Wednesday, November 13, 2013

John Byrne's West Coast Avengers Part 2: Great Lakes Avengers

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.

I go gaga for the Great Lakes Avengers. They're such an indulgently goofy team, with their overly simplistic names and blatantly ripped off character designs. They've got heart, and they're all so earnest about the heroism thing. It's true they're not all three-dimensional characters (Flatman especially, but that's got to be on purpose, right?) but as a group it's hard not to find them at least amusing if not endearing. Plus as far as superpowers go, they've got some cool stuff going on. Big Bertha's secret identity being a model is fantastic, making her more powerful and effective self the one that goes counter to the classic hyper-fit female superhero form. Mr. Immortal's inability to die is awesome because of how brazen and fun-loving it makes him. Apparently discovering his immortality was an immensely freeing moment, because he's straight up wacky about throwing himself into dangerous situations. And though he has the weakest alias of all time, Doorman is an extremely useful guy to have around. He's a walking element of surprise and, if needed, escape route. Pretty great.
     I also really like how Byrne kicks the story off with the GLA already put together and in action. We get the full force of their introduction, experiencing the same surprise at their sudden existence as Hawkeye and Mockingbird go through a little later in the issue. It also makes for an opening that is equal parts hilarious and mysterious. Mr. Immortal has got great mid-fight dialogue from the beginning, so it's fun to watch him work, but at the same time, there's the question of why we're seeing this team of misfit heroes instead of the book's usual cast. That mix of immediately accessible action-comedy and curiosity-piquing new characters is great, and carries the rest of the issue.
     Speaking of which, it's smart of Byrne to only give these guys a single issue for now (#46), just to set them up so they're ready when he needs them down the line. As entertaining as they are, if this initial GLA story was spread out over two issues, even with other West Coast Avengers plotlines mixed in, I suspect it would grow annoying. The GLA are too silly to spend very much time with unless you plan on spending all your time with them, so you can flesh them out and give the silliness legs. But for the purpose of a one-off story to establish the idea of the team, they strike the perfect balance between ludicrous, likable, and interesting.
     The one-issue format does make Mockingbird and Hawkeye's decision to coach the ragtag squad of unsanctioned knock-off Avengers feel rushed and perhaps a tad unbelievable. Then again, Hawkeye's totally the kind of guy to let the momentum of his quitting a real Avengers team propel him into signing up with a fake one. And Mockingbird's last line in the issue is actually anti-GLA, scolding them for using the Avengers name without permission, so her reasons for sticking around are less clear, to say the least. She shows up to try and reconnect with Hawkeye and save their marriage, so I guess it's safe to assume that's why she stays with him when he chooses to mentor the new kids. Whatever the case, it all happens pretty quickly, which is annoying, but I still think it was the right call to make this a single issue thing. Byrne's mistake, I think, is feeling obligated to check in on other members of the Weast Coast Avengers. U.S. Agent and Tigra have a three-page scene that never really leads anywhere in Byrne's entire run (part of the bungling of the larger Tigra storyline I mentioned last time), and then the final page is devoted to Wanda...getting a letter! GASP! Super lame way to close, but apparently Byrne or someone thought it absolutely necessary to tease the next issue at the end of this one no matter how unrelated they were. Had those four pages been given to the GLA narrative that the other eighteen were focused on, I reckon Hawkeye and Mockingbird's change of heart could've been much more natural.
     I nodded to this before, but three of the five members of the GLA have their designs overtly stolen from existing characters—Flatman is Mr. Fantastic, Doorman is Spider-Man in the symbiote suit, and Big Bertha is the Blob. Admittedly, that's a weird trio of characters to use in the same place, but that isn't enough to distract from how obvious it is. I don't mind; it adds to the big joke that is this whole team. And Byrne makes them look good as a unit, able to fit them into panels together in different combinations from various angles without messing with anyone's proportions. Mr. Immortal's unhinged personality is the art's biggest and most important contribution this time out, though. It's a smaller, more intense version of his team's general dysfunction. They're not really ready for prime time superheroics, but they're trying their hardest, throwing themselves into it with everything they've got. That's all Mr. Immortal is doing when he flies off the handle, too, just to a more extreme extent. The art's low point, by the by, is Clint and Bobbi's hair before they are in costume. So hideously 80's.
     It's dumb that the only person on the GLA I haven't named yet is Dinah Soar, because her name is the best by far. She flies and she resembles a dinosaur. Brilliant. So now that's out of the way. Phew.
     Not sure how much else I have to say about this one. It's worth noting that West Coast Avengers #46 was the last issue to bear that name before the series made the switch to Avengers West Coast. I prefer the former, but I can see why you'd want "Avengers" to be the first word in any Avengers book. Makes sense from a branding standpoint. Still, the fact that the GLA issue is the last one with the original title seems fitting. It's an intentional diversion, a break from most of the main characters and their stories, so it works nicely as a transition point between the two names.

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