Monday, November 11, 2013

John Byrne's West Coast Avengers Part 1: Vision Quest (or is it VisionQuest?)

Back in 1989-90, John Byrne had a 16-issue run as writer/penciler on The West Coast Avengers (renamed Avengers West Coast partway through his time on the title). I'm neither an Avengers nor a Byrne expert, but I'm aware that, at least in some circles, these comics don't have the best reputation. Screw that noise, because I quite like them, and I'm writing about them one arc at a time.

John Byrne's Vision is the first Vision I ever met. This arc wasn't my introduction to him, because I didn't read Byrne's run in order as a kid (I found random issues of it amongst my dad's collection). I don't remember the exact story or scene, but I still recall the powerful impression left on me by this strange, pale, caped figure passing through a wall and being very serious. At first I thought he was a ghost, but when I found out that, no, he was a robot, it floored me, because even the simple smashing together of ghost and robot elements broke new ground for me at that age. I didn't mind his emotionless personality, because that was just a natural piece of the robot side of his character. And I certainly didn't have a problem with the all-white coloring, because that was the whole appeal—he had to physically resemble a ghost if he was going to act like a robot. His powers came from both worlds, and that was also perfect. When I did eventually learn that this take on the character came after Byrne had literally and figuratively dismantled the then-current version, that, too, just screamed "Ghost!" to me. He'd died and come back, but different, less accessible to humans. Because he's a ghost now on top of already being a robot! Awesome.
     All of this is to say that, I understand entirely why people who were fans of The Vision before this story, who liked his marriage to and family with Scarlet Witch and wanted them to be a happy, stable couple forever...I get why people in that position think John Byrne ruined the character. It really is a whole new thing, and it happens very suddenly, and once it's done, Byrne goes way out of his way to make extra sure that everybody in the comic and out understands that this is a permanent, unfixable change that nobody in ALL THE MARVEL UNIVERSE can possibly undo. He even crams in that Vision's entire origin story is a lie, which is blurted out by Hank Pym in a single panel on the second-to-last page of the final issue of this four-part arc. An arc that basically opens with a longwinded retelling of that same origin, by the way.
     The point is, yes, "Vision Quest" has its flaws, some of them large. But for me, at least, the re-creation of Vision as a monotonous, monochromatic stick-in-the-mud isn't one of them, because that's what I think of when I think of him at all.
     Also, the story's shortcomings are worth it for its high points. The two-page spread of Vision laid out on an examination table, stripped of his skin and with every tiny piece of his complex robotic body dismantled and on display, is a jarring, gut-wrenching moment because of the meticulous detail of Byrne's art. The same goes for the anger that radiates off of Hawkeye in the scenes leading up to his quitting the team, the agony both Wanda and Wonder Man go through during this story, and the excitement of all the action. Byrne does melodramatic conversation and/or contemplation just as well as he does superhero fight scenes. Since this series, and this arc especially, is basically just a back-and-forth between those two things, it all looks great. Also, Byrne is smart about when and where to place his big moments. He opens each issue on a beat of high tension, charging into the drama of his stories headfirst. Even the beginning of this first arc is Wanda waking up distressed and unable to find her husband, a fitting opening considering the rest of the narrative is pretty much just the universe shitting all over Wanda. That will be a running theme throughout Byrne's time on the book (more on that will come in later posts). For now, I'm just pointing out that "Vision Quest" is well-told visually, and that Byrne times its dramatic peaks perfectly. If only he'd taken the same care with the valleys, I think it might've been a really great beginning to his run.
     Without question, the weakest bits are when Byrne slides into over-exposition mode. He'll devote several pages to filling us in on a character's backstory, or over-inflate a few dialogue balloons in a row to remind us what happened last issue. And there are other classic 80's storytelling tactics, like characters explaining their powers to each other every time they're in a fight, or monologuing extensively about their emotions for no one's sake but the reader's. Having too many of these things tacked on can weigh the story down, and there are some rough patches in this arc for sure. Because it is Byrne's opening gambit, and he immediately rearranges the Vision's status quo, he seems to find it necessary to explain himself through his characters as often as possible. It slows things down, sometimes when they should be speeding up instead.
     Aside from its main goal of transforming Vision from loving husband to detached synthezoid jerk, "Vision Quest" sees Tigra start to succumb to her more animalistic impulses, U.S. Agent forcibly added to the team, Hawkeye quitting (basically because of U.S. Agent), and an off-panel reigniting of the romance between Janet Van Dyne and Hank Pym. Plus, of course, the early stages of Wanda's mental breakdown, and the first hints that something strange is going on with her children (again, more on that later). That's an awful lot of change in a very short space, which is ambitious on Byrne's part, but perhaps overly so. His time at the helm of this series would ultimately be cut short, and so things like Tigra's transformation were left dangling. And that thread in particular is mismanaged by Byrne from start to finish, never given the attention or consideration it deserves by anyone in the cast. It's more an excuse to leave Tigra out of the action than it is an actual plotline to be followed. One too many wrenches thrown into the works at the beginning.
     Ok, I'm skewing a bit negative here, and that's ok because these issues deserve it, but my original intention was to talk about why I like Byrne's run, so let me close on an upswing. For all its faults, this arc is nothing if not sure of itself. Byrne knows exactly what he wants to do, and even if he hasn't perfected how he's going to do it, he jumps in with great force right away. He puts faith in himself and his cast and lets the chips fall where they may after blowing up the lives of several major players. Many disagree with the results, and even I think a few of them are questionable or worse, but he gets points for his gusto and the height of his aims. Also, bringing the entire team to a collective low point right off the bat is not at all a bad way to kick off a run. It makes for a difficult uphill climb for cast and creator alike, but done well, that can be the most compelling type of fiction.
     And seriously, that two-page spread of Vision in pieces? And the full-page splash of just his face in the same condition that opens the following issue? Chilling. That Byrne would go to such trouble artistically to underline the severity of Vision's loss of self speaks to its permanence and completeness.

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