Sunday, July 15, 2012

Season of the Scarlet Witch

From one of's most popular posts, in the middle of a series examining the Avengers work of Steve Englehart in 2011:

Drawn by Neal Adams

Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the very first issue of the X-Men in 1963, the Scarlet Witch and her protective older brother Quicksilver found themselves dealing with the margins of society. Perhaps they owe their lives and direction to the older, persuasive Magneto, but upon recurring encounters we find actual malicious harm is not to their tastes, and after a few stories they recant their orthodoxy as his minions.

Surprisingly, they reappear shortly afterwards---now, along with reformed adventurer Hawkeye the Marksman, these three, all of whom were introduced as pawns in battle with heroes, join the legendary Captain America to become the core of Marvel's answer to the Justice League. Where Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man and the Wasp had gathered, stars from early Marvel's other strips, now the Avengers was the story of revived Captain America forging these other misfits into team. They learn so much about each other and overcome distinct prejudices that all proceed from their characters, as they grow and develop. By the time Stan Lee hands over the Avengers to Roy Thomas for the next six years, many major foes of future stories were introduced and the rocky dynamics of the individuals thrown together became the template for their compelling Silver Age exploits.

Scarlet Witch, a.k.a. Wanda (later Maximoff), begins her reluctant career dallying with a forbidden relationship of sorts, participating in criminal acts as part of the mutant activism underscored by Magneto---like the front line of Greenpeace for Mutants, which I guess, to avoid confusion with the Hulk's never ending quest to be left alone, we'll call "Genepeace." That would've been much more clever public relations for Magneto; as the X-Men are misunderstood as outlaws, I believe their stories get much better, if not darker.

But that's later, and this is about Wanda, who continues a life sheltered from all but the absolute chaos of Avengers' battles against time tyrants and manipulative space aliens. Her brother wants to mean well, but the speedster stunts his and her growth by harping on the mutants' outcast place in humanity and overall pessimism one might not expect from superheroes of earlier times---more the attitude of the anti-heroes to come. They are an inseparable pair, and she occupies herself for some time with a crush on Captain America, while fourth member Hawkeye arrogantly wants it all for himself, learning the hard way why he is on this team.

From Integr8d Fictions, by Cecil Disharoon (available 2012)

Wanda's life doesn't change much for a very long time, from my sampling of the stories afterwards. Her commentaries on prejudice don't actually involve very much getting out in the streets and learning to empathize with regular people, who need her heart and humanity, for all their misunderstanding and fear. Still, for this to give her a bit of a chip on her shoulder to deal with is very realistic; more than one public servant has found themselves wrestling with judging those they protect as too corrupt and incompetent to manage society properly. It's a rather counter-cultural point of view, nurtured by Roy Thomas, if perhaps undermined somewhat by the need for her to become a hostage every so often---which happened to male superheroes, also, but was almost formula for the females!

Then, she realizes, after working with the Vision sometime, she relates to his lonely, one-of-a-kind existence in the world. Like a beautiful nerd love story, he begins to take her peril personally, thus developing the somewhat endearing flaw of losing his temper when anything threatens Wanda. Aw!

Their dance comes gradually, surviving the initial silent jealousy and disappointment of Hawkeye and Quicksilver as they begin to blossom as individuals. Though three decades or so ahead of its time, I'm sure creators were tempted to create a more low-key vehicle for telling the conversation attempted by these unique lovers to challenge notions of tolerance and self-concepts of humanity, though, without the need for constant fantasy violence, could've been an eloquent trip through the Marvel Universe, indeed. With such a clinical personality, however, the Vision, since he is being published as a super-hero, does well to have a compliment of differing personalities around him.

Fortunately female roles are expanding in superhero comics, because the Scarlet Witch changes more in these two years of stories than in her previous decade of life. Lord knows, first time she goes out in something really cute, she gets kidnapped by the returned robot mutant hunters, the Sentinels.

A great help in this expansion comes from bringing in other females such as the Black Widow on occasion, but we learn much more about her, I think, when her unaccented primacy as the chief female mainstay of this super-boy's club is challenged by a far less staid character, one more worldly in her ways and physical in her demeanor: Mantis. She and her shadowed companion set out to join the Avengers between the scenes even as human paranoia over the new romance sparks an insane, deadly response. This leads to Wanda's feeling that her love is besieged by one kind of attack after the other, as we'll see.

All covers copyright Marvel Entertainment.

Statue of Liberty gets repairs courtesy of the Avengers. (It’s been damaged from a rampage in a Marvel monster book, Astonishing Tales #18 or some such, on sale that month. Wasn’t continuity keen?) The Vision and Scarlet Witch take such joy in one another's company. I feel good just looking at those first pages. I love the way these writers/ artists would include the media, as when these people in the street segments are depicted as news footage. It's a glamorous romance between two New Yorkers who have really contributed in a major way to their city, say a young man, then a young woman, both of whom seem themselves to have something for which to live. The gripe that they are neither of them human is scrawled across the inscrutable, angry face of a man marching towards old age (no, I didn't say he was white, but yes he is). “Edit this guy out, Bob” comes the off-camera word balloon. This man’s negative opinion doesn’t fit the acceptable fairy tale being sold by the media; they want to build, not tear down, the popularity of this couple. Maybe there’s a bit of human heart at work in editing out the curmudgeon. Perhaps there’s some liberal media bias at work? As we see, editing out the angry does not mean their voice will never be heard, however unpleasant.

The awful decision of some outraged humans to sacrifice themselves as living bombs is jarringly prescient of the suicide bombings to come in real life. The sickening loss of life as they attempt to take the Avengers with them is grim, and this is exactly the opposite of what the Vision and Scarlet Witch mean to each other.

It's strange in that the super-people, the beings beyond normal, are the ones being oppressed by the ordinary, as was observed in the letters page. I am not entirely sure Steve Englehart knew what he would get out of going to this place but I am reasonably it felt wrong and twisted in a way the various schemes of the Grim Reaper and company are not. It's stuff that could really happen, an uncomfortable reminder of a lack of superheroes on hand to stop these things from happening...but that's never meant to be, and even if it were, it would be of no use until those who deem life worthy of such a conclusion of violence are disabused, not in an open confrontation, but in the fabric of their lives. We all have our rebellious needs, and only some sanctity for life gives them voices of creation, rather than destruction. At any rate, these characters are regular people who decide to die in non-strategic deployment as suicide bombers, sufficiently armed to kill an Avenger.

That anyone would want their life to end as a statement of hatred and nihilism is an abuse of freedom and civilization, a crime against the self, and baffling. Fanaticism is never uglier than in this never-repeated choice of antagonists.

When one considers the degree of nihilism present in the results of much of the world economy today, one cannot help but feel like Scarlet Witch: the thing that makes her and her lover most different, it seems to her, is that they love, they forgive, they protect. The psychic poison, as much as the Vision's severe wounds, are of such venomous hatred of a love, born between two noble people trying only to be themselves and harm none, hardens Wanda, in a way she did not anticipate. The point that they do not understand Vision well enough to kill him does not erase from her mind the fact that someone tried.

See, previously Wanda's always played the apologist in comparison to her brother Pietro's impatience and elitism regarding humanity, and now that she has everything to lose, now that her life's been rocked by such hatred, it will be her struggle to recover. I would gladly trade the space to depict more of that recovery, but we see so little of these people, month by month, and there's just time to expose this poisoned flower in the bosom of Scarlet Witch. The pain of a mixed race couple, a gay couple, anyone whose simple aims drew unthinking hatred, is not so different, as they, too, represent a change from the patterns taken so for granted.

One thing about California in 2011: I never lived anywhere with more freedom for people to love who they want, and whatever you may think of that, I am glad all of these people are free to explore the friendships and romances of their choice, and if you are a lover of freedom, how could that not be, to you, a sign of progress? It is, after all, no new thing. A story about intolerance could arise anywhere, but to be drawn and written in America's largest city is a tribute to live and let live---a principle next to "love your neighbor, as you should yourself."

Walking in after this episode blithely unaware of this terrible tragedy are the Swordsman, rescued addict, adventurer, and reality tv show candidate. He's here to rejoin the Avengers after a most checkered history, and neither he nor his girlfriend are particularly committed to bourgeosie values, such Vision and Witch have embodied.

This means, living in the moment, Mantis thinks about what feels right without regard for the past. She doesn't consider Wanda part of the deal she would have to understand, nor does she approach her in an inclusive manner. Her Oriental mystique and very then-trendy kung fu skills and ...flexibility...were perfect for getting up the Eastern European maid's somewhat demurely Silver Age gypsy nose.

But this all follows on a misunderstanding that plays on the worst in the superheroes, who are not perfect, but seem especially unreasonable in this instance, which to readers is the Avengers/ Defenders War. The two comics came out, one a piece each month like usual, only the story threaded them together by way of the time-lost Black Knight and a device of great power broken into six pieces, the Evil Eye. This mysterious totem first appeared during one of Johnny Storm's side journeys with Wyatt Wingfoot, to find Crystal and her fellow Inhumans' stronghold, and was guarded by a mystical champion called Prester John. Now, however, it's the key component to an extra-dimensional conquerer's spell to circumvent his exile from our world (courtesy Dr. Strange). Accidental danger for Wanda again causes an over-heated Vision (well, it WAS the body of the original Human Torch, so...) to believe the worst of Silver Surfer (who he battles for a piece of the eye inside a volcano in Polynesia) and the Defenders, mistaken already for Black Knight's kidnappers.

Both teams strut their stuff in some very interesting match-ups: Dr. Strange versus the Black Panther and Mantis, a duel of heightened senses, is very good, and Hawkeye gets one back on Iron Man that makes you cheer despite yourself. Besides, the Defenders have been informed assembling the Eye is the way to retrieve Black Knight, who's actually been turned into a smashed stone statue! You know Captain America versus his old WW II ally Namor was a great writer's choice, and the turning point in the quarrel. The funny part is, everyone makes nice before they remember none other than the Incredible Hulk and the Mighty Thor are locked in a stand still grip in downtown Los Angeles! Madre de Dios!

Though in fact that the Avengers knew suspicion of the Defenders had come through the warning of Loki...presently, poor blinded Loki, who Thor knows to be God of Lies!!...anyway, the teams have a social. Then, the Marvel world as we know it goes to war with Dormammu's invasion: panels for everyone from Spider-Man to Dracula depict the spreading demon-transformation plague, as the end of the world visits New York City and many places besides. Dormy's stolen the re-assembled Eye, and with it, he is easily a match and more, in raw power, for both teams, even the Hulk, Namor, Thor, Iron Man, and more, all present. In fact, Thor and Iron Man are transformed into their helpless mortal identities of Dr. Don Blake and Tony Stark, industrialist, as the opening shot.

I don't want to spoil Avengers #117 for you, and I don't know that I could, but you'll never guess who saves the day against the would-be lord of two worlds?

I can tell you this: it's not the Vision. When the team's given the perception of quicksand all around them, Vision attempts to ignore the illusion and alter his mass and slip through. But---he freezes! At this critical juncture! No reason known! It will not, alas, be the last time, and he has much to ponder, and something, now, beyond his control, that may bring down his super hero career.

Mantis is as Mantis does

Mantis would become Wanda's rival without giving it a self-conscious thought. One can't help but wonder if there was not a more copacetic solution, but sheltered Wanda's fairy tale romance, because of the all-or-nothing nature of the expected monogamy, is in for a real test, and everyone in the quadrangle (along with the forgotten Swordsman) will have to come to grips with home truths.

I am glad we are on the subject of these two women and their crossing affections for this man who is, well, not really a man as we typically define them, right? It's raising much more interesting questions than how space races and their invasions and kidnappings fit in, when you're a bit longer in the tooth. That said, the next invasion's coming already...and the origin of the enmity between those aforementioned space races, the Kree (blue-skinned folk) and Skrulls (reptile-chin green shape changers) is going to shape up into a very unique history that is so beautifully 1970's, I will relate that, too.

After all---it's all going to flow right along with the rest of the origin of Mantis and Vision, with the rebirth of the Scarlet Witch and the Swordsman, told in between, advancing the story arc for each one of them.

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