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

23 March 2013

West Coast Avengers: Family Ties

Collects: West Coast Avengers v. 2 #1-9 and Vision and the Scarlet Witch v. 2 #1-2 (1985-6)

Released: July 2012 (Marvel)

Format: 296 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9780785162162

What is this?: The West Coast Avengers, led by Hawkeye, establish themselves and try to fill out their roster.

The culprits: Writer Steve Englehart and artists Allen Milgrom and Richard Howell

West Coast Avengers: Family Ties is very much a book of its time. It’s a soapy team book, with rivalries and romance sandwiched between slugathons with supervillains. For someone like me who was introduced to comics via X-Men in the ‘90s, the character conflict and long-term plot development has a pleasantly nostalgic feel, especially since it is not accompanied by all that mutant angst.

Characterization is (mostly) a strength for writer Steve Englehart. He adds depths to some one-dimensional characters, such as robot supervillain Ultron and human supervillain Grim Reaper. Ultron (Mark XII) tries to reconcile with his “father,” Hank Pym; although the execution of Mark XII’s story is rushed and Ultron’s upgrades mean this plot probably won’t be referenced again, Ultron’s growth is a great idea with a good payoff. The Grim Reaper’s obsession with his brother, Wonder Man, is the only aspect of his character readers previously saw, but Engelhart gives him another character note: he’s a racist, although he excepts his girlfriend from his prejudice.

West Coast Avengers: Family Ties coverEnglehart also takes up the challenge of making the book’s two married couples interesting, and he succeeds. (Given how difficult many creators find writing husbands and wives, that’s no mean accomplishment.) The Vision and Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye and Mockingbird have two different sorts of relationships; Vision and Scarlet Witch are stable, determined, and about to have a family, while Hawkeye and Mockingbird are high spirited, passionate, and always bickering. It’s no wonder Hawkeye and Mockingbird’s marriage didn’t work out.79

But Englehart is not so successful with Tigra. Englehart spends a lot of time with Tigra, but his character arc for her is decidedly not modern. Tigra is a human who also has a cat soul inside her, which gives her not only a feline shape and superpowers but also feline characteristics — personality elements her human side wants to get rid of. So far, so good; it’s similar to a werewolf story, and Englehart even brings in Morbius the (ex-) Living Vampire and Werewolf by Night to drive home the monster angle. But Tigra’s internal conflicts come from her newfound fear of water, mercurialness, and promiscuity. A male character would not be given promiscuity as a character flaw, then or now, nor would fickleness be considered a sufficient challenge to overcome. I appreciate the lengths Englehart shows Tigra is willing to go to rid herself of her catlike flaws, but there are better cat characteristics he could have used: cruelty, aloofness (definite problem on a team), independence (ditto). Focusing on a female’s character’s sexuality is a cliché; silly fears and a proclivity to change her mind only make the stereotyping worse.

Exploring the problems of Tigra’s powers necessitates devoting several pages to Cat People continuity, which is not worth rehashing. But it’s just one example of Englehart’s reliance on continuity in Family Ties. Sometimes it works, as when he brings back Tigra’s old opponent Kraven for a rematch, but often it falls flat. The Cat People are an odd fit with a superhero story and not very exciting. The Grim Reaper / Wonder Man / Vision story works OK, but Simon's embezzlement — referred to in his origin story — is as exciting as accountancy plotlines tend to be. Englehart’s biggest success is using Secret Wars to explain why there are two Ultrons with differing personalities; the flashbacks with Ultron’s head controlling people are fun and creepy.

Englehart’s continuity mining limits his choice of villains, but fortunately, those villains are heavy hitters: Grim Reaper, Ultron, Kraven. Other villains are offbeat but enjoyable; I have a soft spot for Nekra, Black Talon and his zombies, and the Rangers. But the main villain in Family Ties, one who grows in importance in succeeding volumes, is Master Pandemonium, and he’s … oh, he’s not very good.

Master Pandemonium is just one of a type: the guy who makes a deal with the devil that goes horribly awry. Unlike Johnny Blaze / Ghost Rider, Master Pandemonium becomes evil when Mephisto gives him an opportunity to regain his soul. Until he reclaims his soul, he’s the amazing Fall-Apart Man, who has demons for limbs; they separate from him and fight his enemies, leaving him a floating torso. He can also summon demons from the great sucking star-shaped wound in his chest. Why he doesn’t summon demons rather than lose his limbs isn’t clear. But Master Pandemonium is utterly generic and utterly forgettable were it not for his role in future stories that helped victimize the Scarlet Witch.

Artist Allen Milgrom doesn’t shine on Master Pandemonium either. Milgrom gives Master Pandemonium a sinister, almost Yellow Peril look that clashes with his Anglo ethnicity. The forked Fu Man Chu resembles a stereotypical Asian villain’s facial hair, howevermuch it is supposed to evoke a pentagram, and his robes and cape certainly call to mind the Mandarin. Milgrom also draws standard Marvel Technicolor demons, which I’ve always been bored by. There’s little about them that differentiate them, artistically, from a host of generic monstrous humanoids.

Milgrom’s art is standard for the ‘80s, solid without being flashy. Milgrom tells the story without unnecessary flourishes; I especially like the slightly wall-eyed panels from the view of Ultron’s disembodied head. In #6, Milgrom’s rough pencils are inked by Kyle Baker, whose wider, softer faces works well on Tigra and the Cat People. Most of the rest of the issues are inked by Joe Sinnot, who contributes to the book’s traditional look.

Richard Howell draws the two issues of Vision and the Scarlet Witch included in Family Ties; overall, his work is more detailed and features more close-up shots of characters than Milgrom’s. His Nekra is wonderful, and he seems to enjoy drawing the Scarlet Witch. But there is a certain stiffness to many panels, his zombies aren’t frightening (the colorist's decision to make them dark gray has something to do with this), and his Wonder Man is awful, looking more like Wonder Granny.80

Family Ties has too many continuity-filled soft spots to be great; Tigra’s short-sighted characterization may make it difficult for some readers to enjoy. But Family Ties does hit a nostalgic sweet spot at times, and between Englehart’s high spots and Milgrom’s solid art, Family Ties has a lot to offer, especially to those who wish they were still 10 and buying comics in 1986.

Rating: Avengers symbol Avengers symbol Avengers symbol (3 of 5)

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