Friday, 29 May 2015

Essential Avengers volume 7

Essential Avengers volume 7 consists of issues #141 to #163 and Annual #6 plus Super-Villain Team-Up #9. The writing see Steve Englehart finish his run to be followed by Gerry Conway and then Jim Shooter, with a few issues seeing overlaps and #150 incorporating part of issue #16 scripted by Stan Lee. The main story in the annual is by Englehart and a back-up by Scott Edelman whilst the Super-Villain Team-Up is written by Bill Mantlo. The bulk of the art, including the main story in the annual, is by George Pérez with other issues by Don Heck, Keith Pollard, John Buscema and Sal Buscema, with issue #150 reusing part of the Jack Kirby drawn #16, the annual back-up by Herb Trimpe and the Super-Villain Team-Up by Jim Shooter.

I don't normally comment on the other credits in a volume but there's a notable disjoint in this volume and it appears to come right around the period of Editor-in-Chiefship that can be dubbed "The Conway Weeks". I say "appears" because until the late 1970s, after the end of this volume, Marvel was rather loose with the credit "editor", sometimes giving it to a series's regular writer (even on fill-in issues by other writers), sometimes to another staff member who now appears on the canonical list of Editors-in-Chief which seems to involve some retroactive determination, and sometimes to someone else altogether. As a result it's difficult to determine at a glance just when one Editor-in-Chief replaced another, particularly in the period from 1972 to 1978 when there were no less than seven in post and one could be credited for a few months on material all basically approved under their predecessor. But here there seems to be a clear point of changeover with consequences engulfing the series as a long-term regular writer suddenly drops out to be replaced by the incoming then outgoing Editor-in-Chief who then lasts barely half a year, to be succeeded by another staffer who would go on to be Editor-in-Chief when the music finally stopped. The result is an example of an all too common situation in comics whereby big ideas and plans from one writer get taken up by another with minimal interest in them, grand storylines get finished by different hands and in different ways from those intended by those who started them, and there's fill-ins and reprints at completely the worst moments. All this contributes to a volume that is trying to live up to the levels of its predecessor, admittedly quite a daunting task in itself, but which instead winds up plodding along.

The worst moments are the aforementioned fill-ins. Issue #144 is part of the Serpent Crown saga and ends on a critical moment as the Avengers set off for the Squadron Supreme's home dimension. Yet this cliffhanger is not continued until issue #147 and in the meantime we get a two-part fill-in that openly leaves the question of its place in chronology up to the readers as they endure a two-part fill-in as the mysterious Assassin seeks to take the team down one by one. Given its length it may have been prepared for Giant-Size Avengers before that series switched to all reprints or else for an annual, but its presence here is just an irritating interruption. Also suffering is issue #150, where the cover promises "A Spectacular 150th Anniversary Special" but inside what was clearly structured as an extended meeting to refine the active team membership interspersed with a news reporter taking us through the history of the team in bite-sized chunks is instead paused after just six pages and the rest of the issue is padded out with sixteen pages lifted from Avengers #16, reliving the first major change in the membership. There's no denying the significance of that issue, and in later years of giant-sized anniversary issues with some reprints it would have been an obvious candidate for inclusion, but here it just shows itself up as being used as padding in what must have been one of the most eagerly anticipated issues at the time. Issue #151 has the rest of the issue with some drawn out bits to make up the extra pages but overall the whole thing is a very disappointing end to Steve Englehart's run on the series.

Englehart's last issues are not as well known as his earlier ones, and are dominated by the first part of the Serpent Crown saga. Building upon a plot device from other series we get an interdimensional tale in which the Serpent Crown is linked to its counterparts across other dimensions, leading to an encounter with the Squadron Supreme under the most obvious of titles - "Crisis on Other Earth", though the following issue's "20,000 Leagues under Justice" is also less than subtle. The Squadron Supreme's role as a pastiche of the Justice League of America has never been more obvious than here, with a further team member introduced in the form of the Amphibian, clearly the counterpart of Aquaman. Also show is the Squadron's base, a satellite orbiting the Earth. More surprising are the main agents the crowns operate through. On the normal Earth the crown is worn by Hugh Jones, of the Brand Corporation, but on the Squadron's Earth the crown is worn by the President of the United States, who here is none other than Nelson Rockefeller - this world apparently never having experienced Richard Nixon. What the real Rockefeller, then Vice President, thought of this is not known but it was a kind of success after three failed bids for the Presidency. I wonder who would be placed in the role if the story were created today? Next year may show who the perennial also ran candidate is. The story also allows for some polemicism as the Beast lectures the Squadron on blindly accepting orders from politicians and businessmen, to the point that when the Avengers return home the Squadron declines to pursue them. Thus it's only the Avengers who face down Brand in the initial climax, in which the corporation deploys Namor's old foe Orca the Killer Whale.

The earliest issues also contain a coda to the Kang saga. Hawkeye's attempts to recover the Black Knight have led him to travel through time where he gets knocked off course and arrives in the American West in 1873. He is followed by Thor and Moondragon for a final battle with Kang in which the time travelling warlord's weaponry overloads, destroying him. Just to confirm his fate, Kang's future self Immortus sends a projection to explain his role in his younger self's downfall and then to fade out, confirming he has now never existed. It's a rather low key ending for someone who had been arguably the Avengers' greatest foe and it also raises the whole question of how time travel works and just what has and hasn't been changed by Kang's death. With the Serpent Crown storyline also running through these issues it feels rather underwhelming, as though it was an after thought.

More surprising is the team-up with five of Marvel's western heroes, the Two-Gun Kid, the Rawhide Kid, Kid Colt, the Ringo Kid and the Night Rider (who was published under the name "Ghost Rider" but has since been renamed multiple times). It's a bold move to fully incorporate them into the Marvel superhero universe. At the end of the adventure the Two-Gun Kid successfully petitions to be allowed to visit the Avengers' own time where he and Hawkeye settle for adventures and work out on the western ranches. There may have been big plans for the Two-Gun Kid's adventures in the present day but very little seems to have come of them and he's reduced to an occasional humorous side moment such as when the telephone rings at a time of great crisis but the Kid just casually shoots it as he doesn't understand what the device does. Still it's good to see that no Marvel character will ever be truly abandoned.

Also not abandoned is Patsy Walker who shows up at the mansion to demand the Beast repay the debt he owes her and she gets caught up in a raid on the Brand Corporation. There she discovers the discarded costume of the Cat, now Tigra, and dons it, becoming the superhero Hellcat. Her story is one of contrasts, with now ex-husband Buzz Baxter now a jaded cynic after his experiences in Vietnam and working for Brand whilst Patsy retains the optimism of her teenage years. She's clearly being built up as the next member of the Avengers but when it comes to finalising the line-up she's whisked away by Moondragon for a period of intense training, no doubt at the behest of incoming writer Conway. It's a pity as Hellcat shows a lot of promise, but fortunately she would soon reappear in another series.

The change of writers coincides with a revised line-up. Moondragon departs, taking Hellcat with her, but not before she's sewn doubts in Thor's mind about being a god working alongside mortals and he too drops out. Hawkeye has already stepped aside and so the team we get is made up of Iron Man, the Wasp, Yellowjacket, Captain America, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision and the Beast. But they are soon joined by a surprise return - the resurrection of Wonder Man.

The second half of the volume meanders through a string of forgettable encounters with old and new foes. If there's one clear theme it's of the Vision's extended family with storylines focusing upon his "brother", his "brother"'s brother, his father-in-law & brother-in-law, his father and his "grandfather". Wonder Man is revived as a "zuvembie" by a new Black Talon but gains full revival thanks to the effects of the Serpent Crown worn by the Living Laser and then the Golden Age Whizzer shows up once more seeking help in dealing with his son Nuklo, with the adventure concluded in the annual which also shows the Vision facing off against Whirlwind. Later Avengers mansion is invaded by the Grim Reaper who has come to determine which of the Vision or Wonder Man is truly his brother. Then Ultron embarks on a strange scheme to create a female android with the mind of the Wasp to be his mate in a display of a classic Oedipus complex, with his "father" Yellowjacket abused and brainwashed into thinking he's Ant-Man in the early years so as to help his creation without knowing it. The female android is not fully brought to life but would go on to become the appropriately named Jocasta.

There's also a forgettable crossover with Super-Villain Team-Up as the Avengers get caught up in the battle between Doctor Doom and Attuma, but it has all the feel of wandering into another series by mistake without ever really explaining things and leaving no real impression here. Worse still it takes up no less than three issues of Avengers. Then there's an encounter with the possessed stone body of the Black Knight in what feels like another filler. The most notable new foe is Graviton, a man who has acquired power over gravity until it goes awry. There's also the beginning of what feels like a greater use for Jarvis as he takes initiative and rescues one of Graviton's victims. Finally there's a clash with the Champions at the behest of Hercules's old foe Typhon.

It would be wrong to imply the first half of the volume is truly spectacular when it actually feels like it's only marking time and tying up loose ends, with the next big thing to come later. But it nevertheless keeps up enough momentum from the previous volume to maintain the promise. However it all gets derailed by reprints, fill-ins and a change of writer, leaving the series stumbling around with a few good ideas such as the resurrection of Wonder Man and a lot of dull ones like the crossover. Only towards the end does it start to get exciting again. Overall the whole volume feels rather disappointing.

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