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‘Avengers’ #4 and Other Travels in Space and Time [Review]

It’s been said that in all of history you’d only need to ever hold one time traveler’s convention. Simply name a date and a place and theoretically every intrepid chrononaut should eventually find out when to show up and then fuss with whatever buttons, dials, toggles and/or noise making light-filled tubes are required to make sure they show up at that precise moment of being properly late enough to be cool. People, if you assume that MIT students are people and not robots masquerading as human beings, have already tried to do this, and the fact that it hasn’t worked has caused some to speculate time travel’s not possible. But that hasn’t stopped comics from holding its own time travel convention this week, and while “Avengers” #4 is the star attraction it’s far from alone.On the DC side, “Batman” 702 flashes back to the time travel events before the current adventures through history involving Bruce Wayne, while “Time Masters: Vanishing Point” #2 examines the journeys of Rip Hunter, Booster Gold, Superman and Green Lantern as they attempt to follow Batman, get lost, and meet scantily clad people with swords. And then, not to be left out, the main story in “Superman/Batman” #75 involves a cross-time team up with the Legion of Superheroes as they try to save Superman from a time traveling Lex Luthor clone from the future.

Although the real reason to pick up the issue is a two-page story by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo, in which they beautifully take the readers back to the early 90s via a Lex Luthor and Joker piece flawlessly rendered in the style of Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes.” I could believe that this is the event all of the time travelers happen to be showing up to witness, because it’s the best thing to appear in a comic book this week.

Joining “Avengers” on the Marvel side is the second part of a “Fantastic Four” story in which Reed Richards’ father Nathaniel travels back in time to his son’s past in order to help Reed’s son from the future save time from ending. It involves a cyborg monkey, a giant-headed midget pirate who dual-wields cutlasses, a robot centurion, and a strange link between time traveling and facial hair. Please trust me when I say all of that makes more sense in context.

But the book I really want to discuss is Bendis and Romita Jr.’s best work so far on “Avengers”. What sets their fourth issue apart from the other dozen time travel books coming out this week is that it embraces the often confusing nature of concept. In all of this week’s other releases there’s invariably some character who understands the mechanics of time travel and acts as a guide, explaining the complex situation to everyone else and through them to the reader.

In “Avengers,” the team has been split into two groups, one in the future and one in the present, and both find themselves in the middle of chaotic fights and have no idea what’s going on or how to fix it. Bendis and Romita decide to use that chaos to create a frantic pacing for the story and the action scenes. This is a Bendis Avengers book, which means everyone but Thor talks like Spider-Man, Spider-Man talks like double Spider-Man, and Hawkeye gets all the really good Spider-Man-esque lines. It’s a style that’s not to everyone’s tastes but it all works for me this week because it’s particularly well done with several great dialogue exchanges.

Part of the reason time travel’s a tricky subject is that in reality the guesses we have about how it might actually work, assuming it even could, are far-fetched and confusing as is. So any attempt to deliver exposition to the reader always seems to be an obvious info-dump where the writer goes “here are the rules that will be important to the plot of the story I’m about to tell, pay attention because this will be relevant to plot twists that will happen later.” Bendis’ choice to have the characters instead say to each other, “I have no idea what’s going on and it’s freaking me out” actually helps the reader to identify with them more.

Plus it frees up more time for them to focus on the fun things you can do with time travel. Things like having Killraven show up with Devil Dinosaur, only to have both attacked by Martians that are then blown up by Thor. Things like having a beautiful two-page spread of Thor looking at a New York skyline ravaged by the havoc of the timestream, complete with zeppelins, spaceships, biplanes, pterodactyls, and Galactus thrown in for good measure. And even the story’s strong, with the Next Avengers and the Maestro finally showing up after their cameo in issue 1 and providing an unexpected surprise twist that alters the direction we’d been led to believe the narrative was going.

“Avengers” #4 took a series I’d perceived as so far offering set piece after loosely connected set piece and solidifies what’s come before into a more cohesive story, having a lot of fun along the way in how it does it. It was a welcome alternative to the other time travel books out this week because, while I don’t know about you, I know I’d rather read a story where instead of taking the time to explain how time travel works, the characters just say things like “Explanations can wait, me from the future. First throw me that sword so I can decapitate the Tyrannosaurus charging at me.”

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