Monday, September 15, 2014
Giant Size Review # 1: "Avengers" by Roger Stern ("Under Siege," "Assault on Olympus" and more)
After expressing doubt about the quality of his run from plowing through both "Absolute Vision" trades, I am happy to say - now that I've completed Stern's time on the title - that the situation improves. However, I cannot agree with anyone who feels his time with the title was the best. It may, however, not entirely be his fault.
This set of collections - "The Legacy of Thanos," "The Once and Future Kang," "Under Seige," "Judgment Day" and (to a lesser extent) "Heavy Metal" - represents Stern's creative partnership with artists John Buscema and Tom Palmer. Buscema drew some of the best early issues of the series (including some incredible work on "Behold the Vision" and "Even An Android Can Cry,") but the art here defines mediocrity. While Walt Simonson, Sal Buscema, and Marc Silvestri were pushing creative boundaries as best they could under editorial orders, the art on "Avengers" at the time defined bland, in-house crap. Stolid panels, stolid layouts, stolid characters. Compared to the work of George Perez, John Byrne and John Buscema himself years before, it looks sloppy and uninspired. The faces in particular are terrible. Everyone looks like they've melted.
Also hurting Stern's run is its legacy. Ultimately, the only major change that stuck from his time was The Wasp developing into a more well-rounded character. Most of the roster he worked with, in retrospect, is incredibly weak. Monica Rambeau; The Black Knight; Hercules; Starfox; Dr. Druid. Not exactly a list of characters fans associate with Marvel's number one team. The addition of the Sub-Mariner is bungled, as the entertainment potential of his arrogance really only shines once (in a dispute with Hercules over living quarters.) What keeps the Avengers going is its characters outside the "Big 3." During Stern's time, there is very little in that department.
Those factors aside, Stern's time is definitely not without its merits, including what many believe to be the greatest "Avengers" story of all time.
But is it really?
A carry-over from "Absolute Vision" pays off immediately in this book as Rambeau, the second Captain Marvel, had been sent to a derelict ship by the Vision to keep her out of his hair as he attempted to take over the world's computers. Vision thought the ship was empty but, in a classic twist, it is not. Rambeau is taken prisoner by space pirates commanded by the debuting Nebula, a very minor character for decades whose stock has shot up significantly thanks to her inclusion in the excellent "Guardians of the Galaxy" film. To be honest, I'm not sure why Nebula - who claims to be Thanos' granddaughter - never caught on. She's great from the start as a pirate commander with a hard edge and a chip on her shoulder. The Skrulls and Firelord get involved, The Beyonder emerges for some crossovers with the insipid "Secret Wars II" storyline, John Byrne draws an included Fantastic Four issue that again underscores how ordinary the art on Avengers was at the time, and generally solid fun is had by all. Even the Beyonder involvement seems less meandering than usual. A definite step up, though it is ballsy of Marvel to include Thanos in the title of a trade he doesn't even appear in.
This book is a bit more hit-or-miss. There are a couple of good issues among the first few, including the discovery of a cocoon in the Atlantic Ocean that begins the "Jean Grey didn't die" retcon (with the aforementioned exchange between Namor and Herc,) and the debut of the new Yellowjacket who steals Hank Pym's equipment and has to face the wrath of Wasp as a result. Other early issues deal with the Secret Wars II mess, and are interesting in a train wreck kind of way.
The best story is the one in the middle as Kang returns. Or, rather, several Kangs. Actually, I'm not sure if any of them are the actual Kang. I believe that was retconned in "Avengers Forever." Anyhow, Kang(?) has set out to destroy all other Kangs and their respective realities. Kang stories often end up being ridiculously convoluted. This was one of the first that was not, and it's very welcome.
However, all good will from the Kang story is sapped out by an absolutely terrible pair of Annuals about a traitor compromising the east and west coast teams written by Danny Fingeroth and Steve Englehart. Englehart is one of the greatest Avengers writers of all time. But, by the 1980's, his writing style had gone the way of the dinosaur and it seemed like no one bothered to let him know.
To give you an example of what was irritating about his work, let me show you that last paragraph again as if Steve Englehart had written it:
"However, all good will from the Kang story is sapped out by an absolutely terrible pair of Annuals about a traitor compromising the east and west coast teams written by Danny Fingeroth and Steve Englehart! Englehart is one of the greatest Avengers writers of all time! But, by the 1980's, his writing style had gone the way of the dinosaur and it seemed like no one bothered to let him know!"
Notice the difference? Having everyone speak with exclamation marks at the end of every sentence completely undermines the dialogue. I know that kind of expressive style was acceptable years prior, but the medium had grown from a writing standpoint by this time and Englehart is difficult to tolerate.
Here it is: the so-called "Greatest Avengers Story of All Time."
I don't get it.
Roger Stern had some good ideas here. Having a villain team that - for once - was larger than the Avengers, for instance. A lot of people praise this as a story that hadn't been done before: the Avengers being attacked in their own house. I would give credit to Stern for that... except he had already done so in a crossover with Dr. Strange.
"Under Siege" definitely has its moments. There's a good feeling of dread when The Wasp and Scott Lang are seemingly overmatched against Absorbing Man and Titania, and the ongoing feud between Captain America and the new Baron Zemo is top notch. But other supposed watershed moments are poorly executed. Hercules disobeys an order from Wasp and gets his clock cleaned, and I'm left not caring about the entire sequence. Same thing when Jarvis gets tortured. If anything, this story was begging for a character to die and it doesn't happen. When Thor returns to help balance the scales, it's limited to a quarter panel. This should have been a big cliffhanger to get readers excited. Instead, it's more like looking into a corner and going "Oh, Thor's here."
Meanwhile, the assembled Masters of Evil group - while large - is made up of pure B- and C-listers. The Wrecking Crew? Mr. Hyde? The new Yellowjacket? The new Goliath? Yes, there are a lot of them but few inspire fear. They're just a group of punks you're waiting for the Avengers to inevitably kick out of their home. And they do.
I liked this better than my criticisms would indicate, but... the best "Avengers" story ever? Not a chance
Furthering my thought on how overrated I find "Under Siege" to be, I offer up "Assault on Olympus" which in my opinion is just as good, if not better. The Greek Gods are fitting opposition for the superteam and it's played up well. Dionysus uses a spell to send She-Hulk on an attempted killing spree through the streets, everyone fights Zeus... it's awesome. A fantastic final arc for Stern to go out on as scriptwriter.
Alas, this is an "Epic Collection" which includes a lot more material almost as a supplement. There are a couple of real goodies here, including, well... most of "X-Men vs. Avengers." This ranks strongly along anything else Stern wrote during his "Avengers" run, and I'm especially impressed with the job he does with Chris Claremont's "X-Men." After they were butchered by Jim Shooter during "Secret Wars" I had trepidations. Fortunately, they were unfounded. Marc Silvestri's art for the first three issues is stellar, again undermining the mediocrity of Buscema and Palmer. Unfortunately, Stern and Silvestri are removed as the creative team for issue four and the story falls apart. It's a real shame.
Steve Englehart checks in again with Tom DeFalco for an Avengers/West Coast Avengers crossover where the two teams are tricked into fighting each other. It's actually a pretty good battle with unpredictable results. However, part two features one my least-favourite plot devices in Marvel history as the Avengers take on the "Legion of the Unliving" yet again. The Avengers fighting a bunch of dead guys is a tired plot, and wreaks havoc on continuity. Bucky being dead here, for instance.
"Judgment Day" closes strongly, though, with the David Michelinie/Bob Hall graphic novel "Emperor Doom" which is one of the best Doctor Doom stories ever made. Doom uses the Purple Man to take control of the minds of the world populace, including the Avengers, and finds himself bored now that he's in charge. This story does wonders, so to speak, for Wonder Man who was the only person to escape his influence.
This trade is a mixed bag for sure, but the positives outweigh the negatives and its weak points avoid being boring.
Picking up the final pieces of Stern's run as he plots out the first two issues of this series while those that remain are handled by Walt Simonson. Sadly, what's here is pretty darn forgettable. A leadership feud between Dr. Druid and Monica Rambeau? Machine Man? Namor fighting his wife? No wonder this series became irrelevant for so long.
"Under Siege" and "Judgment Day" are definitely worth a look, but this has to be the worst so-called "great run" that I've ever collected. If you want the Avengers at their best, seek out Kurt Busiek's work. Hell, Brian Michael Bendis' first run on "New Avengers" was way better. Unless you're blinded by the glowing lights of 80s nostalgia, Roger Stern's "Avengers" isn't for you.