Sunday, July 7, 2013

Dearly Departed: Dark Avengers

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

I have't read that much Thunderbolts material. I love the concept of a series about vilains acting as heroes, so it's all on my list, and has been for a while. But I didn't actually start following the series until Jeff Parker had already been writing it for a while. So when the name of the book changed to Dark Avengers with issue #175 last year, I wasn't as bothered by it as some others seemed to be. I mean, I saw it for the weird, cheap attempt at boosting sales that it was, and I questioned the logic of bringing in a new team when the current roster was so awesome in Parker's hands, but I didn't have too much connection to the title itself. It is annoying that Marvel reused it for a brand new book with a totally unrelated team and concept just a few months later, especially since Dark Avengers only ran for about a year (sixteen issues, published slightly more frequently than once a month). But Parker made a lot of smart decisions when the time came to make the transition, so that the weird volume of Dark Avengers that now exists only as issues #175-190 is accessible to newcomers while still acting as a well-told finale to the larger Thunderbolts epic he was in the middle of telling when the title changed.
     For one thing, he largely ignores that time travel tale in his first Dark Avengers issue in favor of focusing on Luke Cage as he's forced to lead the members of the new titular team. Then in the second installment, Parker switches back to the Thunderbolts who are lost in time, which might arguably be confusing for someone who only jumped on one issue prior and was expecting the next beat in the storyline set up there, but for those readers, there is issue #177. In that third chapter, Parker jumps back and forth between the two teams and time periods, demonstrating what his strategy will be moving forward from that point: even as he develops the plot and characters of the Dark Avengers, he will simultaneously continue to tell his Thunderbolts narrative until, ultimately and somewhat brilliantly, those two stories collide and become one and the same. I suppose three issues could be called too long to finalize a mission statement for a new series, but "new" is a relative term, and in this case, it doesn't really apply. Parker had the unenviable task of establishing the book as something fresh while at the same time maintaining some semblance of what it used to be for the readers who were already fans. So if he took a bit of time to pull that off, I think that's more than forgivable and, in fact, even a bit impressive.
     There's also a tremendous amount of built-in history when it comes to Luke Cage and the Dark Avengers anyway, the details of which I don't really know. Parker glosses over it so he can get to the meat and potatoes of the new story, but the long and short is that they've worked together before, and don't care for one another. It establishes a powerful mistrust between Cage and the team he is meant to be leading, and gives him a reason to bring in Skaar, son of Hulk, another character with an antagonistic relationship with the Dark Avengers since he used to be one but then betrayed them, leading to their incarceration. All of this past hatred is laid out in the opening issue, so that Parker can move on to the mission at hand without dwelling in the convoluted history of the Marvel Universe. And it gives him space to spend the next issue with the Thunderbolts, and subsequent issues with both groups, delivering a fast-paced and high-octane adventure to save the world that reaches across time and allows villains to be heroes.
     The overarching storyline that ties together the first nine of these sixteen issues centers around the Dark Avengers being sent by the same government agency that was in charge of the Thunderbolts program (F.A.C.T.) to the newly-created nation of Sharzhad. Cage and Skaar are told that the mission is to retrieve a kidnapped operative named Wender, but in actuality Wender hasn't been captured, he escaped. He is a tool of the government, he and his twin brother, and the real goal is to use their energy-transference powers to sap Sharzhad and its wicked leader, Sultan Magus, of all power. Not a rescue operation, then, but an invasion/infiltration gig, and only the Dark Avengers know the truth of what their goals are. As with so many illicit government activities, things go awry, and so we see the Thunderbolts, stuck in a dystopian future, learn that the Dark Avengers will create a global catastrophe with their actions. This is how Parker bonds his disconnected threads.
     It's also an excuse to make the Thunderbolts the bona fide heroes of this story, not a role they have necessarily played up to now. As criminals and career supervillains, they're more morally ambiguous in most of what they do, but for this particular arc, their agenda is unquestionably heroic. They are going to go back in time and prevent the Sharzhad cataclysm, putting their own lives very much at risk for the sake of the world at large.
     And they do it, too. Showing up with mere minutes to spare, the Thunderbolts shut down the Sharzhad situation, though they accomplish that by stabbing Wender through the chest with Skaar's giant sword so, even as heroes, they're not the friendliest or noblest bunch. It's a delicious finale, bombastic and sometimes ridiculous, full of Parker's signature humor, and a fitting send-off for the Thunderbolts team. They return to their own time, get to literally prevent an apocalypse, and then disperse. After all, they're still technically criminals, as ridiculous as that seems in light of what they've done. So rather than stick around to take credit for the world-saving, they run off into uncertain but exciting futures. Not dissimilar from the final beat that the Dark Avengers also get, but that comes later on, and I will get to it in a minute.
     Obviously the above is a brief and over-simplified summary of Dark Avengers' opening arc. There is an amazing amount of other shit that goes down: the Thunderbolts battle Dr. Doom in prehistoric and then modern times; Sultan Magus turns Skaar back into his human form and nearly kills him; Songbird and Mach V (the only Thunderbolts who aren't lost in time) spy on F.A.C.T. and discover what they're up to; Hank Pym makes contact with the Thunderbolts trapped in the future through some classic comicbook super-science; there's a whole fucked up world in that future run by clones of superheroes who battle against gangs of hideous, downtrodden mutants; and probably innumerable other bits and pieces I'm forgetting. Point being, Parker crams it all in without the narrative feeling overcrowded, and still finds a way to bring it all together and make it one cohesive whole. The level of effort and creativity he devotes to the book helps sell the reader on the Dark Avengers characters without giving them the full spotlight right away, and provides the outgoing Thunderbolts with an appropriately epic final escapade. It's exactly what Parker needed to do to make the switch from Thunderbolts to Dark Avengers, welcoming newcomers while respecting the established readership, and just generally writing some damn fine and funny comics to boot.
     Once he has properly laid the old title and its cast to rest, Parker writes his only full-fledged Dark Avengers story arc with the remaining seven issues. Sadly, it is less wonderful, though still a good deal of fun. But because the book and cast are still pretty fresh, and this story takes place in an alternate reality, there is a lack of stakes that prevent this narrative from reaching greatness. To Parker's credit, he writes the story like it doesn't matter (but not like he doesn't care, which is an important distinction), keeping it light and action-packed. He revels in the freedom and some of the cliches of having an elseworlds setting, and I happen to be a bit of a sucker for that type of story, so in the end I still think of the latter half of Dark Avengers as successful and good. That it doesn't stack up against the storyline that preceded it is more praise for those issues than condemnation for these.
     As part of the resolution to the Sharzhad incident, the Dark Avengers get teleported away by Man-Thing (a Thunderbolt) when the Quinjet that is supposed to take them back to prison swerves off course and is about to crash. Moonstone (also a Thunderbolt) gets caught in the teleportation when she tries to intercept the vessel in mid-air. The Quinjet crashes in a twisted version of modern Marvel New York, where the city has been sectioned off into districts controlled by warped and overpowered version of popular superheroes. A very dark and power-hungry Dr. Strange, the largest and angriest Thing ever seen, Spider-Man with permanent webs and monster teeth, and hyper-fascist Iron Man, who is literally just Tony Stark’s brain in a floating orb inside a suit of robot armor. These are the rulers of this world, long at war with one another but currently in the middle of a yearlong ceasefire that began when Hulk and Thor killed each other. It’s bleak, y’all.
     The Dark Avengers get scattered a bit, and end up fighting for different sides of the ongoing war, though in truth all any of them want is to return to their reality. Which, of course, they do, after uncovering that the world they're in is really just an A.I.M. experiment, a "sliver reality" created for the purpose of stealing whatever technology or superpowers or what have you were developed as a result of the endless conflict. A.I.M.'s access point also becomes the Dark Avengers' escape route, and the sliver is folded back into the "real"world as if it never existed at all. And therein lies one of the largest problems with this story: its ending is utterly predictable. That the alternate reality will not last for very long is a given from the beginning. Parker fills the issues with some thrilling action, zany super-science, and solid humor, but none of that does much to distract from the fact that the story is destined to largely undo itself in the end.
     Parker is smart and considerate enough to have some of what happens in the sliver universe effect his real-world characters permanently. And when the series finally ends with issue #190, the Dark Avengers are still together, still on the loose, and have a wide open future ahead of them. So despite the somewhat obvious resolution to the alternate reality story specifically, Parker swerves expectations to a degree by leaving the book very open-ended as a whole. Between that, his exaggerated and terrifying versions of well-known characters, and the consistency of Parker's signature humor and fun-loving narrative tone, the final seven chapter of this series manage to be highly entertaining. They're not as enthralling or sprawling as the arc they follow, but taken on their own, they're still better than most current cape comics.
     Before I close, I'd be remiss as all get out if I didn't actually discuss the Dark Avengers as separate characters. Though they work toward common goals together consistently in this book, and are therefore easy to discuss as a group (as I've done thus far), the specific roles they play in the stories vary, so they're worth examining as individuals. They are Trickshot, Ragnarok, Toxie Doxie, and Al Apaic, villainous knock-off versions of Hawkeye, Thor, Scarlet Witch, and Spider-Man respectively. Also joining them in this book is U.S. Agent, the man who once filled in for Captain America. Though all of these characters were established well before they joined this book, I personally had no experience with them ahead of time (except a few issues of West Coast Avengers that had U.S. Agent in them), so my impressions are based entirely on Parker's interpretations and developments.
     Trickshot's easily the least interesting member of the team, because he ends up being a bit one-note. His whole life seems to revolve around trying to outdo his brother, the real Hawkeye, but he's not nearly as cool or as talented. So he comes across as this very lame, weak, pathetic dude, trapping himself in the shadow of a sibling who isn't at all concerned about him. He does have some good laugh lines, though, since he refuses to take anything seriously, but his few humorous moments don't make up for an obnoxious personality.
     On the opposite end of the spectrum is Toxie Doxie, who Parker wisely chooses to refer to by her real name, June Covington, most of the time. June is intelligent, meticulous, and always thinking ahead, and it makes her more complex and compelling than anyone else on the team. Also, her powers seem to be limitless. Because she gets her abilities through genetic modification, and is herself a brilliant geneticist, she is able to upgrade her powerset more than once over the course of this series. And as the smartest and most powerful Dark Avenger, she becomes the de facto leader, helped considerably by her mind control powers. I would very much like to see what the team turns into under her guidance, which is essentially where Parker leaves them at the end of his run. Technically U.S. Agent is in charge, but the implication is that June has control of his brain, so she's really the one steering. That's a tense and possibly volatile dynamic, and it's a shame Parker didn't get to anything with it beyond the initial set-up.
     U.S. Agent himself is not that impressive in this series, a fairly standard, Boy Scouty do-gooder. He's arguably the moral center of the group, but since nobody really listens to him, that's not really true. Ragnarok is in a similar place, doing little of merit and leaving only the faintest impression. He even expresses feeling a lack of personal identity toward the end of the book, something Parker tries to remedy by giving him the hammer of the deceased Thor from the sliver world. Ragnarok is a cyborg clone of the real Thor, so he has some legitimate Asgardian physiology that the alternate Mjolnir recognizes, changing his appearance and boosting his powers exponentially. The long-term effects of this are never seen, though, since the shift comes only one issue before the book closes. So Parker does a lot for Ragnarok's potential, but doesn't get to actually see it fulfilled.
     Finally, there's Al Apaic (whose name gets spelled in a lot of different ways depending on who's talking in which issue, so...I'm just going with the one from the recaps on the title pages). He claims to be a god, and it's probably true, but like I said, I don't really know the details of any of these people's histories, and Parker doesn't waste time relating them all to me. Whatever the case, Apaic is quite powerful, able to kill Dr. Strange with a poisonous bite. He's also almost as smart and fast-thinking as June, making him the second most interesting Dark Avenger. Sadly, he's kind of repetitive in his dialogue, much like Trickshot, incessantly reminding everyone he is a deity and demanding respect that he'll never get. Not as sad as Trickshot wanting to one-up his estranged brother, but still a futile and annoying personal goal.
     They're an eclectic bunch, and they bring a lot of different combat strategies to the table, which keeps the action in Dark Avengers dynamic and visually pleasing and surprising. And they are all basically assholes, except for U.S. Agent, who's a good guy but so damn dead serious all of the time that he sort of comes across as an ass anyway. But the point is, having a team of selfish, immature villains be the star of your book is not the easiest thing to do without being grating, but Parker finds inventive ways to swing it. Sticking them in a world that's not their own, where the people who should be heroes are instead far more evil than any of the Dark Avengers themselves, allows the reader to root for them even if we don't care for them that much. A fine line to walk, but Parker never stumbles. And though the series is far superior when the Thunderbolts are still in it, it keeps up its breakneck pacing and comedic sensibilities throughout, so it's always a decent read even when it's not firing on all cylinders.
     Do I miss it now that it's gone? Not tremendously, but I certainly would've stuck with it if it hadn't been canceled. And should the Dark Avengers ever get another shot at a series of their own, I'm bound to give it a try no matter who the creators are, because Parker---and some really great artists like Declan Shalvey, Kev Walker, and Neil Edwards whom I've criminally neglected in this post---made them strange and fascinating enough for me to want more. I'd like to know if June maintains her sway over U.S. Agent, and what she does with that influence. Does Moonstone stay with this team, or does she go off on her own like the rest of the Thunderbolts got to do? And who does Ragnarok decide he is, now that he has a real magic hammer and not some kind of bizarre rip-off? They're not the world's strongest characters or the best team I've ever seen, but they have a special something, a unique blend of charm and abrasiveness that draws me to them anyway. So I hope they do get a chance to star in something again, but either way, I'm glad for the brief run they had with Jeff Parker at the helm.

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