Friday, 9 January 2015

Essential Avengers volume 4

Essential Avengers volume 4 is made up of issues #69 to #97 plus the crossover issue Incredible Hulk #140. Everything is scripted by Roy Thomas with both parts of the Hulk crossover plotted by Harlan Ellison. Most of the art is by a mixture of Sal Buscema, John Buscema and Neal Adams with a couple off issues by Frank Giacoia. The Incredible Hulk issue is drawn by Herb Trimpe.

Throughout this volume there are a number of stories that seek to address contemporary social issues and it's not hard to see this as a response to the critical acclaim of the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series which was running in the same period. But at times these tales can feel like they're missing the mark. There's a tale of Native Americans being driven from their land by a ruthless businessman that may tell a fast story with a non-cliched portrayal but it feels like a typical retread. There's another encounter with the Sons of the Serpent but once again punches are pulled with the revelation that the Supreme Serpent is in fact two television chat show hosts, one white and one black, who want just "power for ourselves". Would it have been so wrong to have an actual home grown racist as the leader and show the horror needs no outside manipulation? And the Black Panther, the hero-king who rules a proud African kingdom, is reduced to taking a day job as an inner city schoolteacher concerned with urban crime, as though black superheroes can do little else. But the most cringe-worthy moment comes in issue #83 with the Liberators. This all-female team, consisting of the Wasp, the Scarlet Witch, the Black Widow and Medusa, has been assembled by the Valkyrie to free women. But the Valkyrie turns out to be the Enchantress in disguise, trying to steal a device that will restore her full power. And what is her motivation for launching a war on men? She has been deserted by the Executioner who went off with another woman. And in the following issue she is now working with another man and all talk of a war on men has now been forgotten. So she's become a radical feminist for want of a man and then abandoned feminism upon finding one. How could this get any worse? And it's a pity as earlier on the Enchantress had highlighted some very real sexism and grievances when recruiting (although the backstory she gave to her Valkyrie identity is false). The intentions may be all well and good but the execution is repeatedly clumsy and so it's no surprise these issues have largely been forgotten.

Two other influences from DC can be seen with the appearance of other heroes, although one group is a far more obvious homage than the other. Early on the Avengers are confronted by the villainous Squadron Sinister and it is easy to spot their origins as a copyright friendly pastiche of the Justice League of America, right down to the individual counterparts - Hyperion is Superman, Nighthawk is Batman, Dr Spectrum is Green Lantern and the Whizzer is the Flash. Later on issue #85 sees the Avengers visit a parallel world where the heroes are the Squadron Supreme. Shown here are the good versions of the four Sinister members alongside four further heroes who again are clear counterparts to Justice Leaguers - Lady Lark is Black Canary, Tom Thumb is the Atom, Hawkeye is Green Arrow and the American Eagle is Hawkman. This was no casual rip-off but one half of a deliberate crossover in the days before inter-company crossovers with the official versions of heroes were possible. (Over at DC at about the same time the Justice League of America encountered the Assemblers, a team equally made up of counterparts to the rival company's heroes, but this team has had a rather lower profile than the Squadron Supreme.) It's also appropriate to encounter a team of DC derived heroes in a parallel universe and it's an elegant way to meet fan demands decades before a direct Avengers/JLA crossover could be produced. However the identical names and appearances of the two Squadrons is just asking for trouble, as shown by the cover copy for issue #85 which proclaims the return of the Squadron Sinister but is actually the first appearance of the Squadron Supreme.

More surprising is the way issue #97 declares a whole load of Golden Age heroes to have been nothing but fictional characters depicted in comics. Again this is the same method previously reported used by DC (with the subsequent addition that the comics were based on real events in a parallel universe), but whereas the Distinguished Competition's use of that method predated any actual revivals, Marvel had by this stage already revived Namor the Sub-Mariner, Captain America and, albeit only briefly, the android Human Torch. It's therefore a surprise to find the Angel, Blazing Skull, the Fin, the Patriot and the original Vision confined to fiction within fiction and brought to life briefly by the mental powers of Rick Jones in issue #97. The surprise only grows when remembering that the writer is Roy Thomas, who could normally be found integrating the Golden Age heroes into modern continuity. Was this a case of editorial interference blocking an attempt to revive the original characters, as seems to have happened with the introduction of the modern Vision? Still whatever the rationale we get to enjoy the sight of several of Marvel's Golden Age heroes in battle with the Kree some years before the launch of the Invaders.

At 640 pages this is one of the longest of all Essential volumes and at the time it was first published it was the record holder. Consequently one could query the reasons for including the Incredible Hulk issue as although it (naturally) follows up on the Hulk after Avengers #88 it doesn't really feature the Avengers that much. It's probably better that we're left wondering why it was included rather than why it wasn't but overall this crossover is really just a Hulk story that happened to detour into the pages of the Avengers instead of a true meeting of the two titles. Both parts of the crossover are plotted by Harlan Ellison, and he gets named on both covers, but rather than some grand masterpiece from a big name science fiction writer lured over to comics, this instead feels like a piece of stunt casting, either to attract in science fiction fans or just to lend Ellison's credibility to comics. The result is a rather mundane Avengers fighting the monster called Psyklop who is seeking the power of first the Hulk and then the Dark Gods. It may feature the first time the Hulk visits Jarella's world, but as an Avengers story it's ultimately forgettable.

The same cannot be said for the final storyline in this volume which is the main reason for its length. Rather than end the volume on a cliffhanger (although there was a gap of only fifteen months before the next volume was published), we get the entirety of the Kree-Skrull War story from issues #89 through to #97, made even slightly longer by issue #93 being 34 pages long as part of Marvel's brief 1971 attempt to expand the page size and price of their comics before retreating to the regular size (though not quite the previous price). This is one of the first full-length epic stories that Marvel produced, with a wide range of settings and characters. We get guest appearances by not only the familiar Kree and Skrull figures such as Ronan the Accuser, the Supreme Intelligence and the Super Skrull, but also by obscure ones such as the Skrulls who impersonated the Fantastic Four way back when the aliens first appeared or the first robotic Kree sentry to visit Earth. We get the return of Rick Jones, who discovers how even a simple orphan carries within him the ultimate potential of humanity, and his alter ego Captain Marvel. There are battles with S.H.I.E.L.D., a trip to the Inhumans' Great Refuge to overthrow Maximus and restore Black Bolt, encounters with Annihilus in the Negative Zone and even a journey through the body of the Vision (although as this is in the extra long issue it feels suspiciously like gratuitous padding), before a climax in space in which aid comes from the mental powers held by all humans and Rick's memories of the old comics he enjoyed at his orphanage. There's also a dig at McCarthyism some two decades after the event in the form of H. Warren Craddock, head of the Alien Activities Commission. Was this just a really really late piece of satire or was it a more contemporary response to the presidency of Richard Nixon, who had first achieved national fame through his work on the Un-American Activities Commission? All in all this is a saga that sets out to combine disparate elements in a strong ongoing narrative that also carries some good character moments. Of particular note are the growing feelings between the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, with the android's desperation to save her coming to the fore.

The rest of the volume may seem tame by comparison but there are further additions to the series character base. The only new recruit to the Avengers is the Black Knight but he's barely seen, a sign that the Avengers membership has grown to the point where it's getting out of hand. Some relief on numbers comes from Yellowjacket's decision to drop out of superheroing and focus on scientific research with the Wasp following him, whilst the Black Panther ultimately decides to return to Wakanda and take up ruling full time upon the death of his regent. Otherwise the cast of the Avengers is large and allows for a mix of line-ups in individual issues with nearly all the members seen so far appearing at one point or another. There's also a new hero introduced in the form of Red Wolf, accompanied by the wolf Lobo, but they only appear in a single story. As noted above there's a sort of first appearance by the Valkyrie as a disguise by the Enchantress but the name and appearance of the disguise have gone on to greater things with the Defenders. The only notable supporting character to be introduced is Monica Lynne, who moves from a singing career to become a social worker before accompanying the Black Panther to Wakanda.

The series continues to add villains with several making their first appearances in these pages. In the immediate term the big introduction is the full Zodiac cartel, following on from the appearances of Scorpio in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Now we get to meet Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces. They appear multiple teams and even briefly conquer New York in their second appearance, making for a strong threat. Also recurring is Arkon, the ruler of another world who seeks both a way to restore his world's light and a mate, settling on the Scarlet Witch. Posing a threat of a very different kind is Cornelius van Lunt, one of the earliest examples in comics of a corporate criminal who uses both sharp business practices and hired crime to achieve his ends. There's also another group of existing foes brought together, this time under the name of the Lethal Legion and consisting of the Grim Reaper, the Man-Ape, Power Man, the Swordsman and the Living Laser. For the longer term the biggest arrival is the Grandmaster, who here challenges Kang to a game of living chess with the Avengers' as Kang's pieces. As a grand and all-powerful strategist the Grandmaster presents strong potential for the long run.

Overall this is a mixed run on the title with some unfortunate misfires in attempts to do social relevance tales balance by a very strong climax and some good additions to the mythology although the dismissive approach to some of the Golden Age characters is surprising. There are clear signs of character development, especially with the Vision, and plenty of action at all levels. It's easy to see why the Kree-Skrull War has become one of the most celebrated of all Avengers storylines and it makes for an excellent ending to the volume that more than justifies its extra large size.

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