Monday, December 12, 2005

Big in Japan

Avengers #13

Marvel's gutting of The Avengers was a landmark in the tenure of editor-in-chief Joe Quesada. It would be difficult to argue that most of his moves up to then (killing crossovers, putting Grant Morrison on X-Men, resuscitating Amazing Spider-Man) weren't good ones, but Disassembled, which marked the return of the Big Crossover by terminating the careers of several under-performing Avengers, was the point where Quesada's touch seemed to be deserting him.

Once I got over the obvious continuity flaws I rather enjoyed the carnage of Disassembled, but plenty of readers didn't, and it seemed that the evidence of its worth would only emerge once we had seen the shape of the New Avengers (though I refuse to use the New as it reminds me of Tony Blair's unpleasant rebranding of New Labour) . Disassembled, as the name would suggest, was about taking the old team apart, but it was Brian Michael Bendis who would have to construct something better if we were not to get a swift backslide, with the result that in two years time we'd all be reading about the Pyms and Wonder Man and Triathlon taking on Ultron #97.

Bendis has done well, so much that I doubt that Marvel would think of returning back to the old team. Having a top rate artist (David Finch) alongside a top rate writer has been an unqualified success. Thought has clearly gone into team composition - a couple of oldies (Captain America, Iron Man), two well-known non-Avengers (Spider-Man, Wolverine), two underused seventies characters (Cage and Spiderwoman, craftily cast as the traitor-in-waiting) and two wild-cards (Sentry and Ronin). New Avengers has been designed for the long haul, carried there by Bendis' mastery of dialogue and plot.

That said, this arc was my least favourite. It's in Japan, home to more duff Marvel stories per square kilometre than any country outside of the UK, perhaps because all the plot elements appear to come from James Clavell's Shogun. You can usually expect to see the following

- an internecine conflict which has been going on "for centuries"
- an old, bald bloke given to making cod-profound statements
- Viper narrowly escaping death in an unfeasible manner
- a vast herd of silent, sword-wielding assassins
- the Silver Samurai doing his "stupid as fuck" Colossus impersonation
- Wolverine stopping acting like the intestine-slashing thug he is and dribbling on about honour

This story went pretty much to plan, right up to the point where I realised that Clan Yashida and the Hand were not the same organisation. Over twenty of reading these stories, and I'd never even noticed. Granted, I should probably be paying more attention, but it does make you wonder if, like Shakespeare's famously interchangeable Rosenkrantz and Gildenstern, there's actually only a need for one of them.

So, anyway, it all rattles off, with Stark disposing of the assassin flock with a concussion blast. Why these assassins don't, like all self-respecting murderous scum these days, use long-range rifles with telescopic lenses escapes my understanding. The Avengers fly home, with Bendis readying us for his next big announcement, the secret identity of the mysterious Ronin.

Like the best Bendis foreshadowing, he's given us enough clues to have a go (Ronin was a friend of Daredevil, apparently), but I'm nowhere near smart enough to guess these things. Which is why I was utterly shocked to find Echo, my favourite underused character in the Marvel universe, working with the Avengers. As casting goes, this is a stroke of genius, evening up the sex imbalance by introducing a genuinely complicated and mysterious woman. Few characters have as much potential as Maya Lopez.

It also leaves open the possibility that deity-level artist David Mack, who created Echo, might come in and draw an issue or two. Mack, of course, made his name writing Kabuki, set in Japan.

I know he has his detractors, but Bendis is the best comic book writer in the business right now. While he retains a touch as sure as this, Bendis is going to stay at the top of the tree.