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Saturday, April 27, 2019

To Better Know a Hero 2.0: The Avengers


There's a little film called Avengers: Endgame coming out this week (maybe you've heard of it?); I wrote a To Better Know A Team post for the Avengers ahead of the first movie, all the way back in 2012, so I figured they were due for an update. But I'm going to try a different approach by highlighting some specific areas of history/lore. If people seem to like this, I may do something similar for other characters/teams in the future.

Top 5 Avengers Characters Without Their Own Solo Series

(For the purposes of this exercise, I'm excluding Hawkeye from consideration on the basis of his run in Solo Avengers and his recent solo series, but if you think that shouldn't make him ineligible, then consider him #1 on this list).

5. Sersi


In much the same way I don't mind an Avengers team that includes the likes of Spider-Man, on the grounds of "the Avengers can feature Marvel's biggest and brightest characters!", I also like an Avengers team that represents the various types of superpowered people that populate the Marvel Universe, from enhanced humans to highly trained or intelligent normies to gods to mutants, and so on. Sersi, as one of the Eternals, fits that bill (Crystal of the Inhumans was very close to making this list for similar reasons, but I didn't want to it to be populated just by from the Harras/Epting run), while also bringing a unique powerset and personality (she much more fun-loving and less dour than the average Avenger) to the mix.

4. Hercules


Considered by many a poor man's Thor, I much prefer a team where Hercules fills the "superstrong god" roll on the team. Like Sersi, he brings a unique, fun-loving perspective to the group, without all the baggage of Thor (who is sometimes too powerful, depending on the mix of characters around him,).

3. Black Knight


My two favorite Avengers runs are the Roger Stern/John Buscema and Bob Harras/Steve Epting runs, and as a result, I have a great deal of affection for the Black Knight, a character who, thanks to his prominence in both those runs, I assumed, when I first started reading Avengers, was one of the mainstays of the team (in fact, he pretty much features in just those two runs). Whether wielding a mystical cursed sword or a poor man's lightsaber, I like the contrast between mysticism and science he represents, and his ability to work a problem from both angles.

2. Hank Pym


Because Hank has been there from the very beginning while never having a solo series to call his own (his brief solo stint in Tales to Astonish that earned him a spot on the Avengers aside), he's one of the few Avengers in which the vast majority of his character development over the decades has occurred within the pages of Avengers series (since no other writer at any given time has any control over him). Of course, that development has varied through the years, much as his identities have, for both good (seasoned veteran science guy Hank!) and bad (ill-conceived wife hitting Hank!), but Hank  Pym remains a character with a fun, straightforward superpower (size-changing), a variety of different costumes/identities to choose from, and a deep connection to the history of the Avengers.

1. Wasp


Like Hank, Wasp is a character who, thanks to her lack of a consistent solo series over the years, has had most of her character development occur in the pages of Avengers books. But because she was a female character who debuted in the early 60s, her development is vastly more significant than her occasional husband's, as over the decades, Wasp has gone from a flightly afterthought mostly concerned with fashion and making Hank jealous, to a seasoned, competent leader of the Avengers, all the while staying consistent with her previous characterization, even the less charitable and more anachronistic elements of it. Since becoming a top-notch chairperson during Stern's run, later writers have struggled with the character, but when done well, she's a wonderful addition to any Avengers roster.

Top Five Avengers Movie Moments

(Note: I'm only picking from the three official Avengers films, not the entire MCU, and am leaving out the quasi-Avengers movie that is Captain America: Civil War from considration as well).

5. Korean Train Rescue - Avengers: Age of Ultron
One of the things the Avengers movie do well is showcase the characters doing their best to minimize the civilian causalities of their crazy special effects battles. One of the best examples of that is the sequence in the second film, in which Captain America, Quicksilver & Scarlet Witch work to stop a runaway train while saving as many of the people caught on it and in its path as possible. Plus, with Hawkeye providing air support during the sequence, it's probably the closest we'll ever get to seeing Cap's Kooky Quartet on the big screen.

4. The Vision Lifts Thor's Hammer - Avengers: Age of Ultron



The Vision, longstanding Avenger that he is, is something of a mess of a character, both on-screen and in the comics. In the movies, he's a synthetic quasi-son of Ultron imbued with sentience by a combination of the Mind Stone & Iron Man's version of Siri (and the comic book version is even more complicated). But Age of Ultron does a hell of a job of boiling the character down to his essence and assuring the audience (and the Avengers) that he's a legitimately good guy by having him casually pick up Thor's hammer after a rousing call to action late in the film. Having established earlier that, amongst the Avengers, only Thor is worthy to lift his hammer (though Cap does wiggle it a bit), this cleverly cuts through the complications of Vision's origins to let us know he's on the up-and-up.

3. The Space Avengers vs. Thanos - Avengers: Infinity War


Infinity War is very action heavy and as a result, has a ton of action sequences, most of which are pretty well-choreographed and tons of fun. But the sequence on Titan, in which Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man and half the Guardians of the Galaxy (along with a ship-crashing Nebula) takes on a near-omnipotent Thanos, is one of the best. It highlights one of the film series' strengths, the ability to depict a group of characters in a fight working together, not just taking on opponents one-by-one. Everyone contributes to this fight, working together, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when it all comes apart just as the heroes are so close to succeeding (all because Peter Quill can't keep his shit together).

2. Thor returns to Earth - Avengers: Infinity War


In a movie that features (and ends) with heavy losses for the good guys, Thor Rainbow-Bridging himself, Rocket & Groot to Wakanda in the middle of the big climatic battle against Thanos' forces is one of few "fuck yeah!" moments in the film, but also one of the best in the series, as he arrives in a blast of light, his new axe flying through the air, decimating Thanos' troops, turning the tide of the battle (which still, of courses, ends poorly for everyone involved).

1. Avengers, Assemble - The Avengers


The first Avengers movie brings together the disparate characters of the MCU's Phase One - Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye - and features them in assorted combinations throughout the film: a three-way fight between Thor, Iron Man and Captain America early on, a classic Thor/Hulk showdown that almost made this list, etc. But it isn't until the start of the big battle at the climax of the film that the characters come together as a team, as Cap calls out orders to everyone, maximizing their abilities as they fight back an alien invasion, concluding with Cap setting loose their wild card by telling the Hulk to do what he does best. It's the moment to which the entire first phase of films was building, and it absolutely lands. The Avengers have gone on to bigger and bolder things since that initial assembly, but nothing has yet to match the sheer joy of seeing a comic book team portrayed properly on the big screen for the first time.

Top 5 Avengers Villains
The Avengers, as a team, have often struggled when it comes to villains, in large part because the vast majority of their villains are, essentially, shared amongst their members with solo series (it also doesn't help that their original villains are, generally, kind of lackluster, especially compared to, say, Spider-Man's or Fantastic Four's). So with that in mind, I'm only ranking villains that can be considered to be "owned" or originated by the Avengers itself, and not villains who the Avengers have fought, but which "belong" to other heroes (this is why Thanos is not on this list: even though he's now probably the best-known Avengers villain thanks to the movies, he was a Captain Marvel - and then Adam Warlock - villain long before that).  

5. The Legion of the Unliving


A fun concept for a villain team: raise up a bunch of dead characters, hero and villain alike, through various means (zombism, plucked from time moments before their death, etc.), and set them against the Avengers. The very nature of the group means its membership is flexible, and it allows for cool "legacy" moments (Captain Marvel has to fight the original Captain Marvel! Vision has to fight the original Human Torch who maybe has the same body as him!). Each manifestation of the group also has the added bonus of serving as a snapshot of the time when it was formed, based on whether or not the "dead" characters it resurrects have since been retconned into being alive after all.

4. Loki


This one is a bit of cheat, since Loki is, first and foremost, a Thor villain. But he did lead to the creation of the Avengers in the first place, so that, along with his out-sized role as the preeminent Avengers villain in the eyes of many MCU watchers, thanks to being heavily-featured in the MCU and being played so well by Tom Hiddelston, earns him a spot on this list.

3. Kang the Conqueror


It boggles my mind that, until the recent acquisition of Fox by Disney, Marvel Studios didn't have the rights to use Kang. Because Kang is 100% an Avengers villain, and one of their best. He debuted in Avengers, and has been involved in some of the book's most notable stories, from the "Celestial Madonna" saga to "Time and Time Again" to Avengers Forever to "Kang War". As a result, Kang (and his various timeline permutations) has been a reliable sources of super-villainy for the Avengers for much of their existence.

2. Ultron


Ultron is without a doubt the definitive singular Avengers villain, a villain with strong personal ties to the team who is powerful enough to stand up against the combined might of Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Ultron succeeds because whether his goal is to simply dick around Hank Pym, or wipe out organic life, the Avengers are ultimately responsible, in part, for his actions, which adds an extra layer to their encounters with him. 

1. The Masters of Evil


Every good team of "the best and brightest superheroes gathered together" needs its super-villain opposite, and the Masters of Evil are the Legion of Doom to the Avengers' Justice League. Like the Legion of the Unliving, their membership can and does vary over time, but there's powerful thematic resonance at work in the concept of "a group of villains banding together in opposition to the heroes who have banded together to fight evil", whether it's presented via a group of villains meant to represent one-to-one matches with the Avengers (as with the first group of Masters), or simply a near-army of super-villains intended to overwhelm the Avengers (as with the most successful iteration of the group in the "Under Siege" storyline). Bonus points, also, for the Masters of Evil launching the Thunderbolts, a group of villains-turned fake heroes-turned reluctant actual heroes, becoming a mainstay of the Marvel Universe in the process.

Top 5 Roster Change Covers 

The "roster change" issue, in which the Avengers field new recruits or cull a smaller team from a mammoth group of assorted hangers-on, then go out before the press to introduce the group and shout "Avengers Aseemble!", is a uniquely Avengers thing. Here, then, are the top 5 covers of such issues (based solely on the quality of the cover, not the content inside/the roster revealed).

5. Avengers #211


This particular roster change is motivated by Moondragon "helping" the team by telepathically compelling a bunch of superheroes to tryout, a plot point reflected in the fun "everyone rushing through the doors of the mansion" cover. I love the inclusion of Angel (who was much more a part of the Defenders than the X-Men at that point). 

4. Avengers (vol. 3) #4


The first big lineup structuring of the back-to-basics post-"Heroes Reborn" Busiek/Perez run, in which a roster is formed from the "every Avenger ever" group that constituted the first three issues of the relaunched series, this issue's cover speaks to both the volume of available contenders and the iconography of the team as a whole.

3. Avengers #16


The first roster shuffle issue, setting the precedent for the rest which follow, in which the original Avengers bow out and leave Captain America in charge of a group consisting of new recruits (and former villains) Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Top notch Jack Kirby art, with the character "tiles" on the wall behind Cap inspiring similar layouts in the future.

2. Avengers #221


This one earns point for simply & directly lampshading the fact that the issue is all about choosing a new team by laying out the contenders and asking the reader to decide. Also, for a top-notch Invisible Woman joke, and the fact that the two people added to the team in the issue actually are featured on the cover (it turns out to be She-Hulk & Hawkeye, something of a letdown given the available options; my two picks would have been Hulk & Dazzler).

1. Avengers #181


This is the "affirmative action" roster restructuring, when the government, led by the odious Henry Peter Gyrich, sets a more manageable seven person roster, including the Falcon, in order to reinstate the team's government privileges (like the ability to launch their jet from the mansion). George Perez does a great job of depicting each character's reaction via facial expressions & body language, while also making the cover seem overcrowded (to better represent the sheer volume of characters hanging around the mansion at this point) without sacrificing detail. 

Top 5 Unheralded Avengers Stories

These are the stories rarely collected (I say rarely because nearly everything gets collected these days), discussed online or cited as all-time greats, but which are worthy of being revisited and enshrined in the hall of great Avengers stories.

5. "Lost in Space-Time" - West Coast Avengers #17-24


This one gets knocked down a few spots because it features art by my least favorite comic artist of all-time, Al Milgrom, but the story earns it a place on the list despite that, as the West Coast Avengers are sent on a journey through time that intersects with two different earlier Marvel stories (one from Fantastic Four, another from Dr. Strange), while also working to rehabilitate Hank Pym's character in the wake of his infamous wife-hitting incident.

4. "The Many Faces of Doom" - Avengers #332-333


A fun little locked room mystery two-parter, in which Dr. Doom crashes a party the Avengers throw to celebrate their new early 90s era post-mansion headquarters. Doom, along with two Doombots, is there offering to trade the means by which he penetrated their new security system for the ability to travel to other dimensions (in order to rescue his trapped-in-hell mother), while declaring he's strapped a bomb on his chest to ensure the Avengers' cooperation. It comes down to Captain America, Vision, short-lived Avenger Sandman and future New Warrior/walking 90s cliche Rage to save the day in a story that forces the Avengers to think their way out of the problem while still respecting the mystique of Dr. Doom. 

3. "The Gatherers Saga" - Avengers #343-344,348-349,355-363,372-375


As mentioned before, I'm a big fan of the early 90s Harras/Epting "Leather Jacket" Avengers. Many fans deride this era of the book for the way Bob Harras, also the editor of the X-Men titles at the time, basically applies the more character/relationship-driven, multi-plots-at-once elements that made the X-Men sales superstars to the Avengers. To which I say, as devout X-Men fan, that's a feature, not a bug. The end result is the Avengers at their most soapiest, filled with love triangles within love triangles and interpersonal disputes, staffed mostly by characters without their own titles (Cap and Thor are part of the roster at various times, but that's about it), the better to allow Harras full reign over the happenings in the series. The main arc that weaves its way through this run (it ebbs and flows as other plotlines come and go) is the "Gatherers Saga", in which the Avengers find themselves facing off against alternate versions of assorted superheroes culled from realities destroyed by that reality's Sersi, fighting to prevent the same thing from happening on the "main" Earth.

2. "The Kang War" - Avengers (vol. 3) #41-55 and Avengers Annual 2001


Kurt Busiek (along with George Perez) helped revitalize the Avengers following the ill-advised "Heroes Reborn" event; Perez left shortly before Busiek, leaving Busiek to pen this massive swan song to his back-to-basics approach with an assortment of artists of varying degrees of talent (I still think that had Perez stuck around, "Kang War" would be lauded as one of the all time great Avengers stories). The story, which involves Kang the Conqueror living up to his name and launching an all-out assault on the planet Earth, results in the destruction of Washington, DC and the placement of vast swathes of the population in prison camps, is epic in scope and, by the end, really sells the idea that the Avengers are Earth's Mightiest Heroes as they band together to free Earth from Kang and his invading army. It's biggest fault, aside from the inconsistent art, is the timing of its publication: coming towards the start of the Jemas/Quesada era, when the tightly-knit continuity of the Marvel Universe was largely downplayed, it's hard to read this story and not feel like the impacts of it should have been felt in other series, or at least that other characters should have been involved in the Avengers' efforts to defeat Kang. But read in a vacuum, it's a full bore Avengers epic.

1. "Assault on Olympus" - Avengers #281-285


Roger Stern follows up the classic "Under Siege" (and finishes out his run; he starts another story after this one but doesn't finish it) with a multi-part story in which Zeus, angry with the Avengers for the beatdown Hercules received at the hands of the Masters of Evil during "Under Siege", imprisons the team in Hades. While it lacks significant thematic elements, it does feature classic superhero action as the Avengers, with the aid of the Titan Prometheus, escape hell, come together, and fight back against the gods themselves. Drawn by John Buscema and Tom Palmer, two of my favorite artists, it's not quite on the level of "Under Siege", but it's close, and just bit more fun and purely comic book-y in its presentation. 

5 comments:

  1. "John Byrne does a great job of depicting each character's reaction"

    I think that's Perez, not Byrne...

    "I still think that had Perez stuck around, "Kang War" would be lauded as one of the all time great Avengers stories"

    Or had Alan Davis, since he was the artist to start this storyline, no?

    wwk5d

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    1. I think that's Perez, not Byrne...

      It is, I updated the post. Thanks!

      Or had Alan Davis, since he was the artist to start this storyline, no?

      Yeah, he either started it, or at least contributed to it, and I agree. Heck, I think if any one artist had done the whole thing (or even most of it), it would be more well-remembered. I'm not the world's biggest Kieron Dwyer fan, but I'd take him doing the whole thing over a random assortment of artists, even if some of the random ones are better.

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  2. Pedant alert: Angel hadn't join the Defenders by the time of Avengers #211. Instead, his appearance there comes just after his brief stint back with the X-Men at the end of the Claremont/Byrne run.

    Agree with so much of this. I picked up a clutch of my uncle's old Avengers comics when he moved abroad, and that included all but one issue of Lost in Space-Time. I'd been reading comics for a couple of years by that point - it was the late 90s, so post-Clone Saga Spider-Man, Operation: Zero Tolerance-era X-Men - but nothing had shocked me or pulled me in more than Hank Pym contemplating suicide. Made him my favourite character, too.

    Kang War's a great lost gem, but I do wonder if it would have benefited, no matter how unpopular they are, from being a 90s style Nabisco-corner crossover, with one book dealing with Kang, another dealing with the Master
    and the Presence and Attuma and all that, another dealing with the Triune Understanding mop-up, with a few 'Kang War Continues In This Issue!' tie-ins in other books to give a look at what Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, etc are doing at this point.

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    1. @James: Angel hadn't join the Defenders by the time of Avengers #211

      You know, I threw that line in last minute, thought "wait, had Angel joined the Defenders yet?" then "ah, probably, I need to get this published, no time to look it up and double-check!"

      The moral of the story, I should have looked it up.

      I do wonder if it would have benefited, no matter how unpopular they are, from being a 90s style Nabisco-corner crossover

      It may be the 90s kid in me, but I absolutely think it would have benefited from that approach. It even could have (should have) pulled in tie-ins from, say, a couple Spider-Man comics, or the X-Men. Really any character, since the scope of the story was so big. It really does feel like a throwback to those 90s era crossovers (or even the looser crossovers of the pre-"Mutant Massacre" 80s like "The Surtur War"), at a time when editorial was approaching each series/line of titles like its own fiefdom, separate from everything else, and the story suffers as a result.

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  3. Wow, this is a lot to take in! For now, I'll just tell you that your #2 and #1 choices on the top five MCU Avengers moments are correct.

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