Monday, January 23, 2017

The Master Plan of the Space Phantom!

While the transition between the end of Roy Thomas's long run on The Avengers and the beginning of Steve Englehart's was fairly smooth, the two subplots still unresolved in the hand-off to Englehart might have left you with the impression that the dust was still settling, even as Englehart was gearing up for his first major storyline in the book. The first point of unfinished business involved the search for the absent Quicksilver, missing since the Avengers' climactic battle with the Sentinels in Australia. Given that Thomas had already folded Quicksilver into his plans for Fantastic Four, any loose ends for the character in The Avengers became more of a nuisance plot that sent the team following false leads and had them connecting any unusual report that came their way with Pietro's disappearance. "A group of strange men appeared out of nowhere, and kidnapped three scientists, before anyone could stop them!" "Could be what happened to Pietro!" Talk about grasping at straws.

There was also the plot involving the Grim Reaper, who had approached the Vision with an offer to transplant the Vision's mind into the body of the dead Wonder Man and restore that body to life. When the Vision outright refuses, the Reaper leaves the door open by giving him an amulet as a way of contacting him should he reconsider. The fascinating part of such a plot isn't so much as what might come of this meeting, but the fact that the Vision has left the offer on the table, so to speak, by keeping the amulet. And that ambivalence hangs in the air of Avengers Mansion with virtually every scene the Vision is in.

Yet with the return of Captain America to the book--following his own tense storyline where he encountered his stand-in from the 1950s--there's reason to believe that the Avengers are back on track and ready for Englehart's fresh take on them. But before things settle down, Cap will have to deal with a more recent mystery from his past--while the rest of the Avengers find themselves facing not only the Grim Reaper, but also the return of a deadly foe who dates back nearly a decade.

As this story begins, the other Avengers have departed to check out another lead to Quicksilver's disappearance, set in motion by another news report ("Witnesses told police the man was walking alone along Avenue 'C'--when he abruptly disappeared, in full view of over 20 people.") (it doesn't take much to send the Avengers scrambling out the door, does it), while the Vision has remained behind to brood over an incident in South America that suggested that he cannot be affected by stimuli that normal human males are susceptible to, a discovery that impacts on his feelings toward the Scarlet Witch.

As Cap inquires further, it becomes a compelling scene in terms of the Vision letting down his guard and, ironically, reacting very much as any normal man might when faced with the prospect of lost love as well as the likelihood of a life of solitude. In addition, it's a brief but impressive example of the feel that artist Rich Buckler continues to have for the character--which makes Cap's reference to a "robotic pose" a curious one, since what we're seeing in the Vision's posture is quite the contrary.

But the scene that follows, which can't help remind Avengers readers of the Vision's entrance in issue #93, jolts these two from their conversation while also opening the door to Cap's separate story.

In response to Rick's dramatic change, Cap screams and doubles over, as this issue takes a sharp turn and flashes back to a time when Cap and Rick (his partner at the time) battled the forces of Hydra at Drearcliff Cemetery following a previous struggle with Madame Hydra--an extended battle that, until now, neither Cap nor Rick have recalled. (But you would, if you've read the PPC's separate post on it.) While a distraction from the Avengers' activities in this story, it's a splendid insert to this issue featuring lost events that burst into Cap's mind sporadically throughout this three-issue arc, with art by George Tuska but still conveying a feel of consistency thanks to Dave Cockrum's inks on both stories.

The incident only lasts long enough to raise questions with Cap about that period of time from his past, questions that suggest that his fight with Hydra went on for longer than he remembers. Given that the flashbacks take up a considerable amount of space in this issue, it's a fair bet that they somehow tie into Avengers business in some way--but at present, even Cap can't begin to make that kind of assumption, or even speculate as to what specifically is happening to him.

The closing panel features a conspicuous appearance of the Reaper's amulet, making a sudden appearance following Cap's episode when it was so obviously well-concealed before now. And it would make sense for the Vision to keep it hidden, since it would raise uncomfortable questions from his teammates as to its origin--so why would Buckler now display it so openly?

Meanwhile, the Avengers, at the site of the reported disappearance, are finding no evidence of Quicksilver's presence--but they inadvertently discover that the disappearance itself might well have been prearranged.

As the three Avengers descend to discover the whereabouts of Hawkeye, the entire team is thrown into disarray when, one by one, each of the males turns on their teammates with murderous intent.*

*"And then some idiot turned out the lights!" is presumably paraphrased from the last line of "The October Game," a 1948 story by Ray Bradbury. If you're scratching your head wondering how the events of that story relate at all to this one, join the club.

And so it's a stalemate of sorts, with each of the Avengers realizing that any one of them may turn on the others at any time. Only one of these four, however, is prepared to make an informed guess as to the identity of their foe--an alien who has carried a grudge against the Avengers for years and is now prepared to move against them. And with the revelation of their enemy's up-to-now silent partner, we learn at last the means by which the Vision will be dealt into this story.

The lengths that the Space Phantom has gone to in order to trap the Avengers and execute such an intricate plan for their demise arguably qualifies him as one of the Avengers' deadliest enemies; after all, it's hard to deny the Phantom his due when he's been "creeping up" on this team for nine years, biding his time and making sure all of his pieces were in place before he struck. His only miscalculation appears to be in his faulty manipulation of the memories of both Captain America and Rick, while also not taking into account Rick's new association with Captain Marvel, the latter being the means by which he was eventually defeated. As for the Grim Reaper, he was taken into custody--but he vowed that the Avengers hadn't seen the last of him, and that's putting it mildly.

The Avengers #106

Script: Steve Englehart
Pencils: Rich Buckler and George Tuska
Inks: Dave Cockrum
Letterer: John Costanza


B Smith said...

"And then some idiot turned out the lights!"

This line was also used in the story "Blind Alleys" which appeared in Tales From The Crypt #46 in 1955 (a point made in the letter column a few issues later)...the story also was one of those adapted for the 1970s "Tales From The Crypt" feature film.

Comicsfan said...

Thanks, B, good to know! (Out of curiosity, which letter column was that? I only ran across one reference to the quote, and it had no mention of the TFTC story. (Someday I'll have to get around to seeing that film, too!))

B Smith said...

Reckon it would have been Avengers #110 - the letters tended to refer to issues from four months before.

Comicsfan said...

Yes, B, that's where I spotted the reference, though neither the writer nor any response makes mention of the TFTC story (nor did other letters pages I looked at--oh well). But it's a nice bit of trivia to have nonetheless.

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