Sunday, September 8, 2013

Advance Review: Avengers: Endless Wartime by Warren Ellis and Mike McKone

Avengers: Endless Wartime
By Warren Ellis and Mike McKone
Marvel Comics, October 2013
Avengers: Endless Wartime, coming this October, is Marvel's first genuine go at capitalizing on the original graphic novel market that has otherwise passed them by. Marvel has tried OGNs in the past, namely the Season One graphic novels which retold various characters' origins, to absolutely no avail. Endless Wartime is clearly meant to capitalize on the crossover popularity of the Avengers franchise while telling a story set solidly in the 616 Marvel Universe, an in-continuity superhero OGN for the casual bookstore crowd. Sadly, the book is a complete dud.

With the surfeit of superhero material out there from the Big Two, surprisingly little is as pure graphic novels. Of course there are plenty of serialized stories that are collected as graphic novels (or trade paperbacks or what have you), but long form, non-serialized superhero graphic novels are few and far between. DC Comics made a huge splash with J. Michael Straczynski's Superman Earth One graphic novels, a critical and commercial success among superhero fans and general audiences alike. The qualities of the work by Straczynski and artist Shane Davis in their modern retelling of the Man of Steel's origin, as well as the unique pacing afforded to an OGN - where you don't have a forced story beat or cliffhanger every 22 pages or so - gave the book a decidedly fresh feel not replicated anywhere else in the mainstream. Marvel's Season One books were their transparent attempt at replicating Earth One's success, which is perhaps why they failed; trying to copy something jusy leaves you with a bad copy. Avengers: Endless Wartime, written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Mike McKone, is but the first in a wave of "Marvel OGN" branded original graphic novels that take a decidedly different approach, featuring acclaimed creators tackling A-List properties telling accessible superhero stories in OGN format within the Marvel Universe proper.

And Endless Wartime certainly accomplishes most of this. The strengths in the work jump out right away. I have been highly critical of Marvel's graphic novel/collection program in the past, not just in terms of back catalog availability but also factors like production design. Often with Marvel's product, collections are just dumped into the market with little regard for the overall visual feel and long term viability of the finished product. DC is not much better. With the exception of writer/designer Jonathan Hickman's extraordinary work and the valiant efforts of the overworked and underfunded in-house design department, Marvel's cheap and quick ethos usually shows most in their collected editions. This is not the case with Endless Wartime, which features original production design from the prodigiously talented artist/designer Rian Hughes. Hughes' work designing a complete package - sleek, modern, and attractive - really makes the work jump out. So many original graphic novels outside the mainstream are complete productions where every facet outside just the cover and story matter, and Endless Wartime is the first Marvel book (aside from Hickman's) to accomplish this feel. And the qualities of Warren Ellis and Mike McKone as creators cannot be understated, and it is vital to have big guns on a work like this. I just wish the finished product reflected each creator's track record.

Colonel Carol Danvers, Captain Friggin' Marvel!
I've been on a bit of a Warren Ellis kick lately. (I am a huge fan of his usually amazing work across so many different genres.) I just read DC's new releases of his seminal Stormwatch/Authority output, a few months ago I reread his and John Cassaday's masterpiece Planetary, I just finally finished buying all the Transmetropolitan trades, and am about to finish rereading his wonderful Global Frequency. His Secret Avengers run from a couple of years ago and Nextwave with Stuart Immonen are some of my all-time favorite Marvel books. And so on, and so on. But Endless Wartime falls short by the two measures most important to a book like this, both as a stand-alone work and as a book set within the Marvel Universe.

The book has a promising opening with guerrilla mercenaries trying to destabilize a U.S.-friendly third world regime bitching about drone attacks ruining their warmongering. They manage to shoot down a newfangled sci-fi drone replete with US Air Force markings and alert the press. Captain America is watching this on teevee with Iron Man, Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers, hell yes), Hawkeye, Wolverine and Black Widow. After some research, he makes the connection to old Nazi voodoo in Scandinavia and Thor shows up connecting it to his old battles against some dragon worm thing that used to feed on the World Tree. Thor's pissed, Cap's pissed, and the Assembled Avengers hop in the Quinjet and go off to collect the drone. But they run into a bunch of living weapons; pieces of this evil Norse creature have been melded with U.S. weaponry into semi-autonomous artificially intelligent drones by a shady contractor and used for American geopolitical purposes. They double back to New York where the rest of these things are being staged and much battling ensues.

It's clear Endless Wartime is trying to have sly back-door commentary about the use of American power abroad, but the whole thing is just silly and falls flat. A ballsier move would be to explore the implications from the war torn opening pages, but instead the villainy is shunted off to closet Norse/Cthulhu Nazi changlings running megacorp military contractors manipulating back-door S.H.I.E.L.D. ops. Although S.H.I.E.L.D. is made to be the kindof-big-bads, the corruption really isn't governmental, it isn't corporate, it isn't military, it isn't even strictly human. Which isn't a problem in itself, it just doesn't work.

Warren Ellis has shown himself very adept at setting up and solving conflicts in short spaces - the aforementioned Global Frequency and Secret Avengers, for instance. And he nails the different pacing needed for an OGN. He does a fairly competent job of introducing each of the different characters, establishing their personalities and power sets. Each character has a moment to shine and more than a few one-liners. But the overall execution lacks. The monsters are dull, the motivations behind their use are tired. Even worse, the character interactions just get repetitive. Clint calls Steve an old man, Steve feels like a Man out of Time, Tony jokes about being rich and about the weird combination of shit they're battling, Tony's suit breaks down, Logan's gruff, Widow's badass, everyone rags on Clint, Clint can't fly the plane, then repeat all of this two or three times. And Ellis's cynical charm just breaks down into annoying verbal repetition with each character talking with the same undifferentiated attitude in the same insufferable way that Brian Michael Bendis far too often lurches towards where his characters all talk like Peter Parker (or perhaps Abumrad and Krulwich). As a self-contained, original work, Endless Wartime is tiresome and monotonous.

Marvel's preview... uh...  "motion comic" video thing, of Endless Wartime

Another gauge of the book's quality is how it works as a Marvel Universe book. Now, if Marvel is solely aiming for the non-cape comic crowd, it probably doesn't matter how the characters are presented. But the book is being marketed and presented as a Marvel Universe book - this is not the "Movie Avengers," after all, but the actual honest-to-goodness Avengers Avengers (Wolverine! Captain Marvel!). So it is important to apply additional judgement as such, within the confines of a shared superhero universe using characters established by years of storytelling. I'm less concerned about the dirty c-word - continuity - than established interpersonal dynamics which don't hold up to what we know of these characters. Wolverine, otherwise wonderfully presented never in-costume, is on edge and constantly whining about how he's a killer who's willing to do the dirty work and how Captain America and Thor are always on his case when they are never really on his case here. This ignores the long and respectful (if sometimes grudging) relationship with Steve Rogers, and makes him seem petulant, sticking it to Thor and Cap in some weird backhanded way. The characterization is just nonsense. And Bruce Banner, when he finally shows up, is presented as having no control over his Hulk powers. Ridiculously, Hulk apparently pops up on some silly schedule that the Avengers have to rush against. Bruce constantly, constantly talking about the Other Guy, the Other Guy being on some kind of schedule, and then crying when the Other Guy kills some mindless bioweapons is just dumb. Really, really dumb.

The failings of the story cannot help but hurt the art. To be fair, Mike McKone does a fine job with what he's given, but what he's given is visually dull, the monsters and villains and staging uninteresting at best. He nails the money shots: Hulk hulks, Captain Marvel shows, Thor throws (including a cool hammer/shield combo I don't think we've seen in an Avengers comic before). But when the story is as tired as this it takes some pretty magical visual astonishments to pull the story above its script and that just doesn't happen here. The muddy coloring certainly doesn't help either.

In contrast to their biggest competitor in DC, Marvel has a track record of taking risks in their creator-driven storytelling. And in contrast to DC, Marvel tends to be gutless and restrictive with their collected editions. Avengers: Endless Wartime flips the dynamic by telling a DC-mediocre story in a ballsy OGN release. Indeed, in an unusual step for a mainstream superhero comic, the book will be released globally - in comic stores and book stores domestically and in various international markets - on the same day, October 2. The look of the overall package and its very nature will certainly garner the book much attention. But Endless Wartime's middling, lackluster execution sadly does not match the Marvel OGN project's grand ambitions.


  1. Yeah... This art blows. There's no way to say that in a nice way and I don't know where everyone gets off lauding it. If you can't say something mean just don't say anything at all. Don't BS me into thinking these static, boring renderings of oft misshapen faces and fat torsos is "good art". The backgrounds all reek or Google Sketch-Up and there is no texture to anything except a few sky shots which look more like a dirt road in a green light. Even at his worst Ellis deserves better art than this but it seems like he often selects these people. I don't get it.

  2. I wouldn't put it in those terms. The coloring was especially bad, though. The sub-par art should not distract from Ellis's unengaging, repetitive scripting. "Even at his worst" it doesn't matter who the artist is because he's at his worst.