Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Best Avengers Stories Ever - 1974-1983

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.

Avengers #129-135 & Giant-Size Avengers #2-4 – ‘The Celestial Madonna’
Writers: Steve Englehart and Roy Thomas, Pencillers: Sal Buscema, Dave Cockrum, George Tuska and Don Heck
Line-up: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Mantis, Swordsman, Hawkeye
Main villains: Kang, Immortus, the Legion of the Unliving, the Titanic Three, Dormammu
Other main characters: Rama-Tut, Libra, Agatha Harkness, the Cotati
Review: Steve Does Comics

Steve Englehart wrote one of the more baffling but finer Avengers sagas with his ‘Celestial Madonna’ story. A lot of the story revolves around the Avenger Mantis, a Vietnamese prostitute with a knowledge of martial arts and a mysterious past, who was brought in to sex the Avengers up a bit. Readers are still divided about the character – other Marvel creators reportedly hated her (especially her tendency to refer to herself as ‘this one’) – but she was more complex than many female superheroes, and a welcome added element to the white male homogeny of the title.

‘The Celestial Madonna’ title refers to a prophecy that one of the female Avengers will eventually give birth to a child that will ‘rule the heavens’. Kang the Conqueror, who has the intention of fathering that child, returns in issue #129 … and again in issue #132, but his plans are frustrated by an unexpected source. Kang’s time-travelling history starts to become really complicated from this point, but here the paradoxes add to the strangeness of the saga.

In the second half Englehart told two concurrent origin stories, those of Vision and the Mantis. The former has entered Avengers folklore, while the second – creative though it is – has like the character been mostly forgotten (it involves talking trees). The Legion of the Unliving, which consists of Marvel characters that have been killed off – at least at the time – also make their first creepy appearance. Plus, an Avenger dies (and actually stays dead), and the whole shebang ends with a double wedding.

Avengers #141-144, 147-149 – ‘The Serpent Crown’
Writer: Steve Englehart, Penciller: George Perez
Line-up: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Beast, Moondragon, Hellcat joins
Main villains: Nelson Rockefeller and the Serpent Crown, Roxxon-Brand Corporation (Hugh Jones, Buzz Baxter, many flunkies), Kang, Orka the Killer Whale
Other main characters: Squadron Supreme, the Two-Gun Kid and his gang
Review: Junk Food For Thought

Top Avengers artist George Perez made his debut for ‘The Serpent Crown’, which like ‘The Celestial Madonna’ was more a collection of plotlines that ran concurrently even if it is commonly thought of as one story. The Squadron Supreme return, and in issues #147-148 the Avengers travel to their earth once more where the President Nelson Rockefeller disturbingly makes his appearance with the nefarious Serpent Crown atop his head. From there the various Squadron members face off against the various Avengers members, until the Beast convinces the Squadron that maybe they’ve been had. Another threat is the James Bond-lite Roxxon-Brand Corporation, while the ‘gods’ Thor and Moondragon, along with Hawkeye, team up with the Two-Gun Kid to take down Kang in the Old West. Issue #149 – which I actually read in a waiting room years before I saw the rest of the story – ties up the Roxxon plotline, with Thor duking it out with a giant Atlantean calling himself Orka the Killer Whale.  Not all of it makes a whole lot of sense, but Perez’s crystal clean art mostly papers over any cracks, signalling the start of many lovely looking issues to come.
Avengers #160: ‘The Trial’
Writer: Jim Shooter, Penciller: George Perez
Line-up: Vision, Wonder Man, Scarlet Witch, Beast, Black Panther
Main villain: Grim Reaper

Unlike Thomas and Englehart, Jim Shooter started his ‘Avengers’ run with a bang. In his first issue he had the Vision take on the newly resurrected Wonder Man – the android’s brain patterns having been revealed to be based on Simon Williams’. Then in his third issue, ‘The Trial’, Eric Williams the villainous Grim Reaper returns to put both the heroes on trial to determine which one is his ‘real’ brother. The answer? Neither and both. The Vision makes his point through another existential rant, while Wonder Man tries to hammer some sense into his brother. However Simon’s response is not purely physical, and he makes a good case to Eric in the closing pages on accepting change. The Wonder Man/Vision/Grim Reaper dynamic would be explored again over the years (the Kurt Busiek/George Perez story in the ‘90s is worthwhile), but each attempt seemed like it was mainly trying to recapture the success of this issue.
Avengers #164-166: ‘Nefaria Supreme'
Writer: Jim Shooter, Penciller: John Byrne
Line-up: Vision, Iron Man, Captain America, Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, Beast, Black Panther, Thor, Yellowjacket, Wasp
Main villains: Count Nefaria, the Lethal Legion
Other main characters: the Whizzer

A review I once read described Jim Shooter and John Byrne’s three-part Count Nefaria story in issues #164-166 as ‘highly entertaining’, and that seems right to me. Yes it is mostly just a slug-fest, but it is about as good an Avengers slug-fest as you will get. In this story, Nefaria gains godlike powers, and proceeds to beat up and rain buildings down on the Avengers, including heavy-hitters Iron Man, the Vision and Wonder Man. Things do not look good for the team until Thor – in a great burst of light – arrives on the scene, and even then it takes some ingenuity and desperate measures to save the day. Byrne fired on all cylinders with his artwork for this story, and helped produce some of the most well-loved fight moments in Avengers’ history.

Avengers Annual #7/Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2: ‘The Final Threat’
Writer and Penciller: Jim Starlin
Line-up: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Beast
Main villain: Thanos
Other main characters: Adam Warlock, Captain Marvel, Thing, Spider-Man, Pip the Troll, Gamora

Although it stars the Avengers the main purpose of ‘The Final Threat’ is to finish off Jim Starlin’s excellent ‘Warlock’ story. Adam Warlock’s enemy Thanos is after the powerful Soul Gems, and Warlock enlists the Avengers to help him stop the mad Titan. It is a pretty awesome fight with pretty gruesome consequences, as Warlock and his friends are each eventually killed off by Thanos. That only forms Part One of the story though, and in Part Two (in which Spider-Man and the Thing join the battle) Warlock returns in a rather creepy way to end Thanos’ threat.

The story relies on atmosphere as much as plot, and Starlin’s vision is both unsettling and brilliant. (I recall reading writer Mark Millar as saying that he thought the idea of the Avengers just hanging around their mansion on a rainy night was kind of cool.) Thanos’ villainy was a lot more subtle at this stage as well, at least compared to his return a decade later in ‘The Infinity Gauntlet’; Thanos’ menace still seethed rather than blustered.

Avengers #167-168, 170-177: ‘The Korvac Saga'
Writer: Jim Shooter, Pencillers: George Perez, Sal Buscema, and David Wenzel
Line-up: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Beast, Hawkeye, Moondragon, Yellowjacket, Wasp, Black Panther, Quicksilver, Hercules, Black Widow
Main villains: Korvac, Carina Walters, the Collector, Ultron, Tyrak
Other main characters: Captain Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy (not the movie team), Ms. Marvel, Jocasta, Two-Gun Kid

‘The Korvac Saga’ takes even longer to get going than ‘The Kree-Skrull War’ did, with the Avengers dealing with several other threats before coming up against their ultimate enemy. Its final chapter though – issue #177 – stands as one of the top few issues in ‘Avengers’ history. A mysterious entity known as ‘The Enemy’ is working to bring all of existence under his ‘benevolent rule’. The Avengers track this enemy – who (spoilers) is actually a transformed version of the villain known as Korvac – to where he is hiding in suburban Queens. This forces him to reveal his hand, thereby swiftly ruining his plans to install peace.

Korvac is none too happy about the Avengers’ intrusion, and it brings about the most brutal battle the Avengers have ever fought. It is both dreadful and amazing to watch our heroes get absolutely slaughtered by this godlike being. Korvac’s intentions also bring into question who the actual villains of the story are – is it, in truth, the Avengers themselves? One Avenger certainly seems to think so. I side with the Avengers myself, but the ambiguity around their actions here would make for an interesting philosophy essay.

The lead-up issues have the Avengers fighting old foes such as Ultron and the smarmy Collector. These are worthwhile as well, though I still wonder about a Grade-A robotic menace such as Ultron hanging out in a nunnery.

Avengers #185-187: ‘The Yesterday Quest’
Writers: David Micheline, Mark Gruenwald and Steven Grant, Penciller: John Byrne
Line-up: Captain America, Scarlet Witch, Wasp, Wonder Man, Beast, Ms. Marvel, Falcon, Iron Man, w/ Quicksilver
Main villains: Chthon, Modred the Mystic
Other main characters: Bova, Django Maximoff

‘The Yesterday Quest’, the product of three – yes, three – writers (and artist John Byrne) follows the efforts of the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver to learn more about their origins. Alert readers learned the true identity of the twins’ father, although somewhat frustratingly (depending on how you view it) the identity is left unrevealed to the characters themselves. A later letters page explained this choice by saying that it did not matter for the characters what their relationship was.

Apart from this ‘revelation’ though, the story is best remembered for its portrayal of a ‘dark’ Scarlet Witch, as Wanda is possessed by the demon Chthon. Byrne himself would use this trope when he took over the ‘West Coast Avengers’ title, while writer Brian Michael Bendis would use it to devastating effect in his first Avengers tale. When I first heard of the Scarlet Witch I assumed she was a villain – which in fact she was to begin with – so I agree she can be a natural fit for the role.

Oh, and there is a talking cow.

Avengers #194-196: ‘The Taskmaster'
Writer: David Micheline, Penciller: George Perez
Line-up: Iron Man, Captain America, Vision, Wonder Man, Beast, Wasp, Ms. Marvel, Yellowjacket, Falcon leaves
Main villain: Taskmaster
Other main characters: Ant-Man II, Selbe, Jocasta, Dr. Pernell Solomon, lots of henchmen

After ‘Nefaria Supreme’, the three-part ‘Taskmaster’ story probably best fits the ‘highly entertaining’ description. The story introduces the visually striking Taskmaster, an expert in fighting styles who is training a school of henchmen. Fans were treated to Henry Pym, formerly Ant-Man and now known as Yellowjacket, teaming up with his successor as Ant-Man Scott Lang, to rescue yet another hero with shrinking powers, Pym’s wife the Wasp. Meanwhile the rest of the Avengers hang out in the snow and drink coffee (which all looks very pretty when George Perez is drawing it). Also we learn Captain America has a sense of humour, the Vision is having another ‘I’m not human’ existential crisis, and the Beast to his delight finds out what his pal Wonder Man is doing as an acting job.
Avengers Annual #10: ‘By Friends … Betrayed!’
Writer: Chris Claremont, Penciller: Michael Golden
Line-up: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, Beast, Wonder Man
Main villains: Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (Mystique, Rogue, Blob, Pyro, Avalanche)
Other main characters: Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, the X-Men

The ‘happy-go-lucky’ feel of the late ‘70s-early ‘80s Avengers came crashing down hard, as X-Men writer Chris Claremont made the Avengers confront the unwitting insensitivity of their actions. In Avengers #200, a being known as Marcus had brought Ms. Marvel to Limbo so as to woo her, impregnate her, and then be born into our realm. Marcus quickly grew to adulthood but then his plans to stay in our realm were thwarted, and Ms. Marvel, deciding that her feelings for Marcus still lingered, agreed to go off with him. It was a decent story, typical for the era, that looked like it might have a happy ending.

Oh how wrong we were! Carol Danvers returns in this annual (also the first appearance of future X-Man Rogue), and in the final six pages, blasts the Avengers for standing by and letting her be manipulated by Marcus. Brian Michael Bendis, at the convention I saw him at, called it the best Avengers story ever, and the most vicious attack by one writer on another writer’s story he had ever read. One can see in those six pages basically Bendis’ entire approach to his ‘Avengers’ run (a reliance on dialogue, heroes being ‘besties’, etc).

Claremont’s views were informed by an essay called ‘The Rape of Ms. Marvel’ by Carol A. Strickland, as well as his own affection of the character from having written her series. Ms. Marvel’s ‘you betrayed me’ speech was even more devastating than the ‘were the Avengers the villains?’ theme in ‘The Korvac Saga’. While that story sowed the seeds of doubt within itself that was all was not right with the Avengers’ actions, in this case many fans were blind-sided by the implications of the Avengers’ actions until Claremont brought them out in full force.

Avengers #212-213, 217, 224, 227-230: ‘The Trial of Yellowjacket’
Writers: Jim Shooter and Roger Stern, Pencillers: Alan Kupperberg, Bob Hall, Sal Buscema and Al Milgrom
Line-up: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Wasp, Yellowjacket, She-Hulk, Hawkeye, Tigra, Captain Marvel II
Main villains: Egghead, Gorn, Elfqueen, Yellowjacket
Other main characters: Trish Starr
Review: ZAKT!

‘The Trial of Yellowjacket’, at least Jim Shooter’s component, was one of the more divisive ‘Avengers’ stories in terms of its implications. In this story founding Avenger Henry Pym, then known as Yellowjacket, essentially has a mental breakdown. Hank has feelings of unworthiness, which leads to massive jealousy of his superhero wife the Wasp. He even concocts a half-baked plan to make himself look good in front of his teammates. Yellowjacket’s awful abuse of Jan, both emotionally and physically, effectively ends one of Marvel’s longest-running relationships. Henry Pym smacking his loving wife across the face remains one of the Avengers’ more memorable and most disturbing images.
Things turn worse for Hank when, after re-encountering the Avengers, he is jailed, though in this case he is actually not in the wrong. He pops up again in the issue where the Wasp starts a relationship with Tony Stark, with Jan not knowing Stark is her fellow Avenger Iron Man. Jim Shooter leaves the title after that issue, and it is up to new writer Roger Stern to steer Hank Pym through to redemption. Stern’s conclusion, which rightfully does not ignore or reverse the horrible mistakes Hank has made but recognises his efforts to make right, should satisfy most readers.
Frankly Hank’s offences should have been resolved then, but other writers, particularly Chuck Austen, decided the skeletons could not be left alone. Pym made mistakes to be sure, but to write him off as an irredeemable jerk shows little regard for one of Marvel’s key creations. Even Jim Shooter, as he was tearing down Pym’s life, suggested that Pym could be redeemed. Still, whether or not this story ‘wrecked’ the character of Henry Pym, ‘The Trial of Yellowjacket’ stands out as some fairly brave storytelling.

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