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. 

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