When we finally write the book on comics history (well, we have--many times over--but stick with me here) hopefully when people speak of the 90s and get over their hate-gasm for the wretched excesses of the first half of the decade (of which there were many) and how it nearly killed the comics business and the 800 other things you always here right after someone says "The 90s," they will talk about the back half of the decade, and what the most influential superhero book of the time was.
Grant Morrison's JLA. Because before then, the idea seemed to be to toss out every single element of Marvel and DC's long history in a fevered mania to ape whatever Image was doing at the time, because whatever people tell you, just about any business will default to "ape whatever's selling as hard as you can for as long as you can" if they're desperate enough.
But JLA was different--it showed that you could work with elements of the past with an eye towards the future and create something that was vital and felt "now" without completely abandoning what had gone before. It used history, but wasn't beholden to it.
With the benefit of 14 years, of course, we can see that fine distinction, like the imitators of Watchmen, Dark Knight, and Miracleman before them, that the wrong lessons were learnt, and ultimately what you end up with is stuff like Alex Ross' output post 2000 and Geoff Johns at his deadly worst (or as it is known to be called elsewhere, Flash: Rebirth)
But at the time, this looked like a way forward, especially for Marvel, which limped into the mid-90s with all the grace and elegance of a drunken socialite who can't stop vomiting all over herself. Heroes Reborn ended up beyond a joke, the X-Books (long the spine of the Marvel line) were starting their end-of-90s flailing for direction, and the only thing with any kind of excitement around it were assumed-to-be-mid-list books like Heroes For Hire and Thunderbolts.
We've talked about Thunderbolts here at the Prattle before, and it's a great exemplar of this trend, in that it took something from Marvel's history, recapitulated it into something fresh and new and created a pretty compelling storytelling engine out of it.
So, said Marvel, this Kurt Busiek fella's on to something (accusations of him being responsible for killing comics came later, of course) and the Heroes Reborn business was ignominiously winding down as JLA's star was on the rise, so why not let him apply that balance of appreciation for the history of comics and his ability to tell new stories with those elements and let him have a go with it with Avengers, formerly a flagship book that has spent of the 90's fouling its own nest in various brutal, embarrassing ways.
And so they did, and sure enough, Avengers' sales went up. Part of that was due to Busiek's writing, but equal time must be given to George Perez returning to the book and really bring his A-game (even if he took no great pains to hide his obsession with seeing Scarlet Witch in bondage) and it was a good fit--Busiek would find these odd corners of the Marvel Universe and pull a story out of them (The Doomsday Man? Really?) and for the most part, they were fresh enough and presented in such as way as to where one didn't need a course in Marvel History to understand what the hell was going on. Not always, of course (The Triune Understanding/Traithlon/3-D Man running plot never really came together, ever) but enough to where the book was stronger in ways it hadn't been back when they were all wearing bomber jackets and were drawn by Mike Deodato Jr.
So strong was the Avengers brand, that at the turn of the millennium, Marvel spun off another year-long series that could be best described as Busiek's love letter to the breadth of Avengers history, Avengers Forever. I collected Avengers Forever when the issues first came out (probably missed a few, as the whole business of chasing them around three newsstands--remember those?--could be problematic at times) and at the time, I wasn't particularly impressed.
But recently, I was in a nostalgic mood, found the hardcover collection for cheap, and decided to pick it up, deciding that even if the story still didn't appeal to me, Carlos Pacheco's frankly amazing art would still carry the day.
And the verdict is--I liked it, but not as much as I thought I might. The art is stunning, and the time-travel device gives the story freedom to do some really cool things and bring some stuff to the table one wouldn't expect. But structurally there are some real problems--most especially there are two issues worth of infodumps near the end of the book--exactly when things should be ramping up for the epic conclusion--that just grind things to a halt, and for what?
Basically so we can explain why the Vision and the Human Torch can be the same guy, more or less. Oh, and to completely handwave The Crossing, without going into too much detail, which would make this book worth it even if the rest of it was dreck.
Here's the bottom-line plot--Eternal pain in the ass Rick Jones is crippled and suffering from some kind of Mysterious Disease and it's somehow tied to when he used some sort of Locked-Up Human Potential to end the Kree-Skrull War (which always struck me as a slightly flaccid ending to that particular saga, but that's a rant for another time) in trying to cure him, Jones gets tied up in a brain-melting complicated plot involving Kang, Immortus (might he possibly be my least favourite character ever, even against Red She-Hulk? I believe he might.) a cabal of time-traveling aliens from What If? called the Time Keepers, Libra from the Zodiac, and Jerry Mathers as the Cleaver.
OK, not that last one.
Anyways, one thing leads to another, and a team of Avengers pulled from various eras of their history pops into existence. From the (mostly) present day, we have Giant-Man and the Wasp; from the time when Roy Thomas was using Hank Pym to write Roy Thomas fanfiction we have Yellowjacket in his original iteration (another failed chapter of many wherein people try to get me to give a damn about Henry Pym) ; Captain Marvel (Genis-Vell, who would get another series spun-off from this book, and in fact Avengers Forever sets up most of the status quo of that series) ; Hawkeye, fresh off his stint as Goliath (I never did work out what the point of that was) post Kree-Skrull War; Captain America, shell-shocked and raw from the climax of Steve Englehart's Secret Empire story; and Songbird from Thunderbolts, who from what I can tell from the backmatter, was put in there basically because she was cute.
And soon enough, the structure of the series is set up--reluctantly, the Avengers team up with Kang to stop Immortus from killing Rick Jones because he is the key to some terrible destiny for mankind. Kang teams up with the Avengers to prevent himself from ever turning into Immortus as he is fated to do (this is the beginning of Busiek slowly turning Kang into marvel's Grand Admiral Thrawn) and generally, it's one big chase through time into space.
Just as well, really, as the more you try to think your way through the plot and Immortus' machinations and oh dear lord how much continuity are we trying to resolve now, the more your head's liable to hurt. So rather than confront that, let's concentrate on the more effective bits for the moment: The War of the Worlds Avengers from issue #4, wherein a group of Avengers featuring Killraven and the Crimson Dynamo battle back Martian invaders; The return of the 1950s Avengers in issue #5 (only to be immediately deleted from continuity, of course that didn't last very long); A side trip to Marvel's Old West (Y'know--Pacheco does a pretty good Western story . . .they should let him do one again sometime) and finally the footnote-busting final battle between every Avenger that ever was vs. a legion of alternate universe Avengers.
On a micro-level, we get some good character bits along the way as well: Hawkeye gets his first taste of leadership (prefiguring his run as leader of the West Coast Avengers and the Thunderbolts); Captain America gets a measure of his confidence back; Captain Marvel tries (and fails) to avoid his destined fate; and Songbird demonstrates some amazing competence and fits so well in the Avengers that it's a damn shame that whole thing never ended up happening.
Oh yes, and we get a mention of my favorite totally inconsequential Avengers villain ever--Oort the Living Comet, whose only appearance featured the Avengers yelling that they'd never heard of him. I think that's just wonderful.
That's what works and makes it a nice humming-along kinda read. What doesn't work as well are the aforementioned infodumps that threaten to crush the story flat. Couple this with the time-travel gimmick, which threatens to convolute the present story even without the damn retcons, and you get a story that as soon as it slows down becomes somewhat impossible to follow. Doesn't help that some of these retcons threaten to skirt close to Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart fanfic, either.
And most damning, the idea of Immortus as prime mover of the story means this story turns on exactly why I hate and despise Immortus--damn near every Immortus story I've read features him as a walking Get Out Of Continuity Free Card, wherein he's just there to look enigmatic and explain why Everything You Know Is Wrong and patch over some writer's mistake. That, to me is not a character--that's plotting spackle in a funny purple hat.
But so long as the story concentrates on its strengths--epic stuff that spans the breadth of Avengers history (this was also what JLA/Avengers did very well with as well, and they were written by the same guy, too . . .hmmm . . .) it manages to be a gripping read with enough stuff to give the longtime readers a rush of nostalgia and hopefully, by shining some light into seldom-visited corners of the Marvel Universe, maybe got some people excited by the potential they saw there and encouraged them to explore further.
In short, people who like this sort of thing will find that it is the sort of thing that they like. It's not as strong ultimately as Avengers was during the same time, but it's not bad either, and well worth a look, even if only for the art.
And Oort the Living Comet. Mustn't forget about him.