Monday, August 26, 2013

Death-Stars of the Zodiac!

I've always enjoyed those times when the international crime cartel, Zodiac, makes its appearance in force within the pages of The Avengers--mostly because, as crime bosses, the individual members of the group run their operations behind the scenes, and their appearance as a costumed, super-powered group is a rare treat. In fact, there's no real reason for them to don their costumes and initiate a power play as a group, since all of them being in the same place at the same time runs too great a risk of all of them being captured at once, and thus crippling their network of criminal activity and personnel. I guess it's a good thing for us that, from time to time, they ignore that sensible advice and come out to play.

The first time I recall the Avengers tangling with Zodiac was when they became involved in a SHIELD investigation where Nick Fury was infiltrating them as one of their members, Scorpio (a/k/a his brother, Jake). And it was quite a lineup of costumed crime bosses:

Aries, the group's leader, used the Zodiac key to make their escape when the Avengers and Fury were on the verge of taking them out. The key is an object from another dimension which thrives on conflict, so it's understandable why it was sent to Earth. It first appeared to Jake and thus passed through Scorpio's leadership; and in the group's second encounter with the Avengers, it was Aries who made considerable use of the key when he took the entire island of Manhattan hostage and demanded $1 billion in ransom in exchange for the lives of the population. Aries had all of the resources of Zodiac at his disposal (including those of financier Cornelius Van Lunt, who we'll get to another time), as well as a private army--though Zodiac itself never suited up, and Aries ran the entire show (fortunately for the cartel, as it turned out). The Avengers eventually got the upper hand, and Thor ended up destroying the ship carrying the fleeing Aries, who was using the key at the time to kill Manhattan's citizens in revenge. With Thor's strike, the key was presumed destroyed along with Aries.

Cut to four years later, when writer Steve Englehart brings Zodiac back with a vengeance--and this time, the crime bosses are ready to suit up in their costumes for the duration, now under the leadership of Taurus. And they have an even bolder plan--side-stepping taking hostages and instead carrying out the deaths of innocents before moving to extortion:

Taurus is referring to a new weapon of the cartel--a ship that doubles as a larger version of the hand-held "star-blazer" weapon he carries that fires powerful stellar energy. And in an excellent three-part story beginning in Avengers #120, the weapon demonstrates its power when Zodiac attacks Avengers Mansion and strikes the first blow in a diabolical plan that doesn't bode well for either Manhattan or Earth's mightiest heroes.  Considering Taurus' disposition, you'd better believe that that's no bull.

Zodiac comes on like gangbusters, attacking the Avengers in order to come to the aid of one of its members, Gemini, who has foolishly jumped the gun and taken mental control of the body of his brother, a police officer, who was currently working with the Avengers on a police matter. Obviously, Zodiac's new stellar weapon is a substitution for the destroyed key, which was certainly powerful enough to wreak similar havoc; but unlike the key, we're to take the power of this far less distinctive "star-blazer" at face value, which Englehart facilitates by keeping the focus on Zodiac and not allowing the Avengers to dwell on the whys and hows of their weapon. Which doesn't really make sense, since the weapon is front and center and makes a rather impressive debut when Zodiac arrives to retrieve Gemini:

(Note the clever glossing over of the star-blazer's unexplained power by the frequent references to astrological influence. Again, we're just meant to go with it.)

Zodiac's reappearance and operations in this story make for a great read, thanks to Englehart, given how up to speed he obviously is on their history in prior stories and how well he supplements it with his own material--for instance, the time he spends on Joshua and Damian Link (the Gemini brothers), as well as making the group's new leader, Taurus, a force to be reckoned with. But it's impressive just how many plates Englehart has spinning, in addition to introducing Zodiac's new plot--continuing to write the Avengers at a fine pace and making them compelling characters. For example, it's no small feat to redeem the Swordsman, yet by this time he's become one of my favorite characters on the team--managing to shine as an Avenger even when he falls ill:

With Mantis, meanwhile, fast becoming an Avenger in fact if not yet in name:

But let's rejoin Tauris, as Zodiac relocates to the top of the World Trade Center, preparing to use their main star-blazer ship/weapon which we discover another Zodiac member, Sagittarius, at least had a hand in building. While the weapon builds power, Taurus reflects on Zodiac's prior defeat at the Avengers' hands, demonstrating in one scene why sometimes it's the villain with the simplest agenda who often makes the best impression with readers:

Yet the Avengers have regrouped, and deduced the location where Zodiac was likely to fire their weapon. And this time it's they who have the element of surprise:

For expediency's sake, considering this is the next-to-last page of the issue, it probably seems like the Avengers have wrapped things up in a hurry, given that (a) Taurus seems to have left his hand-held star-blazer weapon in his other bull suit, and (b) with Taurus and Aries the only ones left standing, we have to assume that the other four unseen members of Zodiac were downed in the initial blast. But we still have a decent set-up for a cliffhanger ending, and I mean that literally:

I can guess what you're thinking. That star-blazer weapon makes an awfully large target--and given the proximity of the Avengers to it, and the fact that it's already damaged, how hard can it be for an Avenger to blast it before it's fired on Mantis again? Sorry, it seems like we're skipping ahead, so we'll have to leave you (and Mantis) hanging for now. You can probably expect Mantis to be saved--but then again, when have things ever been that easy for the Avengers?

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