Friday, 1 March 2019

Acts of Vengeance as a whole

So what to make of the "Acts of Vengeance" crossover as a whole?

Well it's an interesting one. It's not setting out to make too many major changes to the individual series and indeed there aren't many long-lasting consequences beyond the Avengers losing their existing headquarters and Psylocke undergoing a race change (and the same week I originally wrote that, it was finally undone). Some of the villains would turn up again to fight the heroes they were assigned to here, but beyond that most things went on as before.

Nor does the crossover contribute much to Avengers continuity. There's no attempt to wrap up years of long-running storylines or fix long-term problems, perhaps because the Avengers titles haven't had a great deal of that. Certainly not on the scale of the X-Men books and the one individual who has been doing stuff out of character in recent years, the Vision, is explained away in the subsequent Scarlet Witch storyline instead of in the crossover.

Instead we get a homage to the Silver Age, taking almost the entire Marvel universe and showing how it still all is one even after all these years of ever growing numbers of series and heroes. But within it there are a number of problems.

The first is that the continuity is a mess, in part because there is no strong central narrative to the series in the obvious core books. The two main Avengers books take a while to pull things together. Thus at the fourth of six issues they're still dealing with peripheral attacks. No two chronologies can agree on the order and there are a number of narrative and continuity problems that spring up. Amongst them:

  • The recruitment of the central alliance of villains (who, by the way, never actually seem to be called the "Prime Movers" here) is an especial mess. The Kingpin seems to join the alliance after he's started sending new foes against Spider-Man and has two separate first meetings with Doctor Doom. The Red Skull joins after the initial action, including the attach of Avengers Island, yet still seems to think he's somehow the mastermind behind it all.
  • The way the central alliance operates also varies. In some stories the villains only meet in the committee room and do their own things elsewhere. In others some or all seem to be working together in bases around New York, suggesting a greater deal of co-operation is possible than other issues imply.
  • Magneto is variously portrayed as his traditional Silver Age villain, a mutant terrorist making an alliance of convenience to help preparations, a mutant protector seeking ways to defend his race and a Holocaust survivor searching for a Nazi war criminal. The struggle within Marvel over how the character should be portrayed is all too obvious.
  • The continuity of Wolverine and the X-Men is especially confusing, caused in part by the rather radical nature of events in Uncanny X-Men, with the result that quite a lot of events in the latter title have supposedly happened during "Acts of Vengeance" that explain how Wolverine got from Tierra Verde to Hong Kong. 
  • Freedom Force are shown to have been disbanded by the government and are acting rogue in one issue yet are back to government operatives in another. Their battle with the Avengers is portrayed rather differently in its brief appearance in Punisher #29 from Avengers #312.
  • Several villains appear more than once across the event. The many sent against the Fantastic Four include the Owl who is also fleeing to Canada in Alpha Flight and the Shocker who is also in a routine fight with Spider-Man. Surprisingly it's Hydro Man who proves to be the most used foe, somehow managing to be in Washington against the Fantastic Four, a street fight with Spider-Man and part of a team sent against the Avengers.
  • Costumes aren't always consistent, with the Mandarin, Magneto and Loki all at least glimpsed in what they wore earlier in the decade rather than their current regular looks (some of which are the classic costumes returning).
  • Individual titles act as though their own issues happen in quick succession, yet the heroes may also be seen in other books as well.
  • The Avengers annual epilogue does its best to present a coherent narrative but it's an after the event rationalisation and also gets into its own continuity messes by relying so heavily on testimony from the Wizard yet shows him being captured differently from elsewhere. 
Related to this, there's some poor research that results in heroes fighting villains they have fought before. This isn't something like the cosmic Spider-Man mopping up some of his regular characters in a side scene but rather the ones the alliance specifically sends out. Thus Doctor Strange fights the Enchantress again, the Avengers the Mole Man, Spider-Man the Trapster, Titania and Goliath (although his powers have changed since his days as the Smuggler) amongst others. Some villains are retired or dead and hasty explanations that this is someone new taking on the role are added for the likes of the Jester and the Ringer but in both cases it's all too clear that they were picked before it was realised they were unavailable.

Secondly the basic theme is that the selling point of the crossover is unachievable and that the super-villains ultimately can't work together for long because of their egos, conflicting interests and different ideologies. Why Loki couldn't have done it all himself is unclear even to him. For many villains their relationship with the heroes is a deeply personal one and they want not just their foe's destruction but also the satisfaction of having achieved it themselves. Indeed some of them have actually saved their heroes' lives in order to keep open the opportunity to personally dispose of them. And thus a trading scheme should be of no interest to them. Despite this we get a lot of characters working together who really should have no interest in the scheme and/or no desire to work with one another used.

Thirdly there's a lot of missed opportunities throughout the crossover. A number of issues touch on the idea that many of the public no longer see heroes as modern-day knights but rather as source of menace and destruction, with proposals for a registration scheme to control them. The Fantastic Four issues build on the concept well. However much of the rest of crossover largely only gives this wider public debate lip service instead of embracing the opportunity to explore this across the board. The alliance of super-villains spends too much time talking and never gets around to launching a major central attack on the Avengers which really should be the penultimate act of the cycle before a showdown with the mastermind. Conversely some opportunities taken really shouldn't have. For instance using the crossover to introduce the New Warriors means they wind up intruding on a critical battle, undermining the star of the book in the process.

It also has to be said that there are way too many issues. Not every series devoted every issue for three months to the crossover and more might have taken its lead. In particular, three monthly titles for Spider-Man led to far too many chapters of the cosmic powers storyline. And it still managed to run past the end of the overall crossover, then produced an absolutely unnecessary mini-sequel. The Punisher had two titles which aimed to keep things separate but wound up publishing events in the wrong order. The crossover banner appears on a few issues that could have done without it, such as New Mutants #84 and #85. Conversely issues like Quasar #7 and Thor #413 should have had it, the latter especially as it reveals the identity of the mysterious stranger masterminding the whole affair. X-Factor #49 is an awkward case as on the one hand it has only a couple of pages devoted to the crossover but on the other it's doing the job of introducing its own storyline to visiting readers rather than issue #50. In several cases there are issues that combine existing ongoing stories with the crossover with poor to no introductions for visiting readers, most obviously the aforementioned New Mutants issues. By contrast some issues are exemplary at introducing the series's current state of affairs to additional readers - e.g. Quasar #5 or Daredevil #275  and hopefully some of those readers stuck around.

The use of the villains is mixed. Of the leading six, Doctor Doom is way too overused whilst little use is made of the others, especially the Mandarin outside the Uncanny X-Men issues. The individual fights are mixed but there are some very good match-ups of heroes & villains that it's a surprise they haven't been done before such as Thor vs Juggernaut, Iron Man vs Chemistro or Punisher vs Bushwhacker. And there are some conflicts that shouldn't work - Daredevil vs Ultron on the surface sounds ridiculous yet the story works wonderfully at portrayed conflicted, vulnerable beings.

It's clear that some writers embraced the crossover rather more than others, taking the opportunity to turn in some amazing issues that either build well on the central plot or else just pitch their heroes against a good choice of foe from another series. But other writers clearly hated the concept. Some made their thoughts all too clear through their characters' comments, such as Peter David on the Incredible Hulk or Louise Simonson on X-Factor. Others may not have been so openly critical in the series themselves, but still turned in issues on autopilot just to get their obligations out of the way.

Of the individual issues, the worst is New Mutants #84, which is mostly about the title's own long-running storyline, devotes just two pages to "Acts of Vengeance" and otherwise makes no attempt to explain things for new readers. (Issue #83 commits much of the same crimes but is excused as it doesn't carry an "Acts of Vengeance" banner.) It's astonishing to find X-Factor #49 has the same writer and editor and similarly is mostly the penultimate part of an off-world saga with just two pages in the crossover, yet is extremely clear for visiting readers. The best issue is easily Captain America #367 which sets out tackle the problems with Magneto and does so with an amazing confrontation with the Red Skull, which also generated some good story material for later issues, showing how to best make use of such a crossover to develop things in a title rather than just having it pass through.

Finally the conclusion contains a few more let-downs. The mysterious stranger's identity is all too obvious - many of the clues are so blatant one has to wonder if this was intentionally evoking the easy mysteries of the Silver Age. But more basically an alliance of the archenemies of the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Captain America, Iron Man and Spider-Man (and the Human Torch but you have to go back to the Silver Age for that one to matter) is clearly missing the archenemy of Thor. And not only was the revelation left vulnerable to shipping delays, also appearing in a side issue, but John Byrne wrote and drew a parody that revealed it even earlier. The climax that comes gives over nearly half its pages to the series in question's own plots, making for a rather quick showdown. As a central conceit, "Acts of Vengeance" is a complete failure that serves to prove a point rather than to offer a truly grand threat.

But many epics are the sum of their parts rather than the central conclusion. Many are about the individual adventures on the way and it's here that the crossover stands or falls. A lot of the individual issues work because they take the concept of heroes battling experienced foes they haven't fought before and the result is a complex battle because they don't know the easy way to defeat them. Ultimately this seems to be what "Acts of Vengeance" was aiming to deliver and on this it works well. Chris Claremont may have parodied John Byrne but despite the claims of the Excalibur parallel world the later doesn't seem to have been trying to outdo his rival in going for a major landmark event in the style of "Inferno" (although the follow-up issues of Avengers West Coast contain a lot of similarities to "Inferno"). Instead we get an affectionate tribute to the Silver Age, a throwback to a simpler era of villainy and some amazing conflicts.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

What If... 31 - Acts of Vengeance

What If... Spider-Man had kept his cosmic powers?

A common feature of What If... was to do a story where a major crossover event turned out differently. The first issue of the relaunched regular series asked "What If... the Avengers lost the Evolutionary War?" and later issues offered alternate outcomes for events such as "Secret Wars" (#114), "Fall of the Mutants" (#101), "Inferno" (#6 and #37), "Atlantis Attacks" (#25), "Infinity Gauntlet" (#49 and #104), "Operation Galactic Storm" (#55 & #56), "Age of Apocalypse" (#77 and #81) and the Spider-Man "Clone Saga" (#86). It's thus a surprise to see there wasn't one focused on the core of "Acts of Vengeance" and we only get a look at an alternate ending to the story of Spider-Man's cosmic powers.

What If... #31

Writer: Glenn Alan Herdling
Penciler: Scott Alan McDaniel
Inkers: Col. Sanders III & Sam Delarosa
Letterer: Ken Bruzenak
Colourists: Tom Vincent and Co.
Editor: Craig Anderson
Chief: Tom DeFalco

The opening scene with Captain Universe possessing the dog Casey features Glenn Herdling proposing to Laura - she said yes both here and in real life though I don't know which way round the proposals came. This scene helps the Watcher to (re)introduce the Uni-Power of Captain Universe and how it came to Spider-Man before explaining how in the regular reality the Uni-Power went on to mainly possess children and animals, leaving unexplored the potential of the power being held long-term by "a powerful, intelligent host. At least not in your reality...!" This story shows that potential.

The divergent point is straightforward - the power stays with Spider-Man after his battle with the Tri-Sentinel and as a result this story doesn't have to wade through retelling loads of existing comics. The only story I can spot from elsewhere is when Spider-Man teamed up with Avengers to fight Nebula, which is here handled in two panels as his powers provide both speedy resolution and concern for Thor and Captain America.

The theme is of the conflict between "With absolute power there comes absolute responsibility" and "absolute power corrupts absolutely". Over the course of this issue we see how cosmic Spider-Man steadily seeks to solve ever greater problems in the world, but things don't always go well. There's an early encounter with the Hobgoblin who, rarely for this era of Marvel, is presented as quite a serious threat, or at least he would be if not for Spider-Man's power level. Spidey tries to remove the physical changes made by demons, but only succeeds to turn Hobgoblin's face into Peter Parker's! (An existing spell by Doctor Strange means Hobgoblin thought he had a normal face and now thinks he has a monstrous one.) There's also a quick fight with Venom (who interestingly is drawn as he looked at the time of Acts of Vengeance rather than with the modifications Erik Larsen had made in the intervening two years), who is persuaded to reform and take Spider-Man's place as a street level crime fighter. This came over a year before the Lethal Protector phase of the character began, showing how many an idea was prefigured by What If... (but also perhaps that's where some ideas should have been left).

However Spider-Man taking on the role of the world's protector is bringing personal changes, with both Mary Jane and Venom's alien symbiote no longer recognising the man they once knew so well. This brings a very poorly handled moment when Aunt May inadvertently discovers Peter's secret. Although the cosmic powers are more shocking than just being Spider-Man, it's become a bit too much of a cliché that upon learning her nephew's secret she would suffer a heart attack. Even before this he has been neglecting Mary Jane terribly and the marriage nearly collapses but eventually proves to be more durable.

In the original stories Spider-Man did wonder if he could have used his powers to stop Gaddafi and end apartheid. However this dated quickly as in the two years between then and this story the world had moved on a bit with South Africa now clearly in the process of dismantling apartheid (one of the key steps, the National Peace Accord, was signed only a few days before the issue went on sale) and Gaddafi had been surpassed as the west's main target in the Arab world. As is so often the case in comics, the actual names of leaders and countries are not used but the area is explicitly identified as the "Persian Gulf" and as Spider-Man soars into a capital city and locates the bunker the dictator is hiding in with his "Republican Guard" the artwork doesn't fail to disguise and instead gives us the wonderful image of Spider-Man capturing Saddam Hussein.

Spidey eventually tries to solve the problem of drought in the Sudan, forcibly recruiting Thor and this leads to a confrontation between the two about whether gods should allow people to seek their own destiny or intervene all the time. For a story exploring the real-world implications of having beings with such great powers, it's good to also get a realistic explanation as to why they don't set out to wipe out famine and the likes in the real world.

The finale brings a confrontation with Doctor Doom, who brings a hostage, Captain Ray Coffin who was the original wielder of the Captain Universe power. And Spider-Man doesn't hold back, leading to Doom snapping Coffin's neck, triggering the eventual confrontation between Peter's true side and Captain Universe, fought out as energy forms before bringing revelations about both Doom and what must truly be done with the Uni-Power. Thus he makes the final sacrifice by using Doom's weapon to release the power, creating a moment of universal unity, linking all minds together.

This obviously isn't a substitute for "What If... the Avengers lost Acts of Vengeance" but it was never meant to be and so shouldn't be approached in that way. Instead it's a good What If... that takes the basic concept from a storyline and shows what more could have been done but also why the regular Marvel universe couldn't go there. Unlike a lot of What If... stories it doesn't wind up with the gratuitous killing of characters for the sake of it or else being so tame as to produce a simplified alternative where a few identities, costumes and/or team memberships have changed but otherwise things are much the same. Instead it gives us a good exploration of the fundamental philosophical concept behind Spider-Man, turned up to the absolute degree.

What If... #31  has been reprinted in:
  • Nowhere at all it seems.

Monday, 25 February 2019

Avengers West Coast 62 - Acts of Vengeance Aftermath

And so we come to the conclusion of the long-running Scarlet Witch storyline as Immortus seeks complete mastery over time through the Scarlet Witch's enhanced powers.

Avengers West Coast #62

Writers: Roy Thomas and Dann Thomas
Penciller: Paul Ryan
Inker: Danny Bulanadi
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Colourist: Bob Sharen
Editor: Howard Mackie
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco

It seeks to wrap up the threads and resolve Immortus's aims. As a goal, becoming the "master all of time" sounds grand, but it's never terribly clear what this actually means. As a result this degenerates into a powerful being seeking an abstract role that other, more powerful beings come to restrain him. "...did we hero types really accomplish anything in Limbo?" "Yeah -- or were we just along for the ride?" ask the Wasp and Wonder Man at the end, as though the script itself recognises the problem, with Agatha Harkness arguing that by battling Tempus they provided the distraction to allow her to reach through to the Scarlet Witch and get her to expel the excess power. But it's still a little unconvincing.

There's an actual fight here with the aforementioned Tempus which comes on both a physical and temporal level as the Avengers struggle with the giant creature, who chillingly ages Wonder Man and brings the other Avengers to their knees. But it serves a higher purpose as it allows Harkness to send her spirit to communicate with the Scarlet Witch and appeal to her feelings for her friends to make her break from her catatonic state. It's good to see that Wanda ultimately frees herself and regains independence after the way so many have manipulated her, but it then brings on a threat to the whole universe as numerous timelines are spawned. This attracts the attention of the Time Keepers, a trio of mysterious beings who are ultimately Immortus's bosses and show up to put him in his place. The ultimate irony is that he achieves what he wants but not in the form he wants it.

It's ultimately hard to find much to say about this issue given the abstract nature of the goals and final conflict. As ever it's hard to lay blame on the current creative team who are working to conclude a storyline they didn't begin or lay the basics for. And though it's gone on for probably a few months too many, that again is a consequence of the abrupt changeover and emergency fill-ins. The Avengers themselves are generally well handled and these are promising signs for the future, but for now we've a storyline that has gone all over the place and it's a relief it's now all over.

Avengers West Coast #62 has been reprinted in:

Friday, 22 February 2019

Avengers West Coast 61 - Acts of Vengeance Aftermath

This issue sees the west coast Avengers confronting Immortus and transported to Limbo whilst back on Earth Agatha Harkness uses her magic to maintain a shade of the lord of Limbo on Earth and subject him to a magical interrogation.

Avengers West Coast #61

Writers: Roy Thomas and Dann Thomas
Penciller: Paul Ryan
Inker: Danny Bulanadi
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Colourist: Bob Sharen
Editor: Howard Mackie
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco

For a character who's made very few appearances over the years - by my reckoning only about five substantial storylines before this one - Immortus comes with far too much baggage. It seems that many times when either he and/or his younger self Kang has been used over the years there's been a lengthy scene setting out the character's history, including some retcons to tidy things up. The result is a character whose origin and motivations keep changing with the writer, making it rather hard to keep track of it all. Continuity is not necessarily a bad thing, but if a character can't be used without a heavy infodump and a set of retcons then that character probably shouldn't be used until a writer is able to extract them from the weight of their own history. Unfortunately here we have one writer clearing up after another, as Immortus is a hangover from the Byrne run, including the revelation that the Vision wasn't the recreation of the original Human Torch and that Immortus had shown a lie.

But what also feels messy is the way the whole storyline continues to liberally copy "Inferno". Now we have the ruler of the realm of Limbo (although this appears to be a different one) seeking to utilise a woman for his goal of seeking power, as well as massive revelations about how lives have long been manipulated in order to bring about the situation whereby the woman can be used as a tool for long term conquest. Coming little over a year after such a major storyline it's hard to dismiss it as casual coincidence. Instead it feels like an attempt to set down some grand scale continuity for the Avengers on a similar scale to the X-Men.

While all this information is being dumped, the Avengers face another incarnation of the Legion of the Unliving, made up of foes from the past or future. In general the foes have been chosen for their connections to the current Avengers so we get the second Black Knight, an old foe of Hank Pym and the Wasp, the Swordsman, once mentor to Hawkeye, the Grim Reaper, brother to Wonder Man, Iron Man 2020, the future counterpart of the current one, Left-Winger and Right-Winger, US Agent's former sidekicks whom he fell out with badly, Oort the Living Comet, a foe from Quicksilver's future, and Toro, the original Human Torch's partner. The last is also retconned into having taken part in the original Legion of the Unliving rather than the Torch himself, so it's a particular pity that the Torch isn't present for what could have been an interesting meeting. Similarly this is the first time that Iron Man has encountered his 2020 counterpart, and it's thus a little annoying that the script can't decide if Tony is Arno's "ancestor", "great uncle" or "uncle" (and other stories have in fact made him a first cousin once removed or, more recently, an adoptive brother). The line-up is also distorted by the lack of any specific dead foes for Quicksilver, resulting in the creation of Oort. The conflict is rather formulaic with most Avengers facing down their counterparts on an individual page before cutting to a page of Immortus's interrogation and back.

This issue is clearly aiming at taking some of the Avengers' mythology and using it to develop some great continuity for the long-term, but it just comes across as a mixture of a retread of a classic Avengers battle combined with too much of a continuity infodump. As ever, it's difficult to blame a new writing team thrust in the middle of a complicated storyline in which retcons have already been introduced but not yet explained, but the result is still rather turgid.

Avengers West Coast #61 has been reprinted in:

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Avengers West Coast 60 - Acts of Vengeance Aftermath

We return now to Avengers West Coast, skipping over issues #58 & #59. John Byrne's sudden departure clearly left the title scrambling, hence two fill-in issues by separate creative teams, neither continuing the Scarlet Witch storyline in any essential way. Issue #59 even reveals itself to have been set in an alternate timeline that Immortus soon eliminates. It's notable that collections of the "Darker than Scarlet" storyline have skipped over the two, albeit creating problems for fitting into sequential runs of the series. Hence, they can be left out here with precedent.

Avengers West Coast #60

Writers: Roy Thomas and Dann Thomas
Penciller: Paul Ryan
Inker: Danny Bulanadi
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Colourist: Bob Sharen
Editor: Howard Mackie
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco

Issue #60 opens with Immortus pruning yet another timeline. This one sees the events of the Kennedy assassination turn out differently from reality as officers stop Lee Harvey Oswald in time. However all this does is to confirm a second gunman on the grass knoll and the difference is that there is no question about a conspiracy. It's also notable that Ryan draws the car layout correctly given how misrepresentation of this has fuelled so much speculation.

The rest of the issue sees the writer first getting a grip on the characters through a protracted sequence as they deal with the aftershocks of an earthquake, then a showdown with Magneto. Although Quicksilver's real role has already been blatantly hinted at, there's a real sense of rush to these scenes as though the new writer is hurrying to remove Magneto from the storyline. In what may be another sign of the wider struggle within Marvel over the direction of the character, we get a strong suggestion that he's actually being manipulated by someone else, presumably Immortus. It may be a quick fix solution to what is already a potentially convoluted storyline, but it just serves to emphasise the mess that's been made of the character in a short space of time as different visions then multiple retcons have all piled on top of one another.

This issue also sees the return of Hawkeye to the team in a rather sudden move, having left Mockingbird with the task of refining the Great Lakes Avengers into an official team. Like a lot of things in the issue it feels slightly rushed just to get characters into place and undo some of what the previous run set up. The rest of the team are handled well, with Hank increasingly emerging as the unofficial leader of the team, in spite of US Agent's habit of barking out orders, whilst Iron Man continues to do a very poor job of hiding the fact he's really the original. The team's solution to taking down Magneto is both imaginative and well thought through.

Overall though this is an issue that shows a new pair of writings rushing to get a grip on a series, to quickly undo some recent changes and developments and to try to move an ongoing storyline towards its conclusion. It's an understandable approach but it feels over hasty in its handling of both Magneto and Hawkeye, with the result that this is a rather unsatisfactory continuation. In fairness, the Thomases may not have had access to Byrne's notes to know how things were meant to go, but it stands as a classic example of the problems when a creative team suddenly leaves a title midflow.

Avengers West Coast #60 has been reprinted in:

Monday, 18 February 2019

Captain America 370 - Acts of Vengeance Aftermath

The cover of this issue is fantastic. It really reinforces the sense of creepiness to the Skull's country house. It would have made for a great Halloween issue, but it came out at the wrong time of year. Inside we get the conclusion to the search for the Red Skull in a full-length story.

Captain America #370

Writer: Mark Gruenwald
Penciler: Ron Lim
Inker: Danny Bulanadi
Letterer: Jack Morelli
Colourist: Steve Buccellato
Editor: Ralph Macchio
Who--?: Tom DeFalco

Crossbones continues the search for the Red Skull, trying less conventional methods and turning to a psychic, Tristram Micawber. It's a bold approach but it works, though we could perhaps have done without the information that the Skull and Mother Night are sleeping together. When found the Skull is a shadow of himself, physically weakened and mentally broken, and he demands "take me home to die". Skull House is a far cry from the Skull's modern office, representing the Skull’s old ways very much, especially with a hall that serves as a museum of the Skull's struggles with costumes, Sleeper models and more, all reinforcing his days of following Nazism. But what he wants to see the most is Captain America.

Cap and Diamondback are debriefing at the Avengers temporary headquarters, with the complication of Cap's day duties getting in the way. There's still uncertainty and suspicion as Diamondback wonders if Cap has sneaked off when in fact he's been taking a very long time with the architect (Eric Masterson) for building a new mansion. Meanwhile she, who's being drawn a little older now, winds up playing poker with the Avengers support crew, a subtle sign of how she's entering Cap's life. Then when information about the Skull comes in, Diamondback insists on coming along. It's probably not the date anyone would choose but she proves her worth in dealing with the house's automated defence systems. There we get what could have been the final meeting between old foes.

For quite some time Captain America has refused to accept the claims of this man that he is the original Red Skull returned in a new body, but all that comes to a climax as the two meet up close. In an encounter where more is shown than said, the true hatred flashes, revitalising the Skull's spirit and convincing Cap that this truly is his enemy of old. It's a strong moment of closure that reaffirms the conflict between the two.

Overall this storyline has been an excellent example of how a series can use a crossover to develop a strong storyline amongst its regular characters, rather than just going through a few issues and then completely forgetting about them. However it's a pity that the fates of several lesser characters are left uncertain. The Controller has been locked in a loop when one of his own control discs was applied. The Voice had severe wounds to his throat. Micawber collapses when the bunker is found, having just foreseen death, and there's no medical examination. The Controller was not seen again for three years, the Voice for twenty and Micawber not at all so it's a pity these loose ends are left to what is otherwise a strong tight arc.

Captain America #370 has been reprinted in:

Friday, 15 February 2019

Captain America 369 - Acts of Vengeance Aftermath

This issue continues the search for the Red Skull, as Crossbones leads an assault on the Hellfire Club in the belief that this is where Magneto is holding him. Meanwhile Captain America is searching for Diamondback, the ex-member of the Serpent Society trying to reform.

Captain America #369

Writer: Mark Gruenwald (all)
Penciler: Ron Lim (main)
Penciler: Mark Bagley (back-up)
Inker: Danny Bulanadi (main)
Inker: Don Hudson (back-up)
Letterer: Jack Morelli (all)
Colourist: Steve Buccellato (all)
Editor: Ralph Macchio
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco

This is very early in the development of Cap and Diamondback's relationship and there are obvious obstacles on both sides. Here it's Diamondback's friend the Asp who expresses the most concern, though the art is also a slight problem in depicting Diamondback incredibly young, almost a girl, in panels where she has her mask off. There's also Cap's social conservatism, making his disapproval clear when he discovers the Asp is working in a strip club. And there's the problem of Diamondback's hidden past with Crossbones which is hinted at here.

The assault on the Hellfire Club is straightforward with Crossbones leading a diverse team of the Voice, Mother Night and Machinesmith using the body of the Sleeper. Each has particular skills that are utilised in the mission as they break into the basement and search through the club's cameras, though it ultimately proves a futile search. Then they find Cap, Diamondback and Selene, the Club's Black Queen, all converging in the sewer leading to a fight. The fight itself is complicated by the close quarters and Selene's desire to avoid drawing too much attention to the Hellfire Club, but it does result in Cap and Diamondback finding themselves in an interesting situation.

The second strip focuses upon the Skull as he completes his situation trapped in the darkness. He starts hallucinating and is visited by the spirits of his past. First comes his angry father, who attacks him for his mother's death in childbirth and suggests his son follows him into suicide. Then comes another "father", Adolf Hitler, who also took his life in an underground bunker. The Skull's daughter also turns up to express her hate, whilst Arnim Zola urges the Skull to kill himself and be reborn in a perfect body. However Captain America counsels against suicide. In just five pages we get a fascinating glimpse at the Skull's life and the forces that have driven him, as well as a struggle in which his most hated foe once again wins.

This issue continues a good solid plot that continues to build on the events of "Acts of Vengeance" and show the impact on the various characters, rather than simply moving onwards. However the Cap/Diamondback relationship can seem surprising when introduced this way and also needs a little more care with the artwork to avoid unintended suggestions.

Captain America #369 has been reprinted in:

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Thor 414 - Acts of Vengeance Aftermath

In a break from recent issues this one contains a full-length story which follows up on Loki's henchman from last issue.

Thor #414

Words & Plot: Tom DeFalco
Pictures & Plot: Ron Frenz
Finished Art: Joe Sinnott
Inks: Mike De Carlo
Lettering: Michael Heisler
Colouring: George Roussos
Editing: Ralph Macchio

It's unclear whether the henchman's identity was ever meant to be a secret - last issue he was not named and shown wearing a giant suit and visor sunglasses but (although the orange skin and brown beard rather limited the disguise). But here the cover announces him as Ulik from the outset and inside he sheds his Earth clothes and announces his name fairly quickly as though there was never any doubt. Yet another mystery man is introduced in this issue, a mysterious new crime lord with some strange tastes in architecture. Coming so soon after both Loki in "Acts of Vengeance" and a possible Ulik mystery it suggests overkill of the concept.

The issue sees Thor's human alter ego, Eric Masterson, continue to struggle with the competing demands of everyday life and being the alternate form of an Asgardian god. Not only are hero duties interfering with work commitments but also his ex-wife is seeking to retake custody of their son, and it's looking to shape up to be a nasty fight that Thor won't be able to do anything about. Hercules is also suffering from a strange outbreak of fear that weakens his effectiveness in battle, especially when Ulik uses a magical talisman to increase his size and strength.

Oddly the hero of the day turns out to be police Lieutenant Marcus Stone, on the verge of resigning from the force at his wife's insistence. With Thor and Hercules trapped under a pile of cars (and Thor reverted to Eric out of reach of the hammer), it's Stone who intercepts Ulik on a rooftop and shoots at him until Ulik falls and knocks himself out. Stone (one of a number of characters who suffers brief race changes at the hands of George Roussos) would go on to command the special unit Code: Blue and it's an early sign of how under DeFalco and Frenz the title might maintain a retro Silver Age look and feel, but it would also veer heavily into the mortal world, showing the potential of humans in the face of great odds. Unfortunately here it comes across poorly that despite the presence of both Thor and Hercules it takes one mortal man's courage to succeed; this sort of moment would have been better left to an untransformed Eric.

Overall this issue does the job of finishing off the loose end from the last issue, with Ulik acknowledging he was brought to help in the "Acts of Vengeance". The artwork is as ever solid and brilliantly retro, whilst the continuing plots of the problems in Eric's life work well. However the story goes a bit too far in breaking down the existing heroes in order to elevate the ordinary humans and there are better ways to approach this.

Thor #414 has been reprinted in:

Monday, 11 February 2019

Avengers West Coast 57 - Acts of Vengeance Aftermath

This issue continues the saga of the Scarlet Witch's descent story, though it would turn out to be the last one written and drawn by John Byrne. Entitled "Family Reunion", it appropriately adds her brother Quicksilver to the mix.

Avengers West Coast #57

Writer and penciller: John Byrne
Inker: Paul Ryan
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Colourist: Bob Sharen
Editor: Howard Mackie
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco

But it's an interesting inversion of the family dynamics. Traditionally the Scarlet Witch was the most dovish of the three but here she's a hawk whereas by contrast Magneto only attacks when necessary and will not harm restrained foes. Even Quicksilver is advocating more caution than usual, though there are some hints that all is not as it seems with him. The issue continues the move towards restoring Magneto as a noble but ultimately villainous fighter for mutant rights, even recreating his Asteroid M base. Otherwise it serves to show just how powerful both he and his daughter are, able to shrug off rescue attempts by first the original Human Torch then Iron Man and later an assault on Asteroid M. Such is his power he simply returns the Avengers to Earth secure in the belief they will not attack again and also offers Iron Man the chance to leave them alone. Tony Stark has clearly learned from past encounters with Magneto to equip his armour with anti-magnetic devices and benefits from the current claims that the original Iron Man has been replaced, meaning Magneto doesn't expect a foe with experience of him.

For all the talk of Magneto having been reverted to his Silver Age portrayal by "Acts of Vengeance", here Byrne is writing a more complex character, acting as much as a father seeking to protect and nurture his daughter as anything else. He speaks of protecting mutantkind but explicitly draws a distinction from "the destruction of humanity" and only acts when attacked. This is much closer to the complex Magneto who tried to reform but found failure pushing him back and then declared he was as much seeking to become a target to take fire away from other mutants than this has often been written up as.

If anything, the problem is taking too much from the recent X-Men titles. Barely a year after "Inferno" and we have another story of a mother twisted by abandonment, loss of her children and manipulated by dark powers into going bad and unleashing dark magic, right down to attacking her erstwhile friends and playing on her brother-in-law's feelings. The story also seems to be running rather slowly and this issue could surely have been combined with the previous one and still get from the revelation of Wanda's transformation to the asteroid without repeated conflicts that ultimately do little to advance the plot.

It's a pity that John Byrne's last issue on the series is both slow and somewhat derivative as his handling of Magneto has especially shown there was a lot more to the debate about the character than merely the Claremont vs the Silver Age debate it's somewhat caricatured as. This is a storyline with good ideas but taking too long to get through them.

Avengers West Coast #57 has been reprinted in:

Friday, 8 February 2019

Avengers West Coast 56 - Acts of Vengeance Aftermath

Continuing the story of the Scarlet Witch's descent into darkness accompanied by Magneto there are actually three strips in this book. One back-up is a four-pager set during "Atlantis Attacks" and depicts the first modern meeting of the original Human Torch and Captain America, shown by reader demand. It's a straightforward piece showing the two war time comrades briefly reflecting on the old days, how things have changed and how both their partners have died. There's also a one-page strip (not always reprinted) in which John Byrne goes on panel to explain that Tigra's appearance in that year's annual was an error down to him getting muddled when he informed the writer which team members were available.

Avengers West Coast #56

Writer and penciller: John Byrne
Inker: Paul Ryan
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Colourist: Bob Sharen
Editor: Howard Mackie
Ed.-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco

The main story focuses upon the Scarlet Witch who is changing in more ways than one. Capturing several of the other west coast Avengers she reveals how she has embraced her power and is preparing to take revenge on them. The scenes as she taunts and torments them are chilling, though it's probably for best that the editors modified half a page to avoid the implication that at one point she performs oral sex on Wonder Man. The big revelation is that her powers have changed. Rather than making the improbable happen, they now seem to be altering reality, such as recreating the house that was previously destroyed, bringing Wonder Man back to life and even, in the lab, altering the historic record of a sample piece of metal. Magneto also returns and it becomes clear the family reunion is a step towards a mutant-human war in which the Scarlet Witch will be on the mutants' side.

This quite a talkie issue, bringing various subplots up to date and re-establishing the Scarlet Witch's recent misfortunes. It's also pretty critical both for this storyline and the long-term history of the Marvel universe. Wanda's powers have long been poorly defined and so it helps to take time here to make clear just how they now work. At the same time after the crossover it's handy to catch up on the characters and subplots such as Tigra having gone feral and been shrunk down, as well as new ones such as the team's potential issue. But this doesn't detract from the chilling effects of the scenes of the Avengers suspended in air, prisoners of their own teammate and then a strong cliffhanger suggesting further darkness ahead. This continues to be a strong dark series.

Avengers West Coast #56 has been reprinted in:
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