Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Earth's Mishandled Heroes

Marvel 100th Anniversary Issues


The Avengers #100

Before issue #100, it's fair to say that The Avengers hit its pinnacle with the events of the Kree-Skrull War. It was always curious to me why the climax of that conflict wasn't planned for the 100th issue, instead of being brought to an end just three issues before. I mean, if there was ever an event where all hands were needed on the Avengers' deck, it would have been when they had to hurl themselves into a star-spanning war between two aggressive species--so there would have been sufficient reason for the marquee value of all the Avengers being present, as well as the 100th issue being the final wrap-up to a story which spanned at least eight issues prior.

Yet, instead, it's a plot by the Olympian god of war, Ares, to invade Asgard by way of Earth that the Black Knight decides merits drawing all the Avengers together to thwart. In point of fact, Earth didn't need to be a factor at all--except that it's a reason to involve the Avengers in a story that otherwise would clearly have been a Thor show. Ares' only purpose in masquerading as the "Mr. Tallon" character in the prior story was to incite atomic warfare in order to open a gateway to Asgard; but once that failed, it was clear that Ares had other options for getting into Asgard. So why follow through with sending Olympian forces to Earth later? Because not doing so would have meant not needing so many Avengers to guard Earth while other Avengers invaded Olympus to rescue Hercules--who, by the way, was hurled to Earth by Ares, and then later inexplicably retrieved. (Why? You guessed it: for the story to involve the Avengers.)

And just what were those Olympian legions of Ares supposed to do, once they'd descended from their portal over Great Britain? Their only reason for being there, of course, was to be met and battled by the Avengers. What a patched-together mess, just to involve three "worlds" (Earth, Asgard, and Olympus) in order to up the stakes for the Avengers anniversary issue.

Nor could the Avengers themselves spike our interest in this story. The main action in the story took place in Olympus, where only five Avengers were present--Thor, the Vision, Iron Man, the Black Knight, and the Hulk. So that left just seven Avengers to repel Ares' "invasion force" on Earth, a battle which took up--I kid you not--one page of the issue if you add up the panels. Surely, then, the battle in Olympus must have been something to see, right? Only if you wanted to see Thor and the Black Knight. Iron Man got taken out pretty early, ambushed with one zap from a Centaur's weapon. The Vision was taken out early by the Enchantress, deflecting a deadly spell meant for Thor. And the Hulk? Wandering off early, and then entranced by music from a group of satyrs. Yes, folks, this incredible battle will be talked about by Avengers fans for years to come.

The artwork on this three-part story was done by Barry Smith, whose work here is in striking contrast to his earlier work on The Avengers in issues 66-67 (inked by George Klein). I only make the distinction because those earlier issues show an artist who is very much keyed into the pacing and look of The Avengers. The panels are bold, powerful, with lifelife representations of all characters. Yet in this story, the Avengers are frail, puppet-like, losing much of the realistic look and movement present in Smith's prior stint. It's every artist's prerogative to change his or her style over time, of course--but though some of the pages are truly nice work in his more recent style, on the whole it doesn't mesh well with the vibrant and dynamic look of a typical Avengers story. And with expectations high with the entire roster of Avengers showing up for this story, Smith picks a hell of a time to alter the book's look.

The only scene of Smith's in this story that I found myself able to appreciate was the one where the Avengers assemble together after arriving at the Black Knight's castle--a very unique scene, when you think about it. Because while there have been many collective group shots of the Avengers, either in action or in a "pinup" shot, to my knowledge this anniversary issue contained the first such rendering that had almost the entire team (Hercules was absent, having been abducted) in a completely casual pose:

(Originally a two-page spread, which took some doing to merge into one, let me tell you.)

In fact, the opening pages of the issue were drawn so splendidly that the rest of the issue was truly a let-down in this regard. Add to this the fact that a majority of the characters were either disregarded to an extent or removed from the action entirely, and you have a first anniversary issue of The Avengers which fails to fulfill its real (if informal) purpose: a celebratory milestone of the title, and a representation and reminder of why each of these characters is an Avenger. Instead, only lip service is paid to both title and characters. That being the case, if we were to wonder how readers received this 100th issue of one of Marvel's flagship comics, perhaps we should heed the advice of Thor in the final panel of the issue: "Don't ask."

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