(Post #200 at last! Join us as we commemorate this momentous event with a look at one of the seminal comics a young Kazekage would read, even if the conveyor belt in the checkout lane at Farm Fresh nearly derailed his reading the first chapter. Long awaited, we present to you the following . . .)
In 2003, when Brian Bendis wanted to portray the Avengers' darkest hour, he relied on everyone acting out of character and used a terrible story from twenty years ago to buttress his decision. It was a half-baked mess of a story meant to clear away everything so he could get to the stuff he really cared about and hoped the reader's goodwill would see them through the rather sloppy deck-clearing exercise that preceded the real work.
In 1987, Roger Stern portrayed the Avengers' darkest hour by having a coalition of villains unlike any seen before strike the Avengers at a low ebb. The villains, the Masters of Evil, waited for their moment to strike, split the Avengers, invaded their home base, inflicted grievous physical and psychological damage, and even though they won, it was a costly, Pyrrhic victory that would have genuine repercussions ten years later, when the Masters of Evil masquerade as the Thunderbolts.
Avengers: Under Siege is a tight, efficient little story, and one that uses a lot of Avengers history to give the battle between the Masters and the Avengers some resonance, but thankfully it does so without being so beholden to older comics that it required a reading list to be understood. Basically the Masters were culled from the individual Avengers' rogues gallery, they decide to band together and defeat the Avengers. Everything you need to know about their motivations (specifically Baron Zemo, who leads the Masters, and his grudge against Captain America) are all in the story.
A couple of things before we begin--as Roger Stern notes in his introduction, the Masters, despite being an early attempt to create an evil opposite for the Avengers, were never entirely successful, primarily because they got their asses handed to them fairly quickly. One of the ways to successfully sell a villain as a threat is to have them credibly defeat a hero or hero team (without jacking their powers up to stupid levels) in such a way as to where the villains look good and the reader can't wait to see how the good guys are gonna beat them definitively.
Also, and Under Siege provides an excellent test case here--it's not necessary for villains to be murderous rape-crazy thugs to present a threat--many times in Under Siege the Masters prove themselves to be utter bastards, but it's done more with implication than showing the gory details on screen. As a matter of fact, one of the most brutal scenes in the story involves Zemo tearing up Captain America's mementos in from of him. His old shield is crushed, a picture of Bucky is torn to shreds, the only photo he was able to save of his mother is torn to shreds. When Captain America fails to break, Zemo ordered Mister Hyde to beat and cripple Jarvis in front of Cap and the captured Avengers. We don't need to see the result of a superpowered maniac wailing on a geriatric butler--it's all played off their horrified reactions. As with all things, a little goes a long way.
It also shows that not every battle has to end in a slugfest with someone who's overpowered and godlike (*cough*Sentry*cough*) sometimes, the final battle can just be the unraveling of the bad guy's elaborate plan after we've been taken, along with the heroes to the limit, and just when it looks like there's no hope . . .the good guys win.
Anyways, enough preamble--on with the show! Our story begins at a rather puzzling time for the Avengers (The Wasp leads a team of Hercules, Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Captain Marvel, and the Black Knight) and it's a pretty fractious team--Hercules is a full-on sexist asshole, Black Knight has got a thing for the Wasp, and the Sub-Mariner is very soon going to leave the team (this feels a bit perfunctory and I doubt very much this was the original plan) and generally Earth's Mightiest Heroes are not on top of their game.
The Masters, meanwhile, have been watching them and studying how to make the fractures that keep the Avengers apart into full-blown fissures. The story begins with Moonstone (not quite the master manipulator she becomes in Thunderbolts, but a definite challenge to Baron Zemo's leadership) stirring up public protest against the Avengers inducting the Sub-Mariner into their ranks. A perfunctory battle starts and Moonstone ends up delivered into the hands of two of the Masters, and that's left to tick over as the Sub-Mariner fucks off and heads into the Alpha Flight crossover that's starting in 2 months' time.
Meanwhile, The Wasp has to deal with Hercules' having enough of being ordered around by a woman and elects to go on an epic bender through New York City's Skid Row, and on the way to question the new Yellowjacket (not Henry Pym this time) runs into more of the Masters, and while the Avengers can't quite figure out this is the beginning of an organized assault against them, we begin to get a clearer picture of things--someone is gathering the Avenger's enemies together and while they're contemplating their navels, their enemies are close to implementing their plan.
Of course, before things can move too much further, we have a crossover with Alpha Flight to deal with--as Marrinna's been captured (again--man, was there ever a more useless character than Marrinna?) and Sub-Mariner has to nearly overthrow Atlantis just to get two pages of angst-tastic (4 Claremonts!) dialogue with her, whereupon she buggers off and Sub-Mariner with her. There's not much to say about this--Alpha Flight barely figures in to things, Namor in Atlantis is usually boring as everyone in Atlantis is a bit of a twit to one degree or another and really this just felt like a forced way to get Namor out of the book. Mind, he'd be back soon enough to kill Marrinna when she turns into Leviathan in one of the least tragic tragic endings ever. The less said about it the better.
Just as well, we're back to normal next issue, wherein the Masters assemble and Baron Zemo makes his big speech to the assembles Masters right about the time he reveals his ace in the hole--the psychotic and nearly mindless Blackout, who is the instrument of the titular siege. At the conclusion of the issue, with the Avengers dissolute and not minding the store, the Masters finally attack, storming through the gates of Avengers Mansion, and taking over without much trouble at all.
Now, with the Masters in full control, the shit gets real. Lying in wait for the Avengers, the Masters sucker Black Knight into walking through the front door and getting captured. Blackout sucks Captain Marvel into the Darkforce dimension, rendering the most powerful member of the Avengers (Bless 'em, Marvel was really trying to sell the second Captain Marvel as legit back in the day) Captain America gets captured, and a Hercules makes the mistake of trying to take on the Masters when he's completely drunk off his ass . . .and the Masters beat him nearly to death, throw his body out of the Mansion, and clap a force field around the place.
The Masters keep the pressure on. Hercules nearly gets killed in their follow-up attack on him in the hospital. Captain America's mementos are shredded in front of him in an effort to break him psychologically and when that fails, Zemo orders Hyde to start killing his fellow Avengers, and even though Hercules is going to live, the Avengers backs are against the wall. The Wasp declares she's through taking shit from them and decides the time has come to counterattack.
But who's left to answer the call? Well, it's an unlikely group. Thor returns (though not quite at full force owing to developments in his own book) Captain Marvel returns from the Darkforce Dimension (apparently it's damn easy to get out of if you remember that since every third Marvel character uses the same Darkforce you can pop out of one or the other of them) and . . .Doctor Druid? Well . . .it takes all kinds, and Doctor Druid does perform a useful function in the final act of our little drama.
Namely, our heroes--those inside and outside the mansion--begin their counterattack. And things start going to hell in a handbasket for the Masters--Blackout tries to resist Zemo's control and Zemo basically causes him to have a fatal haemorrhage, the strongest of the Masters suffer a brutal taste of payback and Zemo has to face the one thing that you never want to face--a pissed-off Captain America who is well and truly Sick Of This Bullshit. (Just ask Kang how that worked out.) The last fight between Zemo and Cap in the ruins of Avengers Mansion really tips this thing over the edge to "epic," I think --so much of the early history of the book is tied in intimately with the battles between the Avengers and the original Masters (who were led by Zemo's father) that it actually feels like a completed circle that things should get to this point, which is no mean feat, when you consider that Avengers has for much of existence ran with the notion that without any real mission statement (I mean, who are they really avenging?) they would just do whatever seemed like a good idea at the time.
But what really makes this work for me is the little bit at the end with Captain America finally breaking down amid the ruins of the family he's been a part of and what little bits of his history he was able to hold on to are ruined. Yes, the Avengers won and the they will carry on, but a tremendous price was paid for it (it really was-it was like four years at least before Avengers Mansion was restored in its classic form) and it was good to have that moment play out as a nice little coda rather than just skipping past that and getting on to the next thing.
Bottom line y'all, if you want a classic, competently done Avengers story that manages to work on its own, well . . .this is the book for you. While it doesn't include the few ancillary crossovers that happened concurrently with this (Most especially that issue of Captain America where Whirlwind and the Trapster fight Cap in the Carolinas, which was a nice bit of home team thrill for me) what's here is really all you need, and you should totally give it a shot.