Friday, 10 July 2015

Essential Avengers volume 8

Essential Avengers volume 8 contains issues #164 to #184 and Annuals #7 & #8 plus Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2. The writing on the regular series is mainly by Jim Shooter then David Michelinie, with individual issues solely or co-written by Marv Wolfman, Bill Mantlo, Steve Gerber and Tom DeFalco. The art sees runs by John Byrne, George Pérez and Dave Wenzel with individual issues by Sal Buscema, Carmine Infantino and Jim Mooney. The second annual is written by Roger Slifer and drawn by Pérez whilst both the first annual and the Marvel Two-in-One annual are written & drawn by Jim Starlin. With a lot of creators there's inevitably a separate post for some of the labels.

The late 1970s saw a big science fiction resurgence and its effects are felt here with two of the best-known Avengers stories of all. "The Korvac Saga", a name that like so many does not actually appear on the original issues, runs across eleven issues (including a fill-in that manages to insert itself into a decent interlude in the narrative rather than having to be placed some time earlier) and sets out to build its mysteries and menaces slowly. Early on we get a minor incident with the Porcupine attacking a fashion show but the real curiosity is a strange man in the audience who abducts one of the models, Carina. Meanwhile the Guardians of the Galaxy are on Earth in the present day both to protect Vance Astro's younger self and to locate their old foe Korvac, who has now taken on humanoid form as "Michael", a being with great powers living unobtrusively in suburban New York. An early investigation by Starhawk ends in failure as Michael wipes his memory of the incident and makes the Guardian unable to perceive him. Elsewhere the Avengers face trouble of a very different sort in the form of special agent Henry Peter Gyrich from the National Security Council. Gyrich rapidly establishes himself as a recurrent arsehole, pouring scorn on the Avengers' security measures and eventually has them stripped of their security clearance privileges, denying them access to equipment, help from agencies or even data files and making them rely on their wits and friendships. He adds to the tension in a team already under strain as Iron Man's leadership and time commitment gets constantly questioned by Captain America and others. Gyrich's questions also delve into some of the conventions of superhero comics that don't stand up in real life, such as how heroes can verify their identity, making for some further problems.

There's then the fill-in interlude (usually excluded from collections of this storyline but the Essentials have a completist philosophy) in which the Avengers act to formula in dealing with the multiple bombs planted around the world by a dying competitor of Tony Stark's, Jason Beere who wants to take the world with him. Ironically Beere ends up living much longer than planned as the Eternity Man. The Korvac Saga then resumes but in an unobtrusive manner in the background with the main attention given over to Ultron's robotic bride, now named "Jocasta" in reflection of her being based on the Wasp's brain patterns and thus part of Ultron's Oedipus complex. However Jocasta turns on Ultron because her feelings for him, wishing to end his evil and foreshadowing a key point in the ultimate battle. Meanwhile various Avengers are suddenly vanishing, even little used ones like the Two-Gun Kid. Whatever the intention in bringing the character to the 20th century he has been woefully underused, in part because of changing writers, and it's not surprising that he is ultimately sent back to his own time. The Avengers' ranks are slowly depleted as more and more of their numbers disappear, leaving the remaining ones and various returning members and allies to deal with other menaces such as the Atlantean Tyrak or the continued interventions of Gyrich. The kidnapper turns out to be the Collector and the Avengers are forced to use the Guardians' technology in order to reach his ship, only to discover that Carina is his daughter who has betrayed him and Korvac is even more powerful than any of them realised.

We then head towards the climax of the saga as the Avengers try to track down their foe without any of their usual resources or vehicles thanks to Gyrich's harsh approach to force them to adopt tighter security measures. The later scene of the Avengers having to commandeer a bus to transport them to the suburbs is a good exposure of how Gyrich's actions undermine their efforts to save the universe, as is having to rely on information from Hank's ants. When they do finally reach the suburban house, horrifying the neighbours in the process, they find Michael seeking to occupy an ordinary existence until Starhawk claims there is no-one there, exposing Michael's power. The final showdown comes as Korvac reveals his full power and panics as he now expects the universe's cosmic entities to attack him. In a brutal battle Avenger after Avenger is killed, until Korvac is briefly on the defensive and reliant on Carina's support - but it does not come and so once again a powerful foe is brought down by the complex attitude of his partner. But then it's revealed the Avengers have been revived by his power, making this one of the earliest examples of a story where hero after hero is killed in battle with an all powerful entity only to be restored to life. It's a cliché that's now been overdone but this may be where it all started. Overall the saga has some strong moments but never establishes too clearly the wider looming cosmic war that Korvac wished to avoid. Still it's easy to see why the story is so well known and often reprinted.

But even better known and more often reprinted than the Korvac Saga or anything else in this volume are Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2, containing an epic battle with Thanos which served to resolve the saga of Warlock. With Jim Starlin at the helm it becomes clear just where his priorities were with the Avengers themselves largely serving as supporting fodder whilst Captain Marvel seems to only be around for the sake of seeing off one of his greatest foes and the Thing mainly serves to supply transport to bring Spider-Man to the action and a second annual in which to conclude the saga. Otherwise we have a strong saga that carefully builds up both the villain and the threat in order to show how desperate the odds are, with Warlock bringing together the Avengers and Captain Marvel to deal with Thanos's great armada. But it's Warlock and Spider-Man who are the main focus and the story doesn't even stop to explain the appearance of a second Warlock from the past who shows up to finish off his own future self. Iron Man may be responsible for the destruction of Thanos's great weapon and the Avengers as a whole get some good fight scenes but the follow-up in Marvel Two-in-One focuses upon Spider-Man as a person with a great destiny to bring Warlock back for one final mission. Having now read this tale from the perspectives of all four of the titled individuals or groups it has appeared under, it becomes clear this is much more of a great Warlock and Spider-Man tale than it is an Avengers or Thing story. Annuals are odd beasts that often stand outside the regular flow of a series and the number of places to conclude the saga was limited in 1977 but that doesn't take away the problem.

Annual #8 is rather more typical of the regular issues at the rear end of the volume; a rather dull battle against a somewhat unmemorable old foe. In this case Doctor Spectrum of the Squadron Sinister reincarnates through possessing a succession of Avengers' bodies, with his colleagues Hyperion and the Whizzer briefly showing up as well as a guest appearance by Thundra from the pages of Fantastic Four. It's all just one inconsequential battle after another. The volume's opening saga sees Count Nefaria assemble the Lethal Legion consisting of Whirlwind, the Living Laser and the villainous Power Man who has not yet obtained a new code name despite the existence of the Hero for Hire. The villains all get a power boost but it soon turns out that Nefaria has his own objectives.

The rear of the volume gets somewhat bitty, not helped by a few months between regular writers. There's an odd solo tale of the Beast in which he is manipulated by a strange foe called the Manipulator who has both mental powers and cunning. The whole thing appears to be a sting operation but it's not entirely clear. Following this comes a tale involving the genetically modified lifeform Bloodhawk, a part human part avian being, along with the new foes the Stinger and the Monolith. Bloodhawk at first seems set to become a new member of the team but it is not to be. He's not the most imaginative of members either, feeling too much like a Hawkman clone, and in any case the Avengers have at this stage a rather large roster as shown on the volume's cover (taken from issue #181 which is also the first ever appearance of Scott Lang in a small supporting role but he doesn't become Ant-Man until much later).

The team is dramatically cut down as Gyrich demands a much smaller active membership in order to have their security clearance restored. The team is pruned down to Iron Man, Captain America, the Wasp, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, the Beast and, most controversially, the Falcon. Gyrich insists on diversity but with the Black Panther returning to Wakanda this results in a new untested member being suddenly added to a small squad, to a lot of muted doubt and criticism. The Falcon himself isn't too happy with this and starts calling himself "the Token" and briefly adopts a very stereotyped accent around Gyrich. Also unhappy is Hawkeye at being dropped in favour of a new member and it becomes clear that the debate on affirmative action is going to be fought out in issues to come. In the meantime the cut-down of the team is a little staggered with Hawkeye hanging around for a final mission and Ms. Marvel becoming an almost immediate substitute when the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver briefly depart for Europe. This comes after a strange attack by an old gypsy called Django Maximoff who identifies Wanda and Pietro as his children "Ana" and "Mataéo" and captures their spirits to put in little dolls. Regarding him as a mistaken but well meaning old man they forgive him but are curious and head off to investigate his claims in more detail whilst the rest of the team battle the Absorbing Man.

This volume shows the series in a generally strong position though as is often the case with this title a change of writer can result in a period where it struggles to find direction, clear membership and a regular scribe. There's a strong sense of ambition and epic to the Korvac Saga which seeks to put the team through the ultimate challenge, and it's appropriate to have so many members present for such a landmark event. It's also showing a determination to get beyond menaces being defeated by sheer force of numbers and strategy and to get into more personal drama. This saga stands up well though the rest of the volume is either more run of the mill or an annual epic that has rather wandered into the series. The addition of Gyrich does, however, make for some good interesting challenges for the team and also helping to streamline it. It's a mixed volume but holds out well for the future.

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