Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Dollar Bin Reviews: West Coast Avengers #2

 The West Coast Avengers #2, titled “Sons,” wasn’t picked up from a dollar bin, though I’ve certainly seen it there. I bought it, no doubt, at Waldenbooks at the Eastgate Mall in southwestern Ohio, when I was six and visiting the mall with my mother and my brother. That’s where I got all of my comics in that period of time, and I chose them for the covers. This one features the floating heads of the WCA and their associates -- Tigra, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Vision -- looking on with varying degrees of rage and concern as the Grim Reaper and his allies (including a totally chilled Goliath) fire some Kirby-crackle-rays at Wonder Man and a purple-suited Hank Pym.

WCA #2 is a domestic read. It opens with three of the Avengers -- Hawkeye, Iron Man, and Tigra, all in-costume, visiting Scarlet Witch and the Vision at their hotel room in New Jersey, complete with a civilian at the ice box in the background. Its story falls between The Vision and the Scarlet Witch, vol. 2, #s 1 & 2, also written by WCA’s Steve Englehart. I never read that series until quite recently, so the deeper machinations and plot points were always a mystery to me. Reading it now as part of that sequence, I’m struck by how good and fun this issue is, while the Visions that surrounded it are kind of a plot-slog. Let’s figure out why!

In the first few pages, we get a lot of backstory and a lot of thought-bubble-turmoil. One page lays out Tigra’s lack of confidence (partially due to Hawkeye’s repeated attempts to keep her on monitor duty) as well as the intricacies of intra-Avengers feuds (the Wasp, who leads the East Coast branch, would be upset to find the West Coast team on an unsanctioned mission in New Jersey). The next page, in seven panels, lays out the origin of kidnapped Avenger Wonder Man and what you might have missed from Vision and the Scarlet Witch #1.

Tigra: she's real mad.

After that, we’re off to the villains. Led by the Grim Reaper, also known as Wonder Man’s brother Eric Williams, this super villain team-up includes Ultron XII  out for revenge against his creator, Hank Pym, as well as his own creation, the Vision), Goliath II (whose powers are ion-based like Wonder Man’s -- in a previous issue Goliath reveals he no longer has blood!), Man-Ape (an African named M’Baku who we later learn is working with these criminals because he’s been cast out of his home country by the Black Panther), Nekra (an albino whose strength and invulnerability are more powerful depending on how much she hates … anything, apparently), and Black Talon (a New Orleans-based Vodouisant). Their plan is to capture Wonder Man (check) and the Vision (next on the list) in order to copy their brain waves and memories, filter out all of the super hero parts, and transfer them into the body of a brainless zombie who physically resembles Simon Williams -- Wonder Man, before he was transformed into a superhero.


When we rejoin the Avengers, they’re retracing Wonder Man’s life as a means of tracking down Grim Reaper’s hidden base. Which seems awfully hopeful on their part, but it gives us the opportunity for more flashbacks and backstory. Their first stop is the abandoned manufacturing facility where Simon Williams got his star. Iron Man, the only current Avenger who was on the team when they first met Wonder Man, who was, at the time a villain-in-disguise.

Think about Tony's sweaty upper lip.
 At the last minute, Wonder Man switched sides again, sacrificed himself to save the Avengers, and seemingly died. Again, this is a two-page retelling of a Lee/Kirby-era Avengers story from decades previous, and its retelling is one of the defining aspects of Shooter-era Marvel: past stories are the foundation of the present. This story, the one being told in WCA #2, is a direct sequel not just to Wonder Man’s first appearance, but to the first appearance of the Vision, to Hank Pym’s rise and fall, and to the recent grab for world domination by the Vision, mind-controlled by ISAAC, an artificial intelligence from the Saturnine moon of Titan.

This pool is deep, man. You don’t have to understand all of the backstory to fully enjoy the 22 issues of story and art, but the more you can hold onto and keep up with, the more fun it all seems, and the more it feels like a lived-in world with history and connections and continuity that count.

From the manufacturing plant, the Avengers move on to the home of Simon and Eric’s elderly mother. She misses Simon, and she recognizes her other son’s criminal influence on him. But the real point of this scene is to allow the Vision -- who, in his long-ago backstory, was built with the brainwaves of the then-deceased Wonder Man -- a chance to connect with a very human mother. This is part of a longer story about the Vision’s growing humanity, and his repeated statement that though his body is synthetic, it houses a real, human mind. A twin to Simon’s mind, and one with Simon’s memories and emotions. Mrs. Williams embraces the Vision, telling him that she’s gained a third son, as well as a daughter -- the Vision’s wife, the Scarlet Witch, who herself grew up unaware of her birth parents (the X-Men villain Magneto and a gypsy named Magda), and was torn from her first adoptive parents, the World War II-era heroes the Whizzer and Miss America. Lost and shattered families -- or at least the children of those families -- find new hope.

Proof Aunt May could probably handle the shock that her nephew is Spider-Man.
Elsewhere, the Grim Reaper’s family of convenience starts to fall apart. My favorite panel of the entire issue is on page 15, where the Grim Reaper and Nekra recline on a pile of pillows (with the Reaper’s hand-scythe given its own comfy place to recline, while a mysterious spiked shackle lays nearby, unused), talking about all of the things they hate.

Who brought the pillows?

It’s unclear in this issue, but Nekra’s super powers are directly related to the hate she feels, so her attraction to the Grim Reaper seems at least partially based on his own feelings of hate and his desire for vengeance against the “walking insults” to his memory of his brother that are Wonder Man and the Vision. She smiles as she goads him into talking more and more about what his brother has become, but they’re interrupted by another source of the Grim Reaper’s hate -- black people.

He says it outright to M’Baku -- “You black savage! I do the thinking in this group!” -- and on the next page addresses him as “Man-Ape,” which is technically M’Baku’s super villain persona, but could also be a racist epithet hurled by the Reaper. At first, M’Baku tries to reason with his boss. “Now wait--!” he begins, which the Reaper takes as yet another insult to him and his position as the leader of this unnamed crew.

"Dude, don't be such a--" "SILENCE!"
M’Baku storms out, vowing not to work with someone so insanely (“You’re a madman, Reaper!”) racist, even as Nekra points out to the Grim Reaper that she is black herself.

But the Reaper only cares for what is on the surface. Just as his plan for vengeance against Wonder Man wants to place his actual brother’s brainwaves into the body of a zombie made to resemble his brother as he remembers him (which took only minor plastic surgery, as the Reaper reveals in a later issue), what matters most to the Reaper is his own perception of reality, and everyone else’s willingness to indulge him in that perception.

It’s actually fascinating. A lot of super villains are referred to as madmen, insane criminals, and mad scientists. But the Grim Reaper seems to have a genuinely tenuous (thought strict, in its own way) grip on reality. When that starts to come crashing down (which it does -- spoiler alert! -- in The Vision and the Scarlet Witch #2, which concludes this adventure), he quickly abandons his entire plan of revenge and brain-swapping and disappears down a mysterious crevasse. Where this hideout of the Reaper’s is actually located remains mysterious to me. We see that it has (possibly marble) columns and pillars and hanging plants, as well as a high-tech lab for the Black Talon to work in (he’s just as much a scientist as a magician, as are most sorcerous Marvel characters), but in the next part of this adventure, we see that it’s also surrounded by caves and dark tunnels where the bodies of certain fallen villains cannot be found, even by synthozoid eyes.

After seeing this beginning of the villains’ end, we spend a few pages with their prisoners: Wonder Man and Hank Pym. Pym himself is gloriously unstable and inconsistent over his comic book career. He started as a costume-less scientist in 1962’s Tales to Astonish #27, accidentally shrinking himself to ant-size, battling his way back to his lab (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-style, though that film was released 27 years later), where he pours his growth serum down the drain. He returned with a reconstituted serum, and his Ant-Man costume, in Tales to Astonish #35, and was later a founding member of the Avengers. He had a number of costumed identities over the next several years, some small (Yellowjacket) and some large (Giant-Man, the first Goliath). He beat his wife (current East Coast chairwoman the Wasp), went insane (possibly not in that order), went on trial and was drummed out of the Avengers. He returned in the West Coast title, first as a guy in a suit, later as a guy in a jumpsuit, and later still in a constant cycling and recycling of his old costumes.

But here, he plays the aggressive, tough-love foil for his fellow prisoner. Wonder Man recounts yet another page of backstory, this time detailing what happened after he returned to life: he was a pawn in another villainous scheme, he joined the Avengers properly, he fought with his brother, the Grim Reaper. But through it all -- and up til now -- he remained in constant fear of “the darkness -- the terrible, terrible darkness” of death, something he had firsthand experience with.

Visual echo -- echo -- echo --!
This is something you see surprisingly little of in a genre that kills and resurrects so many characters. Wonder Man’s lingering fear of a death he remembers, as opposed to the existential angst most of us feel, reminds me Buffy, the Vampire Slayer’s sixth season, when Buffy is resurrected by her friends, torn back to Earth from a heavenly afterlife, spends a lot of episodes (really, a lot of time!) depressed, fighting a floating ennui, and dealing with what it means to be brought back from the dead.

There’s practically an entire genre of fiction about the resurrected dead these days (The Returned and Resurrection on TV and Revival in comics, not to mention the glut of zombie fiction currently shambling through every possible medium), but by 1985 Marvel Comics had brought back dozens of its own dead characters, and was on the verge of bringing back … well, basically all of them. Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben is, as of this writing, still dead, but that’s the only one I can think of off hand. But there’s not a lot of time spent on what it means to have been deceased and returned to life. Technically, Wonder Man was brought back from an intense, death-like coma (this time, at least -- he later died, and was resurrected, as an ionic energy being), but his perception is that he was dead, lost in the terrible darkness.

Those Williams brothers and their perceptions of reality, right?

The issue ends with the West Coast Avengers boarding their quinjet and being attacked by Ultron. There’s nothing much going on in this scene, except for excellently weird and hilarious instances of Iron Man’s mask, supposedly immovable, subtly shifting to evoke his emotions.

Awkward Iron Man / Hmmmm / Kool-Aid Man
It also feels like the quinjet’s interior shrinks and embiggens depending on the nature and angle of the panel, but obviously we can award ourselves a No-Prize by pointing out the simple explanation: Pym Particles!

I re-read this particular issue because I finally completed runs of the early West Coast Avengers (up through #47, when it became Avengers West Coast) and The Vision and the Scarlet Witch 12-issue series. But this story holds up much better than any of the issues around it, because it’s a slow, eccentric beat in a larger action-driven plot where the Avengers are putting together the pieces of a plan that’s taken form around them. In Vision #2, Man-Ape and Black Talon abandon the Grim Reaper because of the racist outburst directed at M’Baku in this issue, when they could have turned the tide in their boss’s favor. The Avengers never know why the Reaper’s allies leave the battle, but the reader does. This issue is a subdued story that lacks battles and fisticuffs (except for those that happen in flashback), but it’s more interesting and revealing than either of the issues that bookend it.

West Coast Avengers Vol. 2 #2 is written by Steve Englehart with pencilling breakdowns by Al Milgrom, finishes by Kim DeMulder, colors by Petra Scotese, and letters by Tom Orzechowski. It is edited by Mark Gruenwald with editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. Published by Marvel Comics and dated November 1985. It can be found in dollar bins around the country, or in the collections...

The Avengers: West Coast Avengers - Family Ties

The Avengers: West Coast Avengers Omnibus, Volume 1

and The Avengers: Vision and the Scarlet Witch - A Year in the Life