Last month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark
West Coast Avengers, by Steve Englehart and Al Milgrom
TIME magazine chose to put the money quote from Richard Schickel's review of Raiders Of The Lost Ark right on the cover:
"A MOVIE MOVIE!"
Was there any need to say more? It's a perfect review, in three simple words. "Raiders" broke absolutely no new ground whatsoever. It was old-fashioned at its core. But it was engineered to hit every button that gives us pleasure as moviegoers. Here is a movie that reminds us of why we love movies.
West Coast Avengers -- the original 1984 four-issue limited series and the first 42 or so issues of the monthly that followed -- was "A COMIC BOOK COMIC BOOK!" And that's why it's one of my favorite series ever. It anticipated Marvel's current vogue for spinning off a popular logo into multiple franchises. The Whackos were formed when the New York team's leader decided to create a Los Angeles-based team, designated to handle "all threats west of the Mississippi."
It turned out that Earth and the Universe were both located somewhere of Indianapolis. It seemed as though every threat that affected the whole planet and every battle that involved warring alien factions was handled by the original East Coast team in their own book. The West Coast Avengers tended to tackle more manageable, down-to-earth problems. Things like an enormous walking, talking totem pole, and an organized crime syndicate whose leaders dress in bulky costumes representing the signs of the zodiac.
And that was part of its charm. During the best run of the book, some legendary, boundary-stretching comics were being published. Every week, you'd come home from the comix shop with a complete meal of comics. Art Spiegelman and Dave Sim would serve you your vegetables, Frank Miller and Alan Moore would provide the meat...and the West Coast Avengers were the welcome dessert. This was the team that threw celebratory barbecues around the pool patio after the conclusion of a tense, tough adventure, and who cultivated an annual grudge-match softball game with the East Coast team.
West Coast Avengers is filled with colorful characters acting like heroes. The fun was leavened with complex issues, with the personal problems that come as a consequence of the life of a superhero, and with the kind of friction that results when a bunch of people with things to prove to themselves and each other must work together in a series of intense, stressful situations.
That was part of the central movement of the book's first three years. Iron Man was easing himself back into the hero game, after going through an intense personal journey. Wonder Man and Tigra, despite their formidable and useful powers and their extensive combat histories, weren't sure that their proper place was in Earth's premiere superhero team. Hank Pym, who was a founding Avenger alongside Iron Man, was putting his life back together after the biggest meltdown and flameout in Avengers continuity. Hawkeye was learning that the role of Team Leader was very different from the role of Team Troublemaker. His wife, Mockingbird, was new to marriage. And as a trained spy, she was also new to the role of a highly-visible costumed superhero.
Add to this the shared need to prove that the West Coast Team was the equal of the New York version, and not just a second-string spinoff, and you've got a classic engine of great drama.
The West Coast Avengers was produced by the team of Steve Englehart and Al Milgrom during its initial run. As I revisit it a quarter century later, Englehart's work still holds up...even after someone pointed out an obvious...er, quirk...to his writing:
Every line of dialogue he writes ends in an exclamation mark!
It's true! Honestly!
"If you don't know Firebird's address, we're in big trouble!"
"I know it! It's finding it in a strange city that's the problem!"
"Ehh? So we get lost a couple of times! Nobody's going to know if we make fools of ourselves!"
It's all very, very Stan Lee.
But who cares? Englehart wrote fast-paced stories that moved, moved, moved,...and the fundamentals of good storytelling were sacrosanct. That's what I appreciate the most about his work, and what I miss about too many of today's most heavily-hyped comics. Every WCA story had a clear beginning, middle, and end. Actions had long-ranging consequences that ranged well beyond the conclusion of their original story arc.
And Englehart consistently moved characters and relationships forward organically. His characters, at the end of his run, are the product of simple math: their core beliefs multiplied by their ongoing experiences.
Al Milgrom is tops on my list of underappreciated artists. I say with complete sincerity that I consider him to be one of the true greats. His technical draftsmanship might seem weak alongside some of the steadiest hands of the 1980s, but this classical style was well-matched to the subject matter.
And in film terms, Al Milgrom is a fantastic director. He always knows exactly where to set up his camera, how to frame his shots, and how to get the most effective performances from his actors. He's a terrific film editor, too. Every page tells the story with crystal clarity, and your eye moves through the page effortlessly. Milgrom choreographs both action and exposition so that the reader always has a clear spatial understanding of where people are and what's happening.
The spare clarity of his art encourages you to move through the story instead of lingering. But the more I examine the details, the more I appreciate his skill. Tigra is a true genetic hybrid with the senses and instincts of a cat. Even when she's deep in the background of a panel, Milgrom draws her in full performance...not as a human woman in a cat costume.
Oh, and: his regular inker was Joe Sinnott...Marvel's legendary top-tier inker, with a pedigree that extends back before the Silver Age.
The West Coast Avengers' limited series and its first few dozen issues are available in hardcover and trade paperback. "Lost In Space And Time" (collecting issues 17-24) underscores everything I love about "West Coast Avengers," and comics in general. It kicks off with an interesting premise: a baddie, bent on world domination, gets our heroes out of the way by stranding them 100 years in the past. How can they get back to the present and thwart his plans, using a broken time machine that can only take them deeper into the past?
Well, this is the Marvel Universe, and both Englehart and the West Coast Avengers have a knowledge of history. So the West Coast Avengers make an extended and increasingly frantic tour of times and places where they know that heroes and villains with functioning time machines are going to show up. Along the way, team members get left behind, the story gets split up into more and more time eras, heroes with legacies that span time get pulled into the story, and Englehart keeps choosing to play the game at higher and higher skill levels.
Englehart includes a great little flourish in the story:
The team has traveled to ancient Egypt, hoping to encounter the Fantastic Four (during their adventure in Fantastic Four #19), or Dr. Strange (who had visited that same time and place in an issue of his own book, written by Englehart years earlier), or the mad time-traveling pharaoh that they both came to see. So the WCA is running, running, RUNNING around the pharoah's complex, always one step behind the FF or Dr. Strange at every twist in their respective stories.
And at the most frenetic page of the story, when it appears that the team's last chances of rescue will slip away any minute, Hawkeye shouts at Iron Man, Wonder Man and Tigra up ahead to just...STOP.
They've been running at top speed for a long time.
He's the only one of them without super-strength and stamina.
He needs to catch his breath.
Okay. NOW they can continue running.
God, I love that moment.
I try so very hard not to turn into one of those old farts who claim that the comics they read when they were kids are universally better than today's comics. Time is fraudulently kind. We remember the stuff we really liked, and we forget the stuff that was mediocre and unmemorable. And thus, the current seasons of The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live never seem as good as seasons from ten or twenty years ago.
That said, a "Comic Book Comic Book" like West Coast Avengers represents a nice change of pace from modern comics. You only have to play the WCA "Where Are They Now" montage video to understand why.
Within just the past few years:
1) Iron Man became a megalomaniacal dick, without any explanation.
2) Wonder Man became a turncoat who actively works to undermine everything the Avengers represent, without explanation.
3) Tigra -- who fought toe-to-toe against the Super Skrull, and who historically been such an intense, determined, and relentless fighter that her sole consistent fear has been losing control and tearing someone's throat out -- became someone who folds and pleads for mercy in the face of a two-bit bad guy with a magic cape and a pawnshop handgun. No explanation.
4) Hank Pym (who became the R. Kelly of the Marvel Universe, without explanation) and Mockingbird were revealed to have been replaced by alien dopplegangers, way back during the events of West Coast Avengers. Yes. During the 25 years' worth of comics published between then and now, not even they themselves were aware that they weren't the real McCoys. There was an explanation for how this worked...but it was exceedingly lame.
...Actually, he's made out OK. In light of what's happened to the rest of the team, there's really no explanation for this, either.
West Coast Avengers 1-42 isn't a flawless comic run. But it's consistently entertaining and it's executed at a high level of craftsmanship. It's written as a comic book by someone who likes comic books, and not like a screenplay written by someone who secretly feels like he's slumming in this industry until he finally lands a movie agent.
I don't want every comic to be like West Coast Avengers. But it's part of any balanced breakfast.
Andy Ihnatko writes about technology for The Chicago Sun-Times. Links to the writing and podcasting projects that people pay him for, as well as the writing and photography that no sensible publisher wants any part of, can be found at Ihnatko.com.