March 7, 2010

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Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers

Written by Chris Eliopoulos
Illustrated by Ig Guara (with Colleen Coover)
With stories by Various Writers and Artists
Marvel Pets Handbook section coordinated by Michael Hoskin and others
Marvel

This one took all my willpower to wait for a trade. I mean really--it's a story about pets from the Marvel Universe getting together to save the day. It's one of those things almost guaranteed to be good, and the story inside does not disappoint.

Reed Richards is off trying to quietly save the universe when Lockjaw is told to stop bothering him. In the meantime, he realizes that he knows the problem--the Infinity Gems are on earth and ready to cause trouble!

Since no human (or Inhuman) will listen to him, Lockjaw looks up heroes of different species to gather up the gems for safekeeping. But can they survive the dangerous places where the gems lurk? And what of those who want the power for themselves? The team must face one of the worst villains of the Marvel Universe in order to safeguard the world. Are they up to the task? Pet Avengers...Assemble!

The plot itself is a familiar one. It's a quest, with the usual gathering of heroes, struggle for survival, and a final battle with a foe seemingly too powerful to stop. We've read this story before, of course, from Lord of the Rings to Dragonlance, but I like the way Eliopoulos uses an animal cast to put a new spin on the idea. Plus, who can argue with a story that ends with a villain capable of killing so many of Earth's heroes over time trying to dodge cat scratches and Thunder-Frog lightning?

I haven't read a lot of Eliopoulos's past work, but from what I've seen he's one of those writers who believes that a comic story can be enjoyed by all ages simply by writing a good comic with engaging characters. There is no need to make the plot realistic (i.e. graphic) because this is a comic book. People sometimes like to read a comic just to have fun, and that's the type of story we get here.

To do otherwise would be foolhardy. We are talking about a story that features talking animals, and even in Marvel context that's rather unusual. There was only one way to go with this story--fun--and Eliopoulos brings the fun in spades. From utilizing the dog featured in Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends to giving Niels (Speedball's cat) an attitude to having Colleen Coover draw the origin of a spinoff of Simonson's Frog Thor, this book is a delight to longtime Marvel readers getting to see everyone from Redwing to President Obama's dog given a voice we'd never see in the regular comics.

The best part is that in doing so, Eliopoulos creates a team with the same kind of problematic personalities that make for the best human Avengers rosters. Frog Thor is the godly one, Redwing brings the arrogance, Lockheed is the reluctant warrior, and Niels (given the codename of Hairball) provides the sarcastic wit. As a team, they come together at the right time but you always get the sense that they could just as easily fall apart. It's a nice touch that gives the story a bit of depth if you take some time to stop and think about it.

If you just want to sit back and enjoy the story, though, that's fine, too. After all, sometimes a bunch of cats and dogs and birds fleeing for their life from a dinosaur is enough all on its own, without extra meaning.

Part of what makes this story work so well is artist Guara's illustrations. He manages to give the animals a human quality in their faces and reactions without anthropomorphizing them. Thus, Niels can sneer, but it's a sneer that makes sense on the face of a cat. Perhaps his best work is with Lockjaw, because he cannot speak. Thus, the ability to give him facial expressions while still being a giant dog is important to the quality of the story, and I think he nails it.

When he is drawing humanoids, Guara's expressions are also quite good. Richards looks every bit the absent-minded professor and the big bad villain has just the right balance between menace and over the top evil written all over him. I'd love to see more of his work in the future.

The backup stories give us a little spotlight on the Pet Avengers. I like how each of them spotlights a different aspect of being a hero in the world of Marvel. Frog Thor learns the burden of power, for instance while Redwing is caught in another of the Marvel hero hangups--guilt. Meanwhile, Lockjaw and Ms. Lion understand that being a hero doesn't always mean getting a reward. Am I thinking about these backup stories too hard? Probably, but as I mentioned, the fun of this trade is the ability to appreciate it on so many levels.

Your love of Marvel should guide whether or not to read the Pet Handbook. It's a total geek trip through the various pets of the Marvel Universe, ranging from the characters in Pet Avengers to the Mole Man's creatures to the horses ridden by the Norse Gods. I thought it was a lot of fun, but then again, I am a member of the Mighty Marvel Marching Society, so linking the whale of Moby Dick to the behemoths Namor used to menace the Surface World is just my cup of tea. If it's yours, too, then you'll love this addition to the book.

Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers, like the recently-retired Marvel Adventures line, shows that if you want to read comics that are just like the ones Stan and Jack and Steve and Roy and John used to make, they're still out there. Even if you prefer your stories with a more modern feel, I'd definitely recommend checking out this book. It's got just the right blend of humor and action that makes for a great story. If you used to like superhero comics but have moved away because of the violence, you really need to give this book a try.

After all, where else do you get to see a talking Frog speak fake Norse English? I really liked Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers, and I think you will, too.