Thursday, October 11, 2012

Never Judge A Book By Its Cover

If I had only one picture to give you to summarize the events of the classic Avengers Annual #2, this one would probably do it:

It doesn't appear until about midway through the issue, since it speaks volumes about where things stand. The current Avengers team, pitted against the original Avengers due to manipulation of the time stream by the Scarlet Centurion--a villain you might know better as the Pharaoh Rama-Tut. The Pharaoh adopted the Centurion identity after inadvertently landing in the 20th century on his way back to the future (a future where he would become Kang the Conqueror)--and then set about conquering the Earth by manipulating the original Avengers into defeating and incarcerating every super being on the planet.

Once the original Avengers had fulfilled their task, and doubting his ability to match this particular team's power, the Centurion planned to use the later Avengers team against them (knowing Captain America's team might be able to better find their weaknesses). Once that was done, the Centurion would then have the advantage against an Avengers team of lesser power, lower the boom on them, and afterward conquer a planet now completely devoid of any super-powered threat to him.

As you can probably guess, the Centurion's plan was foiled, underestimating the resourcefulness of the newer team. You may also be wondering why, when the Centurion returned as Kang to battle the original team in Avengers #8, there was no reference to his earlier conflict with them as the Centurion. You can thank our interfering friend, the Watcher, for that--after the Centurion was dispatched, the Watcher erased the memory of the conflict from both the Centurion and the Avengers. His reasons for doing so (by writer Roy Thomas) were poetic and vague, and lame:

The real reason for his actions, of course, being to plug the hole in continuity that Avengers #8 never did, or could, resolve.

This was a fine story for an annual, but it continued an annoying pattern from the first annual. As to what that might be, I'll again let a graphic represent it for you:

There's no doubt that the fine art of John Buscema on these two covers sells each of these annuals. Add to the fact that you've got a giant Avengers story to go along with that art, and what do you do? Being the little kid you are, and still being ignorant of the ways of marketing (particularly in the late 1960s), you snatch it from the rack and race home with it. Only to open it up and find out that all of the interior art is done by someone else. And not just any someone--the art is by Don Heck, who has drawn a ton of Marvel work but whose work is nevertheless regarded as some of the most dull and unexciting in the industry. (Though giving credit where credit is due, there have certainly been exceptions.) And in the second annual, he's assisted by artist Werner Roth, who has drawn both Daredevil and X-Men but is also lacking in the dynamic artwork category. Both men are fine artists who bring something unique to the table--but for me they join the ranks of artists like Ross Andru, Bob Brown, Jim Mooney, et al., each of whom needs an inker suited to polish their work. In neither of these annuals does that turn out to be the case.

And if my opinion on the subject isn't enough for you, how telling is it that Buscema is chosen to do the cover art for both issues, instead of Heck?

As to why Marvel didn't simply assign the book's art to Buscema, that's probably easy enough to answer. At the time of the second annual, Buscema had a full plate--he was the regular artist on Sub-Mariner, Avengers, and the new large-format Silver Surfer. That's a lot of pages to draw within the span of just four weeks.

He did, however, turn in this splendid double-page spread of the team for the annual:

As for Heck and Roth, they provide a nice double page of their own:
a montage of the original Avengers dispatching the world's villains.

I like the nice touch of Iron Man diffusing one of his repulsors to melt the Black Knight's lance. Even though I have no idea why his fingers, getting in the path of the beam, were somehow unaffected.  (I guess the Black Knight is no Tony Stark in terms of armor durability.)  And how great is it to see Giant-Man battling in his original (but briefly worn) uniform?

The next three Avengers annuals shifted to reprints of earlier Avengers stories. It would be another eight years before an original story would appear in another annual. Heck actually returned to draw the regular Avengers book briefly in the early '70s, featuring conflicts with Magneto and the Lion God (as well as the introduction of Mantis). So these first two annuals, outside of his original run on the title, are in a way his swan song on the book. All things considered, they're good sendoffs for him--as well as a good look at both old and newer teams of Avengers in the same book. The first, uniting in common cause--the second, at each other's throats. The Scarlet Centurion's manipulation aside, that could well describe the Avengers in a nutshell.

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