Friday, May 11, 2012

Before You See the Avengers (Again): An Excerpt from Comic Book Character

In my previous post, most excellent reader, I indicated that I have plans to see the blockbuster film The Avengers many, many, many more times. I doubt I'll get to it this weekend; my wife is opening her own counseling practice, and over the next few days we'll be putting the finishing touches on her office. (Do her a favor: go to her Psychology Today page and click on "like" to help her get better noticed in her community. Thanks!) But anyway, I'm only one man, and many of you don't have chores that will preclude you from seeing The Avengers again this weekend--or even for the first time. I'll be living vicariously through you, so I thought I ought to offer you something in exchange. Here's an excerpt from my book Comic Book Character, recently revised and updated, and rereleased for the Kindle. The chapter "Might Makes Right: The Justice League Meets the Avengers" is my favorite in the book, contrasting the worldviews behind the major superhero showcases of two great eras in comic book publishing and, I think, offering some insight to the way we frame our own era's understanding of virtue and heroism. So read the excerpt to get up to speed on what the Avengers are, and then buy the ebook to get up to speed on what they mean.

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The Avengers were the first “super-group” in the Marvel Comics line. That is not to say that Marvel didn’t already have teams of superheroes—after all, the Fantastic Four was Marvel’s first great success in superhero comics. But the Avengers brought together strong-willed, larger than life heroes with independent fan bases. Every reader had a favorite: the cute couple Ant-Man and Wasp; the invincible Iron Man; the unpredictable Hulk; the conveniently rediscovered Captain America; or the literal god of thunder, Thor. The lineup quickly and regularly changed, but the title served its purpose: to showcase new Marvel talents and pool the assets of “Earth’s mightiest heroes.”

From early on the Avengers made ripples, serving as a launching pad for Marvel’s first black hero, African prince Black Panther, and keeping the peace in New York and elsewhere while fighting organized networks of villains, alien races and even a white supremacist group. The group was an institution, centering in a mansion complete with butler Jarvis, establishing a foundation to cover team expenses and fund stipends for unemployed team members, expanding to the West Coast, and linking their work to the U.S. government and eventually the United Nations through official liaisons. The Avengers weren’t simply superheroes, they were high society. Any superhero who was anyone was a current or one-time member.

The Avengers turned heads over time as they took on various thorny issues. Their treatment of race was followed by uncharted ethical territory as android Vision fell in love with and ultimately married the mutant Scarlet Witch. Wonder Man discovered that he was a clone. Physically unusual heroes such as the Beast and Tigra won accolades while on duty but faced marginalization by the public when they went off the clock. Second-stringers faced layoffs by government decree. Founding member Henry Pym struggled to find his place first as Ant-Man, then as the original Giant-Man and eventually as Yellowjacket, all the while trying to undo the damage caused by his perfectly designed, artificially intelligent, amoral robot Ultron; he eventually suffered a nervous breakdown, beat his wife, betrayed his team and went to prison.

The Avengers wore their pettinesses on their sleeves, but for all the internal troubles they faced, the team—and the mansion that housed them—served as a safe retreat from the challenges of serving and protecting a fickle world that alternately trusted, revered, suspected and rejected their presence. The Avengers fought to keep a vulnerable world above water even as their leaders, in the words of the series’ editors, fought to “instill as much trust in one another as the public has in the team itself. With the abundance of alpha personalities involved, and their diverse backgrounds, this is not an easy task.”

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