Emanata: “It’s Happening Again”

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“The most important panel in a Marvel comic this year,” last week’s Marvel T&A discussion with senior editors Tom Brevoort and Axel Alonso informed us, was the one you see excerpted above: the top half of a two-page spread in Brian Michael Bendis and John Romita Jr.’s newly released Avengers #5. There’s not much actually happening in it: it’s not a particularly emotional moment, or a moment where the premise of Marvel’s core story changes, or a payoff for something that’s been building for a while.

Instead, it’s a promise of future payoffs: a roadmap of things that will apparently happen in this and other series over the next year or two. The scene involves an older, white-haired version of Iron Man showing his younger self a timeline he’s tacked to the wall, festooned with a big bunch of phrases that refer to recent, present or future Marvel storylines (surrounded by diagrams from high school math books). It’s not quite the same effect as the flash-forwards that have been popular in the last few years’ worth of comics; actually, it owes a lot more to the nifty sequence in 2006’s 52 #6 where time traveler Rip Hunter’s chalkboard is covered with urgent scribbles about future events. (A lot of those notes didn’t particularly lead anywhere, or were red herrings, but it seemed like a fun idea at the time.)

(More on Techland: Emanata: Forward-Looking Statements)

There’s been some discussion online in the past week about what the teasers on the Avengers timeline refer to, but most of them are fairly clear, and some have already happened. “Siege” is at the left side of the timeline; after that, there’s “Captain America Reborn,” “Nine Worlds in Disarray”–referring to the Avengers Prime miniseries set immediately after “Siege”–and “Heroic Age Begins!” (Not that anyone appears to exactly know what “The Heroic Age” is, other than a banner that’s been turning up on the covers of various Marvel titles for the past few months.)

“Three!” is the Fantastic Four storyline that starts this week; “Five Lights” is a current X-Men storyline, and “Yesterday’s X-Men” has already been advertised as coming up in a few months. “Iron Lad (Re)Turns?” is a hint that the old Young Avengers character (who was the current Avengers bad guy Kang in another form) will be back. “Where Is Wanda?” suggests that somebody is finally going to deal with the Scarlet Witch plot thread that’s been dangling since House of M five years ago. “The Drumm of Revenge” has to be something about Jericho Drumm, a.k.a. Doctor Voodoo. “Fear Without Man” is a cute riff on Daredevil‘s “man without fear” slogan. The skull with a numeral 3 on one side and “ION” on the other seems to be a rebus for “Triskelion,” the headquarters of the Ultimate universe’s Avengers.

The ones whose meaning isn’t already nailed down, though, are either too vague to be intriguing (“night falls,” “scorched earth??”) or too specific to be evocative (“Schizm!”). And some of them seem to be steeped in the same narrow array of characters and crises that Marvel’s been juggling for decades, to the point where they seem overfamiliar. Partway down the timeline, for instance, “Return of the King” is marked. Could it be related to to this “Return of the King,” from 2003? Or this one, which was just last year? Or is it just that kings are forever returning?

(More on Techland: Emanata: Three Versions of Bendis)

The Avengers timeline is interesting in the way that it might be interesting to see a long-term planning schedule on the Marvel office’s wall. But it doesn’t have the thrilling, unsettling impact of prophecy, because most of its predictions make too much immediate sense. Still, one of this issue’s recurring phrases–“it’s happening again”–recalls another story whose crucial moments were more powerful visions of the future: David Lynch’s 1990-1991 TV series Twin Peaks, one of whose key lines was “it is happening again.” The tension in Twin Peaks‘ prophecies (“that gum you like is going to come back in style,” “there’s a man in a smiling bag”) came from the fact that we, as viewers, didn’t quite know what they meant until they came true. They also suggested that Lynch and the show’s writers were working from a detailed roadmap, although in retrospect they were probably just winging it.

That, in fact, may be the real problem with Tony Stark’s timeline. It serves as a contract with Avengers‘ readers (and, more generally, Marvel’s hardcore fanbase), assuring us that the writers behind the massive, interconnected Marvel story know where their stories are leading, at least for the next year or two. But it also suggests that there’s not a lot of room for improvisation–for some kind of wild idea that could lead a single series or all of them in some totally unexpected direction–and improvisation is much more a lot of Marvel writers’ strong suit than airtight plotting. The Avengers scene makes a case for its importance by declaring that Marvel can already see the future clearly; what it needs to do, and fails to do, is remind us that we can’t.