When the issues collected in Avengers Epic Collection: The Crossing Line were first published in 1990 and 1991, the Avengers were in a bit of flux. Writer Roger Stern’s acclaimed five year long run on the book had come to an end a few years earlier. Just prior to the start of this volume, writer John Byrne had abruptly left his stewardship of both Avengers and Avengers West Coast, a stewardship which had culminated in putting the Avengers at the center of Marvel’s line-wide crossover “Acts of Vengeance” just before he left the books. On the other side of these collected issues, the creative run by writer Bob Harras and (chiefly) penciler Steve Epting looms, a run that will come to define “Avengers in the 90s,” for better and worse. With the benefit of hindsight, this chunk of issues feels very much like it’s simply filling the gap between the Byrne and Harras/Epting runs, merely killing time despite the fact that Larry Hama – whose entire work on the Avengers is collected in this volume – had every intention of staying on the title for a good long while (more on that below). Yet for that, at least some of the stories collected herein are not without their charms, even if few of them rise to the level of all time Avengers greats. [Read more…] about Avengers Epic Collection: The Crossing Line Review!
Heroes Reborn: Avengers (1996) Retrospective!
Get on your pleather pants and floral print tops, losers, we’re going back to 1996. Mainstream comics were undergoing a strange, tumultuous time in the aftermath of the creator-owned explosion of Image Comics. Trying to stay on top of the sales charts had led to some pretty cringeworthy stunts, and frankly, what’s one more among friends? The X-Men’s long-building threat, Onslaught, had just seen most of the publisher’s non-mutant hero populace transported to a pocket dimension created by Franklin, the occasionally terrifying child of Sue and Reed Richards. In this world, many stories that had once taken years to build and deliver were smooshed into a much smaller number of issues. After a quick introduction, plots were completely derailed, and within about a year, we were back to the 616 with a general “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” attitude about the whole event.
Heroes Reborn: Avengers undergoes at least three major creative lineup changes in twelve issues, which may give you a decent idea of how disjointed and weird this series is, even when completely divorced from the greater Heroes Reborn context. It might also go without saying that this series, which barely manages to eek out a single coherent plotline over the course of a year, doesn’t age great, but it still somehow isn’t the worst thing printed in 1996 (here’s looking at you, Amalgam Universe). [Read more…] about Heroes Reborn: Avengers (1996) Retrospective!
Too Big To Fail: What Snyder’s Justice League & Aaron’s Avengers Tell Us About Superteams- Pt. 2 (of 2)
The Matter Of The Justice League:
RB: Justice. Doom.
These are the central ideas at the root of Scott Snyder (and James Tynion’s) Justice League era. Justice represents our desire to rise above our base, animalistic, predatory nature. It is us ascending beyond what we were ‘meant’ to be and imposing a self-created ideal and structure, a vision of how things should be, as opposed to how they actually are. It is an embrace of (constructed) meaning.
Doom is ‘fate’, it is accepting our very basest nature and giving into it. It is embracing our predatory, ‘Survival of the strongest’ mentality. It is not rising up, but descending downwards, as represented by the following symbols for each:
On one hand, we have The Justice League representing Justice, and on the other we have The Legion Of Doom representing Doom. This tension of these binaries is the entire story.
What’d you make of this era, Vishal?
VG: The run, to me, felt more interested in the aesthetics of its story than the actual conflict it was exploring. Justice and Doom are names that go back to iconic Superfriends, and Snyder was clearly really excited to turn them into these “meaningful” concepts in the DC mythos. Taking what started as silly superhero names and turning it into an ideological war is classic Scott Snyder, and I don’t mean it as a dig! It’s the sensibility that lends itself to this massive expansion of the roster, this creation of the Justice League as a system similar to Justice League Unlimited from the mid-00s.
But the run feels more focused on the callbacks themselves than actually doing anything with them. Like, yes, he takes “Doom” and turns it into an ideology that Lex Luthor believes in, but it feels… unnecessary.
Beyond aesthetic inspiration, the clear focal inspiration for Snyder’s Justice League is the Avengers. Specifically, Jonathan Hickman’s run. The Totality is literally ripped from the Rogue Planet of Hickman’s Avengers, and the Justice-League-As-A-System premise is wholly pulled from it. This isn’t an accusation or indictment – Snyder said this himself. But I think by doing things the way he did, he ended up making a book that didn’t feel like it mattered. It just continued to exist while more significant books did more significant things.
What frustrated me the most, though, was Snyder’s constant tendency to go “And then it got worse.” Every arc, the villains either won or claimed that losing was a part of their plan. The Justice League was made to feel ineffectual, incapable of actually succeeding.
But enough of my impressions, how was this run for you, Ritesh? You’ve always been the more DC-minded of the two of us.
RB: I found it to be a thorough lesson in how not to do things, to put it bluntly. It fails big, and it fails in a lot of ways that are telling, I think. And those failures are more than just in comparison to better things like it, it just fails in and of itself, as a structure and mechanism of its own making.
Snyder made no attempt to hide the fact that this was a blatant attempt to build a ‘Hickman-esque’ story and structure (his words, not mine), and it feels blatant in a lot of ways. The fundamental premise is ‘The Multiverse is dying’ and the core characters are secretly dealing with this problem. That’s the crux of the run. It’s The Death and Rebirth Of The Multiverse. The run might as well scream it in your face as to what it’s drawing on, really.
Even those Justice/Doom insignias are an attempt to evoke some of that Hickman aesthetic and design magic with The Avengers, albeit lazily, because it is literally just The Hall Of Justice and The Hall Of Doom’s outlines as ‘symbols’. However, for all the laziness, I do like them, in all their cheap, corny fashion. But the key thing to note is that laziness, given that extends to the work’s supposed attempted exploration of those two ideas.
What I first want to touch on though is the sort of layers of influence, given that Hickman’s Avengers, the core influence here, is openly riffing on and working off DC iconography and influence. Like, that story is just a goddamn Legion Of Super-Heroes epic just hard-wired to suit The Avengers and MU mechanism. The Builders are The Controllers. Avengers World, Legion World. The whole damn thing is a Crisis-plot, but done as a grand, slow-building ‘epic’ rather than 12-issue event maxi. It’s why it culminates in Secret Wars, with those Alex Ross covers, going even more blatant on the DC iconography riffs as it draws on Secret Wars of the past as well.
So, in a way, I get why Snyder would need to respond or draw from that, because Hickman did the latest iteration of The Crisis story, and that’s effectively what Snyder is trying to do. One big ass Crisis story, in a post-Jonathan Hickman context, which means acknowledging or responding to Hickman in some way.
But here’s the problem: Snyder just isn’t very good at this.
VG: It’s a really weird thing to experience, a riff on a riff on a classic story. We’re used to callbacks and riffs on stuff from decades prior, but Secret Wars was only 5 years before Death Metal. Instead of feeling like Snyder was using the framing of Secret Wars to make something new, it really just ended up feeling like he wanted to do the exact same thing Hickman did. It reads as unoriginal, and honestly bugs me a great deal.
The most genuinely unique part of the run, though, is the “Batman Who Laughs.” Snyder’s obsession with this evil jokerized version of Batman genuinely took me out of the run at several points, because he just makes everything feel cheap. In Dark Nights: Metal, he was a believable threat on the promise that he would not come back after the event ended. Instead, he pervaded the entire story of DC until the next giant event, poisoning everything he’s connected to.
Much like how Aaron’s Avengers weakened the entire Marvel Universe by forcing connections where there shouldn’t have been any, Snyder’s Justice League weakened the entire DC Universe by centering it around Batman. The idea that Batmans from the Dark Multiverse are the real greatest threat to the DC Universe just… doesn’t sit right. Not even as a “Not my canon” sort of complaint, but it genuinely makes the whole universe feel like it doesn’t matter anymore.
But as frustrated as I am with “The Batman Who Laughs,” he quickly becomes meaningless, a simple messenger for Perpetua, the creator of all things. Ritesh, can you explain Perpetua a bit? Her presence is just a bunch of cosmic DC rewriting that I can’t seem to solidly grasp.
RB: Much like Aaron’s run is a lot of ‘answering questions that needn’t be’ and shrinking the world down, making it more insular, Snyder’s is the same. It, too, is obsessed with its own Unified Theory Of DC Mythos, and thus it gives you The Totality, which is linked to and connected to ‘The Seven Forces’ which are tied to our key JL leads and their mirrors on The Legion Of Doom. Everything is ‘simplified’ and ‘broken down’ into these digestible components, as is the entire universe, with us meeting the being that is The Hand Of Creation.
The Totality thing in particular felt like a very…John Byrne-esque move to me. I actually thought back to Byrne’s much-maligned and forgotten event Genesis from the 90’s, wherein he tried to, similarly, draw a Unified Theory Of DC out. And therein, he posited that a supposed ‘Godwave’ from The Source brought about everything, and it’s such this…’clean’ attempt to do DC Comics, that it breaks. It doesn’t work.
The magic of DC isn’t the ‘clean’ and simplified unification. DC isn’t a cohesive world. It’s a clashing, clawing cluster, a mad archipelago, a battle-world akin to Secret Wars, just various islands that were never meant to be together in one place. It’s all of that smushed together, and it’s about the sparks that fly, it’s about the contrasts and different emergent flavors from that. It’s seeing Guy Gardner and Mister Miracle and Blue Beetle in the same room. It’s kind of odd if you think about it. It’s like an odd meal from various cuisines put together, and that’s the room. When you try to ‘flatten’ it out into being this ‘singular’ thing, I think you genuinely rob away what makes it…well, it. Its definition is thrown out for some poor attempt at a clean substitute, and it’ll never be good enough.
Snyder’s work here ultimately feels like a Youtube video series of ‘The DC Universe Explained!’ but as comics, and that’s never terribly interesting comics, at least for my taste.
As for The Hand…now that is an ancient, old John Broome/Gil Kane idea from a GL issue, and remains an absolute favorite of mine. Broome was obsessed with the idea of Creators and Creations, Constructs and Manifestations, writing a magical hero, a divine hero, an agent of angelic power. And The Hand is an image that recurs across his work, thus being Hal Jordan’s go-to construct.
Someone like Grant Morrison understood that The Hand is not something to be revealed, and was better left as abstract and symbolic, representing the idea of The Creator rather than being a literal cosmic being for characters to punch or wrestle with. It’d be like if rather than doing The Coyote Gospel, we had a whole Looney Tunes vs The God plot with an Evil Coyote Who Laughs, which, I guess you could do that, but it’s not The Coyote Gospel is it?
But in any case, Grant kept the mystery and never saw a need to properly, cleanly ‘explain’ it all in literal in-universe lore and story terms. Everything was much more metaphorical. But then Snyder comes in and imposes an almost Johnsian Literalism on top of it all, so we get the reveal: Perpetua is The Hand Of Creation.
The idea of DC Ideas rebelling against their masters and the will of their masters could be cool, and y’know, it was pretty cool when it was done in Final Crisis. Here though? It’s just…try hard and kind of nothing. By the end of it all, it’s just a lot of Batman Who Laughs nonsense, which I think is fair to say, because at a point, Perpetua is straight up taken off the board, and BWL literally becomes The Ur-Antagonist.
VG: That sense of “Snyder missed Grant’s point” comes up right away, honestly – in Dark Nights: Metal very early on there’s a scene where we see the map from Multiversity, and then literally flip the map over. That’s what Snyder’s vision of the DC Universe is built on, the flipping of a physical map.
The whole thing feels like a major case of one-upsmanship. The Anti-Monitor was the big bad of Crisis? Well his mother is the even bigger bad of this run. Doctor Manhattan was the big bad of Doomsday Clock? Well the Batman Who Laughs merged with Doctor Manhattan powers to be an even bigger bad of Death Metal. It’s consistent and it’s tiring and it actively pushed me away from the run as a whole.
Much like Aaron’s Avengers, it feels like Snyder’s desire to use the Justice League book to go as big and bombastic as possible weakens the entire product. It feels like both creators thought that the only way to justify these books and their star-studded casts was to make them fight the biggest, baddest threats they could make up – bigger and badder than anything that already existed. Aaron made super-celestials and Snyder made the Anti-monitor’s mother. Aaron made the corporate Justice League and Snyder made the Batman Justice League. It’s tiring and pointless, and an absolute failure in how to make team books work.
RB: I think the other thing too is, much like Aaron, I don’t think Snyder is good at High Concept or Big Ideas. It’s like how Snyder’s like ‘Okay, 5th Dimension is Imagination? Well, we’ll do a whole arc to go BEYOND THAT called 6th Dimension!’ and like, sure, you can do The 6th Dimension, Scott, you can do that which lies beyond Imagination. But you gotta actually, y’know, have Ideas for that. You gotta have a concept that justifies your absurd escalations. Like, okay, what is the 6th Dimension? Let’s come up with a cool Big Idea. But the thing is… Snyder doesn’t. In the end, The 6th Dimension, that which lies beyond Imagination itself is… a room? Just… a bloody room that’s ‘The Control Room’ of The Multiverse or something? It’s just like… it’s escalation for the sake of escalation. It’s the ‘Only Lore, No Meaning’ idea made manifest. It’s how you get ‘The Batman Who Laughs becomes The Batmanhattan Who Laughs’. That’s the nature of its imagination. It’s the pretense of Big Ideas/High Concept, without actually having any or doing anything. It strikes me as lazy comics.
The best way I can put it is: Hickman’s X-Men is this genuinely Big Ideas/High Concept work, much like his Avengers, full of reframing the entire enterprise as an evolutionary tale of mutantdom against post-humanity, crazy tech-cults and the dreaded arrival of A.I for a real world and age of Neo-reactionaries and Roko’s Basilisk. It’s a text that shifts the metaphor from the ‘Model Minority’ to something more, and complicates, and brings a whole new era and vision. From aesthetic and stylistic ambitions to formal ideas, it’s a properly ambitious work, building on the kind Hickman already did.
Now, could you even begin to imagine Scott Snyder’s X-Men? Just take a second for me and try, and consider your response to that. That’s the difference and divide. Snyder is a lot of ‘This familiar old thing you knew…but BIGGER, BADDER, DARKER’, which I call his Black Mirror Approach. He’ll apply it to everything under the sun from the Speed Force (Still Force), the Visible Emotional Spectrum (Invisible Emotional Spectrum), the Multiverse (Dark Multiverse), or even America itself (Undiscovered Country).
But as you wrote and delineated on Snyder’s America: Black Mirror Edition in Undiscovered Country, it’s all just…shallow posturing and ‘wild’ and ‘crazy’ notions which aren’t actually that at all and says little of value. It’s the false assumption of Evocation=Examination as comics. Just because you evoke a thing, your work is not automatically examining that thing meaningfully. You actually have to do the work and consider things. And Snyder’s work, to me, never does. It feels rooted in a distrust of the reader (and an insecurity of the creator) and uses cheap shorthand and a lot of repetition of the old but scaled up, and by the end, it all just feels cheap? It doesn’t feel like it’s actually about telling an important story, as much as it’s concerned with seeming like it has. It’s like it wants to say ‘Oh I did my own epic…’ rather than care about the actual nature of the work itself.
Snyder’s Justice League feels like it’s a comic that wants to be One Piece, but ends up being Fairy Tail, to make a Shounen comparison, given the entire narrative bears striking parallels to Naruto, with Martian Manhunter and Lex Luthor having a retconned in backstory as Childhood Friends (which is later dropped and wasted, as J’Onn is cast aside). It’s a narrative that abandons the story of its supposed lead in J’Onn, leaping to Wonder Woman, who is perhaps Snyder’s weakest character on the League, despite Greg Capullo’s powerful depiction of her. It’s a story that fails to emotionally satisfy and payoff the things it sets up and claims to be about, and devolves into being yet another Let’s Fix The DC Continuity fix-fic. It’s frustrating, rather than fun.
And it’s all a bummer because I genuinely, really wanted to love this run. And I know so, so many people who did, coming off a dreadful decade of Johns Justice League comics. It felt like there was a thing to potentially be excited about again with the title, perhaps. I even went back and pulled this little bit from years ago, just as a display for how willing to fall in love with it I was when it began:
None of this thought was really needed, of course, as the run itself did not actually put as much thought or care about its notions as a younger me seemed to. So much of the run feels pointless, devoid of meaning. And in the end, all I’ll remember it for is its obsession with wanting to ‘top’ everything and everyone, to be The Biggest And Most Definitive Ever, to do more Batman Who Laughs, than tell a meaningful story about the DC characters that I felt anything about.
Both of these runs could’ve been so much better and had genuine promise, and it’s never not heartbreaking when that’s the case. But I think it holds even more true for these big corner-stole flagship teams. When they don’t click, something feels off about the line as a whole. The better they do, the more alive a line feels, for they are the breath of a universe.
Too Big To Fail: What Snyder’s Justice League & Aaron’s Avengers Tell Us About Superteams- Pt. 1 (of 2)
Vishal Gullapalli: Scott Snyder’s Justice League and Jason Aaron’s Avengers are fascinating to look at, because they both began around the same time and promised to do similar things to their respective teams. They were these huge, expansive books promising big ideas and to solidly define what the team was meant to be. Not to say that they necessarily succeeded, but they’re definitely interesting to look at.
Ritesh Babu: Vitally, both books felt like the ultimate attempt to re-create a definitive iteration of the team, particularly leaning into and drawing hard on their wider media iterations and influences. Avengers was taking from the MCU, while Justice League was transparently trying to evoke the DCAU roster.
VG: What I find fascinating, though, is that Avengers feels like it’s also trying to take from Morrison’s JLA, while Justice League was clearly drawing from Hickman’s Avengers saga. Both series seemed to be trying to incorporate their counterparts’ success with their own. What we ended up getting on both counts for me ended up feeling like strange Frankenstein’s Monsters that were confused about their own identities and were unable to do anything definitive.
The Case Of The Avengers:
RB: Avengers is fascinating to me, in that it opens on The Celestials, right after the work of Al Ewing dealt so heavily with them, and given it is touching on The Celestials, it also loops in The Eternals. And its take on both is…a choice. What’d you make of it, Vishal?
VG: Yeah, it certainly is a choice! Aaron decides to kill the Eternals off-panel in a move that did not faze anyone and decided to completely rewrite the mythology of the Celestials. The biggest and most baffling change was the idea that the reason Earth has so many superhumans is because the Progenitor, one of the oldest Celestials in the universe, died and its blood spilled all over the planet. This is a move I can only compare to Geoff Johns’ take in his Green Lantern that Earth is actually the center of the universe – while Geoff made it explicit in text, Aaron arguably made it even sillier by doing this strange subtext around Earth being important. We didn’t need it.
Of course, Aaron also had to make the Celestials nothing more than Loki’s lackeys, once again taking these immense stakes and making them feel meaningless. Not that they were necessarily believable beforehand, but to introduce this all-encompassing mythological entity and then just make it the henchman to an established villain feels pointless. We could have just had a normal Loki arc.
But I think Aaron’s Avengers is much less about the big conceptual ideas he comes up with, because even he doesn’t really spend much time with them. The book is instead about the structure of the Avengers, promising a return to a form that doesn’t exist. The book begins with Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor talking about being the “Big Three” of the Avengers and how the Avengers aren’t really the Avengers without them. Which is baffling when you consider that the Avengers existed for quite some time without any of them as active members. Ritesh, how does this blatant desire to appear like the Justice League strike you?
RB: It feels…odd to me. Like, I get it. I see what it is trying to do. It is blatantly aspiring to that Grant Morrison/Howard Porter JLA era of bombast and Big Ideas, the ‘every-month can be an event’ esque sensibilities. The idea of The Biggest Characters Of The Marvel Universe having The Biggest Adventures. It tries to grant the cosmic importance The Avengers in the cinema hold, but in the comics, and specifically in a post-Jonathan Hickman/Al Ewing Avengers world.
But it never feels like it actually has The Big Ideas the way Morrison did? Or even the way Hickman or Ewing did? It instead is this bizarre reduction of The Marvel Universe. Wherein Ewing’s Ultimates felt like it significantly expanded the wonder, mystery, and grandeur of The Marvel Universe, Aaron’s retcons and vision feel insular. They shrink it all down to his bizarrely constrained Unified Theory Of Marvel Mythology. In the end, I think it just dilutes and takes away from the magic and fundamental appeal of the setting it seeks to capture.
The most laughably odd (if blatant) choice to me indicating this is when Aaron’s run basically goes ‘Hey…What If…The Justice Legion…but rather than DC One Million The Future, it’s DC One Million The Past?’
Thus you get The Avengers 10, 000 BC.
VG: Yes! And where The Justice Legion implied that the universe grew from the icons that we are seeing for the first time – that we’re watching something that inspired everything that is to come – the Avengers BC imply that everything in the current Marvel Universe is just a rehash of something that happened millennia ago.
Jean Grey becoming the Phoenix feels cheap when there was a prehistoric redhead woman who became the Phoenix already. Ghost Rider is completely forgettable now that there’s an ancient Ghost Rider who rides a skeleton mammoth. Danny Rand is even more cliché than before now that there’s an Iron Fist of the Past. Why does anything that we’re reading matter?
Even worse is the setup of Mephisto as this all-encompassing master planner who’s been scheming and plotting against the Avengers the whole time. Once again, this just makes everything feel small and insular. Darkseid in Morrison’s JLA did what he always did – the Justice League had very little to do with his plans, they just stood in his way. He doesn’t scheme to stop a team of super heroes, he doesn’t focus his efforts around them… he simply is.
What Aaron’s run ultimately ends up being is an unnecessary attempt to make the Avengers like the Justice League – it creates this “core cast” built around a “trinity” with a few guest stars that vary between arcs, and it throws these characters at the largest-scale conflicts Aaron can come up with. But by being this, it betrays the Avengers and the Marvel Universe as it exists and renders the whole endeavor meaningless.
RB: A lot of this run feels like the case of ‘Answering questions no one was asking’, as in, it’s cooler to imagine and imply certain things rather than definitively answer them. Some things don’t need to be shown, some things don’t need to be explained or answered. Part of the fun of a gigantic macro-construction like a Marvel Universe or a DC Universe is all the gaps, all the stuff that you yourself fill-in. It’s the questions. You don’t need to have every single detail of this thing broken down, with everything shown.
So, certainly, while it is reasonable that a lot of these ‘legacy’ ideas, like Iron Fist, Black Panther, Ghost Rider, could have very early iterations, doing them the way this run does, and calling them ‘The Avengers’ just feels cheap. The whole thing, rather than embracing the chaos, the mess, the wonder and ‘gaps’ of the shared-universe and construct, feels too obsessed with drawing some kind of ‘Marvel Universe Explained’ conclusion.
And y’know what? Some stuff needn’t be. This isn’t a company report, it’s a story.
Although, I will say, I am genuinely fascinated by the choice of Mephisto as The Ur-Antagonist of The Avengers, if only because it feels like such a baffling choice.
VG: It really is, isn’t it? I can’t think of any point where Mephisto has ever truly felt like he mattered, outside of the one infamous storyline where he’s literally a stand-in for Marvel editorial. I get that Aaron wanted to use someone known for scheming, since his entire run hinges on the idea that this evil has been manipulating its way through the course of history. But Mephisto? Really?
We’ve found out that Mephisto brought back Tony Stark’s father all evil-like and that he’s been whispering in the ears of all the Avengers’ greatest foes since the Avengers first formed in 10,000 BC. And all this revelation does is cheapen everything it touches. Mephisto matters less than ever, the Avengers matter less than ever, and Iron Man’s going through a dull version of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman. There’s nothing here.
RB: I noted it precisely because the transparent Morrison influence struck me. Beyond JLA, Mephisto felt blatantly like the Doctor Hurt-figure of the whole thing, and there’s so many elements that echo the Morrison influence that I was thinking about Aaron’s choice.
The problem, I think, ultimately boils down to this: Aaron doesn’t actually have much to say on the matter of The Devil, whereas someone like Morrison is constantly enamored by it, always returning to it. Aaron wrote an entire run about Gods, both good gods, bad gods, and everything in between, and a lot of it is very much rooted in his inability to believe in gods, or a divine force, and trying to reckon with that.
The question always was ‘What is a worthy god?’ and while I don’t have positive thoughts on Aaron’s Thor tenure (I am not an Aaron Big Two fan, I enjoy him in indie), it felt like it had some semblance of identity, clarity and vision? Whereas this big, grand Avengers run, it opens on Gods, it opens on The Celestials, The Ur-Gods of The MU, it opens on The Death Of The Gods (and Angels), which feels like Big, Meaty material to work with. And then it sets up the grand antagonist as The Devil.
That’s actually a remarkably solid set-up to say and do big things. There’s potential meat there. There’s so much you could chew on and do. Immortal Hulk, for instance, is an entire text obsessed with Devil Figures, much in the way, say, Morrison’s work is. But I read Avengers, and I truly wonder what the point, purpose, and deliberations of its invocations are. What are you trying to express, on a personal level, as you do all these shenanigans?
If Thor is about Man and God, Avengers ought to be about Man and The Devil, yes? Thus, Tony Stark becomes a vital instrument to consider that, given his history and nature. But… there’s none of that. I’m describing a work that doesn’t exist. I’m constructing that which isn’t, because Aaron consistently seems to struggle to make anything meaningful with what he’s got.
VG: The devil isn’t the least of Aaron’s key focuses in this run, though – he spends arguably even more time doing commentary on DC Comics and the Justice League with his Squadron Supreme. The Squadron’s always been a pastiche/parody of DC Comics, and Aaron’s definitely using that for his own ends – he even got Ed McGuinness to redesign them all to look like Howard Porter’s JLA.
This is continuing into Heroes Reborn, which posits that in a universe where the Avengers never formed, we basically get… DC Comics. There’s no Captain America or Iron Man or Thor, there’s Hyperion and Nighthawk and Power Princess(?). Peter Parker isn’t Spider-Man, he’s a Jimmy Olsen Analogue. The Shi’ar Imperial Guard, who were created as riffs on the Legion of Superheroes, are still just a riff on the Legion of Superheroes. But the problem is, it feels like he doesn’t have very much to say about DC or Marvel here.
RB: The wildest thing to me, reading Aaron’s run, is that I am in no way shape or form interested in his takes on The Avengers. I don’t care for his take on Cap or Carol or Hulk, I have no investment or interest in his Black Panther or Blade. I am not chomping at the bit to see this team interact. I am unmoved and disinterested in all of the characterizations of these Avengers characters.
But! However! I read Aaron’s Squadron Supreme, and I am fascinated. In what I consider the single best issue of the run, Aaron basically revamps the Squadron and tells you their origin story, with them as The American Superhero Team, this militaristic strike force working for the government from Washington DC (lol). And it is…a hilarious piss-take on modern Justice League, specifically Geoff Johns’ New 52 Justice League, which was basically DC Ultimates.
The most telling moment is when a dude looks at Power Princess, the WW pastiche, and says ‘Make her like Thor, but with Boobs’, and it’s a genuinely hilarious, on-point bit. While I’m not sure Aaron has much to say on the Marvel characters, it DEFINITELY feels like he has thoughts on the state of modern Justice League comics, or at least how they could be used to make a point.
Aaron’s Avengers isn’t a character-first comic, it’s a big Action Blockbuster. It’s a Big Moments book, of Event Scale. As such, it works best in broad sweeping motions and grand gestures. And that’s effectively what The Squadron Supreme Of America is. It’s the biggest, widest gesturing possible, which is why it works, even if Aaron isn’t exactly making compelling characterization for any of those characters.
Partly what’s interesting to me here is, not that Aaron really explores this too much, the work trying to shift The Avengers away from the films, in a sense. The MCU Avengers are, even in the most generous interpretations, an American Imperialist Task Force, often in cahoots with the military.
And this is the run where The Avengers are no longer ‘The American Team’, that’s the government-operated SSA, in the iconography of DC heroes. The Avengers are now instead run by Black Panther, a Wakandan leader, whose country has recently moved towards a more democratic system, as opposed to its previous blunt monarchistic system. And that, the idea of moving The Avengers away from America, having a Wakandan man take charge of the whole operation, as leader, distancing itself from that context? That’s potentially interesting! Like, imagine that in the hands of a Black writer who isn’t American! I’d love to see that!
The frustrating thing is, in the end, Aaron rarely does anything worthwhile with any of this. The best angle, the most genuinely interesting angle of Aaron’s entire run, is the kind of geo-political situation, wherein every nation develops its own superhero team, with The Namor and The Defenders Of The Deep representing Atlantis, The Winter Guard representing Russia, so on and so forth. There’s a sense of international scope and possibility. There’s a global conflict and shift in power, as things are rapidly changing.
It’s glowing with possibility! This should be an incredible, momentous thing with weight! It could be an exciting, epic Avengers run. But it isn’t! Because it does absolutely nothing with this, dropping this angle for a good chunk of its run. For all its international setup, the limitations of its White American writer, its insular perspective, become immediately apparent. It’s a comic that has notions, but little else. It knows what it wants to gesture at, but it does little more than gesture, in the end.
VG: This is why I’ve got my eyes on Heroes Reborn. I don’t expect much from it, but it’s Aaron’s biggest opportunity to say something interesting. But what I feel like has been forgotten even amidst the mostly-forgotten Squadron stuff is the other super-teams that were created at the same time. Aaron created a Russian super-team called the Winter Guard, and an Atlantean one called the Defenders of the Deep. And they basically haven’t shown up in over a year. This was the point where I genuinely thought the run was going to be interesting, and I feel like it’s telling that they just haven’t been followed upon at all.
Even more noteworthy is Aaron’s replacement for the Secret Avengers – the Agents of Wakanda. It is honestly absurd that there is a superhero team whose special ops division is run through an African nation. Not even getting into the potential racial implications here, this is a kingdom that basically runs a team of superheroes. Why is this not a bigger deal in the text?
RB: Right? Like, that’s just it. It’s what I mean by notions and gesturing. It goes ‘What If’ and then never actually sits down and considers what it’s doing. It’s how you get that racist scene with the Vibranium Grill in the recent Phoenix arc, or the uhh ‘The Phoenix is actually The Thunderbird’ mess, alongside a whole host of other tasteless, awful things.
So much of Aaron’s run is frustrating because you can see how, in other, more considerate hands, it could maybe be something, without all the careless, poor choices and problems. It could say something, but it just never does, beyond offensive nonsense.
VG: The Thunderbird thing is something I want to touch on, because it’s both a pointless and unnecessary choice, and also an incredibly careless, bordering on offensive, one. The explanation is offered by the character of Echo, who, in Marvel, is Cheyenne. Jason Aaron, seeing that she was Native American, seems to have thought that would be a good way to connect the Thunderbird to the Phoenix, but missed that the Cheyenne themselves do not worship a Thunderbird. Native American tribes have vastly different belief systems and lumping them all together is somehow both completely expected and still surprisingly tone deaf.
Even beyond this one instance, there’s a whole arc where an Egyptian God takes over the planet using Moon Knight, and there’s absolutely no thought put into it beyond its aesthetic level. The entire run feels so centrally white in how it approaches all cultures that aren’t “standard American.” There’s so many places for Aaron to dig into some of the concepts he’s bringing in. There’s so many opportunities to justify and legitimize these half-baked ideas. But instead, he just moves onto the next big story climax.
Ultimately, I think the core problem with Avengers – the problem that prevents the entire run from succeeding, not just specific stories – is that Aaron is trying far too hard to make this book “central” to the Marvel Universe. He’s trying to convince us all that it’s important. But because of the nature of this shared universe, the fact that all these high-stakes conflicts keep happening in the book without any impact on the rest of the line, it’s hard to believe that any of this is important. This is best exemplified by Heroes Reborn, in which the only ongoing book that’s being affected is Avengers – the rest of the line is just continuing without notice.
It’s funny in a cynical way, then, that the DC counterpart to this run – the one from around the same time and with a similar ethos – fails in such a similar way. What’s more interesting though is how Snyder’s Justice League fails in ways unique to itself.
NEXT: TO THE HALL OF JUSTICE!
What’s Going On with Marvel’s Avengers Continuity?
A Hypothetical Case Study of How Not to Handle Continuity
Let’s say you’re writing a largely self-contained ongoing comic book title within a much larger shared universe. Let’s call your book… Sergeant USA! During most of your long-running story, Sarge’s lost his superhero identity and his place in the… Revengers. How do you mesh that with the universe’s continuity? Cleverly, at the start of your run you don’t allude to anything else going on in this comic universe, so that you can go on with your long-running story for as long as you like, and when you DO have to link back to the universe’s continuity you get to choose when all of it fits, start to finish. You can have your thirty-part, two-and-a-half years-running self-contained story while justifying Sarge’s absence from the Revengers in-between any two Revengers issues of your choosing, in retrospect. Damn you’re clever!
And then someone else comes along and messes with your simple but genius plan.
*Some spoilers for Sarge… Captain America and Avengers follow*
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