Monday, July 27, 2015

Vengeance Is Ours!

As part of Swordsman Week at the PPC, we've witnessed the man's first classic battle with the Avengers--and the team has learned the hard way that it's not a good idea to let the Swordsman gain the upper hand, because he'll run with it. Or, in this case, prod:

The startling scene comes at the end of Avengers #19, following a heated battle between the Swordsman and Captain America which resulted in the shield-slinger's defeat. The three remaining Avengers are now seemingly faced with an impossible situation, if an improbable one. The Swordsman isn't asking for ransom to win Cap's release, or the theft of some rare artifact, or government secrets--he's demanding Avengers membership for himself, a condition which seems outrageous given the amount of trouble that he's put himself through to secure it as well as his reasons for wanting it. It's also an odd condition for writer Stan Lee to hinge a cliffhanger on, since it's easy enough for the Avengers to circumvent once Cap is rescued. But as we saw in Part 1, Lee has made a number of interesting choices with this character, and he's not through yet.

As for the problem at hand, the issue's dramatic cover gives us the impression that the Avengers have given the Swordsman an answer he isn't at all pleased with.

Quicksilver, Hawkeye, and the Scarlet Witch have recently been bickering about which of them would make a better team leader; thanks to the Swordsman, it looks like one of them may be getting a crack at it sooner than they'd imagined.

Before we find out how the heck this situation plays out, the sharp-eyed among you have probably spotted a very, very strange plug for artist Wally Wood on this issue's cover:

Coming nine months after a similarly conspicuous cover caption for Wood on an issue of Daredevil, it begged the question of why Wood, a prolific though troubled artist, received such special treatment in the midst of the many other noteworthy artists doing work for Marvel. Roy Thomas elaborates*:

"It just goes to show what great respect Stan had for Wally’s work. He was just wild for him. His whole style--penciling, inking, the whole thing. And he thought that Wally had his own following from the EC stuff and Mad that would help Marvel."

(*With special thanks to Jim McLauchlin of The Hero Initiative, from his article published in Wizard magazine and reprinted on his blog, with comments.)

As for Cap's current plight, we saw in the last issue's final scene that Cap appeared to take the decision out of the Avengers' hands when he hurled himself from the building before the Swordsman could act, so that the team wouldn't surrender. And with Cap now in freefall, that leaves the team free to intervene. We know that there must be half a dozen ways for a super-speedster like Quicksilver to have reached and saved Cap before he'd fallen even halfway--but in the sequence illustrated by Don Heck, it's nice to see a little ingenuity employed by these Avengers who, lacking the sheer power of their predecessors, must rely on teamwork to distinguish their fighting style.

With Cap now joining them, the Avengers confront the Swordsman, though Cap is wanting the others to back off in order to claim the right to take him down himself. Cap's style of leadership in these early days of helming the Avengers is at times a contradiction--training Hawkeye and the others to act as a team, yet pulling rank when he feels it's necessary for him to act alone. It's no wonder these four were often grumbling with one another while they were coming together as a team. As for the Swordsman, while the Avengers find that he isn't about to lie down and surrender, they eventually close ranks against him. But just when you think that the Swordsman has destroyed his prospects for Avengers membership, Lee is about to introduce another interesting twist to this character's circumstances which will put the matter back on the table.

Teleported across the globe, the Swordsman finds himself in the presence of one who is used to having underlings assisting him in his plans of conquest--and who now wishes to make use of the Swordsman's activities with the Avengers in order to carry out his vengeance against a member of the original team, Iron Man. Yet he'll find the Swordsman has something to say about being handled, particularly if someone is seeking to disarm him.

The Mandarin, of course, is no novice when it comes to villainy or ruthlessness--and despite the Swordsman's outrage, it's quickly made clear to him that he's out of his league here. Be that as it may, it's still a nice touch to his character to see him assert himself against the Mandarin, regardless of the threat he may represent. For the Swordsman, to fall in battle is one thing; to be deprived of that right is intolerable.

Yet, to survive in criminal circles as he has, the Swordsman's independence has likely had to shift with the wind when necessary. And it helps to rationalize your subservience by telling yourself that your "boss" is serving your own purposes. Even so, as the Swordsman's weapon is modified with technology, it's clear the Mandarin has thought ahead in that respect.

It's a generous interlude given to the Swordsman, expanding on the already generous amount of character development which Lee has given him--as well as now putting him on the same level as the super-villains whom heroes such as the Avengers usually battle. It's almost regrettable to see the Swordsman "enhanced" in such a manner; after all, the man was already a force to be reckoned with, and now he's packing a disintegrator ray, gas fumes, flames, energy bolts, and who knows what else in his sword hilt. Such an upgrade for the Swordsman dilutes the nature of his character, which a man who takes pride in his skill at swordplay has used in order to build such a reputation for himself; after all, his opponents from this point on are likely to be less impressed by his skill and daring if he's using his sword to lay down fire at them.

In addition, the Mandarin's reason for modifying the sword--to make the Swordsman "a worthy ally"--is mostly smoke for our benefit, and doesn't really explain Lee's decision to give the Swordsman this kind of edge. No such modifications are needed for the Mandarin to put in motion his plan for the Swordsman: embedding him in the Avengers as a "double agent" in order to lay a trap for Iron Man. To that end, he projects an image of Iron Man into the Avengers' midst, to deceive them into believing that Iron Man is the one who proposed the Swordsman for membership and sent him to them. The deception works, and the Mandarin immediately transports the Swordsman back. And before you know it:

As with the Swordsman's second attempt at membership while in the company of Mantis, he goes through a probationary period where the team here reacts much the same--evaluating his performance, while keeping a close eye on his manner given his past actions. Eventually, though, he finds the opportunity to complete the Mandarin's plan.

During this time, the Swordsman is again taken with the beauty of the Scarlet Witch. But the situation is upended when the Mandarin appears in his room in image-form and warns the Swordsman that he's decided to move up his timetable and detonate the planted bomb that evening, giving his hireling time to escape. Once the image disappears, the Swordsman has a change of heart and decides to act--in part because of his concern for Wanda, but also for reasons which, even for the Swordsman, evoke nobility.

It's another example of how skewed the Swordsman's sense of honor is, and how it's shaped his life. The Swordsman was perfectly fine with the bomb's detonation when Iron Man was going to be among those killed by the explosion; yet, with the detonation now scheduled for sooner rather than later, only now does he draw the line at the thought of being an assassin. The strength of character that Lee seeks to bring to him here doesn't mesh with the circumstances of his presence among the Avengers. If the Mandarin hadn't appeared to him, that bomb would still be attached to that control panel the following morning, and the morning after that.

(Hey, wait a minute! Is it the Captain America of the 1950s who's closing on the Swordsman above? Unlikely, since that story was still seven years away; rather, it looks like either Heck or Wood decided to change the look of Cap's uniform between this issue and the last.)

With the Avengers already in a state of suspicion regarding the Swordsman, the ship has sailed as far as his credentials with the team, as he's quick to realize. What happens next would make for a fair What If story: If the Avengers have the Swordsman dead to rights, all he really needs to do in order to explain things to them is to freeze in place and allow things to calm down to a point where the Avengers will listen to him. But with Hawkeye's prejudice against him, one arrow fired in... haste? anger? is enough to escalate the situation and make the Swordsman and the Avengers enemies for some time to come.

So much for the Swordsman's assertion that the nitro-bomb couldn't be detonated once it was released from the control panel; it's generally not a good idea to underestimate the Mandarin.

Despite the time Lee spent in making the Swordsman such an attractive prospect as an Avenger, he seems to end this character's story here with that possibility amounting to little more than an afterthought, and leaving it at that. Yet the Swordsman joining the Avengers at this point in time had its appeal. It would have made perfect sense for Iron Man to recommend a fifth member to the team, since a group of four Avengers is stretching the group a bit thin if they're battling against heavy odds (though having a speedster in the group should render enemy numbers practically meaningless); and the argument that "Iron Man" used to offset their objections based on the Swordsman's criminal past made sense, as well. The Swordsman, however, appears to regard the missed opportunity as simply a turn of events that didn't work out as he might have liked, and seems ready to move on. But he'll cross paths again with the Avengers much sooner than he thinks.

Swordsman Week continues, as the bladesman falls under the spell of--the Black Widow!

The Avengers #20

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Don Heck
Inks: Wallace Wood
Letterer: Artie Simek


david_b said...

FANTASTIC IDEA, sir.., great to see Swordy get some well-deserved love.

Why do I like this character so much..? Sympathy..? One of those 'Marvel's way of making you fall in love with yet another hapless-loser' schitck..? I'll never know, but it worked.

As said many times before, one of the only missteps for me on Englehart's Avengers rein was killing off the Swordsman. Obviously Steve thought the inner-group angst had played it's course and he wanted to clear the deck, so to speak around ish 129-130.., but it's still a tremendous loss.

Funny as it was, the Triple Action repeats were coinciding with the current Swordy-Mantis stint, which obviously was a Bullpen-planned move, but (like Yellowjacket) I really would have liked to have seen Swordy recover from the emotional bruises and back in a heroic/leadership type role in the team, perhaps even a MTU appearance.

Alas it was not to be, so I'm pleased to enjoy this week's celebration. Onward..!!

Anonymous said...

I see the Mandarin's got his own special shirt with an "M" on it, for Mandarin.
That's so he doesn't get his shirts mixed up with everybody else's when one of his minions does the laundry. The "M" shirt is the boss's shirt, extra starch. Woe betide the henchman who screws up the laundry in the Mandarin's lair!
I remember Galactus had a big "G" on his shirt in his first appearance.
I wonder if I should start wearing shirts monogrammed with a big "M.P."? M.P.

Comicsfan said...

Thanks, david, we aim to please. And yes, M.P., that monogrammed tunic was almost the size of the Mandarin's ego. As often as he announces himself, you'd think he would have no need for walking around with his initial in everyone's face, wouldn't you? It just goes to show you that even would-be conquerors can be tacky.

B Smith said...

Not that I'm trying for a No-Prize or anything...but where was Cap's shield the whole time he was being pushed off the plank and being saved? The way you've shown it, he's shieldless when pushed, but has it when recovered and facing off against the Swordsman....does the story address this?

Comicsfan said...

Indeed it does, B. The rest of the Avengers recovered the shield where Cap had fallen and brought it with them to the roof (take a close look at that splash page); and once Cap was rescued, Hawkeye shot a line to Cap and Quicksilver returned it to him. It really all falls into place (oops, poor choice of words considering Cap's predicament), since the Swordsman would hardly have taken the trouble to see to it that Cap had his shield when he was trussed up on that plank.

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