Friday, October 8, 2010

The Chicago Comic Books: The Avengers Marvel Masterworks, vol. 1

So another thing I picked up at Chicago.... (note: not actual cover. I couldn't find a decent copy of the cover to the Masterworks edition to use here)

A few things out of the way first. The Marvel Masterworks series was Marvel's equivalent to DC's Archives editions. The Masterworks were originally published as hardcovers and consisted of, usually, an entire year's worth of comics from one title. The comics had been scanned from the original pages, cleaned up, color corrected and printed on glossy, high-quality paper stock. The bad thing about both the Masterworks and Archives lines is that they tended to be very expensive... like about $50 a throw.

In recent years, though, both DC and Marvel have realized that they would do better with some more affordable options and so DC has started offering the Chronicles line -- issues of the comics, in publication order, in color, and with a paperback cover instead of a hard one. Marvel just moved their Masterworks into a paperback format.

The Avengers were and oftentimes stil are Marvel's premire superteam -- their answer to DC's Justice League of America. In the beginning the team consisted of Iron Man, Thor, Ant Man, Wasp and the Hulk. Needless to say the Hulk didn't last long as a team member and was soon replaced by Captain America.

Just as an aside, though, to me Marvel's Avengers aren't the real Avengers. No, the real Avengers are British and consist of John Steed, Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and, in a pinch, Dr. Richard Keel, Venus Smith, and Tara King. After all, they had the name first and they have been roundly more entertaining, stylish and witty.

So, this Marvel Masterworks Avengers volume collects the first year or so of issues of the comic book. It introduces the basic idea and introduces all the team members for those who hadn't been following them in their individual titles. It will be interesting for Hulk fans to learn that in these early days the Hulk wasn't quite the brainless smash machine he would become later and also Bruce Banner could just "Hulk out" at any time -- it wasn't necessarily tied to his emotions. He could also be changed from the Hulk back to Banner with the application of a Gamma ray beam.

On the whole, though, I have to say that I didn't like this. It isn't the fact that it's Silver Age and therefore contains some of the goofiest comic book science you will ever see. It isn't the fact that, being Silver Age, is also contains attempts at "hip" language which is simply painful. It isn't the fact that, as Silver Age, it also contains some of the weirdest, most nonsenical villains. Nope. All of that I can deal with. Unlike some people I actually like a lot of Silver Age stuff. I find quite a bit of it charming and entertaining and the goofier aspects are just laugh-out-loud silly which is fun... even if the original writers didn't intend to make you laugh. It's like MST3K -- the entertainment is in making good-natured fun of the stuff.

No, the problem I have with The Avengers is that the stories are actually kind of boring, there are holes in the plot where is feels like there are panels of action missing, and in the writers' attempts to add angsty, soap opera elements to the team the Avengers end up coming off as people who tend to overreact at best and who are whiney babies at worst. If you want to see how one introduces conflict within a team and does it right go read Tom Stillwell's Honor Brigade . Many of these early stories were written by Stan Lee and illustrated (and possibly co-plotted) by Jack Kirby and Lee's trademark "soap opera elements" -- the stuff that made Marvel stand out from DC back in the day -- just don't work here.

And then there is the Wasp. I'm probably going to get hate from Janet Van Dyne fans over this but I'm sorry -- the Silver Age version of the Wasp was too stupid to live.

The first problem was that she had something of a weak power set. Now, I'm not a person who thinks that just because a hero doesn't have a great power set that that won't make them a good character. I do firmly believe that almost all characters can be great with the right writer and the right approach. You almost have to set out to deliberately make a bad character in order to make one that is completely unwritable. But the Wasp -- whose power was that she could shrink down to the size of a wasp and when she did so she suddenly grew wings and could produce energy blasts which she called "wasp stings" -- was almost universally overpowered by the rest of the Avengers. Worse still, Stan and Jack tended to use the character only to provide distractions or annoyances to the villains... something that just didn't seem to add that much punch to the story. Other than that... her personality consisted of every bad female stereotype in the book. Going into battle she had to check her hair and make-up first and was more concerned that her battles with supervillains might muss her make-up than she was with the fact that said villains might destroy New York or such. She complained about having to go heroing when she would rather be shopping instead and she actively tried to make her quasi-love interest, Ant-Man (laster Giant Man) Henry "Hank" Pym jealous by flirting with the other members of the team (in the early days pretty much only Thor since no one knew who was under the Iron Man armor so no one knew what he looked like). If that were not bad enough, in her flirtation with Thor Janet often talked about how good looking he was... and then how much she wanted to see him cut his hair and wear a suit. That just goes right back to that annoying trope that all women want to get their hooks into a guy so that they can change him.

Is it true that there are women who are obsessed with their looks -- their clothes, their hair, their make-up? Yes. But it's still a really annoying stereotype to most women. But what annoys the hell out of me more is that in these early days the Wasp is the only female member of the team and as such there is not another female character to balance out this stereotype. yes, yes, I know that subsequent writers had her get 'better' and got rid of a lot of this sort of thing, but that doesn't change the fact that it was there then. Stan and Jack should have been ashamed of themselves for even thinking that this was a proper portrayal of a woman, even back in those days!

Okay, I'm down off my soapbox now.

There is some levity to be had in the usual bad comic book science and silly supervillain plots but the best stuff comes near the end when they introduce Captain America to the team. Rick Jones, nearly perpetual sidekick, had started out as the sidekick to the Hulk but then found himself, well, kicked to the side. He made himself an adjunct to the Avengers and then quickly endeared himself to Captain America. What is hillarious is that, in Stan's attempt to inject angst into the stories, we have Captain America beating himself up over losing his former sidekick Bucky in the waning days of WW II and seeing in Rick a lot of Bucky, and Rick, on the other side, wanting to be Cap's sidekick and yet worried about what the Hulk might think of this "betrayal" if he ever comes back. Seriously, it reads like a gay version of a cheap romance novel.

So, in the end, I'm not sure myself where to tell you to start reading The Avengers if you want to start reading them but I can tell you to definitely not start reading at the beginning... even if you do like the Silver Age. As for myself... well, I got this on deep discount and I can say that at my earliest opportunity it's going to get sold off to the local used bookstore. There's just no room in my overstuffed Comics Closet to hold something that annoys me this much.

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