Why do wonderful talents like Brian Bendis and Chris Bachalo turn in work like Avengers #15?

I admire Brian Bendis. Ultimate Spider-Man has been a consistently excellent read in the decade he's been writing it. His new creator-owned comic Scarlet is thrilling and fresh. I like his distinctive style of dialogue so much, I'm basically mimicking it in my screenwriting. He's a master of nuanced characterizations, and he's done some really impressive long-term plotting. But holy heck, the man cannot write an action scene to save his life. He could have a bunch of characters with the most inventive superpowers you've ever heard of, but somehow the only thing he'll think of to do with them is have them punch each other. And yet, rather than being put on a bunch of quiet dramas where he can shine, Marvel puts him front and center and lets him run the Marvel Universe.

He's written three crossover events for Marvel, each one comparable in size to Fear Itself. In House of M, the whole eight-issue story is building up to a big fight scene where everyone's punching each other and shooting generic energy blasts at each other. In Secret Invasion, a story which was supposed to be about a secret alien invasion ends up with a not-at-all-secret battle where the good guys stand on one side, the bad guys stand on the other side, and then they punch each other until someone shoots the main villain in the head and the fight's over. And Siege... oy vey, Siege. Siege entirely consisted of this pattern: some characters show up, they pose dramatically for a few pages, then they start either punching or shooting generic energy blasts, other characters show up, they pose dramatically, they start punching or shooting energy blasts... repeat until you're at the end of four oversized issues. Seriously, that was the entire main miniseries of Siege. I'm not exaggerating the pointlessness. But at the same time he was writing that, he was also writing the tie-in Dark Avengers, where a years-long subplot about the Sentry being treated like a weapon rather than a person finally blows up in everyone's faces, and it was a satisfying conclusion because it was about people. Bendis is good with people, even (or maybe especially) of the bizarre fantasy variety. If he were to write a crossover that were about a person, in the way that Secret Wars 2 in the '80s was about the Beyonder, that could be something impressive. But instead he tries to fit as many familiar costumes and bland fight scenes as he can into his work, and what we're left with is a bunch of hollow stories where people punch each other.

I think he's totally unaware of his limitations as a writer, and I think no one's bothered to let him know because he sells so well. He recently started a Moon Knight series, and the first two issues were terribly boring. They were just setting a mood and a tone and included a bunch of generic fight scenes where people punch each other. But I stuck with it because I have faith in Bendis. (His comic Alias didn't get more interesting than its superhero-procedural premise until issue 15. I worry whether the TV adaptation in development, called aka Jessica Jones, might choose never to get to that point.) In the second issue he brought in Echo, a great character from David Mack's Daredevil. This was no surprise: he introduced her into The New Avengers on three separate occasions, each time forgetting about her existence by the next issue. So I didn't get too excited when he introduced her yet again in Moon Knight. But the third issue didn't have any action scenes in it: it started with Moon Knight asking Echo out on a date under the pretense of superhero work, and then it introduced a new character and set up the relationship between Moon Knight and this new guy for the rest of the issue. It was a damn good issue. That's the Bendis I want to read - the Bendis who writes about people being people.

Instead he writes The Avengers, with too many characters and not enough time to do any of them justice. When Dan Slott was writing The Mighty Avengers, he was able to not just have lots of fun action scenes, but also make sure that every character had a good role in each story. But he can do that, because he's Dan Slott. His style is old-school and zippy, while Bendis is slower and more grounded. Bendis's characters are more believable, and the cost of that is that Bendis needs six issues to cover what Slott can do in one. Bendis only gets two stories between one crossover and the next!
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Despite Bendis's failings, The Avengers has actually been a good read so far. The last arc, involving the Infinity Gems, was terrific fun from start to finish. Toward the beginning there was a lot of talking, deriving tension from years of build-up in his other work, and its fifth issue was an action scene entirely made of full-page spreads and narration boxes. (Bendis likes to keep his series fresh by trying out new storytelling techniques whenever he can.) You wouldn't think that would work, and indeed the plotting for the battle was quite dull, but it was fun anyway because it was being drawn (as were the other issues) by John Romita Jr. There is so much raw energy in his simple drawings, that every punch is exciting. It's certainly not as entertaining as Romita's work with Slott, but it doesn't feel like a waste of time either. In Avengers #14 there was a throwaway battle between The Thing and Red Hulk. Bendis's narration, blabbering about how this fight was a monumental event that proved something or other about Red Hulk's character, fell flat because it's a throwaway fight between a mind-controlled Thing and an off-brand Hulk in which no superpowers are used except for the power to hit things very hard. But the art was more gripping than any such battle has any right to be. That's John Romita Jr. (Dean White's marvelous coloring didn't hurt, either.)

The Avengers has sped up its release schedule for Fear Itself, so John Romita Jr. is alternating with Chris Bachalo. Chris Bachalo is similarly cartoony to Romita, but exacerbates the problems in the writing rather than covering for them. His style is unrestrained and hyperactive -two double-edged swords. When he was drawing Mike Carey's X-Men, I hated his work with a passion. The trouble was that with all those characters in each frame, each one practically yelling at you to look at it, I found many of the panels to be utterly unreadable. I don't mean that I just didn't enjoy it (though I didn't), I mean that I literally could not make out what was going on. It was too busy, too chaotic. Plus, he likes to use messy framing, like having a character falling off the sides of the panel, which -I'll admit it- is cool, but that on top of the chaos and the fact that all these characters and objects are calling your eye equally all together make for unreadable stories. He might just need a really good inker, I don't know. But I used to dislike his work, and then he did some Amazing Spider-Man where what he was drawing was generally simpler, and that was awesome. His redesign of the Lizard? Awesome. The Dark Avengers Annual he did with Bendis, where alien teenager Noh-Varr gets to know an Earth female his age? Awesome. Avengers #15, where Bachalo is called upon to draw scenes of chaos with lots of characters? An unqualified mess. He's the wrong artist for this.

To shake things up again, Bendis has been using a mockumentary talking-head style for the Fear Itself issues of both Avengers series. The conceit is that this is a continuation of the text back-ups Bendis was writing recently for the two comics, in which the Avengers gave their perspective on their history. (The interview reached the late 1970s, and then suddenly disappeared as Marvel decided backups weren't good business.) This format was entertaining in Avengers #13, and tedious by the next script. It's not original: both The Order and Guardians of the Galaxy series, Marvel series from the past few years, used talking heads extensively. And it's not very well-written, surprisingly. Take this monologue, for instance:
"I gave her an out and she didn't take it? From a Hulk fight? There's brave and there is stupid. Not sure which that was. We've all had those moments. Backing down doesn't even occur to you. It's only, like, a day later when you think about what you did. And then you start to shake. Just shake in fear."
That's supposed to be four different characters talking, in separate interviews edited together. It doesn't read like it.

I like the idea of the romance Bendis is building here. But the format's doing the story no favors.

2011, August 1st

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