Tuesday, July 02, 2013


Age of Ultron Book 10 /
Age of Ultron Book 10 AI

My first instinct after reading Age of Ultron #10 was to jump on the dogpile. But I hesitated, because I knew - because I'm a sucker and pay attention to these things - that the story wasn't really over because there was an epilogue scheduled for the week following the release of Age of Ultron #10, the imaginatively titled Age of Ultron #10 AI. After reading Carla Hoffman's piece here (which is a good piece, you should read it), I must confess I was feeling just a tad bit more charitable towards Bendis for having written Age of Ultron. Now, I want to stress that this was a momentary feeling - really, only a few seconds hesitation - but I was nonetheless attracted to the idea of Bendis as a high-powered surgeon who comes in, performs a high-pressure operation, and then leaves before the nurses begin the actual process of cleaning up the mess. When you view these things less as stories (which they aren't, not really) and more like spearheads for publishing initiatives (which they are, truly), the metaphor makes a lot of sense: Age of Ultron is messy, yes, but the idea is that it spawns a couple series and changes the direction of a few more books. People get excited so maybe they order a few more copies than they otherwise would of whichever books are spinning out of the event. New series that don't have a blockbuster creative team or popular premise need all the help they can get in this market, after all. The stories at the heart of the events are moot. They need to exist because the company has a need to earn a certain amount of money every fiscal quarter and major events are a guaranteed draw, but the quality or lack thereof is really besides the point.

All of which means, on a profound level, that the events in and of themselves don't really matter that much anymore. Sure, some events have had more lasting consequences than others, and to Marvel's "credit" they've done a good job of actually making these events "count." I put both of those words in the operational scare quotes for a good reason. House of M, Civil War, and Secret Invasion all had long-lasting consequences, and successfully changed the direction of the line for years to come. Everyone knows, everyone always knows, that everything will revert back to normal eventually, but Marvel has done a good job of playing these events in such a way that they actually do have consequences. The problem is that they've done too good a job here, in such a way as to alienate those readers who don't care about line-wide continuity repercussions and don't like their favorite characters having to participate in rolling crossovers every other month. ("Rolling crossovers" is roughly analogous to "rolling blackouts" in this context.) Dark Reign actually inspired a handful of fun stories, but woe betide any reader who was uninterested in Norman Osborne ruling the world and just wanted to read, say, a normal Avengers story during that period. (Which isn't strictly true, since Dan Slott's Mighty Avengers was a fine book, but it was mostly a B-team without any of the normal headliners and therefore suffered accordingly in sales.)

There was a time when events mattered, and that time was 2006-2007 during and immediately after the publication of Marvel's Civil War. That story was huge, and the best way to gauge it's popularity is to simply note the fact that in the duration between when the story began and when the story ended - and Civil War ran very late towards the end - the company couldn't publish enough Civil War branded books. They rushed out tie-in one-shots to full the publishing holes, and series that had not initially been announced as crossing over to the series swiftly changed their plans and saw sales rise as a result. In the immediate aftermath, Iron Man was briefly the hottest character in comics, at least in terms of his ubiquity - he was everywhere: for about a year afterwards as white hot a guest star as Wolverine, the Punisher, and Ghost Rider had been in the early nineties. Since Civil War, each successive event has tried hard to fit into the shoes left by Civil War, to ever-diminishing returns. Secret Invasion was a hit in terms of sales but Dark Reign was received with less enthusiasm than The Initiative, and was widely seen as having outstayed its welcome by the time Siege happened. The Heroic Age, as a branding exercise, was less successful than either The Initiative or Dark Reign, and the relatively soft sales of the line after Siege contributed to the belief that Fear Itself was rushed out in order to bolster flagging sales. Partly as a result of this perception, Fear Itself was received terribly and every spin-off launched in its wake was a flop.

The exception that proves this particular rule was Avengers vs. X-Men, and that is because, well, look at the title. The problem is that even by the bloated standards of superhero events comics you can only do a story that big so often. Given that Avengers vs. X-Men was designed to pay off on multiple story threads dangling for almost ten years (through Avengers: Disassembled, House of M, Second Coming, and yes, Civil War), there is really no feasible way to expect that that kind of success can be be recaptured anytime soon. Avengers vs. X-Men was so unmistakeable in its unabashedly cynical mercenary intentions that it less resembled a publishing initiative and more Gatsby's last party before the lights went out - it was a hit while it lasted, but the morning-after crash was inevitable.

If you subtract the once-in-a-lifetime adrenalin surge (and possible direct market dead-cat-bounce) of Avengers vs. X-Men from the equation, Age of Ultron makes a lot more sense as a follow-up to Fear Itself. Like Fear Itself, I predict the handful of Age of Ultron spinoffs to have little commercial traction in and of themselves - the Galactus story may get some interest based on the fact that everyone knows at this point that they just rung the bell for last call in the Ultimate Universe, but as it's not being written by Bendis sales will still be unspectacular. I don't see the Robot Avengers lasting out more than two years. I give it two years instead of one because it has the Avengers name to fall back on, which is still a fairly strong draw - but the track record of Avengers books that don't prominently feature Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man, or Wolverine is not very strong. (For contrast: The Defenders title that launched out of Fear Itself had a top-shelf creative team but barely squeaked by a full year despite excellent reviews because the Defenders brand is just slightly less unpopular than that of the Global Guardians.) Guardians of the Galaxy will continue to sell well not because it ties in very loosely to Age of Ultron but because Marvel is putting every ounce of their muscle behind making sure that their next big multimedia property actually has a not-canceled comic book on the stands in a year and a half. The only alternative to Guardians of the Galaxy selling well is, frankly, slightly humiliating. They don't want any repeats of the decade-long Blade fiasco.

All of which brings us back to the metaphor of Bendis as the expert surgeon leaving a gigantic mess for other creators to clean up. It is telling - was telling - that Age of Ultron #10 AI was not actually written by Bendis. The problem from my perspective is that the person they got to write the book wasn't simply another nonentity brought in to clean up after the fact, but Mark Waid. He's "A Name." Furthermore, after returning to the company somewhere around two years ago his star has been on the rise - he made Daredevil a critical and sales success after a couple years of shifting fortunes. But more important than the fact that he made the book a (moderate) hit again - remember, Daredevil is traditionally a consistent performer - is the way he made the series a hit. He threw out almost everything that hadn't been working with the book and started from scratch with a completely different tone and a far denser approach to storytelling. Look at the fact that of the two books that launched at the same time as Daredevil and under the same initiative, both The Punisher and Moon Knight have been canceled, despite the fact that both of these other books had higher profile writers in Greg Rucka and Bendis himself. (Rucka has since departed mainstream comics altogether [at least for the time being]). Daredevil, on the other hand, has been hailed as one of the best comics of the decade, and one of the template series for the way Marvel has approached their Marvel NOW! marketing initiative.

So there was some degree of (perhaps deluded) optimism on my part that Waid's involvement in the epilogue might mean that the person in charge of batting cleanup might actually be able to make some sense of what had gone before, and that the result might therefore "count" significantly more than another epilogue written by another writer. I held back from immediately weighing in on the story's (completely unsuccessful) ending because I held out hope that the last chapter might at least offer some closure in regards to the more egregious plot holes. That's the kind of thing you might reasonably expect an epilogue to do, after all - that's what epilogues have been doing for hundreds of years. But fear not - anyone worried that Age of Ultron #10 AI may have attempted to make sense of the preceding ten issues can put those worries to rest, because the epilogue issue really had fuck all to do with the actual story of Age of Ultron.

None of the plot holes from Age of Ultron have been closed. None of the unresolved threads have been tied up. Basically, what we saw in the ten issues of Age of Ultron is what we got. The only characters who even remember the story remember it second hand, from being told what happened after the fact. The two characters who should otherwise remember the events of Age of Ultron might or might not remember, Marvel isn't clear, because the last issue of the series was such a mess that we don't even know what happened to Wolverine and the Invisible Woman.

In an interview with CBR, Tom Brevoort was chary when answering a question regarding the dispensations of the Wolverine and Sue Storm who experienced the Age of Ultron:
Hank killing Ultron was the culmination of Wolverine and Sue Richards' plan to save and restore the present day, and at the end of "Age of Ultron" #10 we see them briefly celebrate their success. It felt like they bonded over these last few issues and became friends right before the space-time continuum cracked. Is that true?

Sort of, and this is one of those odd doglegs. A version of Wolverine has a relationship with a version of Sue, but since the "Age of Ultron" timeline was essentially averted in "Avengers" #12.1 that Sue and Wolverine are an extra Sue and Wolverine. They're not the characters who are in "Fantastic Four" and "Wolverine & the X-Men" right now. They can't be, because for those characters, none of that happened. Ultron was beaten in #12.1. He never came back and blew up Manhattan.

In fact the Sue that's present on that rooftop didn't get to see what the present day would have looked like without Hank. Because the Wolverine that was killed in the past stopped himself from creating that sequence of events in the first place.

It's very complicated in terms of the time travel stuff [Laughs], but yes, we saw those two characters have a relationship and share an experience, but how that translates to our Wolverine and our Sue going forward remains to be seen. It does mean that potentially somewhere out in the world there's another Sue and another Wolverine. Or they may have been swallowed up by one of the cracks in the universe. Having those extra iterations of those characters walking around may have been too much for an already strained multiverse to handle.
In another article, Axel Alonso answered a similar question posed by a fan:
Getting into fan questions, Fluffy6079 wanted to nail down some of the particulars of the finale, asking, "I have a question regarding the resolution of Age of Ultron. Are there now 2 Wolverines and 2 Invisible Women in the mainstream Marvel U? Because Ultron was defeated before he could take over, Wolvie and Sue never would have gone back in time. So, when they come back from their time traveling there should be a pair there that never left. Right?"

Alonso: So it would seem, Fluffy6079. On the other hand, we see no more of that additional Wolverine and Sue after the time-quakes hit, so it's possible that their presence was the last straw on the back of the space-time continuum, and they were swallowed up by it, even as Angela was spat out.
In storytelling there are two kinds of ambiguity: intentional and inadvertent. A good story should never leave any doubt in the mind of the reader as to which type of ambiguity is being utilized. And certainly, interviews conducted by editors in the wake of the conclusion of said story shouldn't consist of hand-waving intended to mask the fact that no thought whatsoever appears to have been given as to just what happened to Wolverine and Sue Storm. The issue itself doesn't even try to explain, or if it does, it does so unsuccessfully. After leaving the appropriate message with Hank Pym (more on that in a minute), Logan and Sue return to New York.

(Can we just take a minute to note how insanely large Sue's breasts are in that panel?)

And that's it. That's the conclusion of Logan and Sue's adventures in Age of Ultron, assuming you don't count one weird panel where Wolverine is screaming and seeing images of himself from parallel worlds and alternate futures.

You know what's missing from this panel? How about a caption.

Seriously. Captions are useful. Captions help your reader to figure out what's actually happening in the comics they're reading, as opposed to having to sift through the ashes and bones online. They are especially useful when describing any kind of abstract, cosmic, or metaphysical shenanigans, the type of which even the most skillful artist might struggle to clearly illustrate. What is happening to Wolverine in that panel? Well, it appears as if he's experiencing some sort of temporal rift type thing, visions of himself on different worlds, past and future. What happens to Wolverine himself here, the real 616 character? Does the Age of Ultron Surplus Wolverine merge with regular 616 Wolverine? Is Surplus Wolverine swallowed into a rift in the fabric of space and time? Did Superboy punch the universe? It would be one thing if the reader had any confidence whatsoever that these questions were questions that the company had any intention of addressing - but as should be obvious from the previous interview excerpts, this isn't a plot hole that the company itself regards as important enough to be addressed.

Let's look at the timeline for Age of Ultron #10.

The "present day" for the action of Age of Ultron #10 is June 2011, the original release date for Avengers #12.1. The core of Age of Ultron #10 is a handful of pages reprinted from that book. Now, I regard this as one of the few smart bits of storytelling in the entire event: I'm a sucker for time travel stories that feed back on themselves, in such a manner that the beginning turns out to be the end. Don't ask me why. So I got a kick out of the fact that the story looped back in on itself like this, and that the key to defeating Ultron turned out to be refighting a battle from two years ago. (I know that might not seem cool to you, but I liked it, OK?)

But other than that one bit of clever plotting, literally nothing else about the issue makes sense. In the first place, if the "present" of the story is two years ago, then that means that (putting aside the disposition of the Surplus Logan and Sues) Henry Pym, Hank McCoy and Tony Stark have known about the temporal problems for two years (our time) and at least half a year (Marvel time). So if we accept that Age of Ultron #10 AI takes place right after Age of Ultron #10, then we can only believe that Hank Pym was slumming it with Avengers Academy since having his great personal epiphany about his life's work. The question of how the events of this series impact the Beast's actions at the onset of All-New, All-Different X-Men is open, but I actually think this plotline will be followed up on, for the simple reason that Bendis is currently writing the X-Men. Additionally, I . . . think? . . . that the events of Bendis' canceled Moon Knight series make sense now, since that series was premised around a group of villains trying to claim Ultron's head, and we do see Ultron's head flying off his body (and stabbed by Wolverine) at the climax of Age of Ultron #10's (anti-)climactic battle scene. Meaning that the actual sequel to Age of Ultron was published two years ago, sold poorly, and was canceled.

There is another open question regarding whether or not this fits in with Bendis' first storyline in the Avengers series that was launched with the Heroic Age - you remember, the storyline with the future Avengers coming back to the present to prevent Kang and Ultron from destroying the world, the same series that gave us this wonderful wall of promotional material. I haven't gone back to re-read that arc - give me a break, I'm supposed to be studying for my preliminary exams - but I am vaguely, morbidly curious whether or not that story makes any sense in light of Age of Ultron - to say nothing of Rick Remender's use of Kang in Uncanny Avengers. (My uncharitable guess is that Remender has given more thought to how Kang's timeline works in these stories than Bendis, but I could be wrong about that.)

There is at least one more major plot hole that jumps out at me at this time. At the beginning of Age of Ultron #10, Sue and Logan deliver a message to the present Henry Pym (or rather, the Henry Pym of 2011) - a message that takes the form of a video on an iPad.

Think about this for a second: "You won't remember making this video." Huh? Neither Wolverine or the Invisible Woman have anything resembling telepathy. There is nothing in Age of Ultron #9, #10, or #10 AI about Past Hank Pym, Wolverine, and Sue Storm going to see Dr. Strange or Professor X about getting his memory wiped. Now, there is the appearance of an out - in the original Ultron origin story (Avengers #58), Ultron himself wipes Pym's mind of the memory of having created Ultron, a block that holds until after the Vision has infiltrated, attacked, and then joined the team. The problem is that even given the fact that Pym inexplicably has a memory machine that allows him to reveal the memories that Ultron has blocked, there's no reason given as to why he wouldn't also remember being accosted by an older version of Sue Storm and a crazy Canadian with metal knives shooting out of the backs of his hands, who told him a long story about the next ten years that culminated in him writing a bunch of new code for the killer robot he was about to build..

I had high hopes that this plot detail would be addressed in Age of Ultron #10 AI, if nothing else, since this was supposed to be an issue written about Pym in the wake of Ultron's defeat. But in the actual finished issue, this is how the matter is addressed:

To be more precise, it isn't addressed. We're just supposed to accept that somehow they managed to make Pym forget the events of Age of Ultron as they happened between panels in a flashback of Avengers #58, and that the memory machine that restored Pym's memories of creating Ultron would not have restored his memories of having written the anti-Ultron code and encountering the future heroes. The memory machine isn't even mentioned in Age of Ultron, incidentally, so if you hadn't gone back and reread the original in order to try to make sense of the story (like me), you wouldn't even know that this plot element had existed in the original comic.

So, I want to stress, this mess isn't Mark Waid's fault. He's done the best job he could with what he was given - that is, the responsibility of writing an epilogue to one story that was in fact mainly designed to be a prologue for another story (that would be Avengers AI, although who are we kidding, it's Robot Avengers). He's written yet another "Hank Pym finds redemption" story - one in a long line of attempts to put a new spin on one of the few heroes from Marvel's earliest days who has never really worked as anything other than a bit player. The motivation for this is fairly simple, in fact, it couldn't be simpler, and it's the same reason why Marvel is moving heaven and earth to ensure that Guardians of the Galaxy is a hit: there's going to be an Ant-Man movie in two years time.

I don't want to sound like I'm dogging on Pym. I like Pym - in fact, contrary to some people's estimation - I daresay he's one of my favorites. He's seriously flawed - he's not Spider-Man, whose greatest flaw is that he's too good! - he's got mental problems and makes poor decisions all the time. He is seriously bipolar, and even if it's never been explicitly stated it's so obvious as to hardly bear any scrutiny. Not only did he accidentally create the Avengers' greatest villain, he has also consistently fucked up his relationship with the most awesome heroine in Marvel's stable, the ever-winsome Wasp. But he keeps trying: he keeps having moments of self-doubt and low-self esteem which are followed by moments of redemption and manic competency.

The problem is that this is a story that keeps getting written about Pym, so often that it's practically a mini-genre all of its own - Pym was redeemed in Avengers West Coast, he was redeemed in Kurt Busiek's Avengers, he was redeemed in Dan Slott's Mighty Avengers, he was redeemed in Christos Gage's Avengers Academy. I understand why this keeps happening. He did some bad things. And it only makes sense that most writers would see those problems as being Pym's signature attributes - hell, his mental illness was one of the major themes of Busiek's Avengers Forever, perhaps the archetypal Avengers story. Waid gets a lot of credit for having written a very good Pym in the pages of Daredevil - it makes a lot of sense that two of Marvel's moodiest and most unbalanced heroes would find kindred spirits in one another. It did a good job of building on Pym's roles in Mighty and Academy. And now a new Pym-led series is starting up from the rubble of Age of Ultron, and as terrible as the event itself was, and as unpromising as "Robot Avengers" looks from everything I've seen, I still hold out hope that Pym will yet prove he has what it takes to be a marquee player.

So, where does that leave us? Essentially, Age of Ultron was a launchpad for a new Hank Pym-fronted Avengers spin-off, with a couple completely unrelated plot threads tacked onto the back end. The question of what exactly became of the team of Avengers sent into the future in Age of Ultron #6 is never answered - we must assume that their final assault on Ultron in the future was suicidal, and that after Wolverine's initial murder of Hank Pym they simply ceased to exist. Having read a fair amount of these types of stories in my lifetime, I expected these Avengers to be revisited at least once more (as I believe I already mentioned), in one of those fade-to-white panels that indicates the death of a universe or timeline. But we don't get that much. The last we see of the group in issue #6, they've been set upon by a horde of Ultron drones, and are being massacred. This tasteful panel is the last we see of the group:

. . . except, that is, for the cover to issue #10, which offers us a glimpse of what that group's final battle against Ultron would have looked like . . .

. . . except, that is, for the fact that, as I mentioned, the battle never happens, and is erased from time the moment Wolverine kills Pym. But the issue had the cover, presumably so people looking at the catalog would still think the story was going to address its outstanding plot points instead of simply setting fire to the whole lot of them and running away as quickly as possible.

Which brings us, finally, to the ugly elephant in the room, the true meaning of the Age of Ultron, a plot development so rank and noxious and fetid that it could only have been sucked from the pinched anus of Todd McFarlane.

When I first read the rumors that Angela was coming to Marvel, I thought it was a joke. It didn't make any sense. It doesn't make any sense. Angela is a terrible character, notable only for having been co-created by Neil Gaiman, despite the fact that she couldn't have been more generic if they had tried. She's an angel - get it? - and her gimmick is that she's a bitch. That's it. She's a "bad girl" with a literary pedigree. She's got slightly higher production values than Lady Death or Glory, but mark my words as someone who lived through the 90s, she was a product of an age that figured out that the only female protagonists an audience of adolescent (and delayed adolescent) boys could tolerate were naked female protagonists. And inevitably these naked females were given identical attitudes that made them, in essence, charmless sociopaths with a taste for bad jokes - essentially, Sylvester Stallones with bolt-on tits. Now, while I know full well that all of the era's "bad girls" had considerable followings among female readers, I can't help but remain firm in my conviction that, setting aside the relatively unobjectionable lineage of quality "good girl" art that runs through comics history, the "bad girls" were explicitly misogynistic creations designed to separate teenage boys from the contents of their wallets by preying on their sexual insecurities.

(I should confess here an indefensible nostalgia for Lady Death - such a strange character, launched from the unfettered id of American youths raised on a steady diet of AD&D, Iron Maiden, and Night of the Living Dead. But Angela has no such naive charm - she is purely the product of middle-aged men who set out to concoct the most unimaginative and lucrative media property conceivable.)

The fact that she was a character in Spawn gave her some notoriety - for everyone out there scratching their heads as to who the hell Angela is, it's worth pointing out that there was a brief window of time back in the Age of Clinton when Spawn was as popular as Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Batman. She was a big deal even if she only ever appeared in a handful of comics before disappearing down the rabbit hole of Todd McFarlane's never-ending circus of legal troubles. Now, twenty years on from her initial appearance, she has about as much heat as Nature Boy. Angela's gimmick was that she hunts Spawns - she wears Spawn medallions as earrings, for Christ's sake. Now, of course, she will have nothing to do with Spawn, and without that raison d'être, it remains to be seen what exactly she will do, besides cruising the universe and randomly "ending" people.

Because that last word balloon? "I'm coming to end you"? Those words have haunted me for weeks. There is a world in those words, an empty world of false juvenile machismo and dire media references in place of actual creative content. A Google search of the phrase "I will end you" reveals that there are at least two previous instances of the phrase being used in movies released in the last fifteen years - once in Good Will Hunting, and once in Firefly. Good Will Hunting was written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck - Affleck played the lead in the 2003 Daredevil film, a film whose look was partially inspired by Quesada's brief run on Daredevil in the late 90s. Additionally, a minor character in the movie (the rapist Jose Quesada) was named as a "tribute" to the then-Marvel Editor-in-Chief. Firefly was the brainchild of writer-director Joss Whedon, who rose to prominence behind the helm of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer film and television program before achieving massive success as the brains behind the recent Avengers film. Whedon also has a substantial list of comics credits to his name, including a run on Astonishing X-Men.

You know what's really cool? Ending your series with a line you stole from one or both of your chummy celebrity pals, a line echoed every night by thousands of twenty-somethings trying to sound menacing as they level up their paladins on World of Warcraft. It doesn't sound at all imposing or even convincing, it sounds like the type of thing a child would imagine sounded really cool but which sounds sincerely stupid if ever uttered by a grown adult. Much like only a child would imagine a character such as Angela had anything to offer the reader besides being wank material you could smuggle into the house without your parents being any the wiser. But then, who needs "bad girls" in the year 2013 when even saintly matrons like Sue Richards are packing back-breaking breasts?

My last thoughts on Age of Ultron take the form of a response to a comment to my previous post. Jason Michelitch very thoughtfully wrote:
I haven't read Age of Ultron, literally everything I know about it comes from having just read this article, and so aside from thinking that the coloring (by I think Paul Mounts?) in that Ultron-flashback splash page is pretty nice, I have no opinion on the book whatsoever. This seems like a pretty intelligent skewering of the book, and I enjoyed reading it.

This sentiment, however, I think bears further scrutiny:

"I don't think a massive blockbuster event story is the right place to conduct some kind of radical genre experiment."

Why not?

To use your own analogy, why not hire the Coen Bros. to direct the Transformers? Wouldn't that be, as you say, interesting, and maybe amazing? The reasoning you give is that they're unlikely to produce a popular film, which is an understandable reason if you take it as a given that the primary goal of a Transformers film should be popularity -- that's not something I'd necessarily agree with, but I can understand the point of view. But as we can see from the sales charts you produce, Bendis is likely to produce a popular comic. If the Coens were likely to produce a proportionately popular film, wouldn't this rationale against putting them on Transformers vanish? And wouldn't it then be in everybody's aesthetic best interests to see what kind of new or different idea they might bring to the table?

I'm not in any way trying to say that Bendis is actually the qualitative equivalent of the Coen Bros., but setting aside subjective assessments of each talent, there's a skip-logic to your argument that experimentation doesn't belong in "big" media products. I think the extension of that idea is the assumption that interesting work belongs on the margins, and I can't see any rationale for that beyond just hard-line capitalism -- and that seems like it should be the concern of the bean-counters at Marvel, not critics. Aesthetics are often determined by economics, sure, but it seems strange to me to write criticism implying that they SHOULD be.
This is a very good point, and not one to which I am certain I have a satisfying answer. Longtime readers of this blog might recognize this argument as one that has recurred occasionally throughout its almost (gulp) ten-year history.

The reason I would give for not wanting to see the Coen Brothers tackle The Transfomers, and I realize this argument is rife with possible contradiction, is the same reason I would give for criticizing the Ang Lee Hulk. I recently caught the Lee Hulk again on cable and was reminded of just how awful a film it was - or rather, to be more precise, how awful a Hulk film it was. There were some nice things about the movie - some good performances, a couple striking images and one brief but excellent scene of the Hulk fighting the army - but nearly everything else that went into the making of the film was so misguided as to be indefensible. I've seen a number of very intelligent people defend the film based on the merits of it being a noble failure, but I can't say that I have any desire to ever see that film again. The later Incredible Hulk film with Ed Norton might be a far more pedestrian film in every sense of the word, but it's a more satisfying Hulk movie by a long stretch.

There are certainly rare talents who can stretch the definitions of genres and force the expectations of generations of readers to change accordingly - but these talents are very rare. Most craftspeople working in comics - working in any nerd field, really - strive for competency. Reading a good superhero comic - a really, genuinely good comic, with no reservations - is a rare thing indeed. I've read more bad comic books than good comic books by many orders of magnitude. And while ambition is usually something to be applauded n the arts, if we're completely honest it fails a lot more often than not. I admit my tastes in this matter may have become refined to the point of ludicrousness: I can appreciate the attention to solid craft in something as inconsequential as Scott Lobdell's Superman, while Batwoman often strikes me as simply a chore to get through.

And a lot of this, I admit, is down to my own selfish desires as a consumer of superhero comic books, and the fact that my continued involvement in the genre is predicated (as with most people) on a deep and abiding sensation of comforting nostalgia. I'm not sitting here tearing apart Age of Ultron to be cool or to affect an ironic pose - I really, genuinely would love to read an awesome book about Ultron conquering the Marvel Universe. That is so far up my alley, you can't even imagine. I want to sit in my armchair and put up my feet (I literally have an armchair with an ottoman in my office for just that reason) and enjoy my comics. I love The Avengers. It's been one of my favorite books since I was a kid, and Ultron has always been in my top-tier of favorite villains. When Age of Ultron was first announced, I was excited despite the fact that I knew full well Bendis has a terrible track record with big events. House of M and Secret Invasion were - respectively - terrible and bland, and terrible and borderline illegible. And sure enough, my worst expectations eventually proved triumphant over my idiotic counter-intuitive hope that somehow Bendis wouldn't fuck this up, just as he's fucked up almost every major story to pass through his fingers for nine years running.

So when I criticize a book like Age of Ultron for biting off more than it can chew, for failing miserably, for overreaching and falling so far short of expectations, it's not necessarily because I think interesting work should be left at the margins. (Although, honestly, it probably should, for the simple reason that talented people have better things to do than try to bend a system to their will if they have the resources or stamina to work outside or on the outskirts of the system.) It's because in this particular instance I don't trust these creators, at this company, to successfully follow through on this type of genre experiment. Good work is being done at Marvel all the time - even genuinely interesting work like Young Avengers, Hawkeye, Waid's Daredevil. For superhero comics, some of this stuff is downright shocking in its willingness to be different. But Kieron Gillen, Matt Fraction, and Mark Waid are all better writers than Brian Michael Bendis. And what's important to note, furthermore, is that each of these gentlemen writes differently when they are working on a big property or massive event than when they are writing something smaller, more personal, or more eccentric. Audience expectations aren't the most important thing, but when we're talking about commercial art they're not not important, you know? A good craftsperson knows better than to spit on the customers.

If Bendis wants to try this type of experiment, fine, go ahead, it's Disney's dime, but he has a shitty track record, and don't expect me to pretend he doesn't. He can write good comics but events like Age of Ultron play so far against his strengths that it is almost tragic to see how far his (and Marvel's) estimation of his abilities differs from his actual ability to successfully carry a story like this. He's good at stuff like Ultimate Spider-Man, and I have always liked Powers. He's written some not-bad Avengers stories, but that's only because he's written so many of them that some of them would have to be better than others, right?

Leave the Coen Brothers to make Coen Brothers films. They're not even that far off the mainstream, but they're far enough that they wouldn't have anything to gain from putting themselves through the agony of trying to work closer to the heart of that system. Let the people who can make good Transformers films make good Transformers films (none of those persons are, to be sure, Michael Bay). I like the Transformers! I'd like to see a good Transformers movie probably a lot more than the next guy. But I'd rather see a solid double or triple than another "noble failure" that didn't work because of a profound failure to understand what made the property interesting to begin with. At some point this kind of sleight-of-hand, whether intentional or no, and even when conducted with the best of intentions, is simply a bait-and-switch: you advertised and hyped one kind of story, but delivered another.

Because that's the question here. We're not talking about fine art made by brave auteurs. We're talking about superhero comic books made by corporate functionaries. The best and most we can and should expect is an engaging story competently told. The worst we can expect - and sadly, what we receive much of the time - is a string of ill-conceived cliches forced into close proximity by writers whose Platonic ideal of storytelling is an Excel spreadsheet. I just want to read a good comic book. Why is that so hard?


Sausage Mahoney said...

It's such an ancillary point to the article, but may I talk about how great Slott's Mighty Avengers is? Something of a response to Morrison/Waid-era JLA (especially Waid, who had more team friction in his version), the team would repeatedly respond to an earth-or-maybe-reality-shattering crisis that was already underway.

This was no Kang, standing on the highest point of a battlefield with a future Glock, talking about the shit he was GONNA DO eventually. No, we had a forgotten inhuman despot genetically rewriting everyone he came into contact with. The planet itself was in over their heads, but THE AVENGERS knew what they were doing.

There is so much F&^K YEAH present in this book, in a way that Bendis never accomplished. Even BMB stories with actual threats came off as lifeless and unexciting. I specifically remember the eye-rolling response I had to Alpha Flight's offscreen death in New Avengers.

As for the lack in the star power, the initial arc had both Iron Man and Hulk, and I was bummed they didn't stick around, although it made sense given the make-up of the group. The upside of having so many Avengers/X-Men titles is that there is room for traditional, super-hero team books. The downside is that they wind up being the fourth book released, with a D-list team to match.

Jason Michelitch said...

Thank you for the equally if not more thoughtful reply. I was very glad to read your expanded reasoning behind your point. It does seem as if the issue comes down more or less to that nebulous factor called "taste." Your use of the Hulk movies are a fine example -- I'm not in much of a rush to re-watch either film, but given the choice, I'd absolutely opt for the "noble failure" of Ang Lee's film, overstuffed with ambition and ideas, than the Leterrier/Norton/Marvel Studios version (though I remember there being a couple of interesting bits in that one.) My taste isn't necessarily for "fine art made by brave auteurs," but it is generally for the idiosyncratic and the weird over the competent. In terms of your comics examples, I haven't gotten around to trying Waid's Daredevil, but I've found Young Avengers charming and Hawkeye passably entertaining. But what I've enjoyed about those series has less to do with them being competent superhero stories, and much more to do with enjoying the bits of personality and style injected into the series. If there was more Phonogram, I might not be getting a Gillen/McKelvie fix on Young Avengers. I'm there for the singers, not the song. The comptent bits of Hawkeye are the ones I find the most boring, but there's just enough of Fraction's sense of play that I'll read it while I wait for more Casanova (maybe. I've only read the first trade, and it didn't really thrill me that much.)

The reason I'd object to the idea that interesting stuff ought to stay on the margins is that I find it genuinely exciting when the strange or interesting bluffs its way into the mainstream. I like going to big movies made with big money and finding that it's all been entrusted to someone who isn't interested in just delivering on expectations. I WANT the bait-and-switch, because I don't interact with any comic or film simply as a consumer or customer looking for a particular experience. I am desperate to sit down in a theater or an easy chair and find my expectations confounded, to find that the artist in question has decided to deliver something utterly unexpected. That doesn't mean I enjoy everything that's different solely because it's different, but that being different is the minimum requirement for me to find something interesting.

I know this might all come off as snobbish or pretentious, but I genuinely don't mean this as an argument AGAINST your opinion, but just an expansion of a parallel (or perpendicular) line of thinking. I do think this all comes down to taste, and what expectations are dictated by different tastes. And again, it seems weird to be having this discussion in the wake of Age of Ultron, a book that from everything I can tell doesn't seem to satisfy either of our tastes. But I've enjoyed the opportunity to explore some of these ideas. Thanks.