Friday, November 22, 2013

John Byrne's West Coast Avengers Part 4: Human Torch, Iron Man, and Wanda's Kids

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 guess I could have split this into two arcs: 1. the 50th-issue return of the original Human Torch, and 2. the two-part story about Master Pandemonium and the true nature of Wanda's children that also includes Iron Man returning to the team. But because Iron Man's arrival technically happens on the last page of the Human Torch issue, and there is the common theme of people being added and subtracted to the West Coast Avengers' family through all three of these issues, I am counting them as a single arc. And we're off.
     I'm not sure what the motivation was behind making Human Torch part of this team. I'm going to guess Byrne just wanted to be able to draw him, and couldn't use the Fantastic Four version since, you know, he has to be on the Fantastic Four. So instead, Byrne went back to the original android, who is revived and made a West Coast Avenger rather quickly. It only takes one issue for the team to find his burial site, turn him back on, welcome him to the group, and move onto their next problem. And once he's part of the cast, the Torch doesn't really do anything special. I mean, he helps out, but not in a way that is specific to his powers or character. He's just an extra generic good guy, making the team bigger but not necessarily better. His contributions aren't connected to his abilities, which makes his hurried addition to the lineup even stranger. That being said, Byrne does draw an awfully nice Human Torch, with the fire looking very alive and in-motion. And even when the flames are off, he's a strapping, handsome dude. It's just too bad that, narratively, having this certain character isn't significant. He could be anybody, just another set of heroic helping hands.
     Iron Man's arrival is brushed aside in even less time. For a few pages, the other Avengers are skeptical of him, because they believe he's somebody new in the armor, not Tony Stark, due to a bunch of complicated stuff from Iron Man's own book. However, just moments after he shows up unannounced at West Coast Avengers HQ, a bunch of demons start attacking everybody, so it becomes an all hands on deck situation. By the time it's dealt with, Iron Man has pretty much proven himself in the field, and so he just sticks around afterwards and nobody questions him again. As for the demons, they're sent by Master Pandemonium as a distraction so he can steal Wanda's kids without interference. And it's after he does so that things gets really interesting and twisted.
     The real story here, the main attraction, as it were, is Pandemonium's plot. He's trying to reassemble the five pieces of his soul, which Mephisto (the Marvel Universe's Satan) claims to have stolen, broken apart, and hidden somewhere. So rather than find out where Mephisto put them, Pandemonium's plan is to use Wanda's kids' souls to replace two parts of his own. And he totally pulls it off, almost too easily. By the time the Avengers follow him back to his own realm, the children are already his, and Byrne gives us the terrifying image of Master Pandemonium laughing wickedly and hold his arms out victoriously with Wanda's sons where his hands should be. They look almost like puppets, except there's no division between where Pandemonium's body stops and theirs begin. The boys' mouths are wide with fear and pain, a stark contrast to Pandemonium's self-satisfaction.
     Having a villain take control of her children is a messed up enough thing to do to Wanda at this stage on its own. She already basically lost her husband, so having the rest of her family ripped away would doubtlessly be devastating. But Byrne isn't satisfied to leave it at that. He has Mephisto show up to explain that, in actuality, it was not Pandemonium's soul that was split into five pieces, but Mephisto's. Or, well, not his soul, exactly, but his "essence," pieces of himself that kept him from being at full power. What does that have to do with Wanda, you ask? Hang on, it takes some more information to get there.
     Agatha Harkness is able to suss out somehow that Wanda's sons with the Vision are not entirely real. She never truly became pregnant, but, in reality, suffered from a hysterical pregnancy. It's just that when you have the mutant ability to change reality, a hysterical pregnancy actually does lead to a birth. So the kids are not, in fact, kids, but merely creations of Wanda's superpowers, accidental side effects of her overwhelming desire to be a mother.
     Ok, so, now we have these two seemingly unrelated developments: Mephisto's essence is scattered in five parts, and Wanda created her kids by accident with her hex power. Where things get outright nuts is in the connection between them. Apparently, Wanda is not so powerful that she can just create life out of nothing. In order to make her children seem like the genuine article, she unknowingly reached out into the universe and grabbed two of the five pieces of Mephisto, using them as the foundation upon which her kids were constructed. So after Pandemonium gets his hands on them, Mephisto reabsorbs them into himself, and Wanda loses her children forever.
     It's pretty damn awful, the biggest and most destructive of the many trials Wanda goes through during Byrne's run. It's so terrible, actually, that Byrne has Harkness erase the children from Wanda's memory, partly to strike a blow against Mephisto—this kids are still connected to the spell Wanda used to make them originally, so destroying her memory weakens them and thus weakens Mephisto—but mostly to spare Wanda the pain of realizing how much she's lost. When you need one character to prevent another character from remembering the previous events of the comicbook, you've entered some pretty dark territory.
     I like Byrne's steadfast commitment to doing as much harm to Wanda as possible. He's never pretended to be doing anything else, and this arc is the peak of the madness and tragedy. The long-running plot point of Wanda's children mysteriously disappearing is explained (it happens when she isn't thinking about them), and she's pushed to her absolute limits as a character. This is her low point as a hero, and finally places her in a position where her eventual transition back to being a villain is not only believable when it finally happens, but feels almost inevitable. So as far as what they bring to the ongoing tale of Wanda's life falling apart, these are a good few issues.
     There's also some great art here. The Avengers battling Pandemonium's demons, both at their base and then especially when they're on his turf, always looks great. Byrne does monsters, I think, better than people, something that will be seen again in the next arc when the Mole Man gets involved. Mephisto is also spot on here, his tall and wiry frame dominating whatever space he's in. And of course there's the aforementioned visual of Master Pandemonium with the kids attached to his arms, which is how he looks for many pages, all of them equal parts disturbing and fascinating.
     Unfortunately, there are some obvious problems with this story, too. For one thing, the Avengers don't get to do a whole lot. They fight a bunch of demons, but that doesn't get them very far. It is Harkness who defeats Pandemonium and Mephisto both, her ancient knowledge and magic much more effective weapons against them than anything the superheroes can do. But her final battle against Mephisto happens off-panel, with the rest of the cast watching in terror and describing what's happening. I have to assume this is a case of Byrne actually drawing the fight, being told by editorial that is was too graphic or something, and deciding that if he couldn't do it the way he wanted, he'd just ruin the scene entirely. It's a full page of characters talking melodramatically about violence we can't see. Lame.
     So the broad strokes of what goes down here are pretty good, but some of the details of how everything's done are disappointing. By the end of these three issues, the West Coast Avengers' crew has gotten two members bigger, but also one of their number has been pretty much completely disabled by all the shit she's had to deal with. They get stronger and weaker at once, an interesting end result. It'd be nicer if they were more involved in or important to this outcome, but it's a decent outcome nonetheless.

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