Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

22 August 2008

Avengers West Coast: Darker than Scarlet

Collects: Avengers West Coast #51-7, 60-2 (1989-90)

Released: January 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 232 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785130277

I think the kindest thing I can say about Avengers West Coast: Darker than Scarlet is that it gives background to Brian Bendis’s catastrophic Avengers: Disassembled and House of M. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to recommend Darker than Scarlet, unless you’re a really big Disassembled / House of M fan. (Or Avengers West Coast fan, I suppose.)

Avengers West Coast: Darker than Scarlet coverThis is not John Byrne’s finest hour. Byrne is one of modern comics’ best writer / artists. Here, his art matches up well with the rest of his ‘90s work; not as inspired as his earlier output, perhaps, and with a slight tendency toward dated hairstyles,12 but it’s still better than the exaggerated work of most of his contemporaries, who were being lauded as “hot artists.” (There is a coloring error of some importance on p. 35, but that’s not Byrne’s fault.)

The writing — more specifically, the plotting — is the problem. Part of the difficulties lie in crossovers. Darker than Scarlet runs through, and to a certain extent is intertwined with, the Acts of Vengeance crossover. Acts of Vengeance was a loose crossover in which Loki persuaded villains to fight different adversaries who didn’t know their weaknesses13; the West Coast Avengers fought Mole Man, a Fantastic Four foe, and the U-Foes,14 the Hulk’s sparring partners. Unfortunately, the Avengers issues in which the good guys unravel Loki’s plot aren’t included in this collection, so we go from the realization that someone is behind the strange attacks to the climactic fight, and the second half of the fight with the U-Foes is in an unincluded Avengers issue. Also missing is the Scarlet Witch’s part in the Atlantis Attacks crossover, which should come between #53 and 54. Byrne even has to apologize for allowing Tigra to be in Atlantis Attacks because her subplot wasn’t wrapped up in time. (He mostly ignores the subplot in Darker than Scarlet as well.) The Scarlet Witch’s story, chronicling her coming unwound mentally, is mixed with this, as are her reunion with her father, Magneto, and her brother and enigmatic scenes with Immortus watching alternate timelines. These don’t mix together well, leaving a heterogeneous mess.

Then there’s the manipulation of the Scarlet Witch. I don’t know if this qualifies for the Women in Refrigerators discussion — it seems the opposite to me, since it’s her male relations who are killed and she gets an increase in power — but there’s no doubt Darker than Scarlet sees the culmination of seemingly gratuitous trauma for a stalwart character, putting her through the wringer, turning her “evil,” and then making her a helpless pawn of Immortus. I don’t know if this oversteps the bounds of sexism in comics — I tend not to think so, since DC was doing worse to Hal Jordan at about the same time — but it’s close enough to make me uncomfortable.

The Immortus storyline and his plans for the Scarlet Witch are laid out by Roy and Dann Thomas, who wrote the final three issues. I’ve never been that interested in Kang’s less martial self, and his plan to use the Witch as an empty vessel (while calling her his “queen”) to control 7,000 years of human history doesn’t rise beyond the level of creepy. The Legion of the Unliving aren’t very compelling, given their unreality and the fact that they disappear while some of them are winning, and Tempus the Time Giant seems silly. (It’s like central casting sent over one of Thor’s frost giants for #62, and the Thomases had to quickly get him a slight costume change and shoehorn him into the plot.) Given that the storyline is wrapped up essentially by the Scarlet Witch saying, “No,” and the Time Keepers showing up to set Immortus straight as deus ex tempo, it’s a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion to the long buildup. Paul Ryan’s art is solid, if unspectacular, and meshes with Byrne’s work.

There’s a lot of things going on in Darker than Scarlet. Unfortunately, it’s too much, too ambitious a central story to credibly tell with all the other stories competing with it.

Rating: Avengers symbol Half Avengers symbol (1.5 of 5)

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