Friday, November 28, 2014

Gerry Conway's Brief Stop on The Avengers

Along with pitching in on many of Marvel's stories in a wide range of books, writer Gerry Conway would also distinguish his career at the company by devoting more extensive time to Marvel's flagship titles as their regular scripter. On Amazing Spider-Man, for instance, he had a three-year run spanning almost forty issues--while his stint on Mighty Thor lasted almost four years, with forty-five issues. His stay on Fantastic Four would last only a year and a half, with about twenty issues--though still allowing him time to leave his distinctive mark on the series and to take the team in interesting directions. Which leaves only The Avengers, which he picked up in late 1976 and stayed with for...

...only seven issues.

At the time, readers could only speculate as to why Conway left the book after such a brief time on it.  Conway was also in the Editor position at the time, having returned to Marvel after writing for DC, so writing The Avengers could have been too much to have on his plate; or he might simply have not found the group to be his cup of tea; or he might have just been filling in until the title's next writer, Jim Shooter, could get up to speed on it (at which time Archie Goodwin would also take over the Editor post). As it happened, though, Conway would decide to leave in order to return to writing for DC, regarding his brief return to Marvel as a poor fit with the company's new direction.

The book itself presented Conway with a hectic set of circumstances to sort out.  For the past six months, the stories in The Avengers had been either out-of-continuity fill-ins or reprints--and the ship was only righted when Conway and Shooter pitched in along with the title's outgoing writer, Steve Englehart, to finish off Englehart's new Avengers lineup story, and Conway and artist George Perez then plotted the next six issues where Conway would take over as scripter. The whole mess prompted an apology statement to readers in issue #151 which took up the bulk of that issue's letters page.

As for Conway's brief tenure on the book, we'll never know what the Avengers might have looked like, in lineup or character, had he extended his stay for two or three years (or even longer--I mean, how do you not want to hold the reins for awhile on a book like The Avengers?)--but consider this post at least a digest of his work there, as we take a look at the direction he was going in as well as some of the more memorable scenes which he and Perez (as well as, briefly, John and Sal Buscema) provided.

Conway only scripted a few of the pages of Englehart's last issue--but the tail end of that story is a good place to start, as it leaves us with a brand-new Avengers lineup, as well as a new chilling mystery:

Not a bad start for Conway--the return of Wonder Man! But--alive, or dead??

The appearance of Wonder Man opens the door for Conway's reassessment of the Vision as his own person. It's never really been explained as to the meaning of the Vision's mind having the same "brain patterns" of Wonder Man which were stored after his death. Wonder Man still had a "spark of life" by the time Hank Pym used a device in his lab to preserve those patterns--and the Vision noted that his own "brain" is really just "a maze of printed circuits" of Wonder Man's mind, "the amnesiac brain patterns of a murdered man." What does all that mean? That Pym could have mapped out the exact day-to-day functionality of Simon Williams' thoughts--when it would be reasonable to assume that Williams was brain-dead (or so close to it that the difference would be negligible) by the time Pym went to work on him?

As the Vision notes, he doesn't possess Wonder Man's memories--but for Conway, the rest is enough on which to base a conflict:

As for Wanda, Conway begins to give particular attention to her, expanding on her recent tutelage by Agatha Harkness. It was never my impression that Harkness did more for Wanda than to allow her to discover new channels by which to strengthen her access to her power--but, clearly, Conway wishes to revisit Englehart's original notion that her name reflect a closer association with the occult. And so we see her doing things such as deciphering clues from visions:

Or conducting interrogations though witchcraft:

And of course witches generally have the power of flight, in one way or another:

At this point, Conway introduces a plot involving the Living Laser and the Serpent Crown, which would also involve a renegade army general as well as what was believed at the time to be Wanda's father--Bob Frank, the Whizzer, whom the Laser would cause to hallucinate and attack the Avengers:

The story would lead into the Avengers Annual*, where the Whizzer and the Avengers would encounter once again Frank's irradiated son, "Nuklo":

(*The story was originally advertised to appear in Giant-Size Avengers #6, though that series would come to an end with #5.)

It's a fine "king-size" story by Conway, which allows Wonder Man to throw off his sluggish state as well as his possession by the Laser, and finally regroup with the Avengers:

Meanwhile, the rest of the Avengers become involved in a plot involving the Sub-Mariner, Attuma, and Doctor Doom, which begins when the Vision disposes of the Serpent Crown in the ocean but is then captured by the undersea warlord:

Attuma has also captured a device by human scientists which stimulates cell growth, and has used it to create a powerful new foe for the Avengers--Tyrak, who infiltrates Avengers Mansion in the guise of the Inhuman, Triton, but slips up on the details a bit:

The cell stimulator has given Tyrak immense strength, enough to completely overwhelm the Avengers--but not before Conway gives us some cool battle moments:

Attuma then attaches enslavement devices to the Avengers, and sends them to attack Namor at Hydrobase. But instead of Namor, they encounter Dr. Doom, who proceeds to best them all. Eventually, the Vision convinces Doom they have a common foe in Attuma, and Doom, out of self-interest (what else?), agrees to release the team from Attuma's devices. Namor, in the interim, has gotten word of Attuma's plans and returns to confront him:

But the Beast, the Whizzer, and Wonder Man have returned to help the rest of the team, and have run into Attuma first. And when Wonder Man's attack results in Attuma's near-defeat, the warlord spots Namor's approach and shouts to his Avenger "allies" to attack the sea prince, instructions which Namor misinterprets:

It's a great series of scenes with Wonder Man growing into his place with the Avengers, and Conway isn't through with him yet. Eventually, the fight is again taken to Attuma, but not before he's beefed up his bruiser, Tyrak, even more with the stimulator. This final part of the story is scripted by Shooter, who does a good job (along with artist Sal Buscema) with wrapping things up with everyone:

Conway would script one last issue, involving the Black Knight (while still trapped in his prison of stone) being sent against the Avengers, with the Vision apparently the only member of the group who can effectively battle a stone attacker. (Conway only briefly served as writer on Iron Man, which, after seeing how ineffective Conway shows Iron Man to be against mere stone, may be a good thing in hindsight.)  Shooter then takes the reins to the book, and begins an eventful run with the team.

From these issues, we can perhaps assume that Conway's approach to the Avengers might have been to maintain the status quo with the membership, while focusing on the characters in depth--which Shooter excelled at as well, though he would later bring Thor back into the group. The Avengers would have been quite a project for Conway, a sizable group of heroes which perhaps demands more character interaction than the touches here and there that Conway tends to put in place but avoids dwelling on.  In this short grouping of issues, he seems to be taking a leaf from Roy Thomas's book, by giving more focus to the more overlooked characters of the Scarlet Witch, the Beast, and the Vision, while bookending them with the original members who contribute mostly their direction and observations--in contrast to Shooter, who would deal everyone in and give each a generous amount of development.  Regardless, Conway's contribution would turn out to be an enticing look at what he might have brought to the Avengers' table.


Anonymous said...

There's a lot here to like. Beautiful art, and complicated character-driven stories with a whole lotta action. I enjoyed this period. mp

Dave S said...

I'm a huge admirer of Sal Buscema, and it's great to see the Sal Buscema Punch from Wonder Man and the Vision! Such an effective panel, and it always makes me smile to see it!

dbutler16 said...

I enjoyed Conway's run, especially the Attuma story. It helps that he had great artists, though.