Monday, August 24, 2015

Stranger In A Strange Issue

An Avengers membership turnover issue is something of a special occasion for readers, providing a nice break between crises that allows us to "sit in" on an Avengers meeting as they uphold tradition and choose with care their next line-up. To say that the selection of a new Avengers line-up is a media event is an understatement, as not only the media but also the milling crowds are abuzz with anticipation at just who will step out and be announced as the new regular team of Avengers. But in the membership issue that was published in mid-1975, the now media-savvy Avengers deal in the media and take their search for new members to, of all places, the airwaves.

You can only wonder at what the rest of Thor's pitch statement sounded like. It seems an inevitable progression from the methods used by the original Avengers, who first attempted to handle the matter internally but went on to call a press conference--confirming Hawkeye's status as a new member and announcing that more applicants were being considered. Written by Steve Englehart, this issue follows the major event of two weddings overseen by the team--that of Mantis and an alien "Cotati" in the image of the dead Swordsman, as well as the joining of the Scarlet Witch and the Vision in matrimony, a double ceremony officiated by Immortus--finally bringing to a close the saga of the Celestial Madonna, whose revelation was heralded by a mysterious star appearing above Avengers Mansion. With the two happy couples now withdrawn from the book, at least for the time being, the rest of team returns to their headquarters to turn to the matter of refreshing their ranks with new members--and it turns out to be one of the more unorthodox membership drives in the group's history.

Of course, nearly every Avengers line-up change has a measure of the unusual and/or the unexpected; but in the case of this particular issue, it reads, well, a little strangely. Part of the reason has to do with the informality of the membership proceedings, as opposed to other issues with the kind of grand theme and sense of responsibility we've come to expect; the other reason has to do with Englehart himself, who, in attempting to have the Avengers come across as more personable, with each other as well as to the reader, ends up sacrificing much of the aura of the Avengers' power and elite standing in the process.

In addition, artist George Tuska does a fair and adequate job on the issue, as part of a six-month assignment on The Avengers--but in his panels, he paints a rather bleak picture of the Avengers on their home ground, the spacious mix of upscale furnishings and state-of-the-art technology that's generally been the mark of Avengers Mansion instead very much absent. Nor is his minimalist style here restricted to the mansion. Take, for instance, the star heralding the Madonna, which in its first appearance by artist Sal Buscema was quite impressive:

...but which Tuska depicts in a manner which is nothing short of an embarrassment.

(On the bright side, doodlers everywhere were given hope that their aspirations of working at Marvel might be realized.)

Englehart's strange handling of this issue begins with a character whose own strangeness had already been established in the pages of Fantastic Four--Agatha Harkness, whose tutelage of the Scarlet Witch in the ways of true witchcraft has reached its end. She returns to the mansion with the others, presumably to pack her bags--but not before she reprimands Jarvis for a faux pas on his part.

But where is all of this coming from? This woman was a virtual recluse on Whisper Hill, in retirement until the FF came calling. Since when does Miss Harkness live vicariously through others? And why attach more meaning to Jarvis' harmless observation that what was intended?

But Englehart has even more odd ramblings for Miss Harkness:

What in the world is this woman talking about? It's clear that she's in part saying that, while her hopes for Wanda adapting her powers to function as a true witch didn't pan out, her training still did her some good; but what's all this drivel about giving Wanda "more than what [Miss Harkness] was prepared to receive"? And we can only assume that the reference to Wanda's "durability" translates to Wanda being able to bounce back from adversity or setbacks--but why would that frustrate Miss Harkness?

Soon enough, the conversation between Hawkeye, Thor, and Iron Man turns back to the pressing need for new membership, a need which Hawkeye doesn't think exists. (Has he done the math here? Once before the Avengers' membership only amounted to three active members, and they were barely able to function.) It seems as if Hawkeye is rejoining their ranks after deciding to go it alone for awhile--and Iron Man will have only himself to blame for opening the door to membership for the self-styled "goddess of the mind."

Thor then proposes that they extend full-time membership to inactive members--which yields unenthusiastic responses and, in one case, downright hostility:

Cell phones, of course, have made us accessible wherever we might happen to be; but even in 1975, the Avengers' communication center seemed to be able to reach Avengers that you wouldn't think would have easy access to a viewscreen. Especially in the suburbs, outside their house and standing near the street.

So the Wasp makes five active members--six, if you count her ball and chain which tags along with her, who, like Hawkeye, has recently been with the Defenders, and whose arrival provides Englehart with yet another peculiar scene.  This one involves Hawkeye firing on Yellowjacket due to nothing more than a perceived slight.

As was the case when the Avengers previously numbered only three, Yellowjacket is operating with a similar handicap to what he was then afflicted with as Goliath--his size-changing abilities severely impaired, in this case due to a microbe in his bloodstream that, if triggered, will once more trap him at ant-size.

But while Hank Pym wanting to rejoin the Avengers as Yellowjacket yet sporting no power but a holstered weapon would normally be a cause for concern, perhaps it's Englehart we should be concerned about--since he apparently believes it's perfectly natural for Hawkeye to go into the timestream to find a new Avenger, and for the other Avengers to think nothing of it.

As for everyone else, their media blitz has borne fruit, and they've gathered at Yankee Stadium to interview their applicants--or, rather, "applicant," since only one arrives. (The Avengers should have consulted the Frightful Four, who know a thing or two about getting enough applicants to fill up a building's lobby.) On the other hand, it looks like it's two-for-one night at the stadium.

Wow, it looks like Iron Man is stepping into it again. He seems to think that someone on another team can't be on two teams at once--words that will come back to bite him when he would invite Wolverine to be on the New Avengers, brushing aside the concern that Logan is a resident X-Man.

But in Hank McCoy's case, the point is moot, since Hank is no longer with the X-Men. Englehart has also loosened him up quite a bit, though his greeting has been snagged from an earlier issue of Sub-Mariner where a villain called the Gremlin made his entrance with it:

Who, in turn, was probably inspired by Froggy the Gremlin.

Before anyone can vote on the Beast for membership, however, the Stranger shows up and fills the whole area with hover-mines and gives the team six minutes to reach a lever across the field that will disarm them. And while you and I, just off the top of our heads, might be able to think of any number of ways that either Thor or Iron Man could reach that lever without having them actually blunder their way head-first through the minefield, Englehart nevertheless shows the prospective Avengers that having a few years of Avengers membership under your belt apparently makes you no more battle-savvy than the next person.

Yet the Beast's agility prevails where the others have failed, and the battle against the Stranger is joined. But this issue promises to end as *ahem* strangely as it began, when the Stranger is inexplicably driven off.

There's more to the Stranger than meets the eye here, as the following issue would reveal. At any rate, the new Avengers line-up has been chosen, more or less, and with little to no fanfare to speak of. The "less" would apply to YJ and the Wasp, who depart as quickly as they came due to the Wasp's injuries; while the "more" would be in the form of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, who return in time to help save YJ's life when his growing power runs amok.

I almost feel the need to make apologies for this post, as it probably reads to you as thrown together as this issue did to me--and I could hardly blame you for having that impression. It turned out to be a very frustrating post to put together--taking several days and more than a few rewrites of portions of it over and over, in an attempt to bring a sense of cohesiveness to it while trying like heck to understand what Englehart was going for here. There were several aspects to this story--and to the Avengers--that I couldn't bring myself to accept, no matter how adeptly Englehart attempted to get them to mesh. Perhaps I was just thrown by the fact that Englehart has turned in some very good work on The Avengers, and his treatment of the team here came across as disjointed and haphazard. Why have Yellowjacket yell in rage at the Stranger to appear and fight, and then do absolutely nothing while the rest of the team takes him on? Why rent a stadium as some sort of arena, when your past deliberations have been handled at a roundtable? Why would Hawkeye, who has seen many changes in the Avengers' ranks, suddenly be resistant to a proposal for new blood? If the Avengers we've come to know are indeed assembling here, you could have fooled me.

The Avengers #137

Script: Steve Englehart
Pencils: George Tuska
Inks: Vince Colletta
Letterer: Charlotte Jetter


George Chambers said...

I guess that Englehart was phoning it in to some extent, after the completion of his Mantis Saga magnum opus - but I was tickled pink at the way he took the piss out of Don McGregor's writing style in the T'Challa cameo.

Anonymous said...

That's why Panther was talking like that?! I'm glad you explained it, George, because I thought I was taking crazy pills there for a second.
Not a strong issue, but these issues that come between major arcs can get pretty funky. I like Moondragon, though. I think they should have kept her around longer than they did.

dbutler16 said...

Maybe Iron Man wasn't thinking clearly in nominating Moondragon for membership because he was distracted by the nose on his face plate?

Englehart is one of my favorite writers, but you sure don't make this issue sound appealing.

Comicsfan said...

dbutler, I wish the pros had outweighed the cons for me. And there were some enjoyable aspects to the issue, such as Thor good-naturedly reminding Iron Man that, where Moondragon is concerned, it's business before pleasure. But such asides were insufficient to support the issue on their own. Far more enjoyable reading lay ahead with the Squadron Supreme arc.