Put as mildly as a foul-mouthed, cynical, long-time drunken comic reader can put it, comic publishers almost never handle the release of a movie based on one of their properties well. Put less mildly and more baldly accurately, they generally seem to take the opportunity such a cross-media exposure provides for attracting new, enthusiastic readers to their comic books to grimly set their jaws, strap on their cleats, and stomp hard on their own dicks.
It happens over and over, so predictably that it might was well be a Cylon plot. The Dark Knight is poised to become the biggest movie of 2008, you say? What a perfect time for DC to kill Batman and put a new guy in the suit! Thor looking to open large? Awesome! Kill him! Iron Man breaking bigger than anyone thought in 2008? Sweet, let’s make him a government bureaucrat! It’s like the front offices of the Big Two, prior to the release of a comic book movie, go days without sleep, subsisting on amphetamines, trying to figure out how to convey to potential new readers, who wander into a comic store to learn more about the character they just fell in love with, that it would be in their best interests to fuck off and just keep right on walking.
So imagine my surprise when Marvel, not five days after the release of Avengers in American theaters, put out an issue of a comic book written and drawn by one of their A-list talent teams that looks like the movie, has the same characters as the movie, that is not only action-packed and imminently accessible to anyone who saw the movie, but also goes about answering one of the key unanswered questions from the movie that I have been asked repeatedly since last Friday: “So, that guy in the scene in the credits… who was that guy, exactly?”
This issue is a perfect entry point – up to a point – for readers only familiar with The Avengers via two hours of Joss Whedon-steered exposure; it has the core team from the movie, and the core team from the movie only. It takes place on the Helicarrier from the movie, you know, the one with the fighter jets on the flight deck of a normal-looking aircraft carrier that just happens to be flying (and when it starts to go down, they make the same cries of needing to get it over water). Iron Man has the movie’s Jarvis in his armor to talk to. Sure, casual readers won’t know who this Zodiac team The Avengers are fighting are, but they didn’t know who the Chitauri were before the movie either; hell, I’ve been reading Marvel comics since 1975 and I’m not sure I know who the fucking Chitauri are.
Putting writer Brian Michael Bendis on this book would seem, on paper, to be a calculated risk. After all, the man writes great dialogue like almost no one else in comics… but he exercises that writing muscle, as often as not, in long “dudes yapping around a table” sequences that are fun to read but only tolerable to experienced readers who have learned the rules and shortcomings of decompressed storytelling for the trade. In this issue, however, he gives us nothing but high-intensity superhero action with solid, quippy dialogue that will remind anyone new to comics of Whedon’s wisecracks (Although “Avengers disassemble” will never be as quotable – in the right company, of course – as “you mewling quim”).
And yes – we get a final-page reveal of Thanos. It’s nothing more than that, and on paper not anything more than we got in the movie’s closing credits, but it gives new readers who only know the movie the character’s name, and more importantly, the knowledge that if they want to know more about Thanos, they can come back to the comic store next month and learn about the guy. It turns what was merely a credit scene Easter egg for Marvel junkies into a potent cross-pollination opportunity to get, and keep, new readers.
Mark Bagley is a near-perfect artist for a book that is designed and exists to attract readers who are new to comics. His stuff here is the same as it ever is; clean, detailed and not over-stylized. His action is dynamic – and there is plenty of action here – and his facial expressions are easy to read. It is, in short, solid but non-challenging art that will be generally easily readable to non-comics readers… up to a point. His storytelling here is solid and easy to follow, but it is easy to follow for people who already know comics.
This issue is chock-a-block with customized, layered, non-standard panels, and at least one double-page spread with multiple panels on it. Which is fine if you know comics and know what you’re looking at, but which can be the kiss of death if you want someone new to the medium to understand just what they’re supposed to be looking at. In a book designed to hook in new readers, you want the dog dick simplest panel layout as humanly possible; why give someone who might feel a little sheepish about walking into a comic store – y’know, like the one he or she’s been seeing for years on The Simpsons – any excuse to feel dumb and not come back? Don’t get me wrong; it’s not as egregious and baffling as Bendis has been known to get, but it might confuse some new readers.
Make no mistake: this is not a comic book for people who are already comic readers. It falls outside of established continuity, it isn’t part of the Avengers Vs. X-Men event, and the characters and scenario follow the movie far more closely than any of the books already on your pull list. With that said, it is a dynamic, fun and action packed read, that will entertain current readers as its own diversion.
But if your experience is anything like mine, and people you barely know at your day job are shuffling to your desk because everyone knows you’re a comic fan and asking questions that came up in the movie? Have this issue on your desk. Load it into Comixology on your tablet PC. Put it in their hands. Because for the first time in my recent memory, Marvel has embraced the opportunity a comic book movie provides, and has produced a book that is meant to serve that purpose. Start ’em here… then tell them about the Kree Skrull War.