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Welcome back to week one of the Comic Book Herald reading club! This week we covered Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s Avengers #1 – #3 and #19 – #22, including the return of the Avengers after Heroes Reborn, a medieval alternate universe with Morgan Le Fay, and a genocidal Ultron story. Hopefully everyone had a chance to read this week!
Before I begin – we have some great discussion going on the forums, but unfortunately the load times for replies are insane right now (dammit, Ultron!). So in the meantime, discussions will be moved to the comments right here.
Without further ado:
Avengers Story #1 + Backdrop Explaining the Marvel Universe
Whether you’re a long time Marvel reader or a brand new fan, one thing you’ll all have noticed is how quickly Busiek and Perez immerse the reader in Avengers culture. We’re barely 5 pages in before we’ve literally seen every Avenger ever. On one hand, this is a lot of fun and plays to George Perez’s strengths (drawing everything, somehow, in tremendous detail, a la his work on DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths). On the other… who the heck are half these Avengers?
So why launch an Avengers title this chalk full of characters? In almost every way, it can be explained by the timing and context of this Avengers #1. Busiek and Perez were given the unenviable task of restoring the Avengers to Earth-616 after many of them were thought lost to the world in the great Onslaught Epic.
This lead to the oft-maligned Heroes Reborn period of Marvel Comics, in which heroes like Captain America and Iron Man were completely rebooted into new series, and new interpretations of the character.
Every time I try to read the end of the Onslaught epic and Heroes Reborn, I regret it (see also: Secret Wars II, J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Simillarion,” and 50 Shades of Grey), but it’s actually a completely fascinating move by Marvel. In so many ways, Heroes Reborn parallels the more effective Ultimate Universe that would launch only 3 years later to much greater success. Heroes Reborn also foreshadows exactly the state of the Marvel Universe today: an impending Secret Wars event set to realign all aspects of Marvel Earth-616 (this is our main Marvel continuity), the Ultimate Universe (Earth-1610, and the Marvel U reinterpreted for the new millennium), and a whole slew of Marvel’s greatest hit alternate universes.
For our purposes, though, it’s worth noting that in 1998, Marvel was coming out of a Heroes Reborn reboot and Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Marvel Comics was in the worst shape it had ever been. It was time to get back to fundamentals, and after the Heroes Return miniseries (in which Franklin Richards basically just retcons the end of the Onslaught Saga and Heroes Reborn – “It was all a pocket universe I made! We’re good now!”) this is exactly what Busiek did with the Avengers.
Quality of Avengers #1 – #3 (Feb – Apr 1998)
A lot of you have already mentioned how dense and wordy the dialogue is in these first three issues of Avengers, and I have to believe this absolutely intentional on the part of Busiek. This isn’t Busiek’s first rodeo, having established himself in the 90’s as the writer of the excellent Astro City, as well as one of Marvel’s best miniseries, his collaboration with Alex Ross on “Marvels.”
Busiek proved two things on “Marvels,” one of which is relevant here in Avengers. The first is that he could write the everyman in a universe full of heroes and wonders better than anyone (Paul Jenkins’ Civil War: Frontline series of the 2000’s owes everything to Marvels). And the second is that very, very few writers get Marvel lore quite like Busiek. This is a creative talent extremely well versed in his comic book history and continuity. He’s read his Roy Thomas and Steve Englehardt Avengers from the 1970’s and 80’s, and that shows constantly in his work in the late 90’s on Avengers.
So what we have here is a highly nostalgic Avengers series, one that falls back to the comfortable old style of Avengers past. This can go a couple ways depending on your love / disinterest in older comics. Personally, I find the style of Stan and Jack endlessly fun, but I also wind up skipping more panels of text, simply because the dialogue and explanations don’t always advance the story, or bog down the reading experience. This means tons of expository dialogue, excessive use of lame nicknames (If I see “Vizh” one more time, I might kick an Android), and historical references galore.
It’s basically the opposite of what I would consider modern Marvel comics, and I’m guessing for a lot of you this was reasonably off-putting.
Wait, Why Did I Make You Read This?
First, it highlights essential continuity backstories. I’ll discuss this in a bit more detail below, but if you want to know where to look for essential Avengers stories of eons past, Busiek’s Avengers will frequently point you in the right direction.
Second it highlights the state of the Marvel Universe and why would need a New Avengers by the time Avengers Disassembled and, um, New Avengers roll around. It’s easy to forget in a post Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie world, but if you grew up in the 90’s, the Avengers were not all that interesting. While I’ve grown to appreciate the team much more in the years since, reading Busiek and Perez you can see it first-hand: this team is stodgy and plodding as heck sometimes!
How is the actual story in these first three issues? On the surface, an ambitious medieval alternate reality created by Morgan Le Fay with the use of The Twlight Sword (?!) is right up my alley. There’s a lot of goofy fun here in the early going as well:
It becomes clear pretty quickly, though, that Hawkeye’s humorous “Not another alternate reality!” is the more apt description of these three issues. Morgan’s medieval Earth is never really explored, and instead is largely a vehicle for the Avengers to Assemble, and for Morgan to berate her poor nephew Mordred.
All things considered, Avengers #1 – #3 are some nice comfort food for long time Avengers fans, and a bizarre history lesson for new readers.
Avengers vs. the JLA
I think it’s interesting, too, to compare Busiek and Perez’s late 90’s to early 2000s work on Avengers to their rival counterpart, Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA.
I won’t bury the lede: I think JLA is completely fantastic, and conceptually light-years ahead of Avengers. That said, Avengers is a lot more familiar, and possibly a lot more comforting.
The biggest similarities come from both Morrison and Busiek drawing from Avengers and Justice League lore. You wouldn’t expect a good Justice League story to arise out of the use of their first ever villain – Starro, the evil Star Fish – but of course that’s exactly what Morrison and Porter deliver. Likewise, Busiek hones in on his favorite Avengers stories, including the Ultron story we read, and later in his run an epic ~15 issue Kang story in which Kang conquers Earth and essentially succeeds.
That said, it’s kind of shocking how far ahead of the curve JLA was at the same time these Avengers issues were being published. It’s almost hard to believe in 2015, but in 1998 DC Comics was winning the Marvel vs. DC heavyweight bout big time!
Marvel Continuity Implications
If you’ve been using the oft-imitated, never duplicated Comic Book Herald Marvel reading order, you may have noticed that I leave this run of Avengers off my suggested reading leading up to Avengers Disassembled. What gives?
Things may change in the future, but my initial thinking was that 70+ Avengers issues felt like far too much prerequisite reading to get up to speed with Avengers Disassembled. And the truth of the matter is, even if you read the entire arc, there are only a small amount of direct Marvel continuity you get out of the later Avengers issues that help explain Disassembled (mostly Jack of Hearts and Ant-Man related).
The irony of not giving this Avengers run it’s due in the grand scheme of my continuity tracking is that no Marvel writer utilizes continuity like Kurt Busiek. I mean, Avengers Forever is basically continuity on steroids even the Seahawk’s Defense wouldn’t touch (pre Super Bowl cheap shot launched!).
This is extremely visible in the seven issues of Avengers we covered, and also why I started the Comic Book Herald reading club here. There are so many references to Avengers stories past! It’s likely a bit overwhelming for newer readers, but it also helps provide some direction on what older stories you should read. Vision, Yellow Jacket, and especially the Scarlet Witch’s history are all on full display here, and Wanda Maximoff will play a particularly enormous role as we move forward with Avengers stories in the 2000’s.
The Ultron Initiative
With Ultron all the rage in 2015, I think it’s worth analyzing how Busiek and Perez handle the character.
Avengers #19 – #22 was likely the highlight of the reading this week, with the return of Ultron. The stakes are much higher here, and the ramifications of evil far more real. I love Perez’s work on the Avengers reaction to the return of Ultron. These are tried and true warriors, and look at their response to the return of this ultimate evil!
Whereas Avengers #1 – #3 was largely a farce, these Ultron issues start off with unheard of devastation and utter genocide. This is pretty harrowing tragedy for an Earth-616 Avengers comic. While devastation quotas would become all the rage during Mark Millar’s Ultimates (millions dead! All the time!), it’s pretty darn uncommon for entire NATIONS to be wiped out by a single Avengers villain, with no salvation in the form of a retcon. And yet, with Ultron…
Hot damn! There’s a credibility to the threat of Ultron that most Avengers villains just can’t match, and Busiek and Perez capture it perfectly in the first half of this story arc. This also foreshadows Ultron’s immense power and disregard for human life that we will come to see in Age of Ultron.
In nearly every way, this captures the foundation for the Ultron I hope to see in Avengers 2. With one major exception:
Ultron is way too tied up in familial obsession for a heartless machine.
Now, this is the history of Ultron, and I understand that Busiek is merely adhering to the blueprints. But man do I have a problem with humanizing Ultron to the point that he has more metal-order-brides than he can even remember. He’s the greatest artificial intelligence we’ve ever seen, and he can’t get over mom and dad issues? I prefer my Ultron served cold.
I think the reason this bugs me is that it offers too convenient a solution for defeating Ultron. In these traditional Avengers vs. Ultron stories his downfall is always that he’s obsessed with Hank Pym and the Wasp, and having a family. I like Busiek’s insistence that Hank Pym is in fact responsible for Ultron, and not only that, Ultron’s brainwaves are modeled on Pym’s, meaning that monster lurks somewhere within Pym. It’s understandable that he would completely lose it and murder his machine.
But so much of the menace of Ultron is lost when he starts saying things like “Daddy.” This obsession will never truly fade, but we’ll see more properly menacing versions of Ultron in the years to come (and hopefully in Avengers 2!).
Suggested Additional Reading
Based on the stories we just read, here are some essential referenced stories, as well as some suggestions of my own. Consider this a “read if you liked” or in this case “read if you can’t get enough Avengers.”
Avengers West Coast: Vision Quest – Frequently referenced Scarlet Witch and Vision history during the course of our Avengers. This is an essential Avengers history read, and plays a major role in setting up Avengers Disassembled (to the point that Marvel has retroactively labeled it a prelude).
Heroes Reborn: The Return – If you just have to have this background 🙂
Avengers Forever – Another Busiek Avengers love letter. Avengers Forever ran throughout 1999, meaning it was concluding at the same time our Ultron story was taking place towards the close of ’99.
Avengers: Ultron Imperative – Follow-up special issue in the aftermath of Avengers #22. Available on Marvel Unlimited, and only suggested if you really enjoyed the Ultron arc.
IF you enjoyed Busiek and Perez’s Avengers, you’ll want to progress to the Kang Dynasty. Busiek wraps his time on Avengers with an enormous Kang story that has its moments for our time traveling fans in the audience.
Approximately Avengers #41 – #55. The trade’s out of print as far as I can tell.
This Week’s Funniest Panel
This Week’s Best Panel
This Week’s Worst Panel
This Week’s Best Cover From Later In The Run That We Didn’t Talk About
Best Reader Comments During the Week
EYES! EYES! Everywhere there are eye — I’m not sure if this is a Busiek thing, a Perez thing, or both, but I first noticed it when they started talking about Cap’s eyes in one of the first two books, and then noticed that Iron Man’s suit had eye holes — character’s eyes are constantly used to drive the emotional angles of the story….kind of a nuance, but something that I noticed throughout all six books. ~ Babbaloie
I was not too impressed with these issues. A similar alternate reality idea was done to better effect in the Kulan Gath X-Men storyline. I like that there are lots of winks and nods to the characters and their pasts, but this is not very newbie-friendly material. Even knowing the characters, I didn’t find Busiek’s Avengers to be very entertaining. ~ brandonh
Not that long ago, each of those individual Ultron models would have occupied the Avengers for a whole arc, now they deal with a few dozen (with problems or not), that feels too much like a stretch to me. Especially since the resolution was just someone jumping in out of thin air with a miracle solution to the whole thing. Too easy dear Mr. Busiek. And the bit where Jan blames herself for Hank hitting her, uhh, let’s just say that I don’t think that part would go over so well with some modern readers ~ kaioshin
The Morgan Le Fay arc was a bit twee, whereas Ultron had a greater sense of danger and actual risk to the team. ~ Horrorhearts
The stakes felt crazy high, and since this was my first experience with Ultron, I now totally get why he’s such a beloved villain. Truly psychotic and genocidal, directly connected to one of the Avengers, and super resourceful. I thought it was telling that the only way they were able to defeat him was with a kind of deus ex machina device. ~ dkmikester
I know a handful of you are jonesing for a great modern story, and the week after next I’ve got a great one for us. But before we get there, there’s an essential all-time favorite of mine that we need to cover:
Secret Wars #1 – #12!
That’s right, you’ve heard it in the news, you may have even grown up with it In the 80’s, but it’s time to take a look back at the greatest Doctor Doom story ever told (I said it, and I meant it).
Secret Wars On Amazon
Enjoy the comics, and be sure to share your thoughts below!