May 2015

Matt Terl

fiction

Avengers: Rage of Ultron by Rick Remender, Jerome Opeņa, Pepe Larraz, and Mark Morales

Marvel Comics has a problem.

Not the moving pictures arm of the company, Marvel Studios. They're doing just fine, having recently churned out a critically acclaimed, fan-pleasing Netflix series about yet another character from their enormous stable, and will presumably be finer when the Avengers sequel opens to likely enormous numbers this month.

But, somewhat ironically, it's exactly that movie success that's causing problems for the comics arm. Because there's a feeling -- free-floating in discussions about the industry, if not officialized as Marvel Comics company policy -- that the comics aren't drawing nearly enough of the eyeballs (and wallets) that are making the movies such a success.

(For reference, the top-selling non-Star Wars comic in March 2015 was a Guardians of the Galaxy spinoff, which sold an estimated 155,388 copies. The top-selling Avengers-related comic was an issue of Thor, which sold an estimated 70,569 copies, according to comichron.com. These estimates are notoriously vague, don't include the ever-increasing digital sales numbers or non-US sales, and are based on copies ordered, not sell-through at the retailer level. But still, it's a ballpark.)

There are a number of theories as to what the gap is -- why people who happily accept superhero fights-and-tights in the movies and on TV aren't rushing to check out the source material -- but one of them involves the insane quagmire that is monthly comics publishing and continuity.

If you were to go see the new Avengers movie on opening day, then head straight to a comic book store in a white-hot blaze of comic-book-y enthusiasm and buy the most recent issues of the main Avengers titles (assuming you could figure out that Avengers and New Avengers were the main books), you'd be rewarded with stories from the very tail end of a sprawling, 60-plus issue interconnected narrative that's relied on repeated scenes, direct callbacks to events that were elided in earlier installments, and a deliberate sense of ominous dread and misery.

Those books would also feature a totally different roster of heroes from what you're familiar with from the movie, and the heroes you do recognize would be drastically different from their Hollywood incarnations. And they'd cost about $4 for a 22-ish-page comic.

None of this is ideal, but neither is stagnating the publishing lines to sync up with the movies. It's a quandary, and one that Marvel has tried multiple approaches to resolve. One of those approaches is Original Graphic Novels, or OGNs, which tell a standalone (but in-comics-continuity!) story with characters more familiar to the mainstream audience, in a larger, sturdier, $20+ hardback format.

Marvel has put popular, accessible creators on these books, and tried to tie them into events in the monthly comics without making those comics essential background reading. It's a noble effort, and so far it has resulted in a series of largely underwhelming books. Avengers: Rage of Ultron is one of the latest of those, and -- as tends to happen with these things -- it falls between stools.

Writer Rick Remender has been chronicling the ongoing story of a "unity" team combined of characters from the X-Men and the Avengers in a series called Uncanny Avengers since October 2012. (These are separate characters -- and a wholly separate storyline -- from the ones in Avengers and New Avengers.) He has a solid handle on the characters here and a good grasp on how to tell an accessible, readable superhero story in the bombastic mold of mid-1980s Marvel, updated to modern sensibilities.

His artists on this book, Jerome Opeņa and Pepe Larraz, are similarly well cast. They do detailed, cinematic work without ever forgetting that they're not actually making a movie. At their best moments, they manage to combine fine detail work and effective storytelling with the kind of energy and imagination that belongs on the side of a van or on the cover of an Iron Maiden or Mastodon album.

And the story itself is, indeed, a rock-solid superhero romp, which starts at an undefined earlier time in Avengers history before jumping to the present day. It features something like 14 major characters, dozens and dozens of minor characters, and the latest return of the titular villain (who is also the antagonist in the similarly-named Avengers movie this summer). It takes a large-scale threat with a palpable sense of menace and grafts onto it themes of fatherhood and responsibility, artificial intelligence vs. natural intelligence, and the nature of heroism. It manages to give a surprising number of its characters personal stakes in the fight, beyond the whole "not wanting to be destroyed and/or absorbed into a killer robot" thing. And it gleefully engages in comic-book-scale lunacy. It is, in short, a perfectly excellent Marvel superhero comic, if that's what you're looking for.

But it falls down in the ways that it might have moved beyond that. It isn't ideal for our imaginary just-saw-the-movie straw man, because it's an Ultron with a very different origin than in the movie -- and that origin is what drives the entire action of the plot, as well as most of the themes, straight through to the (somewhat open-ended) ending. If you aren't invested in a multi-phased Oedipal narrative between a robot and his creator that has stretched over hundreds of stories published across 40+ years, an alarming amount of this book will be gibberish.

(The book's introduction, by star comic book writer Kurt Busiek -- who also had a long run writing the Avengers, including a memorable Ultron storyline -- tries to recap some of this, but it's barely a sufficient grounding for the investment the story hopes for.)

At the same time, it isn't ideal for the more continuity-bound comic reader, either, as there are significant story elements that don't seem to quite track with that established 40+ year history, which are all too detailed and fussy to go into here, but that kept making themselves known as little minor hitches in the story's flow. And that $24.99 price point is a bit of a stumbling block as well.

In the end, Rage of Ultron doesn't help Marvel solve their comics problem. It's possible that nothing will. But if all their efforts result in superhero comics as well executed as this one, it'll at least be entertaining to watch them try.

Avengers: Rage of Ultron by Rick Remender, Jerome Opeņa, Pepe Larraz, and Mark Morales
Marvel
ISBN: 978-0785190400
112 pages