Friday, October 21, 2011

Avengers #18 Review & The Desecration of Edwin Jarvis

Marvel's latest Universe-wide story, Fear Itself, finally came to an end this week. The conclusion featured "shocking" events that were all quite frankly entirely expected after the recent slew of previews, interviews, and teasers coming out of New York Comic Con. As such, and considering that I haven't been a fan of much of Matt Fraction's recent work, I don't wish to write about it.

Instead, let's turn our focus to Avengers #18 by Brian Michael Bendis, in which Steve Rogers and the team deal with the fallout of Fear Itself. In reading the comic, many parallels can be drawn to the deep history of the Avengers, such as how they react when their battles are over, and the specific characterization of one Edwin Jarvis, Honorary Avenger. I gleefully use one classic issue from 1980 for comparison.

The clean-up of major battles is as much an Avengers tradition as the battles themselves.  As such it is both appropriate and enjoyable that the first half of Avengers #18 chronicles heretofore off-panel scenes in the wake of seriously destructive Marvel events of the past year.

Bendis shows us the unnamed and often overlooked members of S.H.I.E.L.D. dealing with the collateral damage of epic fights that involved the Avengers. First we see them after the destruction of Civil War, handling the giant corpse of Goliath/Bill Foster, examining both the logistics of such a disposal and the reactions of non-powered humans who witness the grisly aftermath. Next, we get the CSI-type response to Captain America's assassination, followed by S.H.I.E.L.D. in Central Park going over the climactic battlefield of Secret Invasion.

Recurring throughout these double page spreads is a quiet focus on S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Dr. Carolina Washington, a new character who clearly feels horror at the damage wrought by superhumans and their apparent lack of consequences. While doing her job she secrets various items from each scene; Goliath's DNA, a sample of Captain America's Super-Soldier-Serum'd blood, Spider-Man's webbing, one of alien Noh-Varr's guns and a blood sample of a Skrull. This comes back at the end of the issue as Washington approaches Norman Osborn and his rapidly reassembling H.A.M.M.E.R. with her arsenal of superhuman genetic data.

Bendis' strength is in the quiet moments of the Marvel Universe, echoing my old pal Chris Claremont; he writes the Avengers sparring, eating dinner together, interviewing nannies, gossiping, etc. The detail of Dr. Washington stealing specimens moves the story forward and sets up his next arc of Avengers vs. Osborn, but the main focus is, again, on the post-battle assessment that the Avengers always go through.

Eventually we see Captain America and Tony Stark standing in the rubble of Avengers Tower. Sin has been defeated, Fear Itself has ended, and S.H.I.E.L.D. is once again picking up the pieces while the Avengers assemble to plan their next move. Bendis writes stories steeped in Avengers history, which is a delight for a fan. For example, take a look at the beginning of Avengers #201, Vol.1, in which the Avengers similarly recover from their battle with Marcus/Immortus (that creepy story where Ms. Marvel gives birth to her boyfriend and then goes off with him.)

We won't get into their ethnic labor force.
 So the focus on reality, the need to see the consequences of the Avengers' battles in addition to the fights themselves, is a well-documented necessity that Bendis sticks with.

After doing that with style (Daniel Acuna's pencils are lovely) and a clever sub-plot, Bendis moves on to the team itself. They have all come together in Avengers mansion, previously the home of the New Avengers (Luke Cage and Jessica Jones holding the lease, and pettily reminding everyone of it) to recover from their wounds and look to the future.

We are given Ben Grimm/The Thing's inevitable and uncomfortable apology for the destruction of Avengers Tower, though he was possessed by the evil mystical Asgardian hammer and no one blames him but himself. We also get a page and a half of BFF Ms. Marvel and Spider-Woman discussing living arrangements, and then the awkwardness of Spider-Woman's semi-relationship with Hawkeye, who's staring at her with affection, while Hawkeye's ex-wife Mockingbird stares at her with....less affection. While I may not love the Bendis-incited union between Jessica Drew and Clint Barton, the basic human drama of the scene is endearing. It shows us once again the human side of these war-waging heroes, talking about their personal upheavals in the back of the room while Cap is speechifying in the center.

The other human drama moment we receive is one I am not nearly as fond of. Edwin Jarvis, long time Avengers butler/valet/cook/housekeeper has naturally followed the team to the mansion where he lived for decades, only to be confronted by Wong, Doctor Strange's servant who used to stick to Greenwich Village but, since Strange joined the New Avengers, has apparently taken over the kitchen at the mansion. Initially they meet on seemingly friendly terms, the only equals of their station in the house, but suddenly Bendis gives us a vulgar and belligerent Wong:

Now, I know Bendis loves Jarvis. He's told multiple stories with Jarvis as either the narrator or receiving major focus. Again, he uses Jarvis as a window into the personal lives of the Avengers, and often as the conscience and heart of the team. (The line-up changes frequently while Jarvis is a fixture.) But here, Jarvis is dominated in a single expletive-laced line. Let's take another look back at Avengers #201 which had a cover and back-up story featuring our auspicious butler, and see what he's truly capable of: (Skip down if you don't feel like reading the whole story.)

My point is, Jarvis kicks ass. He can defend his mother, beat down a bully, rescue a community, and he can even stand up to the Masters of Evil as they lay siege to Avengers headquarters. He inspires the citizens of New York to use his employers as an example, to resolve the inequalities and injustices of life on their own. So the only justification I can think of for Bendis' scene, and I want to rationalize this sudden emasculation, is that he plans a more fully formed conflict between Wong and Jarvis in the months to come, another street-level, or kitchen-level if you will, subplot to humanize the team and add layers to the title. Anything else is just offensive.

As for the actual forward momentum of the Avengers, a not-wholly-unexpected bomb is dropped by Captain America in what comes off as a pretty douchebag move. And I quote: "It's time to reexamine what the Avengers mean to each other and the world." Ok, fair enough, that's standard post-war behavior, despite the fact that under Bendis' tenure we've reexamined what the Avengers mean about 4 times, including 18 issues ago when he completely shook things up yet again in this very title.

He goes on: "So the real question is...who will stay and who will go? Who will be an Avenger?" The small panel of Avengers' reaction is pretty perfect, with a confused Spider-Woman and an indignant Hawkeye (Bendis sure seems to love those two) epitomizing the shock of them all.

Solicits, the cover, announcements from Comic Con, all of these things informed us that Cap would be picking a new team yet again. (We know Storm will be an Avenger, though how that will be reconciled with her role as Cyclops' #2 and her semi-estranged marriage with Black Panther and role as Queen of Wakanda is a question yet to be answered.) What we don't understand exactly is Why? Does Cap feel the Avengers line-up failed during Fear Itself? Has the franchise grown too big, too unfocused? After the resounding purpose that came out of Siege and Cap's promotion to "Top Cop" of the world, this sudden reversal and loss of faith seems sudden and forced, even taking into account his personal grief at the loss of former sidekick and best friend Bucky Barnes.

Once again Brian Michael Bendis gives us a well-paced, quiet, human issue, effortlessly covering the past, present and future of the Avengers. Daniel Acuna gives us some very aesthetically pleasing visuals. But Captain America gives us confusion. Bendis is clearly a capable story architect, making long-term plans while tying into the continuity of the franchise, and better at multiple title events than Fraction, but on this particular occasion he throws off the balance and leaves the issue a bit too open ended for my tastes.

When you want an Avengers story that is self-contained yet fits into the fabric of the franchise's history, it seems you have to dive into the classic back issues.

Respect the Jarv

No comments:

Post a Comment