Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Heroes Reborn

We've come to the end of our three-part look at the Avengers/Invaders twelve-issue series from 2008-2009, where the Invaders find themselves brought forward in time to 2008 and the Avengers struggle to gain their trust while trying to find a way to return them home. In Part One, that seemed unlikely, with the Invaders convinced that the Avengers were part of some Nazi deception and the Avengers unable to provide any proof of their bona fides for fear of corrupting the timeline. But in Part Two, the two teams found themselves fighting in common cause against S.H.I.E.L.D. Life Model Decoy units and slowly coming to an understanding of each other, while other members of the Invaders worked with the "New" Avengers to discover just how and why they were taken from the year 1941.

Seemingly at the nexus of this affair is a young soldier, Paul Anselm, whose comrades were killed while the Invaders battled behind enemy lines and a mist from the Cosmic Cube appeared to transport them through time. Paul had been caught up in the wake and arrived with the team in 21st century New York City, where he visited his still-alive older self and came to terms with the fate of his comrades in '41. Or, did he? Once the two teams of Avengers put aside their differences and prepared to use the Cube to send the Invaders back, Paul decided to make a grab for the Cube and attempt to not only save his friends, but also to affect the outcome of the war. To say that the timeline reacted disastrously is an understatement.

But with the third and final part of this story focusing on events in 1941 once the Invaders return (with the Avengers caught in the wake, this time), we have the opportunity to see where things went wrong. Did Paul manage to succeed in not only saving the lives of his buddies, but also in changing the past and thereby making sure that all the death and destruction of a world at war was avoided? It would seem like child's play with a device like the Cosmic Cube at your disposal. But with the haunting words of the 1940s hero called the Vision, we know that there's more to the Cube than simply its ability to alter reality. And we may see that there may be more to Paul Anselm, as well.

Jim Krueger's story (co-plotted by Alex Ross) picks up right where we expected to find ourselves--back in 1941, and at the moment when Paul's friends are strafed with enemy bullets. The casualties also include Union Jack, who, with his sister, Spitfire, had been fighting alongside the Invaders when the rest of the team was taken by the time-mist. Paul, already in the frame of mind to act decisively when taking the Cube, sets right to work with (as redundant as it sounds) his first priority:

Paul finds himself swept up in the euphoria of being able to make a direct difference in the war other than as a link-in-a-chain soldier, and he begins immediately to deal with the attacking Germans. But this is war, after all, and he hasn't thought ahead in terms of being targeted. For instance, just because you hold the Cosmic Cube doesn't mean that you'll be ignored on the battlefield:

And so Paul's plans end before they've barely begun. Critically wounded, he slumps to the ground, helped by his friends who have no concept of the weapon Paul has brought with him or its importance. They care only about removing him from the battle before the approaching Germans swarm their position. It's then that we see who has observed the Cube in operation, and who has likely ordered Paul taken out in order to claim this new device for himself:

Thus, history is indeed changed, to the exact opposite of what Paul had intended. And when the Avengers and the Invaders materialize in New York, it doesn't take them long to conclude that the use of the Cube has been usurped:

Plans are then made to recover the Cube in order to set things right. To do that, the Avengers will need to blend in with the Invaders--and, thanks to Spider-Man, who knows a thing or two about sewing costumes, a new combined team of 1940s heroes is soon ready to debut:

The joint team puts a quick end to the firing squad they'd spotted, and then makes use of one of Namor's undersea ships to journey to Europe, where they discover a massive obstacle that the Cube has put in place:

Meanwhile, Spitfire and Union Jack are attempting to keep the wounded Paul and his group out of harm's way. But Paul's now-living friends are finding that a new lease on life doesn't quite feel like the real thing:

With Paul's life hanging by a thread and the group's chances for escaping enemy territory thin, the Skull in the meantime learns of their escape and makes examples of those men who lost them by transforming them into armored "dogs" designed to track down and kill their prey. Elsewhere, in the hidden kingdom of Wakanda, Namor's ship arrives to find an ally in T'Chaka, the Black Panther of the 1940s and father of T'Challa, who gives them a borer-type vehicle that will allow them to tunnel beneath the "Aryan Wall" and make their way to the Skull.

Iron Man's strategy for the Avengers to keep a low profile makes sense, as the Skull would doubtless see time-travelling heroes as a major threat and move to eradicate them sooner than he would the Invaders or other locally-based super-beings. I don't quite follow Krueger's logic here, since anyone who effectively conquers the entire world and builds a country-spanning wall would also likely use the Cube to pinpoint and instantly deal with any super-beings still at large (see further below), rather than leave them free to plan. It may simply be the Skull's ego in play here; after all, when Captain America first encountered him with the Cube, the Skull squandered his moment by toying with his enemy, rather than swiftly eliminating him. Perhaps the Master Of The World™ gets to a point where he feels he's invincible and insulated from attack.

With a journey that must be taken literally under the radar, there are opportunities for Krueger to maintain ties with elements he's introduced in the two other parts of this story. One would be Bucky's entries in his war journal, as he describes his impressions of these 21st century heroes he's encountered but also makes observations about the clues he's picked up as to his own future. Through him, we get a detailed account of the 1940s characters which the Avengers have modelled their disguises after:

Yet Bucky has also been warned by the 2008 Captain America--who is actually his older self, though that fact is unknown to him--that he should pay attention to a crucial moment when the original Cap will warn him off a drone plane, and to follow his mentor's order. As we see Bucky write, he almost seems to be trying to work out the decision on paper--though of course it will take some time before we see if anything comes of it.

And there are other moments of familiarity, such as when the team finds they have other allies in their "underground":

In addition, Krueger continues more of the interplay between Cap and Iron Man, further mining the "if I had it to do over again" cloud that hangs over Stark when he and Cap exchange such words:

However, unknown to these men and women who move closer to the Skull's stronghold, Paul's group has been located by the Skull's constructs. Seeking to buy time for the soldiers' escape, Union Jack and his injured sister sacrifice themselves by detonating a grenade when the "dogs" close in on them. Elsewhere, a possible complication arises when the Skull learns of the heroes' skirmish in New York, and begins to assemble the pieces of a puzzle he hadn't yet realized existed:

In the next-to-last issue of the series, things happen fairly quickly from this point. First, the Avengers/Invaders group arrives on the other side of the wall and sees from a distance the explosion that Jack has set off, and races to the scene where they find several more of the Skull's constructs attacking Paul's group and deal with them. Despite what he's set in motion, the heroes are sympathetic to Paul and invite him to join them. In the scenes which follow, it's apparent that Krueger is still trying to find new angles to address the Cap/Iron Man rift:

Particularly when Bucky has a discussion with Iron Man about his own thoughts of changing the past:

In a way, you have to admire Krueger for having Iron Man stick to his guns and shelve any regrets he might have about how things worked out in the Civil War. The fact that Stark still believes what he did was right--would still do the same things he did--may chafe at those of us who want to rip him a new one, but it's pure Stark. Cap's words to Paul are clearly meant to be within earshot of Stark, which indicates he's trying to reach him on some level--but I'm not quite understanding Bucky's pat-on-the-back reaction. I have the impression his response to Iron Man is expressed more in sarcasm than as an endorsement, but perhaps that needed to be made more clear.

As the heroes approach Berlin, the Vision is once more interjecting himself as a sort of "guide" to the Cube's existence and evolution:

In his appearances, the story has been careful to avoid having the Vision take sides, even with the Cube being in the hands of the Skull. The Vision, instead, seems content to bide his time, waiting for the Cube to settle on a form. The Skull, for his part, doesn't see the Vision as a threat--and he certainly isn't hindered by his appearances, taking action against the heroes on his doorstep by sending a host of deadly adversaries against them:

We're now in the final stretch, as Krueger once again uses Bucky's journal to bring us up to speed:

Yet the use of the word "stretch" is misleading, since we can regard this battle as the decisive one. At first, things go badly for the heroes. Thor's lightning bolts are nothing to sneeze at, and the Torch is destroyed. And when the Skull joins the fray with the Cube, both super-groups find themselves on the verge of total defeat. But then our friend the Vision reappears, reiterating the point that the Cube doesn't necessarily have any loyalty to the Skull:

For the heroes, things don't improve to any degree, even though Stark's plan to wrest the Cube from the Skull succeeds when the Wasp surprises him. But, like Paul, she fails to watch her back, and the Skull impales her from behind. Bucky then grabs the Cube, only to be gunned down by the Skull. But before the Skull can fully grasp the Cube, another man fights him for that privilege:

In the scuffle, the Cube is separated from both men, and falls at the feet of Paul, who's immediately joined by the Vision. It seems that the Cube has decided which sentience it wishes to emulate: Captain America, who, according to the Vision, "has been the single soul that has given the Cube hope. It's been trying to help him, to aid him, to become like him." It's a strange series of panels where we learn this, since the scene is drawn in a way to indicate that it's Paul the Cube has settled on; indeed, Paul's growing awareness of his responsibilities in this affair would seem to be aligned with the Cube's growing awareness of the course it should chart for itself as it evolves into sentience. Regardless, Paul then uses the Cube to end the battle, by bringing in figures he's well familiar with:

With the crisis passed, the closing pages of Avengers/Invaders are laid out in the form of an epilogue. The Avengers, of course, are returned to their own time, with everything and everyone restored to their former state; but it's the scenes with two members of the Invaders which resonate the most, scenes which are appropriately narrated through Bucky's journal, its writer finally having worked out the situation on paper and the way he now wants to proceed. First, we discover that Bucky's brief grasp of the Cube accomplished its purpose in the future:

While Bucky and Toro are friends as well as peers, it's not clear why Bucky feels an obligation to bring Toro back from the dead over sixty years later. Except for a brief conversation the two had before their encounter with D'Spayre on the subject of their deaths, there's no reason for Bucky to feel profound regret over Toro's death beyond what he might feel for the Torch's, or, for that matter, Cap's. It's a touching scene, but one with little to no foundation.

And as for the past, Bucky is a hero to the end--and his death brings symmetry and perhaps clarity to one who had hoped to alter his own future:

As I've mentioned before, I had dropped this series before reading its last four issues, since it seemed to be throwing in subplots and different elements just because it could, given that time itself was its canvas. Now having read those issues, I feel that eight issues would probably have given this story plenty of room to accomplish what it was going for, once the pages having to do with Ultron and the LMDs were removed. Neither of those detours contributed in any meaningful way to the main plot, nor did they have any bearing on Paul Anselm or his older self.

On a more positive note, Krueger and Ross have crafted a fine story, all things considered--and Steve Sadowski, with Patrick Berkenkotter and Jack Herbert coming in later to assist, made all of these pages a visual feast and a real pleasure to turn. Berkenkotter would proceed to pencil and ink The Torch, the eight-issue series where we pick up Toro after he's climbed out of his grave to begin his new life--another series plotted by Ross and Krueger, and which again looked incredible in the beginning but ran out of steam for me toward the last few issues. Avengers/Invaders did little to surprise me in that respect, now that I've read those final issues--but I must admit to feeling motivated to take another stab at The Torch and forging ahead to the end.

Avengers/Invaders #s 9-12

Plot: Alex Ross and Jim Krueger
Script: Jim Krueger
Pencils and Inks: Steve Sadowski,
     Patrick Berkenkotter, Jack Herbert
Letterer: Todd Klein

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