Thursday, July 24, 2014

Avengers Undercover Won Me Over(cover)

I haven't read either of the predecessor titles to Avengers Undercover, those being Avengers Academy and Avengers Arena. I realize Academy is less of an official predecessor, but it was the main Marvel title for teen superheroes in its day, and I believe at least a few characters from that series carried over into both Arena and Undercover. There's no denying that Arena is directly tied to Undercover, though. Same creators, same cast, and the first arc of Undercover is based entirely on the events of Arena. Indeed, the core concept of Undercover was made possible only through the execution of the core concept of Arena, so they're arguably just one long series that happened to change its name partway through. At least, that's the impression I get from reading Undercover without having read a single page of Arena.
     Why did I bother to read Avengers Undercover if it is so closely connected to a series I didn't follow? Mostly because Avengers Arena got far more good buzz than bad, and I have a special interest in comicbooks about teenagers struggling with what it means to have superpowers. When done well, those stories are the best examinations of the troubling morality and responsibility that would necessarily accompany extra-human abilities. And the pitch for Avengers Undercover was teen superheroes pretending to be villains so they could bring the villains down from the inside, a concept that sounded rife with potential to hit all the beats I like best. I knew I might be lost in the beginning, but I figured I'd give it a peek and see what all the Arena fuss was about.
     At first, I thought I'd made a mistake. It wasn't a bad comic, but it started off immediately by looking at the aftermath of what happened in Arena, and all the characters seemed so powerfully affected by what they went through in that book, it felt like I was coming in too far behind to catch up. It wasn't exactly what you want in a #1 issue. There were established relationships and team dynamics and personal histories that I knew nothing about, and that excluded me from some of the subtext and nuance in both Dennis Hopeless' script and Kev Walker's art. Without going back and reading Arena all the way through, I worried Undercover wouldn't ever make as much sense or have as powerful an impact on me as it could and/or should.
     That worry only lasted in any form for three issues, and began to dissipate even earlier, somewhere around the middle of issue #2. Dennis Hopeless wrote the cast naturally enough that each kid came into focus as a distinct and interesting character in short order. By the time Hazmat blasted Arcade into nothingness at the end of issue #3, I found myself surprisingly moved by the event, despite my only superficial knowledge of the kids' history with Arcade. Because I cared a great deal about the cast already, the shock and catharsis of the moment hit me with equal force, and I realized that Avengers Undercover had gone from seeming like a mistake to being a book I eagerly looked forward to in only three issues. And because of its twice-a-month schedule, the comic has been able to keep me hooked and get me more and more enthusiastic about it in only a few months.
     What turned me around more than anything was the mix of intelligence and idiocy everyone in the cast displays, a perfect blend for people their age who've had their experiences. They have unique, varied, and equally understandable attitudes about what to do with their lives and their powers now. When they argue, it can get heated and personal and otherwise off the rails pretty quickly, but everyone's underlying motivations are apparent. They're good at vocalizing at least part of what they really feel before flipping out, and once they do get too angry to be articulate, these kids are anything but passive, so their actions speak for them at the top of their metaphorical lungs. Things progress at an intense pace; the stakes skyrocket right away and have not yet peaked. All the while, everything revolves around the kids (along with their new just-as-juvenile allies in semi-fake villainy) and it all gets filtered through their perspectives, making Avengers Undercover one of the most elaborate discussions of the state of the modern Marvel superhuman around.
     I only recently learned (and it may have only recently been announced) that Avengers Undercover is ending in three issues. There will be a three-month time jump in the next issue, which kicks off the closing arc. Ten issues is far too few when in so many ways it felt like this book was just getting started. But I did come in eighteen issues behind, technically, since that's the length of Avengers Arena, so maybe that's my problem. I'm late to the table and upset I missed the first few courses.
     Either way, I suspect deep down I was already committed to going back and reading all of Arena eventually, so the cancellation of Undercover just gives me a reason to do it sooner. If the current series can maintain its awesomeness through the end, and its predecessor does the same, then I'd like to write something more in-depth about them once I've gone through it tip to tail. I can't remember the last time my feelings about a book changed from bad to good so quickly—usually it's the other way around—so it's probably even better than I realize yet, still basking in the afterglow of having been so totally won over.

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