Book Marx: New Avengers: Breakout

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When Clark Kent wears a fake pair of glasses, no one recognizes him as Superman. When Bruce Banner changes into the Hulk, his shorts (and only his shorts, for some reason) stretch to fit his monstrous shape.

Comic book fans know there are certain inconsistencies in superhero fiction that have to be accepted for the sake of the story. Obviously people don’t fly invisible planes and wield lie-detecting lassos. If someone bangs a stick on the ground, it’s not going to change into a Norse God’s hammer. Fantasy always requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Even so, there has to be a balance between the fantastic elements and common sense.

If a fictional world operates the same as the real one (with a few exceptions – unicorns or wizards or radioactive spiders, for example), it’s much easier for readers to fall under an author’s spell. J.R.R. Tolkien did a massive amount of preparation before writing his “Lord of the Rings” masterpiece. Narnia would long since have been forgotten if C.S. Lewis hadn’t created a universe impossibly different and yet comfortingly similar to our own. If people hadn’t been able to identify completely with Harry, a child surrounded by the mythical and the magical, J.K. Rowlings would still be unknown.

It’s a delicate balance. Once the spell is broken, it’s almost impossible for an author to regain a reader’s confidence. People can accept Clark Kent’s anonymity, for instance. But if Wonder Woman strolls into his workplace and tells him in front of his co-workers that she needs his help, it becomes much more difficult to believe no one has figured out his true identity. Common sense and logic has to be used to make the unbelievable believable, or the entire house of cards collapses.

For all its perceived flaws, I thought Brad Meltzer’s “Identity Crisis” was an excellent series. Meltzer delivered a strong and compassionate mystery that stood on its own while introducing a wealth of possibilities to explore. The first six issues were touching, thought-provoking, and horrifying in equal measures. Since I don’t know much about DC’s mainstream characters, I wasn’t troubled by any continuity or characterization problems that other readers might have found.

But then I read the last issue, and it destroyed the entire series for me. I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but even I recognize a clunky cliché when I read one. Choosing to reveal the killer’s identity by having her mention a note that only the killer could have known about is one of the lamest endings I’ve ever read in any story. It was a slap in the face to all the readers who had become involved in the series and cared about the outcome.

It’s amazing when you think about it. I was willing to buy into the entire superhero mythology, the shocking events that were eventually revealed, and even the unnecessary and rather ugly discovery that one of the victims had been pregnant (talk about rubbing salt in wounds). But when the author came up with a clumsy ending that made everything look fake and contrived, I never had a desire to look at the series again.

Which brings me to “New Avengers: Breakout”.

Brian Michael Bendis is one of my favorite authors. His dialogue is honest and real, alternating between hilarious and heart-breaking. His choice of New Avengers is inspired: how can you go wrong with a line-up that includes Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man and Wolverine? Based on what happens in the book, it seems natural that these people would decide to work together, and even better, there’s a wealth of possibilities created as a result of their initial battle.

“Breakout” begins with Electro, who’s hired to rescue an unknown individual from a super-powered prison run by SHIELD. His secretive employer provides Electro with all the information he’ll need and assures him that none of the supergroups will interfere. But on the next page, we find out that Matt Murdock (Daredevil) and Luke Cage (Power Man) are meeting Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman) at the prison for a scheduled visit at the exact same time.

Did Electro’s mysterious benefactor forget to check the appointment book?

It seems petty to complain about a detail like this. After all, readers have been trained to think that if an error is found, it’s his fault for pointing it out. Hell, it wasn’t that long ago that Marvel promoted the idea of a “no-prize”. If a reader caught a mistake, it was his responsibility to come up with an excuse to explain it or he wouldn’t be eligible for the prize. Is that bizarre or what? If a problem is discovered or continuity is shattered, why is the person paying for the book to blame, not the author responsible for making the error in the first place?

One thing I’ve often heard is that “it’s only a comic book”. I’ll give you that. But if it’s just a comic book, why do we have to pay for it? If it means nothing, why are we expected to read it? Could you imagine complaining about your steak being overcooked and the waiter telling you, “Get a grip, it’s just food?”

If the comic book industry wants us to buy their product, they need to work harder to provide product worth buying.

Still, let’s be honest. The “coincidence” of three superheroes being at the prison for a scheduled visit that Electro hasn’t been told about is not that big a deal, and certainly not something to harp about.

But why does Matt bring Foggy Nelson along for the trip? Before he even steps off the helicopter, it’s obvious that Foggy is terrified. In every single scene, it’s clear that Foggy doesn’t want to be there. So why exactly does Matt force him to go with him to the lowest levels of the prison facility, even though he’s not needed? If someone is that scared, surely a conscientious partner would let him wait in the visitor’s lobby or (much more logically) at home.

On the next page, Matt’s group walks past a row of monitors that show the faces of different prisoners. Luke asks Jessica if the men can see him, and she says yes. But why would a prison create a two-way monitoring system? I can’t figure out why monitors were placed every six or seven feet down the length of an empty hallway in the first place; wouldn’t it make more sense to put the monitors in a room and, I don’t know, hire someone to keep track of them? That aside, there is no conceivable reason why the prisoners should be able to see anyone and everyone that walks down that particular hallway.

The weirdness continues. Matt and his friends have come to visit Sentry, who is being voluntarily incarcerated because he’s afraid he might hurt someone. For some reason, the artist chose to have the hallway lights dramatically frame his despondent figure when his door is opened, despite the fact that the electricity has been cut off and there are no functional hallway lights. Call it an artistic choice, but does that also explain why Sentry is in a filth-encrusted dungeon room built before the fall of King Arthur? When SHIELD built their state-of-the-art prison, did they decide to add a brick hellhole for laughs, just in case a superhero wanted their protection?

Time and again I was disgusted at the lazy plotting. Captain America doesn’t come to the aid of Spider-Man until after his arm has been broken and a variety of super-powered criminals have taken turns beating him unmercifully (evidently super-powered criminals are very good about waiting patiently in line for their turn). This even though the Captain was standing right next to Spider-Man when he fell down into the mass of villains. Did the Captain decide to catch a quick cigarette before jumping down to help his friend?

After Spider-Man calls out Matt Murdock by name in the middle of a huge battle and Luke Cage falls under the thrall of the Purple Man (whose power has supposedly been neutralized), I stopped reading. I would have been upset with any writer who did such a bad job, but the fact that it was one of the best writers ever bothered me more than I wanted to admit.

The next day I decided to give the book another chance, mainly because I was curious about what the Purple Man would do. Brian Michael Bendis had done a great job with the villain on his short-lived masterpiece “Alias”, and I was interested to see what he’d do next.

To my disappointment, it turns out Purple’s hypnotic effect on Cage was just a contrived attempt to create a cliffhanger. Cage was never under Purple Guy’s thrall. “They drugged you all to hell when they locked you in here,” Cage tells him before he starts beating him up.

The script doesn’t explain why Cage’s pupils turned into tiny little dots for a couple of panels, of course, or why none of the other prisoners whooping superhero butt were drugged “all to hell” like the Purple One, but by that point I just wanted to finish the damned book, so it didn’t matter that much.

The Avengers end up going to Boston to find Electro, but before they capture him, they stop to pose for a dramatic group shot (literally!). Daredevil accidentally slips up and reveals Spider-Man’s secret identity to Captain America (oops!). I could go on and on. But I don’t want to keep beating a dead horse, so I’ll just mention two more incidents that got on my nerves big time.

Steve Rogers – the man publicly known as Captain America – decides to ask Spider-Man to join the Avengers. But instead of waiting for an appropriate time, he meets Peter Parker in front of the school Peter teaches at, as the students Peter teaches pass all around him. Why? Did Steve seriously think no one would wonder why one of the most famous American superheroes of all time would be talking to a high school teacher?

Later, the Avengers fly to the Savage Land. They’re wandering through the forest when Wolverine appears out of nowhere, vaguely threatening Spider-Woman. She grabs his hand, twists him around, then stabs him in the neck with his own claws.

Huh? Beyond the fact that Wolverine is the “best at what he does” and has held his own against the most powerful creatures in the Marvel universe, the idea that anyone could twist his arm and he wouldn’t retract his claws instinctively is beyond reason. For me, that will always rank as the stupidest scene I have ever come across in a comic book.

As a monthly comic book, “New Avengers” is a huge best seller. There is an enormous audience out there that loves the members picked for the group, enjoys the non-stop action and razor-sharp dialogue, and loves David Finch’s beautiful artwork. They don’t seem to be bothered by the gaps in logic. I’m glad.

I don’t want to dictate what other people should read. A major plot hole to me might not even be noticeable to someone else. The balance between fantasy and reality is a fragile one, but it’s different for different people, and always will be. So if I’m the only bothered by perceived gaps in logic and common sense, I can live with it.

But I myself can’t get past the numerous problems. I honestly wanted to believe in “New Avengers: Breakout”. Unfortunately, Brian Michael Bendis gave me dozens of reasons why I couldn’t.


Pick of the Week

If you’re a fan of old-fashioned team-up comic books, when adventures were fun and exciting with just a hint of angst, you might want to check out “Last Hero Standing”.
I was a little reluctant to purchase this, since I know almost nothing about the M2 world set some twenty years or so in Marvel’s future. But Tom DeFalco gives readers all the information they need to jump headfirst into a story that joins the forces of the “A-Next” Avengers, Spider-Girl, and the Fantastic Five to fight in what just might be the final battle of all time. And Pat Olliffe’s crisp, clean style makes this collection a joy to read.
If you want a break from the darkness that seems to prevail in so many current comic books and want something light but filling, I’d recommend this book with a smile.


Disclaimer: The preceding article was a commentary, not a review. If it had been a review, it would have been informative and well-written, with quotable phrases like “I laughed, I cried, I went out for Chinese.” Instead, it’s an opinionated rant by a man who watched all five episodes of the “Battle of the Network Reality Stars”. Twice. If you agree with anything I’ve written, please send cash. If you don’t agree, please send money. But either way, please feel free to leave your own opinions on the Lowdown forum. Thanks!

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