Friday, 20 June 2014

Essential Avengers volume 2

Essential Avengers volume 2 contains issues #25-46 plus King-Size Special #1 (the annual by another name) and also, in early editions, the story from Tales to Astonish #27 that introduce Henry Pym, later Ant-Man. The first half of the volume and the Tales to Astonish story are written by Stan Lee and the second half and the special are by Roy Thomas. Most of the issues and the special are drawn by Don Heck, with the last few by John Buscema and one by George Bell. The Tales to Astonish story is drawn by Jack Kirby.

This volume sees a continuation of the general problem that the Avengers are a club of heroes assembled for no particular reason, though as time passes they accumulate more and more ties that keep them together. Within these pages are the first examples of several longstanding themes that recur time and again throughout the history of the team's membership. There's the first return of former members when the Wasp and Giant-Man come back, albeit with the latter now using the name "Goliath". There's the first cases of heroes hanging around with the Avengers without actually holding formal membership, with Hercules eventually granted it after several issues but the Black Widow instead choosing to retire. There are extended absences for individual members as first the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver go to sort out their powers and then later Captain America spends some time sorting out matters in his own strip. There's the first great reunion in the annual as "the Original Avengers join Today's Avengers", although with the Hulk absent it boils down to just Iron Man and Thor being drawn into a single great adventure with the regular team. And we see further confirmation of Captain America's central role in the team when he is unanimously chosen as the chairman for this reunion, being the link between the original and current team.

By this point the team's pretensions to being the Marvel version of the Justice League of America have been abandoned. With Marvel already having prominent teams of superheroes in the form of the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, plus big name heroes like the Hulk and Spider-Man whose set-up made it impossible to slot them into this sort of team, it was simply impossible to assemble all the company's big name heroes into a single team. So instead the focus was shifted to mainly featuring characters who lacked their own strip and develop them in their own way. Captain America is still around as the lynch pin of the team but at times he's absent because of events over in Tales of Suspense. Notably by the time Giant-Man/Goliath and the Wasp return, their own strip in Tales to Astonish had ended, thus freeing them up to be developed here. Goliath gets some good material at first as he discovers he's trapped in a ten foot tall form, unable to change size without killing himself. This leads him to search for a cure, eventually enlisting the aid of scientist Bill Foster to strengthen blood cells.

Not all the tales show such advancement, and at times it seems as though the series is wading through leftover ideas from elsewhere. The very first issue sees the team's first encounter with Doctor Doom (at least until the retroactive one-shot Avengers #1&1/2 was published over thirty years later), but his primary motivation is just to impress the Fantastic Four and use the Avengers as hostages to lure in his most regular foes. The issue does once more raise the idea that Doom and Rang/Rama-Tut could somehow be the same person at different points in time, but it's an idea that has never worked for me and I think this is the last time it was raised. The next two issues see the team defeat an attempt by Attuma to flood the world and so once again it feels like the Avengers are mopping up leftovers from Fantastic Four, and this is just reinforced by an interlude involving the Human Torch's old foe, the Beetle.

The series does pick up a bit and start developing some of its own creations and introducing a few more foes, beginning with the introduction of the Collector. As is often the case with big name villains introduced in this era, his appearance and motivations are much tamer than he would go on to be. Here he could be a human for all that's revealed about him and the difference that it makes. This is followed by the first regular Avengers appearance of the Black Widow, brainwashed into once more serving the Soviet Union and now recruiting both the Swordsman and Power Man to battle the Avengers and try to recruit Hawkeye. Then we get a slight reversion to old Fantastic Four ideas in the form of a rather dull tale of a power struggle within a lost civilisation in South America, but it's hard to care for either the Keeper of the Flame or Prince Rey as they struggle over a cobalt flame.

We then get what is probably the best remembered tale in this volume as the Avengers battle against the Sons of the Serpent, a thinly disguised parody of the Ku Klux Klan. It's a story that puts the Avengers through some hard choices when the Sons take Captain America hostage and try to recruit the Avengers to their side. It's also one of the most overt examples of the series reflecting turbulence in the wider world, and it's to the credit of Lee and Heck that we are never left in any doubt whose side the Avengers are on even when Goliath has them pretend to support the Sons or when Captain America is impersonated. However the story ducks out on an uncomfortable truth by revealing the Supreme Serpent to be foreign Communist General Chen, rather than showing how such hatred can be home grown. And under a new writer the series is more casual when it comes to apartheid South Africa which is briefly visited in the annual, although it's not explicitly named as such but the presence of diamonds and what appear to be a sea of white faces are telling. Though the country primarily serves as a backdrop to Thor and Hawkeye's battle with the Living Laser, it feels rather casual to pass through a country with such practices and fail to even say anything. Equality is not something that only matters in a single country.

The story also sees a major step forward as the Black Widow comes to the Avengers' aid, having finally turned against the Soviets. From this point onwards she is on the path to becoming one of the most prominent of Marvel's female heroes, though it's a complex path with S.H.I.E.L.D. intervening to send her on a mission to China where it appears she has defected once more. The Avengers are mixed in their reaction to their new ally, with Goliath reluctant to see the Avengers turn into a "rest home for retired villains", but eventually they get to the point of considering her membership though her China mission and injuries prevent it from happening at this stage.

As with a number of other Silver Age Essential volumes, this one shows the end of Stan Lee's run on the title, with Roy Thomas succeeding him here, and once again Lee bows out on a cliffhanger in a rather underwhelming adventure. Although the Living Laser would go on to be a significant recurring foe, coming back even here in the annual, his first story sees him motivated by a romantic crush and feels rather tame. Had Lee left just one issue earlier he would have departed with the climax of the first Sons of the Serpent storyline, a much more impressive note to go out on. The Living Laser story also appears to have been extended at short notice as issue #33 ends with the caption "Next: Goliath changes!" but this doesn't happen until #35.

Roy Thomas's run begins by concluding the Living Laser story with the added twist of him seeking fame by aiming to help a revolution in Costa Verde, a Latin American military dictatorship. The story ends with both sides defeated and the remnants of the army declaring a democracy, but more notable is Captain America's declaration to the army "We wish in no way to interfere in your country's private matters!" Coming in late 1966 it's a surprisingly early declaration of non-interventionism, even if delivered at a point when the country's immediate problems are being seemingly solved. The subject of intervention in other countries is not something that can be easily debated in a few panels, but such declarations can at times feel like an over casual dismissal of problems and suffering around the world. On a lighter note the story sees Goliath regain the power to change size, having sufficiently healed his body. And there's a fun moment for continuity buffs as Captain America's shield gets destroyed by lasers and he has to resort to a new one - try matching that with the later position that his shield is indestructible and he's had it more or less since 1941.

The run continues with another forgettable set of foes in the form of the alien Ixar and his robotic Ultroids, though the resolution when the Black Widow exploits her non-Avengers status to threaten Ixar's life is a telling sign of how far she still has to travel. Then we get the arrival of Hercules, initially under the spell of the Enchantress, and he seems to be a substitute for Thor. There follows a brief encounter with the Mad Thinker, a further foe from Fantastic Four, and his brie team of henchmen the " Triumvirate of Terror", consisting of Hammerhead, Piledriver and Thunderboot but none are any relations to any others who may have used those names. In an epilogue to a storyline in Tales of Suspense, the team clash with the Sub-Mariner as they search for the Cosmic Cube, which ends up thrown away by the Mole Man. Yet another pair of Fantastic Four foes appear in the form of Diablo and Dragon Man, with the latter seemingly destroyed, and one is wondering if the team will get any big battles with more personalised foes.

It's not a long wait. Issue #43 introduces the Red Guardian, a Communist conscious counterpart to Captain America in every way, though curiously he's developed by the Chinese rather than the Soviets. In a fierce battle he nearly defeats Captain America but the latter is more experienced and only subdued by outside intervention, a point that annoys the Red Guardian's honour. In a twist he's revealed to be the previously assumed dead husband of the Black Widow and he meets his end nobly, sacrificing himself to save her. Still the story gives them both a degree of redemption, even though the Black Widow ends up injured and briefly retires from the costume instead of accepting Avengers membership. The final couple of regular issues see old foes from individual member's strips, with the Super-Adaptoid from Captain America's strip in Tales of Suspense now finally clashing with the whole Avengers, then Goliath's old foe the Human Top returns with the new name of Whirlwind.

The annual also features some old foes as the Mandarin assembles the Enchantress, the Executioner, the Living Laser, the Swordsman and Power Man as part of a plan to conquer the world. This story is the one most like the standard format for the contemporary Justice League of America as the threat comes in three less forms, resulting in the heroes splitting into separate teams to go to different locations to tackle each part before reuniting for the showdown conclusion. The addition of Iron Man and Thor just adds to the JLA influence as it results in something resembling Earth's Mightiest Heroes (a phrase not yet in use). As a one-off celebratory piece it works, but it's a good thing the regular series didn't get caught up in such a formula.

Throughout the volume there are various signs that the Avengers are all developing in different ways, though some more than others. Most notably Hawkeye is fast maturing and coming to respect Captain America even more, getting beyond the angry hot head he can be at times. However Quicksilver is increasingly concerned about attitudes to mutants and his thoughts are getting steadily more angry. The Wasp who returns to the team is more mature than before, contributing more in action as an equal member and rarely commenting on her male colleagues, though there is a lapse to her older habits when Iron Man and Thor briefly return. This is a team that feels ever more coherent and strong, showing why they stay together even if why they're there remains a bit of a mystery.

Overall this volume is okay, but not particularly exciting. It's critical in showing the development of the team and the on-off nature of its membership but beyond that it doesn't really excite that much or contain any issues that particularly stand out. Too often it seems to draw on the entrails from Fantastic Four rather than continuing to develop its own strong set of recurring foes and situations.

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