Friday, July 19, 2013

Making Marvel Mine: Essential Avengers Vol. 1 (Avengers 1-24)

It’s a little more than a year out, and Avengersis still one of the biggest movies in the world today.  We all saw it, we all thought it was totally awesome, everyone agreed on this*.  It’s already had a follow up in the mega-successful three-quel Iron Man Three**, and the second Thor film comes out this fall, with more on the way.  Everything has been coming up Marvel’s way, and the Avengers are their crown jewels.

So, how does the movie compare to the Avengers’ humble origins in their earliest comics?  Well…. Okay, I’d argue that I probably enjoyed them a good bit more than a casual reader would.  Generally speaking, these are perfectly serviceable- if not always particularly inspired- early 60’s comics.  Stan and Jack are always fun, even when they’re phoning it in, and Don Heck does his best to keep the energy up when Jack moves on.  But, at the end of the day…. Well, it’s really not all that compelling.

Maybe this is my fault.  Maybe I’m just jaded from all the hype.  After all, I’ve been hearing about these stories for 20 years, maybe I’ve just built up my expectations too much?  “Avengers #1!  The team accidentally forms to save the day from Loki!”  Absolutely.  Oh, but there’s also this weird stuff in the middle where the Hulk joins the circus and is dressed up like a sad clown.  It’s a bit odd.

“Avengers #4!  Captain America is found after decades of being frozen in suspended animation and joins the team!”  Well, yeah.  Obviously.  But that’s not really what the story is actually about.  The story is about a space alien who’s thousands of years old, who turns out to be the secret inspiration for the myth of Medusa.  Oh, and also there’s Namor in it, being a dick, as is his nature.

The real moment where I knew I had exaggerated expectations that needed to be dialed back was in issue 3.  As a kid, I had a sort of “Marvel painting-picture comic”, where Great Moments in Marvel History™ had been recreated in gorgeous paintings that filled up full pages.  The painting from Avengers #3 had the Hulk desperately trying to lift Thor’s hammer, struggling so hard because he can’t understand how the “puny” thunder god could lift Mjolnir and he couldn’t.  It was a dynamic, breathtaking image, that captured my imagination as a child.

This isn’t the painting- I couldn’t find it online- but it’s got a similar energy to this recent cover.

But the scene in the comic?  It’s on page 23, and it feels nothing at all like the painting to me.  It’s not bad or anything, it’s just that it lacks the majesty I grew up always thinking that scene had in it.  I’m having trouble adjusting my perspective, and I know it, so let’s move on, and talk about what’s in the comic, rather than what I thought would be there.  It’s fine.

Basically, the team is formed by most of the not-quite-top-tier Marvel characters at the time: Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, and Wasp.  Hulk is a founding member, but he quits in the second issue.  As I said, though, Captain America is found by the team, frozen in ice, in issue 4.  He’ll be a mainstay for the team basically forever.

After Loki is dispatched, the first few issues do their best to make sure you know it’s 1963, as they deal with the Space Phantom (alien), the aforementioned Namor and Medusa-Broccoli-Dude (also an alien), and then the Lava Men (they live in the center of the Earth, so… technically not an alien, but c’mon!).  Finally, is issue 6 we start getting villains that “feel” like Avengers villains, and even an over-arching story plot!  Baron Zemo- the modern incarnation of Sgt. Fury’s villain- shows up and forms his Masters of Evil.  Along with Zemo, the MoE roster varies slightly, but usually a combination in some form of the Enchantress, Executioner, and Radioactive Man from Thor; and Black Knight and the Melter from Iron Man;  along with various saps they happen upon and take advantage of.  Ant-Man villains need not apply, because they are lame.

Along with bizarre time travelers Kang the Conqueror and Immortus, Lord of Time (Hey, I wonder if those two will be related somehow….), the Masters of Evil become the primary antagonists for the Avengers, even creating some new bad guys themselves, like Wonder Man.  The Mole Man shows up too, because after Namor and Rama-Tut/Kang have already showed up, why not another FF villain?  Honestly, I am genuinely surprised that Doctor Doom never showed up.

Oh, and Count Nefaria shows up for an issue.  Not that I care.

Speaking of things I don’t care about, the comic continues the Hulk tradition of trying to convince me that pre-Captain Marvel Rick Jones is interesting, even though he isn’t. Their first attempt to make me care takes shape in Rick leading the “Teen Brigade”, a group of teenage boys who mostly sit around ham radios and get captured.  Later, they have him put on the clothes of Cap’s dead partner and try to become the new Bucky.  And yeah, that’s kind of really creepy, and much has been written on the subject by others.  Rather than focus on that, but similarly, oh my sweet evil Jesus, does Captain America ever stop crying?  I submit that he does not.  I struck upon that in my review of issue 11, but man, he is just so sad at all the times because his totally not gay best friend/ young boy who emulates him is dead.  It is so sad you guys.

Anyway, in issue 15 comes the conclusion of several plot lines and in the end, the issue (SPOILERS on a 50 year old comic) kills off Zemo.  With the Masters of Evil mostly brought down, the entire team essentially disbands.  The book now becomes about Cap, and the reformed villains Hawkeye (see: Iron Man) and Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver (see: X-Men, in my next MMM).

New team, some new (mostly meh) villains (including Swordsman and Power Man, who is straight up Wonder Man 2.0), but same basic structure: The team bickers and fights amongst themselves, until the bad guys show up, and they go and fight them.  This is a comic book purely about fighting, but that’s not as exciting as it sounds.

My favorite moment in this book: In issue 22, Power Man and Enchantress have convinced the world that the Avengers are a bigger menace than Spider-Man.  After being run out of town by the friggin’ Circus of Crime (I mean, Jesus Christ, Hawkeye, that’s the best you could do?), a statewide manhunt for the team begins.  Two kids are arguing one in an FF t-shirt and the other in an Avengers one.  In the midst of the fight, the Avengers fan explains that maybe the Avengers are hiding because of some secret plan.  The FF fan’s response?  “Aww, your uncle eats pickles!”  I don’t know why, but that makes me laugh.

Anyway, it’s fine.  That’s how I can describe this book.  It is fine.  Not great, but that’s okay, it doesn’t have to be great.  Kang shows up a bunch, and even if he acts like a massive tool most of the time, I love the character, so that’s good.  The issues that stick to the Avengers vs. the Masters of Evil formula are pretty fun.  It shows potential, and it will grow into something great.  We just have to give it time.  Here’s hoping volume 2 will build towards something even better.

Because your uncle eats pickles.

*=If you didn’t agree with this, well, your argument has been rendered invalid, and you are wrong.  Too bad, so sad, but deal with it.

**= Because I just realized I didn’t talk about it here much, here’s my take on Iron Man Three:  Personally, my feelings on it were more mixed than a lot of people’s.  A lot of people loved it, and usually I could see their points, it just didn’t hit me quite as well for whatever reason.  But even if I only thought “it’s fine, I guess?”, it was heads and tails better than the slaughter fest that was Man of Steel.

Friday, July 5, 2013

In Which Cutting Up Your Dead Wife’s Body Is Not Even Close To The Worst Part Of The Story

Despite having the story of genocidal superman Samson in it, by and large the book of Judges is mostly boring.  It’s all rather formulaic, in that incredibly bland manner that only the damn Bible can offer.  Its stories go like this:  The people of Israel do something to piss God off (as usual), so God allows them to be conquered by some asshole (God is the worst parent ever).  The Israelites panic, and beg God for mercy; so God arranges for a hero figure to rise up, overthrow their oppressors, and peace and happiness reigns supreme (until Israel fucks up again).  Yes, it’s all just one ridiculous cycle of passive-aggressive behavior, and yes, it’s basically just the Moses story recast, repeatedly.  Judges manages to tell this story six or seven times, and it is dull as hell.

But then at the end, it gets… weirdly uncomfortable.  I mean, horrible shit happening in the Old Testament is about as common as mud, but wow, this thing…. Oy vey.  I’m not usually one for content warnings, but seriously, TRIGGER WARNING, this story is about an excessive amount of rape, body mutilation, and other extremely unpleasant things.  It’s not funny, it’s awful, and I’m only telling you about it because I don’t think most people realize this shit’s in the damn Bible.

The story starts simply enough, with a guy and his wife having an argument.  They’re never named, but since they set the whole story into motion, I’m going to give them names, so let’s call them Jack and Alicia.  Alicia is fed up with Jack’s jerkwad behavior, so she decides to move back to her parents’ house.  Jack says fine, he never wants to see her again, and she storms out the door.

Four months later, Jack still hasn’t found a new girlfriend, and has a serious case of blue balls, due to a common misunderstanding that the man upstairs will strike you down if you touchyourself.  He decides to patch things up with Alicia, so he travels several towns over to her parents’ house.  Now this could have been super awkward, as Jack had never met Alicia’s parents (and presumably never asked her father’s permission to marry her), but miraculously when he arrives, he and Alicia’s dad hit if off big time.  Jack decides to stay with her parents for like a week, just to hang.  (Whether or not Alicia wants to get back together with Jack is never really addressed, mostly because the Bible doesn’t care about her womanly opinion.*)

Alas, all good slumber parties must come to an end, and eventually Jack and Alicia decide to go home.   It was a long trip (seeing as this was before cars were invented), and on the way Jack and Alicia stopped in a town called Gibeah, looking for a place to spend the evening.  A lonely old man invites them into his home (old people are notoriously lonely, after all), and everyone looks forward to a pleasant rest-of-the-evening.  And that’s when everything goes all Straw Dogs.

You see, it is at this point that a group of VIOLENT, BI-SEXUAL GANG-RAPISTS descend upon the old man’s house!  They have seen Jack and Alicia arrive in the city, and they have decided they want Jack’s booty.  And they are not into asking for it politely.  The old man pleads for them to leave, and even pulls a Lot and offers up his virginal daughter to the gang-rapists (after all, she’s only a girl-child, it’s not like she has any value), but the gang-rapists are not satisfied, because DAT ASS.  In an act of desperation, Jack proves all of Alicia’s assertions that he is an asshole correct by tossing her into the crowd of- and I cannot stress this enough- admitted gang-rapists, then bolts all the doors and prays they won’t get in.

The gang-rapists then gang-rape poor Alicia to death.

As tastefully illustrated by 19th century French artist Gustave Dore.  This is not funny, so I have no humorous aside.

… I wish I could say that’s the worst part of the story.  But it’s not.  The next morning, Jack finds Alicia’s mutilated corpse on the old man’s doorstep.  His emotional state is pretty fucked up at this point, no doubt, but rather than freak the hell out, he places her corpse on his donkey, and takes it with him back home, to properly bury it and mourn in private.

Nah, I’m kidding.  No, he takes the body home, takes out a big ass knife, and proceeds to SLICE HER BODY INTO TWELVE PIECES, which he then mails to all 12 tribes of Israel!  Clearly, that’s the logical thing to do, given the circumstances!

Upon receiving their body parts, the collective leaders of all 12 tribes all looked at their body-part murder-grams, go “What the fuck is this shit?” and noticed the return address.  Everybody who is anybody shows up at Jack’s house, demanding answers (To me, this does seem pretty reasonable, given the circumstances).  Jack proceeds to tell them the story I just told you (although he’s sparse on the details about how he, you know, threw Alicia at the attackers), and then yells out “And I sent you her desecrated corpse, because don’t I deserve justice?!”

He probably does, decide most of the Israeli leaders.  (He also probably needs a strait-jacket and a padded cell, but his character is about to not matter at all anymore.)  But one particular group of Israelites is starting to look as awkwardly nonchalant as possible.  See, Gibeah was a town in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, so, because it was a messed up time in history, the members of that tribe felt they had to defend the city no matter what.  The whole murder-by-gang-rape thing?  Well, unfortunate, sure, but bros before dead concubines, you know?  She was only a woman, after all.  (Guys, biblical misogyny is pretty much horrific.  I cannot stress that enough.)

Before the rest of the Hebrews had realized it, the Benjaminians had dashed off to defend the city, and IT WAS ALL OUT WAR TIME, BABY. 

That sounds interesting, but it isn’t.  You see, the tribes of Israel outnumbered the Benjaminians about 200 to 13.  It was not a particularly fair fight.  Here’s how the next several verses of the book work:  During the day, the Israelites lay siege on the city.  The Benjaminians hope they don’t die. A lot of them do.  At night, the Israelites pray to Yahweh and ask if they should keep wailing on the city.  God’s all “Uh, yeah, sure.  Fight the good fight, my homies.”  Sleepy time happens.  Then the next day they all get up and do the exact same thing.  This goes on for a bit, until God gets bored by it, and declares the Israelites the (obvious) superior force.  25,000 innocent people- presumably women and children- are killed over the course of this very stupid war.

ANYWAY, over the course of this ethnic cleansing pursuit of justice, all of the menfolk had collectively decided that they would never let their daughter’s vaginas touch a filthy Benjaminian’s penis.  They had made a solemn oath to God about this, who probably nodded knowingly and then went back to watching Dancing With the Stars.  But once the war was over and everyone had man-hugged it out, bro-code insisted that all the Israelites help the Benjaminians get laid, and they felt bad.  (I must insist at this point that I’m not making any of this crap up, REALLY.  This is the damn story in the damn Bible.)  Bro-code was almost as important to them as the silly oath they had made during their stupid war, but surely a solution could be found, and then everyone could get laid!  (The ladies’ opinions were not volunteered.)

Realizing that no one from the town of Jabesh Gilead had bothered to show up to fight in this stupid war, 12,000 soldiers descended upon THAT town, killed all the men, boys, and non-virginal women, and brought back 400 young girls for the Benjamin dudes to rape**.  I should state that this was a direct order from their superiors.  Who are supposed to be the good guys in this story.  Do you want to know if it gets worse?  Oh come on.  You already knew it did.

The members of the Benja-Tribe were all about making it with these ladies, but unfortunately there weren’t nearly enough of them.  And considering gang rape was what got them all into this mess in the first place, it didn’t seem the best way to resolve the sexual urges.  Noticing the time of year, a brilliant (read: horrible) plot was hatched:  In a town called Shiloh, a yearly feast honoring God and stuff was about to happen.  The men of Benjamin waited outside in the bushes, and when the girls came out to dance and frolick, all the men pounced upon them, kidnapped them, and took them home to rape-marry.  When the men from Shiloh came out to protest, they were once again eased up by BRO-CODE.

You see, the Solemn Vow to God that none of them would let their daughters play slap and tickle with a Benjaminian had a loophole.  Since none of the men from Shiloh had volunteered their daughters- because they had been kidnapped by unrepentant rapists- technically no one had broken the rules with the Almighty, and the mass raping was on the up and up.  BIBLE BRO-CODE, DUDE.  The men of Shiloh thought this was totally okay, and that’s the end of the story.  A lot of off camera rape continues to be implied.

I have nothing funny to say to end this.  That’s how the Book of Judges ends, and it is just the worst.  I’m going to go have a cup of coco to make myself feel better now.

*= Seriously, her sense of self-worth is so little valued that the story calls her a “harlot” simply because she wanted to MOVE BACK IN WITH HER PARENTS.  As far as the damn Bible is concerned, that is the exact same thing as prostituting one’s self.  It’s kind of messed up, but given what happens later, maybe I should have expected it?

**= I refuse to put it more subtly than that, on the grounds that this story is horrid, and using superfluous, colorful language to justify it only makes matters worse.  This is an offensive, immoral tale involving the rape of hundreds of women, and I won’t pretend otherwise.  It belongs to the dark ages it originates from, and the fact that people believe in a literal version of this story in which the violent rapists are the HEROES is abhorrent. 
Seriously, the Bible can go fuck itself over this one.