Saturday, June 11, 2011

Walt Simonson's Avengers (#291-300) Part one - the Fate of Marrina


Walt Simonson is primarly known for his groundbreaking run on "Thor", but even then it was apparent that his love for the Marvel universe in it's original incarnation, cannot find full expression in his mythology-heavy take. As a self-professed science fiction fan, Simonson has found a way to integrate some of it's conventions in the title, most famously with the inclusion of Beta Ray Bill.

Particularly a curious "Thor" storyline featuring Titanium man and his gang of assassins shrinking into playing cards seemed much more suited to an oddball Iron Man Annual. Yet, it was Simonson's work on "Eternals", wrapping up the 1985 maxi-series that directly lead to his stint on "Avengers". Jim Shooter, then editor in chief at Marvel was allegedly dissatisfied with the series writer Peter ("Strikeforce Morituri") B. Gillis' work on the Eternals revamp that lead to Simonson stepping in to write the final four issues.

A typically thankless job lead to a serviceable script, dealing with the final act of the bloated and severely flawed Gillis work. Yet, it was only in the last issue that some of the Simonson's peculiar quirks came to the forefront and breathed some life into an otherwise troubled and uninspired maxi-series. It could be said that the writer's creative choices went somewhat against the previous set-up, but in a way they ended up directly informing his "Avengers" run, and it's eventual "Fantastic Four" follow-up.

And while the aftermath of the fight against the Black Celestial was only hinted at in his work on the Earth's Mightiest Heroes, it was the idea of bringing in the Avengers to assist the Eternals in the final conflict that has defined his work for the publisher since. Namely, casting Thor in a supporting role seems a constant in the writer/artist's subsequent work for the publisher. The character certainly didn't seem out of place in the context, considering that Roy Thomas spent the majority of his run on Marvel's premiere mythology title providing the wrap up for Jack Kirby's original "Eternals" series.

The King's ideas were still influencing the creators for the better part of the 1980-ies, and while this was not at first apparent in his "Avengers" scripts, it was only because Simonson started his run by deconstructing the Roger Stern team, that he inherited. Thankfully, he got to keep the title's then current penciller, a comics legend John ("Silver Sufer", "Conan the Barbarian") Buscema, who coincidentally also provided the art for the aforementioned Roy Thomas' run on "Thor".


Yet compared to the freedom of his own run on Marvel's God of thunder, Simonson's work on "the Avengers" was plagued by compromise from the start, due to interconnectedness of the Marvel publishing line, featuring many of the same characters appearing in several different titles. Even his pencilling the company's best seller "X-Men" spin-off didn't really prepare him for rigors of working with the Avengers. During his tenure illustrating his wife Louise Simonson's scripts, the "X-Factor" was more or less kept separate from the rest of the mutant titles, and even then, the occasional crossover meant collaborating chiefly with the core title which originated all of the characters.

His "Avengers" on the other hand, even started not only following the previous writer's popular run, but also directly continuing from a story featured in "Thor". This was perhaps to be understood, considering that Simonson brought Odinson back to Avengers, but it set a precedent for interference that would ultimately be the run's undoing.

Anyhow, the circumstances of Thor's return are largely glossed over in the debut of the Avengers, with the new writer instead focusing on providing a brief moment of serenity for the whole group. Following Stern and Buscema's epic "Under siege" storyline, the remaining heroes were pretty much limited to their appearances in the team title, which is something that Simonson immediately set out to remedy (the writer also brings back Avengers' butler Edwin Jarvis, with an eye patch that serves as the remainder of the previous conflict). In order to do, the writer opts for something of a controversial approach, effectively derailing half of the team by their own hidden flaws, and not directly at behest of a master villain.

His first arc is thus devoted to bringing to the fore the tensions implied in the origin and subsequent appearances of the Alpha Flight character Marrina. At the time, the character had joined the Avengers and married Namor, with Simonson showing the pair being blissfully happy during the repairs on the team's Hydro-Base headquarters. The writer painted a bright picture of the newlyweds precisely with the idea of contrasting it mere pages later, when the biological imperatives of the character's alien background kick in. Seeing the creators going over the top with the depiction of her transformation is at first bizarre, and even disconcerting.

Seeing the beautiful, if somewhat generic companion to Marvel's original anti-hero transform into the monster to be fought by thea team for the subsequent two issues is certainly distinctive, but potentially problematic on multiple levels. It can be said that Simonson simply lead her story to it's ultimate conclusion, but somehow seeing the John Byrne created character treated so callously still seems brutal. It is doubtful that her creator would have used her back story to mimic Superman's origin so extensively if he merely intended for her to turn out to be nothing more than the threat to her friends and the world at large. Simonson is not so blunt to use that sympathy for emotional resonance, but it's still very disconcerting and even somewhat silly to see the nimble beauty turn into a serpent like behemoth, no matter the number of times her creator previously hinted at the prize of her dual heritage.

The writer intentionally omits the extensive summary of her origins, which feature a more elaborate version of Superman's classic arrival on Earth, instead concentrating less on the science fiction behind it, and more on the implication of Marinna's attacks on the high seas. Simonson stresses out the Biblical Leviathan reference to add gravity to the proceedings, but they more or less serve to convince the team that her alien manifestation necessitates immediate termination.

Once again, this feels somewhat contrived as the writer purposely leaves little room for Marinna's redemption and survival. At first, it seems that the character is simply no longer capable of subverting her brutal ancestry, which goes some way to dispel the idea of the story devolving in the familiar, if even sexist, genre trope of superheroines being emotionally unstable to deal with the tremendous power at their disposal, exemplified perhaps most famously in the X-Men's "Dark Phoenix saga", and even with the Avengers' own Scarlet Witch. And while the wide scale event that was "House of M" was still decades removed, Simonson basically executed his own version in three issues, without the need to tie in additional titles in the process.

Which would be fine on it's own if it wasn't for the conclusion, which ties in to her marriage with Namor and is potentially severely insulting, if the reader is to look at it from a certain point of view. Basically, Simonson reveals that the cause for Marinna's rampage towards trade ships the world over was the idea of building her own nest to hatch the alien hybrid offspring. The storyline is certainly memorable, but the implications it makes on the female psyche and motherhood could certainly be taken as offensive.

That aside, it's still strange to see this whole arc as anything other then a "Namor the Sub-Mariner" story, seeing that Marinna wasn't even created as an Avengers character. This is perhaps why all of the other subplots deal much more directly with setting up the Simonson run. Beside writing Namor out of the title, Simonson made certain to create almost as much friction with the remaining members. This is most notable with Black Knight, who due to coming to Namor's assistance against Marrina suffers a hideous bout of the symptoms relating to the curse of his Ebony blade. Ironically, in his brief writing the character, Simonson was left with this fatal flaw substituting for the character's personality, but this was again to be expected, considering that his main focus was elsewhere.

Namely, throughout the Leviathan crisis, Dr Druid undermines the team leader Captain Marvel's direction at every turn, who in turn pretty much vanishes during the said conflict, that has already severely decimated the team. At first, her not rejoining the fray seems an afterthought, an ambiguous subplot that would be picked up immediately following the end of the storyline, but in turn it marks the character's exit to be revamped later on.

The implication is that Druid is under control of a beautiful woman who haunts his dreams, which ties in with another subplot running alongside, that of the fate of the team's primary antagonist, Kang the Conqueror. In Simonson's run, Kang remains a presence throughout, most notably in the second arc that the writer has been building up to since taking over the title. Contrary to Druid's tragic descent into madness and fault, Kang is written like a much more three dimensional character, determined to weather the events that keep him going from one predicament to the other. Under Simonson, the character seems formidable and resourceful, if pragmatic to the extreme, making him almost an anti-hero like Namor, and very unlike the traditional super-villain.

The retrospective of Walt Simonson's "the Avengers" run will be split in three parts. This entry covers Avengers #291-293.

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