Continuing our look at the Kurt Busiek run on Avengers, we close out his run on the main title with volume 5 of Marvel's collections, and from here we stop in for a cup of coffee with JLA/Avengers, then back to volumes 1 and 2, assuming Marvel will be good enough to reissue them, because paying $200 for a used hardcover is just goddamn foolish. I mean, I was born at night, but it wasn't last night.
Anyhow, this volume is, barring the teaser at the end of volume 4, the entirety of the Kang Dynasty story. Of the various sagas that Busiek did on the book, the Kang Dynasty's probably, warts and all, the best of them. Oh, it has it's usual ropey bits, the art gets inconsistent after Alan Davis leaves, it has two endings too many, has an interlude with the Scarlet Witch and Wonder Man in a concentration camp which is in questionable taste to be sure but suffers mightily because you have two of the most boring Avengers ever trying to carry a story, we revisit the unfortunate Avengers #200 very obliquely and it never really goes anywhere. and there's another one of those even-more-unfortunate-in-retrospect "'Nuff Said" issues right at a critical plot moment, and we stop the story dead for the finale of the 3D man plot, which is annoying, but at least it's over with.
On the whole, though, it works. Kang Dynasty has a sense of scope and real high stakes that have been missing from Avengers stories for quite awhile. It also benefits from being expansive (in that it spans the globe with various beachheads and conflicts) but also being contained (as it's only in Avengers--I think, anyways. Did it end up crossing over with anything?) and unified as it only happens under one writer's direction. What's more, it presents Kang the Conqueror as a credible threat (almost Grand Admiral Thrawn-level, at times) without resorting to plot-convoluting time travel shenanigans and brings in a whole bunch of Avengers and some unlikely supervillians and feels, in its way, like the end of Morrison's JLA run--a summation of all that's gone before cranked up to 11.
So let's get down to it. Last week, we ended volume 4 (kinda) with the appearance of Kang and the Scarlet Centurion, who is not the same Scarlet Centurion who's been previously seen in the MU. This may or may not explain why he has a costume one might theoretically walk out in public without being laughed at.
Anyways, Kang lays down the law thus--as a time traveler, he knows that the human race is in for an assortment of dark futures, and so, in the name of protecting Earth, he will conquer it, and over the generations, build it into the star-spanning empire we saw a glimpse of in Avengers Forever. To put an exclamation point on this, he blows up the UN Building (though he saves everyone else--he's big on destructive object lessons here) and, when the UN Assembly refuses his offer and launches missiles at his Damocles Base (which is naturally a big flying sword. In space.) he lays down just how screwed Earth is: In the midst of his whole spiel about the futures Earth needed to be protected from, he also made an offer to the world--anyone who overthrows their leaders, and declares loyalty to Kang will rule as his vassal. Almost immediately, this leads to Atlantis attacking (yes, again) the Deviants invading China, and the Presence (yes, Busiek dug deep for him! You don't get much more obscure than a Soviet bad guy from the 70s suddenly popping up in a story from 2001. Except maybe Imus Champion, but that's neither here nor there) is turning everyone in Russia into a hive-mind of radioactive zombies.
So already the Avengers have a lot on their plate. Our first stop is the battle with the Presence, which is a good bit and appropriately scary, even if the Presence is a bit of a shackle and cackle style villain who's not evil as much as he is utterly irrational, Meanwhile in plots B and C, The Wasp and company turns back the Atlanteans and Jack of Hearts gets to be an Avenger officially because, well . . .I'm not entirely certain why Jack of Hearts gets to be an Avenger. Maybe Busiek liked the guy. Anyways, Stingray shows up on the next page to help out. Stingray is awesome. Oh, and Warbird and company throw down with the Deviants. Oh and Yellowjacket's fading away, and rather than doing the smart thing and letting it happen so we can get back to more interesting characters, we derail the plot momentarily for Avengers Annual 2001 to tie all this up.
I don't want to spend a lot of time on this because Hank Pym's identity crisis is not particularly interesting to me. Neither is the Triune Understanding, which is the lever by which we resolve the "Two Hank Pyms" thing, finally--apparently they split apart because they're two halves which reject the other and need a way to reunite and they do and everyone looks annoyed because they know the Triunes are up to no good and can't prove it (Like the readers have known for the PAST THIRTY ISSUES OR SO) and hey, look, Ivan Reis does the pencils here! It's funny--between this and Ethan Van Sciver on New X-Men, it's amazing how many fill-in guys at Marvel went on to become names at DC.
Back at the main plot, Stingray single-handedly stops the Atlanteans (thanks, Kurt--I like to think that one was just for me) and Warbird deals with the Deviants. One of the ongoing threads in the Kang Dynasty is Warbird coming into her own, which . . .kinda works, but not really for reasons I'll get into in a bit.
Meanwhile, Thor nearly kills the Presence, and we get a good bit where Thor talks a bit about how he likes hanging with the Avengers, but being an immortal god, he knows it's ultimately a temporary thing (like a girl in trouble) from his point of view. There's an attempt to play him against Firebird (who as we know from the whole Contest of Champions sequel, is immortal--did anyone else ever do anything with that?) who is just getting into her whole "immortality" deal, having not become a Presence-assisted zombie and all. Oh, and we learn the US Government's backup plan should the Avengers fail--a whole mess of Sentinels. Yeah, that'll work.
But before that, a new threat shows up--the Master of the World, or just the Master (no, not that one) who magics up an indestructible wall and declares that he will hold the line against Kang. Because hell, we just had the Presence, show up, why not an Alpha Flight villain, eh?
I should also add here that the art team begins its rotation here. Kieron Dwyer had been announced as the new artist after Alan Davis, but doesn't end up doing that many issues for reasons I've never had satisfactorily explained to me. Art generally bounces between Manuel Garcia and Bob Layton, Ivan Reis, Brent Anderson, and Dwyer. They're all sound hands, and the only bad thing I can say about this is that the story feels a bit more inconsistent because there's not a unified artistic vision to complement the writer's vision. It's a minor thing, and while it doesn't kill the story dead any more than all the fill-ins on New X-Men did . . .you find yourself wondering what might have been.
So now the Avengers go off and fight the Master and his Plodex wolves, which have and always will sound like some sort of nightmarish feminine hygiene product that could not and should not exist. It seems his tech can hold off Kang's assault, so it's up to the Avengers to take it and use it against the conqueror, who pops in every now and again to remind us that he's the one behind all this, and when the Avengers try to mess with Damocles Base, he swears reprisal.
Meanwhile, Warbird is having dreams of Marcus, and really, I'd hoped to avoid this bit. Marcus is a hold over from what is often considered the worst single issue of Avengers ever, issue #200. Without wasting too much of your time, it basically involves Warbird (then called Ms. Marvel) spirited away into limbo to have sex with Marcus' son, Immortus. She then gives birth to Marcus, whose presence on Earth causes all manner of stuff to happen, and even though this is basically time-travel assisted date rape and it's a really icky comic and I've read Faust, for God's sake. This comic was so toxic (you can read more about how here, and also here. I don't want to get off-point any more than I already have) that it was near-immediately repudiated in another Avengers issue, quietly buried, and is one of the reasons people don't like Jim Shooter. Seriously guys, it's an absolutely dire story. Avoid it like the plague. Or "The Crossing."
And like all dire stories, it should have just been quietly forgotten after the initial furor. However, Busiek has forgotten more about Avengers than I'll ever learn, but one of those things wasn't this, alas. So we have lots of Warbird fretting that the Scarlet Centurion is Marcus, and while he is called Marcus . . .he doesn't look anything like the Marcus from #200 and besides which, he isn't. That Marcus was the son of Immortus, the Centurion is the son of Kang, which given their former relationship is a clever bit of twinning, but doesn't go very far, ultimately.
So basically what you have is Warbird angsting about someone who only superficially is the guy who date-raped her with a time machine. The Centurion, meanwhile, just seems taken with her because he think she's really hot. And this is a big story problem, because we have the believe that the Centurion will go against Kang for her, but I wasn't ever really convinced enough to believe it--really, the Centurion is rather thinly drawn to begin with--and well, it just doesn't work and really, probably could have been clipped out without losing anything.
Anyways, thanks to Marcus help, Warbird reaches the master's throne room and kills him and they take control of the Master's base. Meanwhile, Cap and company take the fight to Kang (or try to) and the US sends its force of Sentinels to join the battle.
That works as well as you'd expect, as Kang takes control of the Sentinels and lays waste to Washington D.C. In more reflective moments I wonder if 2001 wasn't the year we all decided that Sentinels just were more damn trouble than they're worth, given that in one year they kill a shedload of people in Washington D.C. and Genosha. In the aftermath, the Wasp is forced to sign articles of surrender and we were officially at the Avengers' Darkest Hour.
So, naturally, on the way to the Avengers' eventual triumph, why don't we take a bit of time off and resolve the never-ending goddamned Triune thing, finally. I will not bore you with the wholly uninteresting and inconsequential details of this, except to say there's a big ol' pyramid of evil hurtling towards earth, there are three aliens, three pyramids and eventually the Avengers get control of it and have a weapon with which they can fight Kang on slightly more equal footing. I'm being intentionally vague because it really doesn't matter, as they just got through contradicting all of this in Atlas anyways and really, I'm just glad it's over.
Anyways, we're into the home stretch of the story now--well, if we skip over the Wonder Man/Scarlet Witch in the concentration camp, which we should--The Avengers finally counterattack against Damocles Base, there's a big fight between giant hologram Kang and giant hologram Captain America, which is supposed to be epic but doesn't come off as anything other than a bit silly and ultimately redundant, considering they have an actual non-holographic fight the issue after it. That should have been the ending right there (well, the issue should have been double-sized and covered all of it in one go, but it's split in twain) but things grind on for a bit as we take up the last few threads left in the wake of the Kang Dynasty and there's one more done-in-one issue that's an amusing digression about who has to settle the accounts for all the collateral damage the Avengers cause during the course of a typical day.
And that's Busiek's Avengers run. Following him would be Geoff Johns, whose work on the book is only now being reprinted, now that the statute of limitations has passed, who would go on to deliver the indelible image of Hank Pym, Clit Puncher on his way to pretty much running DC Comics. I'm not sure that these two things are related, and if they are, I don't know if I want to know how, exactly.
Join us next time when we take a look at JLA/Avengers, long-awaited and mostly worth it, and then in the later months we'll catch up with Volumes 1 and 2, which ought to make searching by tag really damn confusing. I'll see you then!