Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Secret Origin: Part 1!

I don't know how instructive, useful, or entertaining my secret origin with comics might be.  Maybe my experience growing up in the 1970s doesn't translate into anything that applies in 2011.  The culture has certainly changed.  I was using a telephone that weighed about 35 pounds that I had to dial by spinning my fingers in a circle.  The idea of having (in fact expecting/demanding) instantaneous and near infinite amounts of information and entertainment would have been unthinkable.

As a child of the 1970's we used to rearrange our lives to catch what little amusement was available.  Whatever it is you want me to do on Saturday morning will simply have to wait - that's my cartoon time.  You couldn't watch Season 3 of The Smurfs on DVD whenever you felt like it.  You got it on Saturday or not at all.  That's nothing compared to annual stuff like a Peanuts special or a Garfield event.  Maybe if you were a billionaire you a VCR to capture something like that, but we didn't have one of those in my house until the late 1980s.

Once upon at time:  A BIG deal.
If Garfield came on the television, you goddamn set everything aside, and you didn't leave during commercials to go grab a snack, for fear you might miss something.  Maybe it would come again next year, but maybe you never saw it again.  Back in like 1983, a Garfield cartoon seemed like a pretty urgent thing.

So the culture has changed dramatically, to be sure, but human beings are Story Machines.  Always have been, I suspect they always will be.  We do other things, but these are mostly just necessities to be gotten out of the way so that we can get on with finding stories.

Comic books are nothing less than a very potent form of storytelling, so I really don't see them going out of style, even as the sales figures plummet.  Something else is going there.  Perhaps that means that my trip down memory lane might drudge up something pertinent after all.  Stranger things have happened, I guess.

So yes, comics.  In the 1970s comics were absolutely everywhere except for my house.  They were considered silly, childish, throw away entertainment.  It was OK to have them as a grade schooler, but they were something you were expected to grow out of, and interest in comics was nothing to be proud of.  But they were everywhere, and they were cheap.

The first time I remember reading comics was at a cabin on a family get-away.  My father had a work friend who invited us out to his place in the woods.  I was expected to stay out of the adults' hair and do some suitably male athletic type stuff stuff outside.  And I did some of that - until I found the stack of comics in the living room.

There were about a dozen comics laying underneath a reading table, parked conveniently next to a comfy recliner.  The stash contained a smattering of genres, and all of the issues were well-loved and read into near oblivion.  There were a couple of westerns that I summarily dismissed, and most of the inventory were cartoon/funny animal books.  I remember some Pink Panther, some Flintstones, some Tom & Jerry.  I read all of those with some interest.

The comic that grabbed me by the balls and shook violently was Avengers # 128.  That book was originally published in 1974, script by Steve Englehart and pencils by Sal Buscema.  The cover features a disembodied head of Iron Man with that really unfortunate nose, created by a misinterpretation of a comment Stan Lee shot off absent mindedly in the bullpen one day.  

Sometimes the nanny is a witch
I would have been reading this in 1979-80, and wouldn't have noticed that ridiculous nose because I was completely captivated by the Scarlet Witch, who was cute as a button and in some considerable danger.  That was the first draw, and a recurring theme.  It seems odd to me that I would be taken by some psycho-sexual component at age 8-9, but I don't see a way around it.  Pretty girls in trouble were just impossible for me to resist.  Then and now, I would think.  Not much to be proud of, I guess, but there we have it.

The plot synopsis goes like this:  The Avengers and Fantastic Four just got done fighting....something together.  Just when they think things are settling down, mystical lightning rains down from the sky for reason!  Or is there?  Mighty Thor fails to quell the lightning, but the FF's nursemaid Agatha Harkness diagnoses the threat as mystical and counters the attack.  She then abruptly announces that she's a bit of witch, and that she's retiring from babysitting Franklin to mentor Wanda, who is in fact a witch in name only.  (and they announce this fact bluntly)

Not worth it, dude!
This is all very weird and very fun, and it's about to get even more weird and fun.  Harkness starts training a very receptive Scarlet Witch in Avengers Mansion while Mantis (who is exceptionally bizarre) rebuffs The Swordsman's romantic advances so she can try and make time with The Vision, who is in fact an android.

So Agatha isolates Wanda with a little perception bubble, so that nobody can see, hear, or interfere with what's going on in that room.  Next appears the warlock Necrodamus, (an old Defenders villain) who quickly dispatches with Harkness leaving Wanda to fend for herself.  Oh, snap!  There's some arcane/mutant power back-and-forth, and ultimately Scarlet Witch wins the day by reaching down for an unprecedented fourth hex.  (Back then Wanda could only go to the well three times a day)

Oh, and then Kang shows up at the end.  Zoiks!

Reaching deep like Louden Swain!
Is this a great jumping on point, and is it "accessible", as it were?  I don't know that it is perfectly accessible.  Character introductions are very sparse, you're pretty well left to fend for yourself for everyone on the periphery.  But the principal elements required to understand the A plot in the book are all laid out very well.  Agatha announces what she was and then proposes a new role for herself, The Scarlet Witch's hex powers and their limitations are covered, and she's the "star" of the issue.

So you can't get through with Avengers # 128 and understand what happened in  the issue before, and you won't know a damn thing about Johnny Storm or what he can do.  Whatever.  That information isn't urgent to the unfolding tale.

Englehart did something more important than create comprehensive exposition - he made the damn thing interesting.  Let's talk about world building for a moment.  He sets up the issue with big action, and then has the nursemaid triumphant where the Thunder God failed.  That's how you re-define a character efficiently.  Then he has her move from the realm of the Fantastic Four to The Avengers.  That's how you create the fun of a shared universe!  Sometimes the nanny from one book suddenly becomes a player in another, and you think to yourself "oh wow, these things affect one another, that's kinda neat."

That's it - I'm reporting you to HR!
Does it make any sense that this old woman has secretly been a witch of some prominence that whole time?  I don't know, probably not.  But it's fun, I know that.  Mantis is delightfully eccentric, and Swordsman snaps emotionally.  Is it over the top?  Yeah, I guess it is.  Is it 93% more interesting than the tepid character arcs you're likely to see today?  Yupper.  You just can't put much stock in these outbursts today when we know that Green Arrow and Daredevil might pretend to have problems, but we know within six months it's coming back to the mean.  You read this issue of the Avengers, Swordsman feels like a legit wild card, mostly because he is.

Everything about this issue moves, it feels like it's going somewhere.  The plot, the characters, they're travelling swiftly and daring you to catch up.  All this happens in 18 pages of story, by the way.  I guess I can't speak for anybody else, but I didn't fell cheated then, and I don't feel cheated now.  It doesn't bog itself down in decompression or overblown exposition.

So many things are right with Avengers # 128. You may not be 100% caught up if this issue is your only experience, but it encourages you to want to learn the rest with the strength of its content.  It gives you the tools to find those other issues, and it fosters the sense that the Avengers rest comfortably in a wider, cohesive whole.  Remember when comics felt like that?

Plus, the Scarlet Witch is hot as hell.

That comic may have been guilty of melodrama, but it sure was engaging.  I wanted more comics, specifically more Marvel comics.  And soon I would get them.

-  Ryan

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