Uncanny Avengers #1 rolls around in my imagination with a dangerous, callous novelty. It feels like what if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death resulted in the tearing down of the Berlin wall. There really is a sense of deep and abiding reunification. “We never did enough to help you,” Rick Remender writes for Captain America, meaning that the Government-sponsored Avengers, representing human enterprise and achievement, never did enough to help the X-Men, the pinnacle of mutant tolerance and hope.
But that’s not the real story of Uncanny Avengers, a book riding the crest of the MarvelNOW! wave, a book which jams together the Uncanny of Uncanny X-Men and the Avengers of Mighty Avengers, both titles of Stan Lee’s first wave of Silver Age books way back in the 60s. The real story isn’t the reunification of the Marvel Universe after human/mutant tension had originally been architected in. Nor is the real story of Uncanny Avengers, onetime X-Men archnemesis Magneto’s withdrawal from society, nor is it the remorselessness of Scott Summers in the wake of his murdering his one time mentor, Charles Xavier.
The real story is that Thor digs on lattes. And that story begins with Warren Zevon.
Specifically it begins in October of 1982, with Zevon’s first appearance on The Late Show. By 1982, it was already the better part of four years on from the release of Zevon’s Excitable Boy. The album is significant in that near the midpoint of the Carter administration, Zevon had already begun to conceive of the Cold War skirmish tensions that lay in wait during the ’80s. It wouldn’t be long until Reagan, and by 1982, Cold War adventurism into the Third World would begin to hit a fever pitch. Perhaps no track on the album captures this loss of innocence more acutely than “Lawyers, Guns and Money”. It is a track that unfolds a horror story of post-Vietnam foreign policy, one in which American interests become embroiled in the local politics of the South American continent.
“I went home with a waitress, the way I always do / How was I to know, she was with the Russians too?… / I was hiding in Havana, I took a little risk / Send lawyers, guns and money / Dad get me out of this….” The loss of innocence is palpable, and so too is the end of adventure as a concept. We just can’t go into South America, just can’t go across the world the way we once could, in the 19th century perhaps, or in the ’30s. Zevon’s album, and particularly “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, marks the turning of the tide. The moment the wave of that lost innocence crashes upon the rocks of the popular imagination, and then rolls back and begins to recede. Just 16 years on, the next wave crashes and it itself then begins to recede. It’s the wave of American stewardship surging outwards and cresting in a time when America is the sole global superpower. And this wave, strangely, is marked by the 2003 children’s movie Rugrats Go Wild.
By the summer of 2003, the deck’s already been stacked with a considerable amount of bad juju. Some 18 months prior we had to watch the WTC Towers fall. And while the retaliation was swift and sure, the spring of 2003 underlined one point — that we had gotten swept up in hunt. Those Towers coming down diminished each of us, illustrated how vulnerable our aspirations to greatness were, and showed the true face evil — an enemy that would target your hopes and your achievements. Why were we in Iraq? Many have argued that we were wrong to even be there. But it’s perhaps yet to be suggested that Iraq was a misadventure primarily because it defocused attention from rebuilding the Towers. Or better still, from putting humans on Mars, and harnessing that kind of spiritual triumph of supreme human endeavor, apparent during the Space Race of the ’60s, that allowed for the Towers to be built in the first instance.
If you watched the Towers go down, if you watched the initial coverage of Shock & Awe prior landing in Iraq, if you’d watched Warren Zevon’s hour-long appearance on Letterman the last Halloween and heard him say “Enjoy every sandwich” while talking about his life-threatening lung cancer… If you’d seen all of those, and then watched Rugrats Go Wild, the summer of 2003 would just have killed you.
Twenty one years prior, Zevon’s first appearance on Letterman signaled a deepening awareness of the traps we had worked ourselves into (or could work ourselves into) since Vietnam. It was the first sign of hope on the popculture radar, the first murmur of a turning of a tide, a beautiful statement that our artists once again had found the imagination to dream of better. Rugrats Go Wild, riding the crest of a wave began in the late ’90s with both Rugrats and its sister show The Wild Thornberrys, already took on the proportions of a relic by the summer of 2003.
The 2003 movie not only signaled and end to the wave of intelligent cartoons from Klasky & Cuspó, but an ostensible end to that strange and idealistic mix of safety and prominence that was cemented in the popular imagination during the Clinton Years. Sometime between Zevon’s first appearance on Letterman and the summer of 2003 there was a quiet reassertion of freedom. We’d never again grow “Embroiled”. We would be able to launch ourselves into any place again, encounter any danger, as Rugrats Go Wild seems to illustrate, and simply work ourselves free. It was a beautiful powerful narrative, like a feminist in a pair of four-inch Jimmy Choos, but it came to a crushing, jangled end in turgid, brutal quietus that rolled out from September 2001, until two summers hence.
If there’s any relevance or beauty or truth or just plain honesty to be found in Uncanny Avengers, and there is all of these in spades, then it has nothing to do with overturning the entrenched division of artistic vision that Stan Lee architected into the Marvel Universe from the very beginning — the conceptual difference between Avengers and X-Men. That overturning is something that Marvel EIC Axel Alonso has already come out strongly against.
So however easily Uncanny Avengers #1 might seem to fit into the cultural modes established by German reunification, those are modes turn out simply to be inaccurate arbiters of what’s going doing in the book. This isn’t about sewing together a rift Marvel Senior Staff just noticed had Frankensteined its way into the company’s fictive universe. This is about working through the psychology of embroilment and coming out the other side, only to have it swept away again in a new kind of flood. That original Frankenstein got sewed up at the very launch of the Silver Age, by Stan the Man himself, at a time when Cold War politics dictated embroilment and Frankenstein as the most rational courses of action.
This is the other story.
The story of coming through slaughter and then only to submerge back into it again. The story of the rolling back of that psychology of simultaneous prominence and self-confidence, a psychology Marvel had been mapping since 1999 with the launch of the Marvel Knights imprint, and the first relaunch of Daredevil, and a few years on with The Ultimates. And simultaneously the story of a very different psychology, a psychology of fracture and distress, one that Marvel had been mapping since 2007’s Civil War and The Death of Captain America. One that mirrors, almost point for point, the real world march from Zevon’s singular moment on Letterman, that eventually curls back up into that forgotten shell we saw the first flash of in the summer of 2003.
Do we come out the other side?
Who can say? But Uncanny Avengers feels heavy in my hand, weighted down by immense promise. And nothing encapsulates that promise more than a Viking God we only just discover is partial to lattes. After Thor and the Asgardians’ Journey into Mystery, the Journey that originally brought Thor into contact with humans, it’s heartening to find that everyday human things is that Mystery for conceptually complex spacefaring aliens. And just as for Thor, the commonplace brings the greatest joy, Uncanny Avengers suggests that perhaps the greatest geopolitical crises we face can be overcome by rallying around a new ordinary.
Uncanny Avengers succeeds, not only as great comics, but on equal footing with great literature. It is the best kind of way to kick off the new MarvelNOW!.