Avengers #4: Time Without Panels
Spoilers for Avengers #4 follow.
When I was a kid, I started reading Avengers comics with a brand new issue #1—the beginning of volume 3, post-Heroes Return, with Kurt Busiek at the helm. Around the same time, Busiek also wrote the miniseries and quintessential Kang the Conqueror story Avengers Forever, which is often referred to as “continuity porn,” as it goes to incredible lengths to make sense of contradictory moments throughout past Avengers stories. Maybe because of that, Avengers comics for me have always been at their best when obsessed with their own history—Busiek had such a knack for digging up forgotten characters and tying up loose ends, teasing out story and significance from details everyone else had overlooked.
Kang, with his complicated history (seriously, try reading his Wikipedia page) and oft-inconsistent time travel mechanics, was a perfect choice for Avengers Forever, because as a villain who conquers civilizations throughout time, he is uniquely poised to make the exploration of Avengers continuity literal, rather than merely expositional. Now, Mark Waid and Mike del Mundo are telling a Kang story of their own in the current Avengers title, which also feels poised to be one of those great, legacy-obsessed stories. Unlike Busiek’s work, though, Waid and del Mundo are less concerned with constructing a sensible continuity. Instead, the Kang War is embracing the absurd and infinite possibilities of a time travel story.
The briefest recap I can muster: toward the end of All-New All-Different Avengers, a series which transitioned into the current Avengers title and serves as a prelude to this story, the Vision decides to travel forward in time to the 31st Century to kidnap Kang as a baby, thus preventing him from growing up to become the Conqueror. In Avengers, multiple versions of Kang, spawned from different paradoxes, retaliate by killing the Avengers as infants. Of course, their adult selves are saved from the “rolling timewave of consequence” by being brought into Limbo by yet another Kang, this one having long ago seen the error of his ways. The Avengers then decide to take the fight to Kang himself. This brings us to issue #4, which is a slightly more grounded break from the antics of the previous three. But what keeps the issue from feeling like mere filler, a lull so we can catch our breath before the climactic battle to come, is that it’s a comic where form and function intersect perfectly, where the figurative underpinnings of the story stack up so well with the literal action on the page.
On its surface, Avengers #4 is very similar in style and structure to the aforementioned Vision-centric issue that set the whole story off, in that it focuses on a single character—Kang, in this case. The first thing you might notice is there is no dialogue, only narration, the monomaniacal Kang monologuing from his citadel at the end of time. Kang’s musings about how he became Kang are chockfull of contradictions, the perfect reflection of a story that has embraced paradoxes as a both a narrative engine and a source of power for time travelers. For example, he describes his first trips through time, wherein he rules Egypt as Rama-Tut and later takes over the 41st Century. Already, he is a conqueror. But later, when he finds himself in a tomb forgotten by history, he claims that was “when I decided time could be—must be—rewritten,” the moment he vows to “carve a legacy that could never fall from memory.” But we’ve seen him in his past, in our future—we know this was what he always wanted all along.
Then there’s the art. Mike del Mundo’s art is some of my favorite I've ever seen in a Marvel comic—it is at once cartoonier and more sophisticated than the house style, think Alex Ross on LSD. There’s a surrealist bent to it, everything fluid and flexible, and here he elevates it to a natural Dalí-inspired extreme, with streams of melted clocks flowing in and out of Kang’s memories. Just as the textual elements forego conventional comic dialogue, the art ditches panels entirely. That’s right—every page is a full-bleed splash, either single- or double-wide. This choice makes every page a real visual treat, and calls to mind the portraits that dictators have commissioned and hung everywhere. But it’s also a deliberate way to take us into the world of Kang. Sequential paneling is how comics show the passage of time. We understand that (in Western comics at least) if a panel on the left side of the page shows one moment, we'll see the next in the panel to the right of it. What better way to examine the psyche of “a man who can exist near-simultaneously across the millennia” than to have a significant indicator of time done away with entirely, allowing every memory and moment to overlap, blend into one? The story’s form molds itself around the character at the center of the story.
And yet, there is a tension between the literal action and the exposition. Though it may feel like all of what has happened to Kang washes over us at once, the issue only covers a brief moment in his life. We are really just in his citadel orbiting the last dying star, listening, frozen in time as “entropy slows every atom, every molecule into immobility.” Or maybe not, if we reconsider our own understanding of time. If Kang can be anywhen throughout history simultaneously, then in some way, all of time is happening at once, and if that’s the case, then the memories Kang recounts are more than just flashbacks—as he remembers these moments in his past, he is also in ancient Egypt, just coming to power. He is in the 41st century, finding his forgotten self, and he is confronting the Avengers at every point in time they’ve fought him and, every time, he is failing to defeat them.
Avengers #4 is bookended by one final contradiction, a paradox, an undoing. At the outset, Kang is removing, or perhaps donning, his mask, “a watchful face that is forever timeless.” He senses the Avengers splintering through the past, hurtling toward him and says, “If they believe I fear them, they are mistaken.” At the issue’s close, when he sees Avengers from throughout the team’s history arrive to confront him, his mask falls away, revealing his face for what it really is, or perhaps bringing into focus what emotion the mask showed all along: “For the first time in recorded history… I am afraid.” His boast about not fearing the Avengers, made only moments ago in the present action of the story, is erased. How much has changed in so little time. It is a Mobius strip of an ending, an ouroboros swallowing its beginning whole.