(NOTE: Owing to a whole weird confluence of circumstances, we're starting with the third of five hardcover volumes covering an entire Avengers run. As House to Astonish mentioned, the trade paperback edition of Vol. 1 is not due out until December and back issues of Vols. 1 and 2 and hardcover would run about $200 used owing to Marvel's dotty print run and my inability to get them when they were new, we will be covering these in the following order--3-5,1, and 2. If this confuses you unnecessarily, all I can say is to wait until it's complete and follow the tags, or simply look at one of those things you just have to live with in the name of getting on with things.)
There was no secret formula that led to Avengers finally becoming successful at the end of the 90s, save the same one that drives all decisions in corporate superhero comics, that being "The smartest idea will be used only after every other option has been exhausted."
Long treated as a red-headed stepchild at best when compared to evergreen cash cow X-Men, Avengers had spent most of the 90s wandering in the wilderness. Larry Hama's run was pretty sub-average, featuring Spider-Man joining the Avengers (and then immediately nothing being done with the idea) and introducing Rage who was . . .yeah. Bob Harras and Steve Epting then came on for a run that was at least sound, even if they all wore leather bomber jackets because that's what you did in the early 90's if you were a Marvel super hero. The nicest thing that could be said about the book was it wasn't quite muddled incoherent mess that was, say Force Works.
So it was decided a shot in the arm was needed and unfortunately that shot in the arm was the Crossing. I won't spend a lot of time on the Crossing because I've already talked about how it totally screwed up Iron Man so much to the point where Iron Man getting shunted off to Jim Lee was a step up, and because even after 15 years of careful analysis by top scientists trained in the field, no one has been able to successfully explain what the fuck happened in the Crossing.
So, having completely screwed the book up, they fed the Avengers to Onslaught and Rob Liefeld was set on the Avengers to set a new creative direction during Heroes Reborn. This didn't really work, as anyone who put the words "Rob," "Liefeld," and "Creative" in the same sentence unironically could have told you and soon enough, it was time to get the Avengers back to the Marvel Universe proper.
This time, a radical idea was proposed--why not get top-flight creators on the book with a sense of the title's history and a vision for the future? This would have seemed like more of a radical act had not this been exactly the same formula JLA had used to return itself to high sales after several years of mid-list irrelevancy. So Kurt Busiek (living repository of all the comic history Roy Thomas couldn't fit in his skull without his brain exploding) and George Perez (loves to draw hyper-detailed stuff featuring a cast of thousands) and set them to play in the Avengers sandbox.
The ultimate result, as we will see, is the best of times and the worst of times. At its best Avengers is a worthy counterpart to JLA, as it features superheroes in big spectacular adventures with the world at stake. At the worst of times Avengers ends up becoming Kurt Busiek's Caravan of Never-Ending Subplots wherein hopelessly boring plot points you can see the resolution of a mile away grind on for years with no advancement or resolution bog down story after story. Couple this with Busiek's Continuity Rehab, wherein various continuity backwaters are resolved (and by "resolved," I mean taken care of in a story only to be undone when the guy after Busiek never bothers to read the story and you have to go through the same shit all over again) you have the things which are directly responsible for my previous assertion that I never need nor want to read about the Hank Pym, the Scarlet Witch, or Wonder Man ever again. The whole thing comes perilously close to being "comics about other comics," and when this grates on me, who has a read an awful lot of comics in his time, we have a problem.
All of these will be covered as we delve deep into the pool of Busiek's 56-issue run, which, even as I will come down hard on the creators for, I still quite like--it was one of the last extended runs I followed religiously, in truth. So without any further ado-ackadoo we're gonna start this shindig right now.
Volume 3 begins right in the damn middle of Subplot Theatre, with the fallout of the Vision/Scarlet Witch/Wonder Man triangle, so we're starting strong, yeah. This was the fallout of a subplot that started with the book, wherein Wonder Man could come back to life as a human-sized bundle of Kirby dots through what is generally assumed to be the power of love. For awhile after that, Wonder Man basically ended up as the Avengers' giant robot, because Wanda always managed to find a way to contact him at the 11th hour and save everyone's asses. Now that he's back (through means far to torturous to explicate here) there's a whole lot of subplots to draw a line underneath, as Vision, Scarlet Witch and Wonder Man collectively have enough muddled continuity and inconsistent characterizations to fill a container roughly the size of the planet Jupiter.
This is pretty grueling stuff to get through even if you're familiar with their histories, and the nicest thing I can say about it is that it only lasts one issue before we're on to "The Eighth Day," which was one of those little mini-events that were all the rage at the time. "Eight Day" concerns itself with getting the Avengers to fight the Exemplars, who are, like the Juggernaut, avatars of mystic entities empowered by trying to grab something belonging to the mystical ent--y'know what, just read the Wiki entry--it's easier on all of us.
While this is a big time story featuring guest stars like Nova and Spider-Man, this doesn't really work all that well beyond the spectacle, as the Exemplars are basically ciphers with power sets, and given that they're mind-controlled through most of the story anyway, we don't really get a great sense of them as characters (they've never been used again, ain't hard to see why) The Juggernaut works as a character because of the inherent contrast in his character--he's a vast irresistible force who could conquer the world, but all he really wants to do is beat the shit out of his step-brother and hang around with his favourite Irish guy. Also, he's the Juggernaut, bitch.
Meanwhile, in Subplot Theatre, things are ticking along--Justice gets an ugly-ass new costume, the Triune Understanding (the ultimate never-ending Busiek Subplot) is behind the protests at Avengers mansion, and I'd totally forgotten that Quicksilver was Genosha's ambassador when Magneto took it over.
Oh yeah, and Captain America quits because the mission of the Avengers needs to broaden out and he doesn't feel he's the guy for the job. The Avengers will begin broadening their mandate and making more of an effort to keep on their various subplots from here on (no mean feat in this book) and, as a consequence, allows a wider variety of Avengers to be dropped in depending on the needs of the story.
But first, a slight detour. Our next issue features Captain America recruiting an ad hoc team of Avengers to strike against the Triune Understanding (Yes -sigh- again) only Cap turns out to be the Taskmaster and this whole thing ends up being part of a Xanatos Gambit to make the Avengers in a subplot is so boring and refuses to end and we know it has something to do with the 3D Man it;s as plain as day and we're like 30 issues away from some resolution of this DAMMIT--
Sorry, lost my head there. Anyways, art is provided on this issue by Stuart Immomen, who is still in his Adam Hughes-eqsue phase he was using on stuff like Legion of Superheroes and looks nothing like his Nextwave stuff would look a few years later.
Perez return in time for another "changing of the guard" issue, or to be more blunt about it "everyone stands around and looks upset because of all the goddamned subplots" issue. There's a good idea in here in that the public pressure causes Thor to quit and the government wants to see a bit more racial diversity on the team (which means the usual suspects of Avengers of colour--all 4 of them--get hauled out for cameos) which causes even more tension, and . . .oh yeah, the god damned Triune Understanding is back.
Sparing you another rant about them, I'll cut to the upshot--their official hero Triathlon (sporting a second, less embarrassing costume than the first--still no sign of a bare midriff or a renaming to the Black Athlete--sorry Kurt, we must never forget) joins the Avengers, and much like when the Falcon joined, he immediately bitches about being the token black guy, Despite the fact that he will spend the next few issues being a pain in the ass and beating the "I hate being the token black dude in the whitey gang" thing, I actually liked Triathlon back then, believe it or not--it was a way of building on the 3-D Man's legacy (to the extent that he can be said to have a legacy--seriously, does anyone like the 3-D Man that much?) in a newer fresher way that didn't require you to understand the history of the previous character. Naturally, they turned him into the new 3-D man during Secret Invasion and undid all that because comic creators fear change of any kind.
Our next two issues involve the Avengers packing up to Costa Generica for a two-issue fight with . . .Kulan Gath? Really? Really? It occurred to me I didn't remember reading this at all, but I must have done, because I was getting the book back then, but . . .wow. This is kinda random.
Anyways, as he did in those late-190s issues of Uncanny X-Men which are inexplicably fondly remembered, Kulan Gath turns back time with the help of Silverclaw's mother (Silverclaw, surprisingly, gets her subplot tied up relatively fast relative to her introduction--20 issues, give or take) who is a volcano goddess, of course. Apparently stepping into the past bubble causes you to be reset to the past paradigm, because for two panels, She-Hulk, Warbird, and Golaith get changed in a scene that was meant to set up one subplot and also because I think George Perez really wanted to draw She-Hulk in Red Sonja's chainmail bikini. Live your dreams, George.
Anyways, this is more or less quickly resolved, Kulan Gath is defeated, and we're zooming off to the next thing when--holy crap!--we learn that Yellowjacket has somehow split from Goliath, meaning there are now two Hank Pyms existing at once.
Oh dear. This is like my nightmares.
No time to harp on that now, as that subplot is still a ways off from resolution (do I even need to say that?) because we're off to start the final plot line of this volume--the big beat-down with Count Nefaria. This is actually a good bit, as it involves the Avengers (Avengers vs. Nefaria-as-off-brand-Superman is one of their classic stories) features a whole group of villains who have direct relations to Avengers cast (The Grim Reaper, Madame Masque) and feels a bit more "natural" as an Avengers story than Kulan Gath and volcano gods. I'm just sayin'.
This is also the second (and final, if I remember right) crossover between the Avengers and Thunderbolts, which seemed like it was gonna be an annual thing and then wasn't for various reasons. It was a lot of fun revisiting the Thunderbolts' issues of this crossover because for all I will rank on Busiek's unending chain of subplots, in contrast to Fabian Nicieza referencing every single non X-Men comic he had written at Marvel up to that time in Thunderbolts and creating a kind of critical mass for comics about comics he looks like a piker. Whether it's due to that contrast or by design, it benefits tremendously from being specifically focused--for once (at least in the Avengers' issues) we're not barraged by a whole mess of subplots watering down the impact of the main story as we go.
We begin by reintroducing the Vision in his civilian guise of Victor Shade which . . .oooh, this was a silly idea. Oh, and Iron Man is wearing his older 70's-80's suit because Joe Quesada and Frank Tieri are busy ruining Iron Man over in his main book, and very soon we will not see Iron Man in armour at all because no one can work out just what in the hell Iron Man is wearing at any given time. Oh yeah, and the two Hank Pym thing gets a couple pages to tick over and thankfully, we're soon on to the main plot--Wonder Man's been abducted by person's unknown and the Vision has stumbled on to a meeting of the Maggia (who are totally not what you're thinking) instigated by the Grim Reaper.
There's a little bit I was quite surprised by in the meeting--the Eel, who was at the time undergoing a bit of an upgrade as a foil for Daredevil back in his book when they temporarily decided that Daredevil need not regurgitate the same Frank Miller inspired character beats over and over again (naturally these people were immediately clubbed and skinned and Daredevil has been a joyless sourpuss continually being shit on by life ever since because comics don't play that shit) and it was just surprising to see that reflected anywhere else but Daredevil. The Eel was quickly busted back down to mook status.
Anyways, everything goes a pit pear-shaped, the Avengers show up and kick ass, and Madame Masque explodes for no readily apparent reason and off to the races we go.
Meanwhile, over in Thunderbolts, Atlas gets his ass kicked by Wonder Man and learns that trying to hit on a super-strong and very cock-diesel woman who calls herself Man-Killer is not gonna end well at all. The rest of the book concerns itself with its own subplots--Citizen V number 5,000 (I have seriously lost count by now--there are a fucking lot of Citizens V, believe me) vs. the Crimson Cowl; the Ogre, who is actually Techno, who is not the Fixer; the Scourge, who used to be Nomad, who is not at all Paul Kirk; and Moonstone losing her shit and going off to hassle the Fantastic Four. I forgot they had a pier warehouse as a headquarters, actually.
Back in Avengers, Madame Masque exploding leads to a lot of questions in the aftermath of last issue--for one thing, over in Iron Man, Madame Masque was supposed to be dead (again) and after that, someone looking very much like her had been a member of the Avengers, and sure that couldn't be right, could it? To their credit, the Avengers act appropriately confused by all this.
I know how they feel.
Meanwhile, Madame Masque is watching all this and it's clear that after decades of poor characterization, she's completely off her tree and paranoid. Busiek tries to make all of this seem tragic and straighten out some of her utterly messed-up continuity and cast her as a woman twisted by betrayals and resolved never to be a victim again, but it doesn't quite play out convincingly enough. I also noticed he left out all that stuff with Maqsue and Bethany Cabe getting their brains switch by Obadiah Stane, but really, just as well. The Avengers show up to investigate, the Grim Reaper attacks, and Count Nefaria shows up again, all superpowered and shit, with Atlas and Wonder Man as his slaves, and shit, as they say, just got real.
We hop back to Thunderbolts again wherein the Black Widow goes to recruit Hawkeye and have everyone recount the origin of anyone even remotely connected with the story thus far. Meanwhile, Niceza's metaplot corner continues, as the hot shrink from Nomad meets up with fucking Windshear from Alpha Flight (if you don't remember him, don't worry--no one but me was reading Alpha Flight back then anyway) and as I ruminate on the fact that the only thing Nicieza hasn't touched on yet is that Soviet Super-Soldiers one-shot he did back in the day everyone remembers, oh yeah, the Avengers are off getting their asses flattened.
Back to Avengers again, wherein Busiek name checks Soft Cell for the title of this issue, told completely from Madame Masque's point of view. As we learn that the Masque who fought with the Avengers was a renegade clone who acted out of character (you and everyone else in the Crossing, lady) The Avengers and Nefaira fight and fight and fight and fight and fight, fight fight fight, fight fight fight, and finally Nefaira decides he's kinda done with owning their assess and zooms off for the third act of our little drama and Madame Masque, having the Macguffin that will stop Nefaira, throws in her lot with the Avengers and the Thunderbolts in what could glibly be termed an uneasy alliance.
Back to Thunderbolts, where everyone stands around and lays the track for the final battle with Nefaria, while the subplots featuring Moonstone vs the FF and Nomad's hot shrink meeting up with . . .Jack Norriss!? God, talk about your continuity backwaters--he doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry--he's that obscure. Meanwhile, Scourge finally attacks Techno and we get the opening round of the final Nefaria/Avengers/Thunderbolts donnybrook. Katie, bar the door.
We return to Avengers for the finale of the Nefaira plot, wherein we learn the Count's master plan is to detonate a bomb that will make everyone ionic and therefore under his control, so that he can enforce his desire to have the respect due to someone of his noble stature. This was the same motivation Busiek gave to the Mandarin over in Iron Man, and as a driving force for a villain's actions, especially one who's spent five issues trashing Earth's Mightiest Heroes, it doesn't really work all that well. Thankfully it's secondary to the action and doesn't hurt things all that much.
Anyways, Masque finally shoots him with the Plot Resolution weapon and Nefaria obligingly blows up and we deal with the aftermath of all this. There's a good bit wherein one of the Thunderbolts tries to get Masque to open up, volunteering that one of the members of their team--Moonstone, last seen slapping the Fantastic Four around and generally acting crazy--is a shrink, and might be able to help her. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is comedy.
It is at the conclusion of this story that we see the end of George Perez's run as artist of the book. Frankly, he will be missed, as Avengers will never again have an artist that feels as definitively Avengers as Perez did. It should also be noted that this is one of the last extended runs penciling a book that Perez has to date. Maybe Wonder Woman and New Teen Titans equalled his run on this? Someone will have to correct me.
Included in the backmatter of this issue is Avengers 1 1/2 (we're doing variant covers and shit again--how long until zero and 1/2 issues start up again? I hope I die before that . . .) which is an entertaining if slight bit of retro goodness featuring Roger Stern and Bruce Timm recounting a heretofore untold story of the Avengers fighting Doctor Doom. It's a good little story and the fake ads and letter columns within are a bit of a hoot but it's nothing one need go out of their way for, as it's very plainly a backwards-looking exercise.
And that's Volume 3. Join us next time as we crack open Volume 4. Maximum Security! More of the god damned Triune Understanding! Pagan! The Bloodwraith! Alan Davis! Diablo! A town full of Hulks! Hellcat! Ultron! Comics about other comics! JFK! Blown away! WHAT ELSE DO I HAVE TO SAY!