Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Even Avengers Can Die!

By the time Avengers #14 hit the stands, the original team of Avengers was on its last legs. There would be one final battle with the Masters of Evil, and then the history of this Avengers lineup would end with one quiet, uneventful meeting around a small table:

So when reading issue #14, where it seemed that everything was thrown into the plot but the kitchen sink, it helps a little to do so with the benefit of hindsight, rather than judging it by its own disappointing merits. For instance, if you were to pick this issue off the comics rack and read it as part of the relatively short series it still was--assuming you were still reading The Avengers, by this point--it was probably becoming clear that this mix of heroes wasn't really doing it for you. The Avengers had just finished an encounter where Count Nefaria was working with the Maggia to discredit the team--and seeing the team assemble its might to avenge its reputation probably wasn't what you signed on for.

But more than that: it didn't seem like Marvel itself had its heart in this team. With Thor and Iron Man obviously having other responsibilities which demanded their time, and Giant-Man and the Wasp living off-site, the team had no real reason to use their headquarters as a headquarters--so the Avengers were essentially plugged into whatever plot required their attention when the time came. The reader had no sense of commitment from these people, other than the fact that they threw their all into dealing with the job at hand.

So in the issue leading up to this crisis, where the Wasp is injured at Nefaria's castle, perhaps it's not surprising that even the writer, the artist, and the letterer don't seem too concerned about it:

With the incident happening off-panel, it completely bypasses the drama that it could have taken advantage of--unlike, say, when the Scarlet Witch was once similarly injured. The reader was left to fill in the blanks--which was no easy task, considering the plot holes. For instance, even with the Maggia present, there were no bullets flying while the Avengers were fighting. We're also told later that the bullet in question hit the Wasp's left lung--so we either have to assume that the Wasp for some reason wasn't wasp-sized, or that was one heck of a tiny bullet.

At any rate, "Even Avengers Can Die!" was something of a hail Mary pass that was trying to establish a bond and a sense of unity among these team members that thirteen prior issues had failed to do, by playing the death card that markets so well on an issue cover.

So going into this issue, we don't really have the highest of expectations. That kitchen sink isn't far from being tossed into the mix, either. The story has two scripters, with Larry Lieber and Paul Laiken filling in for regular writer Stan Lee, who, granted, hasn't done the best job of lighting a fire under the Avengers but could perhaps have streamlined a detail-laden story of this nature by handling it himself. Layouts were done by Jack Kirby, with additional pencils by Don Heck and inked by Chic Stone. All which give the impression that there were too many cooks in this kitchen--and that plotting and producing The Avengers was low priority. Perhaps it's understandable, then, that the issue is such a jumble of plot developments, without the coherency of a creative "team" to provide the backbone of the Avengers' operations.

Since the Wasp's injury will require surgery, and since Thor's alter-ego of Donald Blake is a renowned surgeon, it wouldn't do at all for this crisis to have its solution at hand before it even begins. So Blake's availability is dealt with swiftly, even before the Wasp makes it into the E.R.:

Normally, you and I might call "malarkey" on Thor's claim here--but we should keep in mind that this is mid-1965 and still early as far as establishing any foundation for Blake and the kind of doctor he is or his level of skill. I wouldn't say he's "renowned" at all, in fact, given that he seems to run a small private practice with one nurse and is more of a G.P. than a surgeon; only in the pages of The Mighty Thor (particularly when we learn the origin of Blake) do we get a sense of how skillful he is as a surgeon and how highly others think of him in that regard. Aside from that, there's also the possibility that the Wasp needs a specialist in this kind of surgery, so Thor's reasoning is plausible enough.

Anyway, remember what I said about hindsight? Even though Hank Pym's neurosis isn't on Marvel's radar yet, you can't help but raise an eyebrow as you see the first signs of his mental instability manifest in his crazed behavior as he races to save the Wasp. Lieber and Laiken are probably only attempting to give dimension to Hank, and may simply see his behavior as normal in the context of the emergency--but threatening the doctor?

(Heh--check out Iron Man with a vent in the back of his armor. I'd forgotten about that. You've heard about a chink in someone's armor--how about a full-sized vent? Anyone in the fortress at Helm's Deep can probably tell you what a bad idea that is.)

I suppose Thor being familiar with wording from Julius Caesar is believable enough--heck, if Klingons know Shakespeare, you can bet Asgardians do--but it's still weird to hear him say things like "sterner stuff," a phrase which has become more colloquial and one he's actually used more than once. Though if you want to see really unnerving dialog from Thor, try this on for size:

Yeah. You can almost hear Thor readers crunching this issue in their hands, can't you.

Anyway, one doctor in particular is the man of the hour--Dr. Svenson, who is reported to be living in Norway and who has been performing (yes, you guessed it) experimental lung surgery. It's a straw that the Avengers have no choice but to grasp (nevermind already having a "specialist" at shrinking and biochemistry in the group who could coordinate with Blake to reach and repair the wounded area), since the Wasp is given only 48 hours to live. Naturally, a simple (and near-instantaneous, I might add) phone call or two could seal the deal with Svenson and facilitate his retrieval as well as assure his cooperation; but Thor just takes off after him, filled with questions which needn't have gone unanswered:

Fortunately, having an Uru hammer is the '60s version of GPS, so Thor is able to locate Svenson easily enough when he gets to Norway, but completely ignores Svenson's objections before heading back with him:

So let's get to where this story is thrown completely out of whack, and "Dr. Svenson" is revealed by the still-crazed Hank Pym to be AN ALIEN IMPOSTOR:

Naturally, Hank takes it as well as we've come to expect. Though I'd bet a lot of readers were pounding the ground in much the same way by this point:

(Has anyone thought to tell this giant that he's in a hospital, and that having a giant flailing around in an environment of sick and infirm people is just an accident waiting to happen?)

So now the Avengers have to find the real Dr. Svenson, assuming that he's still alive. And with their only lead now dead, that means using their own resources to track down any alien presence on Earth. You'd think the team would head back to their headquarters, as stocked as it supposedly is with scientific equipment; yet they split up to investigate separately, in the one instance where collaborating under one roof might be to their benefit. Again, if you're a reader and you're looking for a team mentality and bond, The Avengers doesn't seem to be for you.

So Iron Man, as Tony Stark, tries to detect radioactivity. Thor returns to Asgard to use methods we're not clear on. Pym makes use of a special helmet that lets him contact ants all over the world--I guess it's the Ant-Man version of Cerebro. Where does that leave Captain America? Will he use somersaults to attract the aliens' attention? Heck no, he's got the high-tech resources of the Teen Brigade:

Eventually, the Avengers are able to use deductive reasoning to narrow down the location, at least if you define "narrowing down" as either the North or South Pole. But which pole to choose? Fortunately, the same Uru hammer that thought it was leading Thor to Svenson but got it dead wrong is able to home in on the correct location (which maybe it could have done without the team splitting up and spending 8 hours doing their own tracking?):

(A no-prize to those of you who couldn't help but spot the word "Avengers!" being repeatedly bludgeoned into the reader's mind in that first panel. Jeez, okay, enough already, we'll spread the word that the Avengers is the niftiest comic ever!)

Okay, so you land at your destination, and you see a lot of ice and snow but no aliens. What do you do, in the middle of all of this icy waste and no idea where to start looking? It's hard to remember sometimes that these are the Avengers, not the Keystone Kops:

(Doesn't Cap look cute, scraping away at the ground with his shield like that. Cap, there's a time when even a hero has no choice but to stand around being useless.)

Alright, just a small setback. You're entombed within an ice pit--which means that, when people remember the Avengers, you'll be associated with the phrase "digging your own grave." Nice. But it looks like the team is finally going to catch a break, because who pops out but just the aliens they're looking for (with apologies to Obi-Wan Kenobi):

To make a long story short, the Avengers have stumbled (well, tumbled) into the midst of the Kallusians, who were on the losing side of a centuries-long war with another alien race and have fled to Earth to re-group and re-arm. Dr. Svenson, who was in the area doing research, was captured in order to help them adapt to Earth's atmosphere. The "Svenson" in Norway was one of their own race who was placed there so that no one would suspect the doctor was missing. (Though I guess it's okay if someone wonders why he isn't at the North Pole.)

The Kallusians refuse to release Svenson (why, I haven't a clue, since he's done what he was required to do), and you know what that means:

Fortunately, Svenson appears to halt the fighting and clear things up. But though that alleviates this part of the danger from these aliens, the Avengers find themselves going from the frying pan into the fire when the Kallusians' enemies at last detect their presence on Earth, and the Kallusians decide to make a stand where they are:

Which, in a bit of trivia, leads Thor to shout this battle cry for the first time in print:

The Kallusians agree to Thor's demands and take their battle into outer space, leading their enemies far from Earth. And then, just when we needed someone to make sense of this mess, the Watcher appears in the now-deserted city of the Kallusians, and muses about the Wasp's injury leading to the chain of events that had the Avengers saving the Earth:

Before this moment, I really had no love for the Kallusians, or the Avengers' frantic flight to the North Pole, or the haphazard handling of this entire issue. But the Watcher brought a nice sense of symmetry to it all--and the fact that he was alone while making his observations, as opposed to appearing to the Avengers to offer explanations as he's done before, enhances the scene for the reader that feels like "inside info" while also giving them a new perspective on events that wasn't expected.

As for the Avengers, the Kallusians transport Svenson and the Avengers back to exactly where they needed to be (good thing the Kallusians' technology wasn't using Uru), and Svenson comes through:

Let's hope Hank doesn't start swinging his arms in celebration.

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