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.