Sunday, February 4, 2007

Avengers Assemble!: A Pseudo-Critical History of The Avengers - Part II

A Climatic Culmination of Cooperative Creativity!

Roy Thomas replaced Stan Lee as writer with issue #35, and would chronicle The Avengers for the next seventy issues. He was joined by artist John Buscema for around half of those issues, with Don Heck, Sal Buscema, Barry Smith and Neal Adams (among others) also lending a hand. Although Lee and Kirby were the team that created the Avengers, from around the 50s onwards Thomas and Buscema would produce what was arguably the definitive run of Avengers comics. More literate than Lee and more classical than Kirby, Thomas and Buscema created a world for the Avengers that drew heavily upon both science fiction and mythology, but which was still realistic enough to make you believe that the Avengers actually live in a mansion in the center of New York.[6] Subsequent creative teams would each attempt to capture the epic scope of the Thomas/Buscema tales, while keeping the Avengers grounded in the city that surrounds them.

Thomas, for one, was evidently keen to mix things up for his heroes. He had the Avengers travel through time and to alternate universes, sent them into space to stop interstellar conflicts, storm the halls of Olympus, home of the Greek gods, and fight giant demons made out of fire and ice. But he also had the Avengers head to the mountains to avenge a tribe of Native Americans, protect the streets from the dangers of racist hate-groups, and hire themselves out as demolition workers to a greedy tycoon. Notably, Thomas tightened up the relationships between the main cast members, with Yellowjacket (formerly Goliath) marrying the Wasp, Goliath (formerly Hawkeye) revealing his true identity to his teammates, albeit obliquely, and the Vision and the Scarlet Witch gradually falling in love. Most of the line-up either lived in or spent the majority of their time hanging around the Mansion, while solo adventurers Thor, Iron Man and Captain America were reserved for guest appearances.

Buscema’s art, meanwhile, reflected this blend between the everyday and the extraordinary. When a long-haired, muscle-bound warlord stumbles into the room and proclaims himself Arkon the Magnificent, you believe it. Conversely, Buscema also makes it seem perfectly natural for a police officer to threaten a ten foot hero with arrest for blocking city traffic. Buscema’s artwork is a little darker in tone than that of most other Avengers artists; no-one walks when they can prowl, no-one talks when they can scream in anguish, and a lot of the members that appear during his run – the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, the Black Panther and the Black Knight – aren’t exactly the most happy-go-lucky bunch of characters. One often gets the sense when reading through his stories that the Avengers’ world teeters on the edge of destruction. Nevertheless, Buscema’s art set the visual template for other artists to follow – strong figures, dynamic angles, and just the right amount of detail to set the scene for the action. Having said all that though, let’s start with an issue drawn by Buscema’s predecessor, Don Heck, to show how the world has become a much more disturbing place for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

Time, the Rushing River…

Although in The Avengers, readers are continuously confronted with the possibility that things may take a turn for the worse, at the end of the day, our heroes are still around to protect the world from those who would threaten it. By the time the next issue rolls around, most of the possible courses that events may have taken are shelved are forgotten, thus lending a seeming inevitability to the Avengers’ lives. In Avengers Annual #2, the current-day Avengers are confronted with an alternate history in which the original line-up, under the influence of the villainous Scarlet Centurion, have effectively taken over the world.[7] The Centurion has basically tricked the Avengers into neutralizing every being with superpowers, under the pretence that this will correct a ‘cosmic imbalance’ and enable the Centurion to create a paradise on Earth. The Avengers therefore believe that they are doing ‘good’ in following the Centurion’s instructions, but the results are almost as bad as if their worst foe had been left unchecked. All the heroes are defeated (even before the super villains), and the public stand in silent fear of anyone in a costume, as shown when the current-day line-up arrive on this world.[8] Clearly, despite the Avengers’ best intentions, something has gone horribly wrong.

Or has it? Maybe it’s the case that one’s intentions are defined by one’s actions. ‘She’s snarling out her words so venomously… with such strong hatred!’ notes the Wasp as she fights against her alternate self, ‘years of self appointed world-saving have made her as cruel as the worst super-villain!’ (Annual #2) Or perhaps one’s intentions are irrelevant, as long as the results of one’s actions are for the best. ‘Are we certain we have the right to oppose them… merely to safeguard our own existence?’ the current-day team wonders, ‘If we were guilty of robbing the earth of a virtual golden age..!’ Captain America convinces them otherwise, ‘Mankind has often tried to escape from freedom… into the open arms of tyranny! Over the long haul, the result’s always been the same…’ These Avengers will fight to stop any dictatorship, benign or otherwise.

‘Time is like a river,’ says the Black Panther, ‘Dam it up at any one point… and it has no choice but to flow elsewhere… along other, easier routes!’ While it may seem, in hindsight, that history is following its natural course, any other course would seem just as natural had it occurred. When the new Avengers have left the Mansion and we check in on what the original Avengers are doing, it’s as if we’ve been following these characters for the past five years, and the new Avengers are the interlopers. Where the two teams fundamentally differ is in their attitude to history. The ‘old’ Avengers are aiming to shape history, as shown when they ban all scientific inquiry ‘lest any other mortal gain super-powers’ (as is wont to happen in the Marvel Universe). The ‘new’ Avengers, on the other hand, are willing to take their chances. They would be content to let this new timeline stand, if only it meant that mankind had freedom of choice. The ‘new’ Avengers are not dictators but facilitators: they believe that if you let history take whatever course it will things will generally work out for the best, but they’re still ready to help out if things should go wrong.

Further adventures through the looking-glass take place in issues #69-70, when the Avengers face off against the Squadron Sinister, a group of super-villains that bear more than a passing resemblance to DC Comics’ premier super-team, the Justice League of America.[9] Once again heroes become villains, although the Squadron’s first appearance may be more a case of cross-company rivalry than anything else. However, the Avengers’ next encounter with the Squadron turns everything back on its head. Our heroes have returned from Arkon’s dimension only to find that they are the last witnesses to a ‘doomed and burning earth’ (#85). It turns out that they have traveled two weeks into the future, but with the help of the Scarlet Witch’s hex-power, manage to return back to their own time. Or so it seems – when they enter their meeting-room they find it occupied by Nighthawk of the Squadron Sinister and four other strangers who claim that they are the intruders. Yes, the Avengers are once again trapped in a parallel world, but on this world the Squadron Sinister are not villains at all, instead, they are Earth’s mightiest heroes - the Squadron Supreme. One couldn’t blame the Avengers for wanting to go sit in a corner and hope that they wake up, but they are intent on saving this world from destruction. The obvious reason for doing so is that they are trapped on this world, so that if it dies, they die too. But, in another sense, whatever world the Avengers happen to be on is their own. The Avengers are eventually returned safe and sound to what seems to be their original home, but the Vision is not so easily reassured. ‘There may be paradoxes within paradoxes…’ he says to Quicksilver, ‘How can we be certain that we have not been rescued by a third world – all but identical to our own?’ (#86) Don’t judge a place lest ye be judged – you may be in for a longer stay than you think.

Whose Side Are You On, Baby?

When the Native American hero, the Red Wolf, tells how his parents have been killed for refusing to sell their land, some of the Avengers think that while his cause is just, it pales beside the menace of the Zodiac Cartel. Captain America thinks that one shouldn’t be so quick to make this judgment. ‘We run around calling ourselves Avengers --,’ he tells his teammates, ‘yet when this man comes before us with something to avenge… we turn a deaf ear – because his cause isn’t world-shattering enough for us! We forget that the world can end with a whimper – as well as a bang!’ (#80) As the Avengers entered the 1970s, they would increasingly realise that evil need not come with super-powers. Angry mobs and organized crime are potentially just as dangerous to the well-being of society as the plans of ‘costumed madmen’.

One of the main themes of Thomas’ run is how one spark of hatred can quickly lead to mass hysteria. In issues #73-74, a group known as the Sons of the Serpent blow up the Equal Employment Bureau and target high-profile African-American figures such as television presenter Montague Hale, singer Monica Lynne, and Avenger and King of the Wakandians the Black Panther. The incidents ignite a fiery on-air debate, led by Hale and bigoted late-night host Dan Dunn that threatens to divide America along racial lines. Similarly, in issue #92, a politician named H. Warren Craddock leads a witch-hunt against the Avengers’ ally, the alien Captain Marvel (essentially xenophobia on a cosmic scale), which results in a group of rioters tearing up the Avengers’ mansion. Most insidious of all though is the violence stirred up in #98 by the mysterious Mr. Tallon, who in moments transforms a ‘curious crowd’ into a bunch of ‘frenzied revolutionaries’. The objects of their war-mongering are ostensibly the representatives of an (unnamed) Asian communist nation, but the crowd quickly turns into a chaotic mass of pure hatred that doesn’t care who or what it engulfs. Mr. Tallon’s power derives not from his arguments, but from a hymn of martial pipe music that fills anyone who hears it with the desire to ‘smash America’s foes’ (#98). Hence, when Captain America and the Avengers turn up to try and reason with the crowd, all of their ideas of peace and brotherhood soon fly out the window. ‘Let’s go tear up those Commies!’ (#98) shouts a rabid Captain amidst the storm, and the dark side of national pride is shown in all its horror.

In all of these cases, however, those who incite the intolerance turn out to have another agenda entirely. The Supreme Serpents are eventually revealed to be the bickering TV personalities Dunn and Hale, who put on their ‘racist act’ for the sole reason that everyone would be watching. ‘Did you truly think we cared for anyone – any cause,’ Hale asks the Avengers, ‘except power for ourselves?’ Similarly, the real H. Warren Craddock turns out to have been replaced by a shape-changing Skrull, and Mr. Tallon is actually Ares, Greek god of war, who is stirring up trouble as part of his plot to crush the Earth forevermore.[10] There are at least two views that one could take on this tendency for racial prejudice to be revealed as nothing more than a super-villian’s grab for power. On one hand, it could be seen to trivialize racism by attributing its cause to ‘costumed madmen’ rather than to particular social and political factors. However, another argument that I have seen advanced is that it demonstrates how baseless racism really is. This seems plausible enough, although continually disguising the identity of the perpetrators does seem like a choice that has been made mostly for dramatic effect.

Whatever explanation you hold to, it’s hard to see exactly what the Avengers are fighting for or against here. Hale speaks to Monica Lynne of ‘the cause’, but his cause turns out to be nothing but a sham. Nevertheless, after Hale is exposed, both Monica and the Black Panther are convinced that they have gained a new purpose. ‘A cause may be right,’ says the Panther, ‘Even though a leader or two may be wrong.’ (#74) But who or what exactly is standing in the way of this cause? Super-villains? Gullible fools? Perhaps the answer is that there are no sides, but that each person must try to help others find the truth behind the lies that people tell. A teammate of the Panther’s, who has no ties to any race, religion or creed, would show just how arbitrary the distinctions the human race makes for itself can be.

Who Is The Vision?

As the Avengers assemble to decide whether or not to accept the Vision into their ranks, Goliath/Henry Pym tells their scarlet-faced ally that he is not really an android - but a synthozoid - who is ‘basically human in every way… except your body is made of synthetic parts!’ (#58) The Vision is not so sure, ‘I wonder… is it possible to be… “basically human”?’ he muses. Despite Hank’s encouragement, we often see the Vision doubt his status as a ‘human being’, and perhaps with good cause. He was created by the evil robot Ultron-5 to be nothing more than ‘an inhuman slave’, without a name or ‘soul’. When he first attacks the Wasp, she describes him as ‘some sort of unearthly, inhuman vision --,’ (#57), an apt description for the ghostly figure that swoops into her apartment, like a stalker from a B-grade horror flick. Except that any human stalker, when faced with a locked room, would have to try and bash the door down to get at the terrified girl; the Vision, on the other hand, simply has to lower his density and walk through the wall. Even after the Avengers have accepted the Vision as both a friend and a colleague, they still find it hard to get over how ‘unspeakably cold’ (#58) the android’s voice is.

On the other hand, the Vision certainly does show some human traits. For one thing, he has a tendency to question his own reason for being. It’s true that when he first encounters the Avengers, he seemingly has a limited capacity for independent thought - ‘There is nothing to reason about, human ---,‘ he says to Goliath, ‘I was sent to destroy you – and destroy you I must!’ (#57) But later, when he faces off against Ultron-5, different thoughts are upon his mind. ‘I have human thoughts… human memories!’ he says to his creator, ‘Why, Ultron-5? Who… or what… am I?’ (#57) Other signs that the Vision may be more human than first thought include the hatred he feels for his creator Ultron-5, and most famously, the tear he sheds when the Avengers finally accept him as one of their own.[11] It turns out that the Vision’s mind is based on the ‘brain patterns’ of the late Wonder Man, which the Avengers copied and Ultron stole from their lab. The Vision uses this to his advantage in issue #79, when he reveals to Wonder Man’s brother, the Grim Reaper, that he has the mind of his lost sibling, thus leading the Reaper to free the Avengers lest he condemn his brother to death. The Vision’s use of the Reaper’s fraternal ties suggests an understanding of human psychology that is beyond that of a mere machine.

However, does the fact that the Vision shows human traits qualify him to be a part of the human race? The Vision’s first betrayal of Ultron turns out to be part of his programming, and Ultron briefly re-gains control of the Vision in issues #66 and #67. These incidents raise some doubt about how much free will the Vision truly possesses. Furthermore, as the Vision notes, the robotic Ultron is just as prone to showing emotion as his progeny, as shown when he hurls himself at the Vision in rage, (temporarily) destroying himself in the process. After defeating the Reaper in issue #79, the Vision decides to leave the Avengers, claiming that ‘I am not his brother – nor am I a brother to any true human being!’ (#79) It may be that while the Vision understands Eric Williams’ emotions, he can not feel them in the same way that the Reaper does. However, the Vision’s exile from the human race does not last long – in issue #80 we see him posing as a streetwalker, complete with rubber mask. In that issue, he decides to help the Red Wolf bring the murderers of his family to justice. ‘I had [quit],’ he tells the Red Wolf, ‘for reasons of my own! Yet now I am back – for better reasons!’ (#80) It seems that the Vision has worked out that he is better off being a part of the human race than being apart from it. But what is the basis for his decision?

Perhaps a clue can be found by looking at the Vision’s closest tie to the human race - his burgeoning love for the Scarlet Witch. One of the first signs of the Vision’s affection for Wanda is when he surrenders himself to save her from a gang of armed hitmen. ‘Before now, I’ve always thought of him as cold… aloof,’ thinks the Scarlet Witch, ‘But I was wrong – so wrong!’ (#81) While it may seem that the Vision’s emotions often overcome his reason where Wanda is concerned, the line between the two is not always clear. When some of the Avengers, including the Scarlet Witch, are captured by a Skrull battalion, the Vision’s anger seemingly gets the better of him, as he bashes the Skrull commandant half-to-death in his efforts to learn where they have taken his lady love. Iron Man yells at him to stop, ‘You’ll kill him! You don’t know what you’re doing!’ (#96) The Vision corrects him, ‘My brain is a miniaturized, high-speed computer. I always know what I am doing. I—am—killing--him.’ Similarly, when the Olympians turn up to kidnap one-time Avenger Hercules, the Vision is too busy playing ‘nursemaid’ to Wanda to help, earning him the ire of Hawkeye of the process. The Vision is unperturbed, ‘I reject your line of reasoning,’ he tells the archer, ‘I help those I care for, Hawkeye, above all else!’ (#99) What the Vision realizes is that cold logic can only take you so far; once you begin to examine the reasons behind your actions, eventually you’ll come to something that has no foundation, no argument supporting it, but which is simply a matter of choice. And if that is the case, then why not follow what you feel is right, since that makes as much sense as anything else.

Covers copyright Marvel Comics

[6] Lee, however, has everyone beat for wordplay.
[7] It is later revealed that, through the vagaries of time travel, the Scarlet Centurion is actually an earlier version of Kang the Conqueror.
[8] Two other interesting points about this world: 1) of the original Avengers, it is the Hulk that is the least willing to follow the instructions of the Scarlet Centurion, and 2) once the Avengers have done their dirty work, the only super-beings who still oppose them are Doctor Doom, Doctor Octopus, Electro and the Mandarin.
[9] Superman is re-cast as Hyperion, last survivor of an alien world; Batman becomes the bored tycoon Nighthawk; Green Lantern appears as the prism-powered Doctor Spectrum; and the Flash morphs into the super-fast Whizzer (who like the Flash, also took his name from an old comic-book hero).
[10] And don’t forget the Valkyrie, leader of the short-lived feminist super-group the Lady Liberators (seen in issue #83), who turns out to be the Avengers’ old foe, the Enchantress.
[11] Note that, in a sign of their trust in the Vision, the Avengers are all unmasked when they induct him into their ranks.