The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes

As much as I’ve loved super-hero comics, I’ve never really enjoyed super-hero cartoons. (Don’t even get me started on super-hero movies. I haven’t liked one since the second Tim Burton Batman movie.) The cartoons tended to seem overly simplified and overblown to me. They either didn’t have any character continuity at all, which made them suffer in comparison to the ongoing comics, or they handled it so baldly that I felt like I was getting a history lesson.

It’s been a while since I’ve read super-hero comics regularly, mostly because they’ve become mope-y and insular beyond even my ability to tolerate. I do have a super-hero cartoon that I love, love, love. It’s The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, which airs on Disney XD (though I’ve been catching up on it on Netflix). Here are some of the reasons why I’m so smitten:

  1. The episodes can be very funny. Part of the fun of the comics is the banter and bickering among the heroes, and writer Christopher Yost does a great job with that. The banter is character-driven rather than writer-specific. The Hulk is a riot. I always thought that character’s addition into the Avengers’ comics canon was a mistake that was hastily and appropriately rectified. He just didn’t work as a part of a team, what with his portrayal elsewhere in Marvel’s shared universe. Here, there’s no other portrayal to consider, so he can be cranky and troublesome, but you still believe he wants to do good with this group. He’s smart in an instinctive way, and he likes to needle people, which yields some great lines. There are also some fun, subtle jokes. I thought it was terrific that the Avengers ended up fighting an alien robot in a drive-in movie theatre, since the tone of the episode was very much in keeping with the kind of creature flicks that ran there.
  2. The episodes that I’ve watched (about half of the first season) are very exciting. The Avengers face big stakes – massive prison break-outs, the Masters of Evil, alien invasion, a takeover by gamma monsters, etc. Even more importantly, those stakes tend to be external to the fact that the Avengers exist. (At a certain point with any super-hero property, a lot of what they do consists of reacting to villains who want revenge.)
  3. There’s a good division of attention among the characters. Someone clearly cares enough to track the way the characters interact and to make sure everyone gets time in the spotlight. There’s a consistent team dynamic that consists of specific individual relationships, which is something the comics don’t manage all of the time, so the show certainly gets extra points for that. And nobody gets marginalized because of power levels: Thor and Hulk are the best at hitting things, but everyone believably brings something to the table – Hawkeye’s skill, Wasp’s energy and speed, and so on.
  4. The gang’s all here. Aside from the horde of villains that crash in and out of the narrative, there are tongs of supporting characters to add spice. You can’t seem to do an adaptation without Nick Fury lurking on the periphery, obviously, but it’s nice to see Jane Foster driving an ambulance, Pepper Potts rolling her eyes at Iron Man, Doc Samson helping out with gamma-related issues, and so on.
  5. There’s good subplot management. The act of teasing to the next big thing while in the midst of the current big thing was always essential to my enjoyment of super-hero comics. That element is very much in place here. Yost is very good at suggesting the current adventure is part of a larger threat, adding a level of excitement and interest.

Now, the series isn’t perfect. The team’s roster needs more women. Wasp is a terrific character, an enthusiastic adventurer who holds her own rather than the dingbat girlfriend she was for so long in the comics. But, as much fun as it is to see the closing team shot at the end of the credits, it’s always sad to see Wasp doing solo duty when it comes to representing women. This might be rectified; Carol Danvers has appeared and taken steps toward her super-hero destiny. In the episodes I’ve watched, the Black Widow has played a significant (though morally ambiguous) role, and Mockingbird made a great impression as a SHIELD agent. But I want to see another super-heroine in the credits, if not more than one.

Also, the theme song is kind of terrible. Rhyming “one” with “won” always grates on my nerves; some couplings only work in print. And yes, that’s picky of me, but I’m a Sondheim devotee, so my expectations of lyrics are very high.

But if you’re like me, and have fond memories of when super-hero adventures were fun to follow, then you really should give this series a try. It’s terrific.


Upcoming 4/6/2011

This week’s installment of Bookshelf Briefs covers a number of imminent manga arrivals from Viz. My Pick of the Week is also from Viz, Kazue Kato’s Blue Exorcist, which I reviewed here. And if you’re wondering about the slate of boys’-love titles coming out this week, look no farther than the latest BL Bookrack for guidance. So what does that leave on the ComicList? Not a ton, to be honest.

I like the sound of one of Tokyopop’s debuts for the week, Yu Aikawa’s Butterfly. Melinda Beasi offered the following verdict:

As weird as this series is, it’s also really interesting. The characters are all filled with dark little nooks and crannies they’re struggling to hide from everyone else. And the story behind Ginji’s brother’s death is more than spooky. Even Ginji’s odd James Spader-type best friend has some kind of mystery lurking beneath. It’s just the strangest little story, but I really can’t wait to read more.

Hey, it’s about psychics, fake ghost busters, and emotional dysfunction. What more could you want? This five-volume series originally ran in Gentosha’s Comic Birz.

In another corner of the comic shop, there’s the fifth issue of Avengers: The Children’s Crusade from Marvel. It’s about a group of young super-heroes who are trying to find and rescue the mother of two of them. Mom is a disgraced, mentally unstable super-heroine in her own right. (A writer decided to give her a bad case of baby rabies, which of course leads the average person to kill several of her friends.) As with many of my favorite super-hero comics, this one spins on an axis of soap opera. The kids are almost certainly the product of Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome, though they have demonic intervention working in their favor rather than a stint at a boarding school in a pocket dimension where one year apparently passes in the span of one month our time. There’s a lot of romantic geometry, including a totally adorable pair of gay teen super-heroes. And there’s the strong whiff of one writer (Allan Heinberg) creating an entire mini-series to correct and hopefully undo an ill-advised narrative decision by another writer (Brian Bendis).

Of course, it’s got a Ph.D.-level quantity of back story in play, and at least a dozen characters seem to spontaneously arrive in each issue, so I don’t know if I’d actually recommend anyone pick this up at random. For example, do you have any idea who the glowing guy on the cover might be? I know, and I know why he’s annoyed and apparently crisping up the rest of the cast, but I’m weird that way. The comic makes me happy, though.

What looks good to you?


Upcoming 3/30/2011

The Manga Bookshelf crew took a slightly different approach to the current Pick of the Week, so go take a look. While you’re there, take a look at our new feature, Bookshelf Briefs, capsule reviews of current volumes with some wild cards thrown in from time to time. Now, on to this week’s ComicList!

Several books from Yen Press have already arrived via other suppliers, but Diamond catches up on Wednesday with some very appealing books. First and foremost is the third volume of Yumi Unita’s excellent Bunny Drop, the tale of a bachelor who takes his grandfather’s illegitimate daughter into his home and learns the ins and outs of parenting. Here’s my review of the first volume, and here’s a look at some other works by Unita that have yet to be licensed.

There’s also the second volume of Kakifly’s very popular, four-panel look at a high-school music club, K-On. I liked the first volume well enough, though it didn’t change my life or anything.

I’m ashamed to admit that I’m a bit behind on Time and Again, an alluring supernatural series from JiUn Yun. The fifth volume arrives Wednesday, which gives me added incentive to catch up.

Marvel’s Secret Avengers still hasn’t given me the Valkyrie story arc that I so desperately desire, but I’m enjoying the series in spite of this glaring deficiency and will pick up the 11th issue. It begins a two-issue arc that provides back story about characters I don’t know who aren’t Valkyrie, so I’m not promising any deep investment on my part, but I have yet to feel like I need to buy other comics for reference.

What looks good to you?


Upcoming 2/23/2011

We’re back to a more substantial ComicList this week. You can click here for my Pick of the Week.

As for this week’s arrivals, there’s the third volume of 7 Billion Needles (Vertical), Nobuaki Tadano’s manga homage to Hal Clement’s novel, Needle. I’ve been enjoying the series for its balance of character development and monster mayhem, but the proportions seem a bit off in this installment.

Our sulky heroine Hikaru now finds herself host to not one but two powerful entities. Seeing as those beings have been acting in opposition forever, I was hoping for some focus on the new arrangement. Unfortunately, the triad is forced to adapt almost instantaneously, as outside forces demand their attention. Benevolent Horizon and malignant Maelstrom seem to have spun off and are causing evolutionary mayhem. This invites the intervention of a third powerful entity and drives our heroine and her tagalongs to try and set things right before the world is changed forever.

In short, there’s too much mayhem and not enough moping. I was enjoying Hikaru’s emotional progress, and it felt like that was shoved into the background in favor of incursions of instant monsters. It’s not devoid of emotional moments, but they tend to be drowned out in favor of the more visceral events. I’m hoping the fourth and final volume strikes a better balance, but, even if it doesn’t, this will have amounted to a very appealing series overall. And, if your reaction to either of the earlier volumes was that there wasn’t enough mayhem, this is a good opportunity to reintroduce yourself to the series.

(Comments are based on a review copy provided by the publisher.)

Other highlights for the week include:

What looks good to you?

Upcoming 12/22/2010

It’s a jam-packed ComicList this week, so much so that I must engage in speculation: if I could only pick one of the thumping stack of Viz Signature titles that are arriving this week, which would it be? Keep in mind that I’ll buy all of them at some point, but that’s a lot of books, you know?

So, to start, I would theoretically postpone purchase of the SigIkki titles on the assumption that I’m up to date on having read them online and thinking that a little more distance between reading them on the web and in a physical book would improve the experience. That’s three out of the mix, and they’re really good, so ouch. And there are still three left.

There’s no shame in losing to Fumi Yoshinaga and Naoki Urasawa, so I’m afraid that Natsume Ono’s charming Gente would have to wait. Much as 20th Century Boys is my favorite Urasawa series, I’m not quite as starved for a new volume of it as I am for the next installment of the final contender…

… the fifth volume of Yoshinaga’s Ôoku: The Inner Chambers. Yes, it’s got some adaptation issues, but I find that it takes fewer and fewer pages for me to adapt myself to them and throw myself into the very beguiling story.

And, just for clarity, here’s the order of choice for all of Signature’s avalanche:

1. Ôoku: The Inner Chambers vol. 5, Fumi Yoshinaga
2. 20th Century Boys vol. 12, Naoki Urasawa
3. Gente vol. 2, Natsume Ono
4. House of Five Leaves vol. 2, Natsume Ono
5. Children of the Sea vol. 4, Daisuke Igarashi
6. I’ll Give It My All… Tomorrow vol. 2, Shunji Aono

Vertical isn’t making things any cheaper.

I think the fourth volume of Kanata Konami’s Chi’s Sweet Home is the best yet. Konami really seems to have found a rhythm by this point and a solid handle on the comic potential of human-feline interaction. And I’m really looking forward to how Felipe Smith wraps things up in the third and final volume of the deranged cross-cultural theater-of-cruelty comedy, Peepo Choo.

And if you’ve never much cared for Marvel’s comics, I don’t know how meaningful this will be for you, but I’m really, really enjoying Secret Avengers. Last issue, Valkyrie, the Asgardian chooser of the slain, kicked the asses of a whole bunch of ninjas. That will either light a spark in your soul or not. The eighth issue comes out Wednesday, written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Mike Deodato.

What looks good to you?

Update: Major omission alert!

Drawn & Quarterly gets its gekiga on with Oji Suzuki’s A Single Match, a “collection of hauntingly elliptical short stories.”

MMF: Straw Hats, Assemble!

I often cite the Riverdale crowd as my entry point into comics, and it’s perfectly true. The first comics I remember reading with any regularity are from the Archie family, and I spent many pleasurable hours with that crowd. But the comics that turned me into a fan, the ones that turned an activity into an enduring hobby, were undeniably those that featured Marvel’s Avengers. It even reached a point where I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy The Fantastic Four, because each issue promised “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” and that was clearly a lie.

In retrospect, the thing that drew me to the Avengers and, to a lesser extent the Defenders and the X-Men, was the notion of the family of choice – people without much in common, people who at times ostensibly disliked each other, coming together because of a shared philosophy. The Avengers came together because they wanted to accomplish something – fighting substantial threats that were too much for individual heroes – while maintaining individual goals, whether that was redemption for past misdeeds, finding a place in a world where you don’t fit, or just enjoying the comfort of like-minded comrades.

The other quality at the core of the Avengers’ appeal to me was the sheer variety of characters, from the enormously powerful to the enormously skilled. Some members were unvarnished in terms of virtue while others had decidedly dodgy pasts and complex motivations. They didn’t always get along, but the bickering was one of the spices in the stew. Gods and carnies, soldiers and freaks, robots and knights could join forces, and each could be better than they were individually simply by virtue of their loosely shared identity as Avengers.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that, as I enjoy Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece, I find similarities between the Straw Hat Pirates and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. If anything, the Straw Hats are a distillation of everything I like best about the Avengers minus of a lot of things I didn’t. The moments that rankled in Avengers comics were the ones over which the writers didn’t have any control – the comings and goings of characters that were franchises in their own right, like Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man. Every Straw Hat belongs to One Piece lock, stock and grog-filled barrel. Everything that matters (or at all) happens to them in this comic, and I know they won’t be yanked away from me due to the machinations of anyone but Oda himself.

Even the dissimilarities between the two teams end up being similarities. While the Avengers became notorious as a sort of rehab center for the formerly villainous (the Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, the Black Widow, Swordsman, and so on), the Straw Hats function as a kind of mirror opposite. Characters who previously lived relatively blameless lives (bounty hunter Zolo, small-town oddity Usopp, reindeer physician Chopper) decide that blamelessness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in the face of the lure seafaring adventure and Luffy’s bizarrely charismatic, seemingly unfounded certainty. (Some would argue, me among them, that the Straw Hats aren’t really all that adept at villainy, as they barely ever do any actual pillaging, but let’s just stick with the foundational premise that pirates are, by definition, outlaws. And really, unless defending yourself against attack counts for full marks as heroic, the Avengers don’t always live up to their mission either.)

For me, the dissimilarities just reinforce the idea that the Straw Hats, like the Avengers, are something larger than individuals. They can accomplish more collectively than they can individually, no matter how skilled or strong they are. And the Straw Hats’ roles are stated in ways that aren’t made explicit in the Avengers: Luffy is the Captain, Usopp is the Marksman, Nami is the Navigator, and so on. (The current Avengers writer recently took a big meta stab at each member’s iconic function, but that trick almost never works. Grant Morrison couldn’t pull it off with his JLA “pantheon,” either.)

And if the Straw Hats’ stated intent isn’t to fight evil and injustice, they do so with a proactive vigor that the Avengers should envy. How many One Piece arcs are driven by the Straw Hats discovering that something isn’t right and taking steps to rectify it for the benefit of the innocent or oppressed, no matter what the cost might be to them personally? These acts of altruism may just as often be a result of the crew’s thirst for adventure, but they inevitably come from a desire to do the right thing, at least insofar as they view matters of right and wrong. Half of the time, the Avengers’ adventures are driven by an assault from someone with a grudge, often the same person with the same grudge. If the Straw Hats run into an old opponent, the dynamic has often changed based on past events, which opens new and interesting possibilities.

There are also resonant individual parallels. Nami can be reasonably compared to the Wasp in that she’s a charming boy-magnet who is much more formidable than she initially appears. Of course, Nami’s primary function isn’t romantic, so she has a leg up on the Wasp in that regard. (Over time, the Wasp managed to transcend that set albatross herself, but I think she’s dead now, so Nami still wins.)

Everyone gets to be a little bit of a Hawkeye. Usopp gets to overcome his inferiority complex with skill and dedication. Sanji gets the hopeless crushes, the fruitless flirting, and the inclination to bicker with the alpha male. Zolo gets to be the badass by virtue of rigorous training. (Zolo is a bit greedy in that he also gets bits of Captain America’s stoicism and Iron Man’s glamour.) I could theoretically credit Sanji with a little bit of Jarvis, at least on the culinary front, but Sanji has none of the butler’s fastidiousness or fatherly virtues.

Nico Robin gets to be all of the Avengers’ various shady ladies in one glorious package. Like the Scarlet Witch, she’s tarred with the brush of her heritage. Like the Black Widow, it’s not unreasonable to question Robin’s motives, at least initially. Like Mantis, Robin is allowed to be her best self through the support and friendship of her comrades.

Sweet Chopper gets bits of some of my favorites, too. He’s like the Vision, fully experiencing the world for the first time in the company of friends. He’s also like the Beast, reliably delivering comic relief while maintaining a core of sadness and even a tinge of potential menace. Franky has the foe-to-friend aspect of characters like Swordsman or Wonder Man, without being as pathetic as either of those mopes. It’s a little early to tell what, if any, assembler will draw parallels to Brook.

And Luffy seems conceived to redeem qualities of the Avengers who mattered least to me. Like Captain America, he’s a natural leader, but Luffy is even more of a natural leader in that he rarely needs to assert his authority. Like Thor, Luffy is ridiculously powerful, but unlike Thor, he seldom feels the need to speechify on the subject. Like the Hulk, Luffy is at times random in his behaviors and choices, and he’s most answerable to his appetites, but the randomness and the appetite are glorious and funny instead of being obstructions. They’re part of Luffy’s rhythms, and his crewmates know how to roll with them in ways the Avengers never did with the Hulk. (Luffy is emblematic of Oda’s ability to show rather than tell. Oda allows readers to sense all of these things about Luffy, to realize the truth of them, without anyone having to stand around and discuss them.)

Another quality that I loved about the Avengers is noticeably absent from One Piece, that being the romantic subplots that proved to be such a substantial part of the narrative. This isn’t really problematic, in my opinion. I’ve talked with people about how One Piece seems to defy romantic fan fiction because romance is simply not among Oda’s narrative concerns. He simply doesn’t poke that ‘shipper reflex in the way that many other shônen manga-ka do. He doesn’t do anything to demean that impulse, but he does nothing to encourage it either.

And the things Oda does nail are the subplots about personal growth. He executes these both obliquely and explicitly. Readers can watch Luffy’s qualities evolve out of the corner of their eyes while seeing a more direct address of Usopp’s insecurity among people who overpower him in so many ways but match him in heart. Watching Robin re-learn how to hope and trust is lovely in some of the same ways it was to watch the Scarlet Witch become a formidable, independent heroine. And it’s all woven in so nicely with the goofy bombast that it might surprise you that you’re being moved as you’re being entertained. Better still, there’s nothing resembling Hank Pym’s decades-long struggle to decide just what kind of creepy loser he wants to be.

So, yes, One Piece is routinely what Avengers was to me at its very best. It’s about the family that you make because you trust people and respect them. It’s about big, crazy battles that seem lost from the start, until teamwork and individual courage come into play. And it’s about a seemingly incongruous group of equals becoming better and stronger in each others’ company.

(For a look at One Piece‘s resemblance to another super-hero franchise, please swing by Sam Kusek’s A Life in Panels. You’ll see why.)


To celebrate Thanksgiving in the laziest way possible, I thought I would mention some ongoing comics that debuted (if only in print and in English) in 2010 so far for which I am grateful. And there’s still more than a month left.

And here are some stand-alone works that made the year sparkle.

The manga industry may be correcting itself, but we’re still getting great books, don’t you think? The images above are all linked to commentary of varying lengths. And added thanks to everyone who makes the comics blogosphere and twitterverse such a delightful place to visit.

Upcoming 11/24/2010

The last time I wrote about 7 Billion Needles (Vertical), Nobuaki Tadano’s manga homage to Hal Clement’s Needle, I neglected to mention the retro cover design, which is terrific. You know that smell that used paperback stores have? The look of the book evokes that smell, and the proportions of the book support it. The contents of the book don’t quite evoke that pulpy nostalgia, but they hint at it, and they’ve got their own charms.

In the second volume, Tadano inches forward with his meta approach to the tale of two warring aliens who crash on Earth and proceed to mess up the life of an isolated high-school girl and threaten the people around her. If Ultimo (Viz) is kind of a bland, accidentally creepy look at the endless battle between good and evil, 7 Billion Needles seems intent to play with the construct in ways that are perversely endearing. These moments aren’t the meat of the book, but they are the spice, and they’re welcome. They enliven what might otherwise be a standard, well-executed bit of violent angst.

And it is well-executed, even without the twists on the formula. This time around, Hikaru confronts a trauma from her past. With the encouragement of her new friends, she goes to the village where she spent her childhood and confronts the reason she’s shut herself off from the people around her. Of course, the ostensibly heroic entity sharing her body and the monstrous being they battle complicate the sentimental journey with plenty of menacing action.

This series really is a pleasant surprise. Of the four series Vertical has debuted this year, my expectations were probably lowest for 7 Billion Needles, but it’s smarter and more interesting than I had anticipated. Go read Kate (The Manga Critic) Dacey’s review for a thoughtful take on the book.

So what else is due this week? There’s the seventh issue of Secret Avengers (Marvel), a very enjoyable spin-off of a comics franchise I’ve long found really horrible, so that’s nice. It’s also one of the only successful attempts I’ve ever seen to make super-heroes “proactive.”

There’s also the debut of Kakifly’s K-On (Yen Press), a well-liked four-panel comedy about a high-school music club. It originally ran in Houbunsha’s Manga Time Kiara Carat.

What looks good to you?

Wolverines you can believe in

I’ve been largely indifferent to Wolverine, the character, though I’m learning to actively hate him as he’s portrayed in Avengers: The Children’s Crusade. I like the sight of Hugh Jackman in a sleeveless undershirt as much as the next person who is so inclined, so I suppose I can appreciate the existence of Wolverine, the character, in that it made such visuals possible. But I honestly hadn’t given much thought to wolverines, the species, until I saw this episode of Nature on PBS.

And yes, they are brutal, and I certainly wouldn’t want to inadvertently cross the path of one in the wild, but they are also some of the most adorable vicious predators I have ever, ever seen. Seriously, watch this episode if you get a chance.

Upcoming 10/27/2010

It’s time for another look at the week’s ComicList!

Tokyopop has a bunch of titles coming out, and my pick of that lot would be the tenth volume of Banri Hidaka’s V.B. Rose, a romantic comedy about a budding designer of accessories working in a high-end bridal shop.

Random House’s Del Rey manga imprint may be on its last legs, but it’s releasing a healthy volume of titles all the same. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the first volume of Akimine Kamijo’s Code Breaker, so I’ll be looking for the second.

I’ve also been surprised by how much I’ve been enjoying Marvel’s Secret Avengers series, so I’ll also grab a copy of the sixth issue, which features a visit from the Master of Kung Fu.

I have no excuse for not yet sampling Beasts of Burden from Dark Horse, and perhaps the Beasts of Burden/Hellboy One-Shot isn’t the best introduction to the series, but I think I’ll grab it all the same, just because I know my comic shop will probably have a copy handy.

What looks good to you?