Armagideon Time

Trade-In: Buzz kill

January 23rd, 2020

I’m not a fan of the “Marvel cinematic universe,” but I do appreciate how the films have guided the publisher’s choice of reprint material. Absent a tenuous association with a multi-billion dollar media franchise, it’s hard to imagine a dedicated trade collection of the Avengers’ “Trial of Yellowjacket” arc.

Spanning Avengers #212 to #230, the run covers Hank Pym’s disastrous return to the team’s roster. A desperate need to prove himself to his teammates on his first outing back leads to a court-martial, spousal abuse, a divorce, a frame-up by a former nemesis, prison time, and abduction by said nemesis and his supervillain henchfolk.

It was pretty heavy shit back in the day, at least as far as the Avengers franchise went — which is a pretty low bar, if I put aside nostalgic affection in favor of an honest assessment. The run is essentially Marvel’s then-EIC Jim Shooter doing his own take on the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” At few points, it almost hits that level of emotional intensity. At most others, it does not.

The collection also provides a glimpse at what passed for “longform storytelling” outside the X-Men and a few years before Watchmen turned the concept — as it applied to superhero material — on its ear. The core of Pym’s tale takes up roughly a quarter of the total page count, and only hugs the rails during the first and final three issues contained in the collection. The rest is doled out in drips and drabs between inventory tales and other digressions spanning done-in-one throwdown with Ghost Rider, the “final” fate of Drax the Destroyer, and Black Knight’s return to the modern era. In the meantime, Tigra leaves the team, She-Hulk and a new Captain Marvel join up, and Hawkeye makes an overdue return to the roster.

The issues weren’t really intended to be binge-read in a single afternoon, but on a month to month basis where any roughness in transitions and pacing might be overlooked in the gaps between installments. It wasn’t “making shit up as we go along” as much as working within the realities of a disposable serialized medium — grab readers in the now and throw in enough hooks to keep them coming back. Stick the landing and their imaginations will order a greater whole from the sum of the individual parts.

It’s a workable — if archaic by contemporary standards — narrative model, but it stumbles here for a few significant reasons. The beginning is at odds with the ending in some extremely problematic and grotesque ways. Pym’s heel turn is incredibly abrupt and devoid of any build-up outside of a handful of past incidents. The character did have a history of insecurity and instability, but the outburst which set the chain of events into motion kicked in with zero subtlety and no foreshadowing in his most recent previous appearances. He goes from zero to teeth-gnashing supervillainy in the space of two issues. Imagine Phoenix popping out of Jamaica Bay and shouting “NOM NOM NOM! X-MEN! I’M HUNGRY, SO POINT ME TO THE NEAREST STAR TO EXPLODE! OH YEAH,” and you’ve got a close analogue to Pym’s behavior.

“Unsubtle” doesn’t begin to describe it, and yet Shooter and company decided to push it even further with the most infamous moment of Pym’s career —

— socking his spouse — a.k.a. the wondrous Wasp — in the face when she objects to his absurd plan to derail his court-martial with a false flag killer robot attack.

Shooter would later claim the blow wasn’t intended to be as forceful, but got regrettably upscaled thanks to the Marvel method of having artists work from summaries instead of full scripts. Besides the shady move of throwing Bob Hall under the bus, it doesn’t jibe with the fact that a major beat of the issue involves Wasp removing a pair of sunglasses to reveal the black eye she’d sustained, to the horror of her and Pym’s teammates. I’m not sure how that would work with a mild slap or shove, or anything short of a heavy blow to the face.

Honestly, the sequence ended up as it did because superhero material isn’t exactly restrained when it comes to depicting physical violence. In a realm where punches and kicks send combatants sailing through the air, it stands to reason that a backhand to the face would come off like something out of a heavyweight championship match. It cuts to the heart of my problem with the scene, which is that certain subjects really aren’t suited for the broad strokes of the genre — at least not without a fuckton of really, really, REALLY careful consideration before the pen remotely approaches the page.

Even the most generous assessment I can offer is that it feels like a cringeworthy four-color incarnation of a “very special episode.” It simply doesn’t really work as intended, and wasn’t even necessary from a narrative standpoint. Pym’s scenery-chewing mania was enough to get the job done in terms of getting booted from the Avengers and wrecking his marriage. The physical abuse was an awkward attempt at added gravitas which ended up casting a grotty shadow over the rest of the arc.

From the moment Wasp tells Pym she’s filing for divorce and calls him out for referring to her black eye as a “shiner” — a “cute” term for the product of an ugly action — Pym switches from manic heel to an object of cultivated pity. His downward spiral is genuinely tragic, as he finds himself boxed in and taken advantage of by a former arch-foe, leading to imprisonment for treason and abducted to work on said foe’s latest evil scheme. By the same token, his efforts to set things right and regain a measure of self-respect make you root for the poor bastard.

There’s a really poignant bit at the end where Pym and the Wasp wish each other well in their lives and regret things turned out they way they did. It’s an absolutely heartbreaking moment, if not for the whole wife-beating thing hanging over it all like a toxic cloud. Bad starts can lead to decent ends, but truly awful ones can taint the entire journey regardless of eventual outcome.

That’s where I stand on this particular Avengers arc, and yet it continues to be one of my favorite stretches of Avengers comics. The concluding issues marked the debut of the Stern’s long run as Avengers scribe, where he built upon some of the better parts of the “Trial of Yellowjacket” (such as turning the post-divorce Wasp into a confident and competent team leader). The new Captain Marvel was a fine addition to the team, and She-Hulk was rescued from quarter bin joke fodder and given a chance to showcase her potential. (I liked her later stint in Byrne’s Fantastic Four run, but preferred the take-no-shit bluntness she expressed during her Avenging days.)

Egghead’s incarnation of the Masters of Evil is one of my all time favorite supervillain teams, mainly because it was a collection of work-for-hire jobbers pulled from various corners of the Marvel Universe. Under Stern’s direction, they functioned as a dysfunctional counterpart to the Avengers, with all the personality clashes but none of the loyalty and camaraderie. Egghead himself was a nice spin on the old arch-villain template, a witty and devious schemer who’d abandoned plans for global conquest in favor of a super-science get-rich-quick scheme run out of a secret lair under his suburban home.

And, honestly, I really did appreciate the (temporary) conclusion of Hank Pym’s superheroic career. Here was a character dating back to the dawn of the Marvel’s Silver Age, a founding member of the Avengers who’d worn multiple hats and struggled to stay relevant, who finally realized he simply wasn’t cut out for the costumed adventuring life…even if it took a colossal fuck-up to finally make him realize that. It was novel and thought-provoking stuff, especially to my tweener self back in those pre-Watchmen days.

I just wish that non-superheroic journey included 100% less spousal abuse.

3 Responses to “Trade-In: Buzz kill”

  1. CalvinPitt

    I didn’t get into comics until after this was over, so my introduction to Pym was during Engelhart’s West Coast Avengers run, where Hank seemingly hadn’t fully reconciled himself to not being a costumed crimefighter. Enough that getting taunted by frickin’ Whirlwind helped push him to the point of putting a gun to his head. I’ve always liked cargo suit “scientist adventurer” Pym, because it seems like the less he relies on punching things, the better off he is.

  2. Moonrock

    Just like Calvin above, I didn’t get introduced to him until his “Dr. Pym” phase in West Coast Avengers. Finding out more about him via back issues (especially all those Marvel Triple Actions that used to fill up quarter bins), I came to see how he useless and redundant he became as Yellowjacket. Why did the Avengers need two people who shrunk to insect size with mild energy zaps? I thought he was more a vital part of the team as Goliath and really liked that blue & gold costume.

  3. Adam Ford

    Thanks for the thoughtful review. I was just the right kind of adolescent for all of the gravitas in these issues to hit me in the sweet spot. I’m on board with all of the criticism of the skeeviness and cack-handedness, but still fond in a way. Did you see Tim Seeley’s Ant-Man and the Wasp mini from a while back, with Hank in his Wasp guise? I thought it went some way toward continuing his redemptive arc. I always like the b-listers who are vulnerable to dramatic change – they end up with lives less prone to repetition and reset.

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