Thursday, May 13, 2010

Comics: Dark Reign Ends!

Comics this week feature the culmination of Marvel’s “Dark Reign” saga, and the issues we’ll be examining – Siege #4, Dark Avengers #16, and the double-sized Finale of New Avengers – gave me immense satisfaction not only in the usual ways, with interesting writing and some great artwork, but also in the sweetest of all possible ways: by playing right into my ‘I told you so’ factor.

As those of you who’ve been following four-color superhero comics (or merely those of you who’ve been following their highlights here at Stevereads) already know, the premise of “Dark Reign” is alluringly simple: what if evil won? Not just ‘won’ in terms of successfully robbing a bank, but ‘won’ in the sense of ‘set up shop and ran things’ – that was the idea behind installing ‘Green Goblin’ psychopathic killer Norman Osborn as head of the super-police force known as H.A.M.M.E.R. and having him create his own team of Avengers consisting of fellow super-villains in disguise. The real avengers were either dead or fugitives in hiding from Osborn and his troops, and the government had passed a Super-Hero Registration Act compelling all super-heroes to register with the government and play by federal rules.

Although of course initially I wasn’t a fan of this whole concept, I quickly came around. It produced some really good stories, and Marvel put some top-notch creative people in charge of keeping the whole thing going. I was so entertained I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the eventual heroes-return storyline I knew was coming.

The four-part mini-series Siege is that storyline, and I’d have read it no matter what, since it’s drawn by the great, the mighty Oliver Coipel. And it’s been thrilling – and notoriously violent. Osborn, apparently drunk with power (and egged on by Loki, the evil Norse god of mischief), decided to muster all his super villains and all his troops and invade the fabled city of Asgard, which at the time was floating about twenty feet above Braxton, Oklahoma. The invasion was led by Osborn’s leashed superman, the mentally unbalanced superhero Sentry, and in Siege’s most widely discussed panel, Coipel draws the Sentry ripping apart Ares, the Greek god of war, like an old T-shirt. The end of the previous issue had Norman Osborn flying into a Green Goblin-style spittle-flecking rant – on national TV – about how he was the only thing stopping the Sentry from going completely bonkers and annihilating all life on Earth. Osborn no sooner finishes saying this than we lay eyes on the Sentry floating above our heroes, only he’s swapped his heroic blue cape for a bunch of muscular red tentacles.

So this issue opens with a fight even our assembled heroes can’t really win – as Osborn puts it, the Sentry has become the ‘Angel of Death,’ and the life-sucking Void he has at his command quickly paralyzes his enemies. Help comes from the most unlikely source: Loki, who’s apparently sorry things have gone so far and tries to make them right again, by using his mystical abilities to infuse the fallen heroes with new vitality.

The Sentry senses this, attacks Loki, and proves that he hasn’t exactly got all the god-shredding out of his system.

Coipel gives us some great action panels – pride of place go to Thor and Iron Man – and eventually our heroes are victorious. The Void is vanquished, and its poor slob of a human host is killed (in a neat touch, Thor gives his body a suitably epic Viking incineration – in the sun, no less), and with any luck, that’ll be the last anybody ever hears of the Sentry, one of the dumbest ideas to come out of Marvel Comics since the Spider-clone.

The issue ends with Steve Rogers refusing to take up the mantle of Captain America but agreeing to fulfill some kind of leadership role in the upcoming ‘Heroic Age.’ There’s celebration in the air: the Registration Act has been ‘thrown out,’ the fugitive heroes can come out of hiding, and the villains who were running the show are either captured or in hiding themselves.

This ties into the double-sized finale of New Avengers, which shows our fugitive team – Luke Cage, Hawkeye as Ronin, Mockingbird, Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel, Bucky as Captain America – in one last covert adventure together, with Brian Michael Bendis putting in plenty of his snarky, chatty dialogue and Brian Hitch doing the artwork with the increasingly incoherent sloppiness that is coming to mark his current work. At the end of that issue, we’re told again that the good guys win- the Registration Act is dismissed, Osborn and his cronies are going to jail, the sun is shining again.

Switch scenes to Dark Avengers #16, written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Mike Deodato (with more – a lot more – of that weird computerized inking and coloring he’s been fooling around with lately), which brings to an end the main storyline of a comic I never thought I’d like and ended up eagerly awaiting every month (and not only for Deodato’s beautiful artwork). This was the central book of “Dark Reign” – this was the fake Avengers team Osborn assembled and held together through force of will, and it made for compelling reading, month after month.

In this issue, it’s all over: the team is beaten and disbanded, war criminals, and Osborn himself is going to the prison to which he sent so many heroes during his quasi-legal reign of terror. And in his typically mind-gaming way, Bendis puts in Osborn’s mouth the perfectly-articulated rationale for everything he did, and you got to have it in its entirety:
I was right.

The world is a mess, and the world needed me to fix it. And I would have. I could have.

This world is a madhouse of mutants, terrorists, psychotics, aliens, and monsters. All of them chasing and crashing into each other every second of every day. People put on costumes and just decide, all by themselves, that they are the savior of the world. That it’s okay for them to go and do whatever the hell they want to whoever they want because they have a costume.

Well, I am telling you the world is going to end. One day soon, it’s going to actually explode. The wrong creature is going to slam into the wrong mutant and boom. That will be it. All of this – all of it will have been for nothing. All I wanted to do was stop it. All I wanted to do was fix the problems before they happened.

I KNOW the mutants of this world will rise up and kill us.

I KNOW that the Hulk will one day decide to destroy everything he sees.

I KNOW the Punisher will one day kill the wrong person and set off a chain of events that will lead to nuclear holocaust.

I know that these heroes will dive head first into something they do not understand and end up doing such insane damage to the world that humans can no longer live on it. Victor Von Doom will crush us under his foot in his last mad gasp of air. I know this is true. I know it.

And I could have stopped it. If not for the fact that you kept standing in my @#$@# way.

All of which sounds convincingly psychotic and creepy, and you’re ready to cheer the fact that the Green Goblin, the speaker of such creepy sentiments, is safely locked up.

The only problem is that Osborn isn’t the Marvel character who originated all those creepy sentiments, nor is he the Marvel character who organized them into a repressive, fascistic governmental policy.

That Marvel character would be Iron Man, the current darling of American movie theaters. The same Iron Man who helped to defeat the evil Sentry and who appears to be a founding member of whatever new Avengers team Steve Rogers is founding with the full blessing of the U.S. government. And that’s where the ‘I told you so’ factor comes in.

Because years ago, when this whole storyline started, when Iron Man and Reed Richards, responding to a super-hero accident in which many innocent lives were lost, decided to enunciate and then support the whole idea behind the Registration Act, I said this was one of those comic book ideas that sound great but probably shouldn’t be done because there’s literally no satisfying way to un-do them. Iron Man himself began hunting down his former allies among the superheroes. Iron Man beat up Captain America, and Reed Richards designed the massive gulag in which dissenters - good guys and bad guys – were locked up. And they both did it because they sincerely believed exactly those creepy sentiments Bendis puts in the mouth of the bad guy, Norman Osborn. Reading these comics this week, you’d assume the whole arc of “Dark Reign” was Osborn’s idea from the start – but the only reason Bendis would want you to assume that is because you have to forget the real causes of the whole story, because if you remember them, no Marvel ‘reset’ is ever possible, and no ‘Heroic Age’ can dawn.

The irony of quintessential ‘I told you so’ scenarios, of course, is that they bring no satisfaction. I knew that if Marvel ever wanted to bring their comics back to ‘normal,’ they’d have to do some major fudging with what had gone before, and I was right: that’s exactly what they did. This week, Iron Man and the others were victims of Norman Osborn’s mad paranoia about the dangers posed by unregulated super-powered beings. The good guys beat him, and now everything can go back to normal.

But normal in the Marvel Universe is still a place where whole city blocks in midtown Manhattan are blown up by warring super-folk, where somebody with powers really can put on a costume and decide who lives and who dies. In other words, we’re right back where we started two or three years ago.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you – at least, not much. The lineup of this new Avengers team strikes me as ridiculously opportunistic … there’s simply no reason to have Wolverine and Spider-Man on the Avengers other than to make Marvel money (kind of amazing that Deadpool didn’t get an invite), and that’s a little sad: one of the things I’ve always liked about the Avengers was that in addition to the headliners who had their own comics, we also got to see in action heroes like the Black Knight or the Vision who didn’t have books of their own. And I admit I’ll miss the subversive fun of Bendis’ Dark Avengers.

So: now we try out “The Heroic Age” and see what comes of it. All in all, Marvel pulled off quite an accomplishment in “Dark Reign” … they ought to commemorate it with a big hardcover slipcased volume of its best stories: the entire run of Dark Avengers, plus all the best related issues – most certainly including the death of the Punisher – and of course all four chapters of Siege. I’d buy it.

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