Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Best Avengers Stories Ever – 1984-1993

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.

Avengers #251, 253-254: ‘Absolute Vision’
Writer: Roger Stern, Penciller: Bob Hall
Line-up: Vision, Scarlet Witch, Captain America, Captain Marvel II, Starfox, Hercules, Wonder Man, Black Knight, Wasp
Main villains: Vision (?), Quasimodo
Other main characters: ISAAC

Roger Stern, despite his very good conclusion of ‘The Trial of Yellowjacket’ storyline, was another ‘Avengers’ writer who took a while to warm up. The Vision’s grandiose plans had themselves been building for about a year or so by the time Stern stepped them up to a new level, with the Vision taking over the world’s computer systems so as to put an end to war on Earth. It is an intriguing premise and one where you almost want the Vision to succeed, particularly when he starts doing his sales pitch to each Avenger appearing in various personalised guises. Like Henry Pym in ‘The Trial of Yellowjacket’ the Vision has feelings of insecurity which feed into his actions – see his dream sequence in #251 - but his intentions do seem to go beyond himself even if they are misguided. After a very long stint with the team the Vision would take a leave of absence following this story, bringing to an end his time of ‘stardom’.
Avengers #258-260: ‘The Legacy of Thanos’
Writer: Roger Stern, Penciller: John Buscema
Line-up: Wasp, Captain America, Captain Marvel II, Starfox, Hercules, Black Knight
Main villains: Nebula, Gunthar, Levan
Other main characters: Firelord, Raymond Sikorsky, Spider-Man, Beyonder, plenty of Skrulls
Review: Zakt!

I once wrote my reasons for why the Roger Stern/John Buscema issues, from #255 to #286, was the best ‘Avengers’ run ever. Frankly I could recommend them all here – there isn’t a dud issue among them. The Savage Land story in issues #256-257 is pretty good, but the first really good story is the Nebula one that follows thereafter. Nebula – who claims that she is the granddaughter of Avengers’ enemy Thanos – is more vicious than your usual Avengers foe, terribly so when she sets her sights on destroying an entire world. Buscema always had a darker edge to his art than most artists of the traditional Marvel titles, and following on from the ravaging of the Savage Land a couple of issues before, the stakes have definitely gone up a notch from Stern’s earlier ‘Avengers’ stories. Fortunately the Avengers roster generally had upbeat and/or likable characters at this point – Captain America, Wasp, Hercules, the Black Knight, Captain Marvel, and Starfox – to keep things from getting too bleak. The only major weakness of the story is the ending in issue #260, as the Beyonder from Marvel’s mega-crossover ‘Secret Wars II’ is unfortunately shoehorned as a deus ex machina into the issue.  
Avengers #267-269: ‘Time and Time Again’
Writer: Roger Stern, Penciller: John Buscema
Line-up: Wasp, Captain America, Captain Marvel II, Hercules, Black Knight, Sub-Mariner
Main villains: Kang, Immortus, Growing Man, Space Phantom, Dire Wraiths
Other main characters:  Ravonna

Yes I like Kang the Conqueror, but never have I liked him more than in this three-parter. It opens with X-Man Storm joining the Avengers, which throws the reader for a bit of a loop, though the explanation is soon forthcoming. We are then quickly introduced to a ‘council’ of Kangs; turns out that Kang’s many time travels have created a legion of alternate versions of himself, and a few of them have banded together to wipe out the others. Even when faced with his own self Kang is still rarely anything but ruthless.

Issue #269 lines up all the ducks in a row regarding the convoluted history of Kang – by no means the last issue to try and do so – but one which does so in a natural and easy-to-read way. Immortus shows up at the end to cause Kang further trouble, with Kang raging like a child against the older version of himself. The whole story feels like a smooth, logical progression of what a writer can do with the time-travelling villain, and having missed out on drawing him on his first run of ‘Avengers’ Buscema handles the warlord better than almost any other artist.

Avengers #271-277: ‘Under Siege’
Writer: Roger Stern, Penciller: John Buscema
Line-up: Wasp, Captain America, Captain Marvel II, Hercules, Black Knight, Thor
Main villains: Baron Zemo, a souped-up Masters of Evil
Other main characters: Edwin Jarvis, Ant-Man II, Doctor Druid, Paladin
Review: Living Between Wednesdays, Bronze Age Babies

In my view ‘Under Siege’ – in which a massively expanded Masters of Evil take over the Avengers’ headquarters – is the greatest Avengers story ever, and issue #277 is the greatest Avengers issue ever. Further the moment when Captain America breaks down, as he takes in all the destruction the Masters of Evil have wrought on the people and things he loves, is the greatest Avengers moment ever. Cap’s old nemesis Baron Zemo assembles an army to take the Avengers down, and does so … the Avengers’ butler Edwin Jarvis is brutally beaten and Hercules is smashed (which leads into the next major storyline). But then the Avengers start to turn the tide, first through an unlikely victory by the Wasp, followed then by the return of Thor, which starts to give the team some momentum. The Avengers return to claim back their shattered headquarters, culminating in an intense battle between Cap and Zemo. Like most of the great Avengers stories non-Avengers fans may have trouble appreciating this one, but in the Avengers world this is as good as it gets.    

Avengers #281-285: ‘Assault On Olympus'
Writer: Roger Stern, Penciller: John Buscema
Line-up: Captain Marvel II, Captain America, Thor, She-Hulk, Black Knight, Doctor Druid, Sub-Mariner, Hercules
Main villains: Zeus and some of the Olympus gods
Other main characters: Prometheus

Stern and Buscema’s last full story together, ‘Assault On Olympus’, was another winner, as the Avengers face off against the Greek Gods. Following the assault by the Masters of Evil Hercules lies in a coma, and his all-powerful dad Zeus blames the Avengers for his condition. Zeus has sentenced the Avengers to death, and the team has to fight their way through both Hades and Olympus in order to get home safe. Most of the Greek Gods are enemies, but some are friendly to our heroes, and the Avengers must seek their allies out. The Avengers had some serious firepower at this point; Thor, She-Hulk, the Sub-Mariner, and Captain Marvel would hold their own against many foes, gods included. Alas Stern soon departed after this, and there would not be another true classic story in the ‘Avengers’ title for the next five years.

West Coast Avengers #42-45: ‘Vision Quest'
Writer and Penciller: John Byrne
Line-up: Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, Vision, Henry Pym, Wasp, Mockingbird, Tigra, US Agent joins
Main villains: The world’s governments
Other main characters: Professor Horton
Reviews: Marvel Comics of the 1980s, Comics Matter

‘West Coast Avengers’ #42 – the first issue by writer/artist John Byrne – was one of the first comics I bought, and I loved it. That issue went through a lot of the history of the Avengers, centered around the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, including Vision’s first appearance, his origin, the Celestial Madonna story and their wedding, and so on. The occasion for this is the Vision’s sudden disappearance, which as it transpires, is due to the world’s governments reacting to the events of Avengers #254. Long-time fans called for Byrne’s blood as he dismantled the Vision, and re-wrote parts of his history; me being a new fan I didn’t mind. Mockingbird’s betrayal, the Avengers hanging around in the early morning as the Vision is rebuilt, Wonder Man’s anguish as the Scarlet Witch reacts to his refusal to give the Vision his brain patterns – these moments made me just want to read more and more. Perhaps somewhat inexplicably it is my favourite ‘Avengers’ story after ‘Under Siege’. Byrne’s run as a whole sustained me through a relatively lean period in ‘Avengers’ history, helping me to keep the faith before Bob Harras re-ignited my intrigue in the early ‘90s.

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