Marvel's hardcovers are a wonderful thing to behold, and not just the Masterworks. Inevitably stuffed with all sorts of cool goodies and extras (the Agents of Atlas miniseries collection is a great example of this) that can make even an average collection into something special, especially when they collect stuff that hasn't been seen for awhile.
. . .and then . . .Of all the comics Marvel has published in its 75+ year history, Contest of Champions (once aptly satirized as Breakfast of Champions) is certainly one of them. If it's remembered at all, it's only because it was the first mini-series. I can't say I exactly like it, and no amount of snark I can unleash will equal Gone & Forgotten's epic takedown of it from way far ago (which you should totally go and read. I'll wait. They even have pictures! I don't, because I can't be arsed.) but it's . . .well, let's call it a curiosity, chiefly because the story behind how the damn thing finally escaped from editorial is way more interesting than anything that ever happens in the damn book--well, except for the backmatter, which I'll address in a bit.
Contest began its life as a Marvel Treasury Edition--one of those beloved big-ass tabloid-size books that was a cornerstone of the 70s, the trades of their day--that was meant to coincide with the 1980 Olympics. Only that didn't quite work out, and this was learned only after they'd spent 40 pages on it. So into the bin it went, with the hope that maybe they could use it in 1984 (not that that would have worked out all that well either, really.)
Trouble is, no one told the inker the project was off, and Pablo Marcos merrily went along inking all the pages he had, and when he asked for more, it occurred to everyone that "hey, let's do something with this!" and so they go about trying to thrash it into an agreeable 3-issue shape and make it the sensational talk of the comics world of 1982.
It didn't really work all that well, as what you ended up with was a three issue book with three writers trying very hard to make all of this make any goddamn sense, and what's worse, one of those writers was Bill F'ing Mantlo.
There are people who say that Bill Mantlo is an under-appreciated genius who diligently did great work in unexpected books like Micronauts and ROM and all that, but (and I am trying very hard not to say "Chris Sims" here while I paraphrase Chuck D) while he may be a hero to some, he never meant shit to me. While we were three years away from his evisceration of Alpha Flight, my venomous contempt for which I have expounded on at length elsewhere, within contest he offers us the following hyperbolic quotables:
"AARGH! Numbing cold, clutching at my very soul!"
"Like the spiny pear that is the symbol of the Israeli people from which I drive my name I am harsh to my enemies, yet sweet to my friends"
"Defensor's south-of-the-border machismo really got my blood boiling! I could mop up the floor with male chauvinist pigs like him!"
I could do this all night. For those of you who think Claremont and Wolfman were the twin titans of purple prose in the 80's I give you . . .Mantlo.
Anyways, on to what there is of a plot in this damn thing. Everyone on earth gets frozen in place and then every superhero on earth gets transported for a flying Astrodome in space, only for half of them to sit around doing sweet F.A. while the Grandmaster and the Unknown (who is--SPOILER--actually Death, who despite being a silent abstract representation of the state of un-being will not shut the hell up through the course of this book) drone on and on about how they want Earth's heroes to play a game because the Grandmaster's fellow Elder of the Universe, the Collector, got killed by Korvac and sometimes I hate comics and don't want to live on this planet anymore.
The Elders of the Universe are part of a multi-decade project on behalf of certain of Marvel's writers to make us give a shit about them as characters, and frankly, nearly 50 years in, I'm damn tired of it. I have no use for them and have never taken them seriously as genuine threats, and the only time I ever enjoyed seeing them was in Thanos Quest when Thanos basically played them all like the bitches they are and slammed the lid with the comment that they are "basically and ineffective and stupid lot." Preach it, brother.
Anyways, Death and the Grandmaster choose up teams, and in one of the holdovers from the Olympic games, we have a smattering of international superheroes who are, let's face it, The Stereotype Brigade. ROLL CALL!
TALISMAN--Talisman wears a loincloth, spins a bullroarer and talks about the "dreamtime," which seems to mean whatever the plot needs it to mean. He looks and acts like he does because no one really gave a shit to look up Australia in a book or, I suspect, even locate it on a map. Not to be confused with Nathan Jones, the Colossus of Boggo Road, who is not to be confused with Peter Garrett from the band Midnight Oil.
VANGUARD--I have read more comics about Vanguard than any one human being should read. I didn't really mean to, but reading Marvel books in the 80's, shit happens. I have never had a satisfactory answer about what his powers are--it has something to do with the hammer and sickle he carries around (because he's SOVIET) but I really can't be bothered to give a shit, so in the interests of ending this paragraph, I'm going to say his power is to be punched in the face by the Thing.
SHAMROCK--Shamrock shoots green clovers, pink hearts, blue diamonds, yellow moon, red balloons and purple horseshoes out of her ass. No, actually, she's just very lucky, and yet she dresses like a total goober and talks in the same cod-Irish that Banshee always talked in. Shamrock is very annoying, and I really have nothing else to say about her. Somewhere Garth Ennis is planning a MAX limited series wherein Shamrock beheads Captain Britain and sodomizes his corpse with a strap-on dildo.
DEFENSOR--Defensor is the combined form of the Protectobots--Hot Spot, Groove, Streetwise, First Aid, and Streetwise--oh wait, he's some douchebag dressed as a conquistador with a magic shield and a pencil thin mustache John Waters would kill his mother for. He says "Madre di dios!" a lot in case we forget he is from South America. Funnily enough, Defensor isn't a perfect Argentinian stereotype because he doesn't have bolas. Go stand in the corner until you're fully politically incorrect, Mantlo.
ARABIAN KNIGHT--About as Arabic as Yao Ming in a Bozo costume, Arabian Knight is allegedly a Bedouin who, while raiding a tomb one day, decided to dress like Sinbad and fly around on a magical carpet, like you do. He actually wins one for his team, after a intensely brainless subplot where he and Sabra don't get along (CAN YOU FEEL THE SYMBOLISM YET?!?) except he saves her life with his magic carpet and Sabra's all like "kiss my ass, I'd rather die" and he's like "whatevs, yo" and he later got killed by someone named Humus Sapien. For some reason, that last bit makes me very happy and also ties in with the ham fisted symbolism at work here (no it doesn't)
SABRA--Named after a pear, Sabra is very high in vitamin C and is green, and is very good when served with cheese. No, wait--Sabra is Israel's national superhero and actually beat up the Hulk back when they didn't job him to everyone. I think she ended up an X-Men in the 1990s, because Scott Lobdell has a weird hardon for the Stereotype Brigade, which I'll address later.
LE PEREGRINE--Is French, which means he comes off as a right douchebag, thus he could be said to possess all the powers of France. Also, "Le Peregrine" isn't a French word at all, as Wikipedia helpfully, pedantically, illustrates. Le Peregrine has all the powers of Batroc the Leaper, and can fly. He also says little French words in case we forget his nationality because how else would you do it? "DO YOU SINK ZIS PURPLE STANDS POUR LES ETATS-UNIS?!?!"
BLITZKRIEG--Because naturally postwar Germany would name its one superhero after Hitler's "lightning war" strategy from WWII. But then, there was a pro wrestler called The Final Solution, so really, tastelessness knows no history. Blitz has ill-defined electric powers and spent his few remain appearances trying to backpedal this name thing before he was killed. He speaks about as much German as Nightcrawler ever did. Storm turns into a big face in the sky and knocks him out (no, really!)
COLLECTIVE MAN--Oh, this one hurts my soul. The Collective Man is five guys who merge into one guy who has all the powers of five guys smooshed together plus the powers of every human being in China, which sounds really impressive (and were this made in 2010, would mean they held an enormous amount of US debt and bootleg DVDs, which surely would allow him to kick the Hulk's ass up and down the woodpile or something) but is rather ill defined because the whole joke is HA HA THERE ARE ALOT OF CHINESE PEOPLE.
The Collective Man doesn't have a Fu Manchu mustache. He has that going for him.
As you might imagine, this leads to teeth-bleedingly leaden moments like Shamrock and Captain Britain not getting along because he has a big gold stick and she's dressed like a leprechaun. Because obviously a garish comic book is the ideal place to work out things like The Troubles. And let us not even speak of the ongoing Sabra/Arabian Knight feud, which posits that the Arab/Israeli conflict can be seen in microcosm as a guy on a magic carpet fighting a woman with all the powers of a flying porcupine.
I swear, if this comic were any more soaked in stereotypes everyone would be in blackface fighting in a watermelon patch.
OK, so our heroes fight for four pieces of a golden globe, which will then be given to Pia Zadora--no, I'm sorry, it's the tachyons, they're muddling things up. Whoever gets the most bits of globe wins the contest only who gives a shit because the heroes involved are fighting as proxies of two people with inscrutable motives, the new heroes are such ciphers we really don't know enough to care about and everything moves along at such breakneck speed that it's over abruptly before we really get a sense of what's going on. And the heroes do nothing, exert no agency over their situation, and generally are superfluous to the whole thing.
For real, the book just stops on a typo (literally--we're told that the Grandmaster's team wins, even though Death's team is the one that's shown to win) the Collector comes back to life, and everyone just kind of goes home and goes "Man, what the hell was all that about?" (you and me both, gang) and thanks to everyone except the people making it figuring out the error, no one thought to catch this little detail before it went to press.
Naturally, this was spun to set up a sequel. Luckily, a sequel to Contest of Champions was as much in demand as AIDS 2: Now with FIRE, and it was another 5 years before a sequel played out (I'm excluding Contest of Champions 2, which has nothing to do with this--it's about Chris Claremont's issues with women), which brings us to the second half of the book.
Back in the mid-80s, there were two Avengers book, unlike the 2,918 (sorry--3,299) we have now. The main Avengers book struggled on and occasionally had great stories like the Under Siege story with the Masters of Evil and Steven Seagal. The West Coast Avengers was the book where Steve Englehart eventually lost his damn mind. In the first two Annuals, the East Coast teams and West Coast teams met up in the center of the country and played baseball, or more accurately, just happened to be doing that while they waited for something to happen.
This year, the Silver Surfer crashes their game and the Avengers die. The Collector shows up plot immediately gets a bit more convoluted as everyone struggles to remember the first Contest and then struggles even mightier to give a damn about it. The only way to save the Avengers is to play this game, which means the West Coasters have to swallow poison, die (people die in this story a minimum of 9 times each) and fight the East Coasters (and if there's time, the Great Space Coaster) in an effort to . . .well, it changes about 2 or three times.
First--the East Coasters vs. the West Coasters in an overwritten battle of the ages. Hank Pym endlessly wittering on about how he's redeemed himself as he's trapped the Wasp in a gas-filled bubble (full of rohypnol, one imagines) is all the argument I need to put forth that we as a society need to put Hank Pym on a bus and leave him there, never speaking his name again.
Then we switch to the Avengers annual, and things get simultaneously more awesome and more batshit crazy, as the Grandmaster shows up and makes the Avengers fight most of the notable entries from the first three issues of the Marvel Handbook's Book of the Dead (one of which is Bucky, and I can't tell you how funny that is in retrospect) Yes, if ever you wondered what would happen if Tigra fought Death Adder or Doctor Druid stood alone against Dracula, or even dared to imagine the result of a winner takes all throwdown between Moon Knight and the Green Goblin, well, this issue is for you, and until now, I never knew you existed.
Such a strange concept must have attracted a certain group of artists, because this book has quite a pedigree. John Romita and Bill Sienkiewicz do a very moody fight in Hell wherein Nighthawk kills Hank Pym with a stalagmite through the chest, Marshall Rogers draws the Silver Surfer/Korvac battle, and Kevin Nowlan gets to draw Dracula and is pretty damn good at it. For all that even at this date Annuals are pretty throwaway stories (even those that aren't sequels to 5 year old terrible stories) this is quite an artistic pedigree and makes you wish it was in the service to something better.
For all I sneer at it though, it's a better followup than the original, because it actually hinges on the heroes doing something instead of listening to the inscrutable godlike beings monologue incessantly. The final twist of the story hinges on Hawkeye being a carny and playing the Grandmaster for a rube in a rigged game of chance, which is funny on all sorts of levels and actually gives us an ending that works (and I'm not just saying this because whenever the Elders are played for saps is awesome. But you and I both know it is) and while it's not quite my ideal ending (Iron Man kicks everyone in the junk and the universe explodes 12 times while a morbidly obese Batman eats waffles and pontificates about whether Ethel Merman was a tranny) this ends--finally--the Contest of Champions, and thank God.
Now, let me follow up on some points of interest. In the back of every issue of Contest of Champions was a small agate listing of the histories of major Marvel heroes and villains (yep, despite being wholly impenetrable and illogical, this book was thought to be an ideal gateway drug for future Marvel Zombies) and while trying to read type that small probably led to comic fans needing glasses as much as all the masturbation did, it did inspire the creation of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, which is one of my favourite 80's bits of universe-building. When the time comes that I lose my collection to apathy or fire, I will never part with the Handbooks (or their DC counterparts) They're awesome, is what I'm saying.
As to the Stereotype Brigade, well, they still show up from time to time. Shamrock showed up in Marvel Comics Presents, because all you needed to do to be in that book was to fill pages in a way that wasn't just obscenities written in crayon on every page. Scott Lobdell then used her in every possible way he could in every book he wrote prior to being the prime mover for the X-Books in the 90's, and yet, oddly enough, Shamrock didn't join. She may have appeared after that, but I tend to worry about that about as much as I do the canonicity of the pimp who complimented Superman on his outfit in the first movie, which is to say, I don't. Ever.
Sabra showed up, lost the afro and the need to dress as a porcupine, and occasionally shows up to be a hardass to justify utterly foolish things. I am not mentioning these things because it is late and I'm too tired to look them up. I think Le Peregrine was an Avenger at one time, too. I . . .guess? Does anyone really care?
I have no great summation for this write-up because it's fucking Contest of Champions and I'm tired, so I will, as a substitute, frame it as an essay question, like we had in school:
"In Contest of Champions, we learn the Marvel Universe is populated by various unfortunate ethnic and national stereotypes who are standing in for the real superheroes until someone with a World Almanac, a set of encyclopedias, and some sanity can put some actual effort into the task of creating international heroes. Assuming that you were a complete berk and Contest of Champions was your only guide to how to function in the world, how long would it take you to get your ass well and truly kicked? Explain your answer."