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.
Ionic Power Men (also, sneaky NSA Agent Henry Gyrich debuts)
Byrne steps in as guest artist for this brief, fast-moving arc. There’s much less to say about it than “Bride.” The main thing is that it entertains with almost nonstop fisticuffs and suspense. The nemesis, like Ultron previously, employs cat’s-paws over whom he holds secret control, as the mastermind will reveal when he’s ready to make his lethal strike upon already exhausted prey.
Thus—Count Nefaria returns!
His special new suit siphons off his super-goon’s superpowers!
The super-suit’s designer is a crusty old Nazi scientist probably out of Operation Paperclip—but at least he dies!
Oddly though, only the cover of issue #164 proclaims Nefaria’s goons the “Lethal Legion.” Otherwise, this trio isn’t given a name during this arc. The original team hadn’t been seen since its debut in issues #78-79, where Power Man and Living Laser, along with Man-Ape and Swordsman, were led by the Grim Reaper—who’s most closely identified with the surprisingly seldom used Lethal Legion brand. The name “Masters of Evil” was always more popular.
What is certainly most notable about this arc is the debut of government agent Henry Gyrich, who was recently, infamously, murdered by S.W.O.R.D. commander Abigail Brand to replace him in his leadership role within the seemingly vast, super-science hate group Orchis. For now, though, he’s just snooping about, gathering dirt on Earth’s Mightiest NGO.
The opening pages of Avengers #164 find the Avengers’ top minds studying Wonder Man, puzzling out what exactly what he’s made of:
This ongoing development of the recently revived Simon fits perfectly with Nefaria’s choice of Power Man for his first recruit, and we’re talking Erik Josten* (not Luke Cage). Simon and Josten’s powers are similar, having come from the same source (see below)—and Nefaria plans to absorb those of his henchman into himself. Thus, all three are now understood to be formed of ionic energy, and hence immortal, no longer biological.
(*Josten is most well known as an original Thunderbolts member, known then and now as Atlas)
Simon & Hankle (what a pair)
Now, the second point of interest in the story’s opening scene is the Beast’s depiction as feeling, yet again like a third wheel (see the OG X-Men) but this time, in the area where he should be comfortably at home, the science department. Shooter didn’t have anything like the interest Englehart had for the blue Beast whose comics career he had revived. Even Hank Pym as Yellowjacket (again) gets to contribute his ideas, the last straw apparently for the snubbed Dr. McCoy. Yet the next scene, just one page, tells us that McCoy’s new purpose is no longer brooding manimal; he’s to be the comic relief and ladies’ man!
Bounding off to brood on his lonesome in long coat and top hat pulled low, blue Henry finds himself seen by all the young ladies out on the bustling sidewalks. It’s much nicer than suffocating from several varieties of arrogance in a super-science lab turned sausage-fest. Too bad McCoy never knew this would be the best that his life would ever get.
Still, it was sensible for Shooter to pair the Beast with Wonder Man—two newbies to the Avengers who nevertheless had some complex baggage. But why not reset both and have them hang out? Put that way it’s almost the path of least resistance for a writer who’s not too particular about his supporting characters.
Granted, Gerry Conway’s Avengers Annual #6 first laid the groundwork for their fan-favorite friendship; then Shooter more fully established their playful, macho-lite dynamic.
However, Simon’s return to life also intimates the end of Wanda and the Vision’s happy days, and even if Shooter weren’t the main culprit here, it seems that most storytellers post-Englehart, certainly John Byrne and possibly Roger Stern, were actively invested in breaking up that unlikely marriage—and always in ways that started with one or the other suddenly becoming evil.
We can read comics writers of the late 70s and early 80s progressively framing the marriage as the result of an emotionally fragile woman with godlike powers deluding herself into loving an android of very flat affect, as an easy way of projecting her fantasies of human normalcy onto a pliant blank slate and thereby avoiding the anxiety surrounding her own frightening potential (Doesn’t sound at all like the Disney show, right?).
With Hank McCoy set on his new, more easygoing path, we turn to—Power Man! Luke Cage? No, although for several years that had already been Cage’s nom de guerre; indeed his ongoing Power Man & Iron Fist was one of Marvel’s most notable titles of the ’70s.
No, instead, we’re reintroduced to the gruff, dim-witted loner Erik Josten, the first (and worst) Power Man, whom we see here brought back out of obscurity by—Count Nefaria! A few years before this, in Power Man #21, Luke Cage kicked Josten’s butt when he tried to take back the codename he no longer had a right to.
Nefaria calls Josten a “pale imitator” of Wonder Man because while he may have received his powers through the same process Simon underwent, somehow the second time was worse. In his origin story, however, there’s nothing about him being weaker, so Shooter has vaguely recast his origins. Josten had been employed by the original Baron Zemo as a super-tech smuggler, providing him the tech that would be used in transforming Simon into superpowered “ionic energy,” which we see in Avengers #9—but without Josten. His debut is in issue #21, where we find that Zemo’s equipment is still functioning despite his recent death. Hiding out and wounded in the old lab, Josten receives a visitor from Asgard, the Enchantress (former Zemo ally), who comes bearing promises of purpose and transformation; she submits Josten to the energy ray and thus, Power Man is born. But the Enchantress’s beguiling attentions proved very ephemeral, so he understandably found refuge in the simple, anonymous life of a warehouse man. Yet almost immediately, he’s taken in by Nefaria’s own enticements.
Nefaria’s name has always sounded much more, well, nefarious than any of his fiendish schemes. Previously, traditionally cliched Italian aristocrat and criminal mastermind Luchino Nefaria had been seen just three times—as a foe of, respectively, the Avengers (Avengers #13), Iron Man and the X-Men. This last saw his apparent death (the infamous X-Men #95 by Claremont and Cockrum). In these appearances, he was just the typical aristocratic crime lord with super tech; now, he plans to become not just superpowered but immortal.
But Nefaria must first hoodwink his chosen guinea pigs into being employed merely as typical henchmen, enticing each with the offer of power enhancement via his propriety super-tech—supplied by a few scientists who are already under Nefaria’s thumb. Thus, Josten’s broken power fantasy dreams are reignited. He joins Whirlwind and Living Laser on their initial outing—a rather banal bank robbery, which they indeed believe beneath their contempt as superpowered thugs.
Of course, they immediately run into trouble—the Avengers. But despite a strong initial showing, especially from Wanda (again going with the motif of her fighting abilities leveling up), our heroes were as unprepared as the new Lethal Legion, and the villains manage to flee.
Turn the page and we find Earth’s Mightiest have been stewing for days over how team discipline has unraveled and Cap is disappointed by the lack of leadership from Iron Man, the current chairman (Clearly, Jan’s turn was overdue!). Mulling over internal troubles, the Avengers are caught even more unprepared when Nefaria’s goons launch a direct assault on Avengers Mansion. But the Count has a nastier surprise in store for his gullible freelancers (seriously, where’s the supervillain freelancers’ union? Oh, right, this was just around the corner from Reagan’s “Morning in America”).
Knocked back hard on their heels, the Avengers are startled to see their foes’ souped-up powers vanish—but then Nefaria busts in with his flowy red-and-yellow cape, supercharged. Again, Nefaria’s reappearance here would have been quite surprising to long-time readers.
Even so, except for his neat cartoon villain scheme to infuse himself with others’ superpowers, Nefaria just isn’t interesting here or anywhere*. The middle issue reveals how the Count has duped all his employees with his scientists powering up the three henchmen while secretly causing their powers to transfer to Nefaria via a specially designed power-suit and then Nefaria killing his own science people because he wants to prevent their expertise being used elsewhere (Of course, as revealed here, one of these experts had been Zemo’s assistant in creating Wonder Man).
(*Nefaria is only of some enduring interest because of his daughter, Madame Masque, a primary antagonist of Iron Man’s, going back to the Silver Age)
Count Nefaria’s Apotheosis, Avengers #165
With Thor absent (a growing puzzle that will be resolved at the start of “The Korvac Saga”) and Iron Man and the Scarlet Witch down, Simon is the most powerful Avenger left standing—but he’s still afraid of dying, even if in his case that means dissolving for years into his constituent ionic energy or whatever. The attack by Ultron put that fear back into him, and Shooter did a good job of developing this motif in the character, albeit somewhat superficially, and making a convincing case for his triumph over this crisis of self-doubt. Even after mustering the courage to gut-punch the gloating Nefaria only to find his foe invulnerable, Simon grimly keeps hold of his shaky resolve despite his incredulous shock and subsequent knock out.
With ease, Count Nefaria takes down the entire team, dropping an entire building on them, but then, oddly, the aging Golden Age speedster the Whizzer randomly intercepts the villain on a rooftop. Really, it’s not so random when considering that during this era, starting with Giant-Size Avengers #1 by Roy Thomas, he and Miss America were believed to be Wanda and Pietro’s parents. Bizarre, I know.
Regardless, while this revelation occurred three years before the present story, there was no indication that any close bond had developed between the newly discovered father and his grown children, with whom he really had nothing in common (the mother had died during childbirth). So, it’s weird that Wanda has suddenly started calling him “Dad” (issue #164), but we’ll address all this when we get to “Nights of Wundagore!”
But while he’s furious here, believing Nefaria has slain the Avengers, and thus the woman whom he believes to be his daughter, the Whizzer’s hopeless confrontation with this much more powerful foe reads oddly today since no one figured out how to integrate this obscure Golden Age hero; a few years later, he would die (which is impressive, as he was just recovering from a heart attack in this Nefaria arc). Still, the Whizzer provides our narrative’s turning point:
Taunting Nefaria over his age, the even older (and either very clever or just plain ageist) Whizzer successfully shakes Nefaria’s vain confidence. But the realization that he will soon fade (“another Hitler, scarring the pages of history!” in the Whizzer’s words) is for the Count a gift, and so he spares the hero’s life as he flies off, back to Avengers HQ, in search of Thor—whose god energies, properly siphoned, could infuse the villain with his immortal life-force.
Before he arrives, though, Iron Man comes upon the scene of destruction outside the mansion, and while he gets to work unearthing his teammates, Stark inwardly regrets his absence from the team (Bill Mantlo was making him go globe-hopping after unfortunately Asian-themed baddies over in his solo series). Everyone’s upset at his apparent lack of leadership—which actually seems pretty normal for the franchise during its first 20 years or so; that makes for better drama, after all!
So when Nefaria busts in, Iron Man is ready to prove his worth, just to go down first. On the next page, Nefaria takes down everyone else—and then Stark is back in the game again, pushing his suit to the limit. Nefaria is a having a rougher go of it this time, when Wonder Man—who we belatedly realize has been hanging back (“I stood here watching … afraid!”)—steps into the fray. After trading a few blows, Simon is knocked out; still, the newbie held his own and at least played for time…
In time for Nefaria’s quarry to finally arrive—in a storm of lightning, his hammer flying. Can Nefaria hope to stand his ground, let alone plunder a god’s life-force?
To Battle with the Gods! Avengers #166
Really, though, it’s Wanda who gets the cooler showing.
Despite a good godly showing in the opening pages, Thor gets a building dropped on him—which is apparently Nefaria Supreme’s signature move. Unfortunately for him, he won’t get to make this play again anytime soon, as Nefaria next appears a year later in Iron Man #114-116, where we see writer Bill Mantlo must’ve only skimmed Shooter’s classic story here, reading Professor Sturdy’s clever ruse as the actual truth: his absorption of others’ superpowers has made the Count age rapidly into disability and senility; killed off, then, he doesn’t return for another 20 years, when he’s indeed “resurrected” to full ionic vigor.
Soon, the ex-Nazi scientist (strangely of the non-cackling variety) shows up to taunt the fearsome Nefaria, apparently having nothing left to lose. And he’s oddly the hero of this story since he plants a seed of doubt in Nefaria’s mind—that he’s realized an unforeseen side-effect of his superpower absorption: rapid aging, followed by death within just a few days.
Meanwhile, inside the Mansion, Jarvis frets over the Vision, who’s been in a “restorative tank” since Ultron felled him with his encephalo-beam in issue #161. But Yellowjacket, fully rational now, arrives just in time to reactivate him while Thor and Nefaria duke it out outside—giving the revitalized synthezoid the chance to fly high into the sky and drop like a meteor of solid tungsten right on top of the power-crazed Count.
But Nefaria has in fact become immortal, even though he’s been convinced otherwise. Luckily, he’s out and can now be contained. Before he goes the way of collateral damage, good old Professor “Kenneth Sturdy” (surely, an alias!) tells the Avengers the details on reversing Nefaria’s immortalization are back at the lab. However, looking ahead to the Mantlo story mentioned above, just a year later, and then the villain’s return 20 years on, the Avengers’ trio of brilliant minds couldn’t find the directions or failed to parse them.
In the midst of all this, Henry Gyrich, debuting in issue #165, watches from the shadows, spying, recording, making angry dweeb notes, no doubt.
Lastly, in a teaser epilogue, we have the first glimpse of what’s to come for the Maximoff twins in the famed “Nights of Wundagore!” For now, we simply see a bearded old man looking at a picture of them as children as he travels by steamer across the Atlantic, from the Old World to the New.
Of course, far and away the primary reason any of this is enjoyable as pure popcorn ephemera, and indeed what makes it somewhat memorable, is John Byrne’s artwork—clean, supple, dynamic. On the other hand, Shooter’s apparent obsession with power fantasy narratives is somewhat interesting, not just as a curiosity; after all, this is the kind of extremely limited storytelling that would, despite an already aging audience, continue to dominate the industry at the expense of greater character development and cultural relevance.