Monday, October 13, 2014

Swashbuckling School Is Now In Session

The Avengers/Defenders "war" that took place in 1973 was, when you get down to it, a glorified scavenger hunt that involved only one item: the Evil Eye, a weapon of great power split into several segments that the Dread Dormammu, along with the Asgardian god Loki, joined in alliance to acquire. To that end, Dormammu manipulated the Defenders into sending out teams to retrieve those segments; yet little did he know that Loki, fearing Dormammu's ambitions might lead him to use the Eye to invade Asgard, alerted the Avengers to the Defenders' activities, with a lie that led the team to believe that the Defenders were out to conquer the world.

And so eventually, Dormammu was greeted with this startling tableau:

The match-ups pictured here were in all likelihood mapped out carefully by writer Steve Englehart, in order to appeal to readers and be visually impressive on the sales rack. Thor vs. the Hulk; the Vision vs. the Silver Surfer; Hawkeye vs. Iron Man; battles that were more like fierce skirmishes, due to the limited space they had available to them, but were well-handled by Englehart and fun reading nonetheless. It would be easy enough to pick one of the more sensational issues of this series to examine more closely--but, instead, let's have a look at an issue which tends to get lost in the shuffle of the other more high-profile meetings between the two groups, despite its cover that features two of Marvel's most recognizable mainstays:

Sharing this issue with Cap and Namor is a battle between the Swordsman and the Valkyrie, which actually leads off the issue. (I can hardly begrudge Marvel for choosing instead to feature its "big guns" on the cover, rather than the lesser-known Swordsman and Valkyrie; unfortunately, this was well before variant covers were being churned out, where a cover featuring those two engaged in battle would have been nice to see out of curiosity.

The Swordsman, of course, cannot match the Valkyrie in strength; but what he lacks in that respect, he makes up for in tenacity and cockiness, and of course he's every bit her match in swordplay. But aside from the "sizing up" of one opponent against the other, there's also the opportunity to study more closely the Swordsman in his status as an Avenger--and Englehart strikes a nice balance here between the Swordsman's arrogance, which was forged during his days as a criminal, and his earnest desire to measure up to being an Avenger. For the Swordsman, there's more at stake in this mission than the recovery of his segment of the Eye, which is made more apparent as he approaches his target in Bolivia:

But give the Valkyrie credit for striking first, delaying the Swordsman's landing and giving her time to investigate the castle where he was heading:

The Swordsman is able to regain control of the quinjet and land safely. And as he approaches the castle, we see that this man was probably no stranger to employing deductive reasoning in his former line of work, having also honed his skills in thinking on his feet--nor is he exactly lacking in confidence.

The tenant's assurances, however, don't put a man like the Swordsman off his guard, though he remains courteous and continues his investigation--which inevitably leads to checking out a sound heard upstairs, and the sudden discovery of his foe.

The Valkyrie is clearly taken aback by the Swordsman's aggressive posture--though, given her nature and her opinion of males, that should simply fuel her desire to overcome him. It's frankly surprising to see her go on the defensive at this point, a shift which plays right into the Swordsman's hands:

The Swordsman's boasting as well as his verbal way of "schooling" the Valkyrie in the ways of battle is such fun dialog on Englehart's part; but it's also a very satisfying indication of how well the Swordsman is beginning to grow into his role as an Avenger, and how he regards the amount of responsibility placed with him in succeeding at this mission. Yet the Valkyrie is a formidable foe, despite his opinion--and her strength allows her to make a strike that disables the Swordsman long enough for her to pursue our friendly tenant who's scurrying to conceal the contents of a room behind a locked door. She discovers not only a treasure chest of jewels, but the Evil Eye as well; but before she can lay hands on it, a figure from behind shoves both of them aside and takes advantage of the confusion:

While it's somewhat shocking to see how the Swordsman deals with his attacker (at least in 1973, well before Marvel turned the corner and decided to green-light the use of deadly force), we should keep in mind that the Swordsman is reacting on instinct, an instinct that's been with him a lot longer than his Avengers I.D. card; also, as seriously injured as he is, he has little option in defending himself but to use the only weapon at hand before losing consciousness. Whether or not he's acting as an Avenger is debatable; however, he seems to be acting completely in character, and it's arguably the more sensible call for Englehart to make.

Under the circumstances, of course, the spoils of the battle go to the Valkyrie, who makes a noteworthy gesture toward a fallen foe she would normally have contempt for, due to his gender:

We know from a future issue that the Swordsman was hardly well cared for by the authorities, so why the sight of policemen hoisting his body into a van would satisfy the Valkyrie as to his proper care is something of an odd note to end this story on.

As for the second half of this issue, it bears mentioning once again that this is 1973--two years before the launch of The Invaders title--a window of time when fortunately there were only isolated incidences of Cap meeting Namor in conflict, with no indication that they'd been allies or even two people who had ever met:

As a result, there are fewer such discrepancies to explain taking place between Cap's revival in the '60s and when the Invaders stories come to light, stories of course featuring a close association of trust and alliance between the two. The story taking place in this issue, where Cap travels to Japan to retrieve his segment of the Eye, is one of those incidences which necessitates that readers look the other way in that regard, since both Cap and Namor are adversarial toward each other from the start and show no signs of having crossed paths during the war:

As Namor has said, Cap at this point in time fights with super-strength, which at least makes this match-up feasible. But we already have an idea of what that means as far as Namor is concerned, having floored Cap after just a short exchange and who's now on his way back with the Eye.

However, Namor's preoccupation with his own thoughts gives Cap a chance to recover, and he's back in the fight, however one-sided:

As might have already crossed your mind, Cap beating Namor on land was problematic at best; beating him while he's in the water is out of the question. The only thing that keeps Cap from being crushed into seaweed is the sudden appearance of the mutant Sunfire, who has a strong sense of nationalism and who promptly removes the very item that's being so fiercely fought over:

Namor, enraged, gives pursuit, though not without Cap tagging along and doing his best to make sure that Namor doesn't recover the Eye. In the process, Namor takes the opportunity to explain to Cap the Defenders' side of this search for the Eye, his sole reason for doing so being that Cap was a fellow World War II fighter (again, no indication given that their paths ever crossed):

With Sunfire making his escape, Namor drops Cap into the sea and proceeds to catch up and deal harshly with Sunfire. But the Eye is jarred from Sunfire's grip in the fight, and ends up in the hand of not a Defender, but an Avenger. Cap's good fortune is short-lived; but, remembering Namor's earlier explanation, he decides to take a leap of faith, surrendering the Eye to Namor and travelling with him back to the States in order to hopefully bring their two teams together in common cause.

With this crossover between two major teams, there's quite a lot for Englehart to coordinate here. Looking back on it, splitting the clashes between characters into "chapters" was a decision that guaranteed that no characters needed to be lost in the crowd and that everyone would receive their share of attention. And while it would have been nice to see the entire story handled by one artist (even with different finishers), both Sal Buscema and Bob Brown turned in fine work in their titles--though this particular issue reminded me of the things that I both like and dislike about Brown's pencils. The Swordsman's panels, for instance, were splendid and imaginative; but there are other characters, such as Iron Man (for example, Brown's portrayal of the character from the Dormammu splash page), which he doesn't appear comfortable with. In addition, Brown often gives a harsh look and texture to the faces of his characters, even when they're smiling.

To bookend this issue, we'll take a look next time at another clash between the Sub-Mariner and Captain America, where their history together in the war isn't an issue: their very first meeting in 1941! At least we know that Sunfire isn't going to be a pest this time.

Avengers #117

Script: Steve Englehart
Pencils: Bob Brown
Inks: Mike Esposito
Letterer: June Braverman

1 comment:

david_b said...

One of my FIRST comics.

Probably the Most Memorable.

Seeing all the floating heads on this cover only helped me seek out IM and Thor titles to start collecting.

Brown's pencils here (as on DD) were the all-time best.

Love Swordy-Val's bend towards stoic civility and honor, and the Cap-Namor match-up, panel-by-panel were the best choregraphed battles ever.

My first plunge into Marveldom by picking up this issue, along with Spidey 122-123, the final issues by Romita and Buscema/Sinnott on FF.

"I was hooked, hooked I tell you, hooked."

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