Kelly Thompson’s West Coast Avengers is a series I was shocked by: that is to say I was shocked by how much I fell in love with it and by how instantaneously it seemed to happen!
I mean, that’s pretty rare. But this book disarms you from the very start… and, before you know it, you’re already committed to reading every single issue and looking forward to the fun times.
Because this book is FUN (note the caps): exuberant, innocent, unpretentious FUN. And it’s addictive.
Just the term ‘West Coast Avengers’ always lures me in; having, as I do, fond memories of the Avengers West Coast comics from when I was a kid. This iteration of the brand is something a little different: actually a lot different – and all the better for it.
I actually had no pre-knowledge of what this book was going to be like or about and I only went for it because I love Kelly Thompson‘s handling of the Katie Bishop (Hawkeye) character in the Hawkeye solo title and because I get nostalgic just for the idea of the Avengers West Coast.
From the juvenile-feeling exuberance of the Stefano Caselli cover art to the spray-paint/graffiti motif on the opening credits page, you know from the word go that this is going to be a book with an adolescent, ‘street’ feel to it: and this is pretty much confirmed by the 4th-Wall-breaking narrative device that runs through this series from the very beginning, specifically that each of the characters is intermittently talking directly ‘to camera’ (so to speak), being interviewed for a reality-tv-style programme.
That sounds like something that might be annoying in a comic book, but actually it works out pretty ok: it certainly gives the book a contemporary vibe. Characters repeatedly face interviews and talk to the filmmaker, often about the scenes or missions we’ve just seen unfold . As the series goes on, this actually becomes a good way of establishing various nuances in character dynamics and even to replace some of the traditional inner-monologing.
The whole book seems to be going for a kind of surreal, buffoonish reality-tv vibe: and it works. If often doesn’t feel ‘real’ (well, whatever ‘real’ means in superhero comic books), but more like a half-real, half television affair – precisely like a reality tv show does.
From the start, the vibe seems to be to make things comfortably, even gleefully, absurd: West Coast Avengers #1‘s opening action sequence sees Katie Bishop and the team taking on an army of land-invading sharks, after all – something that actually ends up being a fun way to get things going. And the maximum absurdity vibe runs through the whole book, as if Kelly Thompson is trying to one-up herself each time the plot progresses: so we get a giant-sized Tigra attacking the city and then we also get B.R.O.D.O.K(!). Yes, ‘Brodok’ – ‘Bio-Robotic Organism Designed Overwhelmingly for Kissing’. Presumably some link to M.O.D.O.K, it’s a fun gag: at least as a cliffhanger reveal for the first installment.
Clearly, this is a book setting out to not take itself too seriously: and that’s probably what works so gleefully about it. This is just a flat-out fun comic book.
It also helps that I really like the Katie Bishop Hawkeye character, so having a team center around her antics is a fun start-point for a book. Also crucial is that I was a fan of the Hawkeye (Katie) solo title, which Thompson was also writing: it feels like Thompson is the guardian of the Katie Bishop character and so this kind of feels like a Katie Bishop book as much as its an ensemble piece.
Most of West Coast Avengers #1 is about Katie trying to pull a team together on the West Coast. Right away, there’s a sense that it’s going to have to be a team populated by rejects or second-rate ‘heroes’, because all the big players are not returning her calls.
All of the stuff with Katie trying to put a team together is funny, particularly the sequence of interviews with increasingly unsuitable auditioners.
The team that kind of falls into place in West Coast Avengers #1 consists of Katie (Hawkeye), Clint Barton (original Hawkeye), America Chavez, Katie’s boyfriend Jonny Watts (or ‘Fuse’)… and later on, Gwenpool and Quentin Quire.
The latter two additions are what take this book to the right level: both Gwenpool and Quire really inject the key dose of off-beat angst to the equation. I would’ve enjoyed Katie Bishop and Clint Barton as the Hawkeyes anyway (actually, a book of just those two as a double-act would be pretty cool too), but it’s when Gwenpool shows up that you immediately realise this book needs Gwenpool in the same way that the Uncanny Avengers title needed Deadpool.
Gwenpool is such a wacky, surreal ball of offbeat exuberance all on her own that throwing her into a line-up is always going to liven up the party.
But offsetting her against Quentin Quire’s petulant, ego-centric, deadpan routine is a really clever creative choice. But the thing is that it’s not even like this book necessarily needed those two for the wit or the one-liners: Katie and Clint seemed to be handling that between them anyway – Gwen and Quire are more like the spiking of the punch.
‘Fuse’ feels like a non-entity here, but he’s the only weak link in this chain. This is a fun, eclectic line-up with great dynamics and enough wit, banter and charm to make for happy reading even without a plot.
Add to that the fact that Kelly Thompson clearly has a great relationship with the Katie Bishop character and also writes all of these characters with such palpable tongue-in-cheek enjoyment and you’ve got a disarming, winning formula right from the get-go. Stefano Caselli’s art is absolutely perfect, matching the writing style and tone flawlessly, while the colors (Triona Farrell) are also vivid and striking throughout. It might help that Katie and Gwenpool, for example, have costumes that make for colorful panels: but, at any rate, the way this is book is drawn and colored seems effortlessly sublime.
The visual presentation – again, both in terms of Caselli’s renderings and Farrell’s colors – seems to embody the same tone as Thompson’s writing style for this book: that is to say it feels just the right ratio of weighty (but not brooding or serious), blithe-spirited (but not too childish) and even a tad retro.
Either I’m reading way too much into the visuals… or this is all kind of genius.
Everything carries on in the same fine form for West Coast Avengers #2, which kicks off with the same absurdish fight against a giant Tigra and the intervention of B.R.O.D.O.K. The witty banter never lets up throughout these books: everyone’s got a perfect barb or a one-liner. And Kelly Thompson, you can tell, is someone who loves writing dialogue, especially when there are these naturally funny characters to work with.
Also, Quentin Quire’s t-shirts are a running gag that just keeps escalating every issue: ‘Bring Back Cyclops’ and ‘Dark Quire Saga’ are my favorites, but they’re all really funny, including ‘Future Phoenix’.
Meanwhile, Kate invites B.R.O.D.O.K back to the team HQ to hang out as their guest. It’s clear nobody buys that ‘Brodok’ is anything other than M.O.D.O.K in disguise (the dialogue panel establishing this suspicion from each of the characters is gold): but at this point, Kate and the others – like us as readers – doesn’t know exactly what’s going on and is waiting patiently to find out.
The issue then divides between Kate and Clint going off to investigate an A.I.M facility, while America and the others babysit ‘Brodok’. Both sets of scenes are worth it: the idea of ‘Brodok’ being babysat by the likes of Gwenpool and Quentin Quire is as absurd and offbeat as you’d expect, while having the two Hawkeyes go on a mission together is really cool and is kind of what I was hoping would happen.
Again, I feel like a Clint/Kate series of just the pair of them would be really good. It’s not just the two Hawkeyes thing, but the two characters play off each other nicely and have good banter. And with Clint as the older, experienced hero and Kate as the younger figure, it just makes perfect sense.
Meanwhile, watching America’s disdain for having to hang out with ‘Brodok’, Gwenpool and Quire is funny. And having Gwen and Quire get into a row over the meaning of Weekend at Bernie’s (‘Brodok’s’ movie request)… and then start making out… is a little funny, a little weird and a little inevitable. I can’t imagine Gwenpool and Quire ever working as a thing – there’s way too much crazy in there.
But maybe that’s what’s fun about it: like it’s just so wrong that it’s somehow right.
It doesn’t take long at all, however, for ‘Brodok’ to fall out with his new friends: and West Coast Avengers #3 sees Brodok wreaking vengeful havoc across the city with an army of gigantified creatures, including Tigra. It turns out ‘Brodok’ is/was M.O.D.O.K with a makeover and an attempt at a new life – but he is met with the realisation that still no one loves him, even with this new blonde-haired surfer dude look and body. Which sends him promptly back into villain mentality.
It’s a bit dumb, this Modok/Brodok story. But it’s all in good fun and it isn’t trying to take itself seriously.
The trademark absurdities all follow – Tigra’s giant hand reaching into Kate’s bedroom to pull her out like a tiny mouse by her legs, for example, or Gwenpool riding on the shoulders of a flying ‘Brodok’ and trying to rip his head off. But it’s all fun and knowing. The gags keep coming from page to page, as does the witty repertoire and the killer one-liners. The most absurd thing is kept for the end, as we find that Kate herslef has been transformed by Brodok into a giant hawk-monster thing.
It’s worth saying that the way this series has been set up from the start, and the way Kelly Thompson has been writing it, allows West Coast Avengers to get away with things that most other books wouldn’t: in most other books, we would roll our eyes or find it ridiculous. But here? Giant hawk-monster Kate? Of course – makes sense and it works.
There’s some more good Gwen and Quire material here too, particularly the continuing mystery of exactly what Gwenpool’s powers are – or whether she has any at all.
West Coast Avengers #4 wraps up this Modok/Brodok arc with the same wacky, fun style as it started it, as the team try to deal with the giant Hawk-monster (Kate). Modok gets transformed back into classic Modok – literally because Clint finds a McGuffin weapon that says ‘back’ on it and means he can use it to reverse the transformation (again, this book gets away with things other books wouldn’t). But it’s good to just have normal M.O.D.O.K back, to be honest – as fun a gag as ‘B.R.O.D.O.K’ has been, it was starting to wear a little thin.
But, hey, we’re still in the realm of gleeful absurdities, so we still get Gwen riding a dragon and then that dragon requesting to not be transformed back to human form but to remain as a dragon! There’s actually a dialogue scene for this, where Kate asks the dragon if it’s going to go around wrecking things or eating people, to which the dragon replies “No, I’m a vegetarian”. And that’s all Katie needs to allow ‘Bridgette’ (that’s her name) to remain a dragon.
Again, in another book, this would not fly. In this zany, happy-go-lucky West Coast Avengers title that Kelly Thompson is playing with, it’s just fine.
I would be astonished if ‘Bridgette’ the Dragon doesn’t show up as a recurring character. This opening arc ends with Gwen and Quire trying to figure out if they’re a thing or not (they hate each other and can’t resist each other), and with Kate and the whole team going on the Jimmy Kimmel show – which feels about right.
West Coast Avengers #5 changes storylines, but doesn’t let up on any of the charm, spirit or fun. The team finds itself drawn to a warped, nightmarish funfair full of mystery and illusion, possibly under the control of Madame Masque (or possibly not). It’s a fun situation, kind of like a Scooby Doo episode, and it leads you along with appropriate intrigue. There’s some good character stuff here as usual, particularly with Gwen and Quire, but also with Katie herself.
In West Coast Avengers #6 we learn who is behind the amusement park nightmare: Madam Masque, M.O.D.O.K (not B.R.O.D.O.K), Satana Hellstrom and the Eel. A supervillain team-up aiming to break the spirits of the West Coast Avengers and split the team using psychological warfare.
The big twist is Kate encountering her mother, who she thought had been deceased for years: we can safely assume this isn’t really her mother, but West Coast Avengers #6 doesn’t make that entirely explicit yet.
We also get some more land sharks (!) and a bunch of standard hijinks. All good stuff.
In all, I absolutely loved this book so far: it’s quickly become one of the two or three things I most look forward to every month. If you want wacky, gleeful fun, enjoyable and off-the-wall characters, and a bright, colorful book that always entertains but never takes itself too seriously, then you want West Coast Avengers.