May
18

Avenging the Week, pt. 5 – Back to the Trap

Posted by Jamaal Thomas on Tuesday, May 18th, 2010 at 03:01:21 PM

This week we briefly step back into the world of mainstream superhero comics with reviews of Dark Avengers and Batman: Return of Bruce Wayne. I also take a quick look at the recent Glyph Awards, and lay some links on you. Spoilers below.

Dark Avengers #16 (Brian Michael Bendis, Mike Deodato, Marvel Comics) Over the last year, Dark Avengers has been the most consistently entertaining and challenging book in the Avengers line, but its final issue lacked any sense of dramatic tension, which is par for the course for the post-Siege Avengers books, but kind of disappointing nonetheless. It’s an obligatory thirty page long epilogue that sets readers up for the Brightest Day Heroic Age a/k/a the return to a slightly modified status quo. Bendis positions the characters for the next arc in a pretty inoffensive way, although the sequence featuring Daken induced an eyeroll. I have two problems with Bendis’s writing in this issue, both of which relate to his characterization of Norman Osborn, and which illustrate broader concerns with Dark Reign as an event. Put simply, we haven’t been given a clear enough picture of what Osborn has accomplished and what he stands for, which undermines the two key subplots that explicitly rely on them.

I’ve always thought that one of the more interesting elements of Dark Reign was Bendis’s’ development of Osborn. He was not a typical mustache-twirling maniac, but a tough and capable (if somewhat morally compromised) man who had the potential to save us from ourselves and who was brought down by his personal shortcomings. Think J. Edgar Hoover or Richard Nixon. The problem is that while Bendis successfully created an atmosphere that supported that view, he never had the character perform the actions that would justify that reputation. Osborn gives a climactic, character-defining rant in this issue, but if you’ve been following this story from the beginning (glumly raises hand), it feels a little empty. In Dark Avengers, we have seen Osborn as a master manipulator and competent field leader. I think that he was more successful at containing the Sentry than any other Avengers leader. But that wasn’t enough to make me think that he could’ve done more. What makes the story of Richard Nixon a tragedy was that he brokered peace with China, created the Environmental Protection Agency, and developed a political strategy that has kept the Republican Party relevant for half a century. The fact that he couldn’t escape his bitterness or his paranoia was what stopped him from being great. When was Osborn’s China moment?

Bendis’s unwillingness to give Osborn a coherent political philosophy compounds this problem. One of the more interesting subplots in the book resolved the status of Victoria Hand, Osborn’s second-in-command. Over his previous thirteen issues, Bendis has done a great job of developing this flawed and complex character, and Hand’s arc concludes this issue with her inevitable redemption. Bendis executes the scene in convincing fashion, but there’s a moment in which she defends her alliance with Osborn by arguing that she was swayed by the “promise of an agenda I completely and wholeheartedly agreed with. And I was very excited to make the world better and safer than it has been for a very long time”. The implication (to me) is that Osborn represented a change from the previous regime, but it raises an obvious question – was Osborn’s approach to this much different than Tony Stark’s? I know that Hand is talking to Rogers, who had his own differences with Stark, but the tone of her speech gave me the impression that she was drawing a contrast between Osborn and his predecessor. Both men believed in an all-hazards approach to preemptive deterrence, supported the Superhuman Registration Act and shared an obsession with low-probability high-impact events (which is likely meant to be a timely link to former Vice President Dick Cheney’s “one-percent doctrine”). Other than Osborn’s partnerships with bloodthirsty mercenaries, criminals, and Eastern European dictators, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of daylight between the two.
I acknowledge that it’s dangerous to parse the politics of works like this – I think that mainstream superhero books are most effective when their politics/ideology are intentionally incoherent or vague to some degree – but I think that Bendis put the politics at the forefront of this issue, and should’ve done a better job of following through.

Return Of Bruce Wayne #1 (Grant Morrison & Chris Sprouse, DC Comics) – I love Grant Morrison but until recently his Batman work has been an intensely frustrating read. I don’t mind the surreal, convoluted storylines that benefit from exhaustive annotations or the fact that he’s always self-consciously trying to create something great. It’s the painfully inconsistent art. Morrison’s the type of comic book writer who needs an artist adept at visual storytelling. Morrison understands that comics are a fundamentally a visual medium and layers his stories with hints, clues and allusions that need to be portrayed by a good artist. As a reader, it’s hard to appreciate the resonant spaces that Morrison leaves in his work when the art is sloppy or incoherent. The first issue of this bi-weekly miniseries demonstrates how much Morrison’s writing benefits from an artist who knows how to tell a story.  Return of Bruce Wayne is firmly embedded in Morrison’s DC Universe and can be seen as a sequel to both Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis, as well as a companion piece to Morrison’s Batman & Robin. You don’t need to know much at the beginning of the series other than this:  Batman is believed dead by most of the world but is actually stranded in the past. Other than the ‘Bat-family’ – Red Robin, Robin, Alfred Pennyworth, and Dick Grayson (the new Batman) – no one knows that Bruce Wayne is still alive. Sprouse’s clean, sharp line work on the characters is a wonderful contrast to the surreal elements of the story (particularly the ever-changing skies). All of the characters in this story (including Batman) are portrayed in a naturalistic manner, which helps ground a story where everyone is an archetype. The story is simple. Bruce Wayne encounters cavemen who are classic archetypes found throughout Western fiction – the leader, the warriors, the prince, the fool, and the villain. In this issue, we are exposed to a version of Bruce Wayne that may be more recognizable to our parents, a guy who’s a good fighter but not a hypercompetent one, a hero who doesn’t just rely on his decades of physical and mental training but on luck, his utility belt, and the timely intervention of an unexpected ally. Morrison and Sprouse bring us the best of both worlds – a book that fits perfectly into a wonderfully complex narrative that’s almost a decade long and that works as a light, fun read. Check out some great annotations of the first issue by FBBer David Uzumeri at Comics Alliance .

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Glyph Awards!

I’m not an awards kind of guy, but it’s hard to not love the Glyph Awards. The awards were created in 2005 by the just retired comics journalist Rich Watson, author of the eponymous Glyph blog, to celebrate both great comic books with “black themes” and creators of color. Every year, the awards honor books that I love or desperately need to read. For a list of the nominees, check here . Here’s a quick look at the winners from the ceremony last weekend with a tiny bit of commentary:

Story of the Year: Unknown Soldier #13-14 (Joshua Dysart & Pat Masioni, DC/Vertigo)

I have a copy of the first Unknown Soldier trade sitting unread on my bookshelf behind Alec, Tomb of Dracula and a great non-fiction book on the rise of India. I’ve heard great things, and need to make the time to read this. Even though I can’t vouch for the quality of Unknown Soldier, there’s something cool about the fact that a non-superhero story won this award. The winning story can be found in the second volume of Unknown Soldier, Easy Kill (which has an awesome cover).I’ve read two of the other nominees – Luke Cage Noir (written by Mike Benson and Adam Glass with art by Shawn Martinbrough) and War Machine: Iron Heart (written by Greg Pak with art by Leonardo Manco), and thought both were good.

Best Writer: Alex Simmons, Archie & Friends

I know nothing about this guy, but he’s amassed an impressive resume over the last two decades. According to the Archie fans website (h/t David Brothers), Mr. Simmons is a writer of juvenile mystery novels and biographies; a critically praised playwright (of Sherlock Holmes and the Hands of Othello); and the founder of the famous Kids Comic Con. He’s also the Educational Outreach Director for New York City’s Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. In his post on this year’s Glyph Awards, David noted that Mr. Simmons wrote Archie & Friends All-Stars Volume 3: The Cartoon Life of Chuck Clayton, which seems like an interesting book – it’s one of those stories that gives some depth to an overlooked character while teaching kids how to draw comics, map out plots and develop new characters. This sounds like a perfect gift if you have a young relative who’s curious about comics.

Best Artist: Jay Potts, World of Hurt
Best Male Character: Isaiah Pastor, World of Hurt
Rising Star Award: Jay Potts, World of Hurt

And the trend of creators and work that I’m unfamiliar with continues! World of Hurt is a webcomic created, written and drawn by Jay Potts (who’s a paralegal by day) that celebrates the Black action films of the 1970′s. Potts is inspired by the art of Al Williamson, Alex Toth, and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, among others, and you see their influence in his art.

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This looks great, and I can’t wait to check it out. World of Hurt looks like a less tongue-in-cheek Black Dynamite. David Brothers has a great interview with Potts on 4th Letter, and Potts has a description of his comic here. I’m definitely adding this to my RSS feed.

Best Female Character: Aya, Aya: The Secrets Come Out (Marguerite Abouet & Clement Oubrerie, Drawn & Quarterly)
Best Reprint Publication – Aya: The Secrets Come Out (D&Q)

This is a great looking series that Joe and David have been raving about for years. I think it’s time to check it out.

Best Cover: Luke Cage Noir #1 (Tim Bradstreet)
Fan Award for Best Comic: Luke Cage Noir (Mike Benson, Adam Glass & Shawn Martinbrough, Marvel Comics)

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This is a very cool cover for a great, if flawed miniseries.

Best Comic Strip: The K Chronicles (Keith Knight)

I must check this out.

Links!

Posted in Avenging the Week · Read more by Jamaal Thomas

3 Responses

  1. Ulises Farinas sure does look like someone to watch. Lovely stuff.

  2. Wow, thanks for the link to the link to Farinas, he has got something going on.

    Janelle Monae is faaaantabulous.

    I actually rather liked Bendis’ take on Osborn; you could never quite tell whether he was just telling everyone what they wanted to hear or if he genuinely believed his own story about coming out of the darkness. Unfortunately, no one else wrote him as anything but 100% Evil Authoritarian, and Dark Avengers split its focus too much to explore it as much as I’d have liked.

  3. Yes yes yes yes yes YES on your analysis of Bendis’ take on Osborn.

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