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

13 April 2006

Avengers / Thunderbolts, v. 1: The Nefaria Protocols

Collects: Avengers (v. 3) #31-4, Thunderbolts #42-44 (2000)

Released: March 2004 (Marvel)

When Count Luchino Nefaria begins a plot to change the world, who’re you gonna call?

The Avengers! And the Thunderbolts!

The 2000 crossover between the two titles was tied to ionic powers, which are … well, you see, their bodies … it alters the … Hmm. Ionic energy makes people glow odd colors, seem to have a corona and leak energy from the eyes, and allows them to be superstrong and fly (eventually) and come back from the dead (also eventually). Possibly there are other powers in there as well.

Now in the X-Books, that alone would be enough for a 12-part crossover. But that’s not enough for Avengers writer Kurt Busiek and Thunderbolts writer Fabian Nicieza. So not only does Avenger Wonder Man and Thunderbolt Atlas have ionic powers like Nefaria, Nefaria’s daughter, Madame Masque, was a former lover of Iron Man, one of the Avengers. Add in Nefaria and Masque’s ties to the Maggia, an organized crime syndicate, plus the Grim Reaper, brother of Wonder Man and the Vision (kinda), who’s working for the Maggia … well, you’ve got seven issues jammed full of plot.

That’s not to say there aren’t fun moments or characterization. Seven issues is more than enough time to allow the characters to act like themselves, have fun little moments (like Vision asking teammate Warbird out to dinner, while his ex-wife the Scarlet Witch watches), and otherwise act as if this another chapter in the characters’ lives, rather than “event.”

For the most part, The Nefaria Protocols is a fun ride, although it is occasionally extremely dense to the point of requiring decryption. The difficult part to read is the Thunderbolts issues. While the Avengers issues are wonderfully self-contained — except for following Dr. Pym’s swashbuckling alter ego as he runs around, starting bar fights with science nerds — the Thunderbolts issues are knee-deep in their own subplots. On one level, this is admirable, both from Nicieza and Marvel; Nicieza rewards readers of Thunderbolts and does a wonderful job of avoiding forcing his readers into buying the entire crossover, and it wasn’t long ago Marvel would quash subplots during crossovers (Peter David quit X-Factor for just that reason). However, I’m on a different level: that of someone reading the trade out of sequence of the rest of the series.

It’s easy to see the contrast in styles between Busiek and Nicieza in The Nefaria Protocols. Both will mine deep in past continuity and refine it for storylines. Busiek will occasionally sacrifice pacing for comprehension, although I don’t think he does in The Nefaria Protocols. Sometimes, however, Busiek’s stories read as if their primary purpose was to wrap up loose ends (Avengers Forever, for example). I’m not sure whether it’s laudable or condemnable in artistic sense. I enjoy those types of stories, especially when they seem well researched and heavily footnoted, but it does make the stories difficult to read sometimes. In this TPB, Avengers #33 seems the strongest example of this: assembling all the threads of Madame Masque’s life and tying off the loose ones.

Nicieza will skip the detailed explanations and draw out the suspense, so we see several plotlines running in the background: the Scourge, who Techno has in the tubes, what Andrea Sterman is going on about, what’s eating Moonstone, etc. I don’t know if Nicieza planned these as trailers for Avengers readers who were crossing over, but they read like spare cogs and wheels bouncing around inside the engine block in the trade. (Not that I want them taken out; when I buy a reprint, I want all the story reprinted.) Nicieza seems occasionally use obscure characters and plot points because he enjoys obscure characters and plot points. I mean, he resurrected a Humus Sapien, a character that won a Marvel contest but never even saw print, in Thunderbolts #55.

Art is provided by George Perez on the Avengers issues and Mark Bagley on the Thunderbolts. Both are accomplished superhero artists, able to tell a story with a great deal of action, and Perez, the veteran, shines in his Avengers finale. Normally, I enjoy Bagley’s work, but he clearly comes off in second place here. Thunderbolts #43, for example, has the characters standing around a great deal, which doesn’t exactly play to his strengths. All his females have the same exaggerated curvaceousness — a staple of the superhero genre, to be sure, but with so many women in spandex, it becomes monotonous and distracting, especially when you see how Perez draws them. Some might say there’s a bit of sameness in his faces as well. Still, it’s much more than competent, so there’s little real room to complain.

Unfortunately, this book appears to be out of print or on the shadowy edges of OOP that Marvel’s printing policies creates. Still, copies are available on E-Bay, and it’s well worth your time hunting it down.

Grade: A-

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