Thursday, April 26, 2007

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

The Passion Only We Two Could Have

Roy Thomas’ successor as Avengers writer was Steve Englehart, who joined the title with issue #106. Perhaps in an effort to emulate Thomas, Englehart’s initial plots tended to rely on shocking and bizarre situations, with the explanations for these situations often being somewhat incongruous. However his later stories were quite effective at stringing out plot-lines over the course of several issues and then tying them together, even if some of the seams showed through. Similarly, the artwork became smoother and cleaner as Englehart’s run went on, with the rough but dynamic sketches of penciler Bob Brown eventually morphing into the gorgeous layouts and backdrops of the very talented George Perez. Notably, Englehart’s ability to juggle several plot-lines simultaneously allowed him to interject an element of soap-opera into the title, which led to a greater focus upon the characters themselves.

The main players in Englehart’s ongoing drama were the Vision and the Scarlet Witch on one hand, and newcomers the Swordsman and Mantis on the other. The Vision and Wanda’s love is still in its early stages when the mustachioed musketeer and his Oriental lady-love arrive on the scene. Mantis appears to be a considerably more accomplished woman than the troubled mutant sorceress: whereas the Witch’s power is unpredictable and leaves her drained, Mantis’ mastery of the martial arts is enough to cripple even the mighty Thor.[12] The Vision and Mantis soon develop a mutual admiration for each other’s abilities. Mantis is impressed by how the Vision saves her after she is thrown off the top of a building, while the Vision in turn is impressed by how Mantis uses logical deduction to dispatch one of their foes. (For the Vision, this is probably the equivalent of Mantis lying naked in his bedroom.) In both body and mind they seem to be a cut above their counterparts. Another similarity is that neither of them knows their true origin. ‘I know what it means to be tutored – or programmed – and not know why,’ says the Vision to Mantis when she comes into his room, ‘—so perhaps, as we seek our own answers, what one of us learns will be of help to the other.’ (#128) ‘Yes, our lives must draw more closely together,’ Mantis replies. As it turns out, there’s no real connection between their pasts at all. When their origins are revealed they are told in parallel narratives, with the Vision only having to go back in time a mere three decades to learn the answers to his past, while Mantis has to travel back to the beginnings of civilization.

And what of those who love them? The Swordsman is the first to become jealous of the Vision’s and Mantis’ mutual admiration society. At heart, the Swordsman feels he is unworthy of Mantis: he is basically considered to be a loser (and is often referred to as such) and continually tries to prove himself to her. This doesn’t always work out for the best – in #123 he tries to exact revenge on the men who killed Mantis’ mother and inadvertently causes the slaughter of the priests who raised her. The Swordsman’s need to validate himself in Mantis’ eyes is considered a sign of weakness by her – when she abandons him in issue #128 she says that she hopes he ‘will prove a stronger man’ than he has been. The Swordsman promptly proves his manliness by becoming a violent, slobbering mess. The Scarlet Witch also tries to prove her worth when she becomes aware of her love’s growing admiration for another: thinking that the Vision is attracted to Mantis’ power she over-compensates by becoming more aggressive in her use of her powers and boasting about ‘crushing’ her foes (#125). But unlike the Swordsman, Wanda channels her feelings of inadequacy into adding another dimension to her powers, as she begins to learn ‘true’ witchcraft from the aged Agatha Harkness. Tellingly, she stays behind from a mission in order to continue her studies, even though it means that she can’t track of what the Vision and ‘that man-trap’ are doing (#130). While Wanda loves the Vision, she can get along without him – a level of independence that the Swordsman has not achieved.

‘It’s Wanda I love,’ the Vision tells Mantis, ‘No matter how irritable she has been lately.’ (#128) For those who believe that true love is destined to be, all these various conflicts are wrapped up rather nicely. When Kang the Conqueror returns to threaten his love the Swordsman pulls himself together and eventually dies a heroic death saving Mantis’ life. The Swordsman’s demise is enough for Mantis to realize how selfish she has been and that she really does love the big screw-up after all. But death does not part them, as the Swordsman’s body is re-animated by an alien presence, allowing the two lovers to be together for all time. Meanwhile the Vision is sufficiently buoyed by learning the secrets of his heritage to ask Wanda to marry him. Hence, after months of speculation, the whole thing comes to a neat little ending with the combined wedding of the two happy couples. The Vision and the Scarlet Witch continue their lives as Avengers, while the Swordsman and Mantis head for the stars. It seems that, in the end, they were nothing more than a passing phase for the Avengers, as the Avengers were nothing more than a passing phase for them.

I’ll Give You More Power!

Whereas, during their early adventures, the Avengers’ foes seemed to take a special pleasure in seeking them out and beating them senseless, in the 1970s the Avengers increasingly found themselves thrown in the way of the merely power-hungry. In issues #129-132 Kang the Conqueror travels to the twentieth century in order to seek out the woman who will be the Celestial Madonna, ‘she who will bear the one!’ (#129) According to Kang, the few records that survive of our era say that ‘her mate… will be the most powerful man on Earth… Father to the child -- and through him, ruler of the heavens!’ (#129) Kang, of course, intends to be that man, and since the indicators show that the Celestial Madonna is a member of the Avengers our heroes are in his sights. It seems that Kang doesn’t lack for ambition, as Thor says, ‘if he be mad, then ‘tis a great madness indeed!’ (#129) Yet after the Avengers thwart his scheme, it appears that Kang will be happy with anything he can get. In issues #141-143, Thor, Hawkeye and new member Moondragon encounter him in the old American West, terrorizing the small town of Tombstone. Stationed in his futuristic citadel, Kang now wants to conquer all of time through conquering the nineteenth century; a fair indication that the Avengers already have him on the back foot.[13] Eventually, when confronted by Thor, Kang panics and turns up the power-levels of his suit beyond capacity, thereby destroying the suit and him self along with it. Kang’s denial that he is no longer synonymous with power is evident in his final words: ‘I’m Kang – invincible!’ he screams as he is torn apart, ‘No! More! Kang! Conquers! Conquers! More! Kang! Kang! KANG’ (#143)

Kang is not the only one seeking an object of seemingly ultimate power. In issues #147-148 the Avengers return to the Squadron Supreme’s world, which is now run by a cartel of corporations through the power of an ‘arcane obscenity’ known as the Serpent Crown. The cartel is headed by U.S. President Nelson Rockefeller on whose head the Crown proudly sits. But those who wear the Crown do not possess its power in as much as it possesses them. The Crown psychically links together all those wear it and in the process each of them becomes the ‘serpent’s slave.’ (#147) The Scarlet Witch comes into possession of the Crown for only a short period of time, but that is enough time for her to turn on her husband, the Vision, when he tries to take it off her. The Crown not only has a hold on its wearers, but by its mere presence, can exert influence over even the mightiest of super-beings, as shown by the Squadron Supreme blindly accepting Rockefeller’s authority. Disguised as the President, new Avenger the Beast delivers a clever parody of Rockefeller’s motives in an attempt to open the Squadron’s eyes to the truth. ‘We run your lives, and you don’t know it…,’ he tells them, ‘all we really want is power! The talk’s just to get you to give it to us!’ (#148) Once the Squadron take on the Avengers’ view and look past the symbol of Rockefeller’s power they quickly realize their Emperor has no clothes (as indeed he does at this point). Like Kang, Rockefeller is banking on a power outside of his self to grant him authority, but once this is gone, he has even less to fall back on.

In issues #164-166, written by Jim Shooter and drawn by John Byrne, Count Nefaria is intent on relying on the power of no-one but himself. He frees a trio of Avengers foes from prison only to steal their powers and increase them a hundredfold, making him essentially the most powerful man on the planet. Nefaria revels in his power because it allows him to ‘indulge any whim I’ve ever had’ (#165), yet it becomes apparent that, as Thor notes, Nefaria’s lust for power arises out of fear. When Thor first attacks Nefaria, the Count pleads with him to stay back and only regains his confidence when he learns that he can withstand the blows of the mighty thunder god. Still, there is something greater that Nefaria shies away from – death. Nefaria’s face is filled with dismay when the aged Whizzer reminds him that he will die within twenty or thirty years, at which point he will be no more than ‘a nightmare that has ended’ (#165). Nefaria hopes to prevent this, only to have the scientist who gave him his powers trick him into believing that he is now aging at an accelerated rate. This drives Nefaria mad, and in an attempt to better mark his passing, he tries to take New York City with him. He is, as Thor says, a man with the power of a god, but without the wisdom to match. The Avengers eventually put a halt to Nefaria’s rampage in spectacular fashion, with the Vision falling an entire mile on top of him, thus grinding him into the street.

Nefaria’s aim of godhood is achieved by another Avengers’ foe, Michael Korvac, who in the process seemingly finds a higher purpose for his power. Korvac’s aim is to ‘make subtle alterations in the fabric of reality, eventually taking control – and correcting the chaos, healing the injustice that civilization has heaped upon a battered universe’ (#175). Led into believing that Korvac is ‘the Enemy’, the Avengers set out to expose him. This comes to a head in the awesome issue #177, in which the Avengers provoke Korvac into battle and he slaughters them one-by-one (!), before eventually dying himself.[14] Thor considers this proof that Korvac is evil, but Moondragon tells him that Korvac has restored the Avengers to life with his dying breath. ‘He was not evil…’ she tells Thor, ‘He sought not to rule us… He wished only to free us from the capricious whims of eternity!’ (#177) Moondragon’s views are debatable – Korvac clearly wants to have authority over all of existence, even if his reign would be a ‘sane and benevolent one’ (#176).[15] Yet, if left unchecked, Korvac’s alterations may well have seemed like part of the natural order of the universe. Again, it all comes down to freedom, and for the Avengers, freedom is more important than peace. But, at the least, the encounter with Korvac shows that the choice between good and evil is not as clear-cut as the Avengers might believe.

Happily Ever After

‘Folks need people who add excitement to their lives,’ says the blue-furred Beast to his good pal Wonder Man at the start of issue #181, ‘people who can do things they can’t –‘, and then he bounces jubilantly into the air.[16] Issues #181-202 are fondly remembered by those Avengers fans who were teenagers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it’s not difficult to see why. During these issues, the Avengers are the bunch of buddies that your average quiet, fantasy-loving white boy wishes he had. They fight giant Japanese robots and skull-faced assassins. They rescue pretty young women and plant kisses on their female foes as they are carted off in handcuffs (as Hawkeye does with Deathbird). They go out drinking until sunrise and stumble back arm-in-arm singing Herman’s Hermits (the Beast and Wonder Man again). And last, but not least, they ‘stick it’ to the man who is causing problems for their happy family, Henry Peter Gyrich, by suggesting that if he wants to remove the Avengers’ government security clearance then perhaps he should go out and fight the supervillains himself.[17] Adding to the communal feel is the fact that no particular creator stamps their authority upon the book during this period; David Micheline is the main writer, but he is helped out by Steven Grant, Jim Shooter and Mark Gruenwald, while star artists John Byrne and George Perez share penciling duties and also make contributions to the plots. If Englehart’s run can be summed up by Mantis and the Vision talking intensely in a dark, spare room then issues #181-202 can be summed up by the Avengers standing around in the snow drinking cocoa.

However, while the boys are off drinking and fighting big robots, things are not going so well for the female contingent of the team. In issues #197-198 it is revealed that the attractive Ms. Marvel is suddenly three months pregnant, and even more disturbingly, there is no father. The child is really a man named Marcus, son of the Avengers’ long-time foe Immortus, who in order to escape his home dimension of Limbo, kidnapped Ms. Marvel and, through sexual intercourse, implanted her with his ‘essence’ so that she would give birth to him once she returned to Earth. Hawkeye unwittingly destroys the machine that would make Marcus’ transferal to Earth permanent, meaning that he has to return to Limbo, to ‘live in solemn, solitary hell unto infinity’ (#200). But, after having initially wanted to have nothing to do with her ‘child’, Ms. Marvel decides that she will accompany Marcus back to Limbo. The Avengers have their misgivings but soon help the seemingly happy couple on their way. Once they are gone, Iron Man tries to cheer up the disconsolate Hawkeye, telling him that ‘we’ve just got to believe that everything worked out for the best.’ (#200)

At first pass this all seems reasonable enough, and if Ms. Marvel had never been heard from again, most readers (go on, admit it) would probably have assumed that Iron Man’s words had come true. It was up to X-Men writer Chris Claremont to show that, despite their camaraderie, the Avengers still had a great deal to learn about human relationships.[18] Ms. Marvel returns in Avengers Annual #10, and reveals that, in reality, Marcus had been controlling her all along, which she learnt when Marcus died on his return to Limbo. Ms. Marvel blames the Avengers for their complicity in the affair: ‘There I was pregnant by an unknown source… confused, terrified…’ she tells them, ‘You didn’t question. You didn’t doubt. You simply let me go with a smile and a wave and a bouncy bon voyage.’ (Annual #10) In issue #200 Ms. Marvel’s reservations were touched upon, but it seemed that she had forgiven Marcus for his actions. Claremont’s critique reveals those actions to be tantamount to rape: Marcus’ admission that he had used a ‘subtle boost from Immortus’ machines’ to win Ms. Marvel’s love now seems little different to using a date-rape drug, and his description of Carol as ‘the perfect vessel’ (#200) seems blatantly misogynistic. Marcus is the dark corollary of the Boys’ Own hero, ‘possessing the powers of a god, the body of a man, the emotional maturity of a child.’ (Annual #10) For the Avengers and their fans time moves on as they come to learn that they need to make the extra effort to help those they care about. This issue would raise its head again before too long; this time, the Avengers would learn from their mistakes.

Covers copyright Marvel Comics

[12] Mantis also manages to save the Scarlet Witch from a thuggish construction worker in her first appearance.
[13] On the other hand (and in fairness to our 19th century ancestors), since Kang comes from the 41st century perhaps there’s little difference.
[14] This is even more impressive considering the Avengers’ ranks have reached battalion-levels by this point.
[15] Moondragon’s views may also be coloured by her own views of godhood – she is, after all, the one who told Thor he was ‘slumming’ it with the Avengers, and she would later try and use her powers to bring about ‘universal peace’ herself.
[16] Yep, Wonder Man wasn’t as dead as he seemed.
[17] Gyrich is also the man who demanded that the Avengers reduce their roster size to a ‘mere’ seven members; perhaps in defiance of the government it takes about another couple of years for the Avengers to actually reduce their membership to this level.
[18] Part of the credit should go to Carol Strickland for her article ‘The Rape of Ms. Marvel’, which reportedly influenced Claremont’s work.


Ludicrousity said...

Can't say I really read comics. Although I did just buy the new buffy comics for my borther which I think I'll read.

Troy Wheatley said...

In contrast, I never got into 'Buffy' even though my impression is that it appeals to a lot of comic-book readers (and a lot of other people too). I reckon I'd probably like it. Then again I stopped watching 'Heroes' before the first season had finished, so you can never tell.

The next few entries will probably be finishing off my history of the Avengers comic, so if that doesn't take your fancy maybe you should check back around June. (Of course I may always decide to do something else... guess you won't know unless you drop by. :) )

Ludicrousity said...

I'm still watching heroes, but it's not grabbing me like I thought it would. I have perservered with it, it's getting better, much better, but it's still not awesome.