Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Avengers 42, originally released March 4th, 2015.
“We don’t view our history as being broken or something that we need to fix. If anything we think we are building upon that history and we are taking the best and biggest pieces of it and seeing how easily they coexist with one another. We don’t expect all our moves to make everyone happy, but we think it will make for a really fascinating read through ‘Secret Wars’ and beyond.”
-Axel Alonso, Secret Wars Press Event
Patrick: The grander hyper-textual implications of Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers and New Avengers have been apparent for some time, but the importance and meaning of the meta-textual reasons have been something of a mystery. By Alonso’s own admission, Marvel doesn’t really need a Crisis-style reboot, but Secret Wars and Battleworld seem to bear all the multiversal signatures of one of DC Comics’ rebooting events. The problem with Crises (and it’s a problem that I think both DC and Marvel are starting to experience) is that the real world drama trumps the in-narrative drama. We’re more interested in answering the question “What’s going to happen to Batman?” than “What’s going to happen to Batman?” — and that means that we are necessarily less interested in the stories themselves than the companies telling those stories. Avengers 42 tries to reclaim some of that drama for itself, representing what appear to be conflicting editorial voices as characters within the Marvel Universe.
On the advice of his daughter, Reed Richards’ new goal is simply: find a way not to lose. With the help of T’Challa (and I’m assuming the rest of the Illuminati), he’s constructed a cosmic lifeboat, theoretically capable of perpetuating the human race after the Earth is destroyed. T’Challa and Reed start to have a conversation about who should be allowed a spot on the ship, and it’s all pretty standard stuff, until Reed specifically mentions geneticists so they’re “not limited by things like breeding pairs.”
Now, no doubt that’s a legitimate concern, but there could have been a billion other questions Reed could have raised regarding sustaining life off-planet. Instead he chose to focus on creating life off-planet, speaking to the importance of the creators themselves. Weird, right? He doesn’t say “let’s make sure there’s a lot of genetic diversity,” he says “let’s make sure we have geneticists.” The analogue here is to comic book creators, who end up being the heroes of the meta narrative readers participate in whenever we discuss the future of Marvel.
(On that note, it’s remarkable just how effective Marvel has been at courting even the DCest names in the business. Both Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino — who reinvented Green Arrow as a hip, creator-driven series — are working for Marvel now. Every couple weeks there’s an announcement like this and that’s a compelling part of the meta narrative of these businesses.)
With only a few issues to go, a new threat to Earth emerges in the form of Gladiator and his unified galactic armada. Their rationale is simple (and something I’ve voiced a couple times): destroy Earth 616 and spare the accompanying universe. As far as world-in-danger plots go, this is sort of gilding the lily, wouldn’t you say? I mean, the last thing an editor was going to criticize this book for was not having high enough stakes. So, what’s the point of this invasion, from a narrative standpoint? I see the Shi’ar Empire as representing the opinion that the world must be eliminated in order to create something new. That’s one school of thought when it comes to comic book “reboots,” and more or less falls in line with DC’s move to the New 52. For the new world to be born, the old world had to be wiped out.
But let’s go back to Alonso’s quote at the top of the piece: Marvel brass aren’t interested in that kind of Etch A Sketch storytelling. History, we’re told explicitly, is persistent and will continue to matter no matter how much we think Battleworld is a Crisis. Remember, the Shi’ar are the wrong-headed bad guys in this scenario, so their desire to raze Earth demonstrates a desire to keep history and canons intact, rather than stripping them down for arbitrary reinvention.
In fact, our heroes make a point of saying that reinvention simply isn’t a practical solution for their problem. The issue opens on Beast, Hank Pym, Maria Hill, Hulk and Captain Britain retrieving tissue from the corpse of the Living Tribunal. We saw Iron Man and Uatu (may he rest in peace) discovering the Living Tribunal’s body on the moon back in issue 8, which is an issue from so long ago, I don’t even have a link to our conversation about it because we weren’t yet reading Marvel comics when it came out. That’s an impressive demonstration of Hickmanian foresight, but I’m interested in the Tribunal for a different reason. Our Illuminati are hoping to use this thing’s ability to “withstand the rigors of multiversal collapse” to ensure their own survival. They’re looking to the past — to the tried and true methods of survival, and not making it up wholesale on their own. Maybe it’s hubris for even the smartest people on the planet to think they could reinvent the Marvel universe from scratch.
Drew! I didn’t mention the art at all! No matter what I try, I can’t seem to steer the conversation away from the meta narrative, but I think Hickman is starting to steer into that territory himself. I suppose I’ll leave you with a prompt as generic as: talk about dat art. Or, if you’re feeling plotty and speculative — what do you think is going on with Cyclops and his Sentinel army?
Drew: That scene with Cyclops sure is weird, isn’t it? It doesn’t quite contribute to the plot, but I think it’s included because of it’s strong ties to one of the key themes of Hickman’s run: master morality. Time and again, Hickman has put leaders in impossible situations where their logic is orthogonal to our perceptions of right and wrong. T’Challa, Black Bolt, Namor, Dr. Doom have all specifically sighted their duties to their people above any other moral considerations. Scott doesn’t quite put it in those words, but relying on sentinels to protect Nation X is certainly a compromise he wouldn’t have made if he was just worried about himself.
I think it’s equally informative to read Gladiator’s motivations in a similar light. I think your “every character is a comic book creator” reading is compelling, but I’m not sure Gladiator is quite the villain that you’ve made him out to be. Honestly, the fact that we see his version of “we have to kill billions to save trillions” as evil speaks to just how horrific the Illuminati’s actions have been. I mean, I get that planning to destroy Earth is kind of the evil comic book thing, but the Illuminati have been doing that on a semi-regular basis for over a year now. Hickman is simply pulling the camera back a bit, and showing how these actions might look if the Illuminati had been confronted with incursions anywhere but Earth. I don’t think Gladiator’s morality is really any different than that of the Illuminati — he just happens to value the lives of the rest of the universe over those of Earth.
To me, the takeaway isn’t about the wrongheadedness of destructive reboots, but of the internal conflict a creator faces when they must kill their darlings. Every character in this issue is forced to give up what they want in favor of what they need — even poor Smasher has to say goodbye to peacetime in order to facilitate the Shi’ar’s impending attack. But none seem more conflicted than Gladiator, who profoundly regrets having to destroy Earth. Oracle insists that Gladiator cannot possibly destroy Earth because he’s a good man, but Gladiator replies with the king of all master morality trump cards.
What’s not clear to me is if this story is ultimately one lauding or condemning this kind of thought. If, as Patrick suggests, all of these leaders represent comic creators, is this a defense of unpopular decisions as necessary for a healthy universe? Or will Steve Rogers — the de facto face of that universe — ultimately prove his point that heroes don’t need to sacrifice who they are in order to survive? It’s a testament to the moral ambiguity of this series that I honestly have no clue which way it might break.
Which actually brings me to Stefano Caselli’s art. Hickman crams so much dialogue into every issue — and writes every character with such stoicism — that his collaborators often struggle to do much more than simply show who is talking. On the surface, Caselli’s layouts seem designed as simple (if gorgeous) reportage, but upon closer inspection, his camera angles reveal a great deal about the subjectivity of each character. The low angle on Gladiator in the panel above illustrates this beautifully — he’s clearly in a position of power — but I think the most telling moment is when Reed and T’Challa are discussing their lifeboat.
I know it doesn’t look like much — a mid shot of two characters facing each other isn’t exactly revelatory — but this shot is actually quite unusual in the context of this issue. Virtually no other scenes are quite as straightforward, filled with low angles, high angles, canted angles, and tons of extreme close ups. Indeed, the only other scene that has as traditional directing as this one is between Namor and Black Swan. Caselli seems to reserve these simple shots for his characters facing harsh realities frankly — or is it for when they no longer feel conflicted over their actions?
As usual, ambiguity abounds, but I think that only makes this issue more fascinating. It’s tempting to start to guess at what Hickman’s run will ultimately be about, but until we see the fallout, it’s impossible to make judgements about the quality of the moralities, attitudes, or analogues he’s included. Who knows? Maybe this is all happening in Tony’s head.
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