The Wild Ride of Avengers Unplugged
by Travis Hedge Coke
I do not know another Marvel comic as freewheelin’ as Avengers Unplugged. A six issue budget-priced series from the late 1990s, Avengers Unplugged was instantly infamous for misattributed dialogue, bizarre art choices, uneven stories, out of left field mischaracterizations, and Black Widow referring to tipping go-go dancers at a club as, “rocking Amadeus.”
The series featured heavy hitter villains, almost every issue contributed to longterm continuity in surprising ways, from the marriage of Titania and Crusher Creel to Monica Rambeau picking a fight with Captain Mar-Vell’s son over the Captain Marvel name. The themes were weighty, the intensity ran high, and every issue reads superfluous and bouncy, so why is it so disappointing?
Pencils by MC Wyman, written by mostly by Glenn Herdling, supported by a wide variety (and varying quality) of talent, Avengers Unplugged would feature: a massively jacked Johnny Storm, who at the buffest of times is svelte and the best of times, twink; a Giant-Man who, while being a genius and veteran superhero, was slow-witted, naive, and did not understand gravity; art and dialogue that do not corroborate; a consistent mix of just enough unusual information to make ever issue confusing to anyone who is not versed in dozens of related stories, and if they are they will just be bewildered.
Even at ninety-nine cents American, you could not help but still be disappointed in these comics, and yet, at the same time, approached with good humor and detachment they are all funny as hell. These comics are absurd and turn on silly spins like a carnival ride rocking you past plywood murals and trick mirrors. Some comics feel like the writer plotted them by playing with action figures, and I suspect some comics really are written that way, but Avengers Unplugged comes closer than any comic to the sensibilities of a child who, only knowing some parts of a character’s backstory or abilities, just makes up the rest on the playground with a veracity and determination so the others kids do not find out it is all made up.
Wyman’s exaggerated forms, wild layouts, and emphasis on an extremely het-vibing male gaze enhances the absurdity, giving us a Vision or Human Torch who exist in a deadpan, straight-faced Megaton Man meets Ren & Stimpy universe.
Anyone believing I am mocking Herdling and Wyman, I am not. They are both talented and intelligent and there is a story here waiting to be told. Neither is responsible for, say, misattributed dialogue, but there is so much wrong, on every page, consistently, so much awkward or nonsensical or random or bizarrely truncated or abbreviated that we may rest assured something happened, we simply do not know what.
What causes a comic to change a kitty toy to a teddy bear, one kid into another, on the same page of contiguous panels?
One likely stumbling block is that the stories appear to be bowdlerized from themselves, in that bizarre indulgent-to-horny-adolescents way comics were and are notorious for. The first issue spends considerable time with psychiatrist-turned-supervillain Moonstone, who somehow superhumanly punches Black Widow in the face without causing even a shrug or a shudder, being out-mind-gamed by Widow, closing with the line from Giant-Man, “Not too shabby, considering Moonstone is a master psychologist herself.”
It is a clumsy line, providing us no information except to flag that the writer/creative team know this twist was witty or at least central to their story. Is it self-congratulatory, or is it to clue in children reading the comic? I am leaning towards the latter.
The entire run of Avengers Unplugged will leave you wondering how or why they made these comics. Whether it is by accident and circumstance. The sexism is part and parcel, unfortunately, for some comics of any era of superhero comics, though it reaches some lower rungs for its era and Marvel. It is worth noting that Fantastic Force from the same time, managed to keep its women characters’ butts completely uncovered via dental floss bottoms or skirts that look like belts, same as this comic sometimes indulges in, and it has been reported there were edicts, especially with youth-aimed comics, to pander to an imagined demographic.
Issue #5 walks a bizarre line of being a comic about rape, abuse, domestic violence, and misogyny, and being a comic about a righteous young white guy belittling his mother and fighting a brainwashed Black woman which culminates in Captain Marvel renouncing her superhero name on the vague basis that to do so is empowering.
How do you make a comic about rape for the fifteen and under crowd? Rape and abuse are coded into forced slobbery kisses, forced hair-braiding, while women are constructed of cleavage and lingerie first and anything else as an afterthought.
In issue #3, a comic centered around a club with male go-go dancers which serves pizza (claiming to be the only one, which seems odd), has Black Widow’s entire bare behind on view for us, the readers, while the go-go dancers are so fully dressed that one wears a superhero costume from toe to throat, covering all limbs, torso, complete with gloves.
Choices were made.
While this may have all been a grab for some of Image’s larger audience pool, and Image – a rival publisher to Marvel if you wandered in here without that knowledge, and welcome – some Image founders, like Jim Lee, at least tried to tit for tat their eroticism. Jim Lee tried to draw sexy men, when being sexy, not simply big, powerful men surrounded by T&A objectification.
Reading Avengers Unplugged critically, the critique almost immediately turns also inward on the critic. Where are your boundaries? What are your gauges? Why can I be an enthusiastic fan of Mirka Andolfo or Matt Baker, yet bothered by MC Wyman in this comic? Why am I bothered but not offended or concerned? I know these comics were marketed at children or teenagers, and at those who likely could not afford the rising price per issue of what were nominally more serious comics efforts. Wyman and the writers definitely make an attempt to make every one of these comics count. They are attempting to give more content, more quality per comic than the smaller price may imply. I am not ethically or aesthetically opposed to a bare bottom in a comic book. I am not a stickler for characters drawn on-model, for their height or muscles or their characterization or dialogue tics to be rigid and unified the way many comics fans can be.
The cover to the Titania & Creel wedding issue, #4, has She-Hulk in a bustier with bowtie and disconnected cuffs which feature Playboy bunny cufflinks. Everyone else wears their costumes, except Creel in a white tuxedo and Titania high-heeled boots that are also her stockings and plenty of upper thigh on display as she threatens her husband to be with a wooden rolling pin, as all brides do. John Statema subbed in for the pencils this issue and he brings a whole other wonk to the title. Within pages we have a Mr. Hyde wearing an A for anarchy necktie, the nebbish Molecule Man wearing an “I hate everybody” badge and picking his nose during a wedding ceremony, and when She-Hulk gets immediately beat up, I mean that her hair got mussed and they tore her skirt into strips hanging from her waist.
When Volcana, best friend of the bride, picks a random fight at the Avengers home, she says she likes her Avengers, “extra crispy” and tries to burn Crystal, who replies back, “Don’t you mean finger-licking good?”
Yes, folks, if you were dying for a comic where Molecule Man picks his nose and Crystal of the Inhumans says she is finger-licking good, this 99 cent beaut is for you!
All in all, the actual wedding or the characters being married about about four and a half pages of the story, the rest of it a selection of characters only achievable by sheer comics nerd recall or flipping randomly through issues of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.
Avengers Unplugged is not harmless or without consequence. In terms of continuity, in terms of the social and psychological effects they would have both on readers and on the general atmosphere for their era of superhero comics is, if not measurable, palpable. To have the distorted figures on display as covers on a shelf of similar covers, to see some of these traits brought out more loudly and immediately, perhaps, than in many other superhero comics from Marvel during those same months, has a psychic and atmospheric effect.
But, like the similar distortions in Megaton Man or Red & Stimpy, they can feel harmless, especially if we were young at the time of release. The atmosphere they help create feels, like being raised in dense smog, the way air ought to be. If a factory kicks out smoke banks at night for twenty or fort years, after awhile, people remember that as just a change in the weather and stop even associating the low fogs or yellow haze with industrialization.
And, the excitement of entertainment, silliness in presentation, can always encourage a feeling of harmlessness, of an impossibility to be threatening. There is novelty in every issue of Avengers Unplugged. They are comics you cannot wholly anticipate, because of their nonsense, their novelty, the unusual takes on characterization, the discontinuity between image and scene, dialogue and person.
New relationships and dynamics are often welcome, and it is fun to see Black Widow take Crystal out for a night or Hank Pym, as Giant-Man, attempt to mentor the alien teen, Deathcry, while she tries to be more adult than the adults and avoid any actual work. Innovative uses of powers and abilities would be welcome. Crystal, who has control over the basic elements, being now able to use the to transform party dresses into superhero costumes and sophisticated weaponry is not really a new or innovative use of her powers, though, it is only a plot convenience that makes no sense.
Fights are huge and end in nothing but inconsequence. The Avengers might spend eighteen pages trying to punch a skeletal nightmare who is murdering the suicidal or unlucky, but once they beat him down, they just let him get on a magic horse and fly away, because oh well.
A wedding party assaults our heroes, causing property damage, beating on people, but oh well.
A supervillain they are pursuing dies because of their thoughtless actions, but oh well.
You have to laugh.