torsdag 7 juni 2012

Joe Casey et al: Avengers, Earth's Mightiest Heroes Ultimate Collection

Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek showed that you could do very good drama by simply replaying historical events from the Marvel Universe with a different angle to the story (or stories), and it was a big hit with readers. Of course, it didn't hurt that the art was simply gorgeous.

Joe Casey has done something similar with his two Avengers mini-series, Earth's Mightiest Heroes Vol. 1 & 2. Here they are, collected in one large volume (2 x 8 issues makes for 370+ pages, folks) for $35 – which is pretty cheap for a Marvel paperback; far too often they're ridiculously expensive instead.

The first half of the book depicts how Iron Man gets the team started, overcoming the suspicions of the National Security Council and its liaison, Special Agent Murch, and then sees everything rapidly going to hell in a handbasket when founding member The Hulk loses it and goes on a rampage. Much of the book (that is, the first Earth's Mightiest Heroes volume) will be devoted to the ardorous process of overcoming this PR disaster and the general population's natural suspicions against some of the world's mightiest beings banding together.

A major step in that direction is taken when the team discovers Captain America floating in the sea in a state of suspended animation, and resurrects him. Cap isn't without issues of his own, though – haunted by memories of the death of Bucky, he desires revenge on Baron Zemo, the Nazi super-agent responsible. This is probably the major subplot backing up the major plot thread throughout the book, Iron Man's struggle to keep the team together and functional in the face of interior tensions and the demands of the military and the NSC. Others include Cap's initial aversion to young Rick Jones hanging about and his gradually developing friendship with the lad, as well as the issue of having an actual God in their midst – initially, the general consensus seems to be, "this is an incredibly powerful guy, so if he wants to pretend that he's an old Norse god, let's let him, as long as it doesn't get too silly". A nice touch.

Thor and Iron Man confrontation. Letting color do the
rendering works here, especially in the first panel.

And there are plenty of nice touches in the book, and a lot of good characterization. One episode that stands out for me is Rick Jones taking Captain America to the Vietnam memorial. Cap spends quite a long time looking at the wall, so finally Rick asks how much longer they're going to stay. Cap's response:
"For as long as it takes for me to read every name on this wall.
For as long as it takes to acknowledge every soldier that died…
…in a war that I missed."

(Obviously, but I'll point it out anyway just to be on the safe side, that isn't an endorsement of the Vietnam War but a warrior's regret that he wasn't there to protect his fellow soldiers.)

Anyway, by doing good deeds, the Avengers are gradually redeemed in the eyes of the public, and Cap gets his opportunity at revenge on Zemo, naturally discovering that revenge is a hollow triumph indeed. This is very good stuff indeed, and my only complaint is that the artwork doesn't always work as it should. It's not that it's bad, it's just that…

Look, I love nice rendering; beautiful drawings like Neal Adams inked by Tom Palmer or Gil Kane inked by Neal Adams have given me some of my earliest and greatest aesthetic experiences in life. Volume 1 artist Scott Kollins doesn't render; he uses the same thickness on his ink line throughout, offering only the barest of sculpting of the characters' faces and figures – and that's OK, because the color art by Morry Hollowell and Wil Quintana does a marvelous job with the rendering and mood-setting instead. But occasionally, there are pictures that just cry out for more sculpting by a lively ink line and some nice feathering, and there, the color art just isn't enough; instead, those pages or panels take on the look of a coloring book.

Hawkeye, coloring-book style.

It's not often, but when it happens, it just seems so unnecessary.

The second half of the book, collecting Earth's Mightiest Heroes Vol. 2, is penciled byWill Rosado and inked by veteran Tom Palmer, with Wil Quintana doing more traditional coloring. The rendering is exquisite (naturally, it's Tom Palmer we're talking about), but the figures and faces are a bit stiff, and the Wasp looks a bit frumpy at times – which doesn't work in a superhero book, unless you're doing it to make a point. (Even though I'm all for not pushing women to strive for impossibly supermodel-esque bodies, superheroes do have "heroic proportions", and all the men in the book get them.)

Anyway, there is still the problem with appearances, with not just former crook Hawkeye now in the Avengers, but an actual android – created by the evil robot Ultron, for crying out loud! The Vision has to struggle not just with who he himself is, but also with S.H.I.E.L.D. putting him through the wringer. Meanwhile, the responsibilities of leading the Avengers – who suffer quite a bit of intra-team tension – takes a toll on new chairman Hank Pym, who eventually experiences a mental breakdown, creates a new persona for himself as the rogue Yellowjacket and claims to have killed Hank Pym. To cure him, the Avengers play along with his delusion, and the Wasp even marries him.

I'm not too keen on this part, as it sort of strains credulity, even though Casey struggles mightily to make it work. I'd have preferred if he'd concentrated more on the characters and their development instead of the sometimes rather childish bickering among the team and the rather outrageous-soap-opera-ish Yellowjacket sub-plot. The Vision's path towards becoming more human while dealing with the suspicions of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the NSC is a far more interesting sub-plot in my humble opinion.

Yellowjacket. (Psychology majors might note that the "enter the patient's psychosis with him"
line of  therapeutic intervention was tried in the sixties, not to any great success.)

(I'll also mention the role Jarvis plays throughout both story arcs as a constant source of support and grounding in reality for the superheroes. It's another of those nice touches.)

In summary, not perfect but quite good. Well worth your time – not least because it lets you get to know characters like Hank Pym and the Scarlet Witch before insensitive creators wrecked their lives for petty sensationalism. Recommended.

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