Monday, May 11, 2020

Mission: Seize The Black Widow!

One of the uncertainties that's proven to be problematic in establishing a comics series which features a new super-group is whether or not the chemistry among the members of that group--and certainly the chemistry between the group and the book's readers--will catch on in time to garner regular interest in the series. It's a small window that doesn't remain open too long, and, looking back, there are a number of examples to point to where the concept being launched fell short of whatever expectations Marvel may have had going in. The original core membership of the Avengers, for instance, didn't really work in terms of a lineup that could sustain the book on their own, with the original lineup of the Defenders making their exit in even less time. The X-Men also struggled to find their niche, whether as "the most unusual teen-agers of all time," "the most mysterious fighting team of all time," "the most unusual fighting team of all time," or "the strangest teens of all"--while later adjusting their costumes and even their masthead to better catch the eye.

During the mid-1970s, then, when admittedly many new concepts were being conceived and launched without a great deal of forethought except to see which would catch fire with readers, and with The Defenders having settled into a relatively comfortable status with both Dr. Strange and the Hulk serving to anchor present and future lineup shifts, The Champions was arguably the most high-profile new book to come down the pipe, grouping together two original X-Men, two Avengers--and the Ghost Rider, a character who at first glance seemed incompatible with the format but whose solo series was doing fairly well and thus was perhaps seen as a draw.

And there's no denying he's an attention-getter, visually.

But despite a decent run of seventeen issues, the book folded in early 1978, with most of that run spent in bi-monthly publication. In the end, even its members were divided on their viability, with the group's leader at one point clearly feeling it was her responsibility to shore up team morale (in a flashback taking place thirty-two years after the book's cancellation):

Strangely enough, rather than any stories in the series, I tend to recall the book's plethora of writing and artistic troupers who pitched in to keep the book going. And since someone in charge must have surmised that the quality of the stories would have been the key to that, the switchover of writers was kept to a minimum, allowing for a measure of consistency between issues. That worked out to Tony Isabella and Bill Mantlo each taking several issues in sequence, switching off on occasion (with only Chris Claremont pinch-hitting for one issue).

Yet while both Isabella and Mantlo turned in good work, I would have to say that neither was willing to take a deep breath and slowly establish some sort of foundation for this group and its members in the minds of readers once the initial opening-with-a-bang crisis had passed. Instead, because of Warren Worthington coming into his family fortune, *poof* in no time we had a brand new state-of-the-art headquarters for the Champions (an entire building, no less); *poof* we had the "Champs-craft," a convertible sky-car, complete with the team logo on its hood; *poof* we had a butler in residence, and ... ::ahem:: sorry, I got carried away there, but you get the idea.* And seemingly for the sake of expediency, we also got a team leader in the Black Widow before you could say "this is only the second issue," during a lull in a crisis that allowed her to make a few sensible suggestions regarding their next step--even though leadership didn't appear to be a problem which needed to be addressed on the spur of the moment, with four of these five people being no strangers to working as part of a team and who had conferred fine with each other up to this point. Someone wanted this team established yesterday.

*Apparently in an effort to avoid the appearance of an instant team with "the works," the Champions eventually discovered they'd bought themselves a basket of lemons, with their building and all of its technology and craft having been constructed with defective materials--which would seem to validate a writer taking a more step-by-step approach and giving these people some breathing room. The Champions were already chaotic enough, getting a handle on their foes as well as doubting their purpose--it doesn't exactly help the situation by arranging for their HQ and gear to become all-too-symbolically unstable.

Artwise, we had several talents on pencils: Don Heck, George Tuska, Bob Hall, and John Byrne, with Byrne perhaps getting the lion's share of the limelight given that his work appeared in the series' last seven issues. On inks, however, it was quite a mix, with Mike Esposito, John Tartaglione, Vince Colletta, Bruce Patterson, Bob Layton, Frank Giacoia, and Byrne (inking Tuska!). But it's Hall we're singling out today, a former student of John Buscema's class on comics art who would develop quite a presence at Marvel and other comics companies in addition to becoming active in projects for the theater. Hall would later score a gig as regular artist of The Avengers; but in his first assignment for the company, a Champions tale that delves into the history of the Black Widow, he delivers impressive work while helping to bring the group to the national stage as a bona fide super-group.

Unfortunately for said group, their debut doesn't go as smoothly as planned.

I don't think the Titanium Man ever dropped a name for his little team--but then again, not every villain group needs one, and maybe these three prefer to terrify their targets (as well as onlookers) with their own monikers. So far, they're not doing a bad job, though it is three against two; but to the credit of the Angel and Hercules, they dive headlong into the conflict without a thought to the odds, long enough at least for help to arrive.

Clearly all three Champions present here have gotten their licks in, but thankfully this issue's writer (Mantlo) hasn't assembled three powerful foes only to have them easily beaten; instead, they're part of a larger plan involving not only Russia reclaiming the Widow and her confidante and aide, Ivan Petrovitch, as well as ex-Russian KGB Chief Alexi Bruskin (a.k.a. "the Commissar"), who also happens to be the man who trained the Widow (and one other, as we'll learn shortly). And their mission doesn't include letting the Champions prevail, or escape.

As is evident, the Dynamo not only appears to be the ringleader here, but he also seems to have a personal stake in this fight (which, again, will soon be revealed).

Having already secured the Widow and Bruskin via the Titanium Man, our three operatives next take steps to capture both Iceman and Ivan. Why they're bothering to engage and capture the Champions when it's only the Widow, Bruskin, and Ivan they're after isn't clear beyond the fact that taking the Champions out left the others unguarded; and unfortunately, speculation at this point isn't going to be of help to Iceman.

One more Russian to be added to this mix comes in the form of Darkstar, who's working with the Dynamo's group and has already played a part in the attempted assassination of Rampage, a recurring foe of the Champions. A powerful unknown, we learn more about her during an altercation where she has underestimated the resourcefulness of the Black Widow; yet we also discover she shares the same connection with Bruskin.

The other Champions, it seems, make for valuable hostages in the Dynamo's plan involving the Widow and the others. As to his motivation beyond whatever orders he's been handed, he responds to the Widow's questions by revealing himself to be Yuri Petrovich--the son of Ivan, and presumed dead. He certainly appears to have gotten over that little hurdle.

All of what we've seen here comes out in the wash in the following issue, which wraps up this four-part story but leaves the Champions as fragmented and as uncertain of their future as they were. If "the world still needs champions," as their unofficial slogan asserts, you'd never know it by those who profess to believe it.

John Byrne comes aboard, in a "shadowy" tale--
guest-starring Hawkeye, the Two-Gun Kid, and Black Goliath!


Colin Jones said...

The Champions were clearly a progressive bunch, accepting a woman as team leader. Would Hercules really be comfortable playing second fiddle to a woman? Not only was he an alpha male but a god too.

lordjim6 said...

Angel really comes off as insufferable... so, I guess they had the same reaction to him in the original X-Men stories as me.

Tiboldt said...

The problem with that recap is that it's not at the end of the Champions series but somewhere near the start (you can tell by the hideous Angel costume and lack of Darkstar). If they were that unimpressed with the team from the beginning then it makes you wonder if the entire Champions run was just a group psychotherapy exercise.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I read this issue many moons ago, just after it came out. What memories! Those old school Soviet villains were way cool in my preadolescent eyes.

One thing that always bugged me about this issue even after all these years is how easily Hercules got taken out by the Crimson Dynamo. Is this the same Hercules who has held his own against the likes of the Hulk and Thor before? I know storywise you need to have the bad guys beat the heroes at some point, but man I think the writer of this issue copped out. He probably thought, 'hmm, how do we get them to beat Herc? I know, let's have the Crimson Dynamo crash into him!'.

- Mike from Trinidad & Tobago.

Comicsfan said...

Yes, quite right on the dating of that scene, Tiboldt. I need to have a better understanding of the term "flashback," don't I? ;)

Colin, I think Hercules' stance toward Natasha may have been somewhat mitigated by the fact that he later grew more fond of her than as an authority figure--whereas with the Wasp, time only found him becoming more resentful of her attempts to have him toe the line.

Big Murr said...

Indeed. Later retcon moments in future stories reveal that a bit of canoodling went on between the lusty Hercules and the vivacious Black Widow during their time as Champion teammates.

I only discovered the Champions when that rookie John Byrne took over the art, which made it pretty easy on the eyes. The writing was nothing special, but no worse than many comics. As you say, CF, no solid effort to make the team gel as...a team.

I went backtracking to the earlier issues I had missed, but discovered they were an unreadable dog's breakfast of lazy writing and mismatched art.

Anonymous said...

I have a soft spot for the Champions. The comic never really gelled but it did have a goofy charm to it. A fella can kick back with a beer and a few back issues and relax and not have to think too hard.
One thing that did in interest me in that comic was the tension between Hercules and the Ghost Rider. Herc knew all about demonic entities (remember who his uncle was) and he wasn't a fan. I got the sense that for two cents and a stick of gum he would have went after G.R. And of course, the Ghost Rider doesn't back down from anybody.
I think there was a big showdown brewing, and it woulda been ugly. I think they actually did trade blows at one point.


Anonymous said...

As regards Hercules & the Black Widow's 'Who's the boss?' relationship, Avengers # 173 has a significant bit about this. Hercules bridles at accepting Natasha's orders, but also allows her to treat him in ways he wouldn't tolerate from a male leader (at least according to him.) Also, despite the Black Widow being team leader, Hercules frequently acts without consulting her; and he will lead the way, whilst expecting Natasha to follow. The upshot of all this is that Natasha realizes that, to Hercules, mortals are just a 'wink in the eye of a god.' Hence, it amuses him to let the Black Widow be the boss, for some of the time (or, perhaps, this rationale allows Hercules to retain his pride.)

Phillip Beadham

Anonymous said...

For a god, Hercules was really third-rate as a superhero. That was the problem with the Champions - a dull Avenger, and the two most boring X-Men.

What were Marvel thinking? Ghost Rider and the Black Widow were cool. Team them up with other interesting, underused characters like Thundra, Brother Voodoo and Shang Chi and the Champs would have been a brilliant comic.
(Also, for guest stars - maybe the Thing and Dr Doom would have been a better bet for boosting sales early on than, Black Goliath and Stiltman?)


Big Murr said...

That's a point. I'm not an advocate of gratuitous guest stars to boost sales, but the Champions really needed to be tied to the Big Leagues of the Marvel Universe. They guest-starred in a couple of titles, but it would have been much more effective if the Avengers or F.F. dropped by to visit the west coast.

Comicsfan said...

Actually, sean, I'd like to throw the Black Widow into that mix along with Hercules and the ex-X-Men, but for a different reason. At the time, I think the last I'd seen of the Widow (not being a regular Daredevil reader), she'd become an Avenger--recruited (along with Daredevil) to assist in battling Magneto, but refraining from returning to San Francisco with DD (for the time being) and being offered membership as a thank-you gesture for her help. Yet in spite of the fact that Avengers membership had been on the table for the Widow for quite awhile (which I suppose explained why she was formally accepted for membership without the usual deliberation accorded new prospects), she left the team almost immediately--partly to reconcile with DD, but also because she felt she was "too much [her] own woman" to feel comfortable working in a group situation.

A person can change their mind, of course; but falling in with the Champions seemed to happen for her only because she was in the right place at the right time (applying for a teaching position at UCLA because, well, she was broke), and from that point she became the glue holding them together (along with Angel, who was adamant about forming the team); but unlike Hercules and the Ghost Rider, the Widow seemed to be like Angel and Iceman in that she was with the Champions mostly because she'd been at loose ends. That's difficult for a reader to rally behind, in spite of having the Champs' mission statement of helping the common man frequently trotted out to justify the necessity of this group's existence.

Fred W. Hill said...

I collected the Champions, and mostly enjoyed it although it was clear even to my adolescent self that this wasn't among Marvel's best. Particularly with the first few issues, with rather sub-par art & writing from Heck & Isabella making for a poor beginning. But the art & writing got better with later issues. Still, Ghost Rider didn't seem very well-suited to a member of any group, and Hercules was a problematic presence -- very obviously the muscle of the team, but being a god and a rather brash and rambunctious one at that, never shown to have long been part of any team -- his tenure with the Avengers having been very brief and he was never shown to have been particularly close with any of his fellow Olympians and in the classic tale wherein he foolishly signed a contract to take Pluto's place as ruler of Hades, Herc was shown to have alienated just about all of godly peers with his arrogance, such that he had to rely on an Asgardian, with whom he had recently gotten into a fight over a woman, to save him! I wonder if it was entirely Thomas' choice to write him out of the Avengers with issue #50 on the basis that he didn't really fit, particularly as very little was done with Hercules for several years afterwards, until Conway brought him back as a regular in Thor in late '73. Doesn't seem Lee would have any reason to direct Thomas to write Herc out of the team.
Back to the Champions, then there was the Angel, who clearly needed a power-upgrade to be taken seriously against baddies like the trio in this issue. Yeah, he could fly, but could he really be expected to beat armored baddies who could also fly and had various other capacities? Or even the Griffin who also had wings as well as super-strength and other powers? Black Widow also seemed a rather poor fit for these sort of stories featuring very powerful baddies. Iceman had formidable powers but an underdeveloped personality at this point.
Bill Mantlo made a good go at making the series more engaging but apparently couldn't make it enough of a success to keep going for the long haul.

Comicsfan said...

Fair observations on all points, Fred. :)