Friday, April 7, 2017

Avengers Reborn!

When you look at the line of "Heroes Reborn" books that were released during 1996-97, it's difficult to do so with an objective eye--that is, without factoring in the upheaval that seemed to be occurring in Marvel itself, set in motion by the "Onslaught" crossover event that few look back on with fondness. It was publication chaos that readers were unfortunately swept up in--a massive reshuffling of creative talent behind the scenes, as well as several of Marvel's major titles being dismantled and rebooted to accommodate new visions that would hopefully suit the company going forward. In the interim, Marvel would outsource the production of its flagship titles to separate studios (Jim Lee's WildStorm Production and Rob Liefeld's Extreme) which would produce alternate versions of these titles that offered a fresh take on both their heroes and concepts. In essence, the new work by Wildstorm and Extreme could be regarded as placeholder titles that would keep the fire stoked for Marvel's characters until such time as Marvel's revamped books were ready to launch, though that categorization isn't intended to downplay the amount of time and effort that Lee's and Liefeld's staff put into their contracted work.

The PPC has already taken a look at the first issue of Liefeld's Captain America book (scripted by Jeph Loeb) produced during this period, which was surprisingly well thought-out and executed; and so let's turn now to another title which also featured Cap but of course had several more diverse characters to take into account--a super-group that not only begins a new chapter in its long history, but does so by rewriting and rebuilding that history from the ground up.

Admittedly, there was nowhere to go but up for The Avengers, as dismally as its final year of issues played out until the book virtually imploded. And so in that sense, reading this new Avengers series offered a chance to leave all of that behind and sample the new concept being presented. To an extent, all of the new HR titles were riding on the momentum of the apparent sacrifices made in the battle with Onslaught--the premise being that the characters in these new series were somehow the same characters who were lost in the Onslaught crisis, reappearing in some alternate universe and leading different lives without any knowledge of their pasts. In the case of the Avengers, that offers a number of opportunities to bring to the characters new histories and origins, and even new personalities and unexpected twists. Some changes work; some don't; but for the most part, the experiment is intriguing. The story could use a little more polish, and perhaps the Avengers lineup here could have had more thought put into it--and some of you may find that the story's ending falls a little flat for you. All in all, it's a mixed bag.

One nice nod to the original book is that this incarnation of the Avengers owes its existence to... well, not Loki, directly, but to S.H.I.E.L.D., which both funds the team and provides their massive operations facility in New York Harbor courtesy of Stark Industries. But Loki is definitely a vibrant presence in the story, leading us in from page one and serving as our unofficial guide to the Avengers we're introduced to, as he schemes to use them in his plans. This Avengers series of course predates the first Avengers motion picture by over fifteen years, but also precedes the cinema version in making the Avengers a SHIELD operation from its inception--which, in late 1996, with publication of The Ultimates still six years away, is a very original, interesting twist put in place by Liefeld.

As for Loki, somewhat disoriented by the fact that this universe is not his own, the scope of his plan again begins with his revenge on Thor--but the means by which he pursues that end will see him mobilizing the Avengers himself, rather than their gathering inadvertently as a result of a mishap with his communications spell.

Donald Blake is also present in this first issue, as he was originally--but his status is far different. Here he's an archaeologist on retainer by SHIELD, assigned to locate the hammer of Thor, a search which leads him to Norway. Yet he and his team stumble upon the actual God of Thunder, encased in amber, necessitating a call to Nick Fury. It isn't long before the name of the Avengers surfaces--and since a spell protects the form of Thor, Loki decides to enlist the Avengers' unwitting help in freeing him.

With the preliminaries taken care of, it's time to meet the individual Avengers, a fresh new team whose members have never been out on a mission and, indeed, are still in the process of moving in and meeting each other. Loki encounters the Scarlet Witch first--perhaps because her aura as a "sorceress" has drawn his interest, though her power is based more on science. Yet he's likely partially correct, since her ties with Agatha Harkness are formed much earlier, and Miss Harkness remains by her side as a mentor/companion. As we'll see later, Wanda's costume will ring familiar for readers of the classic Avengers tales--but the comparison really stops there, as her personality and manner are far less reserved than you might expect.

The Swordsman, who originally began his Avengers career in the replacement team's formative stages, now makes the cut for the team's first lineup. But despite clearly having a skill set that indicates his mastery with a variety of blades, his "hook" as a character seems to be his vanity.

From the Swordsman we segue to Hawkeye, who both Liefeld and scripter Jim Valentino seem to have given little to no thought to whatsoever, either in this story or in this lineup--with the character falling in line behind the Swordsman in that respect. Given that both of these weapons masters tend to blend into the background here, it's telling that they often verbally spar with each other, to the extent that there seems to be no difference between them as characters, with each usually being on the other's case about something. That could simply be a nod to their antipathy toward one another in the original book, or it could just be the inability of Valentino to keep them from getting lost in the crowd. The fact that Hawkeye's introductory scene has him appearing in featureless silhouette, with no dialog--Hawkeye, of all people--speaks volumes.

Henry Pym and Janet Van Dyne are also at the facility, both of them civilians (or perhaps Pym works for SHIELD); their only connection to the Avengers is the fact that Pym performs lab work in the complex, and his heiress wife is simply that. Pym's former lab assistant, the Vision, has been made an Avenger, with a very programmed demeanor and speech--but another Avenger, Hellcat, who virtually stands in for Tigra in both appearance and seductive nature, seems able to reach the Vision on a more fundamental level.

It's Captain America who naturally leads this SHIELD-sanctioned team, in a by-the-numbers way that has these Avengers falling in line behind him and attuned to his every command. Even Loki is able to note how much Cap is able to stand out, though Liefeld has supplemented Cap's already solid background with a rich new history in contemporary life, as well as bitterness toward Fury that carries over to his current position in the Avengers.

As for SHIELD, its investment in the Avengers is something that Fury prefers to keep tabs on personally--and judging by the polling the agency conducts on Cap, they're looking for the Avengers to benefit from his public status with the group. The scene with SHIELD wouldn't be complete without our old friend, Henry Gyrich, chiming in with how important government oversight is for this fledgling team, particularly if the government is footing the bill for their operation.

We're also given a scene which could be regarded as homage to the relationship between the Vision and the Scarlet Witch. In this lineup of Avengers, there is no such relationship--nor does the Vision seem capable of the human spark that would make one possible. On the other hand, Hellcat seems to be educating him in ways that he seems agreeable with, so who knows?

Now that the team has been presented, they get their first "go" call--to join Blake and his associates in Norway and investigate the incredible discoveries of not only the artifact that Blake was tasked with finding, but also that artifact's likely owner.

(Cap had better watch his back, since Wanda is apparently keeping a sharp eye on his backside.)

As Loki had hoped, the Avengers coordinate to break through to Thor. The scene is likely meant to demonstrate the abilities of the Avengers separately, as well as to get an idea of their sense of teamwork--but have a look at how awkwardly it plays out, over two full pages. Only one Avenger is needed to do the job that Cap has in mind in order to shatter Thor's amber prison:  the Vision, who can penetrate the casing without need for blast arrows, or swordplay, or a hurled shield, nor does he need the Scarlet Witch's hex to (presumably) kick-start his ability to solidify and disrupt whatever he's in contact with.

Nevertheless, the deed is done, and the God of Thunder finds himself as reborn as the Avengers, though Thor would be the only one who acknowledges it with at least a dim recollection of his circumstances.

Cap, however, keeps his team at the ready, knowing that Thor's connection to Viking mythology might make him predisposed to lash out in barbaric slaughter. The precaution turns out to be well-founded, though for a different reason, as Loki finally appears in the flesh and uses Thor's disorientation and confusion to convince him that it's the Avengers who are responsible for his fate.

(If you're finding yourself wincing at Valentino's overindulgence in how thickly he's laying on the Asgardians' Shakespearean style of speech--for example, the terrible abuse of the word "mine" we've seen throughout this story--join the club.)

In the battle that follows, some oddly-handled segments await, such as the Vision striking Thor, only to be hurled back by Loki. And when Thor charges Cap, the latter is next seen standing in front of Thor and shielding him from Loki, who's finally made his move against his true target.

The fight reaches its conclusion when Thor regains his hammer, and realizes that it's Loki who's been the culprit all along. And when Loki casts a spell meant to dispose of him, Wanda's hex causes it to backfire and instead transport Loki to the fate in limbo he'd intended for Thor. In a way, the scene mirrors how Loki was dealt with in the original Avengers #1, with Loki's disposition here more easy to accept that trying to convince the reader that a god could be trapped inside a lead-lined tank.

Good grief! Was radioactive waste actually being disposed of in the ocean??

With the threat abated, and once Thor throws the reader a bone by making reference to the Onslaught crisis yet unable to recall any details, Cap makes his pitch to Thor to join the Avengers, though he doesn't swallow Thor's assertion that he's actually the god of Norse mythology. It's strange that Thor's first instinct isn't to return to Asgard, and, failing that, to investigate its disappearance... but that would spoil the dramatic double-page call to assemble that would have us waiting with bated breath for issue #2, eh?

But, are we filled with the same sense of thrill and excitement that hangs in the air when the Avengers in their prior series let this cry ring out? Have the people we've met here made us interested in what will happen in their next issue? Does the Vision, a former lab assistant, have any reason to want to be part of something like this? Do we look at Hawkeye and Hellcat, and think of them as part of the Avengers' ranks based on what we've seen of them? Are SHIELD's concerns with how popular the Avengers prove to be with the public the most important consideration in their backing of this team--and do the Avengers' marching orders take the place of their charter, which put their dedication and conviction above all else?

If, for the first time, the cry of "Avengers Assemble!" sounded hollow to you, such questions are food for thought.

Heroes Reborn: The Avengers #1

Story and Edits: Rob Liefeld
Script: Jim Valentino
Pencils: Chap Yaep (pgs. 1-19) and Rob Liefeld (pgs. 20-41)
Inks: Jon Sibal and Marlo Alouiza
Letterer: Steve Dutro

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