Sunday, May 16, 2010

My History with the Avengers

Monthly on, your pal and mine, TJ "It stands for Thomas Jane" Dietsch, does a feature called “My Five Favorite Avengers” where he asks various creators, um, who their five favorite Avengers are. With a new Avengers #1 on sale this Wednesday, I thought why not give the list you’ve all really been waiting for: mine.

But we’ll do that tomorrow; tonight, a slice of my own personal history with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

The first Avengers comic I ever remember reading was issue #291 of the original series, written by Walter Simonson with art by John Buscema. I was like six and my father bought me one of those awesome multi-packs of random comics we had back in the day at the local supermarket when I was up visiting my grandparents in New Hampshire. The story had the Avengers—whose roster at the time consisted of Thor, Namor, the female Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, Doctor Druid and The Black Knight, only the first two of whom I had even a passing familiarity with—all dressed up at some fancy dinner party where Marrina (the Sub-Mariner’s wife) suddenly turned into a fish monster and started destroying the city. There was something going on with multiple Kangs in a sub-plot as well, but I didn’t know who Kang was.

Buscema’s imagery was what stuck with me this was my first exposure to his work and he remains one of my all-time favorite artists), in particular his depiction of Marrina’s transformation from pretty young lady into freaky scaled creature, which scared the crap out of me. Between being suddenly terrified that all girls could potentially turn into sea monsters at a moment’s notice and the fact that Doctor Druid seemed like the least cool super hero ever, I had no particular interest in learning any more about the Avengers at that time.

I next revisited the title in the early 90’s when I was really falling head-over-heels into comics and buying pretty much everything for at least a few issues at one time or another. This was during the Bob Harras/Steve Epting run on Avengers where everybody had brown leather jackets and every story seemed to center on Sersi, The Black Knight and/or Crystal (seriously, based on that old school issue and my 90’s immersion I just assumed Black Knight was the Avengers’ franchise player for a long while). I wrote a bit on this era previously and had a nice conversation with Mr. Epting about it last year at San Diego Comic-Con (he is a very good sport about the leather jackets and let’s just leave it at that).

Frankly put, this was not a great time for the Avengers and I don’t believe it was the fault of anybody in particular. Fact was, X-Men was selling like hotcakes so conventional wisdom said it made sense to make the Avengers more like the X-Men, with more leather and soap opera, less classic foes and nostalgia. Bob Harras was editing the X-Men, so he was the logical choice to make the Avengers more like them (Bob Harras is also, by the way, an extremely underrated writer, and you should check out his work on Breach if you can track it down).

But what worked for the X-Men didn’t work for the Avengers because their DNA just wasn’t the same (oh I didn’t even realize what I was doing there; I am so clever). The X-Men franchise had well over a decade of Chris Claremont doing the ultimate soap opera run in comics and characters who were by design not iconic and thus more suited for the angsty character-driven stuff; Avengers was supposed to be the biggest and best Marvel heroes all in the same book, with epic threats and huge battles as the order of the day.

In the early 90’s, the Avengers very much felt like a B-list X-Men, which was completely wrong as being an Avenger should be the ultimate “you’ve made it” moment for any Marvel hero and being on the X-Men should kinda suck (because you’re feared and hated). It didn’t work for me, and so, for a second time, I ditched the Avengers.

Third time’s the charm, though, as in 2001 (or thereabouts) during my second comic book renaissance, I discovered the Avengers once more, and have been a card-carrying fan ever since (I actually do have a membership card because we had a bunch of leftovers from some promotion around the office recently; it’s signed by David Gabriel, so you know it’s legit).

The way I circled back around to the Avengers was that I’d gotten heavy into the Marv Wolfman-George Perez New Teen Titans and was looking for more of that sweet Perez art fix. Somehow or another I was tipped off to the fact that Mr. Perez drew 30-some-odd issues of Avengers written by Kurt Busiek beginning in 1998, so I was off to the races hitting the back issues bins.

And good lord, as incredible as Perez’s stuff was on NTT, I could not believe how much better his Avengers was. I know I’m not alone in praising George Perez for, among other things, constantly working to improve his game no matter how long he’s been on top (his Legion of 3 Worlds work from last year is incredibly even better than his Avengers stuff). George is simply one of the greats, and also a true gentleman in every sense; getting to interview him a few times is one of the high watermarks of my career and a Nova sketch by the man remains among my most sought-after treasures.

But as good as Perez’s art was on Avengers—and it was really really good—Kurt Busiek’s writing is up to the task of matching that work. It really is among the most enormous, most imaginative, most “nothing is too big to cram in here” runs in comics (and a future Essentials entry for sure). Not too many folks who have worked on the Avengers—or many other books—over the years have had a better appreciation for what their material had been at its best and what it would take to bring that out again than Busiek. He recognized the inherent coolness of the Avengers comes from having as many heroes as you can manage in the same place bumping into each other as they go and putting them up against crises that (as the old saying goes) none of them can face alone.

Aside from the regular roster of 7-10 members Busiek generally had on tap, he also had a steady supply of alumni, guest stars, cameos, etc. flowing in for Perez to challenge himself with (and George Perez is always up to the challenge). I can’t think of many comics where the creators’ (and editor’s, because Tom Brevoort deserves a lot of credit here) love for what they’re doing is more evident than Busiek and Perez’s Avengers.

And so I became an Avengers fan; and as a newly-minted Avengers fan, I did my duty and tracked the classics in trade paperback to fully understand what I was getting into.

I started from the start with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original stuff in softcover Marvel Masterworks form—didn’t love it. The sense I got then and have since gotten more from reading both more early Avengers and also other Silver Age Marvel is that Stan and Jack’s real passion went into the stuff they were making up as they went (if that makes sense) like Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, etc. I feel like Avengers was almost more of a book they felt they had to do because stuff like Justice League of America did well and it just made sense that if they had enough “name” heroes to have them all in one book. And don’t get me wrong, Stan and Jack at 70% is still better than most at 110, but it just doesn’t feel like their hearts were as much in those early Avengers stories as the concept more drove itself. You can see the quality level noticeably rise after Roy Thomas takes over writing probably in large part because it (along with X-Men) was the first book he could really make “his.”

The Kree-Skrull War is a science-fiction blockbuster that definitely stands the test of time, though. The aforementioned Mr. Thomas really hits his stride by cooking up a disaster worthy of the Avengers—because if two big, bad alien races going to full-on war with each other isn’t enough, there isn’t much that’s going to be—and hitting both the story and emotional beats with panache. The art chores shared by the Buscema brothers, John and Sal, plus the great Neal Adams are just stunning as well, particularly Adams bold experimentation.

One of my favorite Avengers stories I discovered during this period and really of all-time is Under Siege, the mid-80’s tale by Roger Stern and (again) John Buscema that directly predated my bad Marrina experience and is just one of the most gripping, bad ass things you’ll ever read if you love super hero comics. The gist is that Baron Zemo organizes the most massive Masters of Evil team ever and they just absolutely kick the shit out of the Avengers for a few issues. Hercules gets beat into a coma; Jarvis gets nearly crippled; Avengers Mansion gets leveled. It’s one of the most stark examples in comics of the bad guys really actually winning and the heroes being totally up against the wall, making their inevitable even-half-triumph so much more meaningful; great stuff.

Avengers Forever was also a really sweet jam by Busiek, Stern and Carlos Pacheco, but it’s so elaborate and continuity-packed that I’ll just leave it at that.

So suffice to say by the time I entered the comic book industry fo’ real in 2004, I was well-schooled in Avengers lore just as Brian Michael Bendis was blowing it all up and starting a whole new chapter. Now on Wednesday, after half a decade of redefinition, we’re gonna start seeing how Bendis’ new era meshes with the Thomas/Stern/Busiek days of yore and I’m pretty psyched at hearing what people think.

I think I’ll always be an X-Men guy at heart since that’s what I was reading when I was 12, but I’m glad I was stubborn enough to keep scratching that Avengers itch until I figured out why they were special and now get to enjoy their tenure as comics’ current biggest deal, both in print and on the big screen.

Tomorrow (barring something crazy): my five favorite.


Janis said...

Pretty helpful info, lots of thanks for this article.

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