Thursday, December 31, 2015

Months Of Vengeance!

OR: "Pay No Attention To Those Villains Behind The Curtain..."

The last Marvel crossover event to grace the 1980s was the extensive 1989-90 Acts Of Vengeance series of stories, which mainly centered on the Avengers, Captain America, and Thor books but also cast a wide net over a number of other titles. The event's main draw was its cabal of villains who joined together to conduct aggressive operations against super-heroes in order to bring about their end; though it's more accurate to say that these villains were brought together, by a mysterious figure who suggested this initiative and secured the agreement of the villains to participate.

The premise of the AOV project was bolstered by several key elements that only barely sustained it for the duration. Chief among them was the campaign's coordinator, the suited figure who enticed the likes of Dr. Doom, the Red Skull and the others to band together and embark on this course of action. It was clear the man had an agenda beyond the one he conveyed to his "superiors"; it was also clear that his power dwarfed that of the others, and that he was manipulating them in order to bring about the destruction of the Avengers. The story is coy in keeping his identity undisclosed--but with his references to "the gods" and "Midgard," it becomes apparent that we're dealing with Loki here (with his identity being confirmed in an unrelated Thor issue). And granted, Loki has a history of working behind the scenes as well as drafting and manipulating mortal pawns to his own ends--but this seems too elaborate a ruse for him to spend his time on, even an immortal's time. (I could make the same point in regard to Dormammu and his scheme to recover the Evil Eye, a scheme which Loki himself was conscripted into playing along with.)

Also, Loki's method for getting these six villains to participate and cooperate in this plan is to convince each villain that this is their plan, under their direction and control, with himself serving as their aide-de-camp--a deception which seems doomed to fail from the start, doesn't it? Once you have all of them in a room together, one villain is bound to assert his authority and seek to direct the others, at which point each of the others would make it clear that they are the one who is in control here. Yet in scenes where they meet as a group, the issue is virtually ignored when one of them makes such assertions--which is fortunate for the story, since this group's members would never be able to cooperate with each other otherwise. A more workable approach might have been for Loki to simply masquerade as the lackey who follows the will of the collective group--an approach which the reader will probably find him- or herself assuming to be the case regardless, in order to avoid the confusion of this plot oversight.

We're also left to fill in the blanks as far as this cabal actually doing something when it meets, carrying out each step of "the plan" (as this endeavor is vaguely referred to) by dispatching their "lackey" to execute the details that they've worked out. Often, however, we get the impression that this underling is taking the initiative on his own, announcing that he's leaving to take care of business and later simply reporting back to the cabal at regular intervals, submitting to their approval and arrogance on his return while continuing to maintain the charade that he fulfills their will. It's likely the most hands-off "Sinister Six" that you've ever come across, at least at first glance. Fortunately, with AOV spread out among many other titles such as Amazing Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men, Fantastic Four, et al., the slack is taken up by these villains indeed fulfilling the plan in their own ways, in venues where they're more at home and where they prove to be far more interesting in their machinations than in a group setting.

Finally, the key component of the AOV that makes our villains believe this plan is a sure thing: that the heroes who are targeted will be attacked by villains whom they've never met in battle, a tactic that will presumably put the targets at a disadvantage. To swallow that, we have to put aside the fact that characters in Marvel titles across the board are often meeting new opponents to battle, characters they've never gone up against before and whose abilities generally take them by surprise. It's the bread and butter of comics already--AOV is simply putting a new twist on it by having it occur over a three-month period in a string of titles that makes it appear to be a coordinated plot.

That said, it's not a bad way to spend a few months of comics reading, if you allow yourself to be swept along by that premise. For instance, a string of robots sent by Doom to sink Avengers Island (the former Hydrobase) succeeds and finally gets rid of a base of operations that only served to isolate the Avengers and probably wasn't popular with readers in the first place. (Though cramming the issue's cover with Avengers who, with the exception of Quasar, never appear in the story probably made the reader flinch at any other title bearing the AOV banner from that point on.) There's also Spider-Man taking on heavyweights like Graviton and Magneto, while attempting to wield the powers of Captain Universe; while the Mandarin nicely works behind the scenes and sets things in motion in the pages of X-Men and elsewhere.  And while three members of the former Freedom Force seem to be far more formidable against the Avengers to be believable (with the Scarlet Witch even agreeing: "We should have defeated these cretins easily!"), they still give a good showing of themselves, especially in light of the fact that they're not even part of the AOV initiative.

Writer/artist Walt Simonson, however, lends a humorous take to this AOV "tactic," in a succession of three Fantastic Four covers which all seem to make the same point:

As for Loki, he's not really effective as a protagonist until he steps from behind the shadows to enjoy chewing the scenery along with the villains in this cabal. Until then, he acts to promote the crossover itself, in brief insertions where he gathers the various members of the proposed group.

Over in the Captain America book, however, writer Mark Gruenwald makes the most of Loki's impromptu meeting with the Red Skull, giving a more realistic account of how Loki's overtures were likely to be received as well as heightening interest in this mystery intruder.

The Skull is the catalyst for the dissension that develops among the group's members, which at times forces Loki to step in and deal with what seem like mortal children to him, with their bickering and pointless posturing for dominance.

Over in the Cap book, Gruenwald would go on to provide clever scenes that show how the Skull chafes at not being able to subvert "the lackey" to his will--while also handling the eventual confrontation between the Skull and one whose memories of Nazis cannot abide such a man's freedom from retribution.

Things have obviously come to a head between these two--but despite his preparations for any incursion, the Skull is mistaken in thinking that he's escaped from Magneto's *ahem* vengeance, particularly in a metal rail car. Once the Skull is intercepted, Magneto dispenses his own chilling brand of justice.

By this point in the series, it's becoming clear that the heroes being targeted by the AOV are prevailing against the threats being set against them. To make matters worse, the Mandarin and the Wizard attack the Avengers on their own, which lead to the Wizard being captured and the Mandarin retreating back to the villains' meeting place. Subsequently, the figure of Dr. Doom explodes, revealing itself to be a robot, with the rest of the group concluding that Doom may have only been present himself at certain times or even not at all. All of which lead to the wrap-up of this event, as the Wizard uses a hidden device that accesses the dimensional doorway to the group's headquarters and allows him to return--to the ire of Loki, who realizes that this mortal may have made a crucial blunder.

With Loki now tipping his hand and dropping the need for pretense, the Kingpin makes a judicious and discrete exit (with Magneto having already returned to his own concerns involving the Scarlet Witch). Loki then immobilizes the three remaining members of the cabal, and voices the underlying thought that's probably occurred to a number of readers by now--that Loki could indeed have accomplished his ends without going to such lengths, and without having to ride herd on and appease six mortal villains. With Loki fit to be tied, our three remaining villains unfortunately find themselves in dire straits--a lineup which should really only amount to two, in terms of the Red Skull being present. The Skull, discovered in Magneto's confinement hole by Crossbones and hanging onto life by a thread, played out his recovery in the pages of Captain America several issues after AOV had concluded and was in no shape to return to the cabal, much less be an active participant at the time of its dissolution.

As for Loki, he's guessed correctly that Thor and the Avengers would follow the Wizard back to the villains' lair--only to find that their surroundings were pure fabrication, the true location allowing Thor to deduce the reason why Loki concocted this scheme against the Avengers.

The fact that Loki--a god and an immortal who has contempt for mortals at best and whose sphere of influence is nothing less than the glory and the throne of Asgard--has been grumbling all this time about his part in bringing about the formation of the Avengers is nothing less than astonishing; add to that the fact that he would consider them such a blot on his life that he would spend more than an ounce of his time to align himself with other mortals in order to destroy them, and you have yourself a plot that doesn't even look good on paper. There's always been a sense of symmetry involved with Loki and the Avengers, given the fact that he was their charter villain and their baptism of fire, but, honestly--is it even conceivable that Loki, out for his constitutional with the storm giants or the Norn Queen, would ever give a moment's thought to how a scheme to force Donald Blake's transformation to Thor backfired and resulted in the formation of a mortal group of heroes?

With Loki handily dealing with the attacking Avengers (which offers a telling demonstration that he could always do so), it falls to Thor to deal with his half-brother, in an ending that seems far too rushed for a plot which took its sweet time getting here.

(Remember the climax to "Superman II," where Supes defeats the villains and they simply fall from sight, conveying the impression that their threat is ended? That's how this ending to AOV came across to me.)

If you take a look at AOV's reading list, you can't help but give it props for being ambitious in scope. AOV was spread across twenty-five titles, if I've got that right, and over a period of 3-4 months--that's a lot of scheduling to coordinate. And as we saw in the case of the Red Skull, all of the editors and writers involved didn't always avoid getting their signals crossed; for instance, New Mutants, despite having three issues tagged with the AOV banner, reportedly only had one of those issues actually involved with the event, and only two pages' worth, at that. If wide-ranging sales weren't an issue, or if the project had the luxury of being plotted with a few more months' lead time, we might have ended up with a much tighter story with the dots easier to connect; in addition, the story could have been driven by any number of villains who had it in for the Avengers, which might have led to a more anticipated and more exciting climax.

Nevertheless, AOV is well worth a look--not only as a series, but for the individual books that dig a little deeper into their respective talent pools to produce tie-ins with it, and in doing so turn out to be very good reads on their own. Assuming you have the stamina and want to dive into this event in its entirety, there's the Acts of Vengeance Omnibus containing the so-called core reading, along with the Acts of Vengeance Crossovers Omnibus hardcover which covers most of the tie-ins (maybe even all of them--it looks pretty comprehensive). And if you do take the plunge and snag the books for your comics shelf, think how cool it'll be to be able to scream: "VENGEANCE IS MINE!!"

(Heh heh--sorry.  I had to throw that in somewhere.)

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