Tuesday, May 1, 2007

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

What of the Avengers…?

Roger Stern’s departure heralds something of a decline for The Avengers, both for the title and for the team itself. Walter Simonson joins the Buscema/Palmer team for issues #291-300, in which the Avengers are torn apart by two of their own. In issues #291-293 Namor’s wife Marrina turns into a gigantic sea creature known as the Leviathian and proceeds to destroy anything that is unlucky enough to cross her path. While the Avengers eventually stop her, the battle takes a huge physical toll on the team. Namor is forced to stab the Leviathian using the Black Knight’s sword, an act that not only ends the life of his beloved, but which turns the Knight, through the sword’s curse, into a ‘living blade’. To make matters worse, the Avengers’ leader, Captain Marvel, expends so much energy in the battle that she is left powerless and incapacitated. This opens the door for Doctor Druid, who is being controlled by one of the Avengers’ foes, to use his mental powers to become chairman of the team and eventually enslave the other members. This all comes to a head in issue #297, and while this time only Druid is lost, the will of the Avengers disappears with him and the team disbands.

Some fans consider Simonson’s run to be the nadir of The Avengers but in fact it’s not as bad as its reputation suggests. There is something compelling about watching the team gradually fall apart, and there are even a few truly sublime moments, such as the Sub-Mariner’s final eulogy to the fallen Marrina and the Black Knight’s chilling scream of ‘The blood! The blood!’ as Namor stabs the Leviathian (#293). Buscema and Palmer’s artwork continues to be excellent, managing to meld together Simonson’s off-beat storytelling devices into some sort of coherent whole. Perhaps the stories’ critical flaw is that they are just a little too bleak and fatalistic; through all the various setbacks, the Avengers seem to have little regard for either the team or themselves, which ultimately leads the reader to wonder why they should care about them either.

A new team of Avengers is introduced in issue #300, which crashes and burns three issues later. John Byrne takes over as writer soon after, at which point the Avengers resort to something of a revolving line-up. While this idea certainly has possibilities in practice it leads to merely serviceable plots and little to no development of the characters.[22] Paul Ryan’s artwork is decent enough, but given that the stories are content to retread old territory the title could have used a fresher artistic vision at this point.

Larry Hama joins Ryan with issue #326, which also introduces Rage, a young African-American man who, in his denims and tiger-stripe mask, is designed to stick out like a sore thumb. He shows up at Avengers headquarters demanding to be made an Avenger, claiming the team is implicitly racist in their membership choices. Rage accuses Cap of judging him by his appearance, and says that Cap is worried that he ‘might say things to offend the nice people of Fifth Avenue…’ (#326) After the inevitable fight with the rest of the Avengers, Rage storms out, declaring that they are irrelevant anyway. ‘All you ever do is bash cosmic menaces off in some alternate reality or battle bad guys who have nothing better to do than destroy your headquarters!’ he says, rightly describing about ninety per cent of Avengers stories.[23] In fact, deep down, Rage doesn’t really think the Avengers are irrelevant; if he did then he wouldn’t be so angry with them. In issues #328 and #330, we learn that Rage is actually a bookish fourteen-year old kid who was transformed into his current super-strong incarnation when he hid in a pool of toxic waste to escape a group of bullies. Rage may therefore not only be intended to be a voice for African-American youth, but also for comic book fans in general, some of whom may feel closer to the adult heroes they read about than their own age group. Such fans have, of course, be known to be quite venomous at times about the comics they profess to love so much, their affection turning to frustration and anger when events do not pan out as they would like.[24] These emotions can often by misinterpreted by outside observers, such as when Sersi intervenes in the confrontation between Rage and Captain America, because all she can perceive is ‘the threat, and the very real anger!’ (#326)

Nevertheless, there is some value in not getting too caught up in one’s feelings. Rage’s Granny Staples acts as a moderating influence for him, admonishing him for wanting to use his new-found strength to beat up the bullies that picked on him, and pouring cold water on Rage’s acceptance into the Avengers by telling him that his costume makes him look like a hoodlum. In the end, Rage’s fantasy of fighting alongside his heroes does evaporate, as the Avengers eventually learn that he is a minor and remove him from active duty. Rage, in a sign of maturity, calmly accepts this verdict, realizing that it is time to rejoin the real world, ‘I’ve got a lot of work to do in my neighbourhood, anyway.’ (#342)

A New Type of Avenger!

The Avengers finally regain some consistency, and some of their grandeur, with the arrival of writer Bob Harras and penciller Steve Epting in the mid-330s. Harras and Epting were, in many ways, the heirs to Thomas and Buscema, especially with Buscema’s long-time art collaborator, Tom Palmer, still on board. Harras revived many of the key concepts from the Thomas days – alternate reality counterparts, intergalactic war, Arkon, the Collector, even the Vision to some extent – and blended them with Englehart’s penchant for soap-opera and on-going plotlines (although this may have owed less to Englehart’s Avengers run than to Harras’ stint as editor of the X-Men titles). Epting, meanwhile, created a modern, ‘grim and gritty’ version of the Avengers’ world that, like Buscema, generally kept the characters on edge. Although it’s a bit overdone at times, Harras and Epting bring the Avengers kicking and screaming into the 1990s, as the team update their appearance, technology and most notably, their traditional methods of operation.

The main question the Avengers face during this period is whether or not they should kill if necessary. Sersi and the Black Knight are the first members to push the issue, with Sersi threatening to destroy an entire spaceship in issue #345 if the crew does not surrender their captives, and Dane suggesting in issue #346 that he go in for the kill when the tide of battle turns against the Avengers. These cracks become an ideological chasm in issue #347, when a massive bomb obliterates the Kree galaxy, and half the team decides to hunt down and destroy the entity responsible, the Supreme Intelligence. There are two issues at stake here, the first being whether or not the Supreme Intelligence is a ‘living being’ or a machine and the second being whether or not the Avengers have a right to destroy it. For Captain America, whether the Supreme Intelligence is what we would term ‘alive’ is irrelevant, the fact remains that the Avengers ‘are not judge, jury and executioner. It is as simple as that.’ (#347) Iron Man and the Vision disagree, arguing that the Supreme Intelligence is ‘a machine… a soulless piece of hardware… that we will destroy so that nothing like this will ever happen again’. They may be right, but the Black Knight’s first response to the idea of punishing the Supreme Intelligence is revealing: ‘Let’s kill that scum.’ The Black Knight, Sersi and Hercules appear to be out for blood, for vengeance. The speed with which they destroy the Supreme Intelligence, leaving as little time as possible to back out of their mission, suggests that, instinctively, they realize they are killing a sentient being.

Ultimately, while they disagree with Iron Man and his supporters, Captain America and crew do not physically try to stop them. Soon after, Cap takes a leave of absence, during which time the Black Knight is able to impress his more aggressive fighting style upon the team. By the time Cap returns, the Avengers have become, as noted by one of their enemies, more tenacious and more savage, a notion that the Captain is not wholly uncomfortable with. ‘Maybe that’s because, over the years, the stakes have gotten higher… our enemies have become more vicious, more evil!’ he says, ‘Maybe – just maybe – it is time for a new type of Avenger!’ (#366)

Is this the sign of a paradigm shift within the Avengers? In fact, this is not as clear cut as it sounds. The Avenger who most eagerly embraces the new aggressive approach, Sersi, is not exactly in a healthy mental state at this point, and there is a growing suspicion that she is secretly murdering random strangers just for kicks. When she vaporizes an over-zealous priest in issue #359 after he ‘sacrifices’ a young girl, it is hard to tell if she is making a stand about justice, or is just looking for an excuse to let out her murderous desires. While it transpires that a man named Proctor is actually responsible for Sersi’s madness, which in theory should exonerate her of any wrongdoing, such comforts are clearly a thing of the past for the Avengers. Sersi may well have been under the control of Proctor, but the suspicion remains that Proctor simply released a desire lurking within her that could, given her level of power, ultimately imperil the entire world. The fear that this is true eventually leads her and Dane to leave this dimension for another in which Sersi can be ‘free of Proctor’s curse’ (#375). While it’s said that it’s hard to walk the path of the straight and narrow, Sersi’s predicament shows that having the will to be as ruthless as your enemies also has its price.

Appearing From The Shadows

Bob Harras’ channelling of Thomas and Englehart is most evident in his ongoing story involving the coming of the Gatherers and their attempt to kill off Sersi. The Gatherers are a group of survivors taken from dead alternate worlds, each of which has died because of the Avengers. They have come to our world because they believe that Sersi is about to destroy it, and since our world is the template for all others they are by extension attempting to save every world in existence. The notion that all worlds are merely reflections of our own would appear to take some of the sting out of the concept of alternate worlds, placing them in a subservient relationship to our own. However, the menace of the Gatherers is somewhat enhanced by their shadowy nature. One aspect of this is that, to survive on our world, the Gatherers must kill their ‘Earth Prime’ counterparts, like reflections that have come to life to murder their owners. More importantly, the Gatherers are both the source for and a reflection of much of the tension that exists for our own heroes. The first Gatherer to make his existence known is the Swordsman, counterpart of the long-dead Avenger, who casts his shadow upon the cover of issue #343. The Swordsman blames the Avengers for his death, taking a particular dislike to the Vision for his ‘affair’ with Mantis. While the Vision and the Avengers are unperturbed by the Swordsman’s accusations, the Swordsman suggests that this may be because ‘the truth is too painful’ (#344), and his re-appearance does cast some doubt on the Avengers’ nobility in the reader’s mind at least. But if the Swordsman’s appearance re-opens some old wounds for both him and the Avengers, it also offers a chance at redemption. Once he accepts that the Vision of our world is not the same character as he knew, the Swordsman and the Vision are able to become friends rather than rivals, with the Vision helping the Gatherer to adjust to our world.

On the other side of the coin, the darkest, most sinister of all the Gatherers is their leader, the red-eyed Proctor, who it turns out is using the Gatherers to take his revenge on Sersi. On his world Proctor was Sersi’s ‘Gann Josin’, which is a bonding ‘that creates a mental union between two people and makes them lifelong soulmates’ (#361). But then, years later, that world’s Sersi tired of Proctor and left him ‘discarded like a child’s toy, forgotten at day’s end’ (#374), driving Proctor mad with a thirst for revenge. At the same time as Proctor emerges the Black Knight has been made this world’s Sersi’s ‘Gann Josin’ in an effort to slow her apparent descent into madness. But in true soap-operatic style, the Knight is actually in love with another teammate, Crystal, who is in turn the estranged wife of Quicksilver. Dane’s dilemma is a reflection of the ideological shift going through the Avengers at the time: should he choose the impulsive, ruthless, uncontrollable Sersi, or the sweeter, gentler, but still powerful Crystal? Proctor is a vision of what the Black Knight may become if he chooses the former - more so than he knows, as it turns out that Proctor’s counterpart on this world is the Black Knight. But the existence of another option turns out to be Dane’s salvation: ‘I had no Crystal to love,’ Proctor tells him, ‘no innocent to save me from Sersi’s bonding… Rather, I embraced it…’ (#375) While the variations between the Avengers and their alternate-reality counterparts provide much of the tension, again it all resolves itself into a neat little symmetry in the end. As Proctor killed his world’s Sersi so does this world’s Sersi take his life, which in turn results in Sersi and Dane leaving this world, thus providing Crystal and Quicksilver with a second chance to save their marriage. Yes it’s sentimental, but like the best Avengers stories there’s a sense that you’ve just been witness to something bigger than this world and that the universe has a beautiful and fascinating order to it.

That’s not so when the other half of the Mantis/ Swordsman pairing makes her re-appearance in the next major cross-reality story, ‘The Crossing’. Unlike the Gatherers storyline, which played out its twists over the course of many months, ‘The Crossing’ reads like it was conceived to ‘shake things up’ for the Avengers as quickly as possible. Its major selling-point was that one of the key Avengers, Iron Man, was to be revealed as a traitor, who had secretly been working for Mantis and the Avengers’ old foe, Kang the Conqueror, for many years. Like most other things in this storyline, this seems like little more than an excuse to shock the readers. Kang’s and Mantis’ intentions are never really made clear; while with Proctor the gradual revelation of his plan added to the mood, here it is just tedious and infuriating. Furthermore, the Gatherers were interesting foils for the Avengers because they had both a relationship to the Avengers and a motivation for fighting them; in this case all we have is two unrelated tribes suddenly at war with each other. Mike Deodato’s pencils add some interest at least, although one is constantly in fear that all of the women’s spines are going to break. If there’s one thing that ‘The Crossing’ did get right it’s that, for the first time since the early 200s, all the classic Avengers were back on the one team again. Alas, this wasn’t enough to attract readers to the title, and less than a year later Marvel would decide to take more drastic measures.

This World Be A Joyless Place!

Although ‘The Crossing’ promised to alter The Avengers forever, its effects turned out to be remarkably short-lived. In 1996, Marvel agreed to turn over four of its longest running titles – The Avengers, Captain America, Fantastic Four and Iron Man – to popular writer/artists Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, who, in the early 1990s, had left Marvel in order to help form Image Comics. In ‘Heroes Reborn’, Lee and Liefeld were given carte blanche to re-vamp the origins of some of Marvel’s oldest and stodgiest characters, with Liefeld taking The Avengers. The set-up was that the Avengers and the Fantastic Four had apparently sacrificed themselves to save the world, but instead had been transported to a ‘pocket reality’ with no memories of their past lives. (As part of this change, the titles were cancelled and the numbering began again from #1.) The theory was that with a blank slate before them, the creators would be free to re-create the characters from a modern-day perspective.

Considering the changes in comic books and in popular culture in general over the 30 plus years since The Avengers’ debut, one would think that Liefeld and company would see ‘Heroes Reborn’ as an opportunity to flesh out the Avengers’ mythos. Unfortunately, they take the opposite tack, and seem intent on trying to recapture past glories. There are a few novel twists – the Avengers are now a government-funded department of the espionage agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D., and as such, have to worry about public perception a bit more than their old-world counterparts.[25] For the most part, however, the stories read like an Avengers’ ‘highlights reel’, with only the barest semblance of a plot to back them up. Loki schemes, Kang tries to conquer, but the stories don’t seem particularly concerned about finding a reason for them to be there as they are with having Thor and the Hulk beat the tar out of each other. Accordingly, any storytelling abilities of the artists go out the window, replaced by pin-ups of muscle-bound morons and big breasted bimbos. The long-legged, stick-waisted figure of the Enchantress at the end of issue v.2 #1 truly defies the laws of human anatomy.

Halfway through the series Liefeld has gone, and while the writing improves slightly, the whole concept becomes even more of a shambles. The sub-plots of the first seven issues that had shown the most promise (the creation of Ultron, the revelation that the Scarlet Witch is the Enchantress’ daughter) are either downplayed or discarded, and the characters stumble along with no apparent purpose. By the end of it all, it’s all horribly depressing as the Avengers are simply playthings to be thrown around at will: they have no history, no connections, and assuredly no future, which makes whatever they are fighting for utterly pointless. ‘Maybe in the next life,’ (v.2 #13) says one of the heroes, just before the end (mercifully) comes. It would be a much happier one.

Covers copyright Marvel Comics

[22] Byrne’s concurrent work on the Avengers’ sister title, Avengers West Coast, was considerably more interesting, involving the world’s governments dismantling the Vision as a result of his attempt to take over their computer systems, and the resulting mental deterioration of the Scarlet Witch.
[23] In issue #329, in which Rage does join the team, the Avengers accept a charter from the United Nations which says that this is basically all they are allowed to do lest they offend any current member nations, but the potential conflict is never played out.
[24] Of course, this level of intensity isn’t limited to comic book fans.
[25] This theme would be expanded upon several years later in another alternate version of the Avengers: The Ultimates.


Ludicrousity said...

Wow! When you blog, you really blog!

Troy Wheatley said...

Yeah, it ended up at over 18,000 words. What was I thinking?! No, actually I found it very interesting to do, but now it's time to move on to something else. Like getting more people to visit the blog. I visited yours and I found that posting a comment there would be like scribbling in the far corner of the blackboard. :)