Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Matter of Life Or Death


There are times when I think it would have been cool to work in the Marvel offices during the late '60s, if only to glimpse the occasional looks of pride a writer and artist team on a book likely exchanged when finishing a truly exceptional piece of work and getting that issue hot off the press, holding it in their hands for the first time and seeing the finished product. Such times must have been gratifying--the creative rush that hits at that moment and makes it clear to them why they got into this business in the first place. I can only imagine such a moment was experienced by Roy Thomas, Sal Buscema, Sam Grainger, et al. after completion of the three-part story running through Avengers #s 69-71--not necessarily a grand epic by today's terms, but a good, solid story and a damn fine piece of work all around.

The Avengers are usually at their best in high stakes situations, though it's understandable you wouldn't want a steady diet of such stories. Yet around this time, the tone of Avengers stories would be cranked up to have the team facing off against a number of crises which would necessitate all hands being on board to meet the threats. This particular story comes on the heels of a face-off with Ultron that threatened nuclear holocaust and was entitled, "...And We Battle For The Earth!", so the Avengers immediately go out of the fire and into the frying pan, so to speak, in a conflict involving Kang the Conqueror, the alien Grandmaster, and a bizarre contest that threatened the destruction of the Earth in 4000 A.D. But though Kang doesn't exactly come up short in the maniacal or ruthless departments, he's no Ultron--in the sense that Kang can offer more fascinating interaction with the Avengers, if disdainfully.

And in that spirit, this story puts the shoe on the other foot in terms of Kang being the one to issue ultimatums or threats. For while in anguish over the state of Ravonna, a princess he fell in love with but who hovers between life and death, Kang suddenly finds his own Earth threatened by the Grandmaster, who offers him a deadly but irresistible bargain:




And so Kang acts, perhaps more for Ravonna's sake than that of a shell of an Earth which he rules--and to that end, he has his creation, the Growing Man, kidnap Tony Stark from hospital care in order to lure the Avengers to his own time and convince them to be his allies. Thomas drops the ball a bit in this overture to his story, as the incident with the Growing Man seems more for the sake of establishing a tie-in to Iron Man #19. Kang could simply have transported the Avengers directly (as he did the Black Panther) without bothering with Stark, and with far less trouble or effort--not to mention avoiding putting the Avengers in a hostile and distrustful frame of mind toward him, which the Panther was forced to alleviate. Kang himself admits that Stark is a totally unnecessary element here and sends him back almost within the same breath--so in effect, Thomas has essentially spent half of the space allotted for this issue to plug events happening in another title.

However, ten pages is easy enough to overlook when you're getting so much in return--and both Thomas and Buscema deliver in that respect. For one thing, there's the frustration Kang is obviously bottling at having to summon enemies who have daunted him in past dealings and instead enlist them as allies in order to play this game with the Grandmaster. You can probably imagine the mood of a conqueror who's forced to comply with an intruder's terms:



And so the "game" proceeds, with the Grandmaster assembling (and even creating) suitable opponents to meet the forces of the Avengers, who have agreed to fight for the sake of this future Earth and even for Ravonna's. Yet there is one final player whose involvement neither the Avengers, nor Kang, nor even the Grandmaster expected--a player who unknowingly attempts to aid one of the Avengers in a scheduled battle of the game, but who doesn't realize that he's committing an infraction of rules he isn't even aware of. A potentially serious infraction, indeed:



Stuck in the past as he is, and realizing that his actions might have a direct effect on the fate of the world, the Black Knight attempts to gather the facts of the mysterious game to which the Grandmaster alludes, by lighting the mystic brazier in Garrett Castle which summons the apparition of his ancestor, the first Black Knight:



Sir Percy explains the four contests in which Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, and Goliath fought the Grandmaster's "Squadron Sinister"--contests which the Avengers were poised to win, until the Knight's interference in Goliath's battle:



The Knight also learns the reasons why Kang accepted the Grandmaster's challenge--and with the original contest voided, he also learns of the subsequent contest taking shape, with other Avengers facing off against a new team of foes, set in the 1940s:



Knowing he must reach the future in order to help, the Knight discovers Sir Percy has placed him in astral contact with his sword (which was transported back with Goliath), and so he wills himself to traverse the centuries:




And while the Knight works to free the captive Avengers, in the past we're treated to Thomas's first steps towards forming the core membership of what would later become the Invaders--a trio of high-profile World War II characters he seems intent on teaming together:




The trio of Cap, the Torch, and the Sub-Mariner, all fighters in the war, was a more likely group to join in common cause than other groups of characters that Thomas would feel compelled to merge into unlikely teams, such as his attempts with the so-called Titans Three and, later, the Defenders. And in this case, having the excuse of the Grandmaster's game, the battle gives us an exciting look at an intriguing partnership and alliance, as well as another glint apparently taking shape in Thomas's eye--the connection between the original Human Torch and the Vision:



And it's in fact the Vision's abilities that allow this team of Avengers to quickly incapacitate their foes. Which means that, for Kang, he can both revel in his defeat of the Grandmaster, as well as find himself on the verge of restoring Ravonna to life. But it's the Grandmaster's ponderings at that moment that allow Thomas to set the tone for what would be the true endgame of this story:



For the Grandmaster had promised Kang the power of life and death were he the victor in the game--yet what Kang now discovers is that he must choose between the two concepts (a technicality which wasn't present in the Grandmaster's original offer, but I suppose I'm splitting hairs). And that choice is made more difficult than it otherwise might be--as the Avengers, freed by the Black Knight, burst in to confront Kang, and his pride forces him to forget his reason for accepting the Grandmaster's offer in the first place:



The Avengers, for their part, realize their danger, as well as the near-hopelessness of their chances, but they attack nonetheless. For all the good it does them:




But it's the Black Knight again who proves to be an unexpected asset to the team, taking out Kang despite his near-ultimate power--an accomplishment which the Grandmaster explains:



Despite Kang's circumstances, the tale ends on good tidings, at least as far as the Avengers are concerned. Once the Grandmaster returns the team to their own time, the Black Knight is made an Avenger on the spot, though mostly on inactive/reserve status since his home is in England. And as Yellowjacket notes, everyone is in good shape--particularly, I must point out, the Wasp, who had no substantive contribution to the crisis whatsoever (unless you count unknowingly initiating the Growing Man's rampage).

Yet the quibbles I have aside, these three issues comprise a first-rate comic book story, and an Avengers classic. Sal Buscema turns in amazing work on a variety of characters and scenes (such as this beautiful double-page spread of Kang's throne room), and would go on to pencil a number of Avengers issues. And Thomas certainly deserves his accolades, as packed as this story was with points of interest, new characters, one of the Avengers' deadliest (and certainly persistent) villains, groundwork laid for future concepts, and a new Avenger, as well. And where modern-day epics take an average of twelve issues to complete their respective stories, Thomas gets all of this done in three, and makes it arguably twice as entertaining--and all taking place within the book's regular run.  It was a time when the "House of Ideas" was worthy of the name.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100 percent. I caught this stuff mostly in reprints, but I really loved it because it was classic Marvel Comics all the way. Roy Thomas threw everything into the story including the kitchen sink, and this was Sal Buscema at his best. What a great run on a great title. It was this kind of stuff that made me a fiend for Marvel comics when I was a kid.

Anonymous said...

On another note...the Squadron Sinister!!! I always dug those guys. We all know who those characters were based on...both companies had some fun in making villainous counterparts based on the main characters of their competitors. Their might be a blog in there somewhere...

Matt Celis said...

Well, "by today's terms" it's only a grand epic if you have some beloved characters raped and/or murdered and spread it across at least a dozen issues, preferably with crossovers in titles that aren't selling well on their own...

These were great days for comics!

HumanDrillBit said...

I concur with the other commentators. This was by far some of Sal Buscema's best artwork. It really was A+ IMO.

I also thought the Squadron Sinister was a very entertaining creation. Each member was classic!

Comicsfan said...

I couldn't agree more that Buscema turned in first-rate work here--and that this story is a great example of why we enjoyed comics so much in the Silver and early Bronze periods. Marvel was truly "on the move," and it was a great ride.

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