Where are the West Coast superheroes?

The West Coast Avengers is one of only a handful of entries in the American West-based comic book canon

Topics: LA Review of Books, Comic Books, superheroes, The Avengers, west coast, Marvel, ,

This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Los
Angeles Review of BooksANY CASUAL READER of superhero comics will tell you that the vast majority of the action takes place on the American East Coast — mostly in Manhattan (in Marvel Comics), or Metropolis or Gotham (in DC Comics, both surrogates for New York City). And if the action isn’t in New York, then it’s in some exotic location: Atlantis, outer space, the Savage Land, or Dr. Doom’s Latveria. But every once in a while, something happens on the American West Coast. Most notably, this includes the West Coast branch of the Avengers (first called “West Coast Avengers” and then “Avengers West Coast”), the Runaways, the Teen Titans, the Utopia-era X-Men, and Moon Knight. If you were to include everything that happens on the West Coast, the list is fairly long, but also fairly limited: the American West seems to have little geographic or thematic bearing on the content of the stories, and more often acts as an inconsequential backdrop.

Why are there so few superheroes on the West Coast, why so little action in California that actually takes advantage of the place, its themes and its politics? Marvel Comics recently published an omnibus edition of West Coast Avengers, and in the shadow of recent Hollywood interests in superhero franchises, it’s worth thinking about why it’s so rare to see superheroes in the City of Angels (or, for that matter, anywhere else). Despite over a century of American literature set on the frontier and in the West, superhero comics seem radically detached from these thematic concerns. Except, maybe, the West Coast Avengers.

In 1984, when the West Coast Avengers made their debut, superhero comics were in the early stages of radical flux. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s watershed Watchmen series was still a couple of years off, but a number of significant changes were afoot. The Justice League had been recast with a group of second stringers — replacing Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman — and relocated to Detroit. Chris Claremont and John Byrne had been working on Uncanny X-Men, and Byrne alone had been writing and drawing Fantastic Four. The idea of the crossover had just taken hold, and the preceding year had been dominated by Secret Wars, the first of these market-driven narrative events that would come to consume Marvel and DC in years to come. Still on the horizon was the market speculation of the early 1990s, when superstar young artists left Marvel and DC to start Image comics; and so too was the turn to ‘adult’ comics, with imprints like DC’s Vertigo, which included Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, and Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Animal Man. The mid-1980s were the end of the Silver Age of comics. This end of the Silver Age has been thought about in a number of ways (see Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation, for example), but one indication of its ending was the decentering of the Marvel and DC universes revolving around New York and the American East Coast.



This might be read as part of a broader economic and ideological shift in the offing, with Ronald Reagan as US President and the erosion of industrial manufacturing in the East and Midwest replaced with the entertainment industry on the West Coast. And, as we get hints at in Avengers West Coast (hereafter AWC), Silicon Valley was in its infancy — hence billionaire technologist Tony Stark’s relocation from Long Island to San Jose. Along with these broader social shifts, American superhero comics were looking for new audiences — audiences outside of the metropolitan East Coast that had dominated readership for so long and provided the industry with a reliable sales base. While DC attempted to appeal to the working-class kids and adults left behind in the emerging Rust Belt, Marvel attempted to participate in the new economy of the American West and to explore the tropes that the West provided.

In the Marvel universe, the Avengers have been based in Manhattan since their inception in the 1960s. They live semi-communally in their headquarters, Avengers Mansion, located on the edge of Central Park on the Upper East Side. The mansion was donated to the Avengers by Tony Stark, otherwise known as Iron Man, and is staffed by butler-of-all-trades, Edwin Jarvis. In the 1980s, one of the members of the Avengers, the android Vision, attempted a world takeover through his connection to global computer systems; by way of securing his bid for global hegemony, he starts the West Coast branch of the Avengers, the idea being that a group of superheroes on the West Coast could enforce his rule if necessary — although this motive is unknown to any of the Avengers. The head of the West Coast Avengers is Clint Barton, the fan-favorite Hawkeye — one of those perplexing superheroes who competes with supervillians with only superior archery skills and a quiver of trick arrows (glue arrows, grenade arrows, magnet arrows, net arrows). The Vision’s bid for global supremacy fails, but the marketing device of a second Avengers title is successful, and after a mini-series establishing the team in Los Angeles, Marvel launches West Coast Avengers, which runs for just over 100 issues, from October 1985 until January 1994.

At the age of 12, when I first really started reading comics, the Avengers were what drew me in. I didn’t start reading them until 1988, just after the storylines reprinted in this omnibus, but over the next few years I set about collecting the back issues reprinted herein. I’m not sure what I thought of them at the time, but I know I was a Hawkeye fan, and the West Coast Avengers were some of my favorites. Their later battles with the Zodiac — a group of supervillians with powers inspired by the zodiac — were absolutely riveting to me, and I read and reread them on weekends and after school. But the beginning of the Avengers’ West Coast branch is a very different story, and rather than Hawkeye being the star of the series (as I vaguely remembered), it’s the much lesser known Tigra who takes center stage. Alongside the story of her struggle with her mixed human-feline identity, is that of Simon Williams, also known as Wonder Man, who overcomes his criminal past to start a Hollywood career. And, meanwhile, Hawkeye, his wife Mockingbird, and Iron Man are little more than background characters who support the narrative twists and turns that follow Tigra through her metaphysical travails. I do remember Tigra, rather inauspiciously: I remembered her as struggling with a feline-inspired, promiscuous sexuality — which one might think would be titillating for a 12-year-old American boy, but there was something about a catwoman in a bikini that was less than inspiring. But, as an adult, Tigra’s narrative is one clearly inspired by the history of literature in the American West.

In her civilian identity, Tigra is Greer Grant, a feminist activist (which might echo Germaine Greer). Through an arcane ritual, she has the soul of a cat grafted to her, which allows her to assume a feline form — a sort of sexy were-tiger. With a small amulet in the bosom of her bikini outfit, she is able to trigger her transformation from cat into human. But it is only in her feline identity that she has any powers, and those powers are meager at best. Like many of the West Coast Avengers — particularly Hawkeye and Mockingbird — she seems like an unlikely superhero. At the beginning of the WCA miniseries, both Tigra and Wonder Man struggle with their place on the team — are they really Avengers-level heroes? Both have histories with the team, but neither are established or particularly adored characters. (To that end, after WCA ends, both have intermittent careers as superheroes, with Tigra being a very minor player in the Marvel universe.) But California, for Tigra and Wonder Man, as well as Hawkeye and Iron Man, is a place for reinvention, and each of the characters sets about distancing themselves from their prior history. The most obvious example is Tony Stark, the recovering alcoholic, who relocates to California to break from his East Coast past; but each of the stars of WCA struggles to make a new life in the West.

I’ve written elsewhere that one of the overdetermining aspects of superhero narratives is the role of social class in the lives of individuals. This might seem paradoxical in that many characters undergo profound transformations in their physiologies to become the superhuman version of themselves, but despite this change in bodily capacities, they are routinely confined by expectations of class and morality. What else stops Superman from crushing a handful of coal into diamonds or Spider-Man from selling the patent to his web fluid? And so it goes for the West Coast Avengers: as much as they hope to change their lives in California, they find themselves trapped by their histories. This is especially the case with Tigra and Wonder Man. Wonder Man’s history in the Marvel universe begins with his status as a villain sent to destroy the Avengers (and specifically as a rival to Iron Man). As he admits while a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Wonder Man is also actually a criminal, having embezzled funds from his family’s company — although he had previously attributed the crime to his brother, the supervillain Grim Reaper. He seeks public absolution for his crimes and is granted it: public opinion sways in his favor and he finds himself co-starring in the latest Hollywood action film, Arkon IV (a loose Conan rip off, along with an Arnold Schwarzenegger parody). But Tigra’s burden is not so easily sloughed off. She begins her career as The Cat, a woman in an augmented costume that allows her to propel artificial claws at her foes; but eventually her life is saved by the ritual that imbues her with the cat powers and physiology that make her Tigra.

Maybe the weirdest thing about Tigra is the reduction of her feline instincts to what is presented as amorous promiscuity. The reliance on such a trope may be due to its relative ease to depict: Tigra making out in a room with one man while the last man she made out with obliviously walks by a non-curtained window, so the reader can see seductress and cuckold in one frame. It might be due to the trend in superhero comics — especially in the 1980s — to attempt to appeal to projected adolescent interests. But if that’s the case, then why not feline violence? Why not playing with her captured foes, cat-and-mouse style? Without making apologies for Englehart and Milgrom, it does seem to me that they’re responding to two tensions, one based in character and one based in tradition. For Greer, a career feminist, what could be more troubling than an alter ego so interested in men, and especially in heteronormative (albeit promiscuous) relations? Sadly, it’s not something that gets dealt with in the narrative, but looking at the text now, it seems a reasonable reading of the story.

But maybe more pertinent here is that California and the American West has long been attributed the capacity for liberatory politics — particularly, in the second half of the 20th century, sexual politics. Greer/Tigra is presented as a Janus-faced totem of the late 20th century, one face looking towards gender equality and the struggles of second wave feminism, the other face looking towards the liberation that feminism promises. In the end — or at least at the end of the issues presented in this omnibus — Greer and Tigra are united into one personality, finally whole, and the first thing that she does is reject the man she had confessed her love to (as Greer) an issue before. It’s a soap opera, but one buttressed by engagement with the historical and future possibilities that the American West promised in the 1980s.

In many respects, the early AWC run is vital to the current Marvel universe. The first couple of issues of the ongoing series crossover with the Vision and Scarlet Witch miniseries introduces a pregnant Scarlet Witch, impregnated not by her android husband but through her magical powers (in denial of this fact); she would later come to realize that her children borne of this union were magical constructs, leading to mental illness; this laid the basis for House of M and the ongoing concerns of all of the X-Men titles through the present — some 30 years later. In an age when DC comics has decided to eradicate its continuity in a bid to attract new readers, Marvel has opted for the other route: a more intimate world where history informs the present. This can make the universe a difficult one to get into, but with omnibuses like this one, that history is now readily at hand. The writing and art aren’t anywhere near current standards, but as a glimpse into the Marvel universe at the end of the Silver Age and a look at superhero comics struggling with what the American West has to offer thematically, AWC is a solid introduction to an important time — both in Marvel comics and in American popular literature.

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