This weekend my kid and I caught The Avengers. We both really liked it, and in fact, I think I loved it. It was funny, emo, and action-packed. It gave the characters more love than the costumes. It never tried to be something it wasn’t – e.g., a grim, politically-relevant megastatement about the state of the world post-Bush/Cheney – and it settled for being probably the best superhero movie I’ve seen.
At the same time, flipping through my pull list for my local comic book store (Jetpack Comics in Rochester, NH – best damn comic store in New England), I noticed that I’ve dropped all of my Marvel titles. From age 13 until just a few years ago, I forgot about comic books; but when I started getting back into them, Marvel had a lot to offer – Fraction writing Iron Man, Bendis’ Dark Avengers and Ultimate Spiderman, Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, and even the new New Mutants series, mostly for old time’s sake. A few different arcs sucked me in, but when they ended, I stopped buying the books.
If I had to boil my decision down to one reason – and for the sake of time, I will – I’d say that I left Marvel because their books are just too big. All their attention has one (through economic necessity, I’m sure) to high profile sure things, while the weird little characters that always caught my attention can’t seem to get any traction – like the brief Cloak & Dagger revival, or the new Moon Knight series, whose final issue was the last Marvel book left in my sub.
Meanwhile, Marvel gluts the market with crossovers between their biggest titles. They have ten different Avengers books, fifteen X-Men – I think I’ve got five different versions of the Captain America origin story that came out just in the last year. I just can’t read the same stories again and again. You say that Iron Man is an alcoholic again? Dude, I read that story when they did it in the 80s. Stark was living on the street like a bum! It was intense!
But there’s no room for oddballs, and it’s the oddballs that give a little nuance to the universe. Small characters can have beginnings, middles, and ends. They can show up, experience a dramatic arc, and vanish – gone! Their story’s told and they can leave.
I’m going to point my finger at a specific issue of The New Avengers, written by Brian Bendis, and a specific scene featuring one of my favorite unsung characters in the line.
The New Avengers is a spin-off title of the main Avengers, featuring a team of sort of well-known and less-known heroes. I’m not sure what the point of it is, aside from making money, but it does have a more oddball take on Marvel’s mightiest heroes. It also has awkward humor, like this joke that Spiderman makes about the Iron Fist’s name:
Did I mention that superhero books aren’t for kids anymore?
That’s from issue #21, but the issue that really bothered me was the next one. Let me start by introducing the character Victoria Hand.
Hey, that’s a pretty good introduction! To elaborate: She became well-known in the Dark Avengers series, where archvillain Norman Osborne has formed a team of other villains, and rebranded them as heroes. Victoria was Osborn’s right-hand woman, helping him execute his schemes and keep his cuckoo team together. She did this not because she was evil, but because she thought Osborne was really onto something – that he actually had a plan that would accomplish more good and bring more peace to the world than the well-meaning but less-effective supes that came before him. In other words, she made a choice to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. And this makes her an interesting character!
I really like Victoria Hand. (And yeah, it helps that she has a passing resemblance to an old friend of mine.) So I was glad that Marvel kept her around. In the books, Osborne’s super-evil plan falls through and almost everybody goes to jail – but Captain America asks Hand to work with him, as a kind of double- or-triple-agent or something? The thing is, a lot of other superheroes don’t get the memo. And so when the New Avengers decide that Victoria Hand might still be evil, they decide to pay her a visit and interrogate her.
Except they don’t just interrogate her. They torture her.
Remember, Victoria Hand has no superpowers. She’s a highly-trained, super-skilled bureaucrat, essentially. But when a handful of the world’s greatest superheroes come to pay her a visit, they decide to beat her, threaten to kill her, and even make her imagine that she’s been tossed out a window to fall to her death.
Is that what heroes do? Is that what anyone does?
Truth be told, I don’t think there’s anything more to this than The New Avengers being a crummy comic that’s in really bad taste. But it’s a good metaphor for what I think of Marvel nowadays: all of the interesting characters are getting beaten up by the famous ones. That ain’t an ecosystem that I need to spend $4 an issue to read.