Maximizing The Maximoff - John Byrne's West Coast Avengers

Mar 23, 2021
Cover of West Coast Avengers #43 featuring Scarlet Witch, Wasp, Tigra, Wonder Man and Hawkeye/Mockingbird and

The wonderfully inventive and surprisingly moving WandaVision has obviously heightened interest in its two lead characters, with a number of classic comic book tales garnering more attention than they have done in quite some time. One particular run had on obvious influence on the show in a number of ways (check out those ebay prices!): John Byrne's stint on West Coast Avengers/Avengers West Coast from 1989/1990, issues #42 to #57 to be exact (the title received its word reshuffle to Avengers West Coast with #47). It was this set of comics that no doubt contributed to some of the wilder fan theories as the show progressed (that eventfully proved to be unfounded, of course - Mephisto! Magneto! Mutants!) but it did also provide a lot of material that was co-opted into the show's narrative.

The significant change that Byrne set in motion during his time on the series was the major upscaling of Scarlet Witch's power set. The road to that outcome comes at the expense of Wanda Maximoff's emotional state as she's forced through the veritable wringer via a succession of events that eventually tip her over the edge. Her husband, The Vision, is dismantled by a coalition of governments (fearful of a repeat attempt by a compromised synthezoid to take control of global communication networks), her two children are revealed to have very dark origins, a resurrected Vision exhibits a lack of emotion that distances him from his spouse, and Wonder Man refuses to give up a copy of his brain waves to reset the Vision's emotional capacity because he has secretly fallen in love with Wanda (it's comics, man!). 

Cover of West Coast Avengers #45 featuring White Vision towering over Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, The Wasp, Hawkeye and ?US Agent

Arguably too much trauma is piled onto Wanda in a relatively short space of time, even if it does give her character an edge and depth that weren't previously present but, when looking at the run in its entirety, it's clearly her in the spotlight given the emphasis on her character development, and various other team members do have their own issues to deal with (Tigra succumbing to her feral nature, Hawkeye/Mockingbird working through their estrangement, Wonder Man and his unrequited love, US Agent bristling because no one wants him there...). Long-running comic book series are, to all intents and purposes, soap operas, full of melodramatic situations and conflict between characters, and that was especially applicable in this era, before six-issue story arcs became the norm for the trade paperback market, and a writer could keep their overall narrative going for as long as they saw fit. Byrne juggled his ongoing plotlines with cameo appearances (the East Coast Avengers!), new characters (the Great Lakes Avengers!) and crossovers ('Acts Of Vengeance'!) without losing sight of the direction he was taking his core cast.

At his best (and this series came at what could be considered the end of his peak period at Marvel) Byrne was a master of blending heightened character dynamics with some of the more outlandish concepts in comics, weaving in past continuity but adeptly manipulating where necessary to move things forward and keep them fresh (see the appearance of the original Human Torch, who at one point was believed to house the Vision's consciousness in the same artificial body). The writer could take elements of past storylines and adapt them to fit something more to his liking and he did it so well - often with the assistance of several pages of 'flashback exposition' - that he could make even the most bizarre and convoluted ideas land without much friction.

Cover of Avengers West Coast #50 featuring The Human Torch flying up out of a graveyard leaving the Avengers team below

Some may say Bryne's artistic pinnacle was during his time on Uncanny X-Men, and there's really no question that he established himself as one of the all-time greats there, but even nearly a decade later his mastery of the form was evident, from the choreography from one panel to the next, or the vividly rendered expressions of the characters, or the design and impact of the front covers (which include some very nicely judged homages to more widely known images). There's an uptick in visual quality when Paul Ryan joins as inker later in the run, but throughout each issue there's a definite sense of energy and urgency emanating from page to page, with character confrontations feeling as charged as the more elaborate action scenes.

There are elements that made their way into WandaVision (White Vision, the genesis of Wanda's children, the potentially villainous reaction to loss) but as with much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are never any straight adaptations but instead a building of something new from what's available. So, even though Byrne didn't finish his story as intended (an editorial disagreement led to his early exit, with Roy Thomas coming in to pick up the threads, revealing Immortus as the overall architect of Wanda's downfall), for the duration of this fantastic (and influential) run he gets to do what he does best: provide thrillingly inventive, soapy superhero drama. His reshaping of Wanda (from her state of mind to her power set) was picked up later by other creators (most notably Brian Michael Bendis, leading to Marvel's 2005 event series, House Of M), but it's a prime example of the mark this particular writer/artist has left on the mythos, and with a She-Hulk TV series on its way, alongside the introduction of the Fantastic Four and the X-Men into the MCU, there's a definite possibility that Byrne's impact on the future of the cinematic and televisual franchise will be felt even more strongly over the next few years.

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