When I first set about acquiring collected editions of “most favored” funnybooks, John Byrne’s year-long stint on West Coast Avengers/Avengers West Coast was near the top of my wantlist.
The run was controversial as it unfolded and remains so among segments of fandom who still give a flying fart about thirty year old superhero stories. It kicked off with Johnny B’s radical reboot of The Vision — making him blander and literally less colorful than before — and tragic breakdown of the Scarlet Witch after losing her synthezoid husband, magical twin toddlers, and ultimately her sanity. These plot threads were supposedly in service to an impending confrontation with the time-manipulating Immortus, but Byrne abruptly quit the book before making good on his various tantalizing set-ups. (The biggest one was left dangling for a decade before getting an overdue but somewhat satisfying resolution in 1999’s Avengers Forever.)
The run came to symbolize a creative M.O. which Byrne had started with Fantastic Four and Hulk and continued with the Superman titles — crash the status quo, float some intriguing subplot seeds, then depart in a fit of fanzine-rumored pique, tossing the mess in the laps of whichever poor stiffs got yanked into to replace him. His quitting WCA was a turning point in my Byrne fandom. It would be the last funnybook run I bought based on his solely on his creative presence.
Yet though I agree with all of the usual criticisms of Byrne’s stint on the series, I still hold a great deal of affection for it. It’s frustrating and frequently grotty in the extreme…
…but it also brought an intriguing perspective on the West Coast Avengers and super-team books in general.
The run followed up and expanded the free-form team dynamic Byrne had played around with in Alpha Flight, with an extra dollop of soap-operatic subplotting. No one is going to confuse these comics for Watchmen, but there’s a refreshing faith that the reader can keep up with the odd narrative structure without constant callbacks or exposition dumps. There’s a definite sense that things were heading some place (or places), so all the cryptic teasers and tangents will be made clear in time. It was infuriating when that — or Byrne’s broader plans for the Avengers franchise — didn’t materialize, but it doesn’t make the lead-up any less interesting.
Besides, any protracted story arc which features Mole Man’s giant monster, the U-Foes, and the return of the original Human Torch can’t be a complete failure.
Historically speaking, the run is of a set with Justice League International and the “Five Years Later” LSH relaunch. All three attempted different spins on the prevailing X-template for superteam series, and all three failed at sustaining their initial appeal over the long haul.
Honestly, though, the above fumbling towards critical analysis only partially explain my love for these comics. The actual reason is much more personal in nature.
My mom died on the last day of November 1988. I didn’t have proper clothes for her funeral, so a good portion of the week afterward was spent clothes shopping with my aunt and uncle as they scoured the Greater Boston retail circuit for dress pants that would fit me. One of the malls we visited had a Waldenbooks with a spinner rack of new comics. The first issue of Byrne’s WCA run was there, so I picked it up.
Reading it was a strange experience, because I kept thinking about the preview I’d seen for in a previews flyer. It had only been a couple of months before, but if felt like a lifetime ago. The start of the run coincided with the whole new chapter of my life, which carried no small amount symbolic heft in my grief-addled psyche.
I stuck with the series until Byrne’s departure a year later, picking up each new issue at New England Comics during our Saturday visits with my father in Boston. The comics — and my anticipation for the next installment of the story — were a rare constant in a stretch of time when the changes came fast and furious.
I don’t want to to put too much sentimental weight on these comics, because they’re not equipped to support it. But they were a “thing,” they way random issues of White Dwarf magazine were a thing and the Clash’s first album was a thing and Phantasy Star was a thing and the Earthsea trilogy was a thing. They were a bunch of fixtures I gravitated toward and genuinely loved because they offered a welcome distraction at a painful moment in time.
Though looking back on Wanda’s implied non-consensual hand job and Wonder Man’s mega-mullet, I wonder if I was just swapping one set of traumas for another.