Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Coming Of The Swordsman!

Welcome to Swordsman Week here at the PPC!  Throughout this week we'll take a sharp-edged, long-overdue retrospective look at the man who would become known (if primarily through his own boasting) as "The Best Blade Artist in the World." Of all the characters that Stan Lee breathed life into, the Swordsman remains in the top five of the characters I'd most like to get Lee's thoughts on in terms of how the character came to mind for him and why the Swordsman's development was so exhaustive.

Unlike many of Lee's antagonists who were given little more than the basics as far as a backstory and motivations, the Swordsman came with a well-thought-out profile and received a virtual showcase appearance in The Avengers that made one wonder if there wasn't a series of his own in store for him. He'd been an adventurer for some time, as well as persona non grata in several countries; he'd had a past with the man who would later become Hawkeye, whom he'd taken on as his protégé in their old carnival days; his self-confidence in his abilities as an opponent mixed with his arrogance; and, in what might have been his ultimate moment of daring, he made a play for Avengers membership. All of this, and more, from a man whose only weapon of both offense and defense was a sword and his skill with using it. But, why would this man--someone on the wrong side of the law and not regretting that choice--burst onto the comics scene by petitioning to become an Avenger? The answer may surprise you.

In his two-part introductory tale in the pages of The Avengers, the Swordsman makes quite an impression on the reader; and, just two issues into a shake-up of the Avengers roster which completely changed the team's makeup into a core membership which emphasized teamwork over sheer power, the Swordsman managed to impress this nascent Avengers team, as well. With his own skill and guile, the Swordsman not only managed to hold the Avengers at bay, but also made them battle for every inch of ground they wished to gain against him. The Swordsman, it would appear, was no afterthought of Lee's, but rather a character who would turn out to be one the Avengers' most classic foes. This wouldn't be the Swordsman's baptism of fire, by a long shot--but it would arguably turn out to be that of the Avengers.

And give this man credit: Even on the issue's cover, he seems to be fighting for top billing.

While it's obvious that Don Heck, artist for the story, has rendered the cover's character insets, it appears that Jack Kirby was tapped to draw the Swordsman himself--a curious division of work, since Kirby would go on to do full covers for the mag for several more months. Yet there are some noteworthy differences between Heck's interior panels with the Swordsman and the character as depicted here. At first glance, one of those differences would be Kirby's version of the Swordsman's cowl, as Heck removes the side ridges while adding a more distinctive shark's fin. But Kirby seems to also have intended for the Swordsman to be armed with two swords. When it came time to pencil the story, perhaps it was felt that two scabbards would limit the character's agility in battle; in addition, there would be little point in the Swordsman being disarmed even temporarily, when he could simply reach to his side and unsheath another.  (Heck would eventually redesign the second scabbard for a stiletto.)

As for the story's opening, we move directly to the Swordsman's gambit to join the Avengers, though his reason for doing so falls far short of adding his sword to the fight for justice:

You almost have to shake your head in disbelief at the Swordsman's stretch of logic here--apparently intending to continue operating covertly as a criminal for self-gain, while shielded from suspicion due to his possession of an Avengers I.D. In these early panels, there's no reason for us to sympathize with (and certainly no reason to admire) this character; but as the story continues, it's amazing how Lee will manage to change our minds about that.

As we'll see in these and other scenes, the Swordsman is hardly lacking in ego; so as he breaks into Avengers headquarters, it seems fitting that he encounters the one Avenger whose confidence in dealing with and even humiliating his opponents rivals his own. Unfortunately, the one important difference between them is Quicksilver's overconfidence.

It then falls to Wanda to handle the Swordsman. We immediately see that, when it comes to battling women, the Swordsman's arrogance has the effect of lowering his guard, which he would likely quickly compensate for as soon as Wanda engaged him; but, as she points out, her power doesn't allow him the time he needs to plan.

With Captain America's arrival on the scene, the Avengers manage to get a brief run-down on their opponent. But before things can go further, the Swordsman recovers and makes a bid for escape, and, astonishingly, makes a clean getaway.

If you look at this exercise another way, the Swordsman has, in effect, conducted a successful raid on Avengers headquarters, if falling short of his original intent. The Avengers may have come out of the incident with their reputation intact; but it's the Swordsman who's left them in disarray and is now at large. That's no small achievement for the first six pages of this issue.

When Hawkeye returns, he's of course briefed on the incident, and we learn that he and the Swordsman have a history together, one most distasteful to the archer.

There's no doubt that the Swordsman has become more seasoned in his travels around the world, living a chosen life of a thief and a mercenary; and with the background that Hawkeye divulges of the man, there doesn't appear to be anything to redeem him. As this story progresses, and the Swordsman pursues his agenda with the Avengers, it will become even more difficult to become interested in the Swordsman beyond the fact that he's able to cause the Avengers such trouble and proves to be so daunting to them. Here, not knowing anything of the man (and the Avenger) the Swordsman will one day become, we don't have the luxury of thinking otherwise.

Take, for instance, his next move, when a letter falls into his lap (through, as only Lee could contrive it, one of the most unlikely sequence of events you're likely to witness involving not only agents of Hydra but small-time New York hoods) that gives the Swordsman information concerning Steve Rogers' desire to work with Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D.:

It's hard to find fault with Pietro's annoyance with Steve being a "part-time Avenger"; after all, aside from the fact that Cap leads this team, how is he supposed to answer an Avengers alert if he's involved in a S.H.I.E.L.D. mission? And to extend the thought, would Nick Fury want a part-time agent?

Regardless, Cap snaps at the bait, and prepares to walk right into the Swordsman's trap. Something the Avengers get wind of only through another unlikely event, where Hawkeye is out on patrol and nabs the same hood who turned over Cap's letter to the Swordsman.

It's the scene which follows, however, which turns this issue on its ear: Captain America vs. the Swordsman, in a battle between two experienced fighters who give no quarter and brawl to the finish. It's a fight which raises the Swordsman's profile considerably, even before the dust settles. Artist Don Heck, who admittedly has his moments, makes the battle as action-packed as you would expect it to be, with the advantage see-sawing between one man and the other; but it's also compelling, in the sense that the Swordsman more than holds his own with the experienced, savvy fighter we know Cap to be, fiercely blunting Cap's offensive strikes and attacking in equal measure when another man might think he's bitten off more than he can chew.

But the Swordsman also knows the value of regaining the initiative, changing strategy and creating opportunity for himself. The same, it must be pointed out, has also held true for Cap; but though each of these men is fighting to win here, and each is prepared to capitalize on any opportunity that will give them the edge, it's almost gratifying to discover which one of them walks away from this fight with the other hoisted over his shoulder.

Lee is quick to attribute the Swordsman's victory to luck--but you and I saw this fight panel by panel, and there's no question that the Swordsman made his own luck here, and that, in the end, he won this fight fair and square. And it can't help but raise the bar as to how the story proceeds from here.

Yet Lee also makes an interesting choice here with the Swordsman, in that the man doesn't savor his victory and haughtily declare his triumph to the air as would the Mandarin, or the Grim Reaper, or any other garden-variety villain. To the Swordsman, Cap is down and unconscious, which was the goal of this struggle; and now that it's over, the Swordsman reacts with a calm that seems to indicate that, for him, it's time to move on to other business. Baiting Cap to this trap, after all, was a means to an end for the Swordsman--and as far as his pending membership with the Avengers, he now moves from a demonstration approach to extortion.

It's a dramatic ending that can't help but electrify the book's current readership, who might well have been giving some thought to jumping ship with the departure of Thor, Iron Man, and the others, but who are now likely riveted because of this cliffhanger--one that has a member of the original Avengers no longer hanging but actually plummeting helplessly to his death.

The nail-biting conclusion, as the Avengers (what's left of them) cry:

The Avengers #19

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Don Heck
Inks: Dick Ayers
Letterer: Artie Simek

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