Monday, 18 March 2013

On "Age Of Ultron: Book Two":- Irony-Art Superhero Comics For The Masses!

20 out of 21 pages in this issue contain little if anything all that wasn't established in the first chapter of Age Of Ultron. This is one of those 20 pages.

If you've not bought it already, I can save you the trouble of acquiring a copy of Brian Michael Bendis, Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary's Age Of Ultron: Book 2. Explaining what happens is hardly an inconvenience, because so very little does. In fact, the only plot-beat of any consequence involves the revelation of the appallingly scarred face of the Black Widow. As far as developments go, it's a relatively minor one to fill out all 21 pages of an entirely by-the-numbers, post-Apocalyptic yarn. But then, Bendis being Bendis, we're not even told what has caused her deformity, or why it matters to the exclusion of anything else of the slightest importance. Instead, the Senior Architect focuses on barefacedly repeating the threadbare sequence of genre cliches which passed for a plot in the opening chapter of the series. Though that was hardly a rich, imaginative and rewarding experience in itself, it obviously seemed to demand repeating. After all, it can't be that Bendis had simply forgotten what he'd already written, and he can't possibly believe that his readers are burdened with catastrophically dysfunctional memories. Still, the slim spine of the anorexic epic is laid out once more; Ultron still rules the world, civilisation has still fallen, the few survivors are still being annihilated, and the heroes are still fearfully in hiding. Even by the Deacon of Decompression's standards, this is apparently hollow and contentless fare. Sadly, the author's seeming lassitude appears to have hamstrung the efforts of the usually captivating Bryan Hitch. Here the artist's finely rendered and yet entirely interchangeable visions of urban destruction lack anything at all of variety and distinctiveness. But then, what else could he do, faced with a script which seems to have asked for little but page after page after page of "despair", "doom", "talking heads", and "ruined buildings"?

An entire page to tell us that we're in San Francisco, a setting which appears to have no function at all in AOUB2..
  
Cynics may carp that a second chapter is just a touch too early in a ten-issue series for information to be so charmlessly and exploitatively regurgitated. But to argue that is to surely miss the uniquely Warholian qualities of Bendis's artistry. Such an undoubtedly passionate and intelligent man can hardly be ignorant of how fifth-rate this degraded appropriation of decades-old SF and super-book cliches is. After all, these two issues carry nothing more than the equivalent of the content expressed in two or three panels at most of Chris Claremont and John Byrne's rightly lauded Days Of Future Past from 1981. Indeed, the similarities to the latter in Age Of Ultron would pass for an exceptionally accurate homage if only more of the original's relative complexities had been touched upon. But Bendis and Hitch have at least lifted a few of the aspects that made the original so exciting when it appeared some 32 years ago. The same after-the-holocaust metropolitan setting, the same robotic menace, the same small group of resisting super-survivors, the same seeming set-up for temporal paradoxes, and the same visual iconography. All that's lacking is that the fact that the original, epochal two-parter was over in the same amount of pages as Bendis has filled up with the barest bones of a set-up. Yet so obvious is the process, that it's impossible to believe that any of this can have passed Bendis by.

This is not an unlettered page.
      
Given all of that, we can only assume that Age Of Ultron is intended as work of art to inspire us to question what it is that we want of the superhero comic. Its provocatively empty-headed, stone-hearted, valueless pages must have been intended to serve as a blank canvas, upon which the obvious absence of worth will compel the reader to ask what's missing. As such, we ought to celebrate Bendis as a conceptual superbook scriptwriter of the very first rank. A straight-faced prankster, a hype-wrapped agent provocateur, a long-embedded mole apparently playing for the other side while feeding us the secret information we desperately need. Yes, Age Of Ultron: Book Two must be the ultimate critique of idly deconstructed, carelessly decompressed Event storytelling, and it ought to be treasured for its ironic challenge to the very system that's made BMB what he is. Long before Bendis's promised textbook on how to write comicbooks appears, and reveals him to have been the nemesis rather than the enabler of pap anti-pop storytelling, here's the evidence which reveals his true purpose.

Not, therefore, an insubstantial turd of a comicbook, but an insubstantial turd that's been purposefully chosen, baked, varnished and polished until the audience can see its own reflection in it. Gosh. Age Of Ultron isn't disgracefully indolent writing at all. It's art.


29 comments:

  1. So in other words it's basically everything the unlettered previews so clearly disclosed. Why am I not surprised? :-/

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    1. Hello Adam:- I know I should have expected this, based on past experience. But I am still surprised. It surely makes sense to ensure that each issue of a comic contains a distinct reading experience, and it surely makes sense not to simply replay pretty much everything that's been established before. I'm baffled as to why such basic aspects of storytelling are treated as if they were unimportant. Surprised too ...

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  2. Another feather in the "Bendis as prankster" cap would be the cliffhanger splash pages of the first and second issues being essentially the same: Captain America doing something. In the first, it's Cap sitting in the corner, pouting. In the second, he stands up, revealing he has a plan. Such a motif would make a great running gag if it were to go in sequence for the entire run.

    I talked about this with a non-comics reading friend of mine, and we both came up with the sequence of events that will fit this theme for the series' remaining issues, which I will paraphrase here (possible spoilers):

    #3: Cap walks to the phone.
    #4: He dials a number.
    #5: On the phone, he orders a pizza.
    #6: He waits for the pizza to arrive.
    #7: The pizza delivery arrives, and it is Ultron at the door.
    #8: Cap pays for his pizza. Ultron leaves.
    #9: Cap eats his pizza.
    #10: Last minute revelation, showing Ultron, realizing he was stiffed on the payment. He collapses to the floor and explodes. Heroes win.

    Truly, Bendis is such a genius he would go this route.

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    1. Hello Andrew:- I was going to write about the fact that the major plot development in this issue was Cap's announcement that he had an idea which ... he'd discuss next issue. I dumped it because I feared I'd have over-egged my own pudding, but I'm glad I did, because your team's point is far better made than mine would've been.

      And that gag would almost make the work worth reading. In fact .... chin-stroking, chin-stroking - of course it would. It really would be the ultimate expression of self-criticism. Next step, reformation through hard labour on a work farm ...

      The odd thing is, Bendis's work on AOU really does only make sense if you imagine that he's mocking the very form that he himself helped pioneer, codify and run into the ground. And, of course, he really does teach comics writing and he really is producing a book on the subject. Now , of course, he sells in the zillions, and yet, sales have never been a mark of quality. And the truth is, how can you sell an expensive pamphlet off of the back of a script in which NOTHING happens beyond one shot-to-the-head and one reveal of a scar?

      On the one hand, massive acclaim, a huge number of projects, tremendous rewards. On the other .... this? And given that it seems unlikely that my own unschooled minority opinion can be of any worth compared to this evidence of mass respect and worth, I'm left floundering. How can this be great work?

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    2. It would be reaching to think Bendis would ever entertain #10, even in parody - it contains entirely too much closure. Why finish a story with "the end" when with a little less effort it could be "the end... or is it?"

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    3. Hello Michael:- I was thinking just a moment ago about the differences between Days Of Future Past and a typical BMB maxi-series. I'd be astonished if AOU managed a conclusion that's anywhere near as effective as that of DOFP. (It was of course a relatively open end, but the uncertainty about the future which that reflected was all part of Claremont and Byrne's intentions.) It really has brought me up short to compare the two tales. You'd think there'd been not a change in styles so much as an utter collapse in craftmanship.

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    4. Michael, you do have a point there. Can't believe I forgot that a Bendis crossover can't actually conclude. #10 also doesn't quite work because it would take at least a second panel to portray all the action, and the motif only works if it's a splash page that concludes each issue.

      Perhaps a better fit would be "Ultron finds out he was stiffed...and swears vengeance!" Fred Hembeck is still working, right?

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    5. Hello Andrew:- I read speculation yesterday that the events of AOU don't occur on Marvel-Earth at all, but on an alt-Earth. If so, that would allow somebody to slip through to the MU and repeat, after a fashion, Kitty Pryde's function in Days Of Future Past. It's an interesting idea, but it would mean that a set-up that took 4 or 5 pages in DOFP would have taken more than 42 pages here.

      What does this have to do with Michael and yours' point about the lack of closure? Well, if AOU is set on another world, that means Marvel can eventually set another series there too! Not just a lack of closure in one dimension, but two!

      But no, that can't possibly happen. And good for it.

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  3. Hi Colin,

    Crikey... I borrowed a copy of AoU #1, decided to give the rest of the 'event' a pass and, on your evidence, I'm glad I did.

    I can't wait for the Bendis guide to comics writing. Perhaps it will include such pearls of wisdom as "when writing for major superhero characters/properties there's no need to worry about characterisation or voice, the fans with their extensive knowledge will do all the work for you", "it's ok to retcon yourself", "fans love to see their heroes have breakfast together" and "if you're coming to the end of an issue and realise that nothing has happened, instructing the artist to depict a major character looking all frowny and serious is an effective substitute for plot points".

    Of course I'm joking, there's plenty of BMB comics which I've thoroughly enjoyed. I'll even stick up for the early part of his New Avengers and his Dark Avengers. As you said, it's hard to understand unless he's trying to see just how far down the decompression rabbit hole he can go before it backfires. So far, in terms of sales, it's yet to backfire. It's the fans who are buying in such high numbers which trouble me... do they even want a story from their monthlies? Do they simply buy whatever they're told is 'important' by Marvel's PR? Is it a readers' Stockholm syndrome where the absence of 'things that happen' has become an endearing quality?

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    1. Hello Ed:- You're right, the problem with BMB is he evidently had produced an impressive body of work. The first two-thirds of Powers, the first two-thirds of Alias .... In fact, it's all too obvious a matter to even try to summarise. So the problem is, why is he content to produce work which is clearly - to some minds anyway - so second rate? It's not a matter of whether the books sell or not. Of course they do, although I suspect they'd sell a great deal more if they spoke to an audience beyond the hardcore. Nor is a matter of the comics being without quality, which would be an absurd argument, despite the absence of value in AOUB2. But no fiction can possibly be improved by an absence of sense and drama and progression. That's not possible. (And I left the matter of "sense" alone despite some obvious plot-holes that surely ought to have been attended to.)

      But to the Rump, "Events" are essential reading. And BMB is brilliant in informing his Events with a great big dollop of sentimentality, which avoids the entirely hollow sensation which Fear Itself inspired. (Of course, how Mr Fraction has bounced back from that with FF, Hawkeye and Everything Burns.)"Sentimentality" plus "Event" = sales it seems, and that's especially so when the writer still shows flashes, and sometimes more than flashes, of his true quality.

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  4. Whatever you do, don't waste your time with Hickman's new run on New Avengers either.

    Not only does less than nothing happen (seriously, the second issue takes up the story before the first issue to no good narrative reason and even re-uses panels), but what is discussed is basically reinforcing the idea that the things the Marvel Illuminati do these days are indiscernible from the plans of supervillains in the Silver and Bronze age.

    I plan to write about it, but I am in the middle of big site revamp currently.

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    1. Hello Osvaldo:- I fear I have already sampled New Avengers, and I find myself similarly alienated. Having loved Manhattan Projects, I'm quite baffled by the pomposity of NA.

      Do let me know when you write about it.

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    2. Realized I never left the link here for the above-mentioned post: http://themiddlespaces.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/marvels-illuminati-responsible-for-both-jay-zs-success-and-the-infinity-gems/

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    3. Thank you, Mr O. I'm off to follow your lead now ... :)

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  5. I am SO very glad that I am not reading this. Thank you Colin! You suffered, so that others would not have to!

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    1. Hello Sally:- I am indeed doing my best to contribute to the greater good. Thank you for noticing. (But if asked to swear in court, I may be forced to admit that I was actually hoping to enjoy this.)

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  6. Half of Days of Future Past took place in the (then-) present. Claremont & Byrne used about 1 regular-sized comic worth of pages to tell the future part of the story.

    I think fans are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, as Ed pointed out. More worrying, the writer & editor don't have to put any more content in because the event will sell enough. I'll spend my dollars on something with more and better content, thank you.

    - Mike Loughlin

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    1. Hello Mike:- Oh, you're quite right about the complexities of DOFP. Though my love for the X-Men disappears pretty quickly after Byrne's departure, the last year or so of his and Claremont's collaboration remains admirable material. To my mind, neither man has produced anything that can match their work together. And in DOFP, we get time-travel, political wrangling, the battle in the future with the Sentinels, the punchup with the Brotherhood in the present, significant character development for Kitty, and so on. AND it does so in a way which delivers some significant set-pieces too. How long would it have taken to deliver that story today? Years, I would suggest. And given the rewards - in terms of status, income, attention and so on - of producing hyper-decompressed work, why will anything change? Three cheers for all of those creators who don't subscribe to this approach, although with double-shipping becoming standard, it must be tough to fight the good fight. The demands to produce matched to the rewards for doing so must make it hard not to end up churning it out.

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  7. What I really don't understand is that this decompression isn't even necessarily the easy way out for a creative team. That is to say, the very opposite - compression - requires no skill either. You could write an issue which sloppily and incomprehensibly covers 2000 years of plot, with events coming so thick and fast it's like standing at the foot of a syrupy tsunami of words. It could be completely terrible and pointless, every bit as AoU is, and it would be just as easy to do. In fact, it's probably the very thing you'd get if you asked a child to write a comic book story.

    The content could be nonsense, Iron Man plays basketball against Miami Heat, Spider-man fights Mark Zuckerberg for true ownership of Facebook, Captain America appears in a very hypocritical anti-doping campaign for the next Olympics. It would require no skill, no imagination, just "things". It wouldn't even require more art - more lines or "ink", as it were - since it's not as if AoU is light on those things, it just puts them to no real purpose.

    But they don't do that. They just stretch out a mind-numbingly vast non-event to breaking point. It leads me to believe that it's not done out of laziness or cynicism per se, they do actually seem to think this is a good way to tell stories. If you tasked someone truly incompetent at storytelling to write a Big Event in comics, it's doubtful they would decompress things. You wouldn't get 10 issues of Iron Man trying to remember which issue of Stuff magazine had that nice article on the Google Nexus but in the end he's distracted because his car alarm goes off. It's odd, because many of the arguably bad things about modern comics stem from the medium's desire to be cinematic - almost like a collage of stills from a Hollywood blockbuster - but one thing you generally can't accuse such films of doing is decompression; they pack themselves to the gills with events, exposition and big character moments.

    So, long story short (an apt figure of speech for this topic) I can only think that this is genuinely done with the best of intentions, and the high sales reinforce their bizarre belief that their methods are leading to quality.

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    1. Hello Luke:- I would entirely agree with you that this approach can only be the result of a sincere belief that it constitutes "good" storytelling. Mind you, Bryan Hitch didn't seem to feel that way in a recent interview in which he seemed to bemoan page after page after chit-chat. But I certainly don't think that BMB approached this comic cynically. If anything, it strikes me that the man's obvious enthusiasm, and the relatively splendid sales, may just blind him to the fact that there's literally no content here.

      Yet the same sales are only impressive in terms of the denuded market for comics. And there's no possibility to a breakout beyond the hardcore readers with work as "mind-numbingly dumb" - as you rightly say! - as this. It's the worst of all possible words. There's more than enough success to reinforce all involved in their behaviour, and yet the evidence is that this is a terrible cul-de-sac for all but the rump of the readership. In support of that, I only need fall back on the fact - not opinion, but fact - that nothing of consequences happened here, and that pretty much all that did was a repeat of the first issue's contents.

      Of course, as you describe, the opposite of hyper-decompression isn't by its essence "great" storytelling. Decompression can produce terrific comics - The Ultimates volume 1 and 2, for example - and content-heavy books can produce tedious pap, such as marked so much - if not all - of Marvel's work for the last fifteen or so years of the last century.

      But one advantage to the current system is that it increases the productivity of its writers. I have too high an opinion of BMB's abilities to believe that this was a story that was crafted through a series of days and drafts. If it had been, and if an editor had been shaping the product in a supportive way, then the absence of new developments would have been noticed. One terrific advantage of Bendisism is the opportunity it offers to really crank out the product. Slowing down to craft each issue in the way I'd prefer would surely impact on the man's productivity. That has to be the assumption on the part of outsiders, because the only other choice is that this was a book which took three or four days at least to craft. And I can't believe that. As I say, I think too highly of its writer to believe that.

      It IS bizarre, as you say, that this approach is associated with quality. It clearly can't be good for storytelling to have no development occurring on the page. It suits the industry, it's to the taste of the fans who've bought into this. And good for them. In art, there is no "right" etc etc. But the industry is fooling itself if it thinks that this will do anything other than delay the moment when it needs to reach out beyond the rump.

      But then, the strategy seems to mostly be that that's neither possible nor necessary. Small ponds can yield considerable rewards, after all. Thankfully, there are creators and editors who are trying other ways of doing things. And of course some of them are also involved in decompressed-pap too. It's anything other than a straight-forward situation, but at its heart is the fact that AOU is poor, lazy storytelling.

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    2. What would be so very interesting is an extended interview with Bendis over a particular issue like this one, where he explains at length what his goals were. As Luke Carroll and you both point out, this approach is not accidental, nor is it sloppy. It was a deliberate choice to achieve particular ends. I would love to know what those ends were. Is the "Age of Ultron" #2 as we have it what he intended to produce, or is it a misfire by his standards?

      My guess is the obvious one: Bendis is focused on the idea of building emotional connections between reader and characters, and he believes it takes time and breathing space for that to happen. Also, slowing the pace increases the feeling of immersion, since you're seeing events unfold without having to abstract much between panels.

      He's probably going for a slow build, believing that the anticipation of the climax needs to be built over long spans of time. He also probably feels that the talking-head pages foster the desired emotional bonding, the kind of thing you don't get from a more action-filled story. Withhold to whet the appetite.

      But man, I'd love to hear BMB break it down himself, find out what he thinks. Is there something he's trying to do that we aren't seeing due to preconceptions? Or because he's not doing it well? Does he think this is a great comic? A good one? A passable one? Does he consider economic value for the reader when he writes, or the importance of single issues in the larger story? We all have our opinions based on his work, but I'd love to hear what the man himself would say.

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    3. Hello Harvey:- I would pay valid coin of the realm to read the results of such an interview with BMB, and I would pay more of it if you were running it. Your questions are exactly those which I'd love to know the answers to.

      I have absolutely no doubt that BMB believes that his work is well-wrought and fair exchange for his reader's pennies. The question, as you say, is why he believes that these methods are the best ones for his projects. Of course, there's a great many reinforcing factors which would convince any writer that their path is the right one; respect, income, sales, the attention of the media, students, access to positions of authority. In fact, put that way, the question is why would the likes of you and I ever dare to challenge such a litany of success.

      But the key isn't just that BMB's work is decompressed. It's actually such an extreme version of that that it becomes something else entirely. It's not so much decompressed as contentless. This isn't my opinion. It's not something I've invented. There's literally nothing new in this book beyond a few tiny beats.

      Are we therefore seeing the comicbook version of a heavy metal riff, blasted merciless out without variation in order to establish an oppresive mood? If so, it's a daft choice. This set-up is MASSIVELY familiar. We've seen it played over and over again since Days Of Future Past. In essence, we've ALREADY seen these conventions being repeated ad nauseam. To repeat this material is actually to emphasise its second-hand and unremarkable nature. No matter how innovative and moving the story may or may not become, this is more than 40 pages of thin, unimaginative storytelling.

      Could it be that this is simply the hardcore audience's basic fascinations being played back them in a form that's at once both diffuse and concentrated? Everything but the most basic, familiar aspects of the genre has been removed. All that's left is what we know incredibly well. A cynic could identify it as comfort food, with every shred of nutrition removed. All that remains is the likes of saturated fats, sugar and e-numbers, all mixed in to a tasteless blob.

      But I don't believe that's the intention. BMB is a dedicated craftsman and an enthusiast. As you say, this comic is an expression of his method. But what the %!&* can it possibly be?

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  8. I was talking at length about this with a friend a few weeks ago. The problem is not decompression per se, but rhythm, or lack thereof.

    Writing and drawing good comic books requires a sense of rhythm, of short and long scenes, of panel placement. A decompressed set of panels can be incredibly effective to reinforce some plot point or pathos after a quickfire set of panels or events, for example.

    Similarly, as someone else above mentioned, a comic that is just a deluge of quickfire cuts and explosions and "money" scenes is terrible without a breather to absorb what is happening, to hopefully consider the deeper implications of what is going on in terms of characterization and setting (assuming those things exist).

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    1. Hello Osvaldo:- You're quite right to say that the problem isn't a method in general, but the way that it's put to use. There are plenty of fine decompressed comics, and many of those were written by Mr Bendis himself. It ain't, as Oliver and Young wrote, what you do, it's the way that you do it.

      Of course, as I was chin-stroking away to Harvey in the comments above, this isn't really a decompressed book. Given that it's so thin, and so entirely based on pointless repitition, it's moved into something else. Retro-decompression? Hyper-decompression? Ah, I'll think of a term when insomnia strikes and I've hours to stare at the ceiling ....

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  9. I just borrowed this from a friend and I'm really thankful I did instead of paying for it. While I was willing to give the series the benefit of the doubt, and was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed the first issue as much as I did in spite of its relative lack of content, this issue didn't do anything to further anything regarding the story and, as has been pointed out, ends on practically the same note. This event is supposed to run 10 issues long, but it already feels like it could have been told in probably less than half of that if Marvel weren't so intent on padding this as long as it possibly can.

    Bendis has used decompression with much more favourable results before, and has employed it in such a manner that still made every issue feel weighty or important enough that justified his approach, which is completely absent here; as far as I can tell, the only new bits of information we get is that Black Widow has facial scarring as everything else was pretty much outright stated or implied in the first issue. It feels like a waste of time, and a waste of Hitch's art, especially considering this is supposed to be his last Marvel project for at least the immediate future

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    1. Hello Sean:- I do apologise for not being able to answer your comment earlier. I fear that for some strange reason Blogger would let me publish comments but not reply to them. I hope I didn't seem rude.

      The idea of 10 issues of AOU is a dreadful one. These are hard times, and even if they weren't, comic book prices are hardly competitive when the pleasures of a DVD or a game are concerned. You'd think the industry would be working hard to rectify that, and of course some folks are. But AOU is so entirely complacent. But then, the hardcore reader WILL buy it, and money WILL be made. Why worry about doing the job better? Why worry about value for money?

      You are quite right to say that BMB'S used this method to far better ends before. I'd like to see if he changes style in AOU , and if the introduction begins to make more sense in the light of that. And yet, no matter what's coming, this has been a turgid start, as you rightly say.

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  10. Is that "The Hood" in the silent page? Is Bendis still trying to push him as a big deal.


    I miss "The Avengers"....not "New", "Secret", "Dark", "Dissassembled!" or whatever....and I'm trying not to be grumpy old man here...I just want a

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  11. ...sorry, I just want a team book with heroes....where heroes act like heroes, have distinct voices, and consistent motivation....I want to recognize them from issue to issue and page to page...

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    1. Hello Mock:- I wonder when DC will start catering to markets beyond those thrilled by skewering, death, crossovers and the like. Marvel seem to have grasped the opportunity to sell books to niches beyond the hardcore. But DC? At the moment, I hold out little hope for change.

      Still, it would be good to be proven wrong.

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