Monday

Considering Marvel's "New Avengers"

This month sees the debut of the Marvel Comics series The New Avengers, by Brian Michael Bendis and David Finch. In the wake of their “Avengers Disassembled” storyline, in which they put the kibosh on the original team – killing off a number of classic characters in the process – Bendis and Finch present an all-new line-up of heroes, led by Captain America, which includes Luke Cage, the original Spider-Woman, the king of “retcons” known as the Sentry, the ever-popular Spider-Man, and the ubiquitous Wolverine.

The move has been controversial, to say the least, especially the inclusion of Everyone’s Favorite Canadian Mutant, who, having just appeared in 11 different comics in November alone, is thought to be in imminent danger of over-exposure. Even so, as a character, Wolverine generally has a hard enough time being a member of the X-Men, in which he has a personal stake, so why he would care to associate with the Avengers is a question that will need to be addressed.

The real question in my mind, however, is whose idea was it, really? Despite any official line that might be put forward in interviews, press releases, and promotional materials, was this really a creative decision or was it a marketing decision? Marvel has been castigated by fans for its treatment of many characters and titles in recent years, and it is not clear to me how much of Marvel’s hare-brained decisions (like this one) are the fault of the writers and how much is editorial insistence. Did Bendis say, “I love Spidey and Wolverine so much, I’m going to put them in the Avengers, because that would be too cool,” or did the editor(s) tell him to stick Spidey and Wolvie in the Avengers to boost sales? The relationship between writers and editors is often tortuous, and how one influences the other to put out a creative work is rarely easy to understand.

I’ve been reading a lot of interviews lately of comics pros – old writers and editors, mostly – and this issue comes up again and again. It always has, from the early days. Roy Thomas wanted to make radical changes to The X-Men when he first took over, because the book was already faltering. He wanted to add some characters, shuffle things around, make the book a little more unpredictable. But Stan Lee wouldn’t let him. So Roy was a little resentful and that’s why much of his work on that title goes beyond uninspired to the truly lame. The opposite problem occurred years later with Wolverine, when John Byrne began playing him up as a homicidal maniac. Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter kept insisting that he and Chris Claremont had to show that Wolverine had no self-control, because if he did and he gutted somebody anyway, he’d have to be locked up. So Shooter kept telling them, “make Wolverine do something crazy!” And you’d get these bizarre little scenes that come out of nowhere and everybody is totally out of character. Byrne was so fed up with it, that he drew the bullying NSA agent Henry Peter Gyrich to look like Shooter with a buzzcut.

The main reason the original X-Men series was cancelled was poor sales. One of the reasons the comic had such poor sales was because the covers sucked. The main reason the covers sucked was because Stan Lee and Neal Adams had diametrically opposed ideas as to what made a good cover, and they argued about every cover Neal turned in. Stan won, because Stan always won, so Neal just did shitty “throwaway” covers. According to Roy, the few issues with non-Neal covers had noticeably better sales. For years, there was an unofficial injunction against using lots of green on covers, because Stan had made some offhand remark that he didn’t think a particular cover should be green, and this was interpreted as him saying “comic book covers should not be green!” Likewise, Iron Man’s faceplate had that funny-looking “nose” on it for several years, because somebody drew a cover where Iron Man’s face was too flat and Stan said, “Shouldn’t he have a nose?” – meaning shouldn’t Tony Stark have a nose under his faceplate – but the artist misinterpreted it and drew a triangular “nose” on his helmet. So in many ways, Stan, during the time he was editor-in-chief and no longer the main (or only) writer, was too powerful, and had a stifling effect on the creativity of those who worked for him.

After Roy Thomas took over as editor-in-chief, things changed, but they didn’t necessarily improve. There was still that tension between creative decisions and marketing decisions – but Roy didn’t want to impose his will on others, so sometimes things would get out of hand. A good example is Wolverine’s creation story, which is a mess, because so many people had a hand in it over several years. Dave Cockrum insists he was there first, having designed a character which he called “Wolverine” that he showed to Roy Thomas as part of a portfolio of character designs that went nowhere. A couple years later, when the decision was made to reinvent the X-Men, Roy says he felt bad that they sold so many comics in Canada, but had no real Canadian characters. So he suggested to Len Wein that they create a character called “Wolverine” since wolverines are known in both Canada and the northern United States (especially Michigan, apparently). Len devised a feisty little character, which they would “test drive” in an issue of Hulk. John Romita, as art director, designed the costume. Len wrote Wolverine as a teen-ager whose claws were housed in his gloves and his only powers were heightened “animal” senses. After Claremont took over, he decided to make Wolverine older and more mysterious, and also named him “Logan.” But Cockrum didn’t like Wolverine and kept him in the background. He did, however, show that the claws come out of his hands, not his gloves, because they felt that anybody who stole his gloves would then be Wolverine and that was pretty lame. Of course, Byrne loved Wolverine – since they were both Canadians, I guess – and gave him the healing factor and the adamantium skeleton. He also decided he should be like sixty years old, but his healing factor keeps him young. However, Byrne’s idea for Wolvie’s origin was that the healing factor didn’t work on his bones, and he was in a terrible auto accident right after WWII. His body appeared to heal right up, but when he stood up, his weight shattered his leg bones. So he became a recluse in a wheelchair and body brace living off by himself in the woods. Then he was found by James MacDonald (later James MacDonald Hudson), who said, basically, “we can rebuild you – we have the technology” and replaced each bone in his body with an adamantium casting (except for his skull and spinal column, which were just coated with the stuff). So the combination of having had Sabretooth for a father and spending decades alone all crippled up accounted for his attitude problem. Well, Claremont didn’t really like that idea, especially since Byrne could never adequately explain how, if his bones were solid adamantium, he could replenish his blood. So he made the healing factor work on bones as well as tissue, and described the adamantium as merely fused to his skeleton, and then cooked up his whole secret agent background. Claremont has said he never really got his own hold on Wolverine’s character until he and Frank Miller hashed out the samurai-themed plot for the Wolverine mini-series circa 1982. Then, Wolvie’s inner struggle to overcome his berserker rages satisfied Shooter, and he got off Claremont’s back about it, and the character really started to take off at that point. So, anyway, everybody involved had his own ideas about who this character was, and instead of ever sitting down and figuring it all out, they just kind of did their own thing and tried to get away with whatever they could. This actually set a precedent – a bad precedent, we might argue – so that by the time Cable was invented, even Rob Liefeld had no idea who he was or what they were going to do with him, and everybody was just making it up as they went along with no goal, destination, or even character arc in mind.

The comics industry has always been schizophrenic about whether comics are an art or a business, and of course it’s both – you just have to strike the right balance. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was tilted too much to the “business” end, which is why you had so much mediocre crap put out on strict schedules, and had to suffer through Sal Buscema drawing the same sequences over and over with slightly different characters inserted, or big “event” comics drawn by Al Milgrom, one of the worst pencilers ever to get steady work. I would say that now, it may be tilted too much in the other direction, where the “hot” artists and writers are given free rein to do the characters however they want, with no real regard for what’s come before or for what might come next. But all these various permutations of the characters being published simultaneously doesn’t make comics more accessible to new readers, but less – because they have no idea where to start wading into this bewildering morass of over-stimulation. So it actually hurts the business and drives it further into the arms of the speculative collector’s market, which is the death of comics. There must be balance, so that writers and artists can be creative and inject new life into old books without alienating the core audience.

But the problem may be that the editors, publishers, and bean-counters say, hey, the “right way” of doing Iron Man, for example, isn’t selling, so it must therefore be the “wrong way.” Let’s make Tony Stark nineteen years old so the audience can relate to him, or let’s make him hit bottom and embarrass everybody by showing up drunk at the United Nations or whatever. And the writer may be saying, “why don’t you just shoot me in the head instead” but because he’s being paid to write Iron Man, he goes along with it. Maybe that makes him a sell-out, and he should say, “if Iron Man is not selling, I take full responsibility and I resign, because I did what I thought was best, and I can’t cheapen myself by pandering to the chimerical whims of the fanboys.” But maybe being paid to write Iron Man is just too cool, and he can’t walk away. In the case of Brian Bendis, I don’t know, but I am prepared to believe the worst, because he falls on my Cleveland Animosity Scale somewhere between Michael Sangiacomo and Tom Batiuk. I remember the so-called cartoon strips he did for the Plain Dealer, and he will never redeem himself in my eyes. So, he may very well have sold Marvel on the idea that the Vision, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, Yellowjacket, and the Wasp are all lame-o characters who should have been dumped years ago and that a Captain America – Spider-Man – Wolverine team will blow all other comics out of the water, because Brian Michael Bendis is GOD and Stan Lee is and always was a no-talent hack and an obnoxious, loud-mouthed, egomaniacal imbecile. To which I would maturely respond, “takes one to know one.”

However, I’d be willing to bet that, within a year or so, the original team of Avengers will be back – again – for yet another re-boot and everybody will be even more confused than ever before. And we know they will, because they’ll want the Avengers comic to be cross-marketable with the upcoming Avengers cartoon series and toy line. Then we may just have Avengers and New Avengers and The Ultimates and Avengers Adventures and the Marvel Age: Avengers manga and whatever else they can flood the market with, because they’re desperate. And their desperation saddens me to no end, because they used to be so great. But that was a long time ago.

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