Friday, April 17, 2015

Bid The Swordsman Goodbye

Avengers #129 might be memorable to you as the issue that features one of Kang the Conqueror's bolder attempts at conquest, as he comes looking for the Celestial Madonna and decides to conquer Earth while he's at it. You might even remember it as the issue where the Vision seems to have developed the power to fire bolts of energy from his hands:

Yet it's likely you also remember the story as being the prelude to the final fate of the Swordsman, a former enemy of the Avengers who reformed and rejoined their ranks to become a member in good standing. Before that occurred, the Swordsman was known for being handled in one of three ways when it came to the Avengers: (1) as a cocky combatant, either solo or teamed up with folks like the Lethal Legion, Batroc's Brigade, or the Mandarin; (2) as a past mentor/trainer to Hawkeye; or (3) as an Avenger, whether it was when he first joined the team through deception, or when he returned to the team at the urging of Mantis, the woman he'd become involved with. In this story, we find the Swordsman estranged from Mantis (who has recently abandoned him to pursue the Vision), as well as doubting his worthiness as an Avenger. He feels his world falling apart--and his final mission as an Avenger is nigh.

Kang's attack in this story comes on like gangbusters. He's arrived in the 20th century backed up by a trio of Macrobots, and intends to swiftly take the Avengers by force:

With the Macrobots' ability to turn their attacker's power back upon them, the Avengers fall to the attack mostly due to their own power laying them low. All too soon, Kang holds the upper hand, and prepares to depart with the Avengers as his captives--paying special attention to the Scarlet Witch, Agatha Harkness, and Mantis, any one of whom might be the Madonna he seeks. Yet there is one Avenger who is of no use to him--the one Avenger whose ability to bear such rejection in his current state of duress is in question:

Defiant talk from the Swordsman, yes--but what are his options at this point, realistically? He has no idea where Kang has taken the Avengers, nor any inkling as to the Conqueror's plans. It's only through the intervention of one of the captives that he's mobilized into attempting a rescue:

As the Swordsman jets off to Egypt, his thoughts can't help but turn to Mantis--not just because of his current difficulties with her, but because Kang suspects her of being far more than the Swordsman believes she is:

Yet above all, the Swordsman is an Avenger of daring, a trait which has seen him through many campaigns in the past and which serves him well as the Avengers' sole hope. As we turn the pages of this story, we see that writer Steve Englehart spends a good deal of time picking away at the Swordsman's confidence as much as the Swordsman does himself: "Why is it, do you suppose, that some men are literally born to lose?" ... "And the desperate look in the Swordsman's eyes only increases as he broodingly jets toward Egypt." ... " he stands under the lurid light of the signal star, the Swordsman's mind might as well be mush!" Englehart will continue to hammer away at this character throughout the story, even as the Swordsman indeed repeatedly proves his boast to surprise all of those who underestimated him.

One such person whom the Swordsman surely wishes he could glimpse the expression of as he arrives in Egypt is Kang, who nevertheless still feels secure in the Pyramid he uses as a launching pad for his plans for the Avengers:

Kang, as we know, is perhaps the poster boy for overconfidence, and that may well prove to be the case in his dealings with the Swordsman--who could teach the Conqueror the difference between overconfidence and resolve, as he taps into his criminal past to penetrate the pyramid of the Pharaoh:

But in this dry, dark tomb, Kang has a defense even he has forgotten about which will be a deadly hindrance to the Swordsman--one which gives an almost welcome challenge to "the best blade artist in the world," who clashes with this foe without fully realizing his danger. Fortunately, his foe is distracted by new arrivals before the Swordsman can meet his end:

As the Swordsman picks himself up and proceeds further into the tomb, his movements trigger the release of another figure which will soon make their presence known to him. For now, he feels welcome anticipation and exhilaration at finally locating his target:

And so Kang turns his attention to his final preparations for the Avengers, as living power sources for his Macrobots. (Funny, they seemed to be doing well enough on their own, didn't they?) And any Swordsman worth his salt isn't going to hesitate to take advantage of an enemy's distraction. Assuming he gets the chance to follow through:

The Swordsman's frustration at having victory so close at hand snatched from his grasp is understandable, given how much he seemed to need to pull off this win; but as Kang's older self, the interference of Pharaoh Rama-Tut is also understandable, since the death of Kang would ensure that he would never exist. Aside from that, what's his stake in all this? And given Kang's plans for the Avengers, will the Swordsman cooperate? Englehart's countdown to the Swordsman's last days as an adventurer--and as an Avenger--concludes in Giant-Size Avengers #2, where Hawkeye returns to battle at the side of his old carny benefactor. And the Celestial Madonna stands revealed in the midst of tragedy.

The Avengers #129

Script: Steve Englehart
Pencils: Sal Buscema
Inks: Joe Staton
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski


Anonymous said...

Boy, if anybody had any doubt about what a dick Kang could be, let there be no doubt. He was forcing a guy to become a vampire in ancient Egypt and then locking him in a pyramid to starve. That's harsh.
Kang had issues, and it wasn't just overconfidence.
Anyway, Englehart took the Swordsman, a pretty-much one-dimensional villain and turned him into a character I think a lot of us could relate to, a guy that's been smacked around by life a bit and decided if he's gonna go down, he's gonna try to salvage a little self-respect.
I like the Robert E. Howard reference. M.P.

david_b said...

Just coming into Marveldom in 1973, Swordy became one of my favorite Avengers rather quickly..!! Daring, eloquent, just a great overall (reformed) hero worthy of the lofty Avenger ranks, great outfit as well. The issues from 114-130 seemed like the best overall team in decades.

In fact, one of the big reasons I couldn't stand the few Avengers issues I saw with the Beast AFTER I had stopped collecting was, 'Who the heck is this blue guy and how could the Avengers I knew let him in..??'. 'What happened to the Hawkeye, Swordsman, and Captain America, those stoic/heroic types..?'

Seriously, much like the 'Secret Empire' and the Defenders at that time, Steve E. sowed a LOT of emotion into the Avengers mix by this juncture, and I loved the sub-plot with Swordy and Mantis. Looking back on it now, I feel it was a bit too rushed..., it easily could have played on for another 2 dozen issues or so.

Why did Steve HAVE to kill off Swordy so quickly..? It really annoyed me for a few years (still does actually...), where I EASILY could have seen the 'Mightest Heroes' reduced again to a 4-5some core team with Vish, Wanda, Mantis, Swordy and T'Challa, with an occasional Doc Pym or Thor addition. I would have loved it, and it could have milked the love/angst angle for another year or so.

Alas, it was not to be. With both Swordy, Mantis and even Clint gone for a spell, and Hank McCoy and the horrid likes of Tuska and Heck onboard (just terrible art...), I had no problem with leaving the title all-together.

Oh, and that terrible Wanda/Vish wedding, once again with Donnie Heck at the boards.

Forget it.

Comicsfan said...

david_b, I suppose the Swordsman might not have been able to "cut it" (so to speak) as an Avenger for the long term because he wasn't able to bring much to the table in terms of his contribution to the team, which in a way was his own perspective on the matter. We could well make the same argument for the Black Knight, in that the Swordsman's weapon is his sword. It's the kind of weapon that, unlike repulsor rays or an enchanted hammer or custom arrorheads or even fists, is used with lethal intent and, like the Swordsman's battle edge, cannot be dialed back. Like the Knight, the Swordsman could continue using the flat of his blade against his foes--but from what we know of the man, his every instinct is to run his foe through. That's what makes the Swordsman the Swordsman to us--the fact that he is a deadly foe to face in battle, one who won't hesitate to deal with you fatally if need be (as he was ready to with Kang). As an Avenger, he would have had to battle defensively--and that would have diluted the character far too much, for us and certainly for himself. The Swordsman, like Wolverine, means business when he strikes; but while the X-Men can look the other way, the Avengers aren't afforded that luxury. Perhaps Englehart wanted to send him out at the top of his game before that happened.

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