Friday, March 18, 2016

The Attack of Zodiac!

Perhaps thanks to his exposure in an Avengers story from early 1970, the character of Captain Marvel was able to be brought back in an additional two issues of his original title following a five-month hiatus that saw him in publication limbo (presumably due to poor sales). If you're a struggling comics character, you arguably couldn't ask for a more high-profile appearance than to be featured in The Avengers; and while the issue's cover is a bit deceptive in its placement of Mar-vell, the story makes decent use of him in a promotional capacity while providing us with an action-packed Avengers tale in itself.

The issue's title, "Did You Hear The One About Scorpio?", surely leaves no doubt of this being a Roy Thomas story, the wording evidently holding a great deal of contemporary significance for Thomas but otherwise relating to neither Scorpio nor any events in the story whatsoever. Rather than dwell on it--and it's admittedly tempting to do so, in the way a puzzle challenges you to seek out its answer, which you know must exist in some form--we're better served proceeding further into the issue, where plenty of surprises await. For one, we finally have some follow-up to a loose end established when Captain America and Rick Jones parted ways, after a misunderstanding which resulted in Rick abandoning a promising stint as Cap's new partner (and subsequently making his way into the Thomas-scripted Captain Marvel title, and a different kind of partnership altogether). Cap swiftly clears up the matter for Rick in this story's opening pages, a brief scene which will loosely figure into this story's conclusion; and the two head into a hastily called Avengers meeting, where Rick, as usual, finds the welcome mat waiting for him.

These were the days when the book rarely if ever delved into the Avengers' relationship with the National Security Council, the government agency responsible for granting the team its valuable "Avengers priority" status and which would, under normal circumstances, insist that a free agent like Rick have no access to Avengers H.Q. or be privy to any meetings or briefings under its roof. Rick has come to see the Avengers on another matter--but instead of Jarvis seating him in the lounge until Cap and the others conclude their business, Rick is made to feel right at home, with the story quickly revving up from there.

This full-page display by artist Sal Buscema of the Avengers conducting their business understandably stands out, since the formality of Avengers proceedings is one of the things that makes them unique among other super-groups; and if we let our gaze wander, we can find some points of interest in Buscema's otherwise straightforward meeting scene. For instance, designated chairs, which leave you wondering what symbols might be reserved for the chairs of Iron Man, the Wasp, or Goliath. (In light of the NSC's scrutiny, perhaps we can refrain from entertaining the notion that a designated chair was made for Rick; at one time he was even provided with an Avengers I.D., which must have really sent the NSC into orbit.)

Also, no, I don't know why an oversized chair was made for Goliath, but I'll ask the same question that's probably on the minds of the rest of you--is there an actual reason why he feels the need to maintain his giant-sized height at those times when he's simply in residence, to the point of needing a custom-sized meeting chair? After all, do the Wasp and Yellowjacket attend the meeting shrunken? Jarvis also has been seen to serve Goliath with oversized cups and saucers during breaks. We can only wonder at what his toilet must look like.  (Or better yet, let's just shudder at the thought and leave it at that.) And speaking of the Wasp, is she taking minutes here? Do you get the uncomfortable feeling that she's always expected to be the one who takes the minutes?

As to the main plot of the story, Cap has called the meeting to alert the Avengers to the disappearance of local high-level public officials, a matter which he's coordinating with S.H.I.E.L.D. The Vision's question addressing that point is valid, though his question is never answered by the story; but SHIELD does make them aware of a new development in this case, which sends virtual shockwaves rippling through the room.

(Presumably Fury's assassin wasn't the Bullseye we know from Daredevil and later stories, though if anyone can connect those dots, feel free.)

Rick then chimes in with his own reason for seeking out the Avengers, involving his earlier visit to Fury's apartment--in his words, to find out if "maybe SHIELD can use a second-hand sidekick!" since Captain America had apparently cut him loose. Instead, he encounters Scorpio, who disables him with a blast from the powerful Zodiac key and makes his escape. At that point, Mar-vell communicates with Rick through their link and urges to be released so that he can pursue and capture Scorpio and determine Fury's fate.

The scenes work out to be two pages of Captain Marvel in action, which would have to suffice for any exposure Thomas might hope will benefit the character (and which likely helped to kick-start Mar-vell's own title later, if briefly). With two conspicuous editor's notes tucked into the action (separately, but joined below), it seems that Thomas's hands were tied from involving Mar-vell further in the story:

Which begs the question: Why is Rick adamant about not to disclosing his link with Mar-vell--and keeping that information from the Avengers, at that? Is it a secret, for some reason? The answer is "no," by all indications--but it's another matter to keep in mind until we reach this story's conclusion.

On a separate note, there's also the question of why Rick would have the idea that SHIELD would consent to him "hanging around," with the assumption that SHIELD would be willing to cut him as much slack as the Avengers have in that regard. But the solution seems to be right in front of us: Why doesn't Rick simply approach Fury about training to become a SHIELD agent? Having already received some measure of field training at Cap's side must count for something--and Rick could benefit a great deal from formal training in SHIELD's ranks. It would appear to be a perfect fit for someone as directionless as Rick who wants to have a more action-based life. As Mar-vell has recognized, in the context of their current joined state, "He's wanted all his life to be a superhero ... and now, he feels like little more than a spear-carrier." The question would remain of how (or even if) Rick would disclose to SHIELD his status with Mar-vell; it's obvious from his visit to Fury's apartment that he hasn't thought that far ahead yet.

Once Rick has finished with his story, he reveals evidence that Scorpio was connected with the disappearing officials. But before the matter could be discussed further, the Avengers' viewscreen again flickers to life, to reveal the villain who is at the heart of this investigation.

In essence, the disappearing officials were nothing more than a ruse to gather the Avengers together in order to capture and eliminate them. And the plot goes well beyond Scorpio, to involve the entire Zodiac cartel--in part to ingratiate himself back into the good graces of his former partners in crime, and join them on a daring new international scheme.

But thanks to a swarm of ants summoned by both Yellowjacket and the Wasp, the Avengers break free from their captivity and take on the entire cartel in a free-for-all which each side fights its utmost to win. And its during the melee that we encounter another surprise--Nick Fury, alive and well, disguised all along as Scorpio, arranging events so that the Avengers would get their chance to take out Zodiac.

(It's never been clear in other stories what super-power Virgo possesses that makes her such a dangerous member of this group--but thank goodness the Wasp is around, because apparently Virgo can only be attacked and stopped by another woman.)

With the Avengers rendered helpless by the Zodiac key, Aries prepares to execute them--but Rick, who has refused to bring Mar-vell onto the scene, has managed to slip under the radar (of twelve wary criminals, don't ask me how) to spoil his shot in the nick of time, which effectively foils the plans of Zodiac, at least for now.

(Good grief, Vision--did you think of simply side-stepping "this strange substance," and passing through the unaffected areas of the wall, floor, or ceiling?)

We learn in the concluding scenes that the real Scorpio is Fury's brother, leading to the director of SHIELD going undercover in order to gather information on Zodiac's operations. As for Rick, his future again apparently remains up in the air, in a noncommittal series of panels which will hopefully sustain interest in him when he next appears with Mar-vell.

It's clear that Rick would be all for rejoining Cap if the latter only gave the word; what isn't quite clear is why Cap doesn't extend the offer, given how Rick distinguished himself during their partnership and gave Cap no cause to doubt his abilities. But as Mar-vell once mused, Cap perhaps considers Rick a liability, at least in terms of the responsibility Cap feels for his safety (which doesn't seem to extend to Rick accompanying the Avengers on missions). The second confusing aspect to this scene involves Rick's reason for keeping his association with Mar-vell a secret--"...'cause I promised!" Yet, to my knowledge, there's been no indication--either in the Captain Marvel book, or in this story which came hard on its heels--that any such promise was ever made, to either Mar-vell or anyone else, nor any request to keep silent on the matter. And really, is there any reason at all to keep mum on the subject? It's understandable for Rick to continue to want to stand on his own two feet--but to carefully avoid disclosing the information, to even the Avengers? It would seem to be a non-issue.

The Avengers' conflict with Zodiac would finally draw to a close with the appearance of Red Wolf and the team's investigation of Cornelius Van Lunt in what would turn out to be a related matter. As for Rick and Mar-vell, you'll of course need to draw your own conclusions as to whether their appearance here helped those two additional issues of Captain Marvel to any degree. Fortunately, Mar-vell would receive a little more welcome exposure with his involvement (along with that of the Avengers) in the Kree-Skrull War.

The Avengers #72

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: Sal Buscema
Inks: Sam Grainger
Letterer: Sam Rosen


Anonymous said...

As super-villains go, Scorpio has what writers call an interesting "arc", at least from a literary standpoint.
Any plans on reviewing Jake Fury's last stand along with his personal Zodiac against the Defenders?
But here, a great review, and I really love the ink's on Sal's pencils.

Comicsfan said...

That Defenders story is one of my guilty pleasures, M.P., and will definitely be getting the PPOC treatment at some point. (Heck, I'll even provide the beer!) ;)

david_b said...

Zodiac was always my favorite team since I first saw 'em in ish 120. Just a fantastic memory.

Those stories always seem to be riddled with inconsistencies (with the launching farmhouse, to Thor's hammer, to Mantis feeling everyone's pain in this trilogy ish 120-122, etc), but it's just frothy, joyful fun by this point.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that the Avengers sit around a round table - King Arthur supposedly had a round table so everybody would be equal and nobody would be sitting at the head of the table (Arthur was very progressive and democratic for a Dark Ages monarch) - I assume the Avengers' round table was for the same reason.