Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Leaden Finger Gamer’s Review: Valiant Hearts – The Great War

On the year-end episode of the video game TV show Good Game the presenters Bajo and particularly Hex raved about a game called ‘Valiant Hearts’. They considered the game to be a great way to learn about the events and experiences of World War I, while carrying some definite emotional impact. Having played the game myself recently I would say that they were spot on.

‘Valiant Hearts – The Great War’ is primarily a two-dimensional puzzle game, with some simple action sequences, set mainly in France and Germany during World War I. You alternate between four characters – with one helpful dog – though the gameplay is fairly similar for each of them. The main two characters are Emile, a soldier in the French army, and Freddie, an American volunteer, and you also play as Karl, Emile’s German son in law, and Anna, a Belgian nurse. The puzzles mostly involve lifting things, moving things, digging for things, and the like, though the sequence in which you acquire things is important. As far as puzzles go these are not as elegant as those in ‘Portal 2’, but they are generally clever and enjoyable.

The game was inspired by a series of letters written during the war, and these really strengthen the story behind the game. For most of the people alive today, including me, there is less connection to what people experienced during World War I than World War II or even the Vietnam War. ANZAC Day in Australia, as important as it is, is generally more about symbolism than in bringing out those experiences (and at worst reduces into cliché). Though stylized, ‘Valiant Hearts’ made me feel closer than I ever had to ‘experiencing’ the Great War, making a concerted effort to capture the details of life during wartime. Pop-ups provide further information about important battles and other events, features of wartime such as trenches and barbed wire, and items that had particular significance for the era. IGN reviewer Daniel Krupa somewhat accurately, though disparagingly, referred to these as ‘Encarta ’95-style footnotes’, and found them ‘too insistent and a bit irritating’. Many commenters took him to task for this, and I agree that their intrusion is fairly minimal; the player can skip all of these if they wish.

For my reviews of ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘The Wolf Among Us’ I suggested that they could be thought of less as games and more of as a new form of graphic storytelling. ‘Valiant Hearts’ too, in style and its emphasis on story, seems like a comic strip in which you are a more active participant in the story-telling. It certainly uses the iconographic techniques of comic strips, with pictures often substituting for spoken language. However I don’t want to take the analogy too far, and suggest that this is a new medium that sits outside the two categories. People would definitely call it a game; in its use of ‘closure’ (the gaps between successive images) it is still a fair distance away from sequential art. I still could see these types of games starting to substitute for comic books and strips in the future though.

With my leaden gaming fingers I like these ‘one-button’ games, and unlike games where I fight for seemingly hours against tough bosses I am only a peek at a ‘walkthrough’ away from being unstuck. There is about ten hours of gameplay here, which is a good length for a game of this type. Regardless I found myself immersed in this game from pretty much start to finish, and it is a great way for anyone to discover more about this era of history.

P.S. That is my last post for 2014, having reached my goal of 120 posts for the year. See you in 2015!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Revisiting ‘Daria’

‘Daria’, for those who have never seen it, was an animated series for MTV about ‘Daria Morgendorffer, a smart, acerbic, and somewhat misanthropic teenage girl’ (Wikipedia).  Because of its cynical, ‘whatever’ attitude I remembered it as being around in the early to mid-1990s, but actually it did not debut until 1997, and ran until 2002. Although something I did not know before today: the character of Daria actually debuted earlier in ‘Beavis and Butt-Head’.

The first few episodes are a bit patchy, but from the midpoint of the first season the quality picks up. This is despite many of the characters being primarily one-note jokes. Kevin the quarterback, and his girlfriend Brittany the cheerleader, are empty-headed. Quinn, Daria’s pretty, popular, fashion-conscious sister, is shallow. Charles, otherwise known as ‘Upchuck’ is a flirtatious creep. Daria’s mother is a workaholic; her father overreacts over things he doesn’t understand. Daria and her best friend Jane come out with the smartest lines, though even that becomes their defining characteristic. You can pretty much guess how any given character is going to react in any given situation. Though one thing that struck me watching it again years later – none of the high-schoolers are particularly vicious. Daria may be unpopular, but she is rarely bullied.

Apart from Daria, Jane, and Jane’s brother Trent, the character that I enjoy most is actually Quinn’s ‘friend’ and Fashion Club President Sandi Griffin. Her voice, done by Janie Mertz, is the perfect expression of manipulation and contempt. Her defining characteristic is her snootiness, but her put-downs can be clever and dry, as when she tortures Fashion Club Vice President Quinn in ‘Too Cute’:

Quinn - It's cute.
Brooke - Just cute?
Sandi - Quinn has very high nose standards.
Quinn - I said it was cute!
Sandi - Oh, like you meant it. "Oh, it's cute."
Quinn - Well, at least I thought about it. I didn't just say it was cute without thinking.
Sandi - Excuse me? Are you saying we're shallow?
Brooke - Wait, you guys were just saying it was cute?
Sandi - No, Quinn's just so deep, she thinks we would say something's cute when it's not cute, which we wouldn't.
Tiffany - No way.
Sandi - Example: I would never tell Quinn that she looks cute in that thing she always wears.
Quinn - I don't have a "thing" that I always wear.
Sandi - If you say so.
Quinn - I have lots of things which I wear at different times, far apart in time.
Sandi - As you wish.
And in this exchange:

Quinn - I'm really mad at you guys.
Sandi - Oh? Why is that?
Quinn - Because you all went to get nose jobs without me!
Sandi - But you would never get a nose job. You're not that shallow.
Quinn - How do you know?
Sandi - Because a really deep person like you has too many important things on her mind, like the news or something, to pay attention to her appearance.
Quinn - That's not true.
Sandi - But Quinn, what else could possibly account for your showing up at school in such a dated outfit?
Quinn - But you helped me buy this outfit!
Sandi - That was days ago. Weeks, if memory serves. Of course, so much time has passed, I could be wrong.
If Quinn had said that last line she would probably stop after the first sentence, with the point that Quinn is shallow having been re-made. But Sandi doesn’t let it go, taking three witty stabs in quick succession at Quinn, and leaving her no room for a comeback. And in her comment that Quinn probably has the ‘news or something’ on her mind, which of course Sandi would know that Quinn wouldn’t, she almost seems to be making fun of the entire clique that she is in charge of. That is, while Quinn throws herself wholeheartedly into being part of the Fashion Club, Sandi can see the absurdity behind its existence and the shallowness of her followers.
Anyway as a satire, ‘Daria’ is not quite among the very best, but it’s still enjoyable years later. A lot of the coolest women I have met in my adult life remind me of Daria in some way.  

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Wooden Finger Five - December 2014

December (and January next year) is the time to comb through the ‘Best Of’ lists, and do some housecleaning on my listening.

No. 5 Killer Bangs – Honeyblood

Two girls. Rough guitars. Shouting/singing in unison. Band name that’s both sweet and dangerous. Song with ‘bangs’ in the title. Moody black and white album cover. Imagining standing in the back of a dimly lit bar. It’s the sound of the mid-‘90s, like a dingier Veruca Salt. And then the tempo changes, and you think ‘hang on, where’s this going?’ … But then the same tune kicks in … Two girls. Rough guitars. Shouting/singing together about bangs again. It's fun - it doesn't need to be anything else. Have another beer bottle.   

For a band not shy on production, it is remarkable how much of the TV On The Radio sound seems to centre on singer Tunde Adebimpe. Dave Sitek’s production really supports Adebimpe’s vocals as much as, if not more than, the other way around. Drifting off to sleep, I pictured representing the relationship like this:
The sound is coming in from around Tunde, and lifting it up to where it needs to go. Make sense? I tried to find a few more ‘whoosh’ lines in Paint to make it clearer …

A soft tune, like rain on the petals on a flower. Is it the finger-strumming guitar that is the rain though, or is it the sweet vocal, or is that the flower? Since the vocal comes in second I’m going to go with the guitar is causing the vocal to bloom. Incidentally, Gulp includes the bass player from Super Furry Animals, but since pre-press citing a bass player probably wouldn’t get you very far, I think we can say Gulp have stood up on their own merits.
Jamie T’s put-on chav London accent has typically put me off closely listening to his stuff, and the thought of that almost put me off listening to his well-received latest album. Has all of his stuff been this good? ‘Turn On The Light’ has a decent Alex Turner/Mike Skinner rap for the verses, but it’s the gentle chorus, using my well-loved G/D/Em/C chord progression, that makes this my favourite track on the album.
Guitar riff reminds me of a truck travelling down a highway, a tall man with a broad chest and blond quiff, singing above his love, who he pictures in flannel shirt and cut-off jeans. But the song is not about love at all, which I didn’t realise until a review pointed it out to me: ‘If I’m your enemy/ Then I’m keen to be your enemy’. Also Merchandise front man Carson Cox is not like the guy I imagined. Great slice of pop/country-tinged rock though. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

‘Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?’ and the Benefits of Being Seemingly Non-Genre

When I first saw the cover of Roz Chast’s ‘Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?’ on Best Comics/Graphic Novels Of 2014 lists, I thought that it looked like the type of graphic novel that literary critics would like. As the cover itself shows, it is an autobiographical tale about the sometimes difficult relationship the author has/had with her elderly parents, which seemed to me familiar territory for ‘literary’ graphic novels. Though when I thought about it later the only other major graphic novel that I could think of which fit that description was art spiegelman’s ‘Maus’, so perhaps the familiar feeling was a collection of things, such as recently having seen a rough drawing style in Kate Beaton’s ‘Hark! A Vagrant!’

In any case my main point here is that certain types of graphic novels have a better chance of being acclaimed in literary circles than others. I don’t want to make a target of ‘Can’t We Talk About … ?’ here, because it’s a good read, and quite innovative in how it lays out its story. But I can’t imagine good genre comics like ‘Saga’ or ‘Hawkeye’ being on the National Book Award shortlist. Why? Because they’re superhero/fantasy stuff.

This is of course true of other mediums: it has often been pointed out that science-fiction and fantasy films have a tough time winning the major awards at the Oscars. And as Michael Chabon pointed out in his introduction to ‘McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales’ most ‘literary’ short fiction fits into the genre of "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story". So even if genre comics can gain ‘respectability’ they may still be only seen as on the same level as sci-fi films and horror novels. That doesn’t mean that ‘taste-makers’ should not be considering their merits though.

Anyway, as I said, Roz Chast’s graphic novel is a good read: what is not immediately obvious from the cover is that it’s about the last days of her parents, who died around five to ten years ago. It’s unavoidably a bit morbid, but also quite humourous, and like the best graphic novels would lose something if it was told in any other medium. There are a couple of comics this year that I enjoyed slightly more, but if someone said this was their ‘best’ for 2014 I wouldn’t argue too much.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Best Avengers Stories Ever - 2004-present

I have been reading Marvel’s ‘Avengers’ comics for 26 years, which apart from following my football team, is probably the longest continuous stretch of time that I have done anything.

I once heard Avengers’ writer Brian Michael Bendis say at a convention just after he had read through the whole series that there are a lot of bad Avengers comics … but there are also a lot of good comics. These are what I personally think are the good ones.

In a sense I tipped my hand as to which stories I thought mattered when I did my ‘pseudo-critical’ history of the Avengers. But that was seven years ago now and there has been some notable stories since then.

So across five posts spanning each of the Avengers’ five decades of publication, here are what I think are the best Avengers stories.

Part One (1963-1973) was here.
Part Two (1974-1983) was here.
Part Three (1984-1993) was here.
Part Four (1994-2003) was here.

New Avengers #1-6 – ‘Breakout’
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, Penciller: David Finch
Line-up: Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Luke Cage, Spider-Woman (sort of), Sentry
Main villains: Sauron, Electro, Purple Man, Carnage, Mister Hyde, Jigsaw, and many more
Other main characters: Daredevil, Foggy Nelson, the other Black Widow
Review: Shaking Through  

Brian Michael Bendis wrote more ‘Avengers’ issues than any other writer, and launched five different Avengers series. I found that his best story arcs for each series tended to be the first ones, as he would establish a distinct tone for a series that seemed to either wear after about eight issues, or get caught up in a company-wide crossover.
Aside from its quality the first arc of ‘New Avengers’ is one of the most important ‘Avengers’ stories ever, even more so than the ‘Avengers Disassembled’ arc that preceded it. After ripping apart the old team in ‘Disassembled’ Bendis re-creates the roster around marquee Marvel characters Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Wolverine, along with Luke Cage, Spider-Woman (sort of), and well… the Sentry (who I don’t mind, but he’s the odd member out here). From that point on the Avengers became Marvel’s most successful franchise, built around the company’s flagship heroes.
The story itself, in which bunches of villains are broken out of the superhuman prison the Vault and a new team of heroes assembles to stop them, was quite good, and for me at least made up for some of the anger I felt over ‘Disassembled’. Once assembled the new team travels to the Savage Land, where they face off against Sauron and start to discover the dark underbelly of S.H.I.E.L.D. David Finch’s art made for a notably shadier ‘Avengers’ title – helped by key characters speaking off-panel – without the outright, over-the-top bleakness of ‘Disassembled’. This line-up, like all of Bendis’ line-ups, would not last for more than a few story-arcs, but the Avengers were the team from this point forwards.
Young Avengers #1-6 – ‘Sidekicks’
Writer: Allen Heinberg, Penciller: Jim Cheung
Hmm, does this count as an ‘Avengers’ book, or as a ‘let’s-put-Avengers-into-the-title-so-it-can-sell’ book? I remember enjoying it, but I don’t recall much more about it than the Iron Lad reveal.
Civil War #1-7 – ‘Civil War’
Writer: Mark Millar, Penciller: Steve McNiven
Line-up: Everyone. Everyone in the Marvel Universe is an Avenger.
Main villains: Depends whose side you are on

A mark of the Avengers’ surge in relative popularity over the past decade has been that Marvel has tended to focus most of their company-wide ‘events’ around the team, including ‘House of M’, ‘Secret Invasion’, ‘Siege’, and the most successful of them: ‘Civil War’. (This focus on the Avengers for company-wide events may also be because essentially every major character in the Marvel Universe is an Avenger now – even the X-Men are Avengers when it suits.) ‘Civil War’ definitely had the most interesting concept, though one still simple enough that it could well have happened earlier: Marvel’s superheroes are at ‘war’ each other, due to a split over a ‘Superhuman Registration Act’ which will force the heroes to reveal their identities and work for the government. One side, led by Iron Man, sees the Act as the heroes’ only way forward with the government, while the other side, led by Captain America, resists it. Essentially every superhero is caught in the fight, across a seven-issue series and numerous tie-in books.
The ‘war’ makes asses out of both sides. Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic and the pro-registration side enlist maniacal supervillains to boost up their side’s numbers, and create a dumb, vicious clone of the thought-to-be-dead Thor who proceeds to blow a hole through one of the heroes’ brains. Captain America meanwhile becomes more holier-than-thou the longer the series goes on, and gives the eager-to-please Punisher a smack across the face. No one really comes out of it looking better, but I still enjoyed it, as the war became a framework for putting the characters into some new and interesting situations, while remaining mindful of their established relationships. McNiven’s art, back when he was only starting to get notice, is up to the challenge of making it feel like a grand-scale event.
For the record I was on Iron Man’s side, though not for any deep philosophical or political reasons. Maybe it was because Iron Man was my first favourite superhero as a kid, although I don’t recall taking his side in the ‘Operation: Galactic Storm’ split. So maybe it was because I felt the story, for all its impartiality in promotion, was leading me to take Captain America’s side, and I reacted against that. Or maybe I just felt that Cap was being the bigger sanctimonious ass.
New Avengers #22: ‘New Avengers Disassembled (Part 2)’
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, Penciller: Leinil Yu
Line-up: Luke Cage, Iron Man, Ms. Marvel , Captain America, Falcon
Other main characters: Jessica Jones, Danielle Cage, Daredevil (Danny Rand, not Matt Murdock)

Probably the best of the numerous ‘Avengers’ tie-in books to major events has been this tie-in to ‘Civil War’, in which Luke Cage decides he will not register with the government. The decision puts himself and his family at risk, but with a little help from his friends, Cage is able to retain his liberty.  

New Avengers #26
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, Penciller: Alex Maleev
Line-up: Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch
Other main characters: Dr. Strange, Wong

I have been skewered on internet forums for professing my admiration for this issue, but I still stand behind it. Hawkeye, who was killed by the Scarlet Witch’s attacks in ‘Avengers Disassembled’, suddenly wakes up very much alive. He then seeks out Wanda to find some meaning behind what has happened to him, but finds her with seemingly no memory of him, the Avengers, or what she has done. Or has she … ? It was the ambiguity around this point that I thought was well-handled, and made me very intrigued to find out the answer. As Dr. Strange says to Hawkeye before he sets out, ‘If you find her, if by some miracle – I doubt what you’ll find will help you feel better about what’s happened. It may make things worse.’ Again, despite Hawkeye and Wanda appearing to reconcile – and then some – it is not clear if Hawkeye’s finding her has been for the best. Also, I love Alex Maleev’s art, and the models he uses for his characters; perhaps with another artist I would have found this story as objectionable as others seemed to.
Mighty Avengers #1-6 – ‘The Ultron Initiative’
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, Penciller: Frank Cho
Line-up: Ms. Marvel, Iron Man, Black Widow, Wasp, Wonder Man, Ares, Sentry, w/ Henry Pym (sort of)
Main villains: Ultron, Mole Man
Other main characters:  Maria Hill

After being one of the main writers whose style shifted Marvel away from ‘thought balloons’ Brian Michael Bendis brought them back in a big way for his first story arc for ‘Mighty Avengers’. But Bendis’ use was more than just a re-hash of the device; the balloons were fitted into his extensive, rapid-fire dialogue, providing us with the characters’ internal commentary on what was being said. Seeing panels cluttered with white word balloons was a breath of retro fresh air amongst all those modern ‘decompressed’ comic books.

The ‘Mighty Avengers’ took place following the ‘Civil War’, with superheroes now registered and operating across each of the 50 states, though some heroes (over in the ‘New Avengers’) still resist. In the first issue Iron Man tasks Ms. Marvel with picking ‘the best Avengers team possible’ – at least out of the registered heroes – giving us probably the most entertaining ‘pick the team’ issue of the past decade. The main threat is a rather-offbeat Ultron; a shiny silver naked woman that is much more of the silent, mysterious type than the grinning pumpkin-head version. Penciller Frank Cho, well-known for drawing buxom women, made fanboys’ eyes bug out with his sexed-up Ultron rendition. However, with heavy-hitters Ms. Marvel, Wonder Man, Ares, and the Sentry on the roster Cho also gets the chance to draw a bunch of fun knock-about fights; even still, this Mighty Avengers team end up enlisting Ant-Man/Henry Pym (sort of) to help them stop his creation. A good start for the title, which was almost immediately stopped dead in its tracks by it essentially becoming a ‘Secret Invasion’ tie-in book, following which this ‘best Avengers team possible’ was no more.

Avengers Vol. 4 #1-6 – ‘Next Avengers'
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, Penciller: John Romita Jr.
Line-up: Captain America (Bucky Barnes), Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Spider-Woman, Hawkeye, Protector, w/Steve Rogers (former Captain America)
Main villains: Kang, Ultron, Immortus, Apocalypse and his horsemen, Wonder Man
Other main characters: Maria Hill, future Hulk, future Iron Man, the Next Avengers, Killraven, Devil Dinosaur
Review: IGN

Another new direction, another new team … following the end of Norman Osborn’s ‘Dark Reign’ former Captain America Steve Rogers assembles a new ‘Avengers’ team to once again be a symbol of all that is good for the future of humanity. That aside, this was a good return for the team, who after several years absence now had Thor back in the fold. Kang shows up to tell the Avengers that they must go into the future to stop Ultron, otherwise they face an even darker future. Kang himself has tried twenty times, using a different army each time, and his constant stretching of the time-stream eventually causes it to snap. Before you know it we have dinosaurs and Martians turning up in present-day New York, while Thor takes on Galactus. Meanwhile some of the other Avengers travel in the future to try and convince Ultron to throw a fight. Bendis and Romita Jr made Ultron seem about as scary and invincible as he has ever been, and Bendis throws in some nice misdirection about the role of the future Hulk in all this. Contrary to the bold new direction this it claimed to usher in the Bendis era kind of petered out after this, but this was a bulky story with big heroes and villains in it.   
Avengers Vol. 5 #1-3 – ‘Avengers World’
Writer: Jonathan Hickman, Penciller: Jerome Opena
Line-up: (Deep breath … ) Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Spider-Woman, Captain Marvel, (Inhale …) Falcon, Cannnonball, Sunspot, Manifold, Shang-Chi, Hyperion, Smasher, Captain Universe (Whew!)
Main villains: Ex Nihilo, Aleph, Abyss
Jonathan Hickman’s ‘Avengers’ run has had its ups and downs, but it got off to an impressive start, as the Avengers expanded to their biggest line-up ever. The final page of the first issue that shows the massive new team promised exciting things ahead. This is what I said about the issue at the time:
“This is the best Avengers I’ve read in quite some time, probably since Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s alternate take on the team in ‘The Ultimates’. Jonathan Hickman is a ‘big ideas’ kind of guy, which makes him well-suited to what is meant to be the biggest, brashest Marvel title out there. Hickman has even taken the Avengers’ membership to absurdly large levels, packing almost 20 members into his line-up (I don’t disapprove of this concept, even if I think some of the choices are a bit weak). Really though, it’s Jerome Opena’s art that has me most keen about this book. He makes basically everybody he draws look kinda bad-ass; even douchebags like Sunspot and Sunfire. This is what the premier super-team in 2013 should be like. Verdict: Four fingers and a thumb.”
Hickman did continue to be a ‘big ideas’ kind of guy, even if he basically only had the one big idea. Unfortunately Opena did not stay on the title, and subsequent art did not always match Hickman’s ambition. Also, some of the ‘douchebags’ became a bit more ‘douchey’. The first three issues are still good stuff though (and even the stuff that followed, while not as good, is still worthwhile) … good enough to get the final spot of my ‘Best Avengers Stories Ever’ list.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Best Avengers Stories Ever – 1994-2003

I have been reading Marvel’s ‘Avengers’ comics for 26 years, which apart from following my football team, is probably the longest continuous stretch of time that I have done anything.

I once heard Avengers’ writer Brian Michael Bendis say at a convention just after he had read through the whole series that there are a lot of bad Avengers comics … but there are also a lot of good comics. These are what I personally think are the good ones.

In a sense I tipped my hand as to which stories I thought mattered when I did my ‘pseudo-critical’ history of the Avengers. But that was seven years ago now and there has been some notable stories since then.

So across five posts spanning each of the Avengers’ five decades of publication, here are what I think are the best Avengers stories.

Part One (1963-1973) was here.
Part Two (1974-1983) was here.
Part Three (1984-1993) was here.

Avengers #343-344, 355-357, 360-363, 372-375 – ‘The Gatherers’
Writer: Bob Harras, Pencillers: Steve Epting and Gordon Purcell
Line-up: Black Knight, Crystal, Sersi, Black Widow, Hercules, Vision, Captain America, Giant-Man, Thor II/Thunderstrike, Quicksilver, Black Panther
Main villains: Proctor, the Gatherers
Other main characters: Swordsman (from alternate reality), Magdalene, Deathcry, Edwin Jarvis

Following Roger Stern’s departure as writer ‘Avengers’ had several short-term scribes until X-Men editor Bob Harras came on board. Harras debuted on the title with ‘The Collection Obsession’ in #334-339, which turned out to be an OK story, but his run really got going with the introduction of the Gatherers in issue #343. Led by the mysterious Proctor the Gatherers were survivors of alternate Earths that menaced the Avengers on and off for three years. Even when not present their threat often seemed to lurk in the background, particularly since it intersected with another main subplot at the time, which was the Avenger Sersi seemingly becoming violently unhinged.

The Gatherers storyline also contained some early work by top artist Steve Epting, who at this stage was noticeably improving with each issue. Together Harras and Epting mixed the soap opera of Englehart’s run with the dark grandeur of the Thomas/Buscema issues. It may have owed a large debt to those past Avengers stories, but it was an oasis amongst a decade of mediocrity. However don’t read it if you can’t stand the Black Knight.

Avengers #345-347 – ‘Operation: Galactic Storm’
Writer: Bob Harras, Penciller: Steve Epting
Line-up: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor II, Quasar, Wonder Man, Black Knight, Sersi, Crystal, Hercules, Captain Marvel II, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye/Goliath II, Starfox, Living Lightning, US Agent, Falcon, Henry Pym, Wasp, She-Hulk, Mockingbird, Gilgamesh.
Main villains: Supreme Intelligence, Ronan the Accuser, Deathbird, Starforce, Ael-Dann, Dar-Benn
Other main characters: Lilandra, Shi’ar Imperial Guard, Doctor Corbeau

‘Operation: Galactic Storm’, or the Kree-Shi’ar War, was a huge nineteen-part crossover that ran through all the ‘Avengers’ related titles for three months. You could do a lot worse than to read the whole thing, but the three ‘Avengers’ issues are the most significant. A couple of these issues in particular highlight the moral conflicts that would be a major theme of Harras’ run. Issue #345 has four of the Avengers take on a hostile Shi’ar ship, with Sersi threatening to kill the entire crew if they do not stop their attack. Issue #346 takes place on the cold and uninviting Kree homeworld, where the regular Avengers team must decide how to deal with an assassination attempt. (It also contains the first appearance of the ‘Avenger jackets’, which became a bit of a running joke about the era.) The big one though is issue #347, in which one of the warring empires is utterly destroyed, and the Avengers are split as to whether they punish the party responsible. Iron Man leads one faction, while Captain America heads the other, a precursor to the Marvel-wide ‘Civil War’ event some fifteen years later. In the end this particular split harmed the team more in the short-term than in the long-term, but it still made for a more interesting conflict than your average crossover event.
Avengers #348 – ‘Familial Connections’
Writer: Bob Harras, Penciller: Kirk Jarvinen
Line-up: Vision, Crystal, Black Knight, Hercules, Black Widow
Other main characters: Professor Miles Lipton, Laura Lipton

Writer Bob Harras was on a bit of a roll from issues #343 to #350, and one of the standout issues was issue #348 which focused on the Vision. After John Byrne’s ‘Vision Quest’, in which the Vision had been torn apart and reconstructed, he had gone significantly backwards in terms of his abilities to deal with human emotions. In issue #348 he regains some of that ability in an unusual and touching way.
The wife of the man on whose the Vision’s post-reconstruction brain patterns were based comes to Avengers Mansion to ask the Vision to visit her dying father-in-law. Once there the Professor explains that he wants to test a program on the Vision that will temporarily embed his son’s personality on to the Vision’s own. After some prodding from fellow Avenger the Vision agrees, allowing the Professor to talk to his ‘son’ one last time. Seeing the Vision’s android face take on the countenance of the enthusiastic son is a little strange, but the sequence goes beyond mere mimicry. The ending of the issue, in which we once again see an android cry, suggests that the Vision may be on the path to further re-gaining his human side.
Avengers Vol. 3 #1-3 – ‘The Morgan Conquest'
Writer: Kurt Busiek, Penciller: George Perez
Line-up: 39 Avengers
Main villain: Morgan Le Fey

‘Heroes Reborn’, in which the Avengers were one of several long-term Marvel properties loaned out to Image creators Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, may have sold a lot, but it was generally a critical failure. A year on it was up to long-time Avengers fan Kurt Busiek and returning artist George Perez to pick up the pieces, and try and return the Avengers to their former glory. And that they did, creating one of the most well-regarded ‘Avengers’ runs. Perez’s massive amount of detail was on full display in their first story ‘The Morgan Conquest’, as he first re-introduced and then re-designed 39 different Avengers. In this story Morgan Le Fey from Arthurian legend remakes present-day reality into a version of medieval England, and the Avengers are recast as her own personal guard. Captain America and Hawkeye break through the effects of the spell though, and it is up to them to try and snap the other Avengers back to reality. That is not easy though when some of the heavy-hitters are caught deep in Morgan’s spell. One of the best ever ‘Avengers’ writers, Busiek starts off his five-year run exploring what it means to be an Avenger, and though it is a bit corny in parts it returned the Avengers in grand style.
Avengers Vol. 3 #4 – ‘Too Many Avengers’
Writer: Kurt Busiek, Penciller: George Perez
Line-up: Too many Avengers
Main villains: Whirlwind
Other main characters: Edwin Jarvis, Duane Freeman

There are heaps of ‘picking the new team’ stories in Avengers’ history, dating back to issue #16 in 1965, but this is probably the best of them. All of the Avengers from ‘The Morgan Conquest’ are still hanging around, leading to a highly unworkable roster. It is up to the founders to whittle the candidates down. Plenty is happening around the team being picked though, with the Scarlet Witch worried about the injured Vision, Carol Danvers gaining a new name and showing signs of alcohol problems, and Hawkeye pushing the cause of young non-Avengers Justice and Firestar. The new roster did not last long – two members were gone within half a year – but this issue kept the momentum going from ‘The Morgan Conquest’ in bringing back some of the old enjoyment of the series.

Avengers Forever #1-12
Writers: Kurt Busiek and Roger Stern, Penciller: Carlos Pacheco
Line-up: Captain America, Hawkeye, Yellowjacket (past), Giant-Man, Wasp (present), Songbird, Captain Marvel (future), and other Avengers from multiple realities
Main villains: Immortus, Kang, Supreme Intelligence, the Time Keepers, Space Phantoms, Terminatrix
Other main characters: Rick Jones, Libra
Reviews: Comic Book Resources, The M0vie Blog, Open Letters Monthly, PopMatters, The Weekly Crisis, Weekly Comic Book Review

Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco’s twelve-part ‘Avengers Forever’ series seemed intended to be the ultimate ‘Avengers’ time-travel story. Seven Avengers drawn from the team’s past, present, and future work together to battle long-time Avengers foe Immortus across several different eras. It is not the most exciting line-up – Cap, Hawkeye, two Hank Pyms and the Wasp, and Songbird (?) and the son of Captain Marvel – but most readers will grow attached to this team by the series’ end. Also thrown into the mix is Immortus’ past self, Kang the Conqueror, who is fighting against his destiny to transform from conquering warlord to boring scholar. Rick Jones and the Supreme Intelligence feature heavily as well, and for once neither comes off as wholly annoying.
Busiek’s knowledge and use of ‘Avengers’ history in this series is extensive – some might say almost too extensive – with references tucked into the back of each issue to help readers understand the background to events. A lot of vague and hanging plot threads from years back were resolved. Basically when something weird went on or was left unanswered it was all part of Immortus’ plans, though arguably Busiek gave some of those stories (eg ‘The Crossing’) a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card. Given its reliance on past ‘Avengers’ stories this may not be for everybody, but anyone who has an appreciation for the team’s history will find a rich and varied tale here.
Avengers Vol. 3 #19-22 – ‘Ultron Unlimited'
Writer: Kurt Busiek, Penciller: George Perez
Line-up: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Goliath (Henry Pym), Wasp, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, Black Panther, Justice, Firestar
Main villains: Ultron, Alkhema, Grim Reaper

After trying to create the ultimate ‘Kang/Immortus’ story, Kurt Busiek set his sights with George Perez on trying to create the ultimate story for the Avengers’ other major foe the robot Ultron. Here he was even more successful, with Ultron becoming more evil and dangerous than ever. In ‘Ultron Unlimited’ he plans to recast the human race in his image, using his ‘family’: his creator Henry Pym, ex-wife the Wasp, his ‘son’ the Vision, Wonder Man, the Scarlet Witch, and Wonder Man’s brother the Grim Reaper as the prototypes. As an opening gambit, Ultron slaughters an entire (fictional) nation of people, and sends out a chilling TV message to the world while standing atop a mountain of human bodies. The Avengers team up with the US forces to trudge their way through Ultron’s forces and rescue their teammates, but not before running into a nasty surprise regarding the extent of his power.
Speaking of nasty surprises, Henry Pym reveals a dark secret about Ultron’s creation that puts a very clever twist on both characters and yet is so simple that you wonder how no-one made the connection before. The revelation makes his final battle with Ultron all the more intense, and this battle (rather than the more famous scene of Thor saying ‘Ultron, we would have words with thee’) is actually my favourite moment of the story. On publication some readers immediately claimed this as the best ‘Avengers’ story ever – while ‘Under Siege’ still tops my list this is right up there among the very best.
Avengers Vol. 3 #31-34 & Thunderbolts #44 – ‘The Nefaria Protocols'
Writers: Kurt Busiek and Fabian Nicieza, Pencillers: George Perez, Paul Ryan and Mark Bagley
Line-up: Wasp, Iron Man, Goliath, Scarlet Witch, Warbird (formerly Ms. Marvel), She-Hulk, Triathlon, Vision, Black Widow, Captain America, Wonder Man
Main villains: Nefaria, Madame Masque, Grim Reaper, the Maggia, Dreadnaughts
Other main characters: Thunderbolts (Hawkeye, Songbird, Mach-2, Atlas, Charcoal, Moonstone, Ogre, Jolt), Madame Masque clone, Jasper Sitwell, Monmouth, Benedict, Duane Freeman

Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s last story together ‘The Nefaria Protocols’ brought back Count Nefaria in a cross-over with villains-turned-heroes the Thunderbolts. The first issue in the story (#31) is actually the best one, as the Vision, who has been on leave from the team for half a dozen issues, uses his Victor Shade alter ego to do some detective work into the underworld. After that the story delves a fair bit into explanation as Busiek again resolves some old plot threads that probably don’t deserve the care he takes with them. Nefaria’s daughter Madame Masque makes a good secondary threat/ally, and revisits her connection with Iron Man/Tony Stark. The double-sized finale issue #34 is a fine send-off for Perez, playing to his strengths by having two teams of heroes going at it with the ultra-powered Nefaria. It’s not quite as strong as the Shooter/Byrne Nefaria tale, but ‘The Nefaria Protocols’ is a satisfactory conclusion to one of the top three ‘Avengers’ runs.
Avengers Vol. 3 #38 – ‘Above And Beyond’
Writer: Kurt Busiek, Penciller: Alan Davis
Line-up: Captain America, Wasp, Iron Man, Thor, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Goliath, Wonder Man, Warbird, Triathlon, Quicksilver, Photon (formerly Captain Marvel II), Firebird, Black Knight, Living Lightning, Quasar
Main villains: Diablo, Taskmaster
Other main characters: Jack of Hearts, Duane Freeman, a lot of Hulks
Avengers Vol. 3 #51 – ‘Prisoners: A Love Story’
Writer: Kurt Busiek, Penciller: Brent Anderson
Line-up: Wonder Man, Scarlet Witch
Avengers Vol. 3 #62 – ‘Broken Hearts’
Writer: Geoff Johns, Penciller: Gary Frank
Line-up: Jack of Hearts, Ant-Man II, Iron Man, Yellowjacket, Wasp
Other main characters: Cassie Lang

Here I have grouped together three issues that stood out for me in the pre-Bendis/pre-franchise years (which I will cover in the final part).
Issue #38 is not a complete story, but I have included it because at the time it gave the Avengers an extremely promising new direction. Captain America and the Wasp re-organised the team to be more proactive and take down threats before they show up and cause bigger trouble. It was a very modern take on the team without sacrificing the Avengers’ ideals, and could have carried the team through several years’ worth of stories. Unfortunately Kang showed up and all the Avengers’ efforts became focused on him, and while ‘The Kang Dynasty’ was by no means a bad story it did halt the momentum this issue had built up. What a shame … but at least I can imagine in an alternate universe what types of stories this issue lead to.
Knowledgeable readers may be surprised that I have included almost every Avengers’ Kang story on this list, but omitted what many consider the best of them: ‘The Kang Dynasty’, in which the time-traveller conquers present-day Earth. I remember reading the issues as they were released – the story dragged, and the artists kept changing every few issues. Issue #51, which deals with the Scarlet Witch and Wonder Man caught in one of Kang’s prison camps, is a highlight though. The Scarlet Witch had long been married to the Vision before he was dismantled and reconstructed, and in his first incarnation his brain patterns had been based on those of Simon Williams AKA Wonder Man. Hence, there was an argument that Wanda had fallen in love with Simon as well as the Vision, and the tension heightened even more when she used her powers to bring him back from the ‘dead’. This story plays on and resolves that tension, all against the backdrop of the two having to comfort each other and work together to escape their prison. Some of the events in ‘The Kang Dynasty’ felt over the top, but the extreme scenario worked well here in bringing out the deep connections between these two characters.
Geoff Johns’ ongoing Ant-Man/Jack of Hearts conflict seemed forced to say the least, the kind of juvenile dispute that was created just to have some arguments between the characters. However it did give Johns the best issue of his run, issue #62, and the follow up in Johns’ last issue, #76, was not bad either. Scott Lang (Ant-Man) battles for custody of his daughter, while the Jack of Hearts deals with the interminable solitude of being locked in a reinforced chamber for hours each day to prevent his own powers from destroying him. Johns draws some nice parallels between the pair, and makes them far more sympathetic than the complete jerks they were for most of his run.
The Ultimates Vols. 1 and 2
Writer: Mark Millar, Artist: Bryan Hitch
Line-up: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Wasp, Giant-Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch
Main villains: Hulk, Chitauri, Loki, the Liberators
Other main characters: Nick Fury, Betty Ross, European Defence Initiative, Defenders, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man
Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s ‘The Ultimates’ is close to the greatest ‘Avengers’ story ever told … if one can even consider it an ‘Avengers’ story. Millar and Hitch re-cast the early Avengers as super-powered weapons for S.H.I.E.L.D. Millar carefully chose the elements of these characters he wanted to use from across their forty years of history (eg Giant-Man and Wasp’s domestic problems), but also changed some elements as well. Captain America’s ‘boy scout’ attitude is stripped away, leaving a tough-as-nails soldier. Thor is a social activist with a cult of hippies who may have deluded himself that he is the God of Thunder. Hawkeye and Black Widow lead the Ultimates’ Shadow Team that does the dirty stuff that the headlines cannot get involved in. Iron Man, Giant-Man, the Wasp, the Hulk round out the original line-up, later joined by a closer-than-usual Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.
‘The Ultimates’ was basically Marvel’s try-out for an ‘Avengers’ movie. Contributing to the Hollywood blockbuster feel was Bryan Hitch’s art, with Hitch having helped to popularize the widescreen style of comics. Full-page panels and double-page spreads abound, with even an eight-page spread showing up in the second volume. Hitch’s photo-realist style made the characters looked like celebrities, most notably in Nick Fury’s case where he was based on actor Samuel L. Jackson before Jackson actually portrayed him.
The first volume of the Ultimates has the team first take on the Hulk, reflecting that in their early days the Avengers often just fought each other. Next up is the Chitauri, that is, the alien race that would turn up in the Avengers movie, who have a connection to Captain America’s past. The second series takes up the theme of American imperialism as the Ultimates face Loki and a team called the Liberators that are none too happy with America having access to a team of super-powered weapons. Our ‘heroes’ are insecure, irrational, harsh, egotistic, and possibly the best version of the Avengers we have seen to date.