The Avengers no more! The latest stage in Brian Michael Bendis's takeover of the Marvel universe sees him taking apart Earth's mightiest heroes with as much relish as Baron Zemo. Is this what it takes to make the Avengers popular again?
06 September 2004


Some days I see the end-times in the least significant things. Just today, I stood on something that got stuck to my shoe for a good ten minutes - a shop label. That, for me, meant Bad Things Were Due. The way in which I open a Kit Kat is a process racked with ill meaning and potential calamity for my already shaky existence.

Yet I fail to spot that my spending all my wages in the first week of every month and racking up immense overdraft debts is in anyway prophetic. I fail to notice my alcohol intake will lead to my liver slowly decaying like a bad Clive Barker subplot and killing me from inside. These are larger things, these are things too big for me to get my head around. But realising I only have Ready Salted crisps in the cupboard? Apocalypse!

However, in the merry world of fiction, the writer chooses how they would personally signal the oncoming End (though why sentence-case should be a signifier of import has never quite stuck for me). Signs can be large and portentous, like the immense uber-god The Glimmer turning up during Grant Morrison's superhero epic JLA: WORLD WAR THREE. Or they can be small and personal like the simple phone call a tired FBI agent makes to a newspaper when revealing Matt Murdock's identity in Brian Bendis' DAREDEVIL.

'Bendis has decided that subtlety can only get you so far.' Whether these signs are small or large is entirely separate from their subtlety. Subtlety is usually a tool, but is normally an accident in comics. Subtlety, in the world of men and women dressed like Christmas Tree ornaments, is - like a clown juggling chain saws on the high wire - a difficult balance.

Which brings us circuitously to Brian Bendis and David Finch's revamp of THE AVENGERS. Long, the staid '70s soap opera of played-out Z-listers hanging on for dear-life to celebrity like a reality-TV star, it's now shiny and new. Or dirty and dead, if you picked up his first issue, #500.

Tasked with bringing the bling in this latest pimproving of the Marvel Universe, Bendis has decided that subtlety can only get you so far. This title has sailed by on history and a name it didn't earn, it needed a boot up the arse. And that requires huge impending disaster, not Hawkeye worrying if purple really is his colour (and doesn't just make him look like a giant, ambulatory cock).


This has landed Bendis smack-bang in the middle of a Nerd War that has raged for generations. These characters are sacred cows, and changing them in any way would be akin to a chorister rubbing his wet on the priest's cassock while he was otherwise engaged. Yet there is a proven sales boost whenever great changes are announced, whenever something big is going to happen.

These two ideas stand at counter-point and throw up something of a paradox. If fans don't want their characters to change, why do they make such a noise when they do? It all comes down to what I refer to as the illusion of the illusion of change. They don't want change, but they don't want to be seen as backward, so they want the illusion that they want the illusion of change. There will be a test at the end of this, so try to keep up.

Of course, any writer of sound mind will tell you that writing what the audience wants is a surefire way of administering your own lobotomy. What the audience tells you they want is usually in direct opposition to what they actually want - i.e. the illusion of the illusion of change.

'Bendis has landed in the middle of a Nerd War that has raged for generations.' So what does a writer do? Change the characters, or just pretend to change the characters? The latter has been the obvious choice for several generations of writers, but Bendis realised that this artificial character growth has created a stagnant pond of recessive genes around The Avengers. They've got deadweight characters who couldn't support an ongoing if Jim Lee pencilled and God inked. Hawkeye - a long-running Avengers "member" - had the misfortune of getting his own series cancelled within a year. He's rumoured for the big Revolving Door in the sky too.

Now Bendis - under the sound editorial leadership of Joe Quesada - could have chosen to make several subtle changes over a period of months. The Vision could decide he's fallen in love with the fridge-freezer and they're going to live in Wichita and raise their own George Foreman grill. Scarlet Witch could catch pneumonia from that skanky outfit and die slowly over 18 horrible months. The Falcon could end his own life in a low-rent New York motel after finally realising that even Warren Ellis can't make him interesting. But it's far more fun to just have Jack Of Hearts (who should never have been allowed to live to start with) walk into the Avengers Mansion and explode.


The problem still persists that death is a devalued concept. It's such a big thing, such an irrevocable and immense change in most of our lives (especially if it happens to you) that writers pull it out as the ultimate in ill portent. There's no better way to make your new bad-ass bad-guy look cool than have him kill some Z-list super-hero with only a cocktail sausage, the element of surprise and a head full of Wrong.

'It all comes down to the illusion of the illusion of change.' But when you know that Z-lister (able to blend into any crowd!) will be back in six months, then the power of death is devalued. The scales have been reversed to the point where we, the readership, scoff at death. Every time a writer builds a meaningful, poignant death, there's always some Chris Claremont that comes along afterwards and reveals the real character was partying in Havana with three Latino girls after having himself cloned from a stray pube.

So what does this mean for The Avengers? It means Bendis should have known better after the success he's had with DAREDEVIL. His work on POWERS is riddled with death and destruction, but it's exempt from the problem because it's a new universe. The internal consistency of the POWERS universe is that dead people stay dead. But The Avengers have been killed and reborn and killed and then found under a rock and then eviscerated and then teleported in from the 5th dimension for far too long...

Which leads back to the fans and their uproarious problem with death. They all must know that no death stands, so why get so bent out of shape? Maybe it's their subconscious mind realising it's a redundant character development strategy, only it comes out of their mouths as "Dunt K1ll AnTMan! He roXXors!!!" Or maybe all that spunk they're stockpiling for their 'special first time' has addled their brains.

The strangest part of the whole scenario is Bendis' involvement. As one of the industry's most prevalent and intelligent writers, he must realise that everything he does will be undone. Of course, it could just be him looking for the quickest way to ditch the old team for his new team, but he's never been a writer to back away from subtlety and this lack of it stands out.

So far only two issues are out. They've demonstrated a clear understanding of disaster movie plotting, and they're exciting and surprising and have enough stand-out scenes to entertain. But every time a writer kills off a character in this fashion, it perpetuates the problem. I don't know whether AVENGERS fans would be quite ready for the techniques Bendis brought to DAREDEVIL, but it would have been interesting to see.

Of course, I could be reading far too much into the significance of something that is essentially meaningless. But then again, that's always been my problem.

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