[29 January 2014]
PopMatters Comics Editor
The cracks are beginning to show, Dear Reader.
If you’ve not been following Marvel NOW, or superhero comics in general for that matter, seize the moment to fall right in again. Since the Fall of 2011, both of the Big 2 publishers, both DC and Marvel have begun a 21st century revamp of their respective properties.
We saw this happen with DC first, with the New 52 relaunch that saw all characters and settings be dialed back to their very beginnings. With Marvel NOW that came more or less a year later, the House of Ideas opted for a different approach—an in situ soft reboot of most of their properties.
Coming out of the “Avengers vs X-Men” megaevent (which seemed convincingly to be an end-of-era event), Marvel fans, casual readers and returning readers alike soon found a new rhythm. In many senses Marvel NOW is inextricably tied to writer Jonathan Hickman’s vision of the Avengers. What if earthlings become more important players on Marvel’s galactic stage? And what if, rather than the Fantastic Four running point, it’s the Avengers?
Over the past 25 issues of The Avengers, Hickman has worked wonders in blending together the more traditional espionage and global security elements of the Avengers with his ultramodern twenty-first century take on scifi. It’s been a wild ride, but also a gripping one. And what’s been happening with the Avengers has really set the thematic tone for the Marvel universe as a whole, even for books as far afield as Uncanny X-Men or Thunderbolts.
And it’s exactly here where the first wave of tension seems to hit the hardest. Very early on it already became clear that Avengers wouldn’t only set the thematic tone for the soft-rebooted Marvel Universe (the world of Earth-616, if you’re counting), it would also be used to intro a new visual style.
There on the no-longer barren plains of Mars, in the opening arc “Avengers’ World”, Jerome Opeña’s panoramic, Old Western style vistas seemed to just work in terms of the story. But who could guess that that same visual style would come to epitomize soft-rebooted Marvel? That even books once as visually distinct from Avengers like Iron Man or Guardians of the Galaxy or Nova arguably began to adopt that same Sergio Leone style of panoramic vistas.
And that’s exactly where we open with All New Invaders—“Opening Shot, Wide Angle on:…” We open with the Kree (one of Marvel’s premier galaxy-spanning civilizations) scouring the plains of a desert world. Wide angle and panoramic vista still the operative weapon of choice to intro the story. It seems like it’s the necessary move, now. That space invaders need to intro an Avengers-allied book, that it needs to be that widescreen vista at the up-front. And of course, it’s helped a little that the banal ordinariness of that fairly run-of-the-mill planet turns out to be the actual banal ordinariness of Earth, somewhere around Egypt.
On the surface of it, there are deep structural problems with this story. For one, the Kree incursion seems forced, in that it’s disconnected from the bulk of the story. Jim Hammond (the alter ego of the original Human Torch, once of the Invaders), for another, seems a little too folksy, and that in itself seems at odds with the ferocious passion he demonstrates in defending this rural Illinois town. But even those problems are mere set-dressing against the core problem. Which is, that the two stories don’t properly connect. Hammond’s drives and motivations don’t connect thematically with the Kree’s.
But just as the debut issue of All New Invaders appears to strain under the weight of extraneous Universe-based storytelling, something else appears that begins to turn the tide, writer James Robinson’s storytelling.
What at first seems an alien mode of storytelling, the mode of the panoramic Western, Robinson quickly superimposes on the entire story. Just as Hammond becomes the iconic sheriff who defends the homestead, Robinson extends the metaphor to all other characters. There’s no difference between Hammond’s actions and those of the Invaders during WWII. Or in fact, between there’s and the Kree.
But even more notable than Robinson’s working with and hyperextending of the cowboy metaphor, is his delving into the past. In recent times we’ve seen the specific delving into this period, we’ve seen the pure fury of that even-now landmark battle between Hammond and Namor, the Sub-Mariner that tore up half of Manhattan. Kurt Busiek’s Marvels stands as a masterwork in this regard. But the moment is summoned up again in Ed Brubaker’s Marvels Project, and even earlier in the History Channel documentary, Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked. (Didn’t the narration of that event, writing that battle, saw large groups of writers closeted into a tiny apartment, seem deeply reminiscent of that possible urban myth that J. P. Morgan locked bankers and legislators into his summer home until they wrote the bill that would inaugurate the Fed?).
Robinson’s Human Torch shows all the fire and the fury of that Jim Hammond, one that fits in perfectly with the original android, and evokes the same pitched battle that made the android an iconic Marvel character long before the Silver Age.
So where are we?
Robinson pulls back into thematic relevance what seems to be an extraneous storytelling convention that comes by way of the grander vision that is Marvel NOW. The Western, as a genre, sings in the pages of All New Invaders. As well, Robinson gives us a Western with all cowboys and no crooks, even the Kree foot soldiers and Pursuers are cowboys in their own story.
Added to that. Robinson brings his own flair to the story of the Invaders, or at least in this issue, the story of Jim Hammond, the original Human Torch. Rather than intro Hammond through direct reminiscence, we (we as readers, Dear Reader), get something far better—a nuanced evocation of the memory of a landmark event, as it echoes in the punch and counterpunch of a battle playing out in the present.
But. But is that enough? The original Invaders stories were about unchecked aggression against a morally corrupt force that illegally occupied once free nations. It offered the moral complexity of noir, without needing to resort to any of the conventions of genre. Robinson’s story doesn’t get there just yet. And while I am hopeful that, because it’s James Robinson of Starman and Justice Society fame, we will get a solid story, I’m still twisting on whether the story we will get will tread the same ground, morally, as the original Invaders.