Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers #1-4

"Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers" was the title of the recently concluded Marvel mini-series, by writer Chris Eliopoulos and artist Ig Guara. Nominally a Marvel Adventures title, the mini-series was given further push by the company, in an attempt to build a kids-oriented title with a strong identity on its own. Following on the heels of the similarly envisioned "Doctor Doom and the Masters of Evil", the editorial tried to build a book that will bridge their two main superhero audiences, by appealing toward the oddball sensibility inherent in most comic readers. Despite the ludicrous premise, it's already clear that the "Pet Avengers" have outsold the former mini-series, and the company has plans to continue the experiment.

The basic idea is that of taking various animal sidekicks that have accompanied Marvel's characters during the decades, and putting them in one, light-hearted book. Of course, this is a throwback to the Silver Age DC idea of "Legion of Super-pets" starring various Superman-family related cats and dogs that have accompanied some of the campier tales. Being a somewhat more reactionary publisher, Marvel has always eschewed the more traditional superhero trappings, thus their warming up to a similar idea was always fated to be somewhat more ironic in tone.

The publisher has established a very strong focus on it's larger superhero universe in the last year, yet they continue to experiment with easily described high-concept ideas. Thus, "Lockheed and the Pet Avengers" can be seen as the concept that follows up ventures such as "Marvel zombies", and "Marvel apes". Just like with those two properties, Marvel has decided to approach establishing the new brand by sticking to the potential series of mini-series format. Starting out with the initial limited series, should the launch fail, the company can still hope to sell their customers a trade-paperback featuring a wholesome story, without many loose-ends to be tied up in the forthcoming story arcs.

Approaching Eliopoulos and Guara, the company seems to have given the creators a mandate to ground the story in their superhero universe as much as they could. The result is certainly a very professional work, that touches on all corners of Marvel Universe to provide a very colorful story that definitely lives up to a particular comic book idea of fun. Taking the cues from Jim Starlin's "Infinity saga", this humorous book is surprisingly plot-oriented. Using the fantasy quest-structure, Eliopoulos shifts the locals (and even time at one point) to provide a very diverse array of superhero trivia, that engages the reader on more than a fan-service level. Whatever the reader thinks of the setup, it's hard not to admire the lush and distinctive locales, rendered by Guara, with colorist Chris Sotomayor sharing equal credit for establishing the mood so effectively.

Due to the nature of the book, the characters still take center stage, and they are all aptly introduced to the readers unfamiliar with the small roles they play in the larger shared universe continuity. It's easy to understand Marvel's confusion as to which of these characters to actively spotlight then, but the choice of Lockjaw remains problematic. He is not only an Inhuman living in a dog-like form, but a mute one at that, introduced in the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby "Fantastic Four" run as a very peripheral player. The trouble is that he is also the most well known of all the other animal characters in the book, that has yet remained endeared to fans primarily because of the oddball concept of a huge teleporting bulldog with a moustache.

Eliopolous and Guara sidestep the problem of having their central character being a mere plot device meant to rally other animals in search of the Infinity gems, by pairing him with a mouthpiece. Of all the characters, this position goes to Thor-frog, again a concept seemingly remembered only for it's light-hearted value at the sidelines of Walt Simonson's epic "Thor" run. In any event, Thor-frog (dubbed Throg) spends most of the debut issue as de-facto narrator, going on and on in a mock-medieval tone that is even more dubious than his namesake's. The first issue is also the only one that features an extended origin sequence, drawn in a more caricatural way by guest-penciller Coleen Coover. Thankfully, the creators quickly find the right balance with "Throg", but he continues hindering the reader's attention until the end, due to his small-size that sticks out in relationship to other animals he shares the page with.

Among these the first is Lockheed, Kitty Pryde's pet dragon, and a long-time "X-Men" character. Eliopoulos has a very distinctive take on the character, suffering from depression due to his actions in Josh Wheddon's "Astonishing X-Men", but very little of it comes across on the page. Under Guara's pencils, Lockheed remains very detailed, but also strangely expressionless, and somewhat indistinct the whole time. Considering that he's long been used as a very charming diversion, it's strange to see how little mileage the creators manage to pull out of him here.

Another animal that fights for the space in a very crowded team book is Falcon's Redwing. Again, Eliopoulos has a particular characterisation that he imbues the "Captain America" character with, but this time around, even the little dimension the falcon has gets forgotten very quickly. Thus, the arrogant bird is relegated to just another flier, that like Lockheed, plays basically a supporting role, without really establishing any kind of relationship with the other animals.

This is perhaps due to the heavy focus bestowed upon the comedic duo of Speedball's cat Hairball, and Ms. Lion, a much lampooned creation from the "Spiderman and his amazing friends" cartoon. The sadistic cat seems to steal the show from all the other characters, with her rivalry and back-and-forth, between an ordinary dog being the series highlight. Ms. Lion is basically the team's comic relief, but despite some of the obvious jokes, the creative team manage to make him slightly irritating, but still a memorable addition to the cast.

The team gathering is largely over by the end of the first issue, with the only remaining cast member following suit in the first scene of the next one. Zabu, Ka-Zar's saber tooth tiger, represents another warrior-like member of the cast. Interestingly, Zabu's absence from the covers, presumably done in advance of the story pages, would seem to indicate that he was a last-minute addition to the group. His ferociousness does make him distinct from the other characters, that actually do react to his presence, particularly the afore-mentioned Ms. Lion. Considering that a lot of the second issue's plot hinges on the animals' adventures in the jungle(s) of his home, he actually feels right at home in the book, despite being perhaps the only one of the animal characters created as a somewhat serious animal companion.

The rag-tag team of animals assembled, they spend all of the second issue trying to get around the Devil Dinosaur, in order to collect a Infinity gem. Despite contrived plotting and almost RPG logic, this is the series working at it's best, in that it offers a complete, and very distinctive adventure. Putting the Pet Avengers against the Devil Dinosaur not only makes sense from the animal vs animal angle, but manages to make the title characters distinct while dealing with a fixed set of goals.

Unfortunately, using the same approach for the third issue proves much less inspired. This time touching upon Namor's undersea kingdom, the book has problems finding it's niche in a classical Marvel locale. Once again, the characters' reactions provide interesting banter, they have literally nowhere to go in this underdeveloped take on the Atlantis. This gets them into contact with Giganto the whale, that goes unnamed, which makes him even more of a cypher then the author's incarnation of Devil Dinosaur was. Namor's brutal beast is confronted in a somewhat predictable manner, that will still never the less endear the book to it's youngest readers, while bringing up another key point.

The search for gems that serves as an excuse for Lockjaw teleporting his friends to unique locations quickly turned transparent regarding it's story motives. In this instance, the Pet Avengers are lead to Namor's realm to track down no less than two Infinity gems, which renders them into little more than trinkets defined solely by their colors. But this is still far from the episode's biggest flaw. Looking at the pages of the third issue, one can't help but get a feel that the inked artwork looks rushed, which is usually indicative of an artist having problems with deadlines. On the whole, Guara's art is very detailed and lavish, which doesn't always suit the somewhat less than serious feel of the script. Still, even if a somewhat less busy and more organic art style would benefit the story more, it definitely meets the Marvel standards. Considering the mini-series format and the presumably long leadtime Ig had preparing to draw "Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers", it seems strange that the artist would have trouble keeping up with all of the nuances.

Perhaps the fault lies with the dual nature of the third episode's plot, which abandons it's underwater setting halfway through, in order to get to the White House where the finale takes place. Of course, this means leaving the self-contained format of the previous issues, to concentrate on the sales gimmick that the penultimate chapter was advertised with, namely the appearance of president Obama's pet, Bo. It would appear that faced with retailers under-ordering the debut issue, Marvel decided to try it's best in ensuring the sales of the rest of the mini-series don't fall off the designated level, thus exusing such a ploy. It is a very irritating move on the company's behalf, hiding under the pretense of a charming bit of reality meets fantasy to market the children's book towards the broader audience.

By now, such tricks have become a spectacle of the entire industry, as the companies race to use any excuse in featuring the newly-elected president in their storylines, all due to his popularity and the declaration that he's a fan of both "Spiderman" and "Conan" comics. Tying "Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers" inot the media frenzy discredits the author's efforts in order to achieve a slight sales increase that will only hurt the book in the long run, as it devolves into a footnote in a future journalist analysis of the comics industry's misuse of Barack Obama's name and likeness. Seeing the abrupt turn the plot of their third issue takes halfway through, it's hard not to suspect that the whole idea was forced on Eliopoulos and Guara by the editorial, with the talents only trying their best while working under the company's edict.

Effectively, this means that ten whole pages of the penultimate issues had to be used to somehow feature the White House and Bo the dog. Due to the unusual nature of most of the book's cast, including magical animals and aliens, the entire sequence turns into an exercise in killing time while waiting for the cliffhanger. Thus, pages are filled with the animals sneaking Lockjaw up and down the stairs, while spotlighting the visual comedy that has defined some of the lighter moments of the previous issues. The dynamic is achieved in Guara giving his animals very believable movements, that coupled with witty dialogue and frequent use of repeated panels make up the most of the book's charm.

The added focus to Lockjaw helps to finally bring him to the spotlight. The creators use his size as the focus of comedy in setting up the last issue, which proceeds with no less than presenting the Inhuman as a hero in his own right. This is achieved by severely limiting his foe's capability, to bring about the scenes echoing the company's previous absurdistic highlight, of Squirrel-Girl besting Dr. Doom.

The Pet Avenger's final obstacle is the classical version of a villain that has been hinted at from the beginning, thus foreshowing making his sudden appearance. In this instance the book breaks with the previous animal-themed adversaries, but it's hard to imagine Marvel making a better choice considering the previous issues' haphazard plotting. There is a lot of drama in the mini's final sequences, as the pets lie scattered while faced with seemingly superior foe.

After a truly cosmic showdown, the quick epilogue works as a call-back to the first issue's opening, serving as a framing device from the standard Marvel heroes' perspective. But, more important than that, it directly promises the follow up project, annoucing it as simple "Pet Avengers #1". Due to the fast-pace of the character's first outing, it's easy to see where the book could go next, as the creative team has used the space available to set up the cast, their mission and their mission, while already allowing the readers with plenty of different adventures.

Still, hopefully Marvel will use the time to further rethink the book, as the current premise has some serious shortcoming underneath it's appealing surface. The chief of those is the need for a distinctive children's book feel that is missing from it's pages. The company clearly tries to build the comic's identity by marrying it's charming stars with a wide-array of specific Marvel settings, but it does both in a very blunt way. Having a cast with no less than seven relatively unknown characters is not unheard in comics, but so far Eliopoulos has proven that he is not the kind of writer to squeeze crucial bits of attitude during the non-stop action that the animals partake in. What's more, the Marvel Universe locations featured in the four issues are introduced in a very broad manner, which does little to inspire the younger readers to revisit them in the future issues. It's telling that the endgame to the Pet Avenger's first big caper ends on the White House lawn, which has long-served as a hallmark of realism in comics.

Perhaps the creators would've done better had they simply been allowed to pay their dues by using the previously established animals, before taking them into completely new directions. In any event, the four-part mini-series has proven too short to really get a glimpse into all of the authors' ideas regarding the make up of Pet Avengers' world, which is only hinted at. Perhaps the better way would've been by reducing the role of some of the cast members to the role of occasional helpers, which could grow into regulars if in time they prove to be viable additions to the book.

In any event, staying so close to the patchwork that makes up Marvel's Earth, does hinder the "Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers"' ability to truly achieve more of it's own feel. Hopefully, the forthcoming series will help bring together the vision that is shared by both the company and it's younger audience, always interested in something new and original.

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