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

24 February 2012

Avengers Academy, v. 1: Permanent Record

Collects: Avengers Academy #1-6, story from Enter the Heroic Age #1 (2010-1)

Released: January 2011 (Marvel)

Format: 168 pages / color / $24.99 (hardcover) / ISBN: 9780785144946

What is this?: Some of the more troubled Avengers try to surreptitiously steer some of Norman Osborn’s more volatile test subjects toward heroism.

The culprits: Writer Christos Gage and penciler Mike McKone (with help from Jorge Molina)

There are a lot of people who complain about the dearth of prominent new characters being created by the Big Two comics companies. For example, look at Marvel: the last important, popular new character to headline a title, Deadpool, first appeared in 1991. That’s more than twenty years ago. This realization leads to two questions: whose fault is this, and what can be done about it?

I don’t know the answer to the second question, but I’m pretty sure the blame for the first lies with comics readers, or at least those who read superhero comics. In the last ten years or so — since the Bill Jemas years — Marvel has not been shy about tossing new, young characters at their audience, both singly and on teams: Spider-Girl. Araña (or Spider-Girl, Part Deux). Gravity. Amadeus Cho. The second New Mutants / second New X-Men. The Hood. X-23. Hope and her mutant team. The Young Avengers. Runaways. Young Allies. Slingers, if you want to go back to the ‘90s. Many characters from Avengers: The Initiative — and I’m sure there are others I’m missing. But none of them survived very long, except Spider-Girl, who limped along for about 130 issues at the bottom of the sales charts. The next most successful is The Initiative, and it lasted about three years.

Avengers Academy, v. 1: Permanent Record coverAll of this is a roundabout way to bring up Avengers Academy, v. 1: Permanent Record. In Academy, some of the Avengers set out to teach young heroes how to use their powers safely, using a school environment —

Yes, I know you’ve heard that setup before. And just like in The Initiative, King Screw-Up himself (Hank Pym) is in charge of molding young minds into please-don’t-be-a-morally-ambiguous-part-time-mentally-ill spouse abuser. But this time, that’s part of the point: All of the students at Avengers Academy have been flagged as possible problems. All were abused by Norman Osborn and his HAMMER goons, and their psychological evaluations raised concerns. So no one is sure what these kids are going to do, left to their own devices. To show the kids they don’t have to give in to destructive impulses and can rebound from wrong decisions, Pym gathered a “bad choices” teaching staff: Quicksilver, a part-time villain who is possibly the only Avenger less stable than Pym; Justice, who killed his father; Speedball, who was crucified by Brian Michael Bendis for the sake of Civil War; and Tigra.

At least it gives writers something more interesting to do with the characters when this book is cancelled. Unlike in one of the X-Men spinoffs, they don’t have to be “random background figure in team crowd scene #2” — they can be a hero or a misguided villain.

Writer Cristos Gage makes each character the focus of one issue in Permanent Record. It’s a good choice, and even though only half of them seem to be the threats the story wants us to believe they are, each is given a chance to be seen as human, with some good and some bad within them. Finesse, who has a natural aptitude for everything but human interactions, is the most intriguing of the group; it’s easy to see her slipping to either side of the hero / villain divide. Her relationship with Quicksilver, the most morally ambiguous of the teachers, is fascinating, especially given her missing moral compass and Quicksilver’s inability to find the ethical North Pole. Finesse seeks knowledge and doesn’t care about moral implications. Implications of any sort elude her, as seen in her relationship with Reptil: she attaches no emotional component to their physical liaisons, and her lack of emotional connection means she doesn’t consider Reptil’s feelings. But she’s surprisingly introspective about her blind spots. Of course, lack of understanding of actions and their consequences is a perfect issue to explore in a comic about teenagers.

The rest of the characters are, if not clichéd, then at least a bit predictable. Striker is the brash glory hog. Veil is the ingénue. Mettle is the good-natured brick who hides his tortured feelings beneath an invulnerable surface. Hazmat is the one with the sour disposition; at least the loss of her formerly perfect life, combined with her now-isolating powers, gives her an excuse for being surly. The issue featuring Reptil, the wannabe leader who has always wanted to be a hero, is the weakest of the book; I didn’t get the character’s disillusionment, but my inability to comprehend may extend from not having read the character’s appearances in The Initiative. It may be part of the “leadership” character trait he’s been given, 63 although given his desire to be a hero, we’re fortunate Gage didn’t make him the stereotypical star-struck rookie.

Of course there’s teenage drama. Of course some of the kids want to go after their tormenter, Osborn, as soon as they can. Some of them want fame, exposure. There’s the usual drama with hormones, both appropriate and inappropriate, with Hazmat — whose touch is poison — having the Rogue drama64 of not being able to touch others. The team seems like an actual group of teenagers, for the most part.

Gage tries to make the teachers relevant as well. He doesn’t have anything for Tigra to do in the book, but the others all get some time. Some of Gage’s decisions, like making Speedball a cutter, is a bit questionable, and Pym is such a screw-up you have to wonder why the Avengers would let him do this again. Justice is the good-hearted guy who attracts inappropriate crushes, just like in The Initiative. Quicksilver, as mentioned above, is always interesting, especially when Finesse makes him confront his time as a villain and his relationship with Magneto. Gage has an uphill battle rehabilitating the character after the heel turn he took between Decimation and Civil War, and he still has work to do. But I’m willing to go along with it for now, which is a credit to Gage’s writing.

The story structure allows for plenty of guest instructors, both heroes and villains. Some of the guest heroes are predictable; Steve Rogers comes by to teach the newbies not to underestimate unpowered opponents, and Iron Fist beats up Finesse to show the difference between mastering technique and knowing when to use it. But Hawkeye’s suggestion of a media day is a good use of the character, and it prompts Pym’s priceless line, “I think I see why Janet left me for you.” Others make the most of brief appearances. Moonstone is hilarious in her cameo, as is the paranoid Ghost. Valkyrie is funny as a militant feminist, but that doesn’t seem in character for her. Even Moon Boy and Devil Dinosaur sneak into the background of Reptil’s story. Gage makes some nice choices of creepy villains, such as Mandrill and Crossbones, for background flavor at the Raft.

I’m not sure about McKone’s art. For the most part, I like the style, but occasionally I find something annoying about it. There are times I can’t figure out what exactly is supposed to be going on. Sometimes I don’t know whether it’s the art, writing, or a deliberate mystery that’s confusing me: how did those prisoners get out of their cells in the Raft, for instance? If it was because of the blackout, why didn’t the kids run across any escapees on their way to Osborn’s cell? And did Striker and his mother engineer the supervillain attack on the team to get Striker publicity?

Is it a kiss?Other times, though, I’m sure it’s McKone. He seems to have problems with perspective when two characters are close together, such as Greg and Jenny in #3 and Finesse and Quicksilver at the end of #2 — is Finesse expecting to kiss Quicksilver? Am I supposed to take Veil’s tears in #4 seriously? Why does Powderkeg look so much like a helmetless Juggernaut? His female figures seem to pose too much — even the one wearing a hazmat suit.

More importantly, McKone’s character designs leave something to be desired. Perhaps we’re supposed to see their simplicity as a reflection of our lack of knowledge of the characters or of their lack of experience. Or perhaps it’s just what McKone thinks inexperienced people would design. But Finesse’s costume is horribly boring, a rip-off of the old Mockingbird costume that exchanges the bell sleeves (thankfully) for a pair distracting stripes on her legs. Veil looks like something John Romita, Jr., would have created during his late ‘80s Daredevil run. The rest are unexpired — a superstrong copy of the Red Skull, a guy with a black costume with lightning effects, a very slightly modified hazmat suit, for Kirby’s sake. Ugh.

Getting back to the idea I started this review with: Academy is a good title. Perhaps not great, but there’s still time for that … probably. But how long will it have to get there? And would it matter if they did? All those other titles (except perhaps Araña) were good, and one or two of them reached some pretty impressive heights. But they all were low selling, and quality didn’t keep them from succumbing to superhero fans’ apathy to new ideas.

Rating: Avengers symbol Avengers symbol Avengers symbol (3 of 5, although that’s not giving any credit for potential)

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