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

08 April 2016

Avengers West Coast: The Death of Mockingbird

Collects: Avengers West Coast #92-100, 102, Spider-Woman #1-4, and selections from Marvel Comics Presents #143-4 (1993-4)

Released: January 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 384 pages / color / $34.99 / ISBN: 9780785196891

What is this?: The Avengers West Coast fight Dr. Demonicus, the Lethal Legion, and the Power Platoon before disbanding; Spider-Woman learns the machinations behind her acquisition of powers.

The culprits: Writers Roy and Dann Thomas and artists David Ross, Andrew Currie, John Czop, Steven Ellis, and others

The first thing you need to know about Avengers: The Death of Mockingbird is that the title is a lie, a total lie, and Marvel knows it. Heck, by now, everyone knows it.

I suppose you can pull the Obi Wan route and say it’s true, from a certain point of view. But people who say that are, generally speaking, liars or weasels. It wasn’t Bobbi Morse, whom the Marvel Universe knew as Mockingbird, who died in Avengers West Coast #100; it was a Skrull taking her place. (As revealed years later, Bobbi was replaced during Avengers West Coast #91, which is reprinted in the Avengers: Ultron Unbound collection.)

Avengers: The Death of Mockingbird coverAnyway, that’s for the best, because Mockingbird’s death is unsatisfying. A long-time Marvel character who was getting back together with her husband, Hawkeye, Mockingbird was killed saving him from a stray spitball tossed by Mephisto. The death seems random, something in the “kill someone for shock value” line of superhero deaths — it was an anniversary issue, after all. Mockingbird had just saved Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye, but her death seems more random than heroic; Mephisto didn’t have any specific hatred for her, didn’t even seem to be aiming at her. Anyone could have died. It just turned out to be Mockingbird.

The whole book feels of random — no, “unsettled” is a better way of putting it. Death begins with U.S. Agent and Hawkeye (calling himself Goliath at the time — just another bit of evidence that something is off) squabbling among the ruins of their headquarters; Scarlet Witch and Spider-Woman each go off to find less destroyed housing, and the Living Lightning leaves the team. The AWC doesn’t even have a quinjet, having to beg one from Stark Industries a few issues later. Everything feels like it is falling apart; ten issues later, the West Coast HQ is still rubble, and team has been officially ended.

The stories in Death don’t help; they’re not very good, first off, and the team never seems to regroup. The Demonicus storyline takes a previous story, in which the not-at-all-suspiciously-named Dr. Demonicus created an island nation in the Pacific, and removes any sense of complexity from it. Demonicus and his super-followers are mind controlled by the demon Raksasa, start acting evil, import a population of foreign criminals, and even hijack a passenger plane while waiting for Raksasa to enter the world. If they hadn’t drawn attention to themselves with the hijacking or breaking Klaw out of jail, they might have gotten away with their plans (whatever they are), but instead Demonica is sunk. Literally.

The Spider-Woman issues are standard for a mid-’90s limited series: inconsequential and forgettable. The mini lasts only four issues, and one of those issues is devoted to retconning her origin story. The villains (Deathweb) are forgettable, even if they shouldn’t be, and the story combines ‘50s monster movie science with post-Watergate antigovernment paranoia in predictable ways.

In #98-100, Avengers West Coast reaches a nadir. The team is opposed by the Lethal Legion, four evil souls brought back from the dead to kill them. The AWC lose every time, which is bad enough, but the worst part is that writer Roy Thomas makes the members of the Lethal Legion real people — not based on real people, but actual historical personages. Axe of Violence, a woman with an axe for a hand, is Lizzie Borden; Cyana, who emits poison, is Lucretia Borgia; Coldsteel, a giant powerhouse all in steel, is Josef Stalin; and Zyklon, who flies in a suit of armor and emits poison, is Heinrich Himmler.

Yes, that’s right: the Avengers fight a real Nazi, named after the gas the Nazis used to kill a million people during the Holocaust. Making Stalin, a man who killed millions of his own countrymen, into a comic-book villain is questionable, although I admit comics do this with Hitler all the time. “Zyklon,” a name that evokes the Holocaust, goes over the line. Also, equating Stalin and Himmler with Borgia, who probably played politics a bit hard but probably didn’t engage in mass poisonings, and Borden, who may not have killed anyone and killed two people at most, is a tone-deaf mismatch.

That unsettled feeling that saturates Death was planned, I think. In a narrative sense, it leads to the main Avengers team trying to get rid of the West Coast branch. The East Coast branch’s dissatisfaction with the West Coasters isn’t foreshadowed at all, so the decision to shut down the West Coast branch comes out of nowhere. But the dissolution of the team is a natural consequence of the poor planning and shoddy superheroics that led up to it. In a corporate sense, Marvel used the closure as part of their push to cancel Avengers West Coast and replace it with Force Works. Unfortunately, Force Works was a downgrade, and about a year later, that title was still drawn into The Crossing, Marvel’s worst storyline ever. The title never recovered, sputtering to a halt a couple of issues later.

Death does have a few positive attributes. I enjoyed the Power Platoon, a group of solar-powered aliens who can’t speak any Earth language. They show up during the Infinity Crusade, when most of the team is off dealing with that crossover’s foolishness, and battle Hawkeye, Mockingbird, and War Machine. The eight members of the Power Platoon look similar, but each has a different power; their alien language allows them communication the heroes can’t understand, and their teamwork is excellent. The story ends with a sputter — the Power Platoon achieves its goal and then wanders off, while the Avengers decline to pursue — but it’s an enjoyable issue up until then.

RaksasaI also like the art of David Ross, who drew #93-5, 98-100, and 102. He shows excellent attention to detail, and action scenes are easy to follow. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his females aren’t gratuitous sex objects. Most impressively, he draws excellent demons; his Mephisto is nice, his Satannish is intimidating, and Raksasa — the only one of the three he designed — is truly impressive. In an era when Marvel’s demons tended toward Technicolor goblins of varying sizes, Raksasa is an alien, frightening, insectoid presence. With this facility for monsters, Ross would have been great on Conan, Marvel’s other Roy Thomas title. (He would have been wasted there, but he was wasted on AWC as well.)

The rest of the art — well, the less said, the better. You remember the ‘90s, and while none of this is as bad as the decade got, most of what is in Death looks like artists who weren’t quite ready for a big title. (To be fair, those artists drew a second-tier limited series, Marvel Comics Presents, backups, and fill-ins.) I’m sure they all did better work, in comics or out, and I’ll let it go at that.

Why reprint these issues? For completists. For those who want to see how a title that started so well finally ended, curling up on itself in a corner and dying. For those who like Ross’s art. But the resurrection of Mockingbird put an end to whatever emotional impact this book might have had, and it’s not recommended for non-Avengers fans.

And for Heimdall’s sake, don’t pick up the Force Works book. Death is the nadir of Avengers West Coast, but Force Works is even worse — and then it leads to The Crossing, which is the worst. Stop now. I beg you …

… although I admit if the price for a used copy drops low enough, I’ll eventually pick up Force Works. Completionism is my weakness, and I know it.

Rating: Avengers symbol (1 of 5)

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3:11 PM  
Blogger Raoul said...

Twitter? I have no Twitter. My social media presence is minimal; I don't even have a Facebook account, and I still insist on using a feedreader (Feedly) for most of the sites I visit.

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2:47 PM  

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