedload. Now that's no proof of quality, of course, but it's not evidence of its absence either. Secondly, Hickman's work on these Event/flagship titles is not only characteristic of his previous work, but of recent line-leading initiatives too. (Fear Itself comes to mind, a truly wretched crossover, and Age Of Ultron, which was a despicable splat of hucksterism.) As such, it seems to me that this breed of books (1) sells (2) reflects some at least of JH's own taste in writing and (3) fulfills criteria laid down by the powers-that-be at Marvel.

      Your comments reflect concerns that I very much share. What kind of Marvel Universe is JH depicting in terms of style and content? At times I wonder whether his books are attempts to push away the claims of continuity - for newer readers? - and yet, his work is so often obscure and self-indulgent that it's hardly aimed at the neophyte.

      Once Marvel hooked readers in terms of how past continuity could be made to inform current events. It resulted in some awful comics, but at its best it produced some wonderful stories. Now Marvel often seems to be playing with a different kind of continuity which involves endless teasing about how events will play out. Whether they make sense in terms of what's gone before - always a challenging business - is at times apparently irrelevant. There's such a hysterical attempt to suggest that the next issue, next serial, next crossover, will change everything, and yet, what's the point of changing everything when "everything" has lost its coherence, its identity, its human purpose?

      But money talks, and the rumours have always circulated that Marvel's comics were subject to some very exacting expectations from folks who aren't on the editorial or creative staff. Whether that's true, I suspect that we'll see more and more Avengers books until the market for the franchise collapses. It's a ludicrous business, of course, and so coin-hungry a programme that it's hard not to feel a touch of contempt. Yet at the same, Mighty Avengers - which I know you like - and Young Avengers - which I know you have concerns about - have been able to reflect the identity of their creators rather than a more corporate approach.

      Would I prefer to see two or three Avengers titles at most? Yep, I would. But then, I'm the sort of reader who just stops reading when there's so many comics being churned out within a particular franchise. I opted out of the X-Universe in the 90s and I'm largely uninterested in the Avengers now. There's obviously a hardcore audience of readers who'll buy huge amounts of books with a particular label on them. Good luck to them, Ibut life may just be too short for Indomitable Avengers, Splendidly Fantastic Avengers and Avenging Avengers too.

  3. I do give Hickman credit for speaking out against Marvel's branding of this issue as #24.1, supposedly an easy jumping-on point; he said it's a terrible place to start, with Tom Brevoort arguing against him.

    And I do agree that status quo changing 'events' mean nothing at all when there's never a status quo - has anyone in the Marvel Universe had more than a day's respite from crises since the beginning of Civil War?

    1. Hello Martin:- It was as heartening thing to see JH coming out and saying that, wasn't it? What baffles me is the suggestion that the issue could ever make a good jumping on point. I think Tom Brevoort often speaks a great deal of sense, I really do. Yet it worries me that he thinks a book without any kind of emotional content is going to be an attractive jumping-on point.

      The incessant succession of Events in both of the Big Two's universes is an exhausting and alienating business. I recall seeing the Inhumans' city in New York harbour recently and I couldn't raise a flicker of interest. Really? New York again? The end of everything in New York again?

      But then, that takes us onto the daftness that's Inhumanity, and that's a topic for another day, I suspect :)

    2. Perhaps Brevoort was thinking that #24 was as good a jumping on point as any with Hickman's run :P

      You've articulated my thoughts on Hickman much better than I could, Colin. Everytime I mention his work to people it's to complain... excepting his work with Franklin and Valeria Richards, which managed to be very heartwarming.

      But his plots are just beatbeatbeat without any feeling or dramatic tension or whatnot.

      That said, I haven't read Manhattan Project, but I'm skeptical, seeing as he hasn't made a good impression on me with everything else while also being a member of the crop of writers of whom I always hear universal praise online (excluding the sanity at toobusythinking)

    3. Hello Isaac:- It's good to exchange words with you again :)

      It's certainly true that - to my knowledge - there's be no particular issue in JH's run that would be both clear and emotionally involving beyond cheering on the heroes and hissing at the villains. It's a very strange business. As you say, his stories seem designed to be a sequence of plot-beats without clarity or character.

      Thanks for the generous words. I certainly agree that the family interaction in JH's FF books were touching and inspiring, if not at times somewhat twee.

      I would however wholehertedly recommend Manhattan Projects. Or at least, I would up until the end of the second collection. (After that, I start to feel a touch alienated.) But those books are charged with a manic, slapstick, smart-minded energy that mean they would've sat very well in 2000AD during its very best periods.

  4. I flicked through this issue in Forbidden Planet today, and maybe it's because I haven't been reading a lot of Hickman recently (East of West and Pax Romana are the closest), but I really enjoyed this issue. A superhero book with no fight, but calm careful problem-solving; it's what I've loved most about titles like Fraction and Allred's FF. Then again, I'm more forgiving of Hickman than most; something about the grand old-fashioned SF nature of his writing appeals to me.

    1. Hello Halloween Jack:- At which point, of course, my entire argument collapses into what it always was, opinion :) Thanks for expressing the opposite - and undoubtedly hardly-rare - opinion, and, given the evening it is, a happy new year to you!