Armagideon Time

Is it possible for a creative work to be brilliant and horrible in equal measure?

I’m not talking about things like Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will, where masterful artistic craftsmanship was placed in service of hateful ideologies. I’m talking about works where gold and garbage are so closely intermingled that it becomes nearly impossible to separate the two, and to experience them is to embark on a hyper-oscillating journey between honest enjoyment and pained embarrassment.

I’m talking about John Byrne’s sixteen issue run on West Coast Avengers

Tim O’Neil has cited that extended-yet-aborted arc as being the wellspring from which many, many ill-advised concepts would later flow, and I cannot disagree with him on that point. The destruction and “rebirth” of the Vision is a mess that still hasn’t been fully untangled (despite Kurt Busiek’s best efforts) and the “Bitch Crazification” of the Scarlet Witch has only gotten grottier with hindsight –

– and that’s before taking into account its use as a springboard for both the “Avengers Disassembled” and “House of M” storylines. What had been a slightly boring example of happy mutant-synthezoid domesticity resolved itself as a z-list supervillain sporting DEMON BABY ARMS…

It was unforgettable moment, for sure, but probably not in the way Byrne had intended it to be.

Yet for all the mindboggling idiocy on display during that period of West Coast Avengers (or Avengers West Coast, thanks to a nonsensical mid-arc title rebranding), there were a lot of interesting and often visionary things happening between the evil infant arms and heel-turn handjobs.

It’s important to remember that the arc took place in a time (1988 through 1990) when radical shake-ups carried an aura of semi-permanence and — by extension — audience excitement. Before Byrne’s arrival, West Coast Avengers was a murky, uninspired mess of a book which had difficulty sustaining fan enthusiasm. It did have its fans, but nothing to match the scope of initial interest in the original WCA miniseries and hyped-up debut of the ongoing series.

The arrival of a superstar creator like Byrne was a big deal, and the first issue bore out the anticipation that things were going to really interesting, really quickly. Though the specifics ended up being problematic in the extreme, the methods he used were pretty groundbreaking for a mainstream superhero comic at that time.

Following up upon the non-traditional superteam narrative he played around with in Alpha Flight, Byrne employed a tiled framework for the numerous main and sub plots with ran through the arc. Many of the these beats ended with cliffhangers or — more accurately — jump cuts, with the resolution coming multiple issues later…if at all. That use of a selective “lens” is nothing new to comics, but it has rarely been used as intricately or effectively as it was here to present the impression of greater events unfolding in the spaces outside the panels.

(A similar approach was being used by the “Five Years Later” reboot of the Legion at the time, with a bit less lucidy in service to a much better story.)

Even on the content level, Byrne’s WCA run possessed a number of gem-like moments among the piles of OCD (“obsessive continuity disorder”) dross. The run marked the renaissance of Hank Pym in his be-jumpsuited Action Scientist incarnation, the introduction of the “Great Lakes Avengers,” nifty dust-ups with Mole Man and the U-Foes, and the (unnecessary but still nice) return of Marvel’s first superhero, the Golden Age Human Torch. Byrne’s depiction of the team as a collection of seasoned superheroic vets capable of functioning without a specific leader was a nice touch, too.

As problematic as the some of the story elements may have been, the bigger problem was that Byrne left before he could resolve any of long-term plots which he’d set into motion — Immortus’s alt-reality schemes, the implications of the Torch’s return, the U.S. Agent’s shaky grasp of reality, Wonder Man’s romantic angst, and the Scarlet Witch’s bout with traumatic insanity. These were all left to later creative teams to resolve, with wildly varying degrees of success. In trying to “fix” continuity messes, Byrne planted the seeds of even bigger messes to come.

As it stands, Byrne’s West Coast Avengers run is an incomplete and polarizing oddity. I’m quite fond of it, but can also understand why other fans have strong negative opinions about it. The gender politics alone are second only in awfulness to the power-mullet Wonder Man rocked at the time, and I wouldn’t want to explain either one to the kids of today.

Maybe that’s the nub of it. West Coast Avengers #42 was the first comic I purchased after my mom passed away. I was sixteen years old, shopping for funeral clothes with my aunt when I spotted a copy at a Waldenbooks spinner rack. I had read the solicitations in CBG a few months before, which felt like a thousand years ago at that moment. But it was a comic I hadn’t read by a creator I was of fan of taking on characters I liked.

It was a comforting distraction in a troubled time, and that’s a hard association to shake…even with evil infant arms and heel-turn handos.

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9 Responses to “Nobody (Else’s) Favorites: Go west”

  1. athodyd

    “Avengers, I’m afraid… one of our androids is missing.”

    “Oh my god! How?”

    “Seems he ran aground on maneuvers.”

    “Wait, what? Is that a metaphor for something or–”

    “A HUUUNGRYYYY HEEEAAAAARRRRRT…”

    “God damn you and your Thomas Dolby collection, Wonder Man.”

  2. Abberation, The

    “…the bigger problem was that Byrne left before he could resolve any of long-term plots which he’d set into motion…”

    Hah! That a gentlemanly way of describing Bryne’s signature move–take over a book, remake it as he saw fit, get noticeably bored with it after a year or so, then spend another year running it into the ground only to bail out on his way to his next victim, leaving it to someone else to salvage the mess. I lost track of him after his Superman run, but go ahead–pick a title he didn’t do that to. Alpha Flight? FF? Hulk?

    Andrew covered Alpha Flight last time–I want to note that I had a huge crush on Snowy–and while I suffered through “Snowblind” like a good soldier it was the second-year Shaman story (#18-19? Not sure) that I found insulting beyond belief; Shaman deceives his own daughter into putting on a crown that cannot be removed (shades of the Monkey King, but with less point to it) which transforms her into what appears to be a Las Vegas stripper’s idea of an “Injun” superheroine.

    And that wasn’t even the part that made me toss the book across the room! No, it was a single page of pure exposition–four equal panels (what’s known as “windowpane”), perhaps one of the greatest no-nos of professional comic-book art, augmented by the second-biggest: huge globs of text in bubbles filling approximately the top third-to-half of each panel. And nothing interesting happening in any panel! Anyone who turns over such a crap page in their portfolio while seeking a job should be SHOT.

    Oh, and Shaman fought a monster made of scrambled eggs in a kitchen, using his own signature move: throwing crap at it from his magic purse–I mean, “medicine pouch.”

    I understand, now, that he was trying to make his displeasure known to Marvel, but dammit John, readers paid for that book. Be a professional.

  3. Kris

    Man, heel-turn handjob may be the best phrase of the year. Now if I can figure out how to work it into a conversation. As for this comic, the post Shooter, pre- pre- Image period of Marvel had a few gems. This was (mostly) one of them. Another run from the same general time frame that no one ever mentions but I thought was swell was Steve Englehart’s run on Silver Surfer.

  4. snell

    Perhaps the biggest mystery of Byrne’s WCA run–the red. Why all the red, dammit? http://slaymonstrobot.blogspot.com/2011/03/bold-fashion-choices-john-byrnes.html

  5. CG

    You know what’s good comics? John Byrne’s Star Trek stuff at IDW. Darn good comics.

  6. Snark Shark

    I like Tigra!

    ..that is all…

  7. LouReedRichards

    @ Abberation, The

    How exactly did he leave the FF a mess? He brought significant change to a stagnant book. Maybe you didn’t like the changes, but it’s not like he left the title in shambles. If anything he gave the book a much needed shot in the arm.

    He worked on the title for 5 years and perhaps his enthusiasm waned towards the end, but by and large he kept the title at a level far superior to what it had been for years and years.

    I have fond memories of this AWC run as well, of course I think I bailed before Bryne left, so there must have been something I didn’t like about it. I can’t remember what that might be though, other than he needed somebody else to ink his pencils.

  8. Ken Begg

    I always loved that version of Hank when he worked as Dr. Pym. Rather than personally grow big or small, he would shrink things and carry them around in this jumpsuit until one of them would turn useful, then he’d grow them back to full size. The best aspect of the character was that he relied on his intelligence to apply minimum force. He didn’t carry huge guns or explosives or a miniaturized Helicarrier around. It was car jacks and things like that. He was sort of a superhero MacGyver, and it was a very cool schtick.

    Of course the problem was that the character could only be as smart as the person writing him, but it was still pretty sweet.

  9. Bill D.

    I’ve been afraid to go back and re-read this for fear of it not holding up, but man did I love this at the time, particularly the debut of the Great Lakes Avengers, the return of the android Human Torch, the Immortus stuff, the end of Acts of Vengeance. I even used to own a page from that last AoV issue (55, IIRC), the one where Thor smashes apart Loki’s ice wall in a 2/3 splash page… hated like hell to have to part with that one.

    And I was a big fan of action jumpsuit Dr. Pym, too, and thought that the idea of him moving past needing a costume or an alter ego was the logical conclusion for him, especially since his identity was public knowledge anyway. Plus, in the age of pockets and pouches, it was nice to see a hero who actually kept things in them. And at micro-size, too, to be enlarged when needed. Basically, he was like Sport Billy but a lot less lame.

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