continued from yesterday;
It's easy to stereotype Brian Michael Bendis's work on the "Avengers", or, at least it is until the slightest effort is made to engage with the almost seven years of scripts that he's provided for the franchise. For even a passing familiarity with that mass of work provides evidence of not so much a single Brian Michael Bendis as a whole series of them, each connected by a clear family resemblance, but each to a greater or lesser degree quite distinct from the other. One Mr Bendis is something of a traditionalist, producing time-travelling epics with John Romita Jr which quite deliberately riff off of obscure Seventies Marvel titles, while another Mr Bendis seems closer to an angst-obsessed Chris Claremont preoccupied by alternate-realities and doomed relationships. On the one hand, there's the Brian Michael Bendis who can in part be associated with decompressed storytelling, and on the other, there's a writer whose work often flatly contradicts such a judgement, producing pages and pages of text-heavy storytelling as well as notably intense superhero punch-ups.
But there is one approach to storytelling that's remarkably rare in Mr Bendis's scripts for the various Avengers titles, and that's the paternalistic one used by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the earliest days of the property. That's not to say that Mr Bendis is ever contemptuous of such a traditional approach. But it does seem that his work on "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" starts from the premise that his readers have at the very least read a fair good number of the more than 40 years of Avengers stories approached in the paternalistic manner, and that given such familiarity with the form, his playing with the formula will inevitably pay greater dividends than his merely replicating it. It surely can't be, as some folks would have it, that Mr Bendis simply doesn't want to write
more traditionally Lee/Kirby-esque stories. For all that he's obviously fascinated by narrative traditions from far beyond those of comic-books, and for all that he enjoys hybridising them with those of the superhero tale, Mr Bendis must surely be credited with recognising that forty and more years of conventional storytelling had helped paint the Avengers into something of a cosy and overly-familiar corner. In that, his determination to shake up the form as well as the content of "The Avengers" has far more in common with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's mission on the Marvel books of the early Sixties than is often recognised.
Change was necessary, and change was as stimulating for all the creators involved as it was for their audience. With three different Avengers comics currently selling almost a quarter of a million titles between them every month, it might be thought that Mr Bendis's experimentation and achievement would be granted a touch more critical attention and respect than sometimes seems to be the case.
The sheer degree of radicalism in Mr Bendis's approach can be seen in the page scanned above from "New Avengers" # 11. If any single side of his work could serve as an example of everything that the paternalistic approach isn't, then this would surely be it. It's a set of panels produced in collaboration with artist David Finch in which nothing that's obviously visually enticing occurs beyond the passing subtleties of Steve Rogers everyday body language, and in which the dialogue is as prosaic and undramatic as might be imagined. The panel angle is static, the background is banal and unchanging, and the viewer is denied even the virtue of seeing the responses on the face of whoever it is that Captain America is talking to.
It is, at first glance, a page apparently designed to not attract the reader's attention. Because of that, it's certainly easy to imagine how Stan Lee might have responded to receiving such a submission in 1963, for the audience of children and precocious adolescents who were buying the Marvel Comics of the period could have no interest in anything so seemingly dull. It's almost motionless, the language is largely disconnected from any broad emotional terms, and making sense of what's being said relies on a deep knowledge of MU continuity - Fisk, Murdock, Harada - and of non-comics genre terms such as "intel" too.
Yet it's absolutely telling that this peculiar scene is followed by three pages of wordless ninja-fighting, an incredibly kinetic, brutal and bloody sequence which, although quite unlike anything ever presented by Lee and Kirby, is still recognisable as an eye-catching and thrilling spectacle. In that, it's pure comicbook-action eyecandy. We'll chat about the fight-scene itself in the new year, but for the moment, it's worth noting that Mr Bendis has obviously not abandoned the responsibility to entertain so much as reformulated the ways in which entertainment might be generated. Unlike the paternalistic approach to storytelling, where constant action, eye-catching invention and perfect clarity are the guiding principles, Mr Bendis is presenting his readers with a far more opaque and challenging approach to grabbing and holding the audience's attention.
It's obviously not an approach which would, or ever could, appeal to the young boys who served as the audience for the first issues of The Avengers, but, of course, young boys rarely read comic books such as The Avengers anymore, and the challenges faced by today's writers and artists are in so many ways quite different from those facing Mr Lee and his staff in the early Sixties.
It seems to me that Brian Michael Bendis's approach to The Avengers begins with a judgement that the manner in which a modern-day superhero comic is told is at least as important as what the content of the story is. By that I don't mean that story is an unimportant matter for Mr Bendis, for that's obviously not so. But he does seem to proceed from a profoundly post-modern starting point, namely that his readers are massively familiar with both the narratives of the superhero tale and those of adventure stories from a host of competing genres and mediums too. To retell in The Avengers the familiar, fifty-year old superhero traditions seems to Mr Bendis, we might presume, a quite futile and indeed alienating business, for his audience as indeed for himself.
For in a very real sense, Mr Bendis isn't choosing to ignore the many components of the paternalistic approach as he is deliberately innovating within it. He's not so much ignoring tradition as he is relying on it to inform his development of it, just as be-bop often relied upon the deep structure of classic songs to inspire and ground its experimentation. Mr Bendis is reliant upon his readers being skilled and knowledgeable experts where the traditions of the superhero comic book is concerned, so that his audience can interpret where his playful redrafting of the form diverts from tradition, and where it does not. This reliance upon
the audience to collaborate in the storytelling process, rather than to sit back and function as passive consumers, can be seen in the four panel scene starring Cap and the back of Ronin's head which we touched upon above. The very fact of the page's stillness draws attention to the importance of the details of the scene, and that constant and unrevealing back of a mysterious head raises questions which foreshadow and inform events that will weave in and out of coming issues. And once the enigma of the unnamed subject of Captain America's briefing becomes more pressing, Steve Roger's relatively undramatic words will become important sources of data to solve the question of who the unnamed character is.
Or; the very stillness of the scene accentuates the need for the reader to focus on it, and sets up questions and partial-answers which will inform the pages to come.
More so, it's a sequence which will inevitably appeal to any reader who has, or who wants, a keen knowledge of Marvel's continuity. All those references to people and events in the Marvel Universe are there to snare the curiosity of an audience trained to want to draw connections between the different areas of their comic book knowledge.
And, finally, that excessive stillness and quiet also has a quite deliberate structural purpose. While Lee and Kirby were dedicated to maintaining two speeds - fast and very fast - throughout their tales, Mr Bendis knows that carefully rejigging the traditionally obvious progression of events in the superhero tale intensifies the reader's involvement in what otherwise would be a predictable narrative. Playing with the sequence of chronology in his tales as he does here, shifting time and place, from the past in NYC, on this page, to the present day in Tokyo, on the next, throws the reader and forces them to more actively make sense of what they're experiencing. And by unexpectedly juxtaposing the incredibly static with the disorientating action-packed, as occurs when the stillness of the interview suddenly shifts to a dust-up in Japan, surprise and enigma are introduced into "Ronin Part 1". It's a process that his readers can of course cope with, because they have a mental map of how a standard-issue, traditional superhero tale would normally progress, but it's a different enough experience to create a measure of unfamiliarity and even mild shock. In effect, Mr Bendis is playing games with his audience's expectations, giving them the promise of what they know they want to entice them in, while presenting enough of a deliberately fractured reading experience to make the familiar seem fresher than it otherwise might. It's a playfulness which draws in a knowledgeable audience and forces them to engage with a tale which in its own basic terms is absolutely conventional, and which could easily be told in a straight-forward and paternalistic, and yawningly quite predictable, fashion.
One of the advantages of approaching superheroes in such a post-modern way to a willing, conspiratorial audience is that the storytelling forms can be invigorated even as they're messed with. Mr Bendis, for example, injected a substantial dose of the narrative conventions associated with the thriller genre into this run on the Avengers. To do so in a bog-standard superhero narrative would be a potentially interesting experiment. To do so in a story that's already structured around long-running mysteries and unconventional story-telling is as wry a business as it is logical. An audience who're already juggling unexplained and unexpected jumps in time and setting are far more likely to engage with the appeal of double and triple-agents, secret organisations and "intel" missions overseas. This may not be the "pure" form of the superhero team-book narrative, but that's what gives it its energy and, I've no doubt, its commercial allure. In that, form and content are far better matched in "Ronin part one" than first appears to most entrenched lover of the paternalistic form, and what's at hand is in its own way every bit as deliberate and functional as Lee and Kirby's work was in its own day. Attention is grabbed, questions are posed, a measure of intensity is created, and a mass readership engaged.
In performing his post-modern business, Mr Bendis builds upon rather than rejects paternalism, and does so to offer his often-jaded audience the promise of the unfamiliar as well as, rather than instead of, the comfortably well-worn. The super-villains and their world-threatening schemes are still there, the heroes are still vulnerable alone and undefeatable if they stand together in the end. Much of the raw material is exactly, and respectfully, as it always was. Yet without abandoning responsibility for directing his audience's attention, he does abandon the belief that he's solely responsible for how the reader will perceive what's happening on the page. He is in fact a writer who often demands that his readers work harder than they might otherwise do in making sense of what they're reading, and the degree to which he manages to encourage them to do so is one measure of how successful Mr Bendis's work might be regarded as being.
It's not an approach without its own challenges and problems, and we'll discuss some of those soon. But it is a far more innovative, clever and functional design than labels such as "deconstruction" might indicate. As a starting point to writing the adventures of a team of superheroes in the 21st century, it offers endless possibilities, and helps to explain, perhaps, to a greater or lesser degree, why Mr Bendis apparently has so many different styles when his books are regarded over time. In the very best post-modern sense, his knowledge of the basic form allied to his determination to mess purposefully with it means that he can constantly reinvent the form that he's playing with, and thereby produce a significant range of variations on the traditional themes.
And reinventing the form without losing track of its traditions is only, after all, what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did, and regardless of how each might be ranked in importance against each other, change in 2004 was as absolutely necessary for the superhero genre's survival as it was in 1961. In the case of Brian Michael Bendis, the key to re-developing the genre was not simply to deliver more and more of what had gone before. In fact, it appears that Mr Bendis seems from the off to have identified the over-familiarity of the superhero genre as the major obstacle to the commercial success of "The Avengers". The very business of folks dressing in costumes and punching each other with super-strength in teams was no longer of itself particularly fresh or interesting. And if superheroes behaving superheroically in a post-Lee and Kirby fashion has become so by-the-numbers as to seem conservative and dull, then what is there left to focus on? If there's few ways to have one costume fight another without calling up a thousand or more similar battles from the past, then something else needs to be presented as the focus of the superhero comic.
For Mr Bendis, it seems obvious that what interested him most was not the behaviour of superheroes in combat so much as the behaviour of and interaction between superheroes as people. And for him, the evidence of his stories would argue that he's most fascinated with how superheroes get along with each other while facing the challenges of an insane world in a recognisably everyday fashion. He's just not as interested, as Lee and Kirby themselves were, in placing the superhero in front of a backdrop of a mundane everyday existence and showing in imaginative detail how their powers function and develop. Mr Bendis is rather fascinated by what it's like to live as a superhero amongst other superheroes, and by matters such as what having breakfast, lunch and dinner is like when your table-mates are mutants, aliens and super-people.
Where once action was the purpose of the superhero tale, and characterisation its essential seasoning, the Avengers stories of Brian Michael Bendis have tended to operate on quite the opposite principle. And where the rules of paternalistic storytelling once demanded constant excitement and clarity, Mr Bendis is far more concerned to break up the progress of the traditional narrative while encouraging his audience to collaborate with him on making sense of the events and enigmas that he's putting before them.
To be continued in the New Year, taking a look at how Mr Bendis approaches some of his action scenes, and considering some of the problems associated with a more post-modern approach to superhero comics too.
Stick together! And have a splendid day, as well as a Happy New Year! There'll be a little holiday best wishes expressed here tomorrow and then it's on into 2011! Gosh ....