Monday, January 6, 2014

Review # 88: "Avengers Assemble by Kurt Busiek Vol. 1"

Marvel was in a funk in the late 90s after the collector market bottomed out and the company narrowly avoided bankruptcy. They had just shipped many of their flagship titles to Image for a reboot to get a new audience on board. Unfortunately, it was a creative and commercial flop and left Marvel at square one.

With DC's superteam JLA kicking ass on the sales charts under Grant Morrison and Howard Porter, Marvel knew it had to get serious with its big team. The first move they made was to bring back artist George Perez who made his name at Marvel and became a legend at DC. Perez was asked to select a collaborator. His choice? Kurt Busiek.

There was not a better writer for the job at the time. Busiek earned wide acclaim for his work on the historical appreciation project "Marvels" earlier that decade, and was turning heads again with his sleeper hit "Thunderbolts." He had a clear love for Marvel's past and it shines through in his work.

With "Avengers," Busiek took a different approach - one that comic companies that are so eager to reboot their universes or finding "jumping on points" would be wise to repeat. Instead of starting from scratch, Busiek would bring readers up to speed on characters he was introducing. While occasionally you'll get a recap page, for the most part he delivers a history lesson with subtlety. For instance, when the Squadrun Supreme shows up, an Avenger makes a smart-ass remark about how many times the opposing team has been brainwashed or mind-controlled. Really, that's all you need to know about them for context and you can figure out the rest as you go.

And Busiek dips a LOT into the Avengers' past. In the first story he has practically every team member reunite, giving a bit of backstory on each before Morgan le Fay rips reality apart, twisting them all into her servants in mock medieval times. Captain America, of course, is the first of the team to snap out of it but he can only recruit Hawkeye, Thor, Wasp, Monica Rambeau, Quasar and non-member Justice before dozens of his friends try to kill them. Perez' work here is outstanding. It's great enough to see him draw all these heroes in their normal getup, but their knightly redesigns are unreal. Add that to his glorious backgrounds and Busiek's tight writing, and you have a jam-packed story that you won't believe is contained to ONLY three issues.

The day is saved by a still-aware Scarlet Witch who mysteriously has been able to summon the thought-dead Wonder Man and reality is restored. That leaves the Avengers with a problem: there are too many of them, as hilariously outlined in an overcrowded battle against Whirlwind. The team settles in with its new roster: Cap, Iron Man, Thor, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, Warbird (Carol "Ms. Marvel" Danvers trying out a new name,) an under-repair Vision and reserve recruits - from the New Warriors - Justice (who is starstruck) and Firestar (who is only there for Justice.) It doesn't last long as Danvers develops alcoholism (right in front of Tony Stark) and Hawkeye - an experienced leader - clashes with Cap over his decisions. Inner-team conflict provides a strong backbone to characterization throughout Busiek's run. He makes it clear that the team is effective, but they aren't quite getting along. Members step in and out constantly, keeping things fresh and keeping the reader curious as to how it will affect cohesion.

Unfortunately, the narrative begins to stumble. Stories involving the Squadron Supreme, Moses Magnum and new characters Triathlon and Silverclaw aren't that great. The "Live Kree or Die" crossover is hurt by bad writing in an issue of "Quicksilver" and for an event doesn't really set itself apart from the norm. Things pick up a bit at the end of this volume with an OK but not quite good two-parter involving the sometimes surprisingly dangerous Grim Reaper where Scarlet Witch finds out why Wonder Man has been returning and what could bring him back permanently. It's pretty damn goofy, but - if anything - the later retcon about Scarlet Witch rewriting reality makes it better. Can't have that effect my rating, though, since that's not the material as intended.

Despite my gripes, I really liked this trade the first time I read it with little grasp of Avengers history. Coming back to it after reading some of the works of Thomas, Englehart, Shooter and Stern (and even Walt Simonson - le Fay uses the Twilight Sword from Thor's "Surtur Saga" which I just read for the first time,) makes it even better. It's a fun start to Busiek's run that is a joy to read, especially with Perez' dazzling art. His character techniques and rich backgrounds set to the bright-but-not-photorealistic colouring of the late 90s is truly how his work was meant to be presented. It's some of the best art I've ever seen. A real dynamite pair, and they're only just getting started.

Busiek especially.

Rating: 8.5/10

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