Tuesday, June 14, 2016

...And A Child Shall Kill Them!

Following up on an issue packed with action that saw the Avengers confront and battle both the Enchantress and Arkon in the warrior-king's dimension, the assemblers prepare to return to their own world as a prelude to an interesting two-part story by writer Roy Thomas which shifts gears a bit--providing us with not only the introduction of a new group of super-beings as well as a transit to a parallel world, but also the threat of a planetary crisis that raises the stakes of the story to their highest.

(Yes, it's "clear" what you're thinking: How is Wanda holding up the arm of that boy, when she's intangible? A special no-prize for the reader who comes up with an answer! If you can lay your hands on it, that is--we only have the intangible no-prizes in stock.)

Thomas lays out the story between the two issues sensibly, building up its events piecemeal before dealing with the cause of the crisis head-on--in much the same way he approached the story of Avengers Annual #2, and its own "parallel world" in the form of an alternate timeline. Here, it's the hammer of Thor which is responsible for bringing the Avengers to the wrong destination, rather than technology; and here, they encounter different super-beings, rather than misguided versions of their predecessors; and in this case, it's not the standard formidable costumed villain who menaces them from behind the scenes, but a unique individual whose tragic circumstances nearly lead to the end of the world.

The story hinges, of course, on the unlikely result of Thor's enchanted hammer actually missing the mark, which causes the two groups of Avengers to head to separate destinations: Thor's group arrives safely back in their own world, and in their correct locations (how's that for marksmanship?)--but the foursome of the Scarlet Witch, Goliath, Quicksilver, and the Vision are split off from the main group and transported to... where?

This is an off day for Thor's hammer, since this group of Avengers not only arrives as ghostly images of themselves, but also at some point in the future, where they witness the incineration of the Earth. Since it's also unusual for Thor to call upon Odin when he's using his hammer to cross between worlds--and as long as we're scrambling for no-prizes--we could say for the sake of argument that it's Odin who diverts this group of Avengers to address the circumstances of this situation they've encountered, for reasons we've yet to discover. Though it appears even the power of Odin needs a little boost from a resourceful mortal.

At this point, Wanda and the others still believe that it's their own world that's imperiled--why wouldn't they? But soon enough, they begin to notice certain things that don't add up--not the least of which is the unexpected presence in their mansion of a member of the Squadron Sinister, Nighthawk, who unsuccessfully attacks them (does he attack any other way?) and professes the same surprise at seeing them as they do in return. And as Nighthawk bolts down a hallway, the Avengers find that their surprises have only begun.

"Curioser and curioser!" cried a little girl named Alice once--and though her remark was in reaction to a growth spurt, the Avengers can no doubt relate to the sentiment, as each discovery they make only raises more questions among them. Thomas, on the other hand, looks to be enjoying himself a great deal--creating a group of heroes on the fly, all for the purpose of daunting the Avengers in this stage of their investigation into the deadly crisis that seems imminent. Lady Lark... Tom Thumb... Hawkeye... and American Eagle, whose right-wing manner of speech all but proves that the Cold War exists on this world, as well; though the Eagle is either a fanatic, or it's possible that d├ętente was never achieved here. (Or perhaps Thomas is simply a little over-exuberant in defining the man's character. Given that costume, I can't really blame him!)

There are even more questions raised when a transmission comes in from the other members of this group--more familiar members to those of us who remember a plot of the Grandmaster that played out in an earlier story, a plot which involved the villains in the Squadron Sinister. Yet their counterparts on this world go by another name, one which suits their roles as their planet's undisputed heroes.

You can't help but note certain similarities to the Avengers in Thomas's portrayal of these individuals--for instance, that his division of the two groups here mimics the lineup style that we often see in the Avengers when the founding members pitch in on a mission. Just as Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America, arguably the three most powerful and dangerous members of the Avengers, tend to operate collectively, while the other Avengers stay in residence and provide more of an initial connection to the story, the Squadron Supreme is similarly divided--their four oldest, strongest members performing their mission in Atomic City together, while the lesser known members hold the fort at their HQ in the city. Yet Thomas is also providing a means for heightening anticipation for the story's second part, since the Avengers must face the solid and more powerful core of the Squadron when they choose to head to the rocket's launch site.

(By the way, it's not clear who has their fingers on those launch controls, but rocket launches don't generally involve firing up their engines until just before liftoff--not an hour beforehand.)

With the Eagle's defiant words, it doesn't take a rocket scientist from Atomic City to realize that the Avengers are forced to clash with the Eagle and his team members--and though the Avengers initially take their lumps from these five, the tide eventually turns.

And so the Avengers depart, with Nighthawk in tow--setting up a splendid cliffhanger for the second part of this story, as they race to stave off world's end!

In Part 2, with the exception of Thomas, the production team of John Buscema, Frank Giacoia, and Mike Stevens is swapped out with Sal Buscema, Jim Mooney, and Shel Leferman, respectively, with the former Mr. Buscema exiting the mag for the majority of the issues thereafter (stepping in here and there, such as the final issue of the Kree-Skrull war). It marks the beginning of an interesting period for the book in terms of a variety of creative talent pooling their skills in succeeding Avengers stories, leading up to when Thomas himself would depart the mag in late 1972. As for this particular story, Sal Buscema proves more than capable of substituting for his brother--and Thomas's story remains captivating enough for him to carry it to its conclusion without any discernible interruption in flow.

Since this part's preamble serves only to offer a few flashback pages that detail how Part 1 got us to this point, it doesn't take long for the Avengers to close on their goal--though initially they find closing on it and reaching it are two separate hurdles.

To at least pause the threat of the rocket launch so that the greater story can proceed, Thomas continues to adhere to his practice of having the Scarlet Witch step in at opportune moments and effecting change--whether of pace or of events--while keeping the workings of her power completely unexplainable, even to her. From what we see in this tale, her hex power relies a great deal on her motivation to bring about the desired circumstance. Previously, the Avengers escaped from their ghostly appearance on this world because she felt her power was their only option, that the team had "to do something--anything!" And now, with the rocket launching, she evokes her power, again, with no guarantee of success but with similar desperation.

With Nighthawk's appearance, tempers are cooled, and the Avengers are able to make their case, with Dr. Spectrum almost taking on the measured patience and control of Iron Man in mediating the matter. Through him, the Avengers learn of "Brain-child," the rocket's designer--a 10-year-old prodigy named Arnold Sutton, who was born a mutant and in a short time became the country's top developer of defense technology. But in listening to the circumstances of Arnold's solitary childhood, the Avengers convince the Squadron that they should all pay the boy a visit in order to allay their fears that Arnold might hold the key to the danger they seek to avert.

And as the two teams depart the launch site, it would seem that Arnold's tenth birthday present to himself has been ruined.

The Squadron and the Avengers land at Arnold's citadel, and are immediately warned off by Arnold, who intends to use the technology at his disposal to halt their advance if necessary. But since he also fully admits his culpability regarding the solar rocket leading to the planet's destruction, the course for both the Squadron and the Avengers is clear.

The Vision and Spectrum agree to split both teams into four groups in order to divide Arnold's focus and assault the stronghold from different sides. It feels mostly like Thomas indulging a whim, choosing team pairs that suit each other's abilities: the Whizzer and Quicksilver, the two super-speedsters; Dr. Spectrum and the Vision, the two whose powers lean toward science; Hyperion and Goliath, a pairing of mega-strength. The odd team out is the one of Nighthawk and the Scarlet Witch, whose abilities don't complement each other or enhance their offensive posture to any degree. (Wanda and Spectrum might have matched up well.)

Regardless, all of these sub-teams find that Arnold's talents extend beyond brilliance, as the boy can monitor their brainwaves as well as mentally direct the technology used against them, keeping track of his foes' progress at every step. He makes surprising (pardon the word) headway against his assailants, though it's apparent that he's overtaxing himself--and when the team of Hyperion and Goliath penetrate his inner sanctum, he's on the verge of incapacitating them as well until Goliath resorts to an old skill in improvising his attack.

It seems regrettable that Thomas chose to take Arnold's parents out of the picture after we learn of his childhood, since you have to think they must have played more of a role in his formative years as well as made the astonishing decision of allowing him to leave home at age 9 to work for the military. Did they turn their backs on him? Did they seek help for him, either psychological or scientific? Did Arnold mentally compromise their involvement in his life? It's his tenth birthday--where are they?

At least the Squadron have a present in mind for him, one that provides half of a happy ending:

The other half of the happy ending is provided for the Avengers, who have finally been located and retrieved by their teammates. Or have they?

Thomas wisely leaves it at that--the cherry on top of a solid story that provides a bit of harmless but mildly provocative drama even after the final page is turned by the reader. It's one of the few suggestive plots that Marvel surprisingly decided to leave alone, even though it would have easily qualified for a What If tale or a follow-up Avengers story down the road. I'm frankly glad that the scene was left as is. "Always leave them wanting more" is the time-tested rule of good theater.

The Avengers #s 85-86

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: John Buscema and Sal Buscema
Inks: Frank Giacoia and Jim Mooney
Letterers: Mike Stevens and Shel Leferman
(Credits listed by issue respectively)


Anonymous said...

Hey, American Eagle - give Wonder Woman her underpants back !!

dangermash aka The Artistic Actuary said...

Unnecessarily snarky comment from Iron Man at Clint at the end there. What a jerk!

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