Something a bit more simple and personal this week. Perhaps the most important comic that I have ever read. Spoilers below, of course.
You know how in those expansive, career-spanning interviews, comics creators tend to, at one point, mention that one comic that changed it all for them? Not Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns, but some random anonymous issue that just happened to speak to them at a specific time. Thousands of people read that comic, but it only said something special to them. Mark Waid has mentioned Adventure Comics #369-370, a two-part Jim Shooter Legion story as “the single most influential-to-my-craft story.” For me, that comic is Avengers West Coast #102 by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, and Dave Ross.
Yes, Avengers West Coast #102. I’m serious. Really. No joke. Shut up.
I tend not to keep my books in bags with boards. Those things tend to get in the way of reading my comics. Only a select few books get put in bags with boards, mostly books either with odd sentimental value or that are signed. And, while I’m on the topic, I also don’t get books signed often (most of the books I do have signed were won in contests, were gifts, or were signed by the artist or writer when I bought them from said person). But, my copy of Avengers West Coast #102 is in a bag with a board and is signed by artist Dave Ross, who was at a Toronto comic convention a few years back. This comic means a lot to me and I treat it with the due respect:
(Okay, aside from that tear in the upper right corner.)
I didn’t buy this comic right when it came out, I got it at least two years after its publication (the cover is dated January 1994), because, until the age of 12 (I turned 13 in January 1996), I lived in one house and I didn’t get this until after I had moved into another house. Beyond knowing that I probably purchased this sometime in 1996, I can’t really say when I got it. I’d guess the summer of 1996, because I know where I got it: Gibraltar Trade Centre. “It’s a flea market, farmer’s market, when it comes to markets, it’s the ultimate” is how the radio jingle went. It was at Dundas and Third in London, Ontario (still is) and close to my grandpa’s barber shop. When we’d go to get my haircut, we’d also stop at Gibraltar, because it was a cool place — and my grandpa always gave me and my sisters a loonie (eventually upgraded to a toonie) after my haircut was done (yes, I got paid to get haircuts). It was also a good place to buy cheap comics. A couple of people set up what amounted to temporary comic shops there, selling new and old comics, and I loved scouring the four for a dollar bins. That’s where I found far too many shitty Image comics and, thankfully, this issue. It was the middle of the ’90s and I wasn’t immune to the same fever dream the rest of the industry was under, so I tended to pick out the “cool” books or ones that seemed “important” like the final issue of Avengers West Coast. I can vaguely remember some of the other books I bought in those trips, but the only one that I prize is this one.
To the rest of you, this issue may come off in several different ways: a comic full of mid-’90s ugly costume redesigns; the mercy killing of a book no one cared about anymore; a slightly above average read by a writing team that would go on to produce far superior work; the lead-in to Force Works (which I’ve never read for whatever reason — and you think I would have given my love for this issue); or who knows what else.
What I read was: two teams of Avengers who fucking hated one another for no reason other than personal bullshit. And not the sort of personal bullshit like “you killed my wife” or anything, it’s just that the Avengers West Coast was an embarrassment to the main team, and the West Coast team resented the superior attitudes of the main team (and they aren’t exactly wrong — any team whose line-up features heavyweights like Sersi and Crystal has no reason feeling superior to anyone). USAgent hated Captain America. The Scarlet Witch hated the Vision. War Machine hated Iron Man. Spider-Woman was a horrible mother. Giant-Man just wanted everyone to be nice. I’d seen heroes fight before, but with their fists. There was no physical violence, but plenty of verbal and emotional violence. These were the Avengers and they all hated one another! What was going on?
This issue helped shatter my picture-perfect view that all superheroes got along and teams were like clubhouses for a group of best friends. Oh sure, people like Sersi and Quicksilver were jerks, but you liked them anyway. It was like your group of friends at school. And I was right: a superhero team is like your group of friends at school. When I got older, I looked back on the friends I had in elementary school and, then, high school, and realised that I didn’t like most of them and they didn’t really like me, but who else were we going to hang out with? Our options were limited to: hang out with people we could tolerate or be alone. I don’t think anyone realises this sort of thing on a conscious level at the time, but think back and be truthful about what you thought about those people. Sure, you had fun, you had great times, but, if it came down to it, you wouldn’t have hung out with a lot of your so-called friends. Do we stop being friends as we grow older because we ‘grow apart’ or is it because we have the chance to finally be rid of one another? (I actually began noticing this concept in high school when I looked at my circle of friends and saw few faces from elementary school. When given a larger number of possible friends, I discarded the old ones that weren’t right for me and found ones that were — or, at least, were better for me. That sounds awful, but it was something everyone did, and not purposefully, of course. I am also willing to admit that my naturally anti-social, solitary nature may colour my view of these things. Trainspotting explores this social situation with the group of junkies and their non-junkie mates, none of whom actually seem to like one another. They’re all terrified of Begby, “But, what can you do? He’s a mate…”)
And that’s what this issue taught me a superhero team is: it’s a bunch of people who have similar experiences and have two choices: go through those experiences alone, or with these other people. There are other practical reasons, like how a team is more capable of handling large threats than a single hero, but it really comes down to these characters being thrown together for some pretty superficial reasons. They didn’t choose any of these people for friends or colleagues. Being on the Avengers is a job (okay, so it’s more than one thing… shut up), but, as a kid, you never see it that way. You think it’s like hanging out with your friends (which it is, but just not for the reasons you think), but it’s a fucking drag. In this issue, War Machine quits the Avengers because of his personal problems with Tony Stark and sums up the whole experience rather nicely: “I’VE HAD IT WITH YOUR ENDLESS SPANDEX POLITICS!” Being an Avenger really has the possibility of sucking. A lot. Especially back in the dark days of the ’90s where you could wind up on a team with a clean-shaven Hercules straight out of an ’80s music video or, I don’t know, Deathcry. Who wants to be on a superhero team with Deathcry? I’d kill myself.
Not only that, but, as a 13-year-old, I knew War Machine was a second-rate Iron Man just as USAgent was a second-rate Captain America, and, yes, Avengers West Coast was a second-rate Avengers. These characters weren’t just mad that the main team wanted them to stop being a team; they all kind of know that the main team is right. At the beginning of the issue, the Vision and Captain America deliver a laundry list of reasons why Avengers West Coast is a horrible team that, for the good of the world, must end. And the Scarlet Witch, leader of AWC, has no response but a few angry shouts — because the issue isn’t whether or not the team is a failure, it’s that the other guys are being assholes about it. On one side, eight Avengers members; on the other, four Avengers West Coast members. Seems like a bit of a gang-up, doesn’t it? Not to mention that nothing had been decided, but the Vision begins the meeting by proclaiming, “THE AVENGERS WEST COAST ARE FINISHED!”
What a bunch of assholes.
I got that then. These were superheroes — this was Captain America, dammit! — and they were being complete dicks. And the Avengers West Coast group wasn’t much better. Like I said, the main team raises a good half dozen serious problems with the group and their response is angry shouting devoid of substance. I had never seen superheroes behaving like this before!
The actual details of this issue don’t really matter in this context, because it’s a big clusterfuck. Eventually, a vote is taken and it’s five-five with the final vote coming down to Iron Man, who showed up mid-meeting to champion the West Coast team and he votes to disband it. And then he quits the Avengers along with the rest of the West Coast group. He isn’t playing that spandex politics bullshit no more.
It’s hard for me to read this book now with any objectivity, obviously. But, you know what, it still works for me. Quite a bit. I’m sure that if a book like this came out now, I’d love it. Maybe not as much, but it would get a great review.
One thing I hadn’t noticed when I was younger was how metafictional it is. I got the obvious “the book is ending and so is the team” part, but when the Vision drums down the team, he’s also drumming down the creators and editors who led to the team being in such a sorry state. It’s not just the team that’s broken, it’s the book itself:
ANY ASSESMENT [sic] OF THE WEST COAST PERFORMANCE MUST CONCLUDE THAT IT IS AN UNDERSTUDY OPERATION, OVERSHADOWED BY THE POWER AND COMPETENCE OF THE ORIGINAL AVENGERS.
ITS FLUCTUATING MEMBERSHIP HAS ROBBED IT OF ANY CONSISTENCY AND RELIABILITY IN THE FIELD…
…THOSE IN ATTENDANCE TODAY REPRESENT A SADLY DEPLETED FORCE. HAWKEYE’S ABSENCE IS UNDERSTANDABLE [as Mockingbird just died], BUT WONDER MAN IS A BAFFLING ABSENTEE.
HIS LAST KNOWN LOCATION WAS THE THIRD-WORLD STATE OF KANEM WHERE HE ENGAGED THE HULK.
HIS CAVALIER BEHAVIOUR SEEMS CHARACTERISTIC OF THE WEST COAST TEAM’S PRIORITIES.
[…] SURELY YOU ARE FAILING TO SEE THE PROBLEMS THAT BESET THE WEST COAST OPERATION…
…YOUR COMPOUND BASE HAS BEEN SEVERELY DAMAGED BY ATTACKS THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN AVOIDED. THE COST OF REBUILDING WILL SCARCELY BE MET BY YOUR AILING FINANCES. ONLY THE CONTINUED SUPPORT OF THE STARK FOUNDATION IS PREVENTING BANKRUPTCY.
IS SUCH FINANCIAL EXTRAVAGANCE JUSTIFIABLE TO MAINTAIN A FOUR-PERSON ROSTER THAT IS CLEARLY NOT THE MOST POWERFUL IN THE WORLD?
This speech is almost what you’d expect to see in DnA’s pitch for Force Works, discussing why Avengers West Coast is a broken title. And it’s all right. I don’t know who to blame, but the Scarlet Witch blames the other team, because it always gets the best stuff. The best writers, the ability to grab characters, the better sales, the better general will… no matter what, Avengers West Coast would always be a second-rate Avengers. Even if it were a better title, no one would notice. In many ways, its cancellation was always going to happen.
Dave Ross’s art still impresses me. It’s not amazing, but it’s a very good style. He tends to give the characters very expressive faces, which works since most of them are yelling throughout the issue. He isn’t afraid to pack the pages full of panels, recognising that this is a talking issue. He goes for dramatic angles and, well, a lesser artist could have ruined this issue. He’s saddled with shitty ’90s costumes, but that’s not his fault.
So, that’s the most important comic I’ve ever read.
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