Friday, 16 October 2015

Essential Avengers volume 9

Essential Avengers volume 9 consists of issues #185 to #206 and Annual #9 plus a rare original story from the second Tales to Astonish series #12. Bonus material includes the covers of the collections Avengers: The Yesterday Quest and Avengers Visionaries: George Pérez. The writing is mainly by David Michelinie with various plots and/or scripts by Mark Gruenwald, Steven Grant, Jim Shooter, Bill Mantlo, Roger Stern, Bob Layton and Bob Budiansky with the annual by Bill Mantlo. The art is mainly by John Byrne and George Pérez, with other issues by Arvell Jones, Sal Buscema, Carmine Infantino, Don Newton, Alan Kupperberg and Gene Colan. The annual is drawn by Don Newton. The Tales to Astonish story is written by Tom DeFalco and drawn by John Fuller. And yes, there's a separate labels post.

The cover to this volume is an understandable but unfortunate choice. Originally produced for issue #200 it was structured around a big "200" which has here been removed with the Vision and Wasp moved slightly. But the result looks a little odd, especially as the Beast is now hovering mid air. It may be the main cover to show all the active Avengers in a non-story specific image but it just doesn't work here. And of course, it's the cover to one of the most notorious of all Avengers issues.

Leaving aside its most notorious element for a moment, issue #200 is extremely lacklustre for such an important number, with the main action being a set of time rifts that bring dinosaurs, knights, cavaliers and other generic historic foes to the present day, rather than any substantial battle with an old foe. It's hardly a grand moment worthy of the big anniversary double-sized issue. And that's especially annoying as the next story sees the return of Ultron. Marcus may be the son of old Avengers foe Immortus but it makes no real difference and he could just as easily have been a new character's offspring. And then there's the whole mess with Ms. Marvel's sudden accelerated pregnancy that lasts just a few days, resulting in the birth of a baby that rapidly grows to adulthood and explains he's manipulated the whole thing in order to escape from the realm of Limbo. A flashback narrated by Marcus explains how Ms. Marvel was kidnapped to Limbo, wooed with poetry, music and clothes and then seduced "after relative weeks of such efforts -- and admittedly, with a subtle boost from Immortus' machines". And she is shown accepting this to the point that she opts to accompany back to Limbo the man who has used mind control devices on her when his efforts to stay on Earth are thwarted. It's astonishing how this was not realised to be a tale of rape when it was thought up; but it was famously called out soon afterwards, first in Carol Strickland's essay "The Rape of Ms. Marvel". More recently I tested a quick synopsis on a friend with no interest in or knowledge of Avengers comics and he came to the same conclusion. The issue stands as a black mark on the whole of Marvel and is easily the worst in the entire volume.

Marcus isn't the only character who is revealed to be the child of a major villain, though in order to put all the pieces together one would have to either read contemporary issues of X-Men or see through the asterisks on issue #192's letterspage which is reproduced here. Issues #185 through to #187 constitute "The Yesterday Quest" storyline as the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver journey to Transia to sort out the competing and contradictory information about their origins. In the process Wanda is attacked by Modred the Mystic and then possessed by the demon Ch'thon. Meanwhile Pietro meets Bova, the cow woman who served as midwife to the twins and who now reveals the truth about them and the three competing sets of parents. We now learn that the Whizzer and Miss America were not the parents after all, merely a couple that Bova and the High Evolutionary tried to trick into believing otherwise, and that Django Maximoff was actually their adoptive father who along with his wife raised them after their own twin children died. Their actual mother was a woman called Magda, fleeing her powerful husband and determined to protect the children from them. Joining up the dots reveals that the father was none other than Magneto.

It's worth noting that this story predates the revelations about fathers and siblings in the original Star Wars trilogy so is not as derivative as it may now seem. But it's still a dubious and ultimately unnecessary retcon. The motivation for the story is explained on the letterspage as a desire to sort out a load of contradictory moments over the years that didn't fit the previous revelation. There also seems to have been a motivation from the way Magneto and Quicksilver are often drawn looking very similar. But a lot of Marvel characters closely resemble one another without anything ever being said - nobody has yet come up with a story that reveals Captain America is the father or, as time goes by, grandfather of Hawkeye or Yellowjacket or any other clean-shaven blonde man drawn in the Marvel house style. There is simply no need to retroactively make Wanda and Pietro's parents anyone of significance. It's true that they had previously been made the children of Golden Age heroes the Whizzer and Miss America, but the mess would have been best just left alone. It's also somewhat pointless as Wanda and Pietro themselves don't find out who their actual father is at this point and nothing is done with this revelation at all at this stage.

The Avengers begin this volume in a state of restriction due to the controls imposed by Henry Peter Gyrich of the National Security Agency, who at times seems to be the main obstacle to saving the day. Things are made worse by the changing line-up as some of the members Gyrich has selected take leave, to his annoyance. The team quickly find ways to circumvent him where necessary, including a memorable moment when Captain America rings up the US President and gets him to overrule Gyrich, but eventually Gyrich threatens to shut the team down for good. The matter ends up in the hands of a Senate committee when an attack by the Grey Gargoyle proves fortuitous in proving the Avengers' worth and the restrictions are lifted. Not long afterwards the Falcon departs, having felt like an ineffective token member imposed upon the team who hasn't really contributed. It's hard to disagree with the latter half of his assessment, which seems to stem in part from the large number of writers on the series since he joined, making it harder to develop this part of the plot. The team settles back in a more expanded form with Wonder Man returning full time and the likes of Hawkeye, Yellowjacket and Thor passing through for an extended period. The new Ant-Man also appears but as a guest star for now.

Making their first appearance are the Elements of Doom, a group of creatures mutated from humans into beings with the qualities and powers of particular elements. There's also a poignant confrontation with Inferno, a steel worker who is thrown into molten slag with a fragment of Thor's hammer that turns him into a rampaging monster bent on revenge on the criminals who chucked him. Another monster created by industrial sabotage is Pyron, a saboteur who is turned into a ferocious fire wielder. But the big new foe is the Taskmaster. A man with the ability to reproduce any move he has ever seen without any practice at all, he has established a series of academies to supply henchmen to other villains. His unique abilities make it exceptionally hard for the Avengers to counter him until he encounters Jocasta, who he has no knowledge of. Older foes seen included Red Ronin from the pages of Godzilla, Ultron and the Yellow Claw.

The annual is a sequel to an issue of Iron Man not included here and sees an attack by the robot Arsenal, a secret weapon left over from the Second World War and now guided by a computer called Mistress. The whole thing is a tame affair but for some brief character moments for Iron Man as he realises who built the robot and computer and just who the latter's thinking is based on. The special Vision story included here sees the android dealing with terrorists who aim to assassinate a Latin American dictator arriving at an airport and sees him faced with the dilemma of having to either save the dictator or an innocent man suffering a heart attack. His solution does not win him cheers. It's also an odd piece as it unquestionably presents the dictator as a force for good stability and order and the revolutionaries as bad in spite of crying about liberty. A six page guest story is rarely the place to debate whether stable dictatorships or revolutions are better for a country but equally it's not the best place to be so blasé about it all.

There are rather a lot of issues focusing on the team off duty, whether it's Hawkeye taking a job as head of security at a technical company and fighting Deathbird, Wonder Man getting a job as the sidekick on a children's entertainment show, the Beast and Wonder Man on a double blind date, Jarvis dealing with a bully in his mother's neighbourhood, Wonder Man and the Beast finding mutated creatures in the sewers (years before the Turtles), or even the Elevator Incident when the whole team gets stuck in a lift shaft. Looking through it's clear that the partnership of the Beast and Wonder Man has appealed strongly to the writers but the two characters often don't rise far enough beyond mere comedy moments.

Overall this is something of a slight volume most notable for the notorious issue #200, the retcon about the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver's parents and the introduction of the Taskmaster - and that's about it. Otherwise the foes and battles are mainly forgettable and there's just too much time devoted to the Avengers off duty to the point that the issues don't feel as special as they are billed. Without one particular issue this would be a relatively dull and disappointing period for the series but issue #200 makes this a particularly bad volume.

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