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The Avengers: The Korvac Saga  2010 (HC) 242 pages

cover by CockrumWritten by Jim Shooter, with David Michelinie, and Bill Mantlo, Roger Stern, Len Wein. Pencils by George Perez, Sal Buscema, Dave Wenzel. Inks by Pablo Marcos, Klaus Janson, others.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: The Avengers (1st series) #167, 168, 170-177, Thor Annual #6, plus a four page epilogue first printed in the 1991 TPB collection (1977-1978)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: June, 2010

Additional notes: intro by Ralph Macchio (first printed in the 1991 edition); covers of the original comics, plus the covers from the two earlier TPB collections; character profiles of Korvac, The Collector, and The Guardians of the Galaxy...at least the male Guardians (hmmm -- sexist, anyone?)

The Korvac Saga was has been collected a few times (though seeming with limited print runs making those TPBs hard to find) in 1991 and 2003. This expensive hardcover is its most complete version yet, including not just the original Avengers issues, and an epilogue done for the 1991 TPB, but now including Thor Annual #6, which acts as a kind of prologue.

The Korvac Saga ran through 10 issues of The Avengers (with threads dating back even earlier) and before it was through had involved almost everyone who had ever been an Avenger (and wasn't dead or otherwise unavailable), added a few newcomers -- including Ms. Marvel and the robot Jocasta -- plus the 31st Century heroes, the Guardians of the Galaxy. There are even guest stars like Nighthawk, and minor cameos from Dr. Strange, the Silver Surfer, and more. Part of the inspiration was supposedly to provide Avengers artist George Perez something to really go to town on drawing all these heroes -- Perez who would later draw such seminal "mass hero team ups" as Crisis on Infinite Earths, Infinity Gauntlet, and others.

The premise is that a god-like being, the inconspicuous Michael, has set up shop in Forrest Hills, New York, preparing to assume control of the universe.

It begins with the Thor Annual, in which Thor gets whisked to the 31st Century and ends up joining the Guardians of the Galaxy in battling a would-be despot, the cyborg Korvac. Michael later turns out to be Korvac -- having undergone a massive change in personality and appearance. Yet it's not like I'm revealing some surprise twist by saying this -- it doesn't really change our perception of the events. And the story is called the "Korvac" Saga (though in his introduction, Ralph Macchio refers to the saga as "The Michael Saga" as if even he was unsure how much to give away).

Anyway...

The Avengers issues begin with the Guardians showing up in 20th Century earth, telling the Avengers they suspect Korvac has fled through time to that era. While the Guardians move to the sidelines, The Avengers get involved in a few secondary plots, battling Atlantean renegade Tyrak, and including a two-part tussle with arch foe, Ultron. Meanwhile, Michael sits and broods, determined his presence in this era must remain undetected. And Shooter does a good job of creating a sense that Michael may truly be that much more powerful than anyone they've ever faced, particularly in a scene where he fights and kills the Guardians' Starhawk...and then simply resurrects him a few panels later, now with his perceptions altered so that he can no longer detect Michael's presence. And while this is going on, Avengers start vanishing, one by one. Eventually the story brings the Collector -- another of Marvel's recurring cosmic beings -- into the story.

All you need to know to follow the plot is in these pages -- yet it's also rooted in its era of continuity. So there are re-appearances by villains they'd fought only a few issues before, and references to on going threads. I'm familiar with much of the surrounding events, so there was fun in seeing some things at long last explained (like a sub-plot where Thor kept mysteriously appearing). Yet with all that being said, ten issues is plenty of time to get up to speed, and back then dialogue was often a little more explanatory than it tends to be written today. As long as you have a general familiarity with the Avengers, this should be readable enough on its own.

And if only it all lived up to the hype (the story even recently making a top 100 of great comic book storylines conducted by Comic Book Resources -- amazing given the short attention span of comic readers).

It starts out well.

Part of the problem with the Avengers over the years, was a tendency toward big fight scenes with a single, unstoppable foe, making for some repetitious conflicts. But here, the story unfolds more gradually, Michael used more sparingly. It does create a sense of an epic slowly unfolding.

Shooter does a decent enough job with the personalities, the tensions. He has Captain America be a bit prickly, feuding with Iron Man, and questioning his worth among these more powerful teammates -- an interesting switch, when Cap is usually portrayed as an unimpeachable paragon to whom others intuitively defer. It's not maybe the best character interaction -- and I say this being a fan of Shooter's Avengers issues from just before this arc! And the dialogue can be a bit clumsy and stiff. And later issues rely on too much juvenile bickering.

As more and more characters get added, the writers just fall back on scenes of anonymous super beings standing around. Toward the end, Michael says that none of his foes are more admirable than the Black Panther -- a line that has no context when the reader gets little sense here of the Panther's individual character.

Still, flaws accepted, I was reading the first few chapters intrigued, thinking this really was going to be a classic arc.

But problems start to intrude.

As mentioned, supposedly part of the inspiration for the story was just to give Perez something really epic to draw. Those familiar with Perez' more recent, insanely detailed style, might find this early work more prosaic (though still detailed for the time). But it's still solid and visually engaging, and it certainly helps sell these issues. But Perez quit after only four issues! Apparently the artist chair had opened up at DC's Justice League of America and Perez couldn't resist the offer (the JLA having only had two artists in 15 years, Perez might well have assumed if he didn't go for it then, he might not get another opportunity). Sal Buscema comes on board to draw a couple of issues (he had also drawn the Thor Annual), to adequate effect. Then relative newcomer Dave Wenzel handles the final four chapters -- with more middling results. The loss of Perez is definitely a body blow to the saga (much as it was years later when Perez bailed in the middle of The Infinity Gauntlet).

Even Shooter's involvement proves inconsistent. He is credited with the story throughout, but this was when he was assuming editorship of Marvel. So he shares the actual scripting with David Michelinie and others. And the saga itself ends up being rather...nebulous.

Michael often disappears entirely for issues at a time while the Avengers battle other foes in "big fight" stories.

Michael sits, and broods -- but he doesn't really do anything. Part of the point is he is meant to be an ambiguous foe -- dangerous and ruthless, but convinced he's acting for the betterment of the universe (echoing the earlier Who Remembers Scorpio? arc from The Defenders and Shooter himself later tried something similar, though with a more obviously villainous character, in his Unity epic). But we don't actually see Michael doing...anything. Mostly what he does is fret about whether Marvel's pantheon of cosmic beings will detect him. When he takes action...it's merely to strike at the Avengers or the Collector to prevent them from interfering. But, um, interfere with what?

Many of the scenes can seem like Shooter and Michelinie are just padding the page count.

When the Avengers finally trackdown Michael, it just leads to the inevitable big fight with a single super being to which I alluded earlier. For a whole issue, it's kind of tedious. Though there is a clever bit of irony, as Michael is revealed by the very fact that he erased Starhawk's ability to perceive him.

It all comes across as a concept in search of a story.

The idea of all the Avengers against, essentially, a god, is intriguing -- genuinely convincing you he is a threat bigger and badder than most they've faced. And having a morally ambiguous antagonist, eschewing the simple good guy/bad guy dynamic, hints at a certain ambition, a sophistication. But it's more a pretence at sophistication than the real deal.

Though, ironically, even that pretence must not have sat well with later Marvel brass. In 1991 a 4 page epilogue was added. Now if they're going to commission a new epilogue, you'd think it would be because something was left glaringly unresolved...or because the original creators had something more to add (like a director's cut). But the extraneous epilogue is written by Mark Gruenwald and drawn by Tom Morgan, guys who had nothing to do with the original saga. Shooter's story ends on a melancholy note, making us question who was right and wrong, whether Michael Korvac was really a villain. Gruenwald's heavy handed epilogue is there simply to say: yes he was! he was evil!! he was Hitler!!! Don't ever forget that kids!!!!

In Gurenwald's Squadron Supreme maxi-series, he explored the idea (and dangers) of a self-styled benevolent dictatorship, so presumably he felt strongly about the concept. Maybe Marvel editors were worried kids would read Shooter's original and, if they ever acquired god-like powers, would think attempting to take control of the universe was an okay thing to do! But given what I said, that we have very little sense of what Michael was doing or even planning, it seems kind of odd for Marvel to fret about it. Even this hardcover collection says the epilogue is included simply "for the sake of completeness" as if even the modern editorial regime saw it as superfluous.

Ultimately, the Korvac Saga is a frustrating effort. If you want to read a grab bag of stories, with The Avengers battling Ultron and the Porcupine and others, and where a slowly teased along sub-plot involving Michael Korvac does come to a head and resolve between these covers, it's okay -- read much the same way you might read an Essential volume. But as a well plotted, thought provoking epic, it fails to come together. And the art is disappointingly inconsistent. After years of hearing about it, and trying to get a hold of it -- The Korvac Saga seems a minor epic in the Avengers canon.

Cover price: __ CDN./$34.95 USA



The Avengers: The Kree-Skrull War  2000 (SC TPB) 200 pgs.

cover by Neal AdamsWritten by Roy Thomas. Pencils by Sal Buscema, Neal Adams, John Buscema. Inks by Tom Palmer, George Roussos, Sal Buscema.
Colours/letters: various. Editor: Stan Lee

Reprinting: The Avengers (1st series) #89-97 (1971)

Rating: * * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

This review, in a slightly altered form, was originally posted at the science fiction webzine, Strange Horizons. As such, it was intended for a readership that wasn't necessarily specifically a comicbook readership.

The Avengers: The Kree-Skrull War collects in Trade Paperback form, for the first time in its entirety, the comic book saga that details how the Avengers and earth become embroiled in a conflict between two warring alien races. It was one of those touchstone sagas that fans continued to refer to in letters pages years after it first appeared.

Long considered a disposable medium, even by those who toiled in the profession, comic books have seen a shift in the last decade and a half toward the belief that stories are worth repackaging and reprinting. The boom in comic book Trade Paperbacks (book-format collections of comics) has become a popular second industry in comics. But just as, for a while, you were more likely to find the latest action movie given a prestigious DVD treatment before you'd find an old film classic, TPBs are often used to collect newer storylines, rather than re-presenting old stories that might be deemed unappealing to the tastes of modern readers. Given that editorial climate, it's unsurprising that Marvel has only recently collected the Kree-Skrull War, almost thirty years after it first saw print.

The story is a surprisingly convoluted tale, less a consistent narrative than various stories layered one on top of the other, forming a greater whole. The saga hits the ground running with the Avengers seeking to capture super hero Captain Marvel (not the Shazam! guy, the other Captain Marvel) -- the good captain being unaware that he poses a public danger thanks to having been recently subjected to a dose of radiation. This segues into a story in which the alien Kree attempt to literally devolve humanity. These three issues are largely unspectacular -- fast-paced to be sure, brimming over with grandiose ideas (the first issue alone would probably be stretched over two or three comics today), with some nice character angst involving Captain Marvel's sidekick, Rick Jones, feeling like a Judas for having aided in his capture (even if it was for his own good). But overall, it's colourful action devoid of much depth. Those opening issues can lull you into a sense of complacency. After all, one might ask smugly, what can you expect from 30 year old comics? They're kid's stuff!

Then writer Roy Thomas hits his stride with the fourth issue when a corpulent Senator chairs an investigating committee into possible alien infiltration. Captain Marvel, you see, is a Kree himself, and instantly becomes a suspect, as do the Avengers for providing him sanctuary. Suddenly the four-colour heroics are stripped brazenly away to reveal a gritty parallel to the 1950s House Un-American Activities Commission and characters refer critically to Japanese-American relocation centres. Then the android, The Vision, remarks: "If first a man of the Kree can by detained for no reason, the detainment of androids will follow -- next mutants -- then giants..." To science fiction fans, accustomed to the parables that are the idiom's bread and butter, it's understood that the Vision isn't really talking about mythical alien races or fabricated minorities at all.

Though comic books have long been considered, at best, a minor diversion, or fit only for kids, even Hollywood movies or TV rarely acknowledged there had ever been HUAC until a few years after this story first saw print. Granted, Thomas is playing in the somewhat protected sandbox of allegory, never referring to the McCarthy hearings by name, but it remains significant.

The characterization and angst becomes better realized as well, introducing, among other things, the beginnings of the romance between the dispassionate android, The Vision, and the passionate Jewish-Gypsy, The Scarlet Witch, that would be a mainstay of the title for years to come. The characters emerge with quirks and individuality, capable of doubts and fears, pig-headedness and self-sacrifice. The Vision's attraction to the Scarlet Witch, for instance, provides a subtle irony: his awakening to his own (unspoken) emotions seems to isolate the character even more from his peers. The writing veers from poetical text pieces, to characters who speak in Elizabethan English, to others bantering in American (1960s) slang, tossing out pop culture references left and right (long before Quentin Tarantino, comic book writers realized a character can seem more real if he's seen the same movies the reader has).

The racism metaphors and character interplay provide genuine depth and grounding to the saga, but first and foremost, this is meant to be fun entertainment. For those unused to the medium, it might be difficult to quite get into it, to allow ones self to be swept up in the necessarily curt scenes and exclamation points, the thought balloons spelling out motivation or the way characters can deliver entire monologues while throwing a single punch. But comics is a language with its own tools, perhaps best likened to poetry -- another "mannered" medium that requires some adjustments on the part of the reader in order to appreciate. Put another way, even in the Renaissance it's unlikely anyone spoke as they do in a William Shakespeare play, spontaneously delivering metered speeches utilizing elaborate similes. But one doesn't dismiss the truth of his work because the reality is suspect.

If ideas were trees, Roy Thomas could be accused of clear-cutting. He ruthlessly throws in idea after idea, constantly adding new elements and twists as the various schemes of the Skrulls, the Kree, and the xenophobic Senator weave in and out of each other. The saga leaps from New York to Florida's Cape Canaveral, from a prehistoric jungle in the Arctic to a city in the Himalayas, from the inner workings of the Vision's body to alien armadas at the far reaches of a distant galaxy, tossing in other super heroes like The Fantastic Four and The Inhumans as it goes along. Along the way, Thomas evokes classic science fiction ideas, from "The Fantastic Voyage" (in a memorable, visually eye-popping sequence as a character journeys through the Vision's comatose body), to the paranoia of Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers (the Skrulls are shape-shifters), to esoteric ideas echoing Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End -- SF fans will even recognize chapter titles derived from SF classics. Thomas doesn't always fully develop his ideas, often discarding them as quickly as he introduced them. The logic is suspect in spots, and the coherence occasionally tenuous, but the result is a breathlessly-paced epic that never has time to become boring, or remotely predictable. It's written with the spirit of a movie serial, a budget that would break most Hollywood studios, and with socio-political rumination and thoughtful characterization mixing with pulpy adventure and larger-than-life heroics. This then is what comics can do best: an unashamed melange of highbrow and lowbrow, a mixing of milieus, that is rarely mimicked in any other medium.

The early issues (or chapters, if you prefer) are illustrated by Sal Buscema, an artist who has a decent eye for composing a scene (a comic book artist having to be co-director, cinematographer, film editor, set designer, all in one) and a solid grasp of anatomy. Yet I've never been that big a fan of his work. Still, it's a perfectly competent job. But then Neal Adams takes over (with Tom Palmer inking Adams' pencils). Adams is an industry legend who was just hitting his stride back then, with a dynamic eye for composing a scene and a softer, more organic approach to figures, etching out sinewy bodies and often eerily realistic faces. Visually, the comic becomes truly enthralling. Adams wasn't the business' fastest drawer, though, so the always effective John Buscema pinch-hitted in a few spots, including the epic's conclusion -- John being Sal's older, and arguably more accomplished, brother.

Comics largely pioneered the idea of continuing sub-plots that TV has adopted in the last decade or so. As such, the epic unfortunately ends with one minor plot thread still dangling, and throughout the story it interweaves threads from other comics, though there are enough flashbacks and recaps to help orient novice readers.

Modern comics fans like to believe that comics have become more sophisticated, that current fan-favourites like Alan Moore, Mark Waid, Neil Gaiman and Kurt Busiek write smarter, more mature stories. Although there is some truth to that, in other ways, and like everything aesthetic, it's in the eye of the beholder.

Roy Thomas' Kree-Skrull War is a mishmash of ideas and influences, veering from hokey and goofy, to surprisingly thoughtful and audaciously ambitious, never letting the socio-political ambitions trip up the pulpy adventure. Some modern writers in the medium make the mistake of confusing pretension with profundity -- not so Thomas. And he's got enough faith in his audience to mix the provocative with the pugilistic and assume we can understand which is which. And while modern critically acclaimed comic book classics like The Watchmen, Kingdom Come and Marvels tend to ask what would a world with super heroes really be like, such an approach has the danger of becoming self-obsessed, excluding any wider relevance. The Kree-Skrull War uses super heroes (at least in spots) more as a metaphor for real world dilemmas. Above all, the heroes are people. When Thomas' generation of comic book writers wrote about super-powered people, the emphasis tended to be on the people over the powers. And this re-presentation of this long ago epic maybe serves as a reminder that that's definitely a distinction with a difference.

Deliriously fun...and thought provoking. What more can you ask?

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in Avengers comics.

Cover price: __ CDN./$24.95 USA


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