Friday, December 30, 2016

The Power of The Scarlet Witch!

OR: "Three Strikes, You're Out"

With The Avengers in late 1974 getting cranked up for the Celestial Madonna storyline, writer Steve Englehart has cut the assemblers no slack, keeping them busy with not just their own affairs but two crossover stories with both Fantastic Four and Captain Marvel. In just the previous four issues we've seen a planetary menace in the form of the Star-Stalker; a confrontation in space with the forces of Thanos; a deadly hostage situation involving the master of sound, Klaw, and his accomplice, Solarr; and a wedding in the land of the Inhumans that was crashed by none other than Ultron.

But before Kang the Conqueror comes knocking pounding on the Avengers' door seeking the Madonna, a candidate for that honor faces a crisis of her own, with her very soul at stake!

Though given how Wanda must always take care to conserve her power in battle, some of us would have gone a step further with this cover and called it like we see it where her effectiveness as an Avenger is concerned:

Without the Avengers to back her up, can the Scarlet Witch survive the night?

As it happens, this story stands out as one where the issue of Wanda's weakened hex power is FINALLY addressed--her power being dramatically curtailed ever since her gunshot injury that forced her withdrawal from the team to recover, though fearing that her power had been lost for good. Following her return from Arkon's world, she found her power had been restored, though with apparent limits in how often it could be used--as well as forcing her to adopt a two-handed gesture in order to get it to work at all. Eventually, she reached a point where the use of her power drains her to such a degree that in a pitched battle she's limited to casting three hexes before she's too debilitated to continue to fight. Imagine giving Hawkeye only three arrows, or Iron Man just three repulsor blasts (or punches), and you get an idea of how pointless it is to have Wanda suit up at all.

As welcome as this issue is in terms of correcting the situation, it also unfortunately starts us down a road of Wanda's power undergoing gradual stages of evolution, depending on who comes aboard as writer and what fresh twist they want to give the character. Today, I couldn't tell you how Wanda's power currently operates, so absurdly have her abilities been rebooted over time. Here, Agatha Harkness decides to take her under her wing and train her to draw upon herself in ways that will sustain her much better than is currently the case, which is at least a step in the right direction--yet the implication is that she will also be tutored in witchcraft, which feels like we're going off track. Other than her stamina, Wanda's problem with her power is that she simply doesn't know what will happen when she uses it; what does Miss Harkness bring to the table to help with that? How does Wanda tell the Avengers that she's done keeling over in the middle of a battle--yet she still doesn't know if her power, when unleashed, will end up turning the tide of battle against them? Even the measure of control she thought she'd gained when saving the life of one of Solarr's hostages was only a ruse, since the "hostage" turned out to be Klaw.

So Englehart's approach here must be taken with a grain of salt. At this point we can all probably say that we'd settle for Wanda staying on her feet and participating more in the Avengers' battles. The concept of "hex power" for Wanda has more potential for interest than witchcraft, since spells and incantations tend to give a character a little too much latitude in any given situation. If there's a bit of uncertainty in the use of Wanda's power, so be it--but let's see her at least be able to use it, eh?

As for Miss Harkness, it appears someone has it in for her even before she makes her proposal to Wanda, as both the Avengers and the Fantastic Four return from the Great Refuge and find themselves under mystical attack--though the real target is a member of neither group.

Having Wanda being able to pull off tricks like that would probably be too much a shift in her power; besides, we've already seen her power used to make the storm do her bidding. But Wanda is certainly in no position to refuse the lifeline Miss Harkness is throwing her.

And so Miss Harkness takes up residence in Avengers Mansion, and her instruction of Wanda begins almost immediately. (Never mind the fact that it never occurs to the Avengers to question this woman about who is after her and why, to say nothing of taking precautions against a foe who has already launched a deadly attack on the mansion.)

There is another segment in this story that plays out during the potential threat to Miss Harkness and Wanda--that of Mantis, a close companion to their newest member, the Swordsman, but who has become more distant from him and grown infatuated with the Vision instead. It's a situation that, like Wanda's, has also come to a head, with the Vision seeking to mend fences with Wanda over the rift between them only to be politely stymied by Miss Harkness's claims on Wanda's time. But with the threat that materializes, it's clear no one had informed Wanda that her training would be on the job.

This would be the second attempt by Necrodamus to gain the favor of his dark masters, his first being foiled by the Defenders in the group's first issue. In that story, Necrodamus was in the service of the Undying Ones; this time, he appears to have switched horses. But whatever forces hold his leash now, both of these women would do well to take his threat seriously.

An interesting choice of words by Necrodamus, seeming to instinctively realize that Wanda's threat to him is negligible--though it's possible he's merely trying to intimidate her. But it doesn't appear like he's far off the mark, since she appears absolutely terrorized to be facing him alone. This is an Avenger? (Though to be fair, Janet Van Dyne hardly distinguished herself in her first terrified encounter with the Vision.)

As Wanda says, none of the others are aware of the battle taking place in the guest room. But hostilities are on the verge of breaking out elsewhere in the mansion, as it's made clear to the Swordsman that he's fallen short in the eyes of the woman he fell in love with--a woman who has now decided to move on to one she believes is a more fitting match for her.

The scene obviously means to shift our focus to Mantis and the course she pursues--but it's a more powerful scene for the Swordsman, a proud man who has worked hard to regain the Avengers' trust and prove himself an asset to their ranks, but who now feels humiliated. Interestingly, it was his feeling for Wanda that made him betray the Mandarin's plan to destroy the Avengers during the time he'd duped them into accepting him for membership; while it was Mantis who helped him turn his life around and lead him back to the team. Englehart's scene shows a mixture of emotions from this man, who probably feels a little duped and betrayed himself, as well as abandoned.

Meanwhile, Wanda launches her attack against Necrodamus, forced to use whatever resources are available to her in the guest room. Given that Necrodamus has faced down the likes of the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner, we might disagree with how Wanda chooses to use her power here; for instance, a better way to go might have been to use a hex to disable the spell that has sealed the room, or even using a hex directly against Necrodamus himself, whose current form is a product of magic and who could succumb in a number of ways to an opponent who can disrupt probability. If it seems that Wanda squanders her power in this encounter with attacks that merely confound Necrodamus, it's difficult to refute that. (But then, she shouldn't have to worry about squandering her power, should she.)

With Wanda floored by, incredibly, the use of her own power, now would certainly be a good time for Miss Harkness to show Wanda why using witchcraft would be a better way to go, eh? But Englehart isn't ignoring another drama taking place across the hall, where Mantis is making an assault of her own--using ploys of sympathy rather than bedsheets to gain her advantage. (Though there's little doubt that bedsheets are on her mind.)

It's unclear just how much the Vision is reading into Mantis's words or her body language, if he's even doing so at all. So far, Mantis has concealed her true reason for visiting the Vision pretty well, nor has the Vision seemed uncomfortable or guarded in her presence. As for the rest of us, we're simply witnessing the buildup that Englehart has been progressively moving toward in this conversation between the two. The Vision, after all, is the only one unaware of Mantis's formal break with the Swordsman, and it's that ignorance that fuels the reader's anticipation of this scene. With Necrodamus poised to carry out his plan for Miss Harkness and Wanda, it's an interesting contrast that Englehart establishes with the dynamic between the two rooms. We're reasonably sure that one of the women facing Necrodamus will pull a rabbit out of their hat and turn the tables on him; we're not so sure of how the Vision will respond to Mantis's overtures.

As for which of Necrodamus's foes will strike back at him before their souls are forfeit, it actually turns out to be something of a double play. Suffice to say that Wanda masters her first lesson from Miss Harkness (albeit under duress), as she finds the inner strength to make one last strike against Necrodamus that successfully decides this battle's outcome.

While across the hall, it's Mantis who comes up empty, when the Vision (appropriately enough) rejects the logic of her reasoning by drawing on the honest feeling he already shares with the Scarlet Witch.

It's a fine interlude between stories, with plenty of character development and high stakes, as well as the beginning of a long overdue change for Wanda. And Englehart keeps the story's momentum building to the final page, with a compelling mystery and a dire proclamation introduced by the arrival of one of the Avengers' most persistent foes.

At least we can assure Wanda that this isn't another test from Miss Harkness.

Kang triumphant! (But not if the Swordsman has anything to say about it!)

Wanda learns to control her power! And just in time for her rematch with

The Avengers #128

Script (and coloring): Steve Englehart
Pencils: Sal Buscema
Inks: Joe Staton
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski

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