Monday, March 4, 2013

The Future Is Now

It's a rare day when you'll hear a bad word about Giant-Size Avengers #2, where Kang the Conqueror initiates his dual plans to capture the Celestial Madonna and instigate World War III on Earth (continuing a story begun in The Avengers). In fact, I don't think I've ever heard a critical word about the issue. It's one of those comics that clicks into place on every level--while at the same time raising the profile of the "Giant-Size" title considerably, where Kang and Mantis would respectively have central roles for its following two issues. But this particular issue raised eyebrows for a lot of us who read comics, as packed as it was with an exciting story as well as a few surprises.

The opening page gives us one of those surprises right off, as Hawkeye returns to the Avengers and ends up practically stealing the story (which seems entirely appropriate--Hawkeye's reappearance is like a breath of fresh air). Also, artist Dave Cockrum comes aboard to handle both pencilling and inking, which is simply a treat. Bill Mantlo, who would later move on to a prominent writing position at Marvel, is still a staffer at this point and handling colorist duties on the issue. The cover, as well, offers a few eye-openers, starting by giving us a tantalizing lineup of two figures whose histories have fascinated readers--Kang and Rama-Tut. As Bronze Age Babies points out in a separate post, there was an alternate cover prepared for this issue which also had Dr. Doom in this lineup--which frankly would have blown my mind, had it made it to print. They might as well have included Immortus to make it a foursome. I'm sure my giddy scream would have been heard in Cleveland.

But these pleasant surprises are capped off by a more grim announcement that blares across the cover--the death of an Avenger. Happening in a relatively new title and not in the main Avengers book. That can't help but get your attention.

Speaking of that cover, though, there's still one surprise left. Namely:

Anybody happen to spot a guy wearing stars and stripes in this issue? No?

For what it's worth, the addition of Cap would likely have suppressed the dynamic between Hawkeye and the Swordsman which writer Steve Englehart was seemingly going for. Cap's strong leadership presence would also have inadvertently served as a distraction from the Swordsman's struggle with his self-confidence, which Jarvis describes pretty succinctly here:

And so, it falls to Hawkeye to not only mount a counter-offensive against Kang--which the Swordsman has already accomplished to an extent, with his discovery of Rama-Tut--but also to keep the Swordsman on an even keel as they head into a battle against heavy odds.

As for Kang, he's done his work well with the Avengers, and his plan is two-fold. One is to secure the Celestial Madonna:

While the other is to indulge in a little conquering:

And while Kang's lust for conquest seems at times all-consuming, he really has little reason to launch such a major play for Earth here, as his primary goal is to capture the Celestial Madonna in order to become the father to her child and thus enhance his status and power. Indeed, dividing his focus as he's doing here seems to be affecting his judgment on several fronts. For one thing, if his goal is to have his "Macrobots" assassinate three major world political figures, why kidnap the Avengers to power them? The Macrobots, under their own power and using their own abilities, have already proven to be a more than effective force against the team's three most powerful members, taking them out in probably a minute's time. And since Kang can materialize directly in the vicinity of his human targets, the Macrobots aren't likely to encounter resistance more powerful than the super-beings they've already decisively dealt with.

Attacking the Avengers in order to kidnap the women who might be the Celestial Madonna, I can understand--but kidnapping the males seems unnecessary, not to mention risky. Or doesn't Kang recall his first meeting with the Avengers, and how badly things turned out when he basically did the same thing: capturing the male members and confining them in paralysis fields?

In addition, given that he's using gigantic Macrobots in plain sight to conduct all three assassinations, in front of witnesses, the world chaos he's hoping will lead to World War III would seem unlikely. For one thing, the Macrobots were seen battling at Avengers Mansion, and the Avengers (what's left of them) can identify Kang as their maker and programmer. Also, the blame game between governments probably won't happen if all three leaders are taken out. It would be another matter if, say, Russia was left untouched while the other two countries were attacked. There are more deft ways for Kang to accomplish his goal here. With his technology, how hard can it be for the guy to take control of one country's missile silos and launch a couple of ICBMs at the other two? The detonation of a neutron bomb is only going to be laid at Kang's doorstep, given the additional evidence of his assassination attempts.

At any rate, having Rama-Tut in their service, even with his motivations being kept to himself, is an advantage the team of the Swordsman and Hawkeye can't afford to pass up:

And so, the battle is joined, as these two former carnival performers who became Avengers begin fighting in earnest to pull their team back together and prevent worldwide conflagration--putting their hopes for success in a man who has direct ties with the same man they fight against. It's a story made to order for a double-sized Avengers issue where the stakes are high and the variables involved might turn the tide either way. Englehart writes fluidly, seeming very comfortable spinning all of these plates at once, while taking into account the characterization and continuity that mark a good Avengers story. For instance, the tension building between two particular characters finally comes to a head--and in a nice touch by Englehart, it does so in captivity, where both characters have no choice but to confront each other with words and not powers:

Nothing is truly settled here, even with these issues now finally aired out--but where Mantis is concerned, her frankness lays the foundation for her growth as a character in ways both Wanda and the rest of the Avengers have yet to discover. But we'll need to return to the efforts of Hawkeye and the Swordsman to free the other Avengers in order to get to that point. And Rama-Tut proves instrumental in providing information toward that end, since he knows precisely where the Macrobots will be deployed. Also, in identifying the Vision as the captive of the first Macrobot they encounter, he provides Hawkeye with the means to bring it down:

Once the Vision is freed, the somewhat larger complement of Avengers moves on to the Macrobot powered by Iron Man:

Which leaves Kang so impatient for victory, that he puts aside the final Macrobot's mission and instead sends it against the Avengers. By this time, the Vision has freed Wanda and Mantis--which is fortunate, since the team will need to throw everything it has against a Macrobot powered by Thor:

With his plan for Earth's conquest now in shambles, Kang turns in frustrated rage to Rama-Tut, who finally reveals his presence and makes Kang aware of his hope to turn the Conqueror from his warlike path. Yet Kang instead resolves to resist his own future, laid bare in the form of the Pharaoh, and the two collide in a struggle which ruptures time itself:

In the process, Kang learns that it's Mantis who is the Celestial Madonna. But since he's failed to claim her, he decides to end her life and make sure that the manifestation of power linked to her son is never claimed by anyone else. And the imminent threat spurs her former lover into gallant action:

Despite the victory the Avengers have won this day, Englehart ends the story tragically--certainly for the team itself, but mostly for the two newest characters to the book who fought in its ranks. The Swordsman, having finally attained his desire to be an Avenger, dies thinking that he was a failure. And Mantis, realizing at last that she indeed cared for this man, finally and tearfully acknowledges her personal failings which in her mind prove that she's anything but some destined madonna. But her story has yet to play out fully.

Englehart, of course, had the talented hand of Cockrum to help in pacing this story, and it was a visual feast from beginning to end. The scene in particular where Mantis is revealed to be the Madonna is a striking montage of images which, in hindsight, highlight the fate that awaits the Swordsman. But the issue also consists of excellent breakaway segments where both writer and artist indulge in the fascinating reflections of Rama-Tut, now "retired" from his life as Kang and providing a first-hand look at why the Conqueror once again became the Pharaoh, who eventually sought to intervene in his own life. And here's the really cool part: it was the Swordsman's actions which unknowingly made that plan come about, a plan which would eventually end in failure. I don't know who I have more sympathy for: Rama-Tut, whose road was indeed paved with good intentions--or Kang, who, now knowing the futility of his life of conquest, will struggle even harder to attain it.


Doc Savage said...

This One kinda wishes Kang had succeeded at least in killing Mantis as This One never cares for her or the "celestial madonna" stuff.

maw maw said...

The final page...the Swordsman's death...was among the most powerful scenes in 1970s comics.

maw maw said...

On a lighter note, I loved the "ploog" sound effect. A nice tribute to a contemporary colleague.

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