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The Avengers: The Contest  2010 (HC) 148 pgs.

coverWritten by Bill Mantlo, Streve Engelhart, Tom DeFalco. Pencils by John Romita, Jr, Al Milgrom, with others. Inks by Pablo Marcos.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Contest of Champions #1-3, West Coast Avengers Annual #2, Avengers Annual #16 (1982, 1987)

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

Number of readings: 2

Review posted: June, 2010

Collected editions are such a big part of modern comics publishing, it seems as though everything will get reprinted sooner or later -- and even re-re-packaged. Case in point, these issues had already been collected previously as a soft cover TPB called, logically enough, Contest of Champions. Now Marvel is re-releasing it -- in "prestigious" (read: expensive) hardcover...and under a new title: Avengers: The Contest. Presumably they felt lumping the collection in with The Avengers line was a better marketing idea -- even though in the core mini-series, the Avengers as a whole don't play much of a part (albeit some key members do).

In some ways it could be argued the mini-series, Contest of Champions (full title Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions), was the forerunner of all the company crossover mega events that get churned out seeming every six months. Granted, the idea of teaming up a bunch of separate heroes in a single adventure dated back long before this. And granted, the Contest was self-contained, not crossing over into the various regular titles. But still, the basic concept of presenting a mini-series where, quite literally, every existing hero in the company's pantheon appears (if only in a one panel crowd scene) I'm not sure had ever been tried before.

The premise is that one of Marvel's recurring cosmic antagonists, the games obsessed Grandmaster, has made a deal with a mysterious entity -- The Unknown -- to resurrect his dead brother, The Collector, if he wins a championship. All of earth's heroes are gathered together so the two cosmic beings can select a dozen pawns each, and send them off in mini-groups to battle each other for pieces of a cosmic artifact.

We aren't talking high art here, or a profound treatise on the human condition. This is just a chance to see a bunch of costumed heroes battle another bunch of costume heroes. Yet, within that framework, there are some interesting creative decisions. For one thing, though obvious "star" characters are selected -- Captain America, Iron Man, the ever popular Wolverine -- so are a number of lower profile characters. While Spider-Man and the Hulk weren't selected. As well, some completely new heroes are created for the proceedings. Which at first glance seems odd. Why throw together all of Marvel's heroes...and then create whole new ones to steal the spotlight? One doesn't even get the impression it's because Marvel was hoping to spring them off into their own series -- some have recurred over the years, but only in occasional guest appearances.

Yet if tossing in brand new characters might seem an odd marketing idea...it might have been a smart narrative one. Because it throws random elements into the story, instead of just having characters whose powers and personalities we know go at each other. The other gimmick behind the new characters is they were all non-American, with Marvel clearly trying to establish the sense of this being EARTH's heroes, not just the usual New York crowd. Even of the pre-established heroes, many reflect an international spirit, from obvious ones like the Canadian Sasquatch (and Wolverine, of course) and the African Black Panther, to less prominent ones like Captain Britain (in one of his few American appearances while still in his lion-emblem costume), to characters like the Arabian Knight and Sabra who probably had only ever appeared once or twice previously.

Anyway, they are sent off in groups, and if nothing particularly great or profound, nonetheless scripter Bill Mantlo (along with his co-plotters Mark Gruenwald and Steven Grant) does as much as he can with the comic book equivalent of a WWF match. Because the chapters are of a decent length (around ten pages each) there is time for some character interaction -- drawing upon pre-existing friendships or animosities. Fans of individual characters might quibble about nuances...but Mantlo generally gets the broad strokes right. And there is a nice diversity in locations: an Arctic landscape, a western ghost town, and -- perhaps most intriguingly -- a Chinese archaeological excavation that was obviously drawn from the headlines.

The series is drawn by John Romita, Jr. (and inked by Pablo Marcos). Romita Jr. has gone on to become a true fan favourite, but his style has evolved over the years. At this point, I'm not sure there was as much to grab anyone's notice. Oh, he does well enough, and the nature of the story doesn't necessarily lend itself to any creative inspirations. But his figures are a bit blocky, his faces rather bland.

The mini-series may've been rushed a bit, resulting in some errors, from minor ones (at one point a character refers to the 24 heroes as "two score"...which actually means 40!) to rather major, as the final tally of who won doesn't match the actual chapters! It's also curious to wonder if the reader was supposed to guess who The Unknown was -- since you might recognize her from earlier Marvel comics.

This was a series which even as a kid, I thought was basically okay...nothing more, nothing less. Funnily, the coolest part of it back then was that each issues featured part of an almost complete listing/description of every Marvel hero, dead or alive -- something that I'm not sure had been done before and, in the days before the internet, wasn't readily available if it had. Of course, it makes you aware how more manageable was Marvel's universe back then that it could fit all its heroes onto six typed pages!

A few years later, Marvel revisited the idea, at least on a smaller scale (insofar as the number of heroes involved) if with maybe bigger stakes. This was a two part crossover between the two Avengers series, beginning in West Coast Avengers Annual #2, and then continuing in Avengers Annual #16.

The West Coast Annual was written by Steve Englehart and drawn by Al Milgrom, and featured the two teams being manipulated into fighting each other (so, like the Contest of Champions, heroes vs. heroes). But I haven't read it, so I can't comment on it.

The Avengers Annual has the two teams joining up and breaking up into smaller groups, this time to battle the resurrected dead of some of their greatest foes, as well as a few of their deceased allies. Aside from the hook of having the heroes battle signature foes, this issue also featured an assortment of artists drawing the different chapters -- and it's a pretty impressive bunch (not just the pencillers, but some of the inkers they're paired with make for intriguing combos -- John Romita Jr -- again! -- teamed with Bill Sienkiewicz). This Avengers Annual is the most visually arresting of this collection. And it continues the theme of exotic locales...now including alien planets and asteroid fields!

Again this isn't high art, with even less characterization than Mantlo's story -- perhaps because these are already team mates, and maybe because the chapters are shorter. And the Grandmaster is given a less honourable personality. And one shouldn't question the logic of a story where many of the undead adversaries were, in later retcons, revealed to never have been dead (though maybe they cover themselves, with Thor suggesting his adversary is but a "nameless shade" in the "guise" of his foe). Though there is an added novelty that many of the heroes die (though they get better by the end).

So this is a curious collection to assess. It is basically the super hero genre distilled to its most basic, lowest common denominator essence of just a lot of fighting for a vague, nebulous "right" -- saving the world or the universe from a completely arbitrary menace. At the same time...it's not making any pretence to be anything else. So if taken on that level, as just a colourful exercise in indulgence, as a chance to see a bunch of heroes, a few villains, most familiar, some obscure, bash it out against exotic landscapes -- it's briskly paced, and delivers just what it promises. But not much more.

This is a review based on the original comics.

Cover price: __


The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes  2005 (HC & SC) 192 pages

cover

Written by Joe Casey. Illustrated by Scott Kolins.

Colours: Morry Hollowell, Wil Quintana. Letters: Richard Starkings. Editor: Tom Brevoort.

Reprinting: Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes #1-8 (2004-2005) - with covers

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Aug. 2011

Earth's Mightiest Heroes takes a fresh look at the early issues of the Avengers, fleshing out the old stories with modern, deeper characterization. It's quite reminiscent of the DC maxi-series, JLA: Year One, in that this doesn't so much retell the old stories, but tells scenes that -- to some extent -- fit around the old stories. As such, this is much more character/drama series than it is an action/adventure series, the big battles and fights depicted in the original comics often happening off the page.

Here the focus is the personalities and the interaction. Tony Stark/Iron Man struggling to bring his dream to life, and negotiating the minefield of government bureaucracy. Captain America struggling with his survivor's guilt, and with bitter memories of his dead partner, Bucky. It chronicles the early days of the fledgling team started by Iron Man, Thor, and Ant Man & The Wasp (and briefly, the Hulk!) to the addition of Captain America, and eventually the changing of the guard when most of the founding members left and were replaced by newer heroes like Hawkeye. But here Casey can weave things together in a way the old comics, often written month to month, didn't. So Hawkeye is threaded through the early issues here in a cutaway sub-plot, long before he makes his first appearance at the Avengers Mansion.

In a way, it's a clever technique -- even respectful of the old comics. Because it's not really meant to replace the old comics by simply retelling the same stories but jazzed up for modern audiences -- it also means these comics can avoid the sense of repetition they might have for fans who have read the old comics (in any of a myriad reprint volumes).

The potential danger, though, is that this will read like half a story, and be pretty incoherent if you haven't read those old issues. For the most part, though, writer Joe Casey walks the delicate line.

And I think he pulls it off actually better than had JLA: Year One (or, for that matter, Marvels which in a sense tried something similar). Firstly, there is some action -- some old scenes are recreated as needed to support the story Casey is telling here, particularly Captain America's showdown with Baron Zemo. And the character/drama stuff forms a sufficiently strong thread that we don't necessarily feel like we need the action, or need a play by play of their battle with their latest villain. Which is both a credit to Casey, but also to the Avengers, as they were, and as they've developed over the years, that we could have an epic, 8 chapter maxi-series that is almost more a drama than an adventure...and it's every bit as gripping and emotionally involving as any hi-octane action story. And as I say, that's because these characters are, well, characters, and Casey is content to draw upon the personalities we know. In JLA: Year One, as part of DC's post-Crisis revamping, it could be argued the characters didn't quite feel like the old characters...and the old characters could be a bit bland, anyway. As well, doing the untold-scenes gimmick there was awkward, because DC's reality had been sufficiently changed (including the team membership) so that you couldn't simply see Year One as a companion piece to the old comics.

Not that Casey isn't above playing fast and loose with Avengers mythos. For one thing, he shamelessly up-dates the story to the era of cell phones and e-mail and JFK airport (it was still called Adelwilde when the Avengers were first published). Yet that can be effective, particularly with Captain America's sense of being a man out of time -- bitterly thinking of the Vietnam War as a war he slept through, or his reaction to turning on the TV and being shocked by modern reality TV programs! Casey does alter the old stories a bit. In the original comics, when Cap is first discovered by the Avengers it segues into a story where the Avengers are kidnapped and Cap first meets Rick Jones when Rick comes to him for help -- here, Casey skips all that, and Cap's first encounter with Rick is an innocuous encounter in the Avengers' kitchen!

Likewise, Casey gives Cap partial amnesia when he is revived from suspended animation, so that his memories of the war, and the death of Bucky, are only gradually brought out over a few issues.

Yet at other times, some scenes and dialogue are borrowed from the old comics, and if Casey alters the established canon, it's to add a twist to the old stories, not to negate them (like suggesting Hawkeye and Jarvis had a greater relationship than we previously knew).

Part of the point is, of course, to add a slight "realism" to the old four colour stories -- detailing the team's struggle with a sometimes hostile government bureacracy. Or even their skepticism toward each other. The characters welcome and accept Thor as a member -- but, amusingly, assume his claims to godhood are either an act, or a delusion (until a brief but dramatic revelation).

Again, the overall result is a series that may add a sophisticated, modern, character-driven aspect to the old comics...without seeming disrespectful or condescending of the old comics. There's humour and wit, but little of a mocking or parodying nature.

Granted, some threads are left to dangle -- presumably because that was just how the old comics worked. After the Hulk leaves the group, questions are raised about why the Avengers don't work harder to hunt him down...without Casey ever really offering a proper rationale.

Scott Kolins' are is also enormously appealing. There's a certain over-muscled blockiness to the characters at times, and a thin, hard-lined inking style that lacks a certain warmth. But there's a robust energy to it, and he's quite effective at the talky scenes (of which there are many) yet can also step up for the needed action moments, too. His faces are expressive and nuanced, capable both of drama and skewing into humour and even a bit of caricature. There's a beautiful detail he brings to the scenes, without skidding over the line and just becoming cluttered and muddled. And I don't simply mean in the amount of lines he can put into a background, or on the wall paper, but in an eye for bric-a-brac and little human touches. Of course it helps that the hardcover collection (which I read) is one of those slightly over-sized editions, allowing the art to breathe a bit more than in regular comic book dimensions.

And the result generally works as a story onto itself. I've long commented that I try to review these things from the point of view of saying "how well does it read just by -- and for -- itself?" Obviously, that's a hard criteria to apply, since I've read thousands of comics myself. In the case of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, I won't deny that I've read scores of Avengers comics over the years, and much of this has a certain resonance for me -- yet, with that being said, I'm not that familiar with this specific era (other than one or two issues). Which is why I feel I can say that this still works as a story onto itself, that can be read, and followed, and enjoyed, without needing to intimately know the original issues. It still feels like a story that unfolds in these pages, as opposed to something where the scenes feel like build ups...but where the pay-off scenes are in the pages of the old comics (like some of those annoying company-wide crossover mini-series!).

Although sometimes talky super hero comics can just seem dull and pretentious, where you sorely miss the action...equally you can be bored by mindless action when you'd really like to spend a little more time with the personalities. It's in that light that, strangely, Earth's Mightest Heroes emerges -- at least after a single, initially read -- as one of my favourite Avengers sagas. As mentioned, Casey does string it together so there is a sense of a narrative unfolding -- not just a collection of disparate character "moments". And he dose succeed in making it an effectively emotional narrative (particularly with the arc involving Captain America) without being too heavy or grim.

Cover price: __ USA


Avengers Forever  2001 (SC & HC TPB) 288 pages

Written by Kurt Busiek (co-plotter Roger Stern). Pencils by Carlos Pacheco. Inks by Jesus Merino.
Colours: Steve Oliff. Letters: Richard Starkings, Albert Deschesne. Editor: Tom Brevoort.

Reprint: the 12 issue maxi-series (1998-1999)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Jan, 2012

This has been re-issued a few times over the years, in hard and soft cover, with different covers.

Because comic books reflect a continuous narrative, yet span decades, and are usually part of a company's even greater "universe" of titles...it can lead to some pretty twisted and bizarre backstories, each story building upon those that went before. Perhaps the only other example that comes close is TV soap operas which likewise run decades and can lead to some unintentionally silly conversations among soap characters ("Gee, Sue, you remember that time you were kidnapped by your evil twin, had amnesia, and accidentally married your brother and was suspected in a triple homicide?" -- "No, Jim, I think you're confusing that with the time I was replaced by a robot, and went undercover as an assassin, but had a brain tumour that led me to turn evil." -- "Oh, right...yeah, I always get those two months confused.")

Anyway, this leads to writers constantly trying to fix, patch up, or otherwise "retcon" muddled continuity, often creating even more confusion. Such sagas can be needlessly confused, and hopelessly mired in fan-boy obsessions with obscure minutia it's better to forget...yet can also lead to fun stories that can seem grander, more epic than their page count precisely because they are drawing upon and referencing dozens of other stories.

Which then brings us to the maxi-series -- Avengers Forever. An indulgence in fan boy storytelling by writer Kurt Busiek (with co-plotter Roger Stern) that seems to have a slight echo of DC Comics Crisis on Infinite Earths (in that it involves, in part, a group of heroes trying to stop cosmic beings from destroying alternate timelines).

The story involves various recurring time travelling antagonists -- Kang, Immortus, and the Time-Keepers -- and their attempts to kill Rick Jones, perennial Marvel Comics sidekick (well, Kang wants to save him, Immortus and the others want to kill him). Within Rick's mind lurks a dormant super power (first referenced wa-ay back in the Kree/Skrull War) that if left unchecked (and Rick unkilled) might lead to a tyrannical humanity (and despotic Avengers) conquering the universe. To protect Rick, a group of Avengers are assembled -- but an oddly motley bunch, plucked from various eras of the team. So there's Captain America -- but a Cap as he was circa the 1970s, still emotionally demoralized after uncovering corruption in the U.S. government; Yellowjacket as he first, briefly appeared -- an unstable, split personality of Hank Pym; plus the current hank Pym (Goliath) and wife, The Wasp; Hawkeye, reformed villainess Songbird, and the son of Captain Marvel (just then poised to star in his own monthly comic).

The nature of team comics is that the roster changes over the years, meaning even though this is still legitimately an "Avengers" line-up...it might seem an odd roster, and missing some signature members.

The ensuing saga gleefully sends the characters bouncing around through time and space, referencing old adventures -- including a few obscure, What if...? alternate realities. Coherence-wise I think Avengers Forever pulls it off reasonably well. I mean, it's hard to say since, thanks to various reprint collections (and my long time reading comics) I actually was familiar with some of these old stories. But a lot I wasn't. And it isn't necessarily that it all makes perfect narrative sense for the caual reader...so much as enough is explained as you go, that you can follow what needs to be followed and ignore the rest, without it adversely affecting the tale.

When I saw this in the store -- seeing Busiek's name on the cover gave me pause. Now, to be fair, Busiek is a well regarded writer, and was then in the midst of a popular run on the Avengers' monthly comic. But I often find myself ambivalent about his work -- Busiek as much an obsessive-compulsive fan-boy turned pro as Roy Thomas ever was, but less able to shake off that fan boy stiltedness. His writing often striking me as pretentious -- rather than actually profound -- shallow, and more like fan fiction given a professional forum (including his self-created property, Astro City). Still, at least this time, there was no Justice & Firestar, novice Avengers he had introduced into the monthly comic and who spent most of their time sycophantically exclaiming how cool it was to be Avengers!

But Busiek's handling of characters and dialogue is a bit better here than I expected -- with snappy pater from Rick and Hawkeye. Granted, some of his characterization doesn't quite gel with what went before (I'm not sure Cap was quite this emotionally demoralized back in the stories from which he's been plucked) but it's okay.

The art is, for the most part, just gorgeous. Carl Pacheco has a robust, energetic style, full of well realized, realist figures, and beautifully detailed backgrounds and environments, veering from urban streets, wild west locales, to the unreality of fortresses in the time stream. There's definitely a George Perez vibe at work here (Perez a classic Avengers artist) though arguably more limber, the figures less stiff. But Pacheco (and inker Jesus Merino) are aided immeasurably by colourist Steve Oliff (who I think of as being at the forefront when American comics started switching over from single hues to multi-tone colouring). With such busy and detailed art, it would be very easy for the lines to just cluster together and create a lot of busy, cluttered panels...but I think Oliff's colouring really brings out the elements in the scenes, so that you can admire the scope and detail of Pacheco's art...without losing the scenes or the characters.

If I were to quibble, I might say that Pacheco maybe doesn't always do enough to distinguish his people as individual characters. In scenes where they are reacting, as a group, to things, they often all sport the same expressions, whereas some other artists will make each expression unique to the character and the personality. But that's a quibble.

But, ultimately, as a story -- Avengers Forever is a flawed effort. It does ultimately come across as just a fan boy indulgence, a desire on the part of the writers to show off their massive encyclopedic recall of Avengers (and other Marvel Comics) lore, and a desire to explain and justify earlier, sometimes contradictory continuity -- more than it seems as though they actually had a good story to tell.

Part of that depends on what you want/expect from a story -- particularly such a lengthy tale as this.

But, to me, a story like this should unfold, and twist and turn, there should be questions/mysteries posed -- maybe one that strings throughout the saga, but also other mysteries that get answered as we go, even as new ones are posed (or arise out of the answers to the previous questions), so that each chapter feels like a necessary development in the arc. Yet as a plot -- Avengers Forever is pretty simple and straightforward. The first few issues actually seem like a prologue! I don't mean it's boring -- there's plenty of action and fisticuffs. But I mean, even two or three issues into it, it feels as though we're still just setting up the premise. Then a number of issues later -- you realize the characters are asking the same questions they were at the beginning, that nothing much has really changed, or shifted the direction of the story. Indeed, by the climax -- it's all pretty much what it seemed to be at the beginning: characters are trying to kill Rick to stop a possible bad future from arising, and the Avengers are trying to stop them.

That doesn't mean there aren't things happening, adventures to be had, or that individual issues (or two) might not be wrapped around particular conflicts. But it does mean there's a real sense that you could just as easily skip those scenes/issues...and still arrive at the same climax!

There is a secondary mystery, involving the young Captain Marvel and something he knows about Rick -- but it feels kind of pointless. When it is revealed...it seems a bit like a shaggy dog story, leaving more questions.

And Busiek/Stern are more concerned about where they want the story/characters to end up for certain scenes...than about how they got there, or why the character's act the way they do. So in one sequence, the Avengers decide to invade Immortus' stronghold -- this then leads to the team splitting up, some members getting captured, etc. So, in that sense, it has an impact on the direction of the story. But why the characters decide to invade Immortus' stronghold is completely unclear -- save they have no other plans on the table. When they get detected...they immediately decide to retreat. So, um...what exactly did they hope to accomplish? We know what Busiek/Stern hoped to accomplish -- to have someone get captured, and to provide more splashy action scenes for Pacheco to draw -- but what did the Avengers think they would accomplish?

Likewise, in another scene the heroes find Rick Jones has disappeared. Later Rick explains he just went off for a look around -- with no indication of where he went, or what he intended to accomplish. Again, the writers just wanted Rick gone for a scene...and they didn't really care how or why.

To be fair, part of the point of this saga is, as I say, just the fanboy indulgence -- a chance to traipse through Avengers (and Marvel) lore, to re-examine old adventures and declare that what happened wasn't quite what we thought happened, to look in on some alternate realities that had been portrayed before...and some that hadn't (so Pacheco could have fun drawing re-imagined Avengers). Although even the fun of visiting (and tying together) disparate stories can lose something...when (in some cases) they don't bother adhering to the old stories. So the Avengers pop in on the alternate future of Killraven and his freedom fighters battling Martian invaders...except Killraven only has a line or two, in favour of futuristic Avengers (and an aging Black Panther) who were never in the old Killraven comics!

Still, it can be fun, just a big, gaudy spectacle. But again, usually such recap/retcon strories try to reshape the old stories into a new narrative. And there is some of that here, with Busiek/Stern suggesting Immortus was manipulating old adventures neither the reader, nor the Avengers, knew he was involved with. And there is, of course, some coy editorializing, as they suggest heroes behaved out-of-character because of his influence, or dismiss certain plans as "needlessly complex", Busiek/Stern essentially passing editorial judgement on some of their predecessors creative choices.

But even here it can feel a bit like we're often recapping stories -- and tying them together -- simply for the sake of recapping stories...and tying them together, as opposed to because it's actually necessary to furthering this plot. It might explain some past inconsistencies (even as it probably creates new ones, and even the characters themselves just dismiss other loose ends) but I'm not sure it actually has any real impact on the plot, the climax, or why the characters do what they do. We could've skipped all the recapping and explanations...and the Avengers still would've been defending Rick from the Time-Keepers.

Which actually raises a further point -- the story doesn't even really bother treating the crisis as a dilemma. I mean, given the possible threat to the universe, might not the heroes have at least taken a moment to wonder if they were on the right side? It might at least have added a sense of gravatus to the proceedings if we feel the Avengers are struggling with a moral dilemma of balancing an innocent man's life against possible billions.

Yet then I come back an earlier comment -- about it being a big, gaudy spectacle. I mean, it's not really meant to have gravatus. It's not meant to be anything more than a pop corn read, a roller-coster ride. I was leaning toward giving this a harsher rating -- but then I thought about it. It's 12 issue saga, that I read (usually a chapter a day) over almost two weeks -- and I can't honestly say I was bored. I mean, I was unsatisfied at times, frustrated by the lack of a complex plot, a true epic saga that might well have put it up there with the Kree-Skrull War or the Life of Captain Marvel, and disappointed by the absence of memorable character moments -- but I didn't begrudge turning the pages. I didnt find it a particular slog to get to the end of the individual chapters.

It's pretty to look at, it has a fun sense of spectacle about it, prancing through Avengers mythology, and it's sprightly paced. So although I can't really claim it as a classic, or even a really good Avengers epic...it's an okay romp.

This is a review based on the original series serialized in the comics.

Cover price: $ __ USA

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