Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Best Avengers Stories Ever – 1963-1973

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.

Avengers #8: ‘Kang The Conqueror’
Writer: Stan Lee, Penciller: Jack Kirby
Line-up: Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Giant-Man, Wasp
Main villain: Kang
Other main characters: Rick Jones

You will see a lot of Kang the Conqueror stories in this list; in my view almost all of the Avengers’ Kang stories have had something to distinguish them from your run-of-the-mill Avengers tale. His first appearance in issue #8 is, I believe, the most worthwhile of the Lee/Kirby issues. Kang’s ship lands in Virginia with the aim of conquering present-day Earth. A nascent Avengers team try to stop him, but are hopelessly outmatched by his futuristic technology. In later stories Kang would be much more of a schemer, but in his debut you actually see him go toe-to-toe with the Avengers, and it is a pretty desperate fight, as the Avengers know that even one moment’s pause could lead to a swift defeat. Kirby’s shots of Kang staggering, his protective suit broken and the Avengers ready to pounce, shows exactly why ‘60s kids went ga-ga over the drawings of ‘the King’.

Avengers #23-24: ‘From The Ashes of Defeat'
Writer: Stan Lee, Penciller: Don Heck
Line-up: Captain America, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver
Main villain: Kang
Other main characters: Ravonna

The original Avengers team, which had included Thor and Iron Man, was replaced in issue #16 by a rather less-godlike team: Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch. It definitely changed the title, but led to some fairly insubstantial stories and foes (the Commissar, the Swordsman, etc). Kang’s return in issues #23-24 was therefore a welcome upping of the stakes.

Kang has fallen in love with a princess named Ravonna, and because all he really only knows how to do well is conquer he tries to win her love by conquering her homeland. But Kang’s love for Ravonna leads to a twist in events in the second part of the story, resulting in Kang and the Avengers suddenly finding themselves fighting side-by-side.

Stan Lee was writing so many stories in those days that a lot of them were inevitably just banged out, but this one seemed to have a bit more behind it and the ending does carry some emotional weight. That ending too would have repercussions for Kang and the Avengers five years, twenty years, and even thirty years later, as it became an integral part of the ‘Kang narrative’.

Avengers Special #2: ‘The New Avengers vs. The Old Avengers’

Writer: Roy Thomas, Pencillers: Don Heck and Werner Roth
Line-up: Captain America, Hawkeye, Goliath (formerly Giant-Man), Wasp, Black Panther
Main villains: Scarlet Centurion, the old Avengers (Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Giant-Man, Wasp)

As I said above, when Stan Lee was writing the Avengers it was just one of many books he was writing, but for his successor Roy Thomas it was the book (even if he was writing a few others as well). Thomas took some time to find his feet, but then started to produce some solid stuff from the mid-50s up until his departure sometime after issue #100.

Thomas started to succeed after he was willing to add some darker elements into the book, beginning with Avengers Special (aka Annual) #2. In this issue the present-day Avengers arrive back at their headquarters to find it inhabited by the original Avengers team - yes, even the Hulk. Fighting of course ensues, and the present-day team learns that they have arrived in an alternate timeline. But the story is not just ‘new team meets old team’. It turns out that on this Earth the Avengers have (initially through good intentions) systematically eliminated all opposition to themselves, in the process becoming the very dictators that they once fought to oppose. (The guy controlling them is the Scarlet Centurion … a future version of Kang.)

Twenty years before series such as ‘Squadron Supreme’, ‘Miracleman’, ‘Watchmen’, and ‘Kingdom Come’, this issue questioned how far superheroes would go to right the wrongs of the world. It also showed the Avengers a dark reflection of themselves, a theme that would be repeated many more times over the years.          

Avengers #57-58: ‘Behold the Vision/Even An Android Can Cry’
Writer: Roy Thomas, Penciller: John Buscema
Line-up: Goliath, Hawkeye, Wasp, Black Panther, w/ Thor, Iron Man, Captain America; Vision joins
Main villain: Ultron

Thomas’ stories were often quite insular, in that the Avengers mostly kept to themselves and their adventures often consisted of just warding off whatever threat was looking to break them up that month. Sometimes this made the title a bit claustrophobic, whereas other times it worked pretty well. One occasion it worked well was with the introduction of the Vision in issue #57, the first character specifically created for the title, and almost its unofficial ‘star’ for the next one hundred or so issues. With his grimacing red face and spectral abilities and appearance, the Vision looked at first glance anything but a hero, and indeed he was an android initially created by one of the Avengers’ enemies - the robot Ultron - to destroy them. Despite scaring the beejezus out of the Wasp he fails pretty miserably at his mission, soon siding with the Avengers to help take down his former master.

Issue #58 reveals the origin of the Vision (or at least part of it), and also that of Ultron as well, who turns out to have a sinister connection with one of the Avengers that would cause the team a lot of hurt over the years. It is a clever reveal, but the most remembered part of the issue is John Buscema’s final page as the Vision reacts to his acceptance into the Avengers. Though a little overwrought it helped a generation of ‘Avengers’ fans connect with a character that came to be the title’s most striking and enigmatic drawcard.

Avengers #69-71: ‘Let The Games Begin’
Writer: Roy Thomas, Penciller: Sal Buscema
Line-up: Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Vision, Goliath II (formerly Hawkeye), Yellowjacket (formerly Goliath I), Wasp, Black Panther
Main villains: Kang, Grandmaster, Squadron Sinister, Growing Man
Other main characters: Black Knight (joins the Avengers), the Invaders (World War II-era Captain America, Sub-Mariner, original Human Torch)

A few decades before we got to see the Avengers clash with DC Comics’ Justice League of America Roy Thomas introduced some evil, non-copyrighted counterparts of the League – named the Squadron Sinister – for the Avengers to fight in this three-part story. Readers will easily recognise analogues to Superman (re-named Hyperion), Batman (Nighthawk), Green Lantern (Doctor Spectrum), and Flash (the Whizzer). Following the events of issues #23-24 Kang has made a deal with a cosmic gamesman named the Grandmaster to pit a set of chosen champions against each other, with the prize being power over life and death itself. Kang’s chosen champions are the Avengers themselves, making the Avengers and Kang once again uneasy allies. One side wins, and it is after that we get to see a dramatic demonstration of Kang’s egotism and villainy.

A lot of the fun for fans though was in the arena-style battles. The heavy-hitters Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and Goliath face off against the Squadron Sinister in issue #70, each battle taking place against the backdrop of one of the world’s great monuments. Then in issue #71 the ‘second-string’ Avengers Yellowjacket, Black Panther, and the Vision go up against Marvel Comics’ World War II-era heroes – the Invaders – in Nazi-occupied Paris. The premise of two teams of combatants facing off in small-scale brawls would be used again in various other ‘Avengers’ stories … including the ‘JLA/Avengers’ series itself. Aside from that influence though, a fuller appreciation of this story is gained by reading the Avengers’ next encounter with the Squadron fifteen issues later – it cleverly reverses the usual trope of seeing the good version of a team followed by a bad version. (We’ll get to that in a moment.)

Avengers #75-76: ‘The Warlord and The Witch'
Writer: Roy Thomas, Penciller: John Buscema
Line-up: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Goliath, Vision, Black Panther, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Yellowjacket, Wasp
Main villain: Arkon

‘Grab Quicksilver!’ Goliath shouts on the cover of issue #75, his large hand reaching out in an attempt to grab the mutant speedster, ‘He’s the only one who can stop the world from blowing up!!’ It was a dramatic way to re-introduce key Avengers Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who had been off doing who knew what for over two years. In their wake comes a new menace, a guy in a helmet and furry pants calling himself Arkon the Magnificent, who quickly takes a fancy to the mutant sorceress. Arkon’s world is in peril – the energy rings around his planet are disintegrating – and to save his world he must (of course) destroy our own. John Buscema, who would later go on to draw the ‘Conan the Barbarian’ series, does a great job here; his Arkon really is magnificent, and the world of Polemachus feels like a good fantasy world should. Arkon’s capture of the Scarlet Witch is a bit removed from your usual damsel-in-distress scenario. By the end of the story both Wanda and the reader have gained a better appreciation of the conflicted heart of the warlord.

Avengers #85-86: ‘The World Is Not For Burning!'
Writer: Roy Thomas, Penciller: John Buscema
Line-up: Goliath, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Thor, Black Panther
Main villain: Brain-Child
Other main characters: Squadron Supreme

Coming home from a return bout against Arkon, four of the Avengers – the Vision, Goliath, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch – get thrown off course, and land several weeks in the future to bear witness to ‘a doomed and burning earth!’ After jumping back to the present day they enter their headquarters, only to find it occupied by Nighthawk of the Squadron Sinister and four other super-strangers. However it’s not the Squadron Sinister, but their benign counterparts the Squadron Supreme, who would go on to become recurring characters in ‘Avengers’ and stars of their own limited series. While probably not wholly planned it was pretty cool that the good versions of these characters showed up after the evil ones.

Caught in the midst of Thomas and Buscema’s run the Avengers’ unexpected entrapment on the Squadron Supreme’s world had a subtle but significant effect on me. While the Squadron Supreme may be their world’s ‘Avengers’ that does not make their sudden appearance any less unsettling, and the dread of an earth close to an apocalypse just adds to the uneasy feeling running through these issues. Even the Avengers’ eventual return to their home world does not shake the sense that things are a heartbeat away from going horribly awry, or that our history and reality could themselves be overwritten.

Avengers #89-97: ‘The Kree-Skrull War’
Writer: Roy Thomas, Pencillers: Neal Adams, Sal Buscema, and John Buscema
Line-up: Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Vision, Goliath, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Yellowjacket/Ant-Man, Wasp
Main villains: Supreme Intelligence, Ronan the Accuser, Super-Skrull, assorted Kree and Skrull soldiers
Other main characters: Captain Marvel, the Inhumans, Rick Jones
Reviews: Strange Horizons; The M0vie Blog, Longbox Graveyard

I find ‘The Kree-Skrull War’, sorry to say, one of the more overrated ‘great Avengers stories’ – it does not really get going until Neal Adams comes on board for the second half, and even then it drags on a bit. However it still has some impressive moments, and it definitely did stand out from anything else that was going on in ‘Avengers’ or at Marvel at the time.

Basically two of Marvel’s alien powers – the militaristic Kree and the shape-shifting Skrulls – are at war with each other, and the Avengers and the Earth are caught in the middle. Getting to see the Avengers jump off into space is thrilling in its own way; though it’s been done many times since few have ever done it better than Neal Adams did. We also get two of the best Vision moments ever: the first when Henry Pym re-dons his Ant-Man guise to go inside the Vision’s android body; and the second when the Vision, mad with love for the Scarlet Witch, coldly beats one of her alien captors half to death. Science-fiction buffs will enjoy Thomas’ wordplay on some of the genre’s most well-known titles (e.g. ‘Godhood’s End’, ‘1971: A Space Odyssey’). While not on the same level for me as Thomas’ more reality-bending stories ‘The Kree-Skrull War’ is worth a read … I still find the ending kind of silly though.

Avengers #115-118 & Defenders #8-11: ‘The Avengers/Defenders War'
Writer: Steve Englehart, Pencillers: Bob Brown and Sal Buscema
Line-up: Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Black Panther, Swordsman, Mantis
Main villains: Loki, Dormammu
Other main characters: Defenders (Hulk, Dr. Strange, Sub-Mariner, Silver Surfer, Valkyrie, Hawkeye), Black Knight
Review: Bronze Age Babies

Roy Thomas’ successor as ‘Avengers’ writer was Steve Englehart, who had some trippy ideas but who for me was just a step below the top four ‘Avengers’ scribes. Thomas and Jim Shooter had their flaws as well, but had great artists; perhaps if Englehart had a long run with an artist as good as George Perez or John Buscema – both of whom he worked with, but not for long – I might think of his run more fondly. Bob Brown as an artist was OK though.

In ‘The Avengers/Defenders War’ the various Avengers and Defenders (a team founded by the Hulk, Dr. Strange and the Sub-Mariner) face off in mostly one-on-one battles to collect shards of the Evil Eye. Gradually they learn they are being manipulated by Thor’s brother Loki and Dr. Strange’s enemy Dormammu. This culminates in the two teams combining forces in Avengers #118 to take down the two sorcerers.

I almost did not include this on the list; like ‘The Kree-Skrull War’ I don’t love this as much as others seem to. But I decided to include it for three reasons. One was that it built upon the arena-style battles from the Kang/Grandmaster story, and indeed served as even more of a template for those inter-team and inter-company crossovers. That leads to reason number two: for better or worse, it pioneered the crossover, as to read the entire story you had to buy both the ‘Avengers’ and ‘Defenders’ titles.

And then there is the Hulk/Thor fight. This fight had two great moments for me. One moment is how the issue opens up without the regular Marvel pre-amble, but just a heading ‘Hulk vs. Thor’, and people running away from the Hulk as he approaches the battle. (To be fair, if you had not read the preceding chapters any pre-amble was probably not going to catch you up anyway.) The second moment is Hulk and Thor locked in each other’s grip, neither giving an inch for over an hour. It really was the marquee match-up, and is just enough to get this story over the line into my list of recommendations.

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