Waiting for the Trade – Avengers Assemble

Waiting for the Trade
By Bill Miller
Avengers Assemble Vol. 1
by Kurt Busiek and George Perez
collects 1-11 and Annual ’98
Why I Bought This – The Avengers is my favorite comic. When I first got into buying trades five years ago this was among the first I bought, as I’d heard very good things about this run. I loved it and immediately wanted to buy volume 2 but it was out of print and averaging about $140 at Amazon. Lo and Behold with the release of the movie volume 2 is back in print. I immediately picked it up, and I figured I’d refresh my memory with the first volume.

The Plot – Seeing as there are twelve chapters I’m going to try to keep the chapter reviews to just a few sentences. Some spoilers ahead.
Chapters 1 – In the wake of the Onslaught/Heroes Reborn nonsense the Avengers were disbanded when their entire core A-list members were presumed dead. Those heroes had recently returned when suddenly there are attacks on everyone who has ever been an Avenger by various Asgardian creatures. About 40 Avengers (as well as Justice and Firestar who were with former Avenger Rage when he was attacked as they were all New Warriors together) gather at the mansion, where Thor informs them Asgard is in ruins and the Twilight Sword, which can cleave reality, is missing. The Avengers split into smaller teams to search for clues and discover Modred and Morgan Le Fay are responsible as Morgan uses the sword.
Chapter 2 – Reality has been remade into a Camelot-style kingdom where Morgan rules and the Avengers are her knights, except for Scarlet Witch who is held in a dungeon as a power source for the spell. Cap breaks free of the spell because he’s awesome like that and is able to free Hawkeye and they discover the spell is weakest on those who most deeply feel a connection to the team. They’re able to get through to Wasp, the female Captain Marvel, Quasar and Justice before Iron Man raises the guard against them. Thor frees himself and Cap’s group escapes, while in the dungeon Witch resurrects Wonder Man.
Chapter 3 – Cap and company battle the 30 ensorcelled Avengers while Wanda and Wonder Man battle Morgan. Morgan needs so much power to fight Wanda that she loses control of the other Avengers and then entire team combines their power through Wanda to defeat Morgan and set reality right.
Chapter 4 – The founding Avengers decide to permanently reform the team. They select Cap (as leader), Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Ms. Marvel, Justice and Firestar. A subplot that Ms. Marvel has a drinking problem is introduced.
Chapter 5 – Squadron Supreme accuse the Avengers of being imposters/skrulls in the wake of their resurrection and the two teams battle over the ocean.
Chapter 6 – The Avengers and Squadron Supreme battle in Project Pegasus, where Wanda realizes the Squadron is being mind-controlled and uses her hex-power to free them.
Chapter 7 – The Avengers and Squadron team up to take on the mastermind of the shenanigans of the last two issues: Imus Champion (The fifth wealthiest man on Earth. He has no superpowers but has used his money to by weapons from several different C-list super villains.) The heroes are about to lose until Firestar gets an ant to smuggle a message out to Hank Pym/Ant Man for a last second assist.
Chapter 8 – Ms. Marvel is kicked off the team for going into battle drunk in issues of some Kree-themed crossover not reprinted in the original hardcover edition of this book (Note – the new soft cover edition released this year to coincide with the movie does reprint those issues). The Avengers battle the Kree on the moon where the aliens launch a missile that will destroy the Earth but Firestar intercepts it by opening up a stargate; however she is concerned that using her powers at that level may give her cancer or sterility based on an old New Warriors subplot.
Chapter 9 – The Avengers respond to a terrorist hijacking at the airport and meet new heroes Triathlon (who has the strength of three men) and Silver Claw (who can shape-shift into animals from the Amazon jungle). In order to save civilians the heroes are forced to let the terrorists escape although Triathlon stows away on their plane.
Chapter 10 – Triathlon discovers Moses Magnum (has earthquake powers given to him by Apocalypse) is responsible for the hijacking and calls in the Avengers, who manage to defeat him.
Chapter 11 – The Avengers celebrate the anniversary of their founding with a parade when Grim Reaper attacks and reanimates all of the dead Avengers (including Wonder Man) against them. The villains win the fight.
Chapter 12 – Wanda, who was exploring the source of her increased power last issue and thus was not at the parade, returns to the mansion only to be attacked by the undead Avengers. She uses her powers to restore their true personalities and they then free the living Avengers. The living and dead Avengers battle side by side against Grim Reaper until Wanda uses her power to fully restore Wonder Man to life and he uses the opportunity to drag Reaper (his brother) into the world of the living as well thus depowering him.
Critical Thoughts: The initial Morgan Le Fay story is fabulous. Now it’s true I love Arthurian myth, but at the same time I hate alternate reality stories in comics. For the most part if you’ve read one you’ve read them all: characters are new people with slightly different names, our protagonists remember the truth, reality is restored and any consequences of the past few issues are erased with very few people retaining memory of the events. This is probably the only one of these stories I’ve ever enjoyed. Busiek’s selection of which Avengers feel the connection to the team most strongly is aligned with many of my favorites: Cap and Hawkeye are my favorites of the A-list and of course they are the first two to shake off the spell. Quasar is my favorite of Marvel’s cosmic characters and the second Captain Marvel was such a wonderful addition to the team during Roger Stern’s run before being sent off to comic book limbo by every subsequent author. Even Wasp, who I’m more or less indifferent to, is a fine choice to feel the call stronger than others as she named the team and her time in the team, even more so than her partnership with Hank, helped her grow out of being a ditzy socialite into a strong independent capable woman.
It also helps that the art is quite simply the best in Avengers history, with Perez drawing 40 heroes effortlessly, then redesigning those same heroes with medieval variant costumes, while also drawing frenetic battle scenes with Morgan. His panels featuring the return of Wonder Man are also very nicely done.
Wonder Man’s return ties back to an earlier point, for despite this being an alternate reality tale this story has consequences as Wonder Man (another great character in the team’s history) returns from the dead—and then Vision suffers injuries in the alternate reality that actually stay with him when reality is restored while Wanda comes out of it with vastly increased powers. All of which sets up a romantic triangle with Wanda, Vision and Simon that Busiek heats up throughout all 12 issues in this book.
The new team issue is a staple of Avengers lore, and Busiek writes it as well as its ever been written. He gives plausible reasons why many of the 40 heroes cannot stay. In the end the team he ends up with is the best of the best as to me the Avengers are at their core are Cap-Thor-Iron Man-Hawkeye-Vision and Scarlet Witch. The Avengers are simply not the Avengers if you don’t have at least one of the first three and one of the second three on the team and ideally you want four of those six in the book at all times. I also applaud the decision to put Justice and Firestar on the team. First of all many a writer has used the arrival of new unconfident heroes to let the reader see the rest of the team from a more human perspective. It’s a role filled in the past by Captain Marvel, Wonder Man, Tigra, Firebird and others. I’ve always liked Firestar as a character going back to her cartoon origins and in general it is a nice evolution for some of the New Warriors (who first debuted in the Avengers crossover “Acts of Vengeance”) to get promoted to the big leagues.
The Squadron Supreme story is the low point of this series. I’ve mentioned in a prior review that I just have no use for Squadron Supreme and all the same reasons still apply. They are not real characters. They are just analogs of DC’s heroes. They have no personality or motivations because to give them any would either make them different from their analog or probably stray too close to copyright. Thus they are literally the flattest characters in all of Marvel. There’s nothing to them but their powers, which aren’t even originally theirs. And since Marvel is never going to write a story where their heroes lose to the other company their stories have all the contrivances of hero vs. hero stories without any of the suspense in the actual fight scenes. Furthermore the final chapter where the teams unite to fight Champion isn’t any better. I’ve never seen him before but he’s not an interesting villain as has no powers, just weapons he bought from other minor villains. I completely don’t buy him as a threat to these teams. And yes, I can appreciate Busiek tries to address the concern with Champion being minor-league in the plot with Cap lecturing the team how they have to take every threat seriously and not just the Ultrons of the world; but I’m not sold. It also doesn’t help that this is only the chapter not drawn by Perez. Finally the climax is a WTF moment with Firestar getting a message out to Pym via ants. Does this mean Firestar speaks Ant? Or that all ants understand English and can carry those messages in ant-tongue back to Pym?
The Kree and Moses Magnum stories are more or less routine threats but that’s fine because it gives Busiek time to pay-off the Ms. Marvel subplot and begin a new one with Firestar, plus he continues to focus on the love triangle and introduces two new heroes. It’s all juggled very well and the fight scenes that do occur still look great thanks to Perez.
Finally we get the Grim Reaper story and this another major high point that the first time I read it five years ago convinced me these are some of the finest Avengers stories ever written. I love both parts of the story. The anniversary parade shows just how well Busiek knows Avengers history and their place in the Marvel Universe as we see the reactions of the major New York heroes (Spidey, DD, X-Men and FF) to the celebration. Wanda’s pages with Agatha Harness (another witch/magical deus ex machine I have little use for most of the time) is also well-written as yet another explanation for her powers is given. The chaos-magic explanation is not my favorite choice but I give it a pass because at this point Wanda’s powers have been rewritten so many times I just accept that Wanda’s powers are whatever the current writer says they are. (And since at least half the time she’s a reality warper I just say to myself she’s warped reality around herself and changed her powers again without a second thought.) When Reaper and the Legion of the Unliving show up we get the best fight scenes in the book. But more than that these two chapters are really the comic book equivalent of Mozart (or HBK if you want a wrestling reference) showing off the full depths of his talent just because he can. Perez draws pin-ups of Avenger ever and then another one of their most famous foes in the anniversary issue, while Busiek, who already showed in the Camelot chapters that he knows how to write 40 Avengers strongly and in-character is now showing that yea, he can write all the dead ones correctly too. And as a fan of some of those characters, it’s wonderful to see Mockingbird and Thunderstrike again. It’s the little touches when they fade back to the land of the dead like Mockingbird asking them to get a message to Clint or Thunderstrike asking Thor to look into his son that really make the issue shine.
I only have one small criticism and a nitpick about these chapters. The criticism is in the long run I don’t think it serves the character or the team to bring Grim Reaper back to the land of the living. Marvel in general has a tendency to want to pull all of their characters back to their mid-70s status quo whenever possible, but in Reaper’s case it’s a mistake. When he’s alive Reaper has no powers, just a knife that shoots electricity for a weapon. That would make him a mid-level threat to Cap or Hawkeye individually, but certainly not a threat to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes as a whole; whereas as a cosmically-powered avatar of death Reaper is in the upper echelon of Avengers foes. While for the story Busiek is telling if Wonder Man has a chance to save his brother he has to take it, sometimes these decisions should be made with the long-term view of comics as a continuing medium in mind. I’ll just add that Reaper has yet to face the Avengers again since this story was written 13 years ago and that’s probably in part because he no longer has the power-levels to realistically do so. As for my nitpick, my all-time favorite Avengers villain Nebula didn’t make the cut in Perez’s splash page.
Grade A+. The Avengers are my favorite franchise in Marvel and if I could only pick one trade to give someone and show them why this is the trade I would pick. Why? Well for one Busiek gets these characters like few other writers ever have. Sure any Avengers writer with even modicum of talent is going to get Cap, Thor, Iron Man and Hawkeye but Busiek gets even the minor characters like D-Man and Firebird who were Avengers for only one issue and nine issues respectively but were nonetheless valiant and likeable heroes under their writers who originally had them join. You have the type of major threats that are the hallmark of the Avengers at their best bookending this volume, while the chapters with lesser threats continue to build the more personal stories of the various heroes. Busiek’s use of thought balloons in particular is so well done as to be a perfect argument for their return since you never see them anymore in current Marvel books and in a team book like this they really help to give us a glimpse into all of the characters. Let’s face it we all have strong nostalgia for our childhood, and during mine there were some excellent Avengers writers in Roger Stern and Steve Englehart, who both wrote grade A Avengers stories as well; but in just this one volume Busiek and Perez overcame that nostalgia. Simply put the Avengers as a team have never been better written and artistically have never looked better than they do in this volume.