The weird thing about the internet and having a strong fanbase is that comics can often disappoint without even trying. Here’s my story: Last month I fell in love with a weird little mini-series called Vengeance. Artist Nick Dragotta and writer Joe Casey made this unclassifiable story that had all these weird touches to it, moments and names and items that jumped immediately to that place in my brain where I store the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (Deluxe Edition, please). The story is set “nowish,” with characters seeing current Marvel events like Fear Itself played on bar TV screens and a few flashbacks setting the tone, like the Red Skull and Hitler chatting about the Red Army’s eugenics program. The appearance of Forge’s old gun that takes away a mutant’s powers being toted around by the new Ultimate Nullifier, the fact that the book opens up with the Red Ghost sitting alone at a bar somewhere, watching Captain America face down an angry mob, that anyone would remember Sugar Kane the pop star that dated Chamber in order to seem edgy to her public … I might have taken those for granted. But all these little morsels of info in a rather disjointed book left me enamored with it.
My esteemed, saintly and incredibly good-looking editor here at Robot 6 mentioned that an annotation of the Vengeance series might point out all these little things and bring them to the surface for more fans. So I spent a couple weeks going over the book, making notes, putting things in order and then… the worst part. I made conjectures. After all, you can’t put a bunch of puzzle pieces out in front of someone and not expect them to make a couple guesses, right? But then one guess turns into two and the more you dissect a frog to see how it works, well, you learn a lot in the process. But in the end the frog is dead.
So with Vengeance #2 on the stands this week, there’s all this new information to prove me wrong on everything I had assumed. Which was disappointing at first; after all, my ideas are pretty cool, why didn’t they go in that direction? If you bring out the Red Ghost in act one, he has to have monkeys by the end of the play, it’s integral! But then, is there a lot of disappointment running through comics sometimes? The flashed image of a character’s redesign can send fandom into fits. The lack of information on a missing character can start wars in convention halls. I can sit here, read Vengeance #2 and think, “This isn’t what I expected at all.”
First issues are like that, though. We don’t normally have all our ducks in a row for our introductions in modern comics storytelling. The boards have to be set up, players chosen, the rules in place and only then does the game begin. So how do Vengeance #2 and WWE tag team matches relate? Read on and find out, gentle viewer.
WARNING: Rampant discussion of the events from Vengeance #1, Vengeance #2 and 75% of WWE tag team matches follows. You have been warned.
Casey brings the bizarre and thoughtful to the page. Dragotta’s stylish graphics have a lot of freedom to how panels are placed, how sound effects come in, where the color is, that it makes me think I’m reading an independent comic. Throughout the first issue, there are some re-purposed characters like Miss America, who went from a pretty standard WWII adventure heroine to a pretty standard low-cut pants adventure heroine. The Teen Brigade went from the CB radio to the underground computer network, led by a cocky guy with a rather outrageous legacy, but certainly believable in a world where gods and monsters live in a downtown high rise. All of this seems like high science adventure thus far, looking down at the old guard like Magneto, who no longer have a villainous bone in their body, the appearance of the New Masters of Evil toward the end (last seen in the fantastic Dark Reign: Young Avengers mini-series). It gives you the idea that this is going to be a book about passing the torch, changing the idea of what you think is the standard line between hero and villain, and how they interact with one another.
And then there’s the weird things. Hey, was that Kristof Doom? What is up with the Nighthawk subplot? And that big stone face at the end there, declaring, “My idol screams across the extra dimensions… walking decay… and so I await my sacrifice.” Now we’re moving from high science to cosmic concepts, where re-purposing just doesn’t cut it. One of the many reasons I love the Annihilation comics from Abnett and Lanning is because these are not just characters with a new coat of paint. In fact, in some cases they could just be all-new characters to begin with. Cosmic stories are more conceptual than character-driven, and that fits this style, so bring on the cosmic adventure, guys!
Okay, issue 2 has none of that. It’s actually more of the first, reinvention, and less of the second, cosmic thematics. This book is all about the new Masters of Evil or as they are referred to here, the “New Generation of Evil Bastards.” It’s catchy.
While the Teen Brigade tries to make the In-Betweener at home, and Darkhawk and pals seem to hover just at the edge of the plot, the Young Masters buy a fairly high-tech base from a Devlin D’Angelo, who was last seen in an older Joe Casey book, trying to get Bruce Banner to fix the Super-Adaptoid (it didn’t work). From their new base, they break into a Extechop location, searching for their Fisher King: Bullseye. Now, I don’t know what Bullseye was supposed to be guarding or have that would relate him to the Fisher King story referenced by the Executioner earlier because they never had a chance: Lady Bullseye shows up, shares a tender moment with the corpse of her namesake and tells the kids the line on the cover of the issue, “Children at play… you have no right to claim here.” It doesn’t flow lyrically, but the Young Masters get the hint and book it.
Oddities still remain. Devlin D’Angelo, wasn’t he murdered by the Super-Adaptoid back in Hulk #469? Where’s the big giant head go? The big scary bats from last issue, those seemed ridiculously easy to fight off. The Red Skull shows up, I guess to show the reader how real evil works, and the Darkhawk gang pick at the edges of the plot. It seems to me that Casey and Dragotta are working incredibly hard at something I don’t quite understand.
And there’s some disappointment in that. After all, it’s hard sometimes to read comics without adding in your own two cents or trying to guess the next piece of the puzzle. Our expectations can disappoint us more than the work itself. There was a time when I could calculate the exact script of WWE tag team matches. With some adjustments, different characters and stakes, there is still an underlying core of how this dance is supposed to go: you can start at random but eventually, the weaker partner of the face tag team is going to get cornered. He’ll be drug through a long series of exhausting moves until after one last reversal, he’ll crawl his way to the corner and tag in the stronger face. The stronger face will clean house, taking on the heel opponents and getting revenge for beating up on his pal. Finishers everywhere, then the three count, normally in the face’s favor. Seen it once, seen it a million times, but the moment they go off-book or try something new to the formula, my regular routine of action is thrown off. Strangely, I would find myself more disappointed than challenged, and that is just a shame.
We love comics, no one disputes this. No matter how much they piss us off or change up our routine, we love them and keep coming back because the challenge is everything. The idea of “what comes next” is the cornerstone of serialized fiction. Each issue comes with the promise of something more than we had before. Even if we guess and make conjectures and research and put facts on the table, it’s not just the creator’s job to prove us wrong or right, but also to tell us a story so good that we can’t wait to do it all over again.