Friday, June 9, 2017

The Avengers You Shouldn't Have Heard Of


Following the fall of Normal Osborn from power, Steve Rogers may well have been the busiest man in the country--aside from Marvel's accountants, who were busily raking in the cash in the wake of a string of sales events that had finally run their course, which included Civil War (2006-07), World War Hulk (2007), Secret Invasion (2008), Dark Reign (2008-09), and Siege (2010). Rogers, accepting a request from the President, agreed to become the country's new "top cop," the fourth such appointee after Nick Fury, Tony Stark, and Osborn--but with the provision that he would be allowed to do things his way. Since we're talking about Steve Rogers, that may not be as alarmingly carte blanche as it sounds, as it might have coming from the likes of Osborn or even Stark; rather, he probably had a few conditions to be met, one of which likely came as no surprise to anyone--the repeal of the Superhuman Registration Act, legislation which he literally fought against and which had to be the first condition to be met.

And then Rogers went right to work, rebuilding the country's spirit and morale in a way that would once again inspire confidence in its heroes.



(The caption "top cop of the world" is overstating Rogers' position just a tad, since a presidential appointment wouldn't mean squat to other countries that would be aghast at the suggestion that Rogers has jurisdiction inside their borders. Not even S.H.I.E.L.D., which operated internationally, could claim that kind of extraterritoriality.)

But since Rogers is, in the end, a marketing tool of a real-life comics company, his initiatives included the establishment of several teams of Avengers whose members would have cross-appeal to readers across the Marvel spectrum.



But where would Rogers--a dynamic and essential character in his own right, and too valuable an asset to leave on the sidelines--end up in this big picture? Given how closely he holds the Avengers in his life, wouldn't he helm one of the teams? Not the main team, from the sound of it:



Taking his place there would be Maria Hill--while Victoria Hand would helm the New Avengers. I might have picked Rogers for the Academy, since he would be building and molding new Avengers members from the ground up, something he excels at--but Hank Pym, Justice, Quicksilver, Tigra, and Speedball (good lord, really?) were assigned to be its faculty.

But while apparently Rogers would have his hands in all sorts of matters that relate to law enforcement operations, he definitely had an Avengers team in mind for himself whenever he felt the need for that team to assemble--his own little special operations strike team, consisting of War Machine, Ant-Man, the Beast, the Valkyrie, Black Widow, Nova, Moon Knight, and Sharon Carter.



There are certain problems associated with the "secret Avengers" concept that would normally raise concerns as far as Rogers' association with them. The term "black ops" has often been used to describe them, which implies that whatever measures they use to conduct their operations aren't generally authorized, and that their missions are "off the books" and cannot be traced back to any government sanction (think the fictional Impossible Missions Force). There's also the group's unofficial, strictly commercial name itself--something of a misnomer since, to Rogers, this is simply a more specialized group of Avengers undertaking covert missions... at least, that's what we're left to assume. He certainly isn't forthcoming to Stark or any of the Avengers selected for the other groups about his plan to suit up with his new team; and a group discovered to be conducting its operations in secret would not only set off all sorts of alarms as far as Rogers walking down the same road as Stark during his period in power, but would also associate Rogers with a group that operates in the same way as the Illuminati, which Rogers harbored strong objections against.

All we really have to clarify Rogers' thinking on the matter are captions in the first issue which are presumably in his own words:



Picture the U.S. government signing off on something as indistinct as that. In addition, just two years prior, Cyclops established a similar modus operandi when he rebuilt X-Force, another pre-emptive covert team which became one of the reasons why the Beast decided to leave the X-Men, feeling like Cyclops had crossed one line too many. Apparently he feels Rogers won't be spilling the blood that Cyclops authorized X-Force to do.

As to the other members, Rogers has balanced them reasonably well, with a few question marks. Black Widow is a no-brainer, given her background in covert assignments and her ability as a trained fighter--while James Rhodes, as War Machine, is a former soldier who has experience with intelligence gathering and of course the Iron Man armor. The Valkyrie brings to the table Asgardian strength and stamina; Nova, his cosmic frame of reference; the Beast, his scientific acumen. Moon Knight is a curious choice, even though he also specializes in covert operations--but he appears to have misgivings about formally joining a team environment.



Former SHIELD member Eric O'Grady is a virtual rookie in this group, his duties having been minor with the espionage agency--yet Rogers no doubt realizes that the Ant-Man would be an indispensable asset to the assignments these Avengers would undertake. Obviously Rogers feels he needs to use a firm approach with O'Grady, if his rather curt pitch to him is any indication.



And aside from her personal connection to Rogers, Sharon brings her SHIELD training and experience in the field, though her role appears to be mostly as a base contact and reserve agent.



The team's first mission--to another planet, no less--comes about after a raid on a Roxxon Oil facility uncovers a serpent crown, though the Valkyrie understandably has some settling-in to do as far as being a field agent.





Separately, Ant-Man and Moon Knight have invaded the company's corporate headquarters in order to hack its database, which leads to a connection to a Roxxon mineral digging operation on Mars--one that was mysteriously shut down at around the same time news of the serpent crown had become known. Rogers then sends Nova to check out the Mars site; but the site isn't so abandoned after all, with Nova fired on and forced to tunnel his way into what turns out to be an ancient cavern which contains (you guessed it) another serpent crown. Subsequently, the team loses all contact with Nova--and their mission now takes them to Mars to investigate and, in all likelihood, rescue.

The Avengers find a number of things on arrival. Signs that this digging operation was geared toward something much more substantive than minerals; skeletons of former workers, lying in what appears to be an area where another crown might have resided; recent footprints; and an armed group of men whose minds appear to be controlled, leaving the Avengers no outlet for interrogation once they're dispatched. Moving outside, they split up to investigate two other possible digging sites, while a third group continues to search for Nova.





Ant-Man disappears, having fallen through a transport vortex that brings him to a Texas facility back on Earth which serves as a staging area for those who are after the serpent crown(s); while elsewhere, Rogers and the Beast discover Nova's helmet lying a few feet from where he'd found the crown located, and are joined by an "Archon," a construct charged with preventing the serpent crowns from being taken and misused.




As to Nova's present whereabouts, Valkyrie, the Widow, and Moon Knight discover Nova at a second digging site, crackling with power and supervising other controlled workers--and a violent encounter erupts where all three Avengers are taken out by Nova. It beats me why Nova needs to rely on manpower to dig; even without wearing the serpent crown, he's demonstrated he has more than enough power to do the work himself.



Back on Earth, Ant-Man makes contact with Sharon and informs her of his status, as well as the fact that a suicide squad has been dispatched to return to Mars and take out the Avengers. And despite the lack of faith that both Rogers and Rhodey have in Ant-Man's ability to handle himself, the Avengers' smallest member succeeds in saving them all, and spectacularly so.





Meanwhile, Rogers has used Nova's helmet to take on the Nova power himself in an effort to stop the controlled Avenger while hopefully not harming him. Rogers makes little to no progress--until the destruction of the vortex-link to Earth, which allows Rogers to prevail and seize the crown. Nova then returns to himself, and the Archon takes custody of the serpent crown.

A mission to Mars (Mars, mind you) seems like an unnecessary diversion for a brand new group that makes such a point of putting it out there that they specialize in "stealth tactics and preemptive intervention," to say nothing of "stop[ping] mankind from destroying itself." A Mars mission that results in a nuclear detonation and a Roxxon operation gone south is about as far from covert as you can get, nor have the Avengers discovered and tackled this threat before it became a problem. Yet the adventure did allow the book to showcase the abilities of these operatives and hopefully ignite interest in seeing their further exploits. Maybe there would be more emphasis on a few of those stealth tactics as the book settled in.  From the reader's point of view, it looked like the stealth prize went to those mind-controlled workers who ambushed the Avengers on arrival.

Secret Avengers would have a successful run of nearly three years before being relaunched in 2013 with a new focus on SHIELD-driven assignments under the direction of Hill--by which time Rogers has returned to being Captain America and stepped down from heading the team, with Hawkeye taking his place. Needless to say, the book is different from the standard Avengers fare, attracting writers such as Ed Brubaker and Warren Ellis, whose credentials need no raves from yours truly.

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