Adventures in Bendisshitting #5: Siege by Ronnie Gardocki and Christopher Ludovici
Well, folks, we’re entering the home stretch of Adventures in Bendisshitting’s Marvel coverage. This is the culmination of everything Bendis has been doing arguably since Secret War, so everything he did after Siege can be considered as him running up the score. LeBron after he won it with Cleveland, Tom Brady winning a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay. Other sports metaphors I’m absolutely certain the audience reading this will understand. Let’s start with the positives to Siege: it’s a blessed 4 issues long, half the length of the previous Secret Invasion. It features Olivier Coipel (House of M) art. That…that is about it. “Short and pretty looking” is not nothing, though, especially for a Marvel Comics event.
As always, an event occurs within a context, and the context of Siege is Dark Reign. In short: Norman Osborn became head of his version of S.H.I.E.L.D., had his own Avengers, and almost every title in the Marvel Universe for a year was about the heroes trying to survive within the regime. Most of it was repetitive, but there were good stories. Bendis’ own Dark Avengers was remarkably not terrible. (That’s the extent of the positive words afforded to Bendis in this article.) A lot of the stories consisted of characters waiting for Osborn to lapse into the Green Goblin again, to crack, and Siege finally delivers on that. Throughout his tenure, Norman sought to solve problems like mutants, the Hulk, etc., and Siege sees him tackle Asgard, which at the time was floating above Oklahoma. There’s not so much organic buildup to this as rather randomly he decided one day to show those god pricks what’s what. To be fair, Loki has apparently been manipulating Osborn for some time with the end goal of returning Asgard to its rightful place, but it’s been inconsistent and poorly done so does it really count? I say no.
The plot, what little plot there is, can be summed up pretty succinctly: Asgard is currently violating American airspace by being above Oklahoma, and both Osborn and Loki want it back from whence it came. As stated before, Loki’s been running game on Osborn, which isn’t hard to do when it’s a guy who routinely talks to his own rubber goblin mask. Osborn fails to get President Barfsack Obungler’s approval to invade the Home-Of-The-Gods for no good reason, given the latitude with which he’s been allowed to operate thus far. Since when has a US president turned down a chance to let the military-industrial complex go hogwild? Imagine the decades we could spend pretending to build schools only for, like, Balder to fuck things up. Basically what happens next is that Norman Osborn and Loki inside jobs a casus belli for the war with Asgard. Their reasoning is literally “Hey, it worked in Civil War, so let’s run the sequence one more time and see what shakes out.” The metafiction is off the charts. If nothing else, Siege presents a sincere desire to synthesize America’s love of repetitive sequels and false-flag paranoia.
Yep, the Nazis invading Poland and a gang of costumed people fighting against space wizard people in the sky are roughly the same.
Osborn subcontracts a few D list baddies from fellow nogoodnik The Hood to provoke Volstagg (the fat guy from the Thor comics, played in the movies by the closest thing you can get to a fat guy in Hollywood, Ray Stevenson) into a fight that culminates in the destruction of a filled to capacity Soldier Field in Chicago during a Bears game. That means we can healthily estimate Norman killed, through his machinations, about 60,000 people. Stamford, the inciting incident in Civil War, killed 612. Literally a hundred times more casualties and I guess the Marvel Universe is just inured to this shit at this point? Years ago I would’ve lambasted Bendis for his incompetence, for basically forgetting about the destruction of a stadium full of people by the end of the miniseries, but he’s actually being prescient here. Remember how Sandy Hook horrified the nation? Ever since then, we’ve had scads of shootings, but none of them have hit the way Sandy Hook did. That’s what’s happening in the Marvel Universe: Stamford was Sandy Hook (it also happened at an elementary school) and every other mass murder event is a drop in the bucket. Citizens are too desensitized to do more than let out a mournful sigh and go about their business. Bendis predicted how America will metabolize trauma. The only difference is Marvel’s equivalent event did lead to sweeping legislation whereas in our shittier reality a couple politicians cried and yet more offered “thoughts and prayers”. The Marvel Universe: a fantastical world where radioactive spider bites bestow great powers and where Congress can pass bipartisanship legislation in a timely manner.
I know this may sound harsh, but as someone from Wisconsin I say: good.
The baddies invade, the good guys try to stop the bad guys from invading, yadda yadda yadda, the heroes are victorious. That’s essentially it. There are a few wrinkles which we’ll get into, but the four issue series is one piece of set up and then three dedicated to punch ups. It feels like a video game, and not a very well written one. Now, normally a writer that puts himself in the backseat and lets the likes of Olivier Coipel drive the action would be a blessing. Let the talented one do the work and coast. The problem is, the story didn’t bother to set up anything in the way of “goals” or “stakes” for anyone involved. Like, yeah, we understand Asgardians don’t want the Wrecking Crew smashing up their enchanted bidets or whatever, but do we care? Do we really? Civil War did a good job of every fight having a history and a context behind it, whereas this is just action figures smashed together, most of whom you’d have difficulty naming.
Perhaps more than any other event, Bendis focuses on the action and cashes in on Big Moments that he really had nothing to do with building up. The Big Three Avengers had been fractured, you see, by Thor’s death around the time of Avengers Disassembled, and the schism between Tony and Steve in the Civil War, and then Steve’s assassination and eventual resurrection as well as Tony’s flight from the law after Secret Invasion. As it happened, all three characters were in the middle of some of their most fertile periods in their own books. What Bendis did was to take the careful character work that Mark Millar, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and J. Michael Straczynski all did in their various books and mash them all together, again, like a child playing with action figures. Who cares their relationships, they’re there, they’re next to each other, once and again. He has them say cool lines and bash the villains good and at the end of the story they’re on the road to reconciliation. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; superhero comics tend to be conflict driven and action oriented, but Siege feels like the comic equivalent of Rob Schneider’s Seinfeld sidler character, showing up at the last moment to collect praise for the work other people did. I look upon Bendis’ work and feel like Peterman: “This is incoherent dribble. This is a total redo.” Another Peterman line describes Bendis’ tenure on the Avengers title: “Consider it a job…done.”
Can Luke Cage go through one fucking event with his shirt intact?
If there’s any character work Bendis can be said to have contributed to this little era within his much larger run on the book, it’s with The Sentry, Marvel’s weird post modern spin on Superman. Long story short, The Sentry was a super powerful superhero who was the greatest hero in the Marvel Universe and was best friends with everyone until they realized his arch enemy The Void was actually a manifestation of all of his darkest impulses and the only way to truly defeat him was for The Sentry to go into retirement and for everyone to forget he ever existed, even him. It was a brilliant miniseries by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee that told a complete self contained story that didn’t need further investigation and precluded any kind of follow-up by virtue of its central paradox: you don’t get the all powerful Sentry without also getting the all powerful Void. So naturally Marvel and Bendis brought him back for Avengers and proceeded to tell a much longer story that essentially boiled down to: you don’t get the all powerful Sentry without also getting the all powerful Void.
Hey, whatever, you know?. Fucking whatever. It’s comics: “nothing ever ends”, as evidenced by the work that quote comes from receiving approximately seven spinoffs, a crossover and a commemorative toaster. Still, Bendis’ tendency to take contemporaries’ works (Echo, The Hood to name others) and “improve” them in his own inimitable way can certainly draw criticism. He has the improv skills of a David Brent; when stonewalled by a scene partner who evinces apathy, eventually he’s going to scream “there’s been a rape up there!” or something equally dumbfounding.
Marvel’s depiction of mental illness and addiction: make the mentally ill addicted subject commit sins so monstrous they can only be redeemed once put down like a dog.
In any event, Bendis doesn’t tell exactly the same story as Jenkins’ and Lee’s original; he makes a few cosmetic changes to Sentry’s origin and makes the Void some kind of ancient Old Testament Evil that possesses him instead of the more elegant explanation from the original series. But none of that has any effect on the core concept of the narrative, that you can’t have one without the other. So Sentry shows up early in the New Avengers run and hangs out in the back not doing much of anything because he’s afraid of The Void showing up until Norman takes over the Avengers (Sentry staying on because he’s emotionally disturbed and mentally ill and thus easily manipulated and a weak person in general) and starts encouraging him to be more involved in the world until he finally cuts loose during Siege at which point The Void manifests and totally corrupts him. Then Thor kills him.
To be fair, making The Sentry a metaphor for ultimate power and contrasting how responsible people use it (they don’t, sacrificing power for safety) against how irresponsible people use it (they do, and invite their own destruction) is a completely valid story to tell; and Norman’s relationship with The Sentry in Dark Avengers is the most interesting work Bendis does in the entirety of his run on the Avengers. But that’s faint praise because Bendis doesn’t so much unpack or explore those ideas so much as set them up and occasionally nod in their direction in between shitty quips, soap opera drama, and poorly thought out world building (see: every other article in this series). Bendis doesn’t seem to have much to say about the interesting ideas he presents, he just sort of lays them out there with the rest of his nonsense, suggesting he doesn’t understand the difference between a good idea and a bad one. Ideas are ideas, and he treats them all the same. Osborn and Sentry bonding over psychosis is no different from Moonstone, the team’s only woman, using her manipulation skills by fucking everything with a dick. He’s a bird that cannot discern nesting materials. Piece of string, gold medallion, it’s all the same shit to him.
This is admittedly pretty funny.
Even if he did know how to tell the difference that wouldn’t matter too much because there’s an enormous difference between an idea and a story. A story has momentum, it builds organically from moment to moment, growing different points of view and events on top of each other that shows how things change and evolve over time. Bendis has had tons of interesting ideas, what he’s never been able to successfully do is take those ideas and flesh them out into compelling thoughtful narratives. It always just reads like one fucking thing after another. Think about how House of M is literally four issues of Getting the Band Back Together and then a fight, bookended by talking. Or Secret Invasion is pretty much just the fight, and you don’t know if it takes place over an hour or a day or a week. Siege is a book in which the inciting event is literally someone deciding to cause an inciting event so there can be a fight and then a fight where the climax is revelation of a tragic paradox that everyone already knew. Thanks for coming, hope you liked the show, and if you didn’t, I already have your money so go fuck yourself.
Of course the other big change to the Marvel Universe Siege ushered in, along with the restoration of the Big Three to the Avengers Masthead and the end of the Dark Reign, was the rescinding of the superhero registration act that caused so much upheaval among the superhero community. The Superhero Registration Act, as you may recall, was a law that required all superheroes to register their identities with S.H.I.E.L.D. and get formal training before they’re allowed to go fight bad guys. It was deeply unpopular with both the hero community of the Marvel Universe and readers of Marvel Comics here in reality, and underscored the theory that deep down, comics fans are fascists who just want paranoid strongman fantasies where a righteous hero beats up a dastardly villain. We say superhero comics can be for adults and that we want oversight and accountability from powerful people vested with authority over life and death, but
So yeah, Captain America, the sentinel of liberty and protector of the integrity of the constitution is offered the job of heading S.H.I.E.L.D. and becoming America’s “Top Cop” which he accepts on the condition that the president do away with that legally passed law that he doesn’t like. Which the president does, bypassing any Congress and any debate or study. This is the law of the land and was passed with broad popular support, but you don’t like it Steve? Fuck it, it’s gone! Now please take control over this massive covert military apparatus without worrying about any kind of oversight or being held accountable for anything that happens as a result of your actions. Have fun buddy, thanks for saving America! It’s okay see, because the good guys have all the power now, so they can just go hog wild and we know it’s for the best.
But Chonnie, you’re probably saying (because you know that when we collaborate on these article Chris and Ronnie physically merge into a single being like that time Batman and Superman turned into one dude where each guy was one half), Chonnie, the fact that someone as dangerous as Norman Osborn could have access to all those identities and direct them as he saw fit is proof that it’s a bad law. It’s good that the government gave up the power to direct all those superheroes. Imagine if someone like Trump were in charge of the Marvel Universe and could tell Iron Man who to blow up, the entire cast of SNL would have been killed!
Putting aside the fact that no more SNL is probably a net positive for humanity, the fact that a law is buggy doesn’t mean you just abolish it outright, that’s a ridiculous overreaction and inherently anti-democratic. It’s a law, we have procedures for things like that. Trump is actually a pretty great explanation for why that is. Trump was elected (among other things) because of a combination of factors intrinsic to our electoral system. The fact that a guy was able to game the system doesn’t mean we abolish elections, it means we fix the problems so that thing doesn’t happen again. If you threw out a law every time someone found a way to twist or abuse it, pretty soon there wouldn’t be any laws left.
Alternate headline: DEMOCRACY HELD HOSTAGE BY RED WHITE AND BLUE ASSHOLE WITH A SHIELD
And yeah, this is all kind of literal and wonky for a Captain America Punches The Green Goblin story, but this is the Bendis introduced way back in Secret War and it’s story of the fallout from an extrajudicial overseas black ops operation and continued in his morality tale House of M and right through the war on terror metaphor Secret Invasion. This guy made his career by centering massive events around heady themes and real world analogies. He uses real world issues and “realistic” characterization and dialogue to enhance the emotional stakes for his stories so it’s only fair that what happens in those stories should be analyzed in those same veins. It’s expected but nonetheless disappointing to see Bendis take a lazy shortcut out of the culmination of his work. Although doesn’t disappointment only come out of expectation of another outcome? In that case, it’s fitting he half-asses the status quo reversion; it’s only surprising he didn’t go with “a wizard did it”.
These articles don’t delve into the artistic side of things as much because, well, look at the title of the article, and it’s not as fun to dissect the artwork as it is the writing. This is especially true because Marvel tends to pair Bendis up with only the hottest and highest quality pencilers, thus creating a chicken and the egg dilemma about whether high sales are driven by Bendis’ writing or the nice artwork that accompanies it. Anyway. The one thing I want to highlight with Siege’s art is the gooification of Ares by The Sentry, and there’s no better term for it than “gooification”. It is gross and visceral in a fashion that deaths tend not to be in non-mature readers comics. One could argue Ares is a god and so the death needs to be extra convincing. Still, it’s jarring to open up a comic meant for small children and to see a death straight out of The Authority in it. I imagine the decision rested with Bendis that Ares went out like that, and it speaks to how hollow Siege is that it has to resort to ultraviolence that ultimately accomplishes nothing. Like, it says something that we didn’t even mention Ares dies until this far into the article. That’s how much it matters.
The Sentry creates a meat accordion.
The best part of Siege is that it was the final time Marvel allowed Brian Bendis to write a linewide event. Oh wait, I forgot about Civil War II. (Can you blame me? That one’ll be in a column here [sigh] eventually…) Well, at least that was the last time Marvel let him do an event, because Event Leviathan or whatever the fuck it was was DC. In any event (see what I did there?), Siege is a perfect jumping off point to those who became interested in the larger story Marvel was telling starting with Secret War or Avengers Disassembled and exacerbated by Civil War and Secret Invasion. It begs the question: why didn’t Bendis leave on the high-ish note that is this event? Why stick around for forgettable runs on Avengers and New Avengers? Well, it’s because he doesn’t know showmanship. It’s that simple.