Monday, June 17, 2013

Spoilers With A Grain of Salt

Around the mid-2000s, Marvel published a series of books heralding "The End" for several of its characters--stories set in the future, portraying presumably the final adventures of these heroes. I collected two or three of these series, enough to finally realize that they were essentially What If? stories without the masthead; because I don't think there's one reader who's prepared to hold up their hand and declare, "I now know how the story of [FILL IN HERO(ES) HERE] will end." It wouldn't make sense for Marvel to go all in and put all of its cards on the table in this way--because once you uncork that bottle, for almost your entire line of books, you're going to have a hell of a time sticking to the results from that point on, as far as keeping the characters intact and making sure their lives and histories proceed in the direction you've set out.

So at some point, "The End" books will be tagged with the old "one possible future" disclaimer--assuming Marvel even bothers. Does anyone even remember the details of how the X-Men "ended"? What characters were still alive by that point? What were the events of their final battle? *shrug* Neither do I.

Which brings me to two of the oddest comics in my collection, which went a step beyond "The End" and published the I-mean-it-this-time FINAL stories of its characters:

The first, The Last Avengers Story, published in 1995, preceded The End books by several years, with a title presenting an even larger problem of locking in its characters until, well, the end. Because if you see a book on the racks titled The Last Avengers Story, chances are you're going to take it at its word. Until you look closely at this curious graphic on the cover's top corner:

You'd also have to flip the book over and read its "foreword," which reveals this to be exactly what the What If? concept was designed to skirt around, an "imaginary story":

"Glimpse into the distant future of a world that might have been..."

Either I wasn't savvy enough, or my curiosity was piqued to the point of throwing caution to the wind, because instead of scrutinizing the front or back covers I thought I would just look through the issue to find such wording. So, duped, I gave the title more weight than it was meant to have. And it was regrettable to read this story under the cloud of questioning its authenticity, since clearly a lot of time and creative effort (to say nothing of glossy paper stock) went into getting it to the rack.

As it turned out, the title is, itself, a catalyst of the plot, if a bit of a reach as far as being its driving force as it's intended. When you see how the issue's title is used within the story (I don't want to spoil it for you here), you can understand how writer Peter David would feel justified in using it to head the overall arc, as many novelists take a similar tack with the usage of titles that have additional meaning other than what's implied; and in a way, it lets Marvel off the hook as far as claiming this to be "the last Avengers story," since it's only creative license in play. The difference is that we're not picking up a novel from the comics rack--we're buying an informal graphic novel that's been formatted to be split in half and marketed alongside comic books that tell (and sell) their stories with different implications.

The story, written by David, illustrated by Ariel Olivetti and spanning two issues, involves a final gathering of Avengers in Earth's future to (what else?) avenge the decimation of that era's Avengers team by Kang the Conqueror, who gathers a team of villains with their own reasons for wanting to wipe Pym and his cohorts off the map. And David plants the first seed of the title's still-hidden meaning in this scene which some of you may recognize as a nod to his earlier Hulk story, "Future Imperfect":

Much of "The Last Avengers Story" involves founding member Hank Pym attempting to scrape together enough of a team in this world of retired or nonexistent super-beings to make a stand against Ultron-59, who lays it out pretty simply for Pym in this scene:

As Pym pulls his team together, a good deal of the story is spent satisfying our curiosity as to what happened to the world's heroes. Many of them simply moved on with their lives, or succumbed to age and/or infirmity; but there were also the major tragedies or shocks you generally encounter in stories of this nature. Frankly, I was pleased to see a story that acknowledges that time, indeed, marches on, and that the "Marvel Age" is not ageless. Even the "new Avengers" who meet their end almost immediately in the story seem to be in place only for show, as there seems to be little need for them in more than a symbolic sense.

The daunting part of following this story doesn't lie with David's scripting or even his plot--as usual, every character is a skilled deliverer of his typical witticisms, even in a world where you'd think few would be dispensing such fluent wit at all beyond sarcasm or cynicism. Instead, it's Olivetti's work as artist that makes it a struggle to get through the story and make sense of its images. Granted, just about every character who's familiar to us would be very much altered due to time running its course--but Olivetti could have benefitted from a finisher and certainly a colorist to make his figures more distinctive and his panels appear less faded. The other odd thing about his work on this book is that he randomly makes a point of signing a considerable number of his panels, for no apparent reason I can fathom.

There was one scene in this story, though, that struck an interesting chord for me in terms of my feelings on present-day Marvel books, when Pym is explaining to She-Hulk his reasons for joining the Avengers. I have the feeling that just about every Marvel reader who remembers Marvel's prior years in a more fond sense than today's books can relate to it:

In The Last Fantastic Four Story, though, there seems to be no gray area about this story being the real thing--i.e., a solid part of FF continuity and their actual "last story," though I doubt if anyone took it seriously. Published in late 2007 and written by Stan Lee, it comes across as "The Last Avengers Story" lite, having none of the considerations of David's plotting or giving the title characters any depth to speak of. In fact, the depth Lee does give us is a little disturbing, as the team returns from assisting with the capture of a terrorist group but with their minds occupied by something we thought they'd evolved well past:

Before the story can dwell on this further, though, Lee kicks things into high gear by bringing to Earth an all-powerful figure who heralds the end of humanity:

The Adjudicator, standing in place blaring proclamations of doom, is practically wearing a sign that says "Kick Me," so most of the issue is spent having just about everyone in the Marvel universe futilely taking their shots at him. And even though it seems that the human race is going to be wiped out, Lee can't resist having a certain sky-rider go over humanity's shortcomings for, oh, the thousandth time:

Anyway, under Lee's hand, this story is as uncomplicated an FF tale as you'd expect, though unfortunately with little of the characterization or feel for the group that made the FF shine when he originally held the book's reins. Reed saves the day with a plan; the tables are turned on the enemy; the FF show themselves to be the heroes they are by preventing the genocide of the very beings who sought to destroy humanity; and the aliens, as a result, realize the potential of the human race for greatness. All the trimmings of a Stan Lee Fantastic Four story, but with its heart missing.

Then, in a confusing conclusion to the tale, after they've received worldwide plaudits and honors for their actions, they decide the time is right to throw in the towel on their career:

Speaking for myself, I'm hoping that when the FF do finally end their adventuring, it's with a bang rather than a whimper--and that my memory of this particular adventure proves as short-lived as Reed and Ben believe.

1 comment:

Murray said...

That sort of juvenile nihilistic deconstructionism makes me throw up a little in my mouth. Any punk can strut and preen after kicking apart a sand castle. Me, I save my plaudits for those who buildsand castles.

If we're talking about these "The End" specials, I heartily endorse Alan Davis' six part extravaganza. It was the only story under this "End" banner that was optimistic, rang true to the characters and overall a rollicking good read.

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