As the previous node explains, the Great Lakes Avengers have been tooling around the Marvel Universe since their 1989 debut in West Coast Avengers. They follow an established tradition of spoof superheroes who co-exist with the more seriously-sold characters. The 1940s saw the tongue-in-cheek adventures of the original Red Tornado, and even Plastic Man emphasized the comical aspects of his powers. DC created a humorous hero team in the 1960s—the Inferior Five, and they carried their own title for a time. The Flaming Carrot provided an independent take on the genre, and also introduced the Mystery Men, who found their way onto film. In 2005, Marvel (having already sent themselves up in the 70s with Howard the Duck and more recently with Deadpool) gave the Great Lakes Avengers a mini-series, which blends superheroic adventures with obvious satiric jibes at comic book trends and conventions. In particular, the four issues of GLA mock the stereotypical readership, and direct a number of pointed remarks at DC’s Identity Crisis series.
SQUIRREL GIRL: Monkey Joe and I were doing a P.S.A. for the kids, warning’em about replicable acts 'n' stuff.
GRASSHOPPER: Kids? What kids? Only people reading comics these days are overweight men in their thirties with poor hygiene. And still living with their parents. Heck, if most of'em did some a' the dangerous crap in this comic, it'd probably do the human gene pool a favor. That is, if any of 'em had a chance of reproducing sexually.
MONKEY JOE: Hey, fanboys! Don't take that lying down! Write an angry letter to Marvel today!
The story recaps and develops the origins of the team, which begins with Wisconsin resident Craig Hollis.
After multiple suicide attempts end with his timely restoration to full health, Craig Hollis realizes that he has superpowers, and becomes the hero, Mr. Immortal. He soon realizes that returning a few moments after he gets shot doesn't go a long way towards stopping crimes, and so he puts out a personal ad and attracts an assembly of third-rate do-gooders. The original line-up consists of Immortal, Big Bertha, Dinah Soar, Doorman, and Flatman, but the roster expands, diminishes, and changes over the course of the mini-series. Several established Marvel heroes, including Spider-man and Wolverine, turn down offers to join. However, the team does acquire the ill-fated Grasshopper, and Central Park's resident heroes, Squirrel Girl and Monkey Joe.
The GLA play cards a lot and have a VW Jetta (the Quin-Jetta) as their super-mobile. Their achievements include stopping one minor supervillain and presiding over a mall opening. But then, trouble with the original Avengers gives the fledgling team hope that they can rise to the occasion and become real heroes.
They experience great difficulty being taken seriously; in the first issue, they rush to the scene of a crime, only to find that the Avengers have arrived. The established team asks their Great Lakes counterparts to sit out of a battle so they won't get hurt.
In addition to these lighter touches, GLA revels in mocking comic-book handling of controversial topics. The frequent, often temporary deaths of superheroes get parodied to the point of excess throughout the series. Flatman, meanwhile, long rumoured to be gay, comes out, and feels he must address potential misconceptions of gay people.
Issue #3 opens with Squirrel Girl and Big Bertha commenting on the treatment of female characters in superhero comic books, and making several pointed references to Identity Crisis. Bertha suggests that the questionable handling of women and women's issues may reflect the hostility of geeky male readers and writers, "overweight men in their thirties with bad hairlines who never got any action in high school." Of course, all of this serves as a caution that we shall see questionable treatment of women in this very issue. We learn that Big Bertha must purge herself, bulimic-like, in order to shed her monumental bulk and return to her beautiful secret identity1, and the artists provide a graphic depiction. A crossing guard in the same issue complains, after she saves his life, that with "tons of hot super-chicks in the world," he "has to be saved by Big Bertha."
Perhaps most disquieting, the story also pokes fun at Mr. Immortality’s Frank Grimes-like childhood. Suicide, death, eating disorders, and being dumped by your girlfriend can perhaps be acceptable fodder for dark humour. But child abuse? That seems low, even for this comic.
Great Lakes Avengers eventually gives the heroes a real case to solve, complete with a red herring, an Identity Crisis-style villains lounge, a universe-threatening danger, and a last-second rescue. Of course, the world remains oblivious to their help, but the surviving members end their series determined to persevere. They do, however, make some significant changes, deciding that they no longer wish to be the Great Lakes Avengers....
In its better moments, Great Lakes Avengers recalls Steve Gerber's work at Marvel in the 1970s. The series may not be classic reading, but comic fans will find much of it funny-- provided they don't take themselves too seriously.
Artists: Paul Pelletier, Rick Magyar, Wil Quintana.
1. Say…. What happens to the Incredible Hulk's extra mass when he becomes Bruce Banner?
Portions of this review, by this author, appeared previously at Bureau42.