Friday, May 26, 2017

As Honor Demands!

The cover to the 1982 Avengers Annual might give you the impression that the Avengers/Defenders war is kicking up all over again, nine years after the fact:

But this time, it's the star-spawned Nebulon and a mystery companion, rather than the dread Dormammu and Loki, who might be the ones manipulating the two teams for their own ends. But let's not get ahead of ourselves--because while there (again) might be some truth to that, there are other factors involved that make the situation more complex than two teams of heroes acting as pawns for those who have deceived them. In fact, as well as writer J.M. DeMatteis structures this story, it may take awhile for you to be certain of any villainous intent on the part of Nebulon and the female who will be introduced as Supernalia. DeMatteis has a habit of playing such a card close to his vest, and often giving the reader much more to think about than simply good vs. evil.

The story is also nicely rendered by penciler Al Milgrom, who often needs a strong inker to refine his work that showcases his otherwise good instincts at how a story plays out and the abilities of the various characters involved. Here, it's Jack Abel who does the lion's share of the inking, though the credit reads "Jack Abel and Crew." It would have been nice, as well as an extra perq for the Annual, if the issue had been supplemented with a listing of the additional inkers involved in the work; I found myself doing a lot of guessing as to who could have been supplying the finishes in some of the panels where Abel's touch was either missing or it appeared he was getting some assistance, and it might have been fun to go down a list of credits and see how well (or how wrong!) my guesswork panned out.

Since the cover renders moot any possibility of Nebulon being the surprise villain here, the story can safely open the curtain with him first thing, as he's being dressed down by a superior following a trial that laid bare his past transgressions on the planet Earth.

As we can see (and which has already been revealed in the prior instances depicted here), Nebulon's guise as the so-called "Celestial Man" hides his true nature as a member of the race of creatures such as the one present with him here. Stripped of half his power, Nebulon is given a choice of either being exiled to Earth in his humanoid body, or being executed--the latter option considered by his superiors to be by far the more honorable choice, yet a choice Nebulon strongly refuses. And so Nebulon's final judgment is decided.

At first, Nebulon reacts with rage, his first instinct being to take revenge against the Defenders for his fate; but almost immediately after embarking on that course of action, Nebulon realizes that he has only himself to blame, and teleports to the Himalayas to contemplate his situation in isolation. It's an important scene in the course of this story, though the reader won't yet realize it as such.

And speaking of the Himalayas, look who else has come to do a little thinking there.

(It's one of Milgrom's most majestic renderings of Thor, and easily one of my favorites.)

With Thor and Nebulon ending up in the same place and time by coincidence, it's easy to get the impression that the Himalayas absurdly cover only a small distance, instead of being a vast expanse of mountains extending roughly 1,500 miles (which Madame Medusa probably knows from experience). Regardless, Thor's curiosity gets the better of him, and he strikes up a conversation with this stranger--and by the time the tale is concluded, we learn how the Avengers are to be folded into this story. The Avengers--and one other.

Supernalia--whoever she is--doesn't look at all pleased, does she?
Care to take a guess as to which group she'll be headed to?

And speaking of the Defenders, they welcome back to their ranks the Valkyrie, who returns finally free of the human Barbara Norriss with whom the Enchantress joined her essence. As the Asgardian counterpart to Thor in this issue, Milgrom gives the Valkyrie equal attention in her own introduction to the story.

From here, we see a different scenario taking place with each super-group. In the case of the Avengers, Nebulon arrives at their H.Q. with Thor as his "sponsor," though presumably not in the sense of becoming a new Avenger (at least not so soon) but more as being offered the guidance of peers who can help to acclimate him to life on this world.

Before we hear Iron Man's reply, let's shift to the Defenders, where Supernalia is painting a different picture of Nebulon, though it becomes clear that only one of these aliens thus far has a hidden agenda.

Given the task that they must undertake, the Valkyrie thinks it wise to bring in the Silver Surfer on their mission, which Supernalia facilitates--and convinced that the fate of the world depends on their actions, the Defenders race to face both the Avengers and Nebulon, the former they now believe are acting under Nebulon's mental control.

That brings us back to the point where Iron Man is about to respond to the Avengers' discussion with Nebulon--only to discover that there are now others who insist on weighing in.

Up to this point, we have no reason to believe that Nebulon hasn't been sincere in his statements to the Avengers, nor does it seem that the Avengers have been subjected to the same deceit that Supernalia has practiced on the Defenders (assuming it is deceit--we aren't sure of that, either). But our doubts lean more toward the Defenders when it becomes clear who decides to start the fight that seems imminent.

You can well imagine the chaos that erupts in Avengers Mansion, with the Avengers themselves incredulous as to the Defenders' unfounded claims as well as their actions. But if we're now inclined to cast Supernalia as the guilty party who's up to no good, what villain would show profound sadness rather than satisfaction at this violent turn of events?

What is going on here?

It's a question neither group is willing to ponder in regard to either Nebulon or Supernalia--only with each other, as the Surfer's strike has only made a bad situation worse. It's to both groups' credit that they still attempt to defuse hostilities--but when Nebulon takes a hand and snarls out a challenge to the Defenders to take their best shot, Iron Man makes his own strike that buries the Defenders in rubble and allows the Avengers time to regroup elsewhere in order to make sense of all this.

"Elsewhere," in this case, being back to the Himalayas, courtesy of Nebulon. Unfortunately, Supernalia, monitoring everything that's taken place, provides the same method of transport for the Defenders, and it appears everyone is back where they started. With one exception: Nebulon learns at last just what--who--is behind the Defenders' actions against him.

As you might expect, tempers have reached the boiling point on both teams--the Avengers indignant at being thus treated by these misguided heroes, while the Defenders feel they're racing against time to stop the explosive devices which they've been told Nebulon has set. Finally, the gauntlet is thrown down with a final, angry warning from Thor to stand down--responded to in kind by the Valkyrie, who, like any Asgardian, bristles at the insinuation that the cause she fights for is any less just than her foe's, matching the challenger's bravado with her own while shouting down even the notion of surrender.

It's become clear in this story how well DeMatteis, who's had a distinguished run on The Defenders, has adapted and added to the style of interplay that the Avengers have come to be known for, and Thor in particular, not only in the scenes pictured here but in others present in this annual. Given the book's masthead, it's no surprise that DeMatteis and Milgrom offer the Avengers slightly more panel exposure than the Defenders--yet the Defenders are no token opposition group in this story, their brand no doubt enjoying the Surfer's presence in their ranks given the might of those they challenge. DeMatteis has also helped matters by keeping the focus off of Nebulon and Supernalia as long as possible--a decision that heightens the battle scenes between the two groups and draws more interest to their exchanges beyond a simple my-abilities-vs.-your-abilities display.

As for our two protagonists, both monitor the battle, but in curiously different ways. Nebulon simply stays on the sidelines, but it's clear something holds his interest; while Supernalia increases the strength of the mind-controlling waves her ship is emitting whenever she sees that her troops are having doubts, always doing so "for honor's sake."

The time is approaching when the full explanation of their dispute can no longer be put off, and that time is reached when the battle takes a turn for both sides. Thor temporarily disables the Valkyrie, but is shot down by the Surfer--who then falls when he and Iron Man exchange fire that takes them both out. At the same time, a mysterious weakness begins affecting everyone, with no discernible cause--until Captain America decides on the only way to bring the Beast to his senses. The scene also marks a turning point for Nebulon's conflict with Supernalia--though ultimately not in his favor, as his secret is revealed at last.

Nebulon has admittedly reverted to type, if reluctantly--while Supernalia has acted in accordance with her own code of honor, the same honor which Nebulon has discarded and which has driven Supernalia to conscript the Defenders. Their race conducts themselves much like the Watchers, in that they are sworn not to interfere with other cultures and species; but their sense of honor and infractions thereof have them treating their honor as a constant balancing act for which they must always be held accountable. It's only when the Beast convinces Supernalia to put a stop to Nebulon's actions that she seeks to strike her balance--one that won't fully be realized, for both herself and Nebulon, until the fateful moment that Cap redirects the strength-draining ennui beam only to discover that its effect will have fatal consequences on the aliens.

We can presume that with their deaths, the accounts of both Nebulon and Supernalia, as well as their family, are squared by their superiors on their homeworld--a scene that would have made for a perfunctory closing note indeed to this tale's woeful resolution.


The annual's cover also promises a look inside the Avengers' membership manual--and while it unfortunately takes only "a look inside," it does present for the first time the Avengers Charter and by-laws, covered elsewhere in the PPC. (I suppose a charter would be a nonstarter for the Defenders, eh?)

Avengers Annual #11

Script: J.M. DeMatteis
Pencils: Al Milgrom
Inks: Jack Abel and Crew
Letterer: Janice Chiang

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