Friday, July 26, 2013

1987 and all that 011: this is why i'm hot

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Avengers #275-286 (Marvel)
by Roger Stern, John Buscema, Tom Palmer, Julianna Ferriter, Christie Scheele, John Wellington, Jim Novak, L.P. Gregory, Bill Oakley

Recently, there’s been some debate online about what constitutes and/or what should constitute an Avenger. Because Marvel has so many series with “Avengers” in the title, and because in the current “main” Avengers book the roster is so expansive, people are beginning to wonder if the name has lost some or all of its meaning. If so many characters, major and minor, old and new can be part of the ever-growing group, then what distinguishes an Avenger from any other superhero? Mutants are Avengers, Runaways are Avengers, even Loki, the villain whose evil-doings brought the original team together way back when, is part of an Avengers crew now. Yeah, OK, it’s technically Kid Loki, but still…the irony doesn't disappear just because the character ages down.

Personally, I don’t have too strong an opinion one way or another on this topic. If Marvel wants to dilute the brand to such an extreme, that’s certainly their prerogative, and every series should be judged on its own merits, not whether or not it fulfills someone’s criteria of what an Avengers title should be. The reason I bring it up here is because, reading the 'Avengers' issues from 1987, it seems like it was crystal damn clear in those days what being an Avenger meant. Every member of the bizarre and varied cast that starred in the book at that time had some specific qualities in common, and as a team it gave them a few distinct advantages over some impressive foes.

The most obvious of these shared traits is a certain relentlessness, a steadfast refusal to give up no matter how dire or hopeless the situation seems to be. I suppose just about every superhero has this determination to some degree, since they constantly battle villains with immense powers and insane, broadminded schemes. But in these Avengers issues, the team takes the never-say-die attitude to new heights. It doesn't matter if their headquarters is taken from them, if they’re battling gods, or even if, to all outward appearances, they have already been defeated by their foes. No matter how badly the odds are stacked against them, they face the challenges eagerly, with an illogical assuredness that they’ll come out victorious. And, this being mainstream superhero comics, they always do. They have their moments of doubt individually, but when one Avenger feels shaky, the rest merely become that much more confident to make up for it. Which brings me to the next attribute they all posses: faith in each other.

As written by Roger Stern, 'Avengers' is an exemplary team book. The cast is truly an ensemble, each of them having moments of glory and of weakness in more or less equal turn. And what also makes the series such an excellent team book is that its titular heroes make such an excellent team. They understand each other’s strengths, and put absolute faith in one another to come through when needed. When the Masters of Evil invade Avengers HQ, leave Hercules in a coma, bound Captain America and Black Knight, and trap Captain Marvel in another dimension, the only active member left standing is the Wasp. This is the situation at the beginning of 'Avengers' #275, and things sure look hopeless for the good guys. Baron Zemo, the Masters’ leader, cockily mocks Captain America, because in Zemo’s mind the battle is already won. But Cap, though he has no concrete reason to believe this, swears up and down that the Wasp will rescue her teammates, that Zemo is a fool to underestimate her. Cap and Wasp do have a long history together, so he’s more than aware of her competence and capability. But all the same, when he’s tied up and cut off from her, continuing to so unwaveringly believe that she’ll save him and the rest of the team borders on foolishness. Except, of course, that he’s right.

This is just one of many examples. In a later issue, She-Hulk goes nuts and starts attacking her friends in the street, and right away they all assume (correctly) that she’s under some sort of mind-control effect, and start looking for the cause even as they attempt to stop her rampage. When Captain America’s legs are broken, he lends Namor his shield, saying that it’s now the Sub-Mariner’s responsibility to “maintain the colors.” The Avengers constantly have members getting captured, disabled, or otherwise taken out of the fight, but when anyone goes down, their allies are more than ready to step up. And because the lineup is so varied, someone always has just the right tactic at just the right time to save the day in the end.

Their strategic prowess is the final thing all of these Avengers share. These are not one-trick ponies; each of them uses the full scope of their power-sets, their knowledge of the enemy, environmental factors, and anything else that can give them the upper hand in any given conflict. So the super-strong characters don’t just hit the baddies as hard as they can, easy as that would be. They also use improvised weapons, grappling techniques, and verbal jabs. They hit from different angles, looking for weak spots or moments of distraction. And the rest of the team find new ways to utilize their skills in battle too, even when their talents seem simple or straightforward.

The Black Knight, for instance, only really has his magical sword going for him. He’s a well-trained fighter, but otherwise just an average man, and without the Ebony Blade he’d have little to offer a group like the Avengers. Yet even he is able to do more than merely slice and dice the villains. His sword reflects one of Zeus’ lightning bolts back at the god and rescues Thor when he’s trapped under an enormous block of stone by cleaving it in two. And Black Knight’s ability to summon his weapon to him from a distance comes in handy on several occasions.

Captain Marvel can turn into innumerable different types of energy, and she’s quite creative in her decisions. Though she prefers some forms to others, typically becoming light when she needs to travel or neutrinos when she wants to stay unseen, in battle her choices are more varied, tailored to each new circumstance. Dr. Druid has mind control and telekinesis, and tends to rely on those, but can hold his own in a straight fistfight if that’s what it comes to. Wasp tends to use her powerful sting, but will sometimes instead use her size-changing powers to take somebody down, either suddenly growing for a surprise hit, or shrinking to dodge her foe’s attack and sending them into the wall behind her. The list goes on, and I won’t bother going through every single Avenger to grace these pages, but suffice it to say they’re all capable combatants with more than one trick up their sleeves.

It’s certainly possible that modern-day Avengers still possess all of the attributes I have mentioned above. I don’t read enough of the many available titles to know for sure. But this column isn't really meant as a comparison piece, another “things were better in the good old days” argument. Who needs that? I simply aim to point out that, regardless of the current state of affairs, there was a time when readers knew what to expect from their 'Avengers', and from the creators who handled them. Roger Stern had a consistent view of what it took to be one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and though each character had their own distinct voice, together they had a clear and cohesive team personality as well. Earth’s Most Reliable Heroes would perhaps be a more fitting phrase to describe this era, and it’s not just Stern’s scripts that make it so. The art from John Buscema and Tom Palmer was just as steady, and a major strength of the title.

The art is not mind-blowing, experimental, medium-warping stuff. What Buscema and Palmer bring to the table instead is a classic superhero aesthetic. The heroes and villains alike are sturdy and detailed and clear, no matter how large the cast becomes in a given story line. It’s easy to believe in the extraordinary powers of these characters, because Buscema and Palmer find a pitch perfect balance between everyday realism and comic book fantasy. A scene of Captain Marvel having a heartfelt conversation with her parents about the pros and cons of becoming the team’s new leader carries just as much weight as an all-out brawl between the Avengers and the armies of Hades. Some issues have action on nearly every page, while others focus more heavily on the interpersonal relationships and the day-to-day administrative aspects of the Avengers. In either case, the artwork is equally impressive, full of life and energy. There is no less drama when Wasp announces she is leaving the team, as there is when Captain America beats up on Baron Zemo. The art allows Stern to tell whatever kind of story he pleases, and to take his time with each narrative beat.

What I like most about the art is that it reinforces the Avengers’ bravery and trust in one another. Each of the heroes looks impressive, noble, capable, and bold. They have a sort of regality about them, especially when they stand together against a threat, which adds credibility to their unflappable confidence. The reader doesn't just know that the good guys will win since that’s how it always works; we believe it, just as they do, because they look so powerful in every panel. That’s an important distinction, and it comes entirely from the visuals. The dialogue might at times seem forced or comical if the cast didn't so consistently look like they could back up every word.

There is a change in leadership and many shifts in roster during these twelve issues, but none of that affects what it means to be an Avenger. No matter who’s on the team, as a whole their goals and attitudes stay the same, and that regularity is comforting. 'Avengers' was a title with a strong sense of identity, a voice that was unique, unchanging, and above all highly entertaining. With a creative team that the audience could count on much the same way that the characters counted on each other, 'Avengers' told rich superhero stories about a team that was undeniably deserving of the name.

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