Even at their best, superteam books have a hilarious tendency to expose every stumbling, stupid absurdity inherent to the superhero genre.
Much as our esteemed Vietnam War veterans once returned home from a harrowing experience only to be, as Eminem once said, "Spit on and kicked and hit with shit," so now do our brave young men and women find themselves risking life and sanity in Iraq only to receive a fat gob of spit to the face in the form of an Avengers/X-Men comic wherein "Marvel salutes the real heroes, the men and women of the U.S. Military."
It is truly remarkable that any publisher today, much less a publisher with as much experience as Marvel Comics, could fail to understand that a book like this is a total embarrassment, not just to the comic book industry or its readers, but indeed to the very people to whom it is dedicated. One would assume that even a new, independent publisher would know better than to slap together an uninspired B-team production like this and have the cynical gall to label it a "salute." Comic books featuring old licensed characters being force-fed ill-fitting political, social or activist agendas in a contrived bid for social relevancy are always stilted and awkward and clumsy, and New Avengers/X-Men: Time Trouble not only fails to be an exception to this rule but in fact proves the rule like no comic has since Spider-Man spoke out against the dangers of tobacco, and this despite the bitterly amusing and ironic fact that the comic takes no real stance and is in no way an obvious tribute to anyone! We only know it is a tribute because the cover tells us so.
We start with Spider-Man waxing sentimental with a webbed-up Boomerang ("I'm always going to make time for you") before returning to Avengers Mansion to find Jarvis the butler sprawled on the floor with one of those ubiquitous superhero portals swirling mysteriously nearby. Spidey dives in and finds himself caught in World War II, where the Avengers have been battling some Kang-controlled X-folk determined to kill Captain America before he ever gets frozen so that... you know what? Let's just have Maude from The Big Lebowski tackle our Summary Duties today:
"The story is ludicrous."
Even at their best, superteam books have a hilarious tendency to expose every stumbling, stupid absurdity inherent to the superhero genre. If you choose, as a writer of superhero stories, to focus on one character, and if you have the talent to be a standout in a genre that's known for mediocrity, then you might be lucky enough or gifted enough to provide (nearly) adequate context for all the silliness that accompanies your chosen character. (A notable example of this successful method is Batman Begins, which Roger Ebert noted, "is not realistic… but it acts as if it is.") However, once you throw more than a few superheroes together, you have no time or space to adequately account for all their innate ridiculousness. Instead, you spend said time and space on extended dialogue that takes place mid-battle, with characters inexplicably managing to discuss strategy, villain motive and romantic angst all while dodging lasers and explosions. Putting a team like the Avengers alongside a team like the X-Men creates a veritable Orgy of Stupid, and it is hopeless to try to tell a story with all these characters and their respective, convoluted and often contradictory continuities while also paying tribute to military personnel in the real world.
It is possible to create a compelling, competent superteam story, of course, and it is also possible to pay loving, stirring tribute to soldiers (or whoever) with superheroes. For a good example of the latter, look no further than the cover to the 9/11 anthology (the quality of such tributes being what it usually is, I have indeed looked no further than the cover), with its Rockwellian Alex Ross Superman staring at a mural of firefighters and policemen, his awed response a simple, understated, "Wow."
It's telling, though, that the only example of successful superheroes-as-tribute that comes to mind isn't even a narrative, but instead just a single image. Perhaps Marvel Comics would have done well to forego Time Trouble's weak tale in favor of a collection of stand-alone illustrations, though no Marvel characters pack quite the iconic or emotional punch that you get from Superman (not even, despite how appropriate he would be for such a cover image, Captain America.)
Really, if you're absolutely determined to go the superteam route in a comic book like this, you should follow the example set by Paul Dini and Alex Ross in 2003's JLA: Liberty and Justice, which wasn’t even propaganda, but rather a straight-ahead superhero story. Even so, Dini and Ross had the good sense to focus on an incarnation of the Justice League team that's at once definitive and non-specific, meaning they cast the most beloved and recognizable members from the group's various line-ups without attaching them to any specific continuity in terms of character development. In Time Trouble, on the other hand, unlikely teammates Kitty Pryde and Emma Frost get bitchy with one another on the battlefield, and to the (very, very limited) extent to which this comic can hope to have some sort of lasting legacy, a localized bit of continuity like this is going to date it pretty severely. Worse still is a scene in which a "fastball special" takes place against the backdrop of a WWII battlefield, which just takes the absurdity and obliviousness past any measurable level. For those of you not in the know, a "fastball special" occurs when big metal X-Man Colossus throws runty, cranky X-Man Wolverine into the air... as in, to catch up with airplanes and such. Try picturing that scene with WWII soldiers shooting at enemies on the ground below and you'll have a good sense of why this comic does not, cannot work.
I read Time Trouble at work while my seventh grade students hammered away at an essay, and one of them happened by for editing assistance and spotted the beginnings of this review on my desktop and asked about it. I said to her, "You remember my friend Deven, my brave friend in Iraq who the whole class wrote letters to a few weeks ago? Well, he sent me a really lame comic book, kinda as a joke. And now I'm reviewing it, because I don't think it's nice when somebody produces something crappy and then dedicates it to our troops."
"Yeah," she responded. "Isn't that like saying they're crappy?"
From the mouths of babes, Marvel Comics. From the mouths of babes.
Editor's Note: This special issue is not available commercially