This piece continues from last time our discussion of the first half of Jim Shooter’s 1970s Avengers run. Here, we’ll cover his “Nefaria Supreme” or “Nefaria’s Lethal Legion” arc with artist John Byrne. Next up will be the epic “Korvac Saga,” drawn by George Pérez and closing out this relatively brief era that nevertheless stood as proof that the Avengers could be more than just a wildly inconsistent smorgasbord of kooky or far-out ideas that, in the execution, largely failed to impress. This was a transitional period that would ultimately lead to one of the very few multiyear runs that easily redeem and justify the existence of this 60-year-old franchise—the Roger Stern run, followed over a decade later by the Kurt Busiek run. So far in this century, we have the Bendis and Hickman runs, with little of interest in the title since early 2015.
[covers by George Pérez and Pablo Marcos]
From Englehart to Shooter—All New, All Different?
Last time in our look back at glory days of the Bronze Age Avengers title, we took a deep dive into one of the high watermarks of not just early Avengers stories but of author Steve Englehart’s early career, as well. “The Serpent Crown Saga” distilled all of his distinctive qualities (beautifully realized by the fresh energy of a young George Pérez just starting out): The all-encompassing political paranoia borne of the Nixon era and an intense drive to adapt the Marvel Universe very directly to the tumultuous cultural moment—wherein Englehart was equally interested in psychedelic experimentation and an earnest search for new symbols for making sense of the world and creating or recasting heroic figures to inspire a younger generation skeptical of traditional assumptions. Bear in mind he was 25 years younger than Stan Lee, and even the 7-year gap between Englehart and Roy Thomas, the title’s second writer, is significant considering the seismic shifts shaking up American culture as Englehart entered adulthood.
Of course, Englehart’s plotting skills were, well, a bit messy—but that wasn’t exactly unusual for Marvel during those early years. What stood out at the time was his signature psychedelic and paranoid kookiness, as well as the strength and boldness of his heroines, very unusual at the time, even for American culture more generally back then. In this formative era, what mattered most behind the scenes was keeping pace with deadlines and getting out entertaining stories each month even while narrative coherence was typically of tertiary importance, if at all. The scarcity of logical story structure was a real pet peeve of Jim Shooter when he started his first and most enduring Marvel run with Avengers #158.
It speaks to the state of the comic book industry in the early 1990s that the contents of one story can fill an entire Epic Collection volume all by itself. At nineteen parts (including two double-sized issues), plus a one-issue epilogue, “Operation: Galactic Storm” is a sprawling tale, born of a then-booming comic book market. With comic book sales ever-climbing and new single-issue sales records being set and obliterated all the time, Marvel had accelerated its “flood the market” approach, putting as many books as possible onto the shelves. This was done, in part, by creating little “fiefdoms” of similarly-themed titles that could inspire additional spinoffs and be drafted into crossovers with one another (the better to force readers looking to experience the whole story to buy everything): there were the “X-books,” comprised of the two X-Men series and their spinoff titles, four monthly Spider-Man books, an assortment of series and one-shots starring the Punisher, etc.
While the “Big Three” of the Avengers – Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man – had been at least tangentially associated with the main Avengers title for decades, in the early 90s those connections were leaned on more heavily as part of this sales approach. In 1985, a second Avengers book, West Coast Avengers (later renamed Avengers West Coast to ensure it was shelved next to its sister title), launched. By 1992, those two series, along with the Big Three’s solo books and new series featuring Wonder Man (from Avengers West Coast) and Quasar (from the East coast team) formed a family of Avengers title, and with “Operation: Galactic Storm,” they all participated in one massive, interconnected story for the first time. [Read more…] about Operation Galactic Storm, Epic Collection Review!
The Serpent Crown Saga by Steve Englehart & George Pérez
[Avengers #150 interior by Pérez; #144 cover by Gil Kane]
Hey, kids, it’s the kooky ’70s!
And we are deep in it with Steve Englehart’s Avengers finale, the culmination of his classic four-year run that began with such legendary tales as The Avengers/Defenders War and The Celestial Madonna Saga, wherein the modern reader will find much legend-making but much less sense-making. And that’s also true here at the end, but most of this longish “Serpent Crown” arc does make a good deal more sense than prior goings-on, in no small part because there are significantly fewer moving pieces—though there’s no shortage of variety throughout!
Yes, there was a time when the Avengers ruled, I mean, really ruled—ruled with genuine aspirational coolness! Or maybe, this is just a catchy title for a whole series of articles on Avengers milestones beginning in the midst of the full-steam-ahead Bronze Age and arriving one atop the other with the Roger Stern run, before the abyss of the ’90s, until the revitalization of Earth’s Mightiest with Kurt Busiek and George Pérez triumphant. Yet as much as this will be a love letter to some of my fave superhero comics, there will be plenty of criticism in the early going, especially when it comes to some of the more insufferably entitled men dominating this franchise. Still, I don’t want to focus on the negative even as I won’t shy away from addressing badness where it arises. What’s more interesting is that there is so much good material in this era (which, no doubt, is not lost on Disney!), but for me, the post-Hickman era of Avengers comics has been deeply, deeply, deeply disappointing. While 21st-century professional consistency (corporate streamlining) might be glaringly absent from the earlier comics, we’ll highlight those areas where those raw early times pushed in compelling directions that are almost wholly absent today.
So, hopefully, dear reader, you find this project of interest at least for all the neat ideas and characters that have fallen by the wayside in recent years. The fact that in the 1980s Monica Rambeau was Captain Marvel and held tenure as team leader of the Avengers is just one instance of the rich potential here that has been sorely neglected, especially with the dull and constrained narrowness of Aaron’s current work—which bears only the most superficial trappings of epic adventure (an unfortunate downfall from his legendary Thor). Whether or not you agree on this last, though, I think most Earth’s Mightiest fans will discover and rediscover some fascinating bits of forgotten lore, both in-universe and behind the scenes.
In this prelude piece, we’ll do a brief rundown of two early famous epics that didn’t work successfully as coherent stories. Future pieces will delve such titles as The Serpent Crown Saga, The Korvac Saga, Nights of Wundagore, Absolute Vision, Under Siege, Avengers Forever—and quite a few more! If you’re familiar with these sagas, hopefully you’ll still find something interesting, new or insightful to take away. Of course, enthused readers are welcome to leave a comment for friendly correction or disagreement. Learning anew and reconsidering based on well-meaning debate are essential to a healthy brain 😉. For fans unfamiliar with this earlier material, I hope only to pique your curiosity in seeking out this fascinating content. [Read more…] about When the Avengers Ruled, Prelude (Pt. 0)