Let’s talk about pacing.
Good movies – especially summer blockbusters (though not all of those are good) – use a sequences of flashpoints strung together by in-betweeny bits. Think about the majority of movies you like, and chances are they rely on a formula that utilises plot-altering scenes necklaced with dialogue and character moments as the glue that keeps it together.
There’s a risk run when writing those kinds of scenes; too little of the in-between moments and a lack of appropriate buildup sees the story become a series of vaguely-connected action scenes without any character grounding (see something like Transformers or Quantum of Solace). Too much of the indulgent character moments and big gaps in plot-moving scenes gives you a ploddy tortoise of an experience that’s either a completely pointless story or so far up its own butt that it’s in danger of choking on its own throat (see something like Cloud Atlas which, while being for me personally a fantastic film, does lean heavily on scenes that expand the characters at the expense of the plot).
Either framework can work if you’re into that, but I find the best visual narratives are ones that can strike a balance. Take something like Dredd; lots of bombastic action violence neatly juxtaposed against organic character development in both the protagonist and his helplessly-annoying tagalong kid. It’s a nice, neat ninety minutes of appropriate narrative ebbs and flows, connections between violent judgment of criminals and personal judgment of character motivation.
So when an OGN (Original Graphic Novel, for those not fluent in comic lingo) gets released that is made, for all intents and purposes, as a piece of literature designed to evoke the pacing and experience of watching a film – something made explicitly clear in the book’s Foreword – I’m immediately sceptical. For one it’s an Avengers book, meaning if they’re trying for a movie feel then it’s almost entirely an exercise in ripping off Joss Whedon’s excellent film. For two it implies adherence to one of the two aforementioned frameworks – either fast-paced action or plodding dialogue – since every other graphic novel I’ve read that’s been described or advertised as a filmic experience has ended up in one of those two camps. Both those implications can especially be a death sentence for a graphic novel when scribed by one of the generation’s most talented and award-winning writers in Warren Ellis, the mind behind Transmetropolitan and the book that inspired the plot of Iron Man 3.
I’ll be honest, I was a little hesitant to get stuck into Endless Wartime. The market’s quite saturated with Avengers-related stories right now so this was kind of like ripping open a block of Cadbury Sensations after a night spent in an inflatable pool full of melted Toblerone (and now I’ve made myself hungry). In all fairness I probably would’ve waited for the paperback if it didn’t have Ellis’ name stamped on the front, since he’s a writer usually responsible for brilliant, subversive takes on things. I know it’s not good going into a work with expectations, but given Ellis’ resume I had the high hope it’d be a clever spin on something that seems to be dominating the comic market almost as much as Batman right now, for better or worse. I assumed that, because it was an Ellis book, it had to be great.
Well, you know what they say about one who’s assumed – it makes an ASS out of U and ME. Also there’s a D in there somewhere.
A Warren Ellis book comes with high marks in the three areas I grade a comic on – namely story, artwork and dialogue – and taking each part as a separate piece of the whole, Endless Wartime falls flat. The story; the Avengers do some avenging. That’s it. There’s a biological weapon that looks like a cross between a Predator drone and a Mi-Go which is some unholy fusion of ancient Norse white whale and some World War II-era munitions tech, meaning Captain America and Thor have a bunch of flashbacks and lead a crusade to wipe them off the face of the Earth. The rest of the Avengers you know and love from seeing on the big screen show up to help, as well as a couple of sideliners in Captain Marvel and Wolverine – the latter of whom wins the prize for “Most Crowbarred-In Character to Serve the Plot” since Angela showed up at the end of Age of Ultron.
I’m really not generalising here; this is the plot, such as it is. It’s made clear early on that the actual quest to kill the Norse-Nazi weapons takes second place focus in favour of looking at the inner struggles of our favourite big screen Avengers, in particular Cap’s assertion that combat for a soldier never ends (hence the incredibly clever title). The problem with this is that very little weight is given to examining those struggles. Cap and Thor get flashbacks, Iron Man ruminates for about a page on his past as a formerly immoral weapons manufacturer, Wolverine has some Uncanny X-Force-influenced dialogue regarding the need to kill, and Black Widow has her usual “red ledger speech”-inspired script taken almost wholesale from the movie. For a book trying to inspire feelings of sympathy in us, as well as taking inspiration from other existing sources of canon, it’s a very uninspired piece narrative-wise.
The story’s other big problem is its pacing. As Clark Gregg (who you may know as Agent Coulson) states in the book’s Foreword, this story is intended to act like a movie in your hands. It certainly starts that way with the cold open in a country clearly inspired by the real-world war in Afghanistan, which then segues into some opening chatter between our heroes before the narrative’s main conflict kicks in. Granted, quite a lot of the dialogue is written like someone would speak it normally and the threat is high-level enough that it could definitely work as a big screen battle.
Then, after a somewhat-carefully-paced first half, the book turns into a stop-and-start exercise that can’t decide whether to barrel through to another fight scene or linger on particular characters to flesh out their inner thoughts a bit more. The scenes out in the world have in-betweeny bits dealing with the Avengers going back to Stark Tower and musing for a few pages before going back out there to fight more baddies. Rinse and repeat. I swear there’s even a page of art with Black Widow getting ready for a mission at the Tower that’s copy-pasted at least twice at different points in the book – great for cost-cutting, not so much for great narrative flow. It’s not so much engaging as it is just there.
The same can be said of the artwork; compare Mike McKone’s art here – simple, blocky pastels with occasionally well-drawn battle scenes – with the art seen is some of Ellis’ other books, especially those of Darrick Robertson on Transmetropolitan and Simone Bianchi on Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Box. It’s far too simplistic, a little too accessible and, again, very uninspired. Even taken on its own the illustrations are sub-par, not taking any risks and looking very safe. That said, there’s a great panel at the start where Captain Marvel’s space helmet retracts to show her luxuriously beautiful face underneath, and it’s spaced in such a way that would look great in a movie and looks really nice here (see the image above). If there’s one thing McKone can do well, it’s draw Captain Marvel (though I might look kindly on that because others have had a lot of trouble drawing her consistently in the past). Also, points awarded for having the characters in their Marvel NOW! costumes – consistency and a firm place in canon is always appreciated, which is a lesson Age of Ultron could’ve stood to learn.
Finally, there’s the dialogue. This is probably the most Ellis-y bit of the book, or at least the most competently strung-together. The conversations between Avengers feel like natural, real dialogue for the most part, and they’re certainly channeling the appropriate on-screen counterparts when they speak. As with the art though, it’s all very safe and comfortable. Ellis walks a line between giving away too little exposition through character dialogue and giving too much through introspection, and for the most part is feels like a reliable armchair one uses to unwind. Except if you sit in it for too long you have a restless, uninteresting sleep because it’s something you’ve done a million times before.
Endless Wartime is not a bad book, but it’s far from a great one. Even if I kill the expectation one would have from Ellis’ body of work, it just doesn’t do anything. It’s not a pop adventure in schlocktastic nostalgia, it’s not a gritty fight between heroes and villains, it’s not a layered and nuanced twist on an old framework the way books like Avengers World and The Court of Owls are. It just is; an adequate, untroubled piece that pushes no envelopes and moves no mountains. Might be considered a good gateway entry for newer fans, but even then I’d be hesitant.
One last note: someone at Marvel needs to set in concrete how the hell the Hulk is supposed to speak. Does he talk in complete sentences, does he use third person to describe himself, or does he just grunt and point? If Ellis had made him speak with sesquipedalian loquaciousness here, it might’ve earned him a few marks.
BEST QUOTE: “Steve, this is Tony. Tell Jarvis to make sure he’s using the single-estate coffee from Guatemala, and the Starkia. It’s genetically tweaked Stevia sweetener, but Stevia’s a dumb name.” – Tony Stark