The Atlantic seaboard is the home stomping ground of the main branch of the Avengers, while the Pacific features the West Coast division to protect a region more important now than ever before. Foregoing the occasional hero's "small-town" origins, the American Midwest is ignored by the flashier, high-profile heroes fighting heinous crimes in Cities That Never Sleep. The thousands of miles of sleepy towns and quiet fields between coastal metropoli produced this, their own group of champions and protectors, but much like the area's treatment in the film Fargo, the earnestness of the folks in their pursuits can't help but ring a bit silly - as the putting on of airs and pretentions to urban sophistication (New York City needs superheroes; Washington, D.C. could find a good use for them - but Iowa?) unwarranted by the supposedly "super" nature of their powers.

Debuting in West Coast Avengers issue #46 (foiling a robbery at the Milwaukee Farmers and Merchants Trust building), this is the Marvel Universe's superhero ensemble that takes itself... a bit less seriously - not so much in the ragtag, "we may as well form a group" manner of the Defenders, but moreso in their own realization that they are sum and in toto nothing more than a distraction to enemies and a spot of levity for the readers until the Big Guns have time to fly in from the coasts.

The so-called "amateur" superheroes of this team and their dubious powers are as follows:

    Big Bertha: Massive and nigh-indestructible alter-ego of supermodel Ashley Crawford;
    Dinah Soar: Winged woman possessing of some minor sonic powers;
    Doorman: A human whose body can act as a passage between sides of a solid object;
    Flatman: What can I say? He's not 2-dimensional, but the man is really, really flat - handy for shuffling through cracks, but he tends to get picked up and carried away by the breeze;
    Mister Immortal, the ostensible leader: Comes back to life after about ten minutes of very temporary death. That's it. Can't fly, can't shoot lasers out his nose, can't turn into an elephant - just can't be kept down.
WCA members Hawkeye and Mockingbird saw potential in the group early on (in 'spirit' rather than aptitude) and for a time took on the task of training them, permitting them limited access to benefits of being an official part of the Avengers franchise. Later renamed themselves the Lightning Rods in emulation of then-top-dogs the Thunderbolts - and back again after the 'Bolts' heinous secret was aired. Last seen working with S.H.I.E.L.D. to take down the Thunderbolts. Wish them luck - they'll need it in spades.

Documented appearances after their first include:

    November 1989, Avengers #309
    September 1989, Avengers West Coast #48
    October 1989, Avengers West Coast #49
    January 1990, Avengers #313
    February 1990, Avengers West Coast #55
    July 1990, Avengers West Coast #60
    Avengers Annual #19 (1990)
    Novemer 1990, Avengers West Coast #64
    January 1991, Quasar #18
    April 1991, Avengers West Coast #69
    Avengers West Coast Annual #6 (1991)
    November 1997, Deadpool vol. II #10
    December 1997, Deadpool vol. II #11
    June 1998, Thunderbolts #15
    July 1998, Thunderbolts #16
    August 1998, Thunderbolts #17
    April 1999, Thunderbolts #25
    March 2001, Deadpool vol. II #50

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 1960sthe 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.

Writer:Dan Slott
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.

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