Monday, April 30, 2007

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

I’ve Got To Save The Day

Jim Shooter returns as writer in issue #211, with husband and wife team Janet and Henry Pym, better known as the Wasp and Yellowjacket, in tow. Through the subsequent mental disintegration of Henry Pym, Shooter would examine what it means to be a ‘hero’. Now on the same team as Cap, Thor and Iron Man, Hank feels insecure about his importance to the team, and is eager to prove that he belongs. But his eagerness makes him irritable and aggressive: he blasts one of the Wasp’s costumes to pieces when her indecision makes them late for a meeting, and he is resentful when the other Avengers voted Cap stay on as chairman without him. It is clear that, at this stage, Yellowjacket is primarily concerned with appearing like a hero rather than being one. In issue #212 he strikes down a female enemy who has stopped fighting, because, by his own admission, he is ‘so desperate to be the star’ (#213). The diminutive Janet ends up saving her husband, and his teammates’ end up court-martialling him, which adds to his sense of being ‘a failure as a husband’ and ‘as a hero’ (#213). In desperation, Hank concocts an even bigger simulation; he builds a robot to attack the Avengers at his court-martial which only he knows how to stop. The court-martial goes badly, with Hank’s delusions on full display. He chastises Cap for being ungrateful to him for ‘saving’ his life, and begs Jan to ‘tell them I really was the hero’ (#213). If Hank’s words weren’t enough to convince the Avengers otherwise, then the sight of Jan’s face as she takes off her glasses - one black eye and tears streaming out of the other - surely is. To top it all off, Hank’s plan is a failure – the Avenger who saves the others from the robot is not him, but Jan, who instinctively acts to save her husband. His ruse uncovered, Yellowjacket leaves the mansion with his head bowed low, his life as a hero all but over.

Unfortunately for Hank, the more he tries to become a hero, the worse things get. In a lapse of judgment, in issue #217 he accepts an offer from his enemy Egghead to help his niece, which ends up with Yellowjacket attacking the Avengers and landing in jail. The departure of Tigra, who has only been an Avenger for five issues, in issue #216 makes an interesting comparison: she quickly realizes that she is not in the same league as the other Avengers, and happily says her goodbyes. Whilst in jail Hank has time to contemplate his past mistakes. Things seem to go awry when Egghead and the new Masters of Evil capture him at his trial, and force him to work for them. But Hank gets his payback as he uses his intellect to trick his foes and defeat them all single-handedly. ‘I’ve come to terms with myself in the past month,’ he tells Egghead, ‘I know who I am, and who I’m not! I’m not Ant-Man anymore! I’m not Giant-Man… or Goliath… or Yellowjacket! I’m Henry Pym!’ (#230) Hank no longer needs to ‘play super hero’, after all, any good man can wear a costume, as Hank tells the Avengers as he hands over the Yellowjacket suit. But a better man will admit to the Avengers and, more importantly, to Jan that what he did, he did to himself. This time around, Henry Pym can leave the mansion with his head held high.

By the time Yellowjacket makes his exit Roger Stern has become the series’ writer, and he soon focuses on another Avenger who is over-eager to be a hero, albeit on a much grander scale. In issue #238, the Vision’s powers are substantially increased after Starfox uses his home planet’s supercomputer, ISAAC, to help repair damage to the android’s body. As a result, the Vision is ‘at one with ISAAC’ and is now able to ‘out-think, out-deduce any computer system in the world.’ (#238) However, with this expansion in capability comes a expansion in ego; ISSAC, as Starfox explains, ‘for all intents and purposes’ runs his world, and the Vision gradually takes a more proactive role in the Avengers’ affairs. When most of the other senior Avengers are taken off-world (#243), the Vision assumes chairmanship of the Avengers for himself, a position he retains once the others return. He quickly uses the chairmanship to expand his influence with both the government and the public, developing a persona that is part-lobbyist, part used-car salesman. While his teammates are happy to see that he has ‘mellowed out’ (#250), they also find it at a little unsettling, sensing that the Vision may be trying a little too hard to be the charismatic leader. Subconsciously, the Vision too senses this: in issue #251, the Vision dreams of himself as the wise, handsome, human leader of Marvel’s super-human community who is suddenly interrupted by a mechanical abomination that claims to be part of his true self. The machine’s claim is soon verified when its face-plate is removed to reveal the Vision’s ‘human face’ lying underneath, and then Wanda pulls off the skin from the Vision’s face to reveal the machine’s face underneath. The Vision wakes up in a sweat, trying to reassure himself that ‘it was… just a dream.’ (#251)

One way of interpreting the Vision’s dream is that by denying his ‘machine-like’ side, the Vision has become unbalanced, out of touch with himself and those around him.[19] In issue #252, after arsonists destroy his and Wanda’s suburban home, the Vision becomes fed up with ‘the human approach’. Under ISAAC’s influence, the Vision abandons his android body, and uses his souped-up artificial intelligence to take control of the world’s computer systems. Needless to say those freedom-fighting Avengers are soon on his case; however, the Vision’s attempts to prevent them from stopping him are masterful, utilizing both his technological capabilities and his understanding of the human psyche. He takes control of the mansion’s systems, and then when the Avengers get through those, he tries to convince them by way of argument. His explanation for his actions is the same for all Avengers, but in each case he chooses the holographic form which is likely to hold the most weight for his intended audience: the casually-dressed brother-like figure for Wonder Man, the muscle-bound warrior for Hercules and the Black Knight, and the handsome, human-faced companion for the Scarlet Witch. The Avengers, however, manage to argue successfully that, while the Vision can control the world’s machines, he won’t be able to control the human element. It’s all over relatively quickly given the previous fifteen issues of build-up, but perhaps this is meant to be a sign that the Vision never really wanted that much power anyway. ‘I wanted to be a good husband to my wife… to be able to live in peace,’ he tells Wonder Man, ‘The world wouldn’t let me… I had to try…’ (#254) Like Yellowjacket the Vision’s desire to become a better hero stemmed from confusion about what it takes to be a better man. And for both of them, the mark of a good man is that, in the end, they try to correct their mistakes.

I Don’t Know Which One Of You Is The Bigger Idiot!

The Vision sub-plot takes up most of the first half of Roger Stern’s run on The Avengers, winding its way around various miscellaneous threats. These issues are enjoyable without being remarkable, with the artwork being a little too light to be taken seriously. During this time, the creative team counters the dourness of the line-up by adding characters that genuinely want to be Avengers, including Starfox, She-Hulk and a new Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel, in particular, is a breath of fresh air: there has been a tendency in The Avengers for African-American characters to take the moral high ground, but Monica Rambeau is as down-to-earth as anybody and relates well to her teammates. She is the most powerful of the Avengers without being overbearingly so, and is eventually elected leader of the team. Meanwhile, Hawkeye is jettisoned off to form a West Coast branch of Avengers, who would provide further hi-jinks by teaming up with the main group every now and then. There’s certainly a bit to like ‘about the playful good humour and happy fellowship’ (#250) of the Avengers during this period, but without that extra oomph to the stories they are easily forgotten.

With the Vision and Scarlet Witch’s departure in issue #255 however, Stern begins to hit top gear. By that time most of the Avengers’ members are characters that have been introduced to the team during his run. But the main change is that John Buscema and Tom Palmer return to The Avengers, and their darker, more accomplished artwork seems to inspire Stern to up the ante. Over the next thirty issues, the Avengers face such heavyweights as the giant alien Terminus, the space pirate Nebula and her army of intergalactic misfits, the omnipotent Beyonder, multiple versions of Kang the Conqueror, Baron Zemo and a souped-up Masters of Evil, and last but not least, the entire pantheon of Greek Gods. The vestige of camp that has clung to the Avengers in the post-Thomas era is finally swept away as the Avengers have to smarten up significantly to deal with these new and more powerful threats.

Having said that, the more powerful the threats, the more child-like they are in their outlook upon the universe - and therefore the more dangerous. Kang, Nebula and the second Baron Zemo, none of whom have super-powers, demonstrate quite a bit more cunning and organization than their counterparts. But even here there is an element of childishness inherent in these foes: Nebula is the granddaughter of the Avengers’ old foe Thanos, Baron Zemo the son of the Nazi scientist who fought the original Avengers, and Kang a younger, more bloodthirsty version of Immortus. Kang’s rise and fall in issues #267-269 is essentially engineered by Immortus to teach his younger self a lesson in maturity, which he fails when he snatches from Immortus a globe containing the memories of all the divergent Kangs, and goes mad as a result. Similarly, Baron Zemo recruits an army of super-villains to take over the Avengers’ mansion in issues #271-277 because he is unable to accept that his father, not Captain America, was responsible for his own death. The second Zemo’s own downfall comes when, in a tantrum, he lunges at Cap and falls off the mansion’s rooftop.

Terminus is even more pathetically juvenile; in issues #256-257 he trudges through the Savage Land causing massive destruction like an overgrown toddler smashing his playthings. ‘You are mine, to do with as I choose!’ he tells the natives (#256). When Hercules destroys his armour Terminus flounders in the snow like a huge flabby baby. The Avengers leave him flat on his back, shouting empty threats, in denial that he no longer has the power to do whatever he wishes. In issues #281-285, Zeus, most powerful of the Greek Gods, sentences the Avengers to eternity in Hades, based on the false belief that they are responsible for his son, Hercules, being placed into a coma. Zeus, blind with rage, will not listen to the Avengers’ protestations of innocence, and many of his children are just as headstrong; the Avengers waste a considerable amount of energy and breath before they are able to talk some sense into them. For the Beyonder, who continually pops up in issues #260-261, the whole of reality is his toybox. The Beyonder is intent on experiencing as much of the universe as possible, whether it be flipping switches in a research facility, or impaling himself on a sharpened blade. He pursues the Avengers not out of malice, but because he thinks it is their ‘form of sport’ (#261). Because of his naivete and limitless power, the Avengers are more scared of the Beyonder than anyone. ‘With his power… a dream might erase all of reality!’ thinks Captain America, gritting his teeth in horror (#265). The rational foes, the schemers, simply want to rule the world; if existence comes to its final end then it is more likely to be through a single act of irrationality.

Interlude: And You Shall Learn Why We Be Called Avengers!

When a series has run as long as The Avengers has, there are some questions that fans inevitably ask themselves and each other. Who is the best character in the Avengers? What is the ideal Avengers line-up? What is the greatest Avengers story? The answers to these questions are always subjective and have been debated so often that I can’t really add that much value to them. But if you’ll allow me to indulge in my fanboy persona for a moment, I will say this: the Roger Stern/ John Buscema/ Tom Palmer books (issues #255-286, except #280) were the greatest Avengers run ever. And here’s why:

Firstly, the plots, especially from #267 onwards, were never contrived or nonsensical; instead, they always flowed logically from earlier developments in the series.[20] Yet because no-one had ever thought of them before, they always seemed fresh and new. If Kang the Conqueror is continually mucking about with the time-stream, then it makes sense that his actions would create doubles of himself, and that these doubles would be hell-bent on destroying each other. Similarly, if small groups of villains have always failed to defeat the Avengers, then it makes sense for someone to organize an army of villains to defeat them. And if Hercules is beaten into a coma in such a battle, then it makes sense that his ever-impetuous father Zeus might blame the Avengers for his son’s state and seek his revenge. Thomas, Englehart and Shooter, for all their strengths, were sometimes rather ham-handed in the way they created situations to shock readers, in Stern’s case, the surprises are entirely due to a clever structuring and sequencing of events.

Secondly, the Avengers are treated with respect, rather than as overgrown children. Just about every writer of The Avengers has attempted to manufacture petty conflicts within the Avengers ranks, in the belief that the resulting histrionics will heighten the emotional tension in the title (and they often do). Of the Stern/Buscema line-up only Hercules and the Sub-Mariner regularly behave in this way, and the other members consider them fools for it. The advantages of this approach are twofold. One, although the Stern/Buscema line-up is not the most powerful the Avengers have ever had, treating the Avengers as professionals means that everything around them, including their enemies, is elevated as a result.[21] Two, because the Avengers do generally show restraint in their emotions on the occasions when they do lower their guard it becomes a lot more significant. The scene at the end of #277, in which Captain America kneels amongst the ruins of the Mansion, crying over the torn picture of his late mother is, for my money, as touching a moment as the series has ever seen. But Cap’s invitation to Namor to join the Avengers, Wasp’s resignation as chairwoman and Captain Marvel’s subsequent acceptance of the post, and Hercules’ admittance to his father that it was his actions that led to him being beaten into a coma, are all similarly poignant.

Finally, while I’ve extolled the virtues of Buscema and Palmer’s artwork before, they had become even better artists by the mid-1980s. Buscema had always been an exciting artist but by this stage he had developed a greater range, adept at dispersing quieter moments amidst the action. This gave his pencils a more mature, realistic look, more like a fantasy artist than a doodler. Buscema and Palmer’s artwork was grand but not overblown, heavy but not ugly. To me, more than just about anybody else, they make a world in which heroes routinely hop out of New York and travel into space and through time seem possible, and yet at the same time mysterious, almost beyond reach.

In the final analysis, the main criticism of the Stern/ Buscema/ Palmer run that I can think of — and the reason why it is only the greatest run, and not the definitive run — is that Stern’s writing has not had a large influence on subsequent stories. Certainly one can see an influence on the creators that directly followed, particularly John Byrne, who tended to portray a slicker, more professional Avengers outfit than in years past. However, these stories also tended to privilege the plot at the expense of the characters, which led to a somewhat more de-humanized book than when Stern was handling the writing chores. As we shall see, things swung back the other way once Bob Harras became the writer, and basically all of the writers since have made sure to keep ‘character conflict’ at the forefront of the action. As a result, these writers have generally looked beyond Stern’s tenure to the stories of Shooter, Thomas and Englehart for their inspiration. Also, these early writers created a larger pool of characters than Stern, who was more adept at renewing established concepts.

From the mid-1990s onwards, mainstream superheroics has put a lot of emphasis on portraying characters that readers can relate to, partly as a reaction against the ‘grim and gritty’ comics that were prevalent earlier in the decade. As a consequence, writers have made sure to flesh out the everyday lives of their characters, showing that, for all their powers, they’re just as human as anybody else. But in doing so there are instances where the stories try a little too hard, where they seem like their main aim is to prove to readers that their characters are as cool as any of the people you would see in movies, or on TV, or down at the mall. In contrast, Stern, Buscema and Palmer’s stories rarely seemed like they had anything to prove. And that, for me, will forever be the difference.

Covers copyright Marvel Comics

[19] Another interpretation is that the appearance of the machine foreshadows the Vision melding further with ISAAC (the machine and ISAAC do share some facial similarities).
[20] You could also make the same claim about the roster changes that Stern made.
[21] The line-up is pretty powerful when Thor, the She-Hulk, Namor and Captain Marvel are briefly together though.

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