Friday, 22 May 2015

Essential Avengers volume 6

Essential Avengers volume 6 contains issues #120 to #140 and Giant-Size Avengers #1 to #4, plus Captain Marvel #33 and Fantastic Four #150. This includes the full contents of Avengers #136, which reprints Amazing Adventures #12. Almost all the regular and Giant-Size Avengers issues are written by Steve Englehart, apart from one regular and one Giant-Size that are scripted by Roy Thomas who fully writes another Giant-Size. The art sees runs by Bob Brown, Sal Buscema and George Tuska with other issues by John Buscema. The Giant-Sizes are drawn by Rich Buckler, Dave Cockrum and Don Heck. The reprinted Amazing Adventures issue is written by Englehart and drawn by Tom Sutton. The Captain Marvel issue is plotted and pencilled by Jim Starlin and scripted by Englehart whilst the Fantastic Four issue is written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Buckler. And with so many creators there's a separate post for the labels.

This volume has one of the best starting and end points, neatly capturing one of the most significant periods in not just Avengers history but in the wider Marvel universe. Here we see the links between titles getting ever stronger as we get not only crossovers with Captain Marvel and Fantastic Four but also see brief overspills from titles as diverse as Captain America and the Falcon and Doctor Strange. Furthermore there's a much greater use of Marvel history than ever before, with a willingness to tie together disperse plot points and explain everything from the abandoned city in the Blue Area of the Moon through to the presence of Captain America in the post war All-Winners Squad.

On some occasions this can get a little too much though, to the point that characters wind up being tied together perhaps more than is necessary. A case in point comes in Giant-Size Avengers #1, which is the nearest thing to an annual by a different writer in this volume. Here we get a tale that reveals the parents of the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver to have been Miss America and the Whizzer from the Golden Age comics, with the place of birth none other than the High Evolutionary's Mount Wundagore with one of his evolutions, Bova the cow, serving as the midwife. Was it really necessary to establish this parentage? Neither of the parents had been hitherto seen in the Silver Age outside of reprints (helpfully the footnotes referencing past adventures include the reprints as well as the original issues), let alone had any prior history with the two and there's no particular reason why the most prominent speedsters have to be related to each other, especially as one is a mutant and the other got his powers from a mongoose. Nor does it really add much to the story itself which is mainly focused on the Whizzer's attempts to contain the threat of his other mutated child, Nuklo, along with one of the first attempts to sort out the immediate post war Captain America adventures by establishing yet another replacement after the original was missing in action.

And this isn't the only time one of the heroes is connected to the Golden Age. After many years of brief hints, we now get the revelation that the Vision is the original Human Torch rebuilt and with his memories and personality mostly erased. Does this make the Vision a reincarnation of the Torch or is he in some way a being like Frankenstein's Monster, literally constructed out of the dead body of another? It's one of those concepts that doesn't bear thinking about. Overall it seems from the hints that are referenced here that this had been the plan for several years if not since the beginning, not least because Roy Thomas is just still the editor, and scripting the revelation issue, and he had created the Vision and written most of the hints. And of course he's long been the biggest champion of reusing the Golden Age characters. Now it can be reasonably argued that the original Human Torch has been surplus to requirements ever since the introduction of the Fantastic Four's Human Torch. But this had already been dealt with in a Fantastic Four annual in which the original was briefly revived only to die for good. There is simply no need to tack on an unremembered past to a character who is only similar to the original Torch in that they are both androids. Once again it feels like retconning for the sake of it and it doesn't add much to the character.

Also adding little is the crossover with Captain Marvel - indeed such is the detached nature of the issue in which the Avengers take on Thanos's space army that it isn't even included in Essential Captain Marvel volume 2. The Captain Marvel issue included here is the climax to the whole saga but the Avengers aren't too prominent in it and the issue could quite easily have been left out. By contrast the crossover with  Fantastic Four is a much stronger combination, featuring the wedding of the one-time Fantastic Four member Crystal to the ex-Avenger Quicksilver, complete with an attack by Ultron and other chaos with the Inhumans. It also shows up Quicksilver as a complete hypocrite when he rejects his sister's attempts at reconciliation due to his hostility to her relationship with an android, yet he is about to marry an Inhuman. Truly bigotry is never consistent.

But the biggest draw of this volume is one of the best known Avengers epics of all time, the Celestial Madonna Saga. The build-up is slow but adds revelations as it goes, starting off with the latest encounter with the Zodiac cartel as it suffers an internal division. The real shock comes with the discovery that Libra is Mantis's father and her history is very different from what she previously knew. But it also sets off the Swordsman's own story arc as he charges off in a fit of rage to take vengeance on Mantis's wicked uncle for the death of her mother and the blinding of her father. Instead he winds up captured and revealing the location of the Priests of Parma who raised her, with the result the crimelord uncle slays them. This unleashes the monstrous Star Stalker and adds to the revelations as we learn of the Priests' connections to the alien Kree. There's an extended interlude involving both crossovers plus an encounter with Klaw and Solarr, with the Black Panther departing for his kingdom. Meanwhile the Scarlet Witch gets a power boost as Agatha Harkness starts to teach her magic to control her hex spheres, but in the process they encounter the demon Necrodamus.

Throughout all this there's a strong emphasis on character development as the Avengers explore themselves and their feelings for one another. Mantis is steadily turning away from the Swordsman and towards the Vision, to the Scarlet Witch's outrage. The Vision is slowly learning what his true feelings are. The Swordsman is feeling ever more inadequate, with his attempt to win back Mantis's heart ending in disaster and then he is deemed too insignificant to bother kidnapping. Captain America is also suffering a crisis of faith due to events over in his own series and the Watergate scandal; this leads him to drop aside from the Avengers for the time being. When Hawkeye returns to the team he finds it a very different affair from the one he left.

The main part of the storyline comes with the assault by Kang the Conqueror, seeking the legendary Celestial Madonna who will mate with "the most powerful man on Earth", with the intention of fulfilling that role and using the prophesised child to rule the heavens. The religious subtext is far from subtle but there's also plenty of strong adventure themes with the Avengers aided by the Egyptian pharaoh Rama Tut, now a future version of Kang who has grown weary of conquest and returned to his former identity and realm. Later in the storyline we get the addition of Immortus, now established as an even more future version of Kang and Rama Tut, making for an interesting conflict between a man's own self. The Avengers are put through a series of deadly challenges and not everyone makes it out alive, with the Swordsman dying to save Mantis whilst Iron Man and the Vision only survive thanks to being restored through the strange powers of Immortus.

The tale also takes advantage of the Giant-Size issues in order to fill out the story with three extra long chapters. When collected in a single volume the whole thing works, but readers of the original series may not have been able to find the Giant-Sizes so easily, whilst some of the digital releases of the series have omitted them, leaving great chunks out of the story. Still here they are available in the right place.

Another seeming interlude comes as the Swordsman's funeral is interrupted by the Titanic Three, a group commissioned by the Vietnamese government consisting of the Titanium Man, the Radioactive Man and the Crimson Dynamo as government enforcers. But the situation is complicated by the Slasher, a forgettable costumed jewel thief. Meanwhile Kang has used Immortus's equipment to create another group, the Legion of the Unliving, made up of deceased heroes and villains lifted from just before their apparent deaths. It's an oddball collection including the original Human Torch, Wonder Man and Baron Zemo, all of whom have connections to the Avengers even if they don't yet know it, but also Frankenstein's Monster, the martial artist Midnight (from Master of Kung Fu) and the Ghost aka the Flying Dutchman from the original Silver Surfer series. This motley crew prove a fierce challenge in the maze beneath Immortus's castle and once again it seems some Avengers won't get out alive.

The last parts of the saga feel a bit bitty as seemingly endless issues are devoted to the Vision observing the past history of the original Human Torch from creation through to Ultron's reconstruction of the body and personality whilst Mantis and the other Avengers are shown the history of the Kree's pacifist faction and the telepathic plant lifeform the Cotati. Adding to the drama is the revelation that Moondragon was an alternate candidate for the role of Celestial Madonna, to her annoyance. During all this the Scarlet Witch continues her training in magic but draws the attention of Dormammu. The finale comes as the Vision saves the Scarlet Witch and proposes to her, with a joint wedding alongside Mantis's. Mantis is finally made an Avenger just in time for she and her husband to be transformed to energy to carry out their purpose.

The last handful of issues are inevitably a bit of an anti-climax. Issue #136 is a reprint of the Beast's battle with Iron Man from the former's strip in Amazing Adventures but it does at least serve to introduce the character who, alongside Moondragon, becomes the latest applicants to join the team. A conflict with the Toad, impersonating the Stranger, proves a good baptism of fire followed by an attack by Whirlwind but returning members the Wasp and Yellowjacket each suffer in the course of these battles and some of the rest of the team has to desperately seek a cure. Meanwhile the team's search to fill out its vacancies proves less successful when contacting most old members, leading to Hawkeye going exploring in time to find the Black Knight but the storyline is not completed here.

Overall this is one of the best Essential Avengers volumes. It may at times show its age and it also suffers a little from an over-obsession with tying every aspect of the Golden Age into the modern Marvel universe, but it also shows some strong character work and thoughtful situations. The Celestial Madonna saga may drag a little at times but it nevertheless holds up well as one of the strongest epics yet seen in the series and it's easy to see why the story has been returned to on so many occasions. All in all this volume is a triumph.

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