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Avengers Graphic Novel and TPB Reviews - Page 1

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"And there came a day when earth's mightiest heroes found themselves united against a common threat! On that day, the Avengers were born -- to fight the foes no single hero could withstand!"

For other Avengers appearances see
Aladdin Effect, Black Panther: Enemy of the State, The Life of Captain Marvel, Marvels, Son of Origins, some Fantastic Four collections, X-Men collections, and Daredevil collections, and various others

All Avengers GNs/TPB published by Marvel Comics

The Avengers: Bride of Ultron 2012 (HC TPB) 184 pages.

cover art by KirbyWritten by Jim Shooter, with Gerry Conway. Pencils by George Perez, John Byrne, Sal Buscema, with Don Heck, George Tuska. Inks by Pablo Marcos.
Colours: various. Letters:

Reprinting: The Avengers (1st series) #157-166

Rating: * * * * (our of 5)

Number of readings: 2

The Bride of Ultron is another in what amounts to a series of sequential collections reprinting a long ago era of The Avengers, falling inbetween The Private War of Dr. Doom and The Korvac Saga. I make this observation just to point out that it's not so much that an editor looked back and said, Wow!, The Avengers #157-166 really needs to be highlighted in its own collection, so much as it's part and parcel of a series.

It's not a story arc per se, so much as just a collection of Avengers adventures. Yet it has the appeal of being consecutive, so character threads can be strung along, and when characters refer to a past adventure, often it's a story contained between these same pages. As well, it doesn't begin, or end, in mid-story. Though it does begin at the aftermath of another story -- the battle with Dr. Doom, rogue Atlantean warlords, and the Sub-Mariner from the previous TPB.

Art-wise there are a few pencillers on hand, though no switching artists between specific plots, which is nice. With Don Heck and George Tuska on board for one issue each, and Sal Buscema delivering a two-parter, and with fan favourites George Perez and John Byrne on three issues each -- the later two delivering the best visuals, with their strong figure work, detailed backgrounds and, particularly in Perez's case, sometimes interesting and eclectic composition. Pablo Marcos inks throughout. Marcos has a fairly distinctive style, one of these guys who you might recognize his inking even before you recognize the penciller underneath, and that perhaps lends it a little consistency. The different artists maybe gives this collection a sense of variety, while Marcos inks keeps the changes from being jarring.

Gerry Conway writes the first story (Conway having been the regular writer previously) then Jim Shooter settles into the captain's chair (Shooter having already pinch-hitted once or twice before) -- it's almost weird to realize this was at a time when Shooter was just a writer (I believe having only just returned to comics after a hiatus) and before his rise to Marvel-shaping Editor-in-Chief. There is a certain unevenness to the character stuff -- whether a result of Shooter inheriting threads he wasn't sure what to do with, or simply needing to settle into the gig. It starts out with the Vision particularly bitter and morose (in part relating to the recent return of Wonder Man causing The Vision to question his sense of identity -- since his brain patterns were modelled after the once comatose Wonder Man) to the point where he is brusque toward his wife, The Scarlet Witch, even at one point saying he will "soon relinquish" her -- then a few issues later they seem happy as clams with little explanation (save a punch up between The Vision and Wonder Man that, in a dubious cliche of fiction, is maybe supposed to have alleviated the emotional turmoil). And because the Avengers has such a large and diverse membership, there always tends to be a membership change over the course of a run of issues, and here The Black Panther drops by with little explanation -- and then stays around.

Part of the problem with the action-adventure plots is quite a few involve the team taking on some super powerful single foe -- which kind of results in rather repetitious fight scenes (as opposed to fighting another team) and equally where the "plot" really does just seem to be there as the token set up for the fights. Recurring foes include The Grim Reaper, Ultron (of course, given the title!), The Lethal Legion and Count Nefaria (here imbued with super powers -- a theme borrowed years later during the Busiek/Perez revival of the series) plus some more original -- or at least less familiar -- foes. Along the way there's also a guest appearance by half of The Champions (a short-lived 1970s super team, here represented by the Black Widow, Hercules, and Ice Man). But as I say, not too many of the plots are especially complex or "plot"-oriented. With that said, there is some interesting attempts to provide a touch of shading to some of the villains -- not so much by making them sympathetic or multi-dimensional, but at least by giving them some emotional frailties.

The two-part Ultron story gets the title, and it does stand as a highlight of the collection (though full disclosure: I read it as a kid, so might have undue affection for it). Here there is more emphasis on "plot", on a story that has a few more twists and turns than simple big fights (though it's got those, too!) and with Shooter genuinely creating an apocalyptic sense of a foe just that much more dangerous than the others.

And the three part Count Nefaria saga also strands out as a highlight -- despite being precisely what I'm sort of poopooing, a big fight saga against a super foe. But here Shooter seems to have got a better feel for his formula (you can contrast it with what feels almost like a dry run for it, the story from #158-159 -- the villain in that even looks like Count Nefaria!) I sufficiently liked the Nefaria story I had previously reviewed it in my They Ain't TPBs (but should be) section. It works because of the character focus, letting the Avengers feel like flesh and blood, fallible people, rather than the idolized demigods of some other Avengers eras (like the much later Busiek period).

This is a collection with no overriding arc, just a run of issues, and though it boasts some stand out, memorable stories, it also has some okay but kind of undistinguished efforts, and the variety of artists on hand makes for some diversity, even as it equally makes for some uneven visuals.

Cover price: $__ USA.

The Avengers: Celestial Madonna 2002 (SC TPB) 224 pages.

cover art by Dave CockrumWritten by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas. Pencils by Sal Buscema, Dave Cockrum, with Don Heck, George Tuska. Inks by Joe Staton, others.
Colours: various: Letters: Tom Orzechowski, others. Editor: Roy Thomas, Len Wein.

Reprinting: The Avengers (1st series) #129-135, Giant-Size Avengers #2-4 (1974-1975); with covers.

Rating: * * * * (our of 5)

Number of readings: 2

The Avengers learn one of their members, the Vietnamese-born Mantis, is destined to become some cosmically significant mother to a super being. The time travelling villan, Kang the Conqueror, is aware of the prophecy and determined to kidnap Mantis, so that he may take charge of any progeny -- and tries and tries again in this collection. In between, the Avengers and Mantis seek to unravel the contradictions inherent in Mantis' origin as they learn some of her previous memories aren't wholly accurate. The truth takes them, as ethereal observers, to the beginning of time and the origin of the never ending war between the two alien races, the Kree and the Skrull. In a sub-plot, the Scarlet Witch has been practising her sorcerous powers...and seems to be taking a turn toward the dark side. And the Vision travels through time to unravel the mysteries of his own origin. As well, an Avenger dies -- in a surprisingly effective scene -- the Vision and the Scarlet Witch get married, and a few other things crop up along the way (like a one issue tussle with the Crimson Dynamo and a few of his East Bloc buddies, plus appearances by Rama Tut, Immortus and Captain America in his early '70s alter ego of Nomad).

Whew! Best of all, the disparate threads all come to a head by the end of this collection.

Celestial Madonna is one of those old school epics that are fun precisely because it's comprised of smaller two or three issue story arcs. It forms one saga, but there's enough new things happening to keep it fresh and unexpected, not unlike the Avengers: The Kree/Skrull War and The Life of Captain Marvel. Celestial Madonna isn't quite on the same level as those, lacking the socio-political edge of the former and the cosmic awe of the latter -- though it tries. In fact, it's odd that it doesn't "feel" quite as epic in scope, despite dealing with grand concepts and is steeped in a kind of ineffable cosmic mysticism. Though maybe that's the problem, the stories tend to be extremely personal to the characters (Mantis, the Vision) while the "cosmic" aspects are maybe just a little too wooly headed and vague in their mysticism.

Regardless, it's still highly enjoyable, doing the usual mixing of comicbooky action and adventure, with soap opera-y character stuff, cosmic plot threads, witty wisecracks and highfalutin' philosophizing.

Collected some thirty years after it first saw print, and tied as it is into so much of past Marvel Universe history, I couldn't help thinking an introductory essay -- "for those who came in late" -- would've been in order, particularly as the saga begins with the action already starting. After all, modern readers might be asking: "Who's Mantis? What's going on?" But, to be fair, most of the initial confusion is dispelled as the story progresses, filling in the blanks as we go (helped by the fact that Hawkeye rejoins the group and conveniently acts as the reader's surrogate by demanding explanations).

The early stuff is high octane entertainment, mixing, as noted, grandiose ideas with fisticuffs, anchored by a nice feel for these characters. Despite their super powers and their earth shattering conflicts, the Avengers work best because the characters are very human (even when they're a Norse god or an android), and the scenes are filtered through their emotions, their doubts, their passions. The whole "feet of clay" that represented the Marvel Age. Iron Man can take time in the middle of a scene to briefly lament his former career as an arms making industrialist. The Swordsman is a bit of a loser, woefully out of his element playing on this A-team. While Mantis herself starts out as a surprisingly cold hearted, selfish character who breaks the Swordsman's heart while making a play for the Vision, even knowing the Vision is committed to the Scarlet Witch. Of course, having Mantis refer to herself in the third person ("this one") seems a bit odd and one can't decide if writer Englehart learned all he knows of the Far East from watching Charlie Chan movies or, to be fair, whether her speech patterns owe more to her upbringing in a mystic temple than her nationality.

I often like comics stories that blatantly reflect their period, such as the use here of Vietnam (even if it raises technical questions about how come super heroes like these haven't aged in thirty years). Though a scene where the Swordsman, in an Avengers jet, gets into a shoot-out with the Egyptian air force after violating Egyptian air space smacks of an unfortunate imperialism on the part of the creators (I mean, would a hero shoot down American jets over a misunderstanding?)

Regarding the action-adventure stuff: the first battle with Kang takes them from New York to an Egyptian pyramid and beyond; while another epic conflict has them in a timeless limbo battling resurrected dead foes (in a story that reminded me of the much later The Avengers #352-354 -- and it's a mark of the good ol' story telling at work here that the similarity didn't diminish this original's effectiveness one bit). It's all fast-paced, exciting stuff yet, thanks to the attention to character (to which I alluded), the action rarely seems like just boring fisticuffs.

The saga becomes a bit problematic as we get into the actually unravelling of the origin stories, as it require the characters to simply be observers. That part of the saga has its own appeal though, particularly when the Avengers witness the beginnings of the Kree race, and this super hero comic takes on a science fiction feel (and there's the intriguing, more realistic idea that the perennially evil Skrulls were, once upon a time, not such a bad lot).

Although the climax of the Celestial Madonna aspect seems a bit of a let down, and unfortunately the grand finale issue (Giant-Size Avengers #4), where everything comes together, is actually the least compelling of the issues. I think mayhap it's because it's trying to do too much and is a bit too top heavy with verbiage and exposition...something which is true of the saga overall in the later issues. It also features the least effective art of the entire collection.

The art on the epic is a mixed bag. The lion's share is done by Sal Buscema, with Joe Staton on inks, with Dave Cockrum doing a couple of the Giant-Size issues (the regular Avengers and the Giant-Size Avengers were treated as one series, so story arcs begun in the regular comic usually climaxed in a Giant-Size issue). Don Heck provides the saga's conclusion in Giant-Size #4, and Heck is probably not regarded as an A-list artist at the best of times, and the art here seems particularly slapdash occasionally, with inker John Tartag providing a rather crude and thick lined coating. Going into this, probably my favourite artist of the group was George Tuska, who only does one issue, and even his work seems a bit rushed, not helped by the inking job (but still good). The point is, there's nothing exactly breathtaking about the the same time, there is a kind of clean, efficient, tell-the-story approach to the style that is appealing. It keeps the focus where it should be: on the story and the characters. And the Buscema-Staton combo emerges as perhaps the best.

Of course there's so much about this saga that's evocative, having been used before and since, such as tying it into the Kree-Skrull conflict, or the old "character must sift through the contradictory origin stories they've been told in past issues" (such as in the later Yesterday's Quest). But that's kind of what makes this such a quintessentially Avengers-esque epic. And so many of the villains, heroes, and cameos are all drawn from past adventures -- but at least they are properly annotated. A novice reader might find the reliance on flashbacks and references a bit daunting, but I think this saga does better than many in explaining things as you go for the uninitiated. I knew some of this stuff, true, but there was plenty of stuff I didn't (including everything surrounding Mantis, a character I'd barely glimpsed previously) but I found it easy enough to follow and become involved in.

As I said earlier, as classic early 1970s Marvel sagas go, Celestial Madonna maybe isn't in the absolute top -- but it's still an exciting, intriguing, and thoroughly entertaining epic. Decades later, Steve Englehart returned to the team and penned a sequel of sorts collected as The Avengers: The Celestial Quest.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $19.95 USA.

The Avengers: The Celestial Quest

see review here.

The Avengers: Clear and Present Dangers 2001 (SC TPB) 186 pages.

coverWritten by Kurt Busiek. Pencils by George Perez. Inks by Al Vey, others.
Colours: Tom Smith. Letters: Comicraft, others.

Reprinting: The Avengers (3rd series) #8-15 (1999)

Rating: * * 1/2 (our of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Dec. 2015

This is the third sequential TPB following Supreme Justice.

Okay -- I'll admit, my reviewing this TPB is maybe a bit pointless. Because at this point I've yet to really be that caught up in Busiek & Perez's much acclaimed run on the Avengers. So I'm not sure my review has any value. After all, if you've liked the previous issues, then my opinion is irrelevant to you.

I suppose if you weren't a big fan, like me, and I were to suddenly say this TPB blew me away it might get you to sit up and take notice. Unfortunately, that's not what I'm going to say.

Instead, it's pretty much more of the same. Although this collection is more just a collection of individual stories, some with overlapping threads, and with underlining soap opera plots chugging along -- whereas the previous TPBs seemed to have a key story that dominated most of the issues. So in that sense, as just a grab bag of Avengers adventures, this might make a decent collection. Along the way there's a battle cum team-up with the Thunderbolts (the double-sized #12 -- the Thunderbolts another comic Busiek was writing) and another with The New Warriors (the former team of Justice and Firestar) and one-time Avenger, The Beast, drops by for an issue to visit old pal Wonder Man and to treat us to a bit of nostalgia. These issues also introduce nascent heroes Silverclaw and Triatholon (the latter borrowing colours from the slightly obscure 3-D Man).

Although part of the problem with lacking a key plot line is that these issues spend some time seeming to build up a new villain and an on-going menace -- that goes unresolved in these pages (not that it ends on a cliff hanger or anything).

I'm not quite sure why I haven't really grooved to this era. Funnily, I think it's because for all that Busiek's strength among his fans is his attention to characters -- it's the characterization I find the least convincing. Whereas other eras of The Avengers I can find myself believing in the humanity of the heroes, that they are real people behind the masks, I don't find Busiek's characters quite as effective. Partly that's because there's a feeling Busiek himself has trouble seeing his heroes as men and women rather than heroic icons. The very fact that the two newest members -- Justice & Firestar -- seem to function as "outsider" characters whose main roll is to think how amazing everyone is being an illustration of this. Though Busiek tries to flip his previously established characterization on its head here. In the earlier issues, Justice was starstruck to be an Avenger but Firestar was more sceptical -- but after recent events, Justice has started to question his place on the team even as Firestar has begun to settle in. It's a kind of clever turnabout -- but still smacks of defining the characters by simply their status as Avengers.

Likewise I find a lot of Busiek's dialogue/thought balloons heavy handed, with characters simply laying out their emotions and angst in a blunt way that, honestly, I suspect even Stan Lee and Roy Thomas back in the 1960s would've balked at. And reading the monthly issues back to back in this TPB also draws attention to how repetitive that stuff can be, and how little things are developing. But, as I say, that may be a fault more of the presentation, and it would read better in monthly instalments.

As for the action/adventure plots -- they can seem fairly simple and rudimentary. More just excuses for fights rather than compelling stories. But that charge could probably be levelled at a lot of Avengers stories over the years.

And Perez's art remains the same -- you can basically read my feelings about its prod and cons in my earlier reviews.

So as I say: I don't really expect -- or even want -- my review to influence anyone's opinion. If you like the Busiek/Perez run, you'll probably still like this. And if you don't, I doubt this will change your mind.

The next collection is more squarely an epic adventure, so it might be interesting to see how I react to Busiek and Pereze presenting a grand, multi-issue saga.

Cover price: $__ .

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