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Josh Looks Back at John Byrne’s Great (Unfinished) West Coast Avengers Epic!

August 15th, 2012

After reading for the first time the first few years’ worth of stories from the old West Coast Avengers comics (in the handsome new collected editions that Marvel has been publishing for the past few years — click here, here, here and here for my reviews), I decided to complete the story by digging into my longboxes and pulling out John Byrne’s run on the series, which ran from issues #42-57.

Mr. Byrne’s run on West Coast Avengers (the title of which changed to Avengers West Coast with issue #47) was one of the first times, as a kid, that I fell deeply in love with a comic book series.  It was also the first time I had my heart broken by something I loved in pop culture.  Mr. Byrne’s abrupt departure from the series just as his story seemed to be reaching its climax still remains a deep disappointment to me, even so many years later.  But I’ll get back to that later.

Even as a kid, it was obvious to me that Mr. Byrne’s issues on the title were dramatically better than the previous issues, and also dramatically better than pretty much every other comic book I was reading at the time.  I still remember being at camp during the summer of 1989, and the feeling of extraordinary delight I had when my parents mailed me an envelope with the next issue of the series.  When I hold issue #48 in my hands (in which the Scarlet Witch gets turned to evil by a creepy mysterious black alien force and easily defeats stalwart Avengers Captain America and the She-Hulk), I remember like it was yesterday reading that issue for the first time, and not quite knowing how I’d be able to wait four more weeks for the next issue to arrive!!

Mr. Byrne kicked off his run on the series in issue #42 with “Vision Quest.”  This story-line is still shocking to me today.  In retaliation for the Vision’s previous take-over of the world’s computers (which happened in an older issue of The Avengers), government agencies from across the globe band together to kidnap and disassemble the android Vision.  Although the West Coast Avengers and the Vision’s wife, the Scarlet Witch, quickly discover the abduction and are able to track down the bad-guys, the Vision has essentially been killed.  Genius Henry Pym is able to re-assemble the Vision’s body, but without his mind and his memories, the android is once again a soul-less robot.  (I will freely admit that I still get a small chill when looking at the opening spread of issue #44, titled “Better a Widow…” in which we see a beautifully-detailed rendering by Mr. Byrne of all the tiny computer circuits and wires that once made up the Vision’s head, now disassembled into individual components that, in a pile, look like a fearsome mechanical skull.)

In subsequent issues, Mr. Byrne piles further tragedies and horror upon the team, and in particular upon the Scarlet Witch.  I adore the seriousness with which Mr. Byrne takes these characters, and I love the way he’s able to really raise the stakes for these super-heroes, creating a sense of true menace and danger.  The Scarlet Witch, who in my mind had previously been a rather boring, two-dimensional character, clearly fascinated Mr. Byrne, and he poured a lot of attention into her.  Under his hand, the Scarlet Witch became the central character of the series.  At first she was a figure of extraordinary sympathy, as we watched her struggle to deal with one heart-break after another.  Gradually, subtly, as her heart hardens and her attitude changes, we begin to fear for what these events are turning her into.  In Mr. Byrne’s final issues on the title, and in the series’ master stroke, he turns the Scarlet Witch into a terribly fearful villain.  (Years later, writer Brian Michael Bendis would pick up on this story-line as the jumping off point for his run on Avengers with the story-line “Avengers: Disassembled.”)

Along the way, Mr. Byrne not only demonstrated his amazing artistic skills (the man can draw pretty much anything — for instance, even as a kid I noticed that he seemed to be able to draw Wonder Man’s hair convincingly, in contrast to seemingly all of the previous artists on the title) and his knack for telling compelling super-hero yarns.  Mr. Byrne was able to create new villains (I still love re-reading the saga in issues #47-49 of the creepy “That Which Survives” which exists dormant within the genetic structure of every human being) and revitalize old ones (Master Pandemonium always seemed like a terribly silly character to me, but under Mr. Byrne’s hand he became very dangerous).

I loved Mr. Byrne’s attention to detail, and the way in which his stories seemed to flow from a comprehensive knowledge of Marvel Universe history and continuity.  Of course there’s the classic issue #50, in which Mr.  Byrne debunked the previously established origin of the Vision (that the Vision had been created from Phineas Horton’s WWI era android, the original Human Torch).  Point by point, utilizing previous Marvel stories, Mr. Byrne has his characters discover why that couldn’t possibly be the case, resulting in their actually finding and reactivating the original Torch.  (I love how, to seal the deal that these two mechanical men were different creations, Mr. Byrne actually drew a page in which they stood next to one another and shook hands.)

But I’m also talking about Mr. Byrne’s ability to ask logical questions and make intriguing leaps of story, based on previously established continuity.  As a prime example, I always loved the idea that Simon Williams was secretly in love with the Scarlet Witch.  Since it had been long ago established that the Vision’s personality came from a copy of Simon Williams brain-waves (don’t ask), it logically followed that the Vision and Simon would have very similar personality-traits.  If the Vision loved Wanda, why wouldn’t Simon?

Mr. Byrne’s final two issues (#56, “Darker than Scarlet,” and #57, “Family Reunion”) number among the two greatest comic books I have ever read.  The Scarlet Witch embraces her dark side and turns against her former allies.  She handily defeats the team and proceeds to brutally torment them, particularly Simon Williams.  (Check out this page which I cannot believe actually saw print. As I mentioned above, Mr. Byrne has established that Simon was secretly in love with Wanda.  In this issue, the evil Wanda admits that she knew all along, and decides to torture Simon by, well, click on that link and you’ll see for yourself!  Yowza!  This was a Marvel comic??  Click here for more info on that controversial page.)  She then teams up with her brother (the on-again, off-again villain Quicksilver) and her father, the villain Magneto.  The Avengers escape and regroup, only to once again be soundly defeated by this evil threesome.  The villains appear triumphant, and things appear truly hopeless for our heroes.

Then, at what should have been the high point of the saga, Mr. Byrne abruptly left the series.  What followed were two terrible fill-in issues, and then a quick resolution of Mr, Byrne’s story-lines by other writers and artists in issues #60-62.  Those issues aren’t terrible, but they are very mediocre.  It’s clear that Mr. Byrne’s saga still had a ways to go, and that his story would have gone in a completely different direction.  It still breaks my heart that this amazing story that he was building was never finished.  His run on West Coast Avengers stands as one of the great unfinished comic book works.  It’s still brilliant, and a joy to re-read, but boy the thoughts of what might have been are painful.  (Click here for some tidbits of information from Mr. Byrne on why he departed the book, and where his story might have been going. Here you can see some of Mr. Byrne’s planned covers for future issues of the series.)

Other comments:

Re-reading this series after having read and quite enjoyed Steve Englehart’s long run on the title, I am a bit more bothered by how, in his first issue on the series (#42), Mr. Byrne just tossed out elements of Mr. Englehart’s run that he didn’t care for.  The split of the team into two units seems to have been resolved off-panel.  Tigra is back with the group, as is Dr. Pym.  (To this day I wonder what happened with his first-wife, whom he had left the team to help during Mr. Englehart’s run.)  I also chafe a bit about Mr. Byrne’s characterization of Mockingbird.  Having her be complicit with the kidnapping of the Vision makes for great drama, but since I had grown to really sympathize with Mockingbird towards the end of Mr. Englehart’s run, re-reading these issues now I wasn’t so fond of what I saw as something of a betrayal of the character.

Even as a kid I noticed that, on the last page of West Coast Avengers #41, there was a house-ad that advertised Mr. Byrne’s five-part “Vision Quest” story, with covers for issues #42-46.  But that cover for issue #46 (with the original Human Torch) was never used.  Instead, issue #46 totally dropped the “Vision Quest” banner, and the Torch didn’t enter the story until #50.  I guess Mr. Byrne changed his plans and decided to expand the story.

Issues #53-56 are part of the line-wide “Acts of Vengeance” crossover and here again Mr. Byrne demonstrated his great skill.  When I originally read those issues, it was striking how much better they were than most of the other “Acts of Vengeance” issues I read in other series.  Reading them today, I am impressed by how skillfully Mr. Byrne was able to mesh the larger story of that crossover with the West Coast Avengers saga he had been crafting.

I have re-read these issues many times since they were originally published in 1989-90, and I’d imagine I will read them many more times in the future.  These are fabulous super-hero comics.  I’d argue that Mr. Byrne’s run on West Coast Avengers can stand with the very best super-hero sagas ever crafted.  Had Mr. Byrne actually completed his story, this could very well be one of THE best super-hero sagas.  It’s that good.  In it’s unfinished state, it’s still glorious, albeit tinged with the sadness that accompanies any great unfinished work.  (Reading these issues is sort of like re-watching Firefly!) Still, even incomplete, these issues demonstrate how great super-hero comics can be.  Fabulous stuff.

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