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.

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