Comics can be a lot of things. As part of the entertainment and mass media industry, comic’s can- and are- be used for both enjoyment and education. But in their quest to be seen as a viable and important literary genre, a lot of writers, artists and critics forget what it was that brought them to comics in the first place- fun.
“We need to be respected “, they cry. “We are an effective art form damn it, and we’ll write and draw in as many abstract forms as we please. Simple entertainment be damned. All these heroes obviously have psychological problems and neuroses. One of them dresses up as a bat for God’s sake!! And if we go the indie route, there’ll be no pleasure here either. Oh no, all our characters will have shitty lives and be social outcasts like we were. You will share the pain and the lack of female companionship we felt during our spotty youths, you bastards!”
Some of the places you will find a lot of these views are the trade magazines such as Wizard, The Comics Journal and Britain’s own Comics International.
The Comics Journal would have you believe that all comics are art and should strive for that position. That both Marvel and DC are sweatshops, trading on the honest labour of their writers and artists (who are all hacks anyway according to CJ) and sell out their properties to the highest bidder with no financial remuneration to their creators. According to CJ, the only good comics come from Fantagraphics (which also publishes The Comics Journal).
Comics International has at its heart the very peculiar practice of British cynicism. Whereas Wizard would have you believe that everything in the world of comics is just rosy, with a bright future, C.I. takes the opposite view- that the industry is on the verge of collapse and it would all be made better if comics just went back to being sold for 3d each and printed on bad newsprint. Of course neither view is correct. The industry is in rude health, with sales back to their late 1980’s figures but not the hyper- inflated figures of the early 1990’s (which were mostly down to the speculator boom). It’s quite likely that we’ll never see the million plus per issue again, but think about it. Most writers and publishers in the book world would be ecstatic with monthly sales of 300,000 on any of their titles and with new markets, such as manga and DC’s recently acquired European outlet Humanoids both being well-received and profitable it’s probably about time for the doom-mongers and ra-ra-ers to move off to other pastures (TV perhaps? Mmmm, maybe, but I think we already have enough media study students taking all the jobs at McDonalds in this country already).
Anyway, back to comics being fun. Most of this will come from the world of super-heroics. Power fantasies, big punch-ups, definitive lines of black and white (with a few greys thrown in), big explosions. What more could anyone ask for? Sure, a lot of them are quite simple in real-life terms, but as said, in the end comics are part of mass entertainment and I don’t see anyone bitching about the fact that something like LOTR in cinematic terms is a blockbuster film with a simple premise (midget has to throw ring into a big fire). Besides, who’d want to read something akin to Proust all the time? I like a little introspection and musings on the human condition now and then, but not all the time. Sometimes I just want colourful super-heroes beating the tar out of colourful villains but a magazine like CJ can’t seem to get its head around this fact and understand that like everything else there is plenty of room for all.
One of the best type of Reads© is the super-hero team-up. Simple really- two heroes pound upon each other through misunderstanding and then join up to defeat the bad guy. Conflict creates character, comics 101. It gets even better when its inter-publisher and we have some of the biggest teams in the publishers lexicon to do the honours. This is where JLA/Avengers by Kurt Busiek and George Perez enters and kicks your ass (yep, I’m in full fan boy mode this time true believers).
DC and Marvel have a long history of publisher collaboration (The Wizard of Oz weirdly being their first), but of late relations have soured between the two and JLA/Avengers may be their last for a while. Ironic really, has it’s had the greatest gestation period. The idea was first mooted in the ’80’s and the then Avengers artist Perez set to work on it. But according to the Marvel E.I.C. Jim Shooter, the story wasn’t coming together and this remained the stumbling block. The project soured with recriminations on both sides and all that remained was twenty-one pages of Perez’s pencils (the tale of the battle between DC and Marvel over the script, the concept and the unfinished art are re-printed in the compendium that accompanies the main book).
Skip forward a few decades and both DC and Marvel were ready to try again. Perez was more than willing to return and do the artist honours- even to the extent of having it written into his exclusive contract with another publisher that if the Avengers/JLA project went ahead he’d be able to do it. But who could write what was expected to be a Triple A project? Step forward one of the best writers in comics today, Kurt Busiek. Busiek re-invigorated the Avengers after the Hero’s Return debacle and gave readers two of the best series on the inner workings of heroes with Marvels and Astro City. His problem though with the project was two-fold. How to give each team enough time to satisfy both publishers and create a story big enough to do justice to both the concept and the readers? In the end the solution was quite simple: – every single member of each team over their respective history would appear, plus their enemies, plus their supporting cast, plus all their various incarnations and costume changes. Literally a cast of hundreds. George Perez must have been pulling his hair out at the very thought of it. That he succeeded so well in portraying all this without any drop in quality in the art is a testament to his skill as an artist and draughtsman.
From the moment the story kicks off, you can tell that it’s going to be massive in scale. Crossing both universes and going to the very beginning and end of everything. It is big and cosmic enough to satisfy even the most jaded comics fan, but at its heart has a simple question- “What is truth?”
By setting the stage as the first time any of the Avengers/JLA have met, Busiek makes each team question how heroes are seen by the public and how they see themselves. The Avengers see the JLA as nothing but benevolent dictators, demanding the adulation of the world (which is a nice parallel with the Crime Syndicate (seen at the beginning of the book), who are alternate versions of the main members of the JLA that have taken over their world and run it as gangsters).Whereas the JLA see the Avengers as failures, doing nothing to better the world and its population: – The Flash is horrified upon his arrival in the Marvel Universe to see a mutant being hounded. In a bit of quiet downtime before the final confrontation with the villain, Captain America and Superman discuss these points. Superman feels that he does too much for his planet, thereby denying free will. The Captain feels that anything he does is not enough, and that nothing will ever change. The villain, Krona, seeks the truth about the universe. What was there before its current inception? Only one being knows this (Galactus) and he’s not one for answers. It’s these little asides that give heart to the project and put paid to the lie that most superhero stories are superficial.
Ah, but I hear you say. Where’s the fun that this project offers? If the book so rocks, where’s the blockbuster feel? Where else- but in the interactions of the characters, the vastness of the locations and, oh yeah, the punch-ups that pepper the book.
Although the beginning of the tale is nothing more than a treasure hunt of powerful artefacts from both universes, the usual misunderstandings arise and it really is fun to see Superman square off against Thor, or Iron Man vs. Green Lantern. Batman vs. Captain America is both frustrating and right as both antagonists tip-toe around each other, testing their fighting skills, until The Bat-Man takes the first step and tells the Captain that he could beat him (The Bat-Man), but it’ll take him a long time to do so. Instead, why don’t we go and find out who’s really behind it all whilst the others take their licks. The fact that the Captain readily agrees shows the fact that both men are also tactical thinkers as well as warriors.
As said, the art is a joy to behold. Perez is a highly detailed artist who leaves no panel empty or background unutilized. The cameos that he somehow manages to cram in are a delight, and give a pleasant Where’s Waldo feel. Anybody who thinks that they know their comics history will be pleasantly surprised by some of the obscure characters that pop up, but all this is helped by the labour of love, panel by panel guide to people, places and sources written by Busiek and Perez included in the compendium. In fact this could be the only criticism I found with The JLA/Avengers, that it may be a bit too into the history of both teams to be readily accessible to new readers.
Be that as it may, the whole package is lovingly put together and illustrates my main point, that comics are fun. Don’t be too snobby about the superhero genre in general, it still provides some teenage kicks. Some folks may believe themselves to be too mature and responsible for this kind of stuff, but hey, do you want to remain old forever?
JLA/Avengers is written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by George Perez. Colour by Tom Smith and lettering by Richard Starkings. Published in oversized hardback with compendium by DC/Marvel priced £49.99. Available now from all good comic book stores.