Monday, July 25, 2005

Bendis like Beckham

New Avengers 4

"The Avengers fight Electro in the street", was how one disillusioned reader summed up this episode. Which had me running back to reread what I had thought was one of the funniest and best-written Avengers I have seen. It has to be said that they have a point. There isn't much action in this episode. The Avengers are trying to trace the perpetrators of a prison raid which had freed dozens of supercriminals. They identify Electro, a minor Spider-Man villain, as a prime suspect. They track him to Boston and capture him easily. They then find from existing prisoners who Electro was working for, and set off for the Savage Land. That's it.

I think what we have here is a religious divide between different types of comic book readers. Those that are action oriented like to see use of superpowers and fighting, which come out particularly well visually. Colossus fastballing into Blob's stomach is always going to look better than the two of them discussing their differences over a cup of Lapsang Souchong. If I were an artist, I would love drawing these scenes. But there are serious drawback to fight scenes, not least the fact that there have been tens of thousands of them over the years. Add to this overfamiliarity the almost certain fact that the hero is going to win in the end, then you have a plot device which is formulaic, cliched and with a predetermined end. Avengers' writer Brian Michael Bendis claims to love fight scenes, but he clearly recognises their inherent limitations. The alternative, interaction oriented writing, marginalises the physical aspects of the heroes, while concentrating on the problems, compatibility and conflicts of different characters. Which is what virtually every other form of writing does as a matter of course.

Bendis' style has been called "decompressed", but that seems like a misnomer. It's not that he's stretching out stories (stories by most other writers are also stretched out these days), it's that he relegates fighting to a smaller role than we have been used to.

So what do I love about this issue? Firstly, the humour:

Cage: Hey, when you used to fight him, how'd you do it?
Spider-Man: Well, I'd web my hands into mitts and pound the crap out of him.
Cage: Do me up. Open the bubble.
(Electro faints)
Cage: He was just supposed to blurt out a name, not faint like a wuss. Get these off.
Spider-Man: They don't come off.
Cage: What?
Spider-Man: About an hour.
Cage: WHAT?
Spider-Man: You said web your hands.

Captain America: Then you can verify for yourself that I have full Champion license.
Spider-Man: Oh no, I am not joining the Champions.
Captain America: It means, my friend, that I have the authority to assemble any team I see fit to go on any mission I see fit.
Spider-Man: Yeah? I have clones.

Cage: Spider-Man, Spider-Woman--you guys related?
Spider-Man: No.
Cage: You give her her powers or something?
Spider-Man: No she's totally unrelated to me in any way
Cage: So she ripped off your name?
Spider-Man: Exactly.
Spider-Woman: Hey! You said it was Okay.
Spider-Man: I didn't say you could lend it out. There's, like, ten of you now.
Spider-Woman: There's three. And they are ripping me off.
Spider-Man: And I'm not seeing a dime.
Spider-Woman: A dime of what?
Spider-Man: Just sayin'.
Spider-Woman: I can't tell if you're joking.
Spider-Man: You're not the first woman to say that to me.

Cage: So, in this land that time forgot somewhere in Antarctica, what've we got to look forward to?
Spider-Man: All kinds of mutates and dinosaurs and big cheetahs and a surprising amount of acceptable nudity.
Cage: Are you #$%$ing me?
Spider-Man: No. But it doesn't matter. We probably won't survive the crash.
Cage: What crash?
Spider-Man: You don't go to the Savage Land without crashing.

If ever there was a writer absolutely loving doing his work, it's Bendis here, affectionately making jokes at Marvel's expense. He's funny enough to write the aspect of Spider-Man that so often gets ignored: his sense of humour. Bendis has the entire team as the stright man to Spider-Man's comedian. And Cage, who's tough but can also be funny, is a perfect comedic foil. I expect we'll see plenty more of this double act. Repartee like this is tough to write - these scenes took hours of polishing, yet they read like they're spontaneous.

Then there Bendis' ability to make me like characters I've either never liked or stop caring about, like Spider-Woman and Cage. Take Spider-Woman in the penitentiary, talking to the cell block in an attempt to find out who Electro's accomplice is

Spider-Woman: All I need is a name.
Spider-Woman: Yeah, figured, Honor among $%^#ers.
Spider-Woman: Anyway, tonight, for dinner, you will be having a meatloaf-esque main course and a pureed potato substance, much like you will be having every day for the rest of your lives.
Spider-Woman: This is a fresh box of apple crumb cake Entenmann's donuts. They are awesome. I bought them for myself, but now that I'm back in the tights this is a big no no. So, to the first person that tells me who Electro took...
Entire cell block: Karl Lykos.

This, which Bendis claims was a vain attempt to get a box of free doughnuts, establishes Spider-Woman as intelligent, confident, tough and mildly neurotic about her weight. And, incidentally, sexy, but I think David Finch may be primarily responsible for that.

And finally, just because I love it, here's Spider-Man's incoherent description of Lykos' powers

Spider-Man: He's a mutant. I've had the honor of being smacked around by him. He can suck energy or...or suck out your powers or something. Something with sucking. And when he overdoes it, he turns into this giant green ol' Jurassic Park thing. Like a dinosaur. A vampire dinosaur. Vampire or dinosaur would have been enough. but this guy is both. Which, really, is just showing off. What does he call himself? Sagey..or Saggy...
Captain America and Spider-Woman: Sauron.


Blogger Phillip said...

Damn, that's funny. I'm gonna hafta pick me up one of those Bendis books, fer sure.

12:51 pm  
Blogger Greg said...

The problem with Bendis these days is that he seems to have become Warren Ellis or Grant Morrison (two other writers I like) - he's perfected his schtick, and he's sticking to it. Some of his stuff is excellent, but some of his stuff is trying too hard. I haven't read New Avengers, but when I've flipped through it, it looks fine, but something he could do on auto-pilot.

11:39 pm  
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