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Dark Avengers Annual #1

Posted: Tuesday, December 1, 2009
By: Dave Wallace

Brian Michael Bendis
Chris Bachalo (p), Antonio Fabela and Chris Bachalo (colours)
Marvel Comics
Editor's Note: Dark Avengers Annual #1 arrives in stores Thursday, December 3.

The first Dark Avengers Annual shines a spotlight on the character of Marvel Boy, a.k.a. Noh-Varr, the Kree teenager first introduced to Marvel Comics in the pages of Grant Morrison's Marvel Boy miniseries.

I say "first introduced to Marvel Comics" rather than "first introduced to the Marvel Universe" because that debut miniseries saw Noh-Varr explore an alternate Marvel Universe that was similar to the regular MU, but slightly different--thus giving Morrison a certain amount of freedom to experiment with characterisation and concepts that wouldn't have fit in within the confines of the regular Marvel Universe quite so easily.

In the months and years that have passed since then, however, we've gradually seen the character stealthily integrated into the mainstream Marvel Universe. An appearance in the Civil War: Young Avengers/Runaways crossover series paved the way for Brian Michael Bendis's use of the character in his New Avengers: Illuminati miniseries--and, later, the Secret Invasion event. Over the course of this gradual integration (which has culminated in the character's presence as a member of Bendis's Dark Avengers), we've seen Morrison's original conception of Marvel Boy gradually eroded to the point at which he barely seems to even be the same character any more.

That general sense that Marvel Boy has changed into a completely different character to the one created by Morrison is made more concrete with this story, in which Bendis apparently gets to put Noh-Varr in the position that he's been building towards for so long. Not only is it an disappointing and derivative new status quo for the character who once embodied the spirit of irreverence and genuine change, but the way in which we get there is pretty weak, too.

The crux of this story--that Noh-Varr has only just realised that Norman Osborn might not be the altruistic hero that he claims to be, and that some of his Dark Avengers might just be slightly unstable villains--instantly undermines it, making Marvel Boy appear extremely naïve and foolish. This impression is further reinforced by Noh-Varr's stilted conversations with a girl that he meets, which reinforce the character's alien nature and other-worldiness in one of the most cliché ways possible: by having him talk about how difficult it is to understand why humans act the way that they do, and how all he wants to do is make the world a better place.

Perhaps if you've never read a story involving Marvel Boy before--or if you only have experience of Bendis's take on the character--this might be more palatable. But for those of us with fond memories of the original Marvel Boy series, the confused ramblings of this emo outcast are a long way from "welcome to the capital city of the new Kree empire"--and Bendis just hasn't accomplished the character development that would be necessary in order to make the transition from there to here feel like a natural one.

It's not just Bendis's take on the character that feels ill-fitting, either. Without giving too much away, the evolution that Noh-Varr undergoes over the course of this issue feels like a huge step backwards for the character, stripping him of his most unique elements and turning him into an imitation of a pre-existing Marvel superhero. It makes me wonder why Marvel decided to reveal this pre-existing character as a Skrull impostor in the first place, if they were only planning to replace him with a half-baked imitation that requires the sacrifice of one of their most promising new characters to accomplish. Is it a case of slavish devotion to the mantra of "no change, only the illusion of change"? Or could there be more practical business reasons for the change (for example, to allow Marvel to retain a version of the pre-existing character without having to pay his creator royalties for using him)? I'm genuinely stumped.

On top of this, the final insult is a surprise eleventh-hour cameo that spoils the ending of one of Marvel's other current Big Event Comics (you know, the one that's actually pretty good, because it's telling a story that has grown organically out of a long-running and carefully-constructed narrative, rather than being clunkily forced on characters that don't support it). So if you're reading Captain America: Reborn and want to preserve some sense of suspense and intrigue, I'd advise you to skip this issue (at least until Reborn has concluded).

Oh, and did I mention that this disappointing issue costs $5?

With all this negative criticism in mind, you may be wondering why this book has received 2 bullets rather than 1. Well, that extra bullet is due to the artwork of Chris Bachalo, an artist who has provided some excellent work over the past year (including some fantastic segments in Bendis's own New Avengers), and whose visuals remain equally strong here.

From the moody black-and-white imagery of the first few pages to the explosive, dynamic action sequence splash pages to the more intimate moments that are confined in smaller grids (and which feel reminiscent of Bachalo's excellent work on Neil Gaiman's two Death miniseries), the artwork succeeds in creating a sense of atmosphere and mood that elevates the story from poor to merely below-average.

The only weak spot is the new look that Noh-Varr gets to accompany his new status quo. I guess that Marvel is not only intent on tossing out Morrison's original characterisation of Marvel Boy, but also the great costume design of JG Jones. Its replacement is, to put it mildly, pretty terrible: not only is Noh-Varr physically unrecognisable (the costume seems to grant him a completely different height, build, and chin), but the design feels pretty uninspired, too. Whilst I could imagine some artists with a bold style (such as John Romita Jr.) making the design look half-decent, I can't see this going down in history as one of Marvel's better costume ideas.

Like everything else that we've seen since the original Marvel Boy miniseries, this book seems like a short-term fix that's designed to push the character into a new status quo that will best serve Marvel's upcoming crossover--after which he'll doubtless be reconfigured yet again, depending on the needs of the next big event.

It puts me in mind of the similar path that has been taken by the character of the Sentry, who was also reintroduced into the Marvel Universe by Bendis but has yet to achieve his potential. Instead, he's been squandered on storylines that promise real development, but never actually do enough with the character to justify bringing him back in the first place. The fact that the Sentry makes a guest-appearance in this issue only serves to reinforce the parallel between the two characters, and their pointless, anticlimactic and ultimately unresolved fight feels like a metaphor for Bendis's approach to these once-interesting characters.

In reading back over this review, I've realised that I might sound as though I'm opposed to the idea of successful, distinctive new characters being appropriated by other writers to be used in ways that their original creators didn't foresee or intend. That isn't the case. However, I am opposed to the notion of taking successful, distinctive new characters and using them badly, blunting their edges to such an extent that they're not really the same character any more, solely for the purposes of fueling a secondary subplot in a contrived crossover "event" comic.

Unfortunately, that's exactly what this Dark Avengers Annual does--and the fact that it costs $5 just feels like an extra slap for Marvel Boy fans who were looking forward to one of their favourite characters being given some special attention.







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