Emanata: Three Versions of Bendis

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Thanks to a scheduling pile-up, all three parts of Brian Michael Bendis’s conclusion to his part of the Siege crossover–Siege #4, Dark Avengers #16 and The New Avengers Finale–came out this week. (Spoilers for all of them follow.) Bendis is a fascinating and occasionally frustrating writer to follow: he’s incredibly prolific, he tends to stick with projects for a long time, and he effectively rules the most popular franchise at Marvel right now. He also tends to push himself way outside of his home territory of crime stories, character interaction and peppery, vernacular dialogue. For the past decade, he’s been writing a lot of comics where those strategies don’t necessarily work, and few of them have failed creatively as badly as Siege.

The final issue of Siege is pretty much the definition of bad Bendis–an issue that has to work as outsized cosmic spectacle, which is not one of his strong points, and also has to cram in a whole lot of plot developments, which runs smack into his habit of building slowly toward character revelations. Characters don’t really get to talk to each other; they speechify and wisecrack. The Norn Stones allow Loki to give a bunch of heroes an arbitrary video-game-style power-up (they actually get new powers temporarily, although Olivier Coipel’s artwork is unclear enough that a clunky bit of expository dialogue has to communicate that). Then the Sentry kills Loki, which he is able to do because that’s what happens in the plot. Then Thor kills the Sentry, which he is able to do because that’s what happens in the plot. Then Steve Rogers announces that Bucky is going to be Captain America, because… and so on.

(More on Techland: Exclusive Preview: Moving Pictures)

A gigantic change in the operating premise of the Marvel mega-plot–the Superhuman Registration Act is overturned, all the enmity of the Civil War/Secret Invasion/Dark Reign era is over, everybody can be friends and hang out and party again, etc.–is shunted into position in two panels. (It’s hard to imagine why the now-nameless-in-Marvel-comics President thinks that’s a good idea, given that Phobos slaughtered a bunch of his Secret Service agents in the Oval Office in the recent Siege: Secret Warriors one-shot a day or two ago in story time, but that’s the sort of detail Bendis doesn’t have room to sweat.) At the end, everybody looks stern and photogenic for a two-page spread that only emphasizes how much Coipel seems to dislike drawing feet. Seriously, there are no visible feet on something like 17 pages of a 30-page story. I like to imagine that all of Coipel’s characters are secretly rollerblading.

The New Avengers Finale is more comfortable territory for Bendis: the ensemble cast here actually gets to talk to each other, and the action is a lot less cosmic. It’s also an opportunity for him to grapple with his habit of opening up one plot thread after another; here, he mops up the Hood storyline that’s been the through-line of the last two and a half years or so of New Avengers. (The series isn’t actually ending, just being relaunched and renumbered next month.). In the party scene at the end, there’s a six-pack of a brew labeled as “Millar Lite,” and Bryan Hitch’s artwork isn’t the only thing here that suggests Mark Millar’s writing–Wolverine’s big entrance is a total Ultimates moment–but generally in a good way.

One side effect of Bendis’s knack for spinning out serials, though, is that his endings aren’t often dramatically satisfying, and the greatest-hits montage that concludes this issue tries much too hard to argue that the last five years’ worth of New Avengers have been a grand journey: nine consecutive double-page spreads, drawn by most of the artists who’ve stuck around on the series for at least a little while, recapitulating the big fights of the last five years, while Luke Cage gives an endless speech. You can almost hear “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” blaring in the background.

Bendis’s collaboration with Mike Deodato on Dark Avengers, on the other hand, has consistently been his most solid recent work: it’s a story about what happens when criminals assume power, it’s driven by very strong personalities colliding with one another, and it stars a character who accomplishes almost everything with well-placed language, which means it’s exactly the kind of superhero title that suits his gifts. The final issue actually does slam the volume shut impressively, at least as far as Bendis’s contribution goes. Here, it’s Deodato and colorist Rain Beredo who are overreaching: a lot of this issue comes out looking computer-modeled rather than drawn, and their habit of showing foreground and background objects “out of focus” is a misguided attempt to make cartooning more like film by reproducing the weaknesses of film.

In an afterword, Bendis dedicates the whole Dark Avengers series to Warren Ellis. That’s fitting, since its premise and cast are a continuation of Ellis and Deodato’s run on Thunderbolts. Ellis’s story, though, was about a group of horrible, horrible people manipulating one another for the sake of power. Bendis’s has been more about investigating why people would associate themselves with a horrible cause, and this issue, in a series of brief, mostly dialogue-driven scenes, we get the final answers for the more interesting members of the cast. Daken is an opportunistic sadist; Ares made a difficult choice to create a better life for his son; Victoria Hand, as we see in a terrific three-page dialogue, genuinely thought she was acting in the public good. And the concluding revelation about Norman Osborn is that he’s genuinely well-intentioned, at least in his own illness-wracked mind, and he’s probably not totally wrong, either. Behind every awful thing Osborn’s done, Bendis suggests, there’s a would-be champion of humanity who believes that the price for either his success or his failure is being understood to be a terrible villain. It’s a fine, scary sequence–Bendis doing what he does best. Cross your fingers that his two new Avengers series will let him keep playing to his strengths.

Want more Emanata? See all of Douglas’ columns here.

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