Friday, December 23, 2016

Heroes For Hire!

With Roy Thomas at the helm of a book, you occasionally found yourself reading a tale that slowed the pace a bit and made for interesting reading without necessarily being an action-packed page-turner--for instance, when two of the Fantastic Four came to the aid of the Black Panther, imprisoned in an African nation that segregated its population; or when the Sub-Mariner decided to take over an abandoned prison as the first step toward making a life for himself in the surface world; or the introduction of Yellowjacket to the startled Avengers. And it's the Avengers in the spotlight once more, as Thomas introduces the infamous Cornelius Van Lunt to us for the first time, a man who would go on to become a deadly foe to the team--both in his occupation as financier/profiteer and as a member of the Zodiac crime cartel. From the looks of things, the man already appears to have the Avengers right where he wants them--in his pocket.

But what's brought the Avengers to this point? They're already getting free room and board at Avengers Mansion--maybe that additional monthly stipend they receive isn't going as far for them as they'd like? Yet it's their own financier, Tony Stark, who's actually put them on the path to seeking gainful employment--because he's already crossed paths with Van Lunt, and he's come to the mansion with his hat in hand.

The sum that Stark is talking about comes to $2,000/month--which was perhaps a lot of money for renting a New York townhouse in mid-1970 when this story was published, but seems like small change if Stark is looking to fend off a hostile takeover of his company. But, retroactively, the amount comes to around $120,000, which may actually date back to when the team first took possession of the mansion--so the Avengers are on the hook for a considerable amount of money. Still, that would be a pittance to a man like Stark, a munitions manufacturer with fat government contracts and no doubt a considerable personal fortune besides. You'd think Tony Stark could duke it out in court with Van Lunt for as long as it takes, unless Van Lunt has considerable resources of his own.

The Panther, unfortunately, is unable to funnel any Wakandan wealth to Stark since it's reserved for his people's own needs. (And since he's virtually abandoned his people to become an Avenger, I'd like to see him have the nerve to ask.) And so the Avengers put the word out that they're for hire; but they obviously haven't heard the phrase "beggars can't be choosers," since as job hunters they're almost laughingly discretionary.

Yet one of the many offers to pique their interest surprisingly comes from the one man whom they'd normally turn down flat--but an offer so generous that they literally can't afford to ignore it. And so they take a meeting, and, by doing so, fall right into his hands.

Will the Avengers tell Van Lunt what he can do with that cigar? Well, we've already gotten a look at this issue's cover for our answer--but what's his game? Why does he want to hire the Avengers? And by doing so, wouldn't he effectively be handing over $120K to Tony Stark?

It turns out it's the Avengers that Van Lunt wants--and Tony Stark was simply a means to an end.

There's still the mystery of why Van Lunt has gone to such lengths to hire the Avengers as laborers. He must have already put up considerable funds to mount his attack against Stark, only to now withdraw and see that money go down the drain--and now he wants to shell out more money just to have the Avengers act as a wrecking crew and perform repairs. Nevertheless, the Avengers live up to their part of the bargain and begin their work, as we circle back to this issue's splash page--bearing a title that would be be recycled just two years later to the month.

Oddly enough, however, the Avengers' situation with Van Lunt is put on the back burner for much of the issue, with Thomas shifting the focus to a criminal group that has had its operations thwarted by run-ins with the Avengers often enough for its leader to begin planning for the heroes' demise. Thomas's new group isn't much to look at, though as a troublesome element for the story the Split-Second Squad serves its purpose.

The Split-Second Squad may remind you a bit of the Enforcers--criminals who didn't stand out in appearance but brought specialized skills to the table, and who followed the directives of their mysterious boss. Like the Big Man, Kronus is distinctive from the group, choosing to wear a mask that hides his identity even from his subordinates. He also prefers for his men to conduct their crimes on a strict timetable, which helps to explain not only the group's code name (as well as his own) but his costume emblem, as well.

For the record, the Split-Second Squad consists of:
  • Joe the Gorilla
  • Cap'n Skragg
  • Pecos
  • Sweet William
  • Onionhead
  • Pinstripe

If these men fail to ring a bell with you, let's just say their group's name turned out to be indicative of their staying power in the Marvel universe.

Meanwhile, the Avengers are about to engage in their final job for Van Lunt, though Kronus intends to see that it also brings an end to the Avengers themselves.

It may seem a simple matter to put two and two together and make an almost certain guess as to Kronus's identity at this point, though we'll have to see how things play out. As for the Avengers, whoever is behind that mask appears to have succeeded in getting them out of the way for good. Either Van Lunt is rubbing his hands together in glee--or he's miffed that a simple repair job has turned into an expensive outlay and public relations nightmare that will take weeks to set right.

It's money, however, that's currently the priority for Kronus and his men, who proceed to their job with no concern whatsoever about interference from the Avengers. But you may have noticed that one of the Avengers wasn't with the others when the explosion occurred--though as we'll see, that observation will soon become moot to the embattled Split-Second Squad.

With their foes taken care of--and in record time, too, though of course that's little comfort to Kronus this time--the Avengers turn to unmasking the Squad's boss. Even the Avengers seem sure that Kronus is actually Van Lunt--but Van Lunt himself is bound to be surprised at who this ringleader turns out to be.

The Avengers will have further dealings with Van Lunt and his questionable business practices when they head to the southwest at the behest of Red Wolf, and subsequently discover his connections to Zodiac, though those connections would prove to be far more involved than anyone realizes. As for the Split-Second Squad, neither Thomas nor other writers ever dusted them off for a second appearance--but you'll find a few of them involved in the utter chaos that resulted when the Defenders found themselves victims of their own unauthorized membership drive.

The Avengers #77

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Tom Palmer
Letterer: Sam Rosen


Rip Jagger said...

Beautiful review of one of the most handsome comics Marvel ever published. The Buscema-Palmer team was fresh and the interplay here is exquisite. The story is perfectly paced and fits the single issue as well as any during this period when Marvel was reluctant to do continued tales. A great little gem of a comic.

Rip Off

Comicsfan said...

Rip, I'm often surprised at how much story can be packed into those "single issues," and how satisfying they can be. Though Marvel was in a way having their cake and eating it too in that respect at times; for instance, the Van Lunt/Zodiac story would take a number of issues to play out, with each "single" story part of the whole. The only thing missing was the teaser panel at the end that would segue in some way to the next issue. As Thor observed when the case wrapped and all the pieces of those stories came together, "...the fates do weave indeed a tangled skein!" The fates--or in this case, Thomas, who threw the Lethal Legion in the middle (a continued story if ever there was one) just to throw us off the scent. :)