Thursday, December 17, 2015

From King To Avenger!

Avengers #52 was one of the first issues of the title I came across as a became interested in the team and began my back-issue exploration of their earlier adventures. The cover of the issue, drawn by artist John Buscema, was a guaranteed attention-grabber, and so well-rendered--a bold super-villain, appearing to rip through the actual material of the cover itself as he slashes through the book's masthead in a symbolic gesture that implies he's executed the three Avengers lying prone and in death's shadow behind him. Little did I know that the caption, "The Man Who Killed The Avengers!", was pulling double-duty--referring to "The Grim Reaper!", certainly, but also to the character who appeared to be leaping to the attack, who in the story was accused of doing the deed.

As if the mystery of the circumstances of the murder weren't enough, writer Roy Thomas also provides this issue with two noteworthy introductions. Primarily, he brings the Black Panther into the book as a prospective Avenger--arriving on the recommendation of the absent Captain America, following the team-up of the two in Wakanda against a man posing as Baron Zemo who threatened the world with an orbiting destructive solar ray. The Panther is certainly a natural choice to replace Cap and fill out the Avengers roster with a member who excels in both strength and agility, though the Panther also brings to the table his sharpened senses as well as his background in technology. (To say nothing of his resources as the ruler of a nation--though we would have to wait until another time to go into more depth on the obvious untenable position T'Challa assumes in "suspending" his duties in Wakanda in favor of becoming an Avenger.)

It also bears mentioning that the character adopts some minor but curious adjustments in his migration to the Avengers--the dropping of the adjective from his title and becoming simply "the Panther," and the alterations to his costume which turn his mask into more of a cowl (in addition to the highlights of navy blue now added to the entire outfit). No explanation is given for any of these adjustments, nor is one truly warranted; but sitting in on the preliminary meeting between Thomas, Buscema, and presumably the colorist concerning the character's new direction and modifications would no doubt have been informative.

In addition to the Panther's introduction in the mag, we also see the first appearance of the Grim Reaper, who would go on to have a long history of villainy in Marvel comics and whose raison d'ĂȘtre for vengeance against the Avengers is put into play right here, starting with the active roster of Avengers and moving on from there. The hook of using the dead Wonder Man provides us with an instant connection to the Reaper's mad purpose, as well as with both his name and his weapon of choice, a menacing blade that is an instrument of death as well as a technological marvel capable of taking down the Avengers.

Thomas's story takes a flashback approach in how the Black Panther navigates his way to the truth of the Avengers' murders, and so the reader is in for just as much of a surprise as the Panther when he arrives at the mansion for his first meeting with the team and senses that the phrase "dead of night" might have a more ominous meaning.

The first pages of the story have the Panther encountering and dealing with the various protective devices installed in the mansion, which provide us with the brief opportunity to see the Panther in action in both body and mind. Soon enough, however, he discovers why no actual Avengers have greeted his arrival.

Before the Panther can investigate further, he's nabbed by S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell, who summons the police to take the Panther into custody. It's understandably a whirlwind of events that have engulfed the Panther, as the bodies of the Avengers are verified as lifeless and his status as an unknown newcomer to the scene (and a costumed one at that) making him a liable suspect. His bona fides are also in question:

We know that Wakanda will later have an embassy in New York--but for now, Wakanda's location is still a kept secret, so we can presume that diplomatic ties haven't yet been established. Strange, though, that the Panther hasn't offered to contact his country (though the current attitude of those he's virtually abandoned would probably have them responding with "Ruler? What ruler?")--nor has he offered as references the Fantastic Four, who could smooth things over with the authorities.

In the meantime, the bodies of the Avengers are relocated to a hospital, as the shocking news of their murders makes its way to both the public and the team's founding members.

(Don't you love Tony Stark's sense of priorities? 1) Finish adjustments on test robot; 2) Investigate murders of friends and teammates.)

We never do see the involvement of the other Avengers, who in any sane world would be showing up at the mansion ASAP and looking for clues--particularly Cap, who has personal knowledge of the suspect. Fortunately, we can go directly to the source: the Reaper himself, who's basking in his triumph and eager to recount out loud how it all took place.

The Wasp, in proximity to the discharge, falls as well--which, unbelievably, leaves no active Avengers roster in place with their murders. The details of the Avengers lineup being left to such a small contingent are reviewed in a separate post; but suffice to say that the Panther's presence, if only raising their membership to four, might have proven beneficial during the Reaper's attack. (It also wouldn't have hurt the Avengers to consider that internal protective devices aren't going to mean beans to a foe wanting to get at them directly through their building's wall, rather than in stealth.)

But the Panther is active now in moving to investigate his frame-up and seek the true culprit of this crime, which requires a dramatic escape from police custody.

Meanwhile, the Reaper has secreted himself within Avengers Mansion in order to wait for the arrival of the other Avengers who were present when Wonder Man met his death. But the Panther instead surprises him and learns of his motive for revenge. The two end up in a vicious battle, even after the Panther points out the true circumstances of Wonder Man's death--facts which we know the Reaper would continue to deny for years to come in the pursuit of his vendetta. But in addition to the Reaper's connection with Wonder Man, the Panther also learns shocking information which may allow him to save his newfound comrades.

At first glance, it makes little sense for the Reaper, consumed with taking revenge on the Avengers for the slaying of his brother, to concoct an attack on them that will leave them lingering at death's door for a set period of hours until that time elapses. The only explanation might lie in the fact that it took Wonder Man a few hours from the time he collapsed after the battle with Zemo to succumb to the poison which killed him, and the Reaper was perhaps intent on having the Avengers experience the same circumstances. It's a clever connection between the two events on Thomas's part, if true.

With the Reaper perhaps mortally wounded on the chamber floor, the Panther confiscates his scythe and races to the hospital where the bodies of the Avengers are being held. Yet with the Panther at large, the police have taken the precaution of securing the area, resulting in a frantic scene where the Panther struggles to restore the lives of the fallen heroes.

Upon returning to the mansion, it's discovered that the Reaper has fled the scene, apparently faking his wound in order to avoid capture. On a positive note, however, the Avengers move to induct T'Challa to the team, with T'Challa's closing words seeming to make his choice definitive: " have gained a new ally--one who has given up a throne, that he may better serve a greater kingdom...the whole of mankind itself!" That would make it seem as if he's abdicated and severed ties completely with Wakanda--though as we'd learn in future issues, those words would be back-peddled a bit, as T'Challa struggles to balance his dual responsibilities.

The Avengers #52

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Vince Colletta
Letterer: Sam Rosen

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