To me the biggest problem with modern comics is their status as intellectual property that is licensed for existing on multiple media platforms. Without stakes, no story can truly be exciting or enticing beyond watching familiar characters engage each other in some way and maybe go through enough narrative steps until completion of a plot trope only to see it undone by an editorial or corporate mandate in a few months time.
Spider-man will not stay replaced by Doctor Octopus, for example. We know this because the character is too prevalent in media as an intellectual property. Gone are the days where Jean Grey could die after being possessed by the Phoenix or Barry Allen could sacrifice his life for the multiverse. Even supporting characters have to remain intact. Mary Jane Watson and Lois Lane won’t go anywhere no matter the story beats that may kill them off.
With all of these constraints put on a writer to adhere to, it’s a small wonder that anything can happen in a story involving superheroes anymore. At least in the 80s and 90s, there were “second tier” or “third tier” heroes that could be affected by a story but even those characters have been licensed to the hilt thanks to their involvement in the Avengers or Justice League franchises.
This brings to the Dark Avengers (formerly the Thunderbolts) by the unappreciated, yet supremely talented, hands of Jeff Parker with artistic support from Neil Edwards. Since its inception, Thunderbolts has been a book where the standard has always been change and the unexpected has always been name of the game. Since Kurt Busiek introduced the concept of villains masquerading as heroes and then, once exposed, trying to redeem themselves, the title has always been a place for truly suspenseful superheroics.
The main reason this title has always managed to set itself up as a book where anything can happen is that when your protagonists are villains that are not on lunchboxes or don’t have a movie coming out next summer, anything can happen and often does. When the last version of the title picked up under Parker back during Marvel’s “Heroic Age”, the book went through multiple phases with stories involving prisoners of the superhero prison, the Raft, released on probation to prove their rehabilitation and then watched as those characters suddenly were thrust into a time travel storyline that Quantum Leap-ed the team through multiple points in Marvel’s colorful history. The aftermath of this adventure saw characters introduced by Brian Michael Bendis in New Avengers become the new protagonists: The Dark Avengers.
This new team of villains with few morals and scruples masqueraded as heroes to gain the public trust were now thrust into an adventure where they must save an alternate world harkens back to the original stories by Busiek back in the original Thunderbolts title. The main difference lies in subtleties that Parker chooses to use by setting his team against an alternate New York City populated by corrupted versions of Iron Man, Ben Grimm, Doctor Strange, and Reed Richards who rule areas of Manhattan like ganglords. The inversion of the narrative pits the classic Marvel heroes, now taking on the roles of monstrous villains, against the only possible saviors: villainous analogues of the Avengers such as Trickshot, Toxie Doxie, and Ragnarok. Leading the “team” is US Agent and Skaar: Son of the Hulk as the only two heroes of the bunch and the only moral compass left for any of the characters.
The good news is that Parker manages to give us back that “who-knows-what’s-going-to-happen-next” fun that the book’s predecessor always evoked. The bad news is that there are areas of the book that seem to show the hand that the book itself is not going to be around much longer. Too much happens at once involving too many characters that the reader is assumed to instantly know the backstories of in order to be aware of why their “corrupt version” is acting a certain way. In this current issue alone we have references to the Mole Man, the Awesome Android, Clea, Namor, Venom, and Hawkeye with little in terms of exposition to explain what any of it really means to the main plot. It’s not Parker’s fault in anyway, though, as it seems that he is trying to tell a large-scale story in a very short amount of time using as many of the toys in the toybox as possible.
The other issue the book has going against it is that, frankly, none of the Dark Avengers are likeable. Sure, US Agent and Skaar seem to have some ability to evoke support from the audience, but they’re barely the focus of the book. Consequently haven’t gotten very many opportunities to stand out as protagonists. The expectation when the title launched out of Thunderbolts was that readers would have read New Avengers and been aware of who these Dark Avengers were and what their backstories and motivations were all about.
Frankly, I’ve read a great deal of Marvel comics over the years and wasn’t familiar with any of the team outside of Ragnarok (a Thor clone/android introduced during “Civil War”). With very little introduction, the group instantly being an unlikeable bunch, the only hook became the promise of US Agent being back on his feet and leading the team and the incredibly unpredictable adventures in an alternate reality. The latest issue, though, leads me to believe that with so many plates spinning, the storyline will not resonate as well as Parker’s previous Thunderbolts issues where the unscrupulous protagonists stole your heart whilst traveling through time and space.
It’s rare for a comic to exist using established superheroes and being unpredictable in terms of possibilities. Characters don’t often have consequences befall them like they used to and the rare moment when a book comes along with the promise of that kind of consequence, yields hope for a fun and entertaining time. Because Jeff Parker is a trust name for me in comics, I will continue with this storyline until completion to judge. So far elements are fun and off the wall, but it seems that every third beat falls a little flat and that feels more like the fault of unlikable characters he’s mandated to use more than his own flaws moving the pieces around.