When the issues collected in Avengers Epic Collection: The Crossing Line were first published in 1990 and 1991, the Avengers were in a bit of flux. Writer Roger Stern’s acclaimed five year long run on the book had come to an end a few years earlier. Just prior to the start of this volume, writer John Byrne had abruptly left his stewardship of both Avengers and Avengers West Coast, a stewardship which had culminated in putting the Avengers at the center of Marvel’s line-wide crossover “Acts of Vengeance” just before he left the books. On the other side of these collected issues, the creative run by writer Bob Harras and (chiefly) penciler Steve Epting looms, a run that will come to define “Avengers in the 90s,” for better and worse. With the benefit of hindsight, this chunk of issues feels very much like it’s simply filling the gap between the Byrne and Harras/Epting runs, merely killing time despite the fact that Larry Hama – whose entire work on the Avengers is collected in this volume – had every intention of staying on the title for a good long while (more on that below). Yet for that, at least some of the stories collected herein are not without their charms, even if few of them rise to the level of all time Avengers greats.
One of the things Marvel experimented with in the late 80s and early 90s, as specialty comic book shops proliferated and the comics market boomed on the backs of the superstar artists who would one day create Image Comics, was double shipping titles over the summer. The idea being, with kids out of school (and still buying comics), why not publish two issues a month of their favorite books during that time, making everyone happy (kids: more comics! Marvel: more money!)? In the summer of 1990, with Byrne gone, future X-Men writer Fabian Nicieza was tapped to deliver the Avengers’ bi-weekly summer story, the six part “Crossing Line” which opens the volume and provides its name.
“The Crossing Line,” which runs from issues #319-324, is both a bit of classic superhero storytelling and something which speaks very directly to the geopolitical zeitgeist of the time in which it was published. It involves a group of Russian terrorists – angry at the softening of the Soviet Union’s attitudes towards the West – capturing a nuclear submarine and holding the world hostage. A truly international conflict, their attack eventually draws in the Avengers, the People’s Protectorate (nee the Soviet Super Soldiers), the Canadian superhero team Alpha Flight and (because of the involvement of the submarine) a faction of Atlanteans. In that way, it brings to mind the sprawling superhero dustups of the Silver and Bronze Age, when it was exciting to simply see two (or more!) superhero teams come together against a common foe. As the plot of “The Crossing Line” escalates and more characters get drawn in, the each issue begins by running headshots of all the players involved along the borders of the opening splash page, a bit of design that really speaks to the “playing with all the toys in the toybox” vibe Nicieza is going for.
Another element adding to the classism of the story is the artwork, chiefly from penciler Paul Ryan (who is the signature artist of this entire volume, penciling the vast majority of the issues) and inker Tom Palmer (whose run as Avengers inker stretches all the way back to 1985 and forward to 1996). Ryan is sort of the anti-90s artist, someone whose work stays consistently in Marvel’s “house style” of the 80s well into the 1990s, even as artists around him go on to fame and fortune by pushing (and in some cases, breaking) the boundaries of that style. His work in this volume, along with the near-omnipresence of Palmer’s inks, which ensures a consistency of style even when Ryan is spelled by another penciler for an issue or two, is a perfect complement to the plot of “The Crossing Line”. Like the plot, the art is clear and easy to understand, possesses a certain kind of retro charm, but also isn’t terribly exciting or memorable on its own merits.
Beyond the “retro superhero mashup” components of the story, the other element that defines “The Crossing Line” is how of its time it is in terms of the villains’ motivations and actions. While the art and superhero team-ups have a feeling of yesteryear about them, the specific mechanics of the plot – anti-West Soviets capturing a nuclear sub and creating a geopolitical crisis while threatening the world with atomic annihilation – are very much informed by the fact that it’s being written in 1990. It’s basically a Tom Clancy novel with superheroes, and captures that feeling of a world on the brink of both disaster and hope. While the intricacies of the Russian separatists’ motives and demands are likely lost on readers today who aren’t intimately familiar with the geopolitical details of this particular slice of time (or Tom Clancy novels), there is something entertaining about a story that is so strongly tied to the trappings of a very specific era.
That said, “The Crossing Line” is far from a classic Avengers store. It’s not even the best story in this volume. While the idea of devoting each of the series’ six summer issues (two per month) to one cohesive story makes sense, it results in what is probably, at best, a four issue plot being stretched to fill six issues. For all that the story features a sprawling cast of international heroes, it still more or less takes place entirely around or in one submarine in one Canadian bay, which creates a claustrophobic setting at odds with the breadth of its cast. There’s only so many times one Avenger or another can secretly board the submarine and get kicked off, or the terrorists can threaten nuclear annihillation, before things start to feel repetitive and drawn out.
Yet for that, “The Crossing Line” doesn’t even fully fill each of its six issues. Running as backup tales in each one is an additional, unrelated, story by Captain America writer and longtime Marvel editor Mark Gruenwald featuring the Avengers’ support staff. The support staff – a crew of non-superheroes who help Avengers’ butler Edwin Jarvis run the portion of the Avengers’ operations that don’t involve punching bad guys, like maintaining their vehicles and handling their headquarter’s security and who include characters like Captain America’s World War II love interest Peggy Carter and J. Jonah Jameson’s astronaut son John – is another element of this volume which dates it to a very specific time, as they are largely featured only in John Byrne’s earlier run and here (as well as in contemporaneous Captain America stories), and then largely ignored by Bob Harras once he takes over the book.
In these backup stories, they are targeted by the hypnotic Captain America villain Mother Night, with the entirety of Avengers #325’s “Party Games!” dedicated to the resolution of their plotline set against the backdrop of a party thrown by Avenger and Eternal Sersi. The support staff backup narrative gets by on the novelty of seeing those characters in the spotlight, and the presence of the backups in each issue help make the bi-weekly “event” feel a little more special (while keeping that main narrative from dragging on even longer). Yet like “The Crossing Line” itself, it’s not exactly an Avengers all-timer. After it concludes, Larry Hama takes over as the series’ new regular writer.
Larry Hama is best known as the writer of Marvel’s GI Joe comic and for his long run on Wolverine. Much less well known is this brief tenure as Avengers scribe, a run which ends when this collection does, with issue #333. It is unclear why he left when he did; according to contemporaneous interviews in Marvel Age (Marvel’s in-house fanzine), he had every intention of staying on the book indefinitely and that plays out in the issues he wrote, including one of the volume’s highlights, Avengers #329, “Starting Line-Up”.
In that issue, Hama does one of those great “unveil a new team of Avengers” issues that are such a touchstone of the series, debuting his own hand picked Avengers roster. But he also uses the issue to unveil a change in the relationship between the Avengers and the more traditional authority figures. Previously, the Avengers were an independent organization operating with special (US) government clearance. Here, Hama has the Avengers re-charter themselves as a group working under the auspices of the United Nations, helping address threats the world over for which superheroes are uniquely positioned to handle. Compared to other superhero teams, the Avengers have always had a strong current of subplots running through their adventures inspired by the internal mechanics of the team bureaucracy: questions of who the “chairperson” of the team would be or how many members were allowed on the roster at one time were often as much of a concern as foiling the villain’s plot du jour. In issue #329, Hama leans into that, and leaves his own mark on the Avenger’s organizational history.
There’s a few different plotlines which unfold across Hama’s eight issues, but the main element which connects them all is the introduction of a new character, Rage. A massive black man in a leather vest and luchador mask possessing superhuman strength and invulnerability, Rage is Hama’s attempt to address the fact that the Avengers are, for the most part, lily white. The two historical exceptions, which Captain America raises when confronted with this fact – Black Panther and Falcon – are quickly shot down by Rage: Black Panther is a wealthy king of a nation, hardly representative of the vast majority of black Americans, while Falcon was made an Avenger as an act of tokenism, forced on the team by the US government, and isn’t, in Rage’s opinion, terribly powerful or useful compared to other Avengers (neither Cap, Rage, nor Hama bring up Monica Rambeau, an African-American woman from a more working class background who, as Captain Marvel, was supremely powerful and even led the Avengers for a time, though she does appear briefly in this collection). Rage wants to be an Avenger to give the people from his neighborhood and countless neighborhoods like it a superhero to look up to, a superhero who looks like them, and to help represent the interests of those people amongst the elite of the superhero world.
It is a noble effort on Hama’s part to both diversify the Avenger’s lineup and address some legitimate concerns about representation. But it suffers for two reasons. One is that Rage, as well-intentioned as his creation may be, leans into a lot of stereotypes about young black men: his power is chiefly physical (he punches real hard and can take a lot of punches), he comes from a crime-ridden neighborhood being flooded by drugs where he’s raised by his saintly grandmother, and he is perpetually angry and prone to violence (beyond even the violence routinely perpetrated by superheroes). There’s very little nuance to him as a character, very little to separate him from every white person’s (prejudicial) image of what an urban black man in 1990 is like. The second problem is that, again, well-intentioned as Hama might be, superhero “punch ‘em ups” in 1990 are a difficult venue for tackling the kind of legitimate representation problems Rage is bringing to the table. We know Rage is right in his criticisms, but we also know there’s not a lot either he or Larry Hama can do about it, other than raise the issue, because the issue is bigger than both of them. And once it’s raised, what then? Who knows, because it’s time to get back to the punching!
This conflict, between the desire to tackle some legitimate real world issues and the need to satisfy the needs of an audience with expectations of seeing straightforward superhero action in their Avengers comics, plays out in the middle third of Hama’s run, across Avengers #329-331, as Rage’s admittance to the Avengers comes just before the Avengers are drawn into battle against a coalition of extra-dimensional beings and drug-dealers from Rage’s neighborhood. The image of a pink rock monster with a loin cloth sitting on the couch of a rocket launcher-wielding drug dealer is certainly attention-getting, but the juxtaposition of the more grounded threats of Rage’s environment with the kind of high-concept, larger-than-life foes the Avengers routinely battle doesn’t have the impact it needs to be successful. Instead, the two different types of antagonists come off looking worse for their mashup: how much of a threat, really, is “Ngh the Unspeakable” when he needs the help of this low-level drug dealer?
Conversely, while the drug-dealing LD 50 is meant to be a representation of a very real threat affecting plenty of real people, that sense of grounded realism is undermined by the presence of the baroque, brightly colored monsters getting hit in the face by the magic hammer of a space god. Again, it’s easy to see and appreciate what Hama is going for, but it ultimately doesn’t work. In many ways, the introduction of Rage, and the way his criticisms of the Avengers’ racial politics play out, is as emblematic of the time in which it was written as the Tom Clancy plotting of “The Crossing Line”: well-intentioned, but not as effective as it wants – and needs – to be.
Larry Hama’s run comes to a close with a two-part story that, in the end, becomes a pretty great showcase for Rage. It is also the best story of the volume, and a personal favorite. In Avengers #332-333, the Avengers host a party celebrating the completion of their brand new headquarters (the old one having been destroyed in “Acts of Vengeance”). Amidst the attending dignitaries and superheroes sneaks in Doctor Doom. After taking control of their new headquarters, Doom threatens to blow it up with everyone inside unless the Avengers share with him the secrets of extra-dimensional travel (which the Avengers are only able to do thanks to the hammer of Thor, who isn’t at the party). What follows is a kind of a locked room mystery as a group of Avengers work to regain control of the complex and defeat Doom, with Rage saving the day not with his strength but through his intelligence and heart. In a room filled with some of the smartest superheroes in the world (including Mister Fantastic), it is Rage who figures out Doom’s secret. Furthermore, it is Rage’s relationship with his grandmother (a relationship which channels the Peter Parker/Aunt May relationship, but which also makes a point of establishing Rage’s grandmother as being more in the know than Aunt May) which shows him the way out of Doom’s trap, freeing everyone trapped in the building and forcing the villain to retreat. In doing so, Hama presents Rage as a more realized character who exists as more than a collection of tropes and stereotypes, pointing a way forward for the character to exist independent of the intentions behind his creation. It’s ultimately a fun story which provides a strong note on which to end this volume.
It also, unfortunately, marks the end of Larry Hama’s tenure as Avengers writer. Whatever the reasons for Hama’s departure – and given his comments at the time and the way he was clearly invested in building up his own roster of and approach to the Avengers with an eye on the long game, it seems unlikely he left of his own volition – his brief run ends abruptly. The Doctor Doom story is great fun, but it is not structured in any way like the final story of a writer’s tenure. The signature character of his run – Rage – will shortly be written out of the book, after another writer reveals the big secret in his origin that Hama teased; eventually, Rage will find a more long term home with 90s teen heroes the New Warriors, and it will be left to other creators to follow Hama’s lead in developing Rage as a character. This leaves Hama’s longest lasting contribution to the Avengers’ mythos as their new UN charter, something that will remain in place until the 1993 X-Men/Avengers crossover “Bloodties”. Ultimately, the abruptness of Hama’s departure, combined with the largely self-contained nature of the titular “Crossing Line” story written by a fill-in writer, lends this volume an air of water-treading, that the series across these issues was merely trying to establish its footing in the wake of one significant creator’s departure before shifting to biding time before the start of its next notable creative run. In part, though, that feeling comes only with the benefit of hindsight, and in the context of the Avengers as a long-form serial narrative.
Taken as a self-contained entity – or, at least, removed from the context of what’s to come – there is something appealing about the stories collected in this volume. There are certainly more exciting Avengers stories out there (or ones with more dynamic art or intricate plotting). But in their way, these stories are a kind of platonic ideal of Avengers stories. They feature superheroes doing superhero things, the plots informed (lightly) by the politics of their time, with the characters occasionally taking breaks from the punching to vote on roster lineups and rewrite the team’s governing documents. There are also more specific charms to be found throughout, in the kind of old-fashioned plotting crossed with the of-the-moment geopolitics of “The Crossing Line,” to the art from Paul Ryan and Tom Palmer that makes up in basic storytelling what it lacks in dynamism, in the earnest if ultimately failed attempts to tackle racial issues dead-on via Rage. No one is going to hold up “The Crossing Line” as a one of the all time great Avengers stories or argue that Larry Hama’s brief time shepherding the series is one of the book’s definitive creative runs. But for a bit of retro-ish storytelling with some touches of real world politics and the Avengers invoking Robert’s Rules of Order – as well as a supremely fun Doctor Doom story – there are worse collections to pull off the shelf.