Wednesday, November 27, 2013

John Byrne's West Coast Avengers Part 6: Wanda's Heel Turn

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.

In his final two issues on this series, John Byrne doesn't get to wrap up everything, but he does finally pull the trigger on the Scarlet Witch going completely insane. After more than a year's worth of issues where nothing good ever happened to her, where everything she thought she knew about her husband and their kids was revealed to be a lie and she lost her entire family, she understandably breaks down. With some encouragement from her father, Magneto, she goes full-out villain, taking up the cause of mutant superiority an attacking her former Avengers teammates physically and psychologically. It's the logical culmination of everything else that's happened, and even though technically Byrne's run was cut short by his unexpected departure, these last two installments make it feel complete, the full tale of Wanda's gradual fall from grace.
     I like dramatic changes to a character like this if they're earned. While some of the things Wanda went through were sudden, the overall effect was a steady supply of hardship that makes her evil turn not only believable but right. She had been trying to keep it together for so long, it was time for her to snap, to react to the horrors the world dumped on her with some passion and purpose. I'm sure if Scarlet Witch was your favorite Avenger at the time, this would be more like the straw the broke the camel's back. It's the final insult added to all the injuries she's sustained while Byrne's been in charge. She doesn't just leave the team, she goes after them viciously. She kills Wonder Man and brings him back just so she can sexually assault him. She obliterates Human Torch with such finality it makes me wonder all over again why Byrne brought him back in the first place. Her former friends are left humiliated, betrayed, impotent, and terrified. It'd be the last thing you'd want to see if you were rooting for her to recover from her recent traumas, but for me it works perfectly as the nail on her coffin.
     I also like seeing a team of heroes get taken on by one of their own. It presents unique challenges for them, because they want to believe their ally will come back around. And it usually means getting totally dismantled, because the enemy already knows their secrets. That's all true here, plus with Scarlet Witch it's barely even a fight, since she's pretty much the most powerful Avenger around, and I enjoy watching the good guys get brought so low in such short order. There isn't even any time for them to bounce back before Byrne leaves the book. His legacy ends with Wanda walking away victorious and smug, the rest of the team watching helplessly. After so many issues of Wanda hitting a string of new lows, she gets to bring everybody else down to her level. It's tidy.
     The whole Tigra thread is left dangling. We find out here that she's escaped the glass box in which Pym was holding her in his lab, but where she goes is never revealed. That's the worst part of this run, sort of the opposite example of Wanda's story. Where Tigra never gets proper attention or any closure, Wanda is more or less the star of this book during Byrne's era, and her narrative gets to end. Of course, this is not the true end of either character's respective stories, since there've been more than twenty years of comics since then, including some pretty heavy stuff for Wanda. But within the tiny timeframe of Byrne writing and penciling this book, they could not have been handled more differently.
     It doesn't seem like you'd have a shortage of material to pull from if you were the creator(s) following Byrne on the comic. He leaves a lot of stuff open-ended, like Iron Man semi-forcing himself onto the team, Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne being an official couple again, etc. Quicksilver even shows up at the very end, pretending to partner up with Magneto and the now-villainous Wanda, but clearly secretly working for the heroes in some capacity. I assume Byrne had his own plans for how that would play out, but whoever inherited the title from him had to resolve it one way or another. The point is, say what you want about whether or not he should have made the kinds of intense changes he did, Byrne definitely left the West Coast Avengers in an interesting and complicated place.
     I guess at this point I'm sort of just throwing out my remaining thoughts on these 16 issues as a unit. The last two don't have much room to focus on anything other than Wanda going bad, and since that is the conclusion to the largest and most important story thread in the run, it's hard to talk about these issues without looking back and those that preceded them.
     I will say this about them specifically: Byrne's redesign of Wanda's costume is unflattering, weird, a little too sexy for no reason, and ultimately pointless. It doesn't scream "evil Scarlet Witch" or anything, it just looks like a slight twist on her old look. It's a cosmetic change for the sake of it, an arbitrary visual cue that she's different on the inside, too. It's not a horrible costume, and the one it replaced wasn't all that great, either. But it was distinct and classic and memorable, and the one she switches into is different enough to notice but similar enough to be dismissible. So that's too bad, a disappointing but minor part of the otherwise enjoyable character shake-up.
     Byrne did some questionable things, made some choices that were provocative and damaging and hard to undo. I understand why that upset folks at the time and why it still does today, but I think the dude went bold with it, and that's always applaudable, even when it fails. He knew what he wanted to do, what he thought should be different about this team, and he went for it with everything he had. It was ambitious and confident to equally impressive degrees. That's what I dig about his issues, their unapologetic ballsiness, their unforgiving dedication to uprooting and overturning the status quo. Nobody in the cast makes it out quite the same as they were when Byrne first came aboard, and for such a large group of characters (to which he added several members) that's a lot of change in a relatively short period of time. Not that making things different is difficult in-and-of itself, but Byrne did it all while still telling standard superhero action stories, keeping his cast true to their core as he pulls the rug out from under them. Doing both things at once is a more admirable accomplishment.
     With the lineup not at all like it was when he started, and Wanda completely rearranged as a character, Byrne's time on West Coast Avengers comes to a close. It was brief, daring, fun, and crazy. And hard to forget, even if you don't like it.

No comments:

Post a Comment