Friday, 26 September 2014

Essential Avengers volume 3

Essential Avengers volume 3 contains issues #47-68 and King-Size Special (i.e. Annual) #2. Everything is written by Roy Thomas and mostly drawn by John Buscema, with individual issues drawn by George Tuska, Gene Colan, Barry (Windsor-)Smith and Sal Buscema and the annual by Don Heck and Werner Roth. Bonus material consists of the team's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. Also relegated to the back of the original edition are a pin-up and "Avenjerks Assemble", a comedic parody of the creative team in action, but both these come from the annual.

This volume sees a run of creativity and development with new members added to the team, several existing members departing to focus on matters closer to home, and new and recycled identities for remaining members. Meanwhile two of the team's best known villains are introduced here whilst there are also some new heroes developed, though only one joins the team immediately. Early on we get the replacement of the villainous Black Knight with his heroic nephew, who swears to right the wrongs of his uncle's criminal career and also explicitly links the character to the 1950s character whose adventures were being reprinted around this time. It's not hard to spot the writer's motivations in "correcting" a perceived earlier mistake and incorporating a pre-1961 series into the Marvel universe (although the Black Knight's thoughts and captions leave open the possibility that the Arthurian adventurer may have just been a legend with readers encouraged to make up their own mind - was this editor Stan Lee trying to rein in Roy Thomas?). That the Black Knight is a continuity tidy rather than a story development is confirmed by his taking off after a single issue rather than teaming with the Avengers for at least the rest of this phase of the Magneto storyline and only pops ups again for occasional issues throughout the rest of the run.

Another sign of attempts to add the Golden Age heroes comes in the form of the Vision and I suspect the original intention was to simply revive the 1940s character and perhaps nail down his origin once and for all. Instead we get a lookalike - and black and white makes the similarities stand out even more - android (although Hank Pym coins the term "synthozoid") who has been given the memories of Wonder Man and a near complete set of artificial body parts. The result is an artificial being with emotions, the power to alter his body's density from diamond solid to intangible and the power of heat vision. He is soon accepted onto the team in spite of the revelation that he was created by Ultron. I would have the Avengers would exercise greater caution about such a potentially deadly being spawned by their newest foe and this does come back to bite them later on.

The membership revolving door continues in these issues as Captain America largely drops out in order to focus on his life, though he comes back for a memorable time travel storyline. There are also returns by Thor and Iron Man at the end of the volume but it's unclear if they'll be sticking around for the long haul. Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch leave under less ideal circumstances as the former especially becomes repulsed by the hostility to mutants that even an Avenger experiences and succumbs to Magneto's lure of a separate mutant nation, though later on in a crossover with the X-Men they finally escape from all the warring sides and fly off with the Toad. Hercules also leaves to take his place in Olympus after he and his teammates have rescued the Olympians from being banished by the Titan Typhon. But the team continues to grow with the addition of the Black Panther on the recommendation of Captain America. However at first the character is referred to only as "the Panther" as if someone had heard of the Black Panthers and had cold feet about still using the name. He also wears a different mask that leave his nose and mouth exposed - was this an early design used in error or an attempt to transfer "black" from the name to the colours? Whatever the reasoning within a few issues he's back to being "the Black Panther" and a full mask without comment about either. Nor for that matter is it initially addressed just how he can easily leave his country to go and be a New York based hero. By issue #62 it's established he left a regent in place but M'Baku launches an attempted coup d'etat under the costumed guise of the Man-Ape. The Black Panther saves his thrown with some help from his teammates but subsequent issues alternate between his defence of his homeland and his Avengers work in New York, not a situation that's sustainable for the long run.

Meanwhile we get yet another change of identity for Hank Pym as he adopts the role of Yellowjacket and marries the Wasp, albeit under the impression he's someone else altogether. "Yellowjacket" is one of those names that is lost on me because the term isn't used outside North America except perhaps for a fashion disaster. (Or part of a uniform such as the one in Hi-de-Hi! but there the garment in question and one who wears it is instead called a "Yellow Coat".) Now although it's good to see the relationship take a step forward the circumstances of the wedding feel awkward and a sign of how badly the story has dated. In 1968 the decision of the Wasp to take advantage of Hank/Goliath/Yellowjacket's change in persona and amnesia and to marry him whilst he was under the impression he was a different person may have seemed like the reasonable action of a woman tired of waiting and playing second fiddle to experiments seizing her moment to get her fiancé to finally come out of the laboratory and actually walk down the aisle with her. Today our knowledge of psychosis is far more advanced (even if the word "schizophrenia" is still frequently misused in fiction for what is actually "multiple personality disorder" or "dissociative identity disorder") and it feels as though Jan is taking advantage of Hank's mental condition to entrap him into marriage - and she's the one to declare the law says the marriage is still legal after his original persona recovers. This is Hank's fourth costumed identity in sixty issues and it's amazing nobody has started asking questions about his state of mind. Nor is it immediately clear just why the team is better served by having a second hero who can shrink, fly and sting instead of one who can grow in size. Issue #63 sees Hawkeye ditch his arrows and identity and instead take up the growth serum to become a new Goliath but the limited level of forward planning in this volume suggests this was a rapid correction of a perceived mistake rather than a deliberate decision to net replace the archer with a second kind of wasp derived hero.

It's not just the line-up of heroes which is expanded but also that of the villains. The annual introduces the Scarlet Centurion, who distorts the timeline by promising the original Avengers the chance to create a utopia on Earth by adjusting the balance of forces in the world, resulting in their taking down just about every hero and most villains. He then brings the Avengers from the original timeline to this altered world in order to ensure the teams wipe each other out. Conceptually it's a good idea in theory but it's not clear just how this world has been created by the team travelling back to 1945 to play a role in the events of Captain America's freezing that seem to have been part of the original timeline, or how the Wasp is transported to the alternate world when she's been left at the controls and her counterpart is present. And the original team prove highly gullible even if the Scarlet Centurion is exercising mind control powers that he's otherwise never been seen to use. For this villain is another identity of Kang/Rama-Tut. And then there's the rushed conclusion which seems to boil down to Goliath running around in a time machine to exercise some technobabble to reverse it all, then this magic is followed by the Watcher popping up to fill in the gaps about the Centurion's identity. All in all it's a rather wasted effort and there's no real need for another identity for Kang.

The aforementioned time travel story sees a return by Captain America as he checks himself to see whether or not Bucky could have survived the famous explosion and settles that his partner was definitely killed that day. But this isn't the only death to haunt the Avengers with the spirit of Wonder Man evoked twice. Once is when the recording of his brain patterns is used for the Vision. Before then the Avengers are attacked by Wonder Man's revenge seeking brother, the Grim Reaper who nearly takes down the entire team but for the intervention of the Black Panther. Another brother to appear is Barney Barton, Hawkeye/Goliath's criminal brother who goes straight to help the Avengers discover Egghead's space station and then sacrifices his life to destroy the villain's death ray. Not long afterwards we learn more about Barney and Clint's past in the circus and their dealings with the Swordsman, suggesting Barney will be one of those characters to make a greater impact dead than alive.

And then there's Hank's "son" and the Vision's "father" who quickly establishes himself as perhaps the toughest foe for the Avengers. Ultron is steadily built up over several issues, starting off as the mastermind behind a new incarnation of the Masters of Evil (made up once again of the Melter and the Radioactive Man, plus Klaw and Whirlwind, with the new Black Knight responding to the invitation only to spy on them) but not directly tackling the Avengers just yet. We finally learn his origin in issue #58 as Hank uncovers the memories the android suppressed of the creation of an android that rapidly evolved and developed an Oedipus complex. But the preceding issues show how little this was planned out as it's not until the origin issue that Ultron shows particular interest in targeting Hank over the other Avengers. Ultron is physically tough to begin with but subsequently obtains the new indestructible metal adamantium and uses it to build a new body. The first appearance calls himself "Ultron-5" and the second "Ultron-6" but wisely on his next upgrade he drops the numbering otherwise he'd be a recipe for continuity chaos and constantly reminding readers just how many times he's been destroyed and rebuilt. But in another sign of the times there's no attempt to hold Hank accountable for being a modern day Frankenstein inadvertently unleashing a monster into the world.

Issue #53 is the conclusion of a crossover with the X-Men. Similar issue #61 is the final part of a crossover with Doctor Strange and issues #63 to #64 overlap on events in both Sub-Mariner and Captain Marvel to explain the fate of various villains. But in all three cases only the Avengers issues are included here and the reader has to rely on flashbacks, captions and/or dialogue to know what's going on. In two cases there's sufficient explanation to make the story work but in the middle case it may have helped to include the relevant Doctor Strange issues. However back in 2001 it didn't seem to be the practice to incorporate crossover issues in the Essentials (though this change by 2005 when the relevant Doctor Stranges were Essentialised).

Despite not including these, this volume is a good solid run. The Avengers are by now well beyond a simplistic teaming of Marvel's main solo heroes and are instead evolving as a coherent team where members work together to sole one another's problems and collectively face the emnity earned by individual members. There may be some occasions where the stories have clearly dated, and the female members of the team still aren't being given a chance to show their full potential, but overall this volume shows the direction the team will follow for many years to come.

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