Sunday, November 17, 2013

John Byrne's West Coast Avengers Part 3: That Which Endures

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.

This is probably the low point of Byrne's run, just in terms of how interesting the story is. It's sort of a cool high concept, but it's not executed very well here, and I'm not sure it belongs in this book to begin with. The long and short of the story is that an entity calling itself "That Which Endures" has existed inside of all living things since the beginning of time, determining what species get to live and which ones die out. It's a sentient organism, basically, and when That Which Endures decides that a certain group has run its course, it kills off all the members to make way for the next dominant species. This is what got rid of the dinosaurs, claims the story, and now That Which Endures has a new plan to eliminate humanity so mutants can take over. Not a new goal in the Marvel Universe, not by a long shot, but this time it's a weird microscopic intelligence instead of some group of mutant extremists who are behind the plot.
     So That Which Endures kidnaps Scarlet Witch to assimilate her as the first step toward total mutant domination. It's not perfectly clear why, if That Which Endures is in everyone already, it still needs to trick and capture people in order to bend them to its will, but that is what happens. Wanda is seen by That Which Endures as powerful enough to be useful but still malleable enough to be controlled, apparently a fair assessment, as her mind is quite quickly taken over, just in time to for her to be used against Captain America and She-Hulk when they try to save her. That Which Endures takes over She-Hulk, too, and disables Cap, and none of the other East or West Coast Avengers know anyone is in danger. That leaves Hawkeye, Mockingbird, and the Great Lakes Avengers left to show up and save the day, which they do with gusto. It's actually Mr. Immortal who makes the final blow against That Which Endures, disabling its "assimilator" and thus freeing everyone from its control. With the villain defeated, the Avengers are left to wonder if That Which Endures really does live inside every living thing, making the final call about what survives and what dies off. A strange sort of existential question that is awkwardly debated for a page before the story closes.
     Meanwhile, back at HQ, Wonder Man finally says out loud that he is in love with Wanda, and Pym shrinks Tigra in self-defense after she pounces on him. The Wonder Man thing had been heavily implied before, so getting it out in the open now is the right move, as opposed to dragging it out further. And it gives Wasp and Wonder Man a few nice scenes together as friends and teammates. The Tigra bit is basically the worst of all the Tigra material, because Pym shrinking her makes it that much easier for Byrne to shuffle her offstage indefinitely. She gets stashed in a lab in her tiny form and forgotten about, by cast and creator, for a long while after this.
     What makes That Which Endures such an uninteresting opponent for this team is that, through its mind control abilities, it's able to operate in disguise as an entire college campus full of people who seem to be acting normally. There's no obvious threat there, which means it takes almost all three issues of this arc to get to any decent action. Where something more exciting might normally go, in this narrative we get That Which Endures describing itself or its plans. Or things like She-Hulk punching a wall, Wanda being assimilated (by getting covered in black goo), Cap and She-Hulk getting a tour of the fake campus facilities, and other similarly low-action scenes. Even the big battle at the end is just Avengers whomping on college kids for a few pages, plus Big Bertha trading blows with She-Hulk (easily the best part of the arc). That Which Endures is too large a problem overcome too early in its schemes to be a very entertaining supervillain. Show me a full-on war between an army of superpowered and regular folks who That Which Endures is controlling and the handful of Avengers who are somehow able to resist, and maybe you've got something. But the GLA stumbling upon a solution after being initially alerted to the danger by a faint Quinjet emergency signal just isn't as gripping.
     I do love the pages where Byrne actually draws the beginning of time and the lives of microscopic organisms. Also, later, the dinosaur panels all look great, and have some interesting and occasionally beautiful writing, too. It makes me wonder if maybe this would have been better if it was Byrne doing an original book, outside of the Marvel U, centered on the concept of That Which Endures and therefore able to more deeply explore how it thinks, feels, and accomplishes its goals. I feel like he's scratching the surface of something here in only three issues, using That Which Endures as just one more thing to throw at Wanda instead of a full-fledged idea in its own right. It could have been anything bad, as long as it happened to her, and pushed her that much closer to the breakdown she's headed for. That seems a misuse of the concept.
     The Great Lakes Avengers as the ultimate victors is a nice piece of payoff, but this is it as far as their time in Byrne's run, which is a shame. They come and go so quickly, yet show tremendous potential as heroes in their world and compelling characters in ours. No sooner do they prove their worth than the series abandons them, so while I love what they get to do in this story, it's a bummer to know this is their last hurrah. Tigra is sort of in the same boat. In addition to attacking Pym toward the end of this narrative, Tigra's first move is to go after U.S. Agent, first with violence and then romantically. Aggressively hitting on the world's biggest tightwad makes for some decent if brief comedy, and is Tigra's most human, interesting, amusing scene. It's also the last thing she does while Byrne is in charge of the book that isn't full-on animal behavior. Really, it's the last thing she does other than jumping on Pym, being trapped in a box, and then escaping from that box, the last of which happens off-panel. As I've been saying all along, she gets shafted in this run, but it's during this storyline that she has her strongest moment.
     This arc is important because it places Vision and Scarlet Witch (her especially) firmly in the starring roles of the series. The rest of the cast are tangential characters for these three issues, not even as important to the A-plot as two members of the East Coast team (a.k.a. the "main Avengers") or the entire lineup of the half-legitimate-at-best Great Lakes squad. While "Vision Quest" could have remained an isolated incident with plenty of its own fallout, through That Which Endures—not in quotes because it's not actually the name of the story, just the bad guy—Byrne is making it clear that he's not finished fucking with Wanda. It's the completion of a mission statement started in the opening narrative. For that, I like it, and I like that this is by far the least messed up thing Wanda goes through. Her journey starts out rough, goes to something hard but less permanently damaging here, and then launches full steam ahead into darkness and misery after this.

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