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Another View: Age of Ultron #10 Part 03

I was going to get around to this, but Neil Kapit has made the timing seem better sooner than later.

Age of Ultron #10 ends with time being ‘broken’ as a result of Wolverine and Susan Richards’s time travelling. While it’s unclear exactly what that means, the idea that something is ‘broken’ by superhumans is a recurring one in Brian Michael Bendis’s work, particularly his time on the Avengers books. He is very concerned with the effect that superhumans would have upon the world, especially taking into account the way that Marvel Universe continually returns to the same stories and usually brushes away anything resembling a consequence of action. It’s not simply the unforeseen effects of superhuman actions, it’s that they are usually doing things that they cannot understand. The Scarlet Witch’s reality-bending powers are beyond a human mind’s ability to control; the use and misuse of magic (which is borderline unknowable) allows for a demonic invasion; moving through time and creating alternate realities ‘breaks’ time. What this exactly means is unclear. We see some sort of ‘timequake’ (for lack of a better word) and a few select people perceive something wrong.

What I’m interested in is the tone of Neil’s comment, that Bendis returning to this idea is somehow negative. It’s a complaint that I’ve seen levelled against nearly every writer worth a damn. Most writers have recurring themes and ideas, either purposeful or not. What’s interesting is how the reaction to this changes based on how each individual responds to the writer. If they enjoy the writer’s work, then it’s intriguing to watch that writer continually return to the same ideas from different perspectives. Their body of work is not simply a bunch of standalone works, but a cohesive whole greater than the sum of the parts. If they don’t enjoy the writer’s work, it’s repetitive, lazy, unimaginative, derivative, etc. The continual return to the small set of ideas and themes means that most of the body of work is redundant and unnecessary, leaving only one or two choice works worth reading, because the rest are just bad knockoffs.

I don’t think it would surprise anyone to know that I usually try to fall in the former camp and somewhat deplore the latter. There aren’t many people whose work that I enjoy that I won’t try to follow anywhere, even if it’s the same place they’ve been many times before. While the ideas may be similar, I’ve rarely found a writer who actually does the same thing again and again (at least any writer that’s produced anything worthwhile). Age of Ultron #10 may present another case of Bendis’s concern over the unintended effects superhumans could have on the world around them, but it’s different enough from the other times he’s work with this idea. Besides, focusing on the ‘broken time’ bit ignores the other exploration of this idea that the entire series has hinged upon: Hank Pym creating Ultron. Pym creates an artificial lifeform with the most altruistic hopes and it turns out to be humanity’s greatest enemy. The finale of the story shows Pym along with his fellow superhumans figuring out a solution to the problem that he caused.

While Bendis may be interested in the unexpected problems that superhumans can cause, that’s only half of the equation. He’s equally interested in how superheroes solve those problems. That’s the more crucial part, I would argue. The first part is just set up, while the second part is what makes for a story worth telling and reading. The first part is certainly interesting and, personally, I have a fondness for the deconstructive approach that it has; however, to simply tear the superhero concept down without allowing it a chance to fix the problem would hardly make someone the go-to guy at Marvel – and hardly a writer who should be writing superheroes beyond a story or two.

Since Age of Ultron #10, the ‘broken time’ element hasn’t been followed up extensively. Bendis has certainly touched on it in All-New X-Men and I would imagine that the original X-Men’s inability to return back to their own time is related somehow. Two days ago, I mentioned a few things that made this comic a somewhat unsatisfying ending, and the introduction of this ‘broken time’ problem is another. It’s only the first part of the complete story and one that’s not touched on extensively. It’s “Avengers Disassembled” waiting for its House of M. And, depending on your perspective, that’s either a good thing or a bad thing. You know where I fall.

9 Comments

Is one of the side-effects of time being broken that you keep writing columns on a six month-old comic? :P

Not followed up on extensively? It’s currently in the entire Ultimate line. It was the focal point of the last Indestructible Hulk storyline, the Angela ramifications are playing out in Guardians of the Galaxy, it is tangentially part of the story in FF and Fantastic Four, as well as Uncanny Avengers, Invincible Iron Man, Wolverine and the X-Men and Superior Spider-Man…. plus the All New X-Men and Battle of the Atom… While none of these (outside GoG and the Ultimate books) are dealing with direct ramifications the thematic idea of time being broken and lightly in flux is linking a large portion of the MU right now, and I find that pretty cool.

Oh, and the whole “Incursion” thing in New Avengers… more broken time.

First of all, I want to make it clear that the comment about Bendis’ over-reliance on reality being “broken” was not a slight against Brian Michael Bendis the human beign, just a criticism of his work. I should also make it clear that I’ve enjoyed a lot of Bendis’ work, particularly on Ultimate Spider-Man, Daredevil, Powers, and Takio. I’ve even enjoyed quite a bit of his Avengers work, particularly his more esoteric takes like Dark Avengers and Mighty Avengers.

I also want to make it clear that a lot of my favorite comic writers tend towards deconstruction of their genres, including Bendis himself on different projects. My all-time favorites include writers like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, etc., who tend to either outright loathe superheroes and make that clear in their work, or view them from a completely different perspective than anyone else, less grounded in continuity than conceptual power.

The problem I have with the “broken” metaphor isn’t so much that it’s repetitive but that it isn’t very well reasoned in the first place, and calls so much attention to the story’s fictional nature that it detracts from the experience. By making the consequences of reality-warpers exactly what the plot demands, and giving no explanation beyond “broken”, it basically screams “This Is A Deus Ex Machina”. It’s especially jarring when the effects aren’t thematically related to the cause, and are clearly just a way to get a character from point A to point B. I already mentioned the stuff with Wolverine’s memories and Iron Man’s Secretary of Defense position, but we also have things like Cataclysm (another Bendis book), where the end of the Ultimate Universe and its completely separate and largely deus-ex-machina-free narrative is the result of Classic Galactus being dropped on the Ultimate Earth like a Monty Python foot.

It’s also incredibly dull in terms of comic fight choreography, because Bendis team book fights tend to involve one Deus Ex Machina character winning the day in a flashy display of ill-defined power, which in the Avengers usually meant Dr. Strange or the Sentry. Meanwhile, the other characters basically just run interference, fighting in the background to give the artist something to draw. This isn’t always the case, but it’s pretty common to see one uber-strong character resolve the conflict in one move while everyone else runs around like newly headless chickens.

I like the fact that Bendis is willing to explore these tropes, I just wish that exploration would happen in a way that made these stories stronger, instead of just pointing out their glaring flaws.

I would pay money for a Bendis book with backgrounds of newly headless chickens fighting each other. GOOD money, even.

More to the point, “Newly Headless Chickens” is a band name worthy of Andy Dwyer.

Cully, I meant dealt with in a direct way. Yes, the side-effects of what happens in this comic have been seen through, but not the actual event itself. I was unclear.

Neil, I didn’t mean anything — your comment just spurred a line of thought that’s rather independent of the comment’s specific contents.

You’ve articulated the issue excellently. As a writer, at any given time in your life, you are working with – or wrestling with – a set of themes or sets of themes that recur in each piece. Why should Mr. Bendis be any different?

One thing I don’t think you’ve touched on here is the influence of the feeling of shared ownership in the case of the Marvel and DC characters. Readers of these almost universally recognized characters almost feel like they own them – I have seen it expressed as they are “our toys” and the writer is “allowed to play with them”, but we expect him or her to put them back undamaged.

The idea that super-heroes break the world or their behavior causes catastrophes – even if they are shown to eventually make things right – is one that not all readers are comfortable with in their Marvel comics. It’s a theme a reader might be comfortable with in “Powers” or “Invincible” – books that have always had that as a core theme – but might be opposed to in “The Avengers” because “my Avengers are always right and good and true”.

That might also explain why it so often happens that a writer who was almost universally lauded for his or her independent work comes under attack – or is attacked and praised with equal vigor – when he or she starts writing for Marvel or DC.

“I’m comfortable with your themes in your backyard, but not in mine!”

Neil: “Classic Galactus being dropped on the Ultimate Earth like a Monty Python foot” – I laughed, and thanks for that.

I haven’t read the book in question, and I think I won’t now. I’d rather keep that image in my mind.

In a team book, “a single character wins the day” can be great if it is a different character each time or if there are meaningful contributions from other characters before the end of the fight, but it certainly does get tiresome if it is the same character repeatedly – unless the aim of the storyteller is to eventually show the issue with over-reliance on that character.

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