Tuesday, December 09, 2008
Our book today is JLA/Avengers, the graphic novel collection of the epic four-issue collaboration between comic book giants Marvel and DC in 2003 and 2004, now finally out in a trade paperback in a bookstore near you.
For many comics fans (myself certainly included), this story line is a kind of dream come true: an elaborate and highly detailed team-up/fight between the greatest super-hero team of the Marvel universe, the Avengers, and the most iconic super-hero team of the DC universe, the Justice League - here written by a comics fan who manages to 'get' just about every one of the many characters he's writing, and drawn by a comics legend and fan favorite. The comic-reading public had been promised some variation of this collaboration at every fan convention and trade show for the last thirty years (artist George Perez slips in funny visual references to all of them in the course of this story), and here popular writer Kurt Busiek is finally given permission not only to have the core members of both teams meet, but to have them fight - with a couple of actual winners and losers (non-comic fans have to realize how very, very rare that is in the comics world).
Now that all four issues have been collected, first in a deluxe slipcased hardcover and now in a handy trade paperback, it's easier to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the story - it has plenty of both. In any mega-thingamabob like this, the organizing plot device will be a Maguffin of massive proportions, and in that JLA/Avengers doesn't disappoint: a cosmic super-baddie from the DC universe, Krona, wants to know what came before the Big Bang. He wanders through one alternate universe after another (destroying most of them in the process, as cosmic super-baddies tend to do) in search of the answer, until he gets to the Marvel universe, where the cosmic chess-player The Grandmaster tells him he knows of a being who pre-dates the Big Bang - he offers to make introductions, IF Krona can best him in a game of cosmic chess, using the super-heroes from two alternate universes as living chess pieces. Instead of immediately eviscerating The Grandmaster, Krona agrees - and so the Justice League and the Avengers are pitted against each other!
This presents Busiek with his first major problem, because he's enough of a comics aficionado to want to use only the quintessential members of both teams as his key players. For the Justice League this is comparatively easy: it's the roster even most non-comics fans will know by name - Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman (to which add that perennial unknown, the Martian Manhunter, and Busiek's quite appropriate addition of Plastic Man). For the Avengers it's much trickier - you want a roster that has a good deal of physical power but that also represents the team at its best. Busiek picks a great central core: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hank Pym, the Wasp, the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and Quicksilver.
Comics fans can spot the problem right away, at least in terms of having the two teams of chess-pieces initially square off against each other: the Justice League would mop the floor with the Avengers. The Justice League roster includes three characters with world-class super-strength, four characters who can move at super-speed, four characters who can emit energy-beams of some kind or other, five characters who possess (or can summon) some form of invulnerability ... etc. By contrast, the Avengers contingent has two characters who are entirely dependent on technology (and one who is a piece of technology), two characters with no super-powers at all, only two characters with any degree of invulnerability, and only three characters with any degree of super-strength (and only one of those, Thor, has it in comparable degree to that possessed by half the Justice League team) ... etc.
If this thing were being handicapped by Las Vegas bookies instead of written and drawn by comics fans for comics fans, the resulting fight between these two teams would take about five minutes. After those five minutes, Thor would be the only Marvel character still standing - and he'd be facing Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Martian Manhunter, so he wouldn't be standing for long.
But that's never how things happen in the world of comics, and Busiek knows it (you can tell he knows it by the two absolutely priceless scenes in JLA/Avengers where he bucks against it - once by having Batman 'spend fifteen minutes beating up some loon in kevlar' offstage - i.e. the allegedly badass Punisher, and once by having Captain America handily demolish the allegedly badass Prometheus ... while uttering my single favorite line from the book, "Try fighting the Wehrmacht, mister - it teaches you FOCUS!" Hee). So the battles between the two teams in his book are more prolonged and even-sided affairs.
Of course long-time comics fans will have dreamt of some of those battles, and they'll disagree with some of Busiek's outcomes. Some of the fights he orchestrates are iconic in their own right: Batman and Captain America, for instance, are each respective company's most popular and well-known non-superpowered character, one a grim nighttime avenger of wrong, and the other a flag-wearing champion of right. How on Earth can you call a winner in such a fight? On his side, Captain America has not only the super-soldier formula coursing through his body (and making him, at least according to The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, virtually incapable of getting tired) but has years of experience fighting all kinds of opponents. And on the other hand, you have ... Batman, the least beatable of all super-heroes, powered or otherwise.
Busiek solves this particular problem cannily (he makes them so experienced they don't need to fight - they become the ones who realize both teams are being used as pawns in a bigger game), but that still leaves him with lots of others. DC's Flash is just plain and simple faster than Marvel's Quicksilver. DC's Green Lantern has access to technology (his ring) that just plain and simple outclasses the technology of Iron Man's armor. DC's dark-eyed emotionally-controlled team 'outsider' Martian Manhunter has all the powers of his Marvel equivalent, the Vision, and lots more besides. And who on the Avengers even approaches the balance for a character like Wonder Woman - as powerful as Superman and with five hundred times his fighting experience?
It's to Busiek's credit that in addition to side-stepping some of these problems by getting the two teams co-operating on the double, he also shifts his focus onto the differences in the two teams - and by extension the two universes and the two companies. At one point Aquaman comments to Superman that the heroes of the Marvel universe seem generally less powerful than those of the DC universe ("and," Aquaman points out, "their world is stacked against them"), and although this doesn't cut any mustard with Superman (he's portrayed throughout as interestingly disdainful of the Marvel heroes' inability to inspire the populace), it's a great motif running throughout the book. We're told that the Marvel Earth is smaller than the DC version, and louder, and less healthy (Superman's senses note harsher sunlight and higher blood pressure) - and this perfectly reflects the more hardscrabble, more human kind of superhero that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko wanted to create forty years ago, specifically as a comment on DC's larger-than-life icons.
At one point when the Avengers' expert marksman Hawkeye rejoins his comrades, the Wasp warmly welcomes him with a friendly peck on the cheek, and it's a winning, natural moment - and unthinkable in DC's more Olympian cast. Busiek puts little moments like that everywhere in his sprawling cosmic epic, and they all work.
The whole book largely works, and by far the most moving moment comes when our combined heroes are faced with a choice: go on living in the fantasy-world caused by the forcible combining of their two worlds, or fight to separate those worlds and restore both their realities. In order for them to make an informed decision, The Grandmaster shows them a kaleidoscope of key moments from their respective realities - a guided tour of the very worst things that comics readers have seen happen to these characters over the last twenty years. It's a surreal moment, as long-time readers realize all they've been through with these characters ... and when it's over, our heroes do just what heroes always do: they choose to suffer for the greater good.
Again, JLA/Avengers mostly works, and reading it again after a lapse of years allowed me to pick out not only more of the delectable little character moments Busiek includes but also more of the fantastic, fanatical, insanely detailed penciling work of George Perez, who manages, in the course of four issues (and all at once on the cover of the fourth), to draw just about every major and minor character in the entire history of both Marvel and DC. Virtuosity like that becomes almost scary, but in a good way.
And at the end, of course, the door is left open for other such epic adventures! To which I have an obvious suggestion but one nevertheless I'd love to see: the full cast of Golden Age characters from each company, fighting and then teaming up against Hitler, the Red Skull, Per Degaton, and whatever other baddies come to mind. JSA/Invaders! Who's with me?