Wednesday, 7 November 2012
On "The Avengers: End Times"
It was easy enough to care about Brian Michael Bendis' first shots at the Avengers, although those emotions weren't necessarily positive ones. Opting for hysteria while leaving clarity, logic and character behind, one after another Avenger was killed off or corrupted in a Fortean-level hailstorm of sturm und hype. The ever-inward looking market adored it, of course, because it pandered to the habituated fan-lad's insistence that Really Big'n'Shocking Things Happen. (After all, what can be Bigger and More Shocking than one predictably gruesome death and one gratuitous transformation after another?) That all that arm-waving, foot-stomping and shrieking might have been accompanied by a well-told story which actually made sense obviously passed all concerned by. Never mind the quality, feel the flabbergasting blood'n'angst, although the Avengers did, it can't be denied, quickly rise to stand as the best-selling franchise in what's left of the superbook industry. All of a sudden, it seems, the Avengers mattered to its audience. Who could say whether a character was going to be in any way recognisable in next month's episode, let alone still alive?
Now Bendis is on the last lap of his long tenure on the Avengers books. Once his work furiously insisted that nothing would ever be the same again. Now he's giving every impression of lethargically restoring a great measure of yesterday's status quo before moving on to pastures new. And so, Bendis has suddenly taken to wheeling out an improbably penitent Wonder Man to declare that he's sorry for having become an entirely implausible super-villain. In flies Simon Williams, out comes a few awkward apologies on his part, and then he's off again. Yet since Wonder Man's brutal assault on his fellow Avengers never made any sense in the first place, his attempts to re-establish himself with his former allies are similarly unconvincing. It's a process not helped by Bendis habit of opting for tell rather than show. Here, he offers up a Williams who's been utterly transformed off-page, with what little that passes as an explanation being delivered in a typically static duologue with Rogers. Wonder Man, it seems, doesn't know why he became so despicable and violent, let alone his subsequent swing towards remorse and conciliation. It may be because he isn't "technically human", or because he's had a "nervous breakdown", or because he's the creation of the Scarlet Witch, or because of some combination of all three factors. It could even be something else entirely. Who can say? This woefully ill-defined take on Wonder Man is nothing but a conflict-generating cypher, and given that his sole function here seems to be to tease the reader about his role in the coming climax of Bendis's run, it's impossible to predict what he'll do next, or care. Will he redeem himself? Will he sacrifice himself? Will he be returned to pretty much the state that he was in when Bendis took over the Avengers, as just about everyone else in the cast has been? For those who can believe that there actually is a character called "Wonder Man" in these stories, rather than a series of often-contradictory plot-conceits, there may be some fun to be had in wondering what comes next. For everyone else, it's a quite futile business. If a character can be anything that Bendis decides, then what does its next appearance count for?
The perennially fannish pleasures to be found in trying to second-guess a creator is made all the more difficult by the fact that Bendis' plots often make as little sense as his character-work does. When Wonder Man appears before Captain America in The Avengers #31, for example, neither character mentions that he's an escaped prisoner who was locked up for leading a vicious assault on the Avengers. You might imagine an attack which nearly claimed the life of Doctor Strange would remain a pressing concern, but obviously not. Steve Rogers, it seems, may be President Obama's head of national security, but that job description clearly doesn't involve remembering that dangerous, and perhaps disordered, criminals ought to be securely detained. In short, Cap's a key member of the state dedicated to fulfilling his responsibilities when it suits Bendis, and when it doesn't, well, who cares? It's no different when Wonder Man appears in the next issue before an entire team of Avengers. None of them bothers to touch upon his status as an outlaw, or even the fact that he's a clearly disturbed former friend. There's not even a single reference to Williams' recently-concluded battle with the Red Hulk, wherein he'd apparently throttled the gamma ray-charged Thaddeus E Ross into unconsciousness. In fact, you'd never know that Simon Williams had done anything more heinous than bad-mouth his colleagues in local bars or jump before one of them in the queue for the bathroom. "You haven't been the most "pleasant" person in the world lately." says Henry Pym to his ex-colleague, who recently beat a team of Avengers almost to death while levelling the Mansion as part of a mouth-frothing campaign to force them out of public life. That the Avengers then simply watch the Ionic Man flying away from their cold-shouldering without offering either help or hindrance makes as much sense as anything else on the page. To Bendis, scenes appear to work in isolation one from the other, while characters have no internal reality beyond the short-term demands of individual incidents. Whatever charges up a specific moment on the page with the immediate effect that Bendis wants is fine by him, logic or no logic, emotional sense or not.
How is it that Bendis' audience doesn't just manage to accept his cursory storytelling and careless characterisation, but actually adores it? Why is it that so many fans buy wholeheartedly into these stories which so regularly make little sense at all on even the most obvious level? It seems that part of that explanation has to lie in a happy collusion between the creativity of reader and scripter. Bendis' Avengers tales only work as a series of entertaining-in-themselves, golly-gee-wow moments which often bear little sensible connection one to the other. Obviously, his audience either doesn't care or doesn't notice that this is so. For them, Bendis provides the stimuli and the audience either ignores the lack of coherence or creates it for themselves. How else can we make sense of the appeal of the scenes which show the return of the Wasp after her entirely anti-climatic death at the end of Secret Invasion? Though the reader's clearly expected to be delighted at Janet Van Dyne's reappearance, it's hard to grasp how that can be. After all, Bendis has only presented us with yet another of his often-interchangeable super-heroines. There's little on the page to differentiate Van Dyne from the likes of Spider-Woman or even Jessica Jones. (Ask a reader to read Van Dyne's dialogue from #31 and 32 and it's doubtful that too many of them would immediately deduce that it represents the Wasp.) Similarly, the danger she's shown enmeshed in is so generic and unremarkable that it's hard to believe that she's been in any danger at all. As such, it seems that Bendis believes that the very fact of Janet Van Dyne's reappearance is of considerable emotional importance, and that the simple business of representing her is in itself a highly charged and satisfying business. His job, it appears, is to deliver up someone that's called "The Wasp" who might just pass as so. Long-dedicated readers can then bring their own feelings to the mix, and take some delight in the fact that yet another of the characters who were sentenced to a comics-death can now be considered comfortingly restored to the MU.
In that, these stories once again reflect the superhero genre's longstanding preference for change that's melodramatically intense and yet ultimately entirely reversible. So inevitable was the Wasp's return as Bendis prepared to sign off that the form it takes is practically irrelevant. What matters is that all the expected conventions of a plucky hero's survival against the odds are present so that the all-important air of jeopardy and importance is transmitted. All that matters - for the moment at least - is that the adrenalin-pumping snare of the character's "death" has finally been followed up by the comfort of the Ancien Regime's restoration. The Wasp has been absent for years and now she's back! Hurrah! Wonder Man has been a super-villain, but now he wants to be a good friend to the people he's been a terrible menace to. Hurrah! And since the simple fact of those reversals is what counts, there's been no effort made to wrap everything up in anything much of a story. A generic dilemma, a generic villain, a generic plot. Why try to stimulate the reader's thoughts and emotions when they'll do that for themselves simply from seeing Janet Van Dyne again? It's a simple Pavlovian business. Combine the presence of the long-absent superheroine with the sentimentally predisposed fan, and the illusion of meaning is created. It's comics reduced to rumpishly kneejerk reflexes, and in that, it's as complacent a creative effort as can be imagined short of filling up every page with cheesecake and body-horror.
Yet it may well be that this is all one final feint, and that the last issue in Bendis' run will result in the newly-found Wasp or the suddenly-apologetic Wonder Man being sacrificed as part of a fan-throwing double-bluff. But even then, the set-up's been so cursory and the storytelling so uninteresting that, once again, the effect will have to be generated almost solely from the reader's own understanding and emotions.
Bendis' work on The Avengers has long since ceased to be anything other than a peculiar form of gameplaying with a happily complicit readership. The story's not the thing at all. What counts is the endless procession of one eye-catching set-piece after another. To his fans, Bendis' Avengers work has been a consistently fascinating business, and they should know. After all, it's the way in which they themselves have helped make sense of his persistently slipshod work which has so contributed to its massive popularity. As he winds down his farewell tour and continues to reverse a great many of the changes he himself initiated, more and more of his time on the Avengers appears to have been a profoundly heartless and lackadaisical business. And yet, the majority opinion would be that it's all been a considerable rush, and it's hard to believe that his tens of thousands of readers won't happily follow him over to his new reign on the X-Men. There is, after all, more than one way to captivate an audience, and careless, sensationalist storytelling is clearly no barrier at all to a highly satisfied readership. It's a disturbing thought, but quite the opposite may well be true.