About a year ago I gave the first two months of the webcomic
Bad Machinery a
review that could fairly be described as tepid.
It didn't seem like much of a departure from its predecessor, Scary Go
Round, for which I'd lost some of my enthusiasm. My chief complaint
about Scary Go Round was that creator John Allison had systematically
written out nearly all the remotely sensible, likeable characters (Tim,
Riley, Erin) and replaced them with obnoxious buffoons (Desmond Fish-Man,
Paul Milford, Carrot Scruggs). At the same time, de facto main character
Shelley went from
wide-eyed if slightly dotty
while Amy the spoiled brat and Ryan the dim slacker, formerly used as comic
foils for the more grounded characters, were forced into service as the
center of the proceedings. Scary Go Round had always been largely
an exercise in, as Allison put it, "glib nuttiness," and as I've mentioned
in both my articles on it (here's the first one),
the glibness was the main draw for me — ask me why I was still
reading Scary Go Round in 2009 and I will quote you a bunch of
dialogue from 2002. But it turns out that having a fondness for at least
some of the characters is also a big part of the equation, at least for me.
So I was encouraged to learn that Allison intended Bad Machinery to
represent a philosophical shift towards some "genuine human feeling for a
change." But after two months the project still seemed to be having some
trouble finding its way. Just as Scary Go Round had suffered toward
the end from a lack of diversity of character types, the Bad Machinery
cast seemed kind of samey — Shauna and Charlotte in particular
seemed to be just blonde and black-haired versions of Allison's stock
character. How were they different from Tessa and Rachel, or from Esther
and Sarah, or (more importantly) from each other? It also looked as though
history might be about to repeat itself: Scary Go Round had been
billed as a dramatic departure from Allison's previous comic, Bobbins,
but pretty soon the old cast had started to trickle back in and before long
they'd taken over. Bad Machinery was supposed to be about rival
teams of tween detectives, but as I wrote my '09 article it seemed to be
threatening to backslide into chronicling the further adventures of Ryan
and Amy. I closed my article by noting that while I was thus far not
especially impressed, the first few years of Scary Go Round had
earned John Allison a sizeable buy-in from me and so I'd give it my
three minutes a week for a while longer in hopes that it'd find its footing.
Bad Machinery recently wrapped up its second long chapter, "The
Case of the Good Boy," which ran from mid-April to the end of September.
And I am very pleased to report that it was great!
First off, my concerns about the characterization have been alleviated
completely. For one thing, I can tell Shauna and Charlotte apart now:
Shauna has developed into a wonderfully sympathetic heroine, responsible,
loyal, open-hearted, yet still good-naturedly snarky; Charlotte's the
sidekick, not necessarily incredibly mature, not necessarily incredibly
deep, but someone you like having around because she'll just blurt stuff
out. (The strips of July
5 do a great
job of nailing Charlotte down in a handful of panels.) It's an interesting
reversal, given that when the characters were introduced back in Scary Go
Round, Shauna was just the shrill little sister of a chav who gets into
a scrap with Desmond Fish-Man, while Charlotte's older sister was Sarah
Grote, who'd been kicking around since 2004 and was eventually promoted to
the primary cast, hanging out with Esther and Shelley. It's kind of strange
to look at the Shauna/Charlotte dynamic now and remember that less than two
years ago Sarah could quip that "my little sister is the only thing standing
between Shauna Wickle and motherhood at 14." But a big part of what makes
Shauna so lovable is how far she's come.
She's not the only one. In Scary Go Round, Shauna's mother was a
horror show straight off the set of Jerry Springer. In Bad
Machinery she's become, not a completely different person, but a
three-dimensional version of her SGR self. This is one of the
key differences between the two strips. Bad Machinery is still
basically a comedy, carried by Allison's off-kilter dialogue; it's still
full of wacky adventure, with wendigos and likhos and tie-wearing robots;
but it's also got little moments like
putting her arm around her distraught daughter and vouching for her
honesty to her good egg of a stepfather. I remember that back in the
Scary Go Round days I once complained on the site's message board
that Esther and the Boy, who were supposedly in love, seemed to do nothing
but bicker. This provoked a string of scornful replies from the regular
posters sneering that having them make boo-boo eyes at each other in
every strip would be a million times worse. But it's not like those are
the only two alternatives! Bad Machinery gives us relatives and
friends who actually seem to like each other — sure,
they tease each other, they make jokes, but they don't sound like insult
comics. Like, here's
Jack and his sister,
here's Mildred and her
dad, here's Shauna and
her baby brother... I might not laugh the way I did at some of the
classic SGR lines ("It started off explodey... and then it got
explodier!") but the affection that undergirds the world of Bad
Machinery gets me looking forward to my 9 p.m. trips to Tackleford
as much as I did during Scary Go Round's heyday.
For another type of character work on display in Bad Machinery, take
Linton. (Hrm, I guess there are slight spoilers coming up in this paragraph,
so consider yourself warned.) Initially Linton seemed like he was just
going to be the voice-of-reason character who would inevitably be packed off
to either hell or Wales. But then the comic hit its stride and we learned
that he's a little edgy about the fact that he's
discoveredgirls but they seem
not to have discovered him... which would be one thing if all the other
boys his age were in the same fix, but the girls all seem to swoon over
Jack. (Except for
We also get subtle hints that Linton's aware that the fact that
he's black in a not
particularly diverse area is one more obstacle to overcome where his future
dating prospects are concerned. The result is that jealousy prompts him to
start acting like a jerk — not in an over-the-top way, but just
in how his teasing goes too far, takes on a certain edge. Things eventually
come to a head... and Linton realizes that he's become a jerk, and reins it
in a little. Not so much as to become a completely different person, but
enough to show that he's got some self-awareness working in his favor. This
is exactly the sort of nuanced character work that Allison had suggested
would distinguish Bad Machinery from SGR. Maybe it took a
little bit of warming up before it kicked in, or maybe it just took me a
while to see it, but I think we can count this one as another promise
Finally, I want to say a little something about plot. One of the knocks
on Scary Go Round (that didn't usually bother me overmuch) was that
Allison didn't always plan things out very well — he'd end
stories on cliffhangers with no idea how to resolve them, or let them
just kind of peter out. Bad Machinery, by contrast, is plotted
out well in advance, with a strict three-act, 100-page format for each
chapter. One result of this decision is that you get a lot of
plot — I was going to diagram out the plot of "The Case of the
Good Boy," but in the interests of avoiding spoilers I'll just say that
I identified eleven separate plot threads that were interwoven in different
combinations to form the storyline. But another result was that Allison
was able to pull off one of my favorite tricks. At a climactic moment,
the day is saved by the sudden appearance of a particular character... and
the moment that character arrives, all of the hints foreshadowing that
appearance become retrospectively obvious. But at the time those hints
were dropped, they didn't even look like hints! What I had thought were
jokes for the sake of jokes were actually clues, a possibility that
never occurred to me even as I explicitly thought about the loose end in
the plot that they neatly tied up.
And having broached the subject of plotting, let's move on to...
The Avengers, The New Avengers,
The Mighty Avengers,
Dark Avengers, The Avengers v4,
The New Avengers v2
Brian Michael Bendis, 2004–
As the list above indicates, Brian Bendis has been the lead writer of the
Avengers family of comics for several years now. Bendis is known
for his dialogue, which brings the rat-a-tat-tat style of David Mamet and
Aaron Sorkin to a genre, superhero comics, better known for the purple prose
of Stan Lee and Chris Claremont. And it's not hard to see why Bendis has
received the acclaim he has, for he's often quite funny — in
particular, he writes some of the best Spider-Man lines you'll ever
read — and even when he's being serious the dialogue crackles
with that distinctive patter. But that's my problem with it. It's too
distinctive. Bendis is terrible at establishing a variety of different
voices. He gives the same verbal tics to every character. For instance,
there's the repetition. The repetition? The repetition. You
mean they repeat each other in conversation? I mean they repeat each
other in conversation and repeat themselves in monologue. Sometimes
the repetition takes the form of intensifiers. It absolutely takes the form
of intensifiers. And confirmations. It takes the form of confirmations.
It really does. And sometimes it—it—it takes the form of
stammering. These are just the most obvious tics, the ones on the surface.
There are other, larger-scale patterns that become apparent after you've
read more of Bendis's stuff. I won't catalogue them here, but just as an
example, his characters love to explain things to each other by laying out
these staccato you-are-there scenarios. Imagine you're reading a Bendis
Avengers comic. And you notice that Iron Man sounds like every other
Bendis character. And you notice that Captain America sounds like every
other Bendis character, except maybe a little shoutier. And you notice that
Thor sounds like every other Bendis character with a few archaic phrasings
thrown in. And you notice that the Wasp sounds like every other Bendis
character with maybe a pinch of Joss Whedon thrown in. And you notice that
Bendis sure does love using anaphora. Maybe this gets a little tiresome.
Maybe you start thinking about posting about this sometime.
Part of the relaunch of the Avengers titles has been a series of
text pieces by Bendis chronicling the history of the team. It's sort of
a prose version of a talking-heads documentary — a paragraph
from this character, a paragraph from that character. A sample:
Hank Pym: She bounced back.
Janet Van Dyne: I bounced back. I am a bouncer. I bounce.
Here's an early attempt at Thor:
Thor: I wasn't sure this gathering, brought together by fate, would
be strong enough to weather the storms of Hela. But I was wrong. And
glad to be so.
That's not too bad! Sounds kind of like the Thor I know, except maybe
for the "wasn't." But then, a month later:
Thor: I think I should have expressed to him then how much I
understood about what he was going through. I was going through the same
And a month and a half after that:
Thor: I was stuck back in Asgard. I don't think what was happening
there is for the ears of Midgard. I'm not sure how I could even describe
it to you.
Dude, where's Mjolnir? Keeping up a voice that isn't your own is so
And these are just the obvious examples. A lot of what makes Bendis's
dialogue so samey is almost subliminal — it's the same set of
tics, but they don't draw attention to themselves and it's only the
cumulative effect that makes them wear on you. I'm just going to pick
a random page and see what I find:
Clint Barton: It's hard to imagine. Actually, it's not hard to
imagine at all. [...] It was so embarrassing. To this day it embarrasses
the hell out of me.
[...] Steve Rogers: Some people, most people, never rise above their
circumstances. Most people use their circumstances as an excuse to act
in poor character.
[...] Jacques Duquesne: I know who Clint Barton is. I know what he is
and I know what he's capable of [...]
In The Avengers v4 #2 there's a bit in which a conversation
appears in a series of captions laid on top of fight scene, and I have no
idea who's speaking in any given box. Based on the above, you can probably
But I brought this up because I wanted to talk about plotting!
Remember, dialogue is supposed to be one of Bendis's strengths.
Even his defenders acknowledge that his plotting, by contrast, leaves
something to be desired. Bendis's stories have this sort of lurching pace
to them that's as distinctive as his dialogue. As an example, let's look
at one of his big storylines, "Avengers Disassembled"; spoilers follow:
So one day the Avengers are hanging out at the mansion, bantering in
Bendis fashion. "Janet, am I wrong? Is he being a pig?" "No, you are
not wrong. And yes, he is being a pig." Suddenly they are attacked
out of the blue. (This reminds me of the Champions campaigns
I played in back in high school, which tended to start, "So you're hanging
out at your headquarters when the
rings and a voice says, 'Fuck you! Let's fight!'") There's a big two-page
explosion followed by two pages of "what's going on?" Cut to the UN. Tony
Stark is giving a speech, then inexplicably flips out and starts an
international incident. He's ushered offstage by some other Avengers, who
then learn of the attack on the mansion. At the mansion, people are
standing around talking. There they are attacked again. Another two-page
explosion followed by two pages of pictures of wreckage. Robots attack.
She-Hulk flips out and starts punching robots and Avengers alike. That's
The other Avengers arrive from the UN and knock She-Hulk out. Cut to the
hospital. Some Avengers receive treatment. Others soliloquize. Still
others stand around and have a looooong Bendis conversation. "I think that
this was just a bad day that isn't over." "A bad day?" "Yeah, a really
bad day! We have extraordinarily bad days. This was—this was an
extraordinarily bad day." Iron Man gets insulted and flies away.
The others return to the mansion to find that pretty much every Avenger ever
is standing out front. That's issue two.
The dozens of Avengers stand around in front of the mansion and talk.
Suddenly they're attacked by Kree spaceships. Big chaotic fight while
various characters protest that this attack doesn't make sense. Hawkeye
goes berserk and gets killed, but takes down a big spaceship in the
process. The other Kree ships fly away, while the Avengers check out
the crashed one and see that it doesn't seem to be made right. Suddenly
Doctor Strange shows up to report that all of these attacks have been
magical in nature. That's issue three.
Flashback to a Bendis conversation between the Wasp and the Scarlet Witch
(which contradicts previous continuity, but whatever). Cut to the mansion,
which still has dozens of Avengers standing around in front of it. Doctor
Strange explains to them, in typical Bendis fashion, that the Scarlet Witch
is behind the attacks. They all continue to stand around and debate how
this could be true and what the implications are. Iron Man randomly returns
just in time for Doctor Strange to explain that everything that everything
that v3 of The Avengers ever said about the Scarlet Witch's powers
is wrong. He explains for a long time using a lot of speech balloons. Cut
to some time later, as the Avengers check in on the Scarlet Witch to find
that she's lost touch with reality. Big fight. Doctor Strange zaps her.
Magneto shows up and asks the Avengers to hand her over, which they do,
having no idea what he intends to do with her. "Magneto, where are you
taking her?" one asks as he flies away. No response. Maybe that was a
question to ask before meekly surrendering your beloved friend, in need of
intensive psychiatric care, over to a supervillain? In any case, that's
But that was years ago. What's Bendis been up to in 2010? Let's take a
quick peek at v4 of The Avengers:
Steve Rogers talks to many superheroes and puts an Avengers team back
together. They're hanging out at Avengers Tower, bantering in Bendis
fashion. Suddenly, Kang attacks! Thor bops him with his hammer! Kang
goes flying! Then Kang produces a device that Iron Man recognizes as
a super-weapon. Everyone stands around and talks about the device.
"It's a doomsday device." "You invented a device whose only purpose is
doom?" (That's Thor, by the way, in case you couldn't tell, which you
couldn't, because everyone sounds the same.) Kang talks at the Avengers
for several pages. He leaves. The Avengers talk amongst themselves for
several pages. End of issue one! (I'll spare you the rundown of the
issues that have followed. I figure you've got the point.)
You might protest that, hey, you could boil down any superhero comic
this way — it's basically all talking and fighting, right?
Well, let's see whether I can find a counter-example...
Adam Warren, 2007–
This one requires some explanation. I guess we can start with the creator.
Adam Warren is a writer/artist who first came to my attention for a demented
series called Livewires that starts with an amnesiac teenage girl
being driven somewhere by a Nebraska linebacker who's casually snacking on
something that turns out to be pieces of a robot. Warren is known for
straddling the line between Western comics and manga: his characters have
weirdly spherical faces and impossibly mobile mouths, but at least they
have lips to go with them. The story behind Empowered, as I
understand it, is that Warren found himself taking on a lot of commissions
for a tied-up, gagged superheroine in a tattered costume. Not the most
ennobling work, but it paid the bills. And then, apparently sharing my
affection for the redemption of the ludicrous
(Pattern 12), he decided to try making
something out of them. Who might this superheroine be? Why was she so
prone to getting captured? So he came up with some backstory. Her name
is Elissa Megan Powers. She came into possession of an superhero costume,
called a "hypermembrane," that grants her amazing powers when she wears it.
The only problem is that it's extremely fragile and winds up getting snagged
on things like loose nails and rosebushes, and as it gets increasingly
shredded, Elissa's powers sputter out. Hence her susceptibility to winding
up tied to a chair. Warren then wrote a few stories for her to star in that
mixed the fetish art for which she had been created with some not especially
sophisticated superhero parody — we learn that Elissa is an
associate member of a team called the Superhomeys, whose characters have
their silly names (Sistah Spooky, Capitan Rivet, etc.) written across the
fronts of their costumes, and so on in a Mad magazine vein. These
early stories are as much an art experiment as anything else, shot directly
from pencils; it seems like we might be looking at a case of "let me try
this style on my throwaway cheesecake project to see whether I might want
to use it on something serious."
And then Warren decided to redeem the ludicrous again and turn this
into something genuinely good.
Now, the first volume of Empowered is already good for what it is.
As Warren develops his world, he gives Elissa a boyfriend ("Thugboy,"
an emotionally supportive multiracial hunk and former minion-for-hire),
a best pal ("Ninjette," another supervillain who Elissa inspires to go
straight), and even a wacky neighbor (the "Caged Demonwolf," an eldritch
galactic conquerer whose essence Elissa captures in an alien artifact from
one of her previous adventures). At this point you've basically got a
sitcom. Warren describes it as "sexy superhero comedy," which is worth
taking a moment to unpack. Consider:
The bondage sequences in Empowered do nothing for me, and in
fact I tend to skim through them. It's just not my kink.
A lot of the first volume is about Elissa's sex life, and she and
Thugboy even have a fair amount of on-panel intercourse. But! Warren is
careful to frame everything in a TV-14 manner — strands of hair
strategically placed over nipples, etc. And the very knowledge that what
I'm looking at is censored short-circuits any porn potential these scenes
might have for me.
And yet, while I don't find them arousing, the sexy chapters do
indeed strike me as sexy, which is interesting. How does that work?
One thing I learned when I finally became sexually active at the age of
is that sex, in addition to being a biological imperative and an expression
of love and all those other things you hear about, is a way for couples to
dump a bunch of positive energy into their relationships and into their
lives. It's like reaching up into the sky, grabbing the dial marked
"GOODNESS OF THE WORLD," and giving it a healthy clockwise twist. And I
suspect that something similar happens in the arts. Add the sort of sex
that the folks in the audience consider fun, and you generate positive
energy even if they're not actually getting off on it. And, as with the
good vibes of friendship and familial affection in Bad Machinery,
that positive energy colors the readers' impression of other aspects of
the work. Banter becomes funnier than it would be out of context.
(Though the Caged Demonwolf is pretty amusing on his own. Elissa: "Gotta
go fight some non-cosmic evil... will you be okay, Planet-Raper?" Demonwolf
(watching a video): "Perhaps... if this wretched excuse for a director would
say something! You dare call this a 'DVD commentary track'?
Then try some commenting, you nonloquacious jackanapes!")
But volume two is something else again. It ends with a story called
"Fruity Flakes" that's more than just fun sitcom fluff. It's the sort
of thing that should interest anyone who's interested in the craft of
storytelling. It looks like Warren started from the premise, "What's
the best story I can tell given that the heroine has to spend most of
the running time bound and gagged? How can I make the story emotionally
moving, and Elissa authentically heroic, without cheating these initial
restrictions?" And, dang, he pulled it off. It's still funny, but at
the same time... if you can get through it without things getting a
little dusty, you are made of sterner stuff than I.
And this principle remains in effect as the series goes on: how good can
I make this without evading the underlying premises? How can I
tell goofy stories about a superheroine who fights bad guys like
"Chloroformaster" and evil organizations like "ARR" ("Advanced Restraint
Research"), and usually loses... but at the same time make those stories
notable for their incisive, nuanced character work? And, hey, while I'm
at it... can I also make this work as a superhero series and show off my
skills in that genre — conveying the wonder of people
doing miraculous things, digging deep into the implications of having
certain powers? The answer is "yes" more often than you'd think. Not
every story is a winner, but the ones at the end of each volume are
usually pretty fuckin' great. And that brings me to the one I want to
Volume five of Empowered ends with a story called "Say That I Deserve
This." I want to compare the plotting of this story to that of the Bendis
Avengers stories mentioned above. However, this is going to require
a fair amount of spoilage, which sucks because this story is wonderful and
I don't want to ruin it. So let me give you a chance to bail out, go read
Empowered (here are volumes
six), and come on back when you've read up to the end of v5.
Ready? 'kay, let's do this.
So there's this bad guy named Willy Pete, and despite the name, he's
seriously scary — he's a blazing fire elemental whose name is
military slang for white phosphorus, and his special gimmick is incinerating
people and then fucking their skulls.
Sistah Spooky (whom we will hereafter call Theresa, for that is her name)
has performed a divination spell and determined the time and place of Willy
Pete's next appearance; most of the heroes have a Joint Superteam Alliance
meeting to attend, but the doofus Major Havoc gathers a posse of B-listers
on the "d10," a satellite maintained by a powerful telepath called Mindfuck.
(Mindfuck — who "speaks" in mental blasts full of parenthetical
asides, for Warren, unlike Bendis, uses different speech patterns for
different characters — is Theresa's ex-girlfriend, and we've
already learned a fair amount about her horrifying backstory. We love
Mindfuck.) From the satellite, the heroes open a portal and beam down
to ambush Willy Pete — keeping it open in case they need to
make a quick escape, and leaving Elissa behind, for she is deemed
too lame to be of any help. Mindfuck attempts to telepathically console
Elissa and guides her up to the bridge, whose seats have been patched
together with duct tape — budget cuts, y'know. Havoc has
Mindfuck scan the area for strange minds... the heroes on the scene debate
how Willy Pete might arrive (fly? erupt from underground?)...
WHROOM. He basically nukes them. From the satellite, Mindfuck feels
her colleagues die as Elissa watches on the monitor (until Willy Pete
decides to fuck the camera-bot. "Hell, why not?" he reasons. "Ol' Willy
Pete ain't th' choosiest fucker around, after all...") Mindfuck
scans him and discovers that his mind is a kludge of AI fragments... and
as she does, he discovers the open portal, and starts pouring the heat of
the sun into the satellite. Five pages of trying to close the portal ensue;
eventually Mindfuck has to shut down all systems, and she and Elissa
are stuck on a dead space station that, due to the damage, is dropping out
of orbit — and it was already in a low orbit (budget cuts,
y'know). Now they have to travel to the emergency portal on the other side
of the station, and with most of the inside turned to wreckage, the only
way to get there is by running along the exterior hull. Suddenly the
depressurization reaches the bridge and Mindfuck is knocked out, her
spacesuit damaged. The artificial gravity malfunctions, kicking into
overdrive. Elissa is on her own and can barely stand up.
Priority one is to fix Mindfuck's suit. Solution: duct tape! Next, with
Mindfuck strapped to her back, Elissa struggles to the nearest hull breach,
making jokes to herself along the way to keep from thinking about how
terrified she is. She makes it out... and there's the Earth, and it's so
beautiful from space... oh yeah, and deadly, once the satellite hits the
atmosphere. Gotta keep moving... and then she hits a pocket of even
stronger artificial gravity... can't walk, can barely crawl... and with
frozen tears dripping from her eyes, she begs — in a plea that
touches at the very core of her character — "Please... don't...
don't let me die h-helpless and on my fucking KNEES...!"
—and it turns out that in moments like these, it's helpful to have
an awakening telepath on your back who can tweak your emotions and give you
the courage to go on. As Elissa carries Mindfuck the rest of the way to
the airlock, Mindfuck relates how she had to edit her own cognosphere to
keep herself from becoming the psychopath she otherwise would have been,
and gives Elissa some insight into herself along the way. Eventually
they reach the portal, and Mindfuck reveals that... well, at this point I
think I have enough example material to make the points I want to make and
won't ruin the entire thing for you. I'll just say that I've taken
you from page 151 to page 177, and while they're terrific, pages 190-193
are, as Mike D'Angelo once wrote in another context, "not just 'great,'
not merely a masterpiece. Perfect."
Now let's look at that plot.
Note the paucity of scenes of people standing around and talking. A lot
of information in this story is, in fact, conveyed verbally —
but that happens at the same time as other things. Warren has
Mindfuck tell Elissa about her self-directed neural photoshopping while
they're scrambling for the airlock; Bendis has Strange tell the Avengers
about Wanda's reality photoshopping while they're all standing around like
they're posing for the team photo. I'm not going to say that one approach
is always better than the other — sometimes you really do want to
focus the audience's attention on one channel. Read this backstory! Don't
do anything else! Okay, now watch this fight! Don't do anything else! But
it generally makes for a richer experience when the story is unfolding on
several channels at once. To learn about a character's past while following
important events in the present, say.
In addition to communicating through multiple channels simultaneously, a
good plotter often makes story elements serve multiple purposes. Take
the bit about the duct-taped upholstery on the d10. It's a joke in a
series, and a story, full of them (and, incidentally, one of the things I
love about "Say That I Deserve This" is that it's a great example of
Pattern 13, "comedy and tragedy can and
should coexist"). But it also introduces the cost-cutting that ends up
playing a huge role in the plot (I mentioned the low orbit, meant to save
on transportation expenses, but cost-cutting also plays a big role in the
drama at the backup portal) and the duct tape that both serves as a running
bit in the series (it'd have to be, wouldn't it?) and becomes a plot point
when Mindfuck's spacesuit gets damaged. That's a lot of heavy lifting for
what seems like a perfunctory joke! But most of the jokes are more than
just jokes. When Elissa discovers that her suit can stick to the
satellite's outer hull and she mutters that it figures "that one of my
powers would wind up being extreme clinginess," it's supposed to be funny,
but it's also a character moment — the single biggest theme in
Empowered is insecurity, and here's Elissa lending weight to that
by being insecure about her insecurity. When Elissa, trying to talk
herself into trusting that her costume will protect her from the vacuum
of space, puts on the bad Southern accent she attempts way back in volume
one, it's supposed to be funny, but it's also a reminder that we and Elissa
have been through a lot together over the last several hundred pages and
makes us feel closer to her. "The Case of the Good Boy" does the same sort
of thing — in one strip there's a joke about one of Mildred's
drawings that seems like just an offhand quip, but it later turns out to
be a huge plot point. Bendis's jokes, by contrast, are often quite funny...
but they're just jokes. Again, I'm not saying that's bad. I like jokes
that are just there for the sake of having more jokes. The jokes in my
own stories very rarely serve to further the plot. But then, I don't
really consider myself a great plotter, which is why this article has gone
on so long — analyzing the work of someone like Adam Warren who's
better at it than I am is instructive.
Also worthy of note is just now seamless the transitions between sequences
in "Say That I Deserve This" are. Willy Pete's ambush of the ambushers
leads directly to his attack on the space station. His attack leads to
the sequence in which Mindfuck tries to shut down the portal and ends up
having to take the entire station offline. The station being offline
is the next problem that must then be overcome, as Elissa and Mindfuck have
to bail out before it breaks apart. The fact that it's breaking apart leads
to Mindfuck being knocked out of commission, and another puzzle sequence as
Elissa has to figure out how to fix her suit. The solution is duct tape,
but having Mindfuck duct-taped to her back makes Elissa really have to tap
her inner resources to overcome the artificial gravity inside the satellite.
And so on. Each sequence is satisfying as a moment in itself, with a
beginning, a middle, and an ending, but since the resolution of each problem
presents the beginning of the next, there are no big fault lines between
these moments. The same cannot be said of Bendis's work, which —
and I'm not just talking about Avengers here, but Powers as
well — is paced like stop-and-go traffic. You have scenes of
violent pandemonium, full of people shouting, "What is this?" "What's
happening?", and then when they end, it leads to... nothing in particular.
People standing around trying to figure out what just happened and what they
should do next. Spending pages hashing it over. And then suddenly, out of
nowhere — eeeagh! another surprise attack! "What the hell just
happened?!" "Oh man, what NOW?"
And observe how the moments that Warren strings together give the characters
a variety of things to do. Think about it in terms of the basic conflicts
that you learn in eighth-grade English class: man vs. man, man vs. nature,
man vs. society, man vs. himself. Mindfuck and Elissa trying to fend off
Willy Pete's attack? Women vs. man (or women vs. synthetic man-shaped
entity, anyway). Mindfuck succeeds in blunting the attack via a Gordian
knot solution. Next comes the challenge of getting out of the space
station: call that women vs. nature (using "nature" here as metonymy for
any sort of danger posed by one's physical surroundings). That leads to
another puzzle, and this time Elissa has to solve it, which she does in a
different way: not a Gordian knot, this time, but a repurposing of a
previously introduced item (the duct tape). Onward to the artificial
gravity well, in which there's no problem to solve — it's a
matter of summoning the inner strength to
Woman vs. herself. (Though she has help, which we can categorize as a third
type of solution: creative use of superpower.) Hell, you even get woman vs.
society in some of Elissa's quips to herself. All that in 15 pages!
And what do we get from Bendis? Again, there's not much in the way of
creativity on the characters' part — it's generally just talking
and fighting. In the current Avengers arc the team splits up, and
one half lands in a cave and stands around with a bunch of other characters
talking while the other half ends up in a chaotic war zone fighting.
Bendis's fight scenes generally consist of a lot of pointless running around
until the heavy hitter can deliver the big zap, followed by some dialogue
like, "Hey, Iron Man, why didn't you do that when this guy first showed up?"
"Oh, it takes my armor three minutes to charge up." Iron Man was
actually the first comic I collected, back when Denny O'Neil was writing it.
Check out those Chessmen issues sometime (#163-165). They're a lot closer
to Warren than to Bendis. Iron Man defeats the bad guys not by waiting for
his armor to charge up, but by being observant, figuring out his opponents'
weak points, and identifying what to zap. These issues would
actually translate well to interactive fiction (and indeed some bits in
Lock & Key
were cribbed from Iron Man #165). These stories, almost thirty
years old now, have a bit of a rough surface to a modern reader... but the
bones are really solid. Whereas a Bendis comic might make for a slicker
read, but the underlying structure leaves a lot to be desired. And when a
story works on both levels, like "Say That I Deserve This" — man,
then you've really got something.