Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dearly Departed: Vengeance

Dearly Departed is a semi-regular column where I look back on recently completed or canceled series.  

The covers for the six issues of Vengeance each sport an incredible image of one of the most significant villains in Marvel history: Magneto, Bullseye, Doctor Octopus, Loki, Red Skull, and Dr. Doom. And that is pretty much where the similarities between this series and other modern superhero comics end, because Vengeance is about parts of the Marvel Universe (and parts of the whole comicbook hero-villain dichotomy) that you rarely ever see. It's primarily a story about a team of "good guys" (The Teen Brigade) protecting various old school "bad guys" from a new team of younger "bad guys" (The Young Masters). But even that oversimplifies the plot, because what The Teen Brigade is really protecting is the balance of order and chaos needed to keep the universe intact. Their goals are much loftier than those of your average superhero. The Teen Brigade isn't out to merely thwart the plans of the newest baddies in town or even to act as a symbol of hope and justice for the common man. What they do is more nuanced, and ultimately higher-stakes: working behind the scenes to keep the whole machine operating, helping to prevent evil and disaster and the end of all things without ever asking for or even desiring recognition. And this attitude is a big part of what makes Vengeance so gripping from the start. Even the opening page of the opening issue immediately expresses the belief that people like The Teen Brigade are a necessity, because the world is too damaged and unthinkable to be saved by the ideals or heroes of times past. The biggest, ugliest evils lie in the shadows, and they can only be defeated by opponents who operate just as comfortably there.
   While this behind-the-scenes-superheroes idea is definitely one of the most interesting aspects of the title early on, the glue that holds it together throughout isn't any one concept, character, or theme. It is the magnificent storytelling from writer Joe Casey and artist Nick Dragotta. In a story which argues that chaos and order need each other, Casey and Dragotta manage to prove that point by so deftly balancing those two forces within the comic itself. There are panels or even whole pages offered to us that are meant to be confusing or seemingly random at first, but each and every one of them leads us to a big payoff down the line, often in the form of a major plot development (e.g. Tiboro's one-panel appearance in the final moments of #1, only to have him properly introduced and explained in #5...but in such a spectacular way!) For the first two issues, you might legitimately believe you were reading three distinct and separate stories: one about The Teen Brigade finding a new and mysterious recruit, one about The Young Masters forming, and a third about Kyle Richmond and his Defenders trying to track down whoever is leaking top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. information. Then you dig into #3, and the connections between those stories fall into place so naturally and quickly that the entire last half of the series gets to just steadily ramp up the madness and importance of the plot, adding new complications and revelations at each turn.
     In the hands of lesser creators, a narrative so layered and constantly evolving would most likely be fumbled. Key pieces of the puzzle would be poorly explained or left out, the aforementioned confusing scenes would never have their necessary resolutions, etc. But Dragotta can make a four-person psychic trip look as stunning, natural, and comprehensible as a massive demonic invasion of Latveria or a crowded nightclub scene or just Red Skull standing in the snow. He is a perfect artist for this book, because it relies on heavy detail, intense action, moments of great disorientation, and heavy emotion. Dragotta delivers reliably on all fronts for all six issues. He also finds an excellent partner in colorist Brad Simpson, who highlights all the right aspects of Dragotta's pages and maintains the clarity in even the most psychedelic scenes. And it seems to me that the overall effect of The In-Betweener---his distinct role as a character who has his own unique knowledge, perspective, and therefore side in the conflict---is due as much to his stark black-and-white coloring as any of his actions or dialogue
     The true creative force of nature behind this incredible title, however, is Joe Casey. My understanding is that a large number of the cast and concepts central to Vengeance had been used in Casey's previous work for Marvel, of which I have admittedly read very little. But my lack of familiarity with what came before  didn't seem to make Vengeance any less full or enjoyable an experience. I suppose I don't really know how much would be added if I did read all of Casey's earlier Marvel material, but Vengeance does such a fantastic job of introducing and developing all of its characters, themes, and big ideas that it could almost be read without even that much preexisting comicbook knowledge. Certainly the big-name villains who show up each issue are best appreciated if you're up on your Marvel U history, but the major themes of the book are universal, and the most important characters are instantly clear, relatable, and consistent, even if most of them have extreme personalities. Casey handles his massive cast with remarkable skill. It's not just the unique voices of each character, but their carefully individualized viewpoints, motives, and moods as well. Even though each team works together, it is rare that you find two members of the same team who are there for quite the same reasons. Or who even have the same opinions about how to handle whatever situation they're in. It makes the combat a little looser, the adventure a little bit more free-form, and the whole story much more compelling to have so many shades of good and evil constantly bumping up against one another (in some cases literally) for so many different reasons.
     Take Ultimate Nullifier's (leader of The Teen Brigade) one night stand with Black Knight (half-hearted member of The Young Masters) after their initial conflict. Both of them know he's there to get information as much or more than sex, but Black Knight never resists or even tries to play him for her own gains. Instead, she volunteers more information than he wants or needs, of a kind he wasn't seeking. She lets him in on an old and horrible government secret, in an attempt to prove to him not just the futility of his own actions, but also the actions and goals of the entireties of both their teams. Of course, in what has by that point become his typical quick-witted, laid-back, devil-may-care fashion, Ultimate Nullifier responds with a partially sarcastic nod to one of the book's major themes: Of course the world has powerful, hideous, unknown evils. That's why it needs equally powerful, sexy, unknown agents of good.
     So much of what we thinks of as part of the make-up of a typical superhero character is his or her reputation. Not just how well-known they are in our world outside of the comic community, but public opinion within their own stories. Sometimes the people of Gotham see Batman as their champion, sometimes as a dangerous maniac. Ditto the X-men. Spider-Man's relationship with the media has always been a contentious issue. Even in Grant Morrison's recent re-imagining of Superman in Action Comics, a running thread has been Metropolis' reaction to their new alien citizen. And let's face it...they almost all wear masks or disguises. They use code names. These people are worried about how the world sees them.
     Vengeance offers a new model for the superhero and therefore, arguably, for the superhero comicbook. These are heroes who actively avoid being recognized for their work, even by their allies. At the end of the series, as The Defenders stand around in the post-battle afterglow, The Teen Brigade jets off as quickly and quietly as they can, because they all agree, sticking around would have been pointless. That world-saving mission is accomplished, on to the next one.
     I wish so much that the adventures of these characters didn't end there, but I doubt if we'll get to see any further exploits of Casey's Teen Brigade anytime soon. Their reasons for being, their modus operandi, and the scale at which they operate are all outside of the mold of standard superhero stories. So we will have to live with just these six issues, I suppose, for the foreseeable future. Of course, I say "just these six," but the fact is there is a wealth of enjoyable material contained within them. Because it's not just a great story, it's an exemplary use of both the genre and the medium in which it tells its tale.

Vengeance was published by Marvel Comics and is dated September 2011-February 2012.

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