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The Avengers: Legion of the Unliving  2012 (SC TPB) 256 pages

cover by Gil KaneWritten by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas, Len Kaminski, Kurt Busiek. Pencils by Sal Buscema, M.C. Wyman, George Perez, others. Inks various.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting The Avengers (1st) #131, 132, 352-354, Giant-Size #3, Annual #16, West Coast Avengers #61, Avengers (3rd) #10-11

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Reviewed: Dec. 2015

Themed TPB collections can be neat ideas: a chance to hopscotch through a title's history, looking in on different creative eras and creative teams and stylistic trends, without seeming like just a random collection of unrelated tales. The downside is, of course, that it can seem repetitive if too many of the stories seem too much like the others.

In this case the theme is to collect a bunch of Avengers' stories involving them having to battle the un-dead -- often resurrected old foes or even old allies. Although some stories involve recurring instigators (Immortus is involved more than once, as is The Grim Reaper) in other respects these are unconnected tales, featuring a recurring theme rather than a recurring foe or plot line. And a number arise in the midst of other on going storylines.

So the collection kicks off with a three-parter (#131, 132, Giant-Size #3) culled from the Celestial Madonna epic in which the Avengers get dragged off to an other-dimensional limbo by villain Kang (and Immortus and Rama Tut also involved) to run around catacombs battling resurrected old friends and foes -- including Wonder Man and The Human Torch, as well as Frankenstein's Monster who was starring in his own Marvel Comic. The fact that some of these dead people later turned out to be alive is a recurring problem in these stories and is best just ignored -- or is perhaps best acknowledged when in a later story here it's ambiguously remarked that these are people they "believe" dead, perhaps as a way of hinting maybe all these un-dead resurrections are just illusions or something.

Anyway, written by Steve Englehart and Roy Thomas it's an enjoyable romp -- in some respects, the best here. It manages to keep the focus on the personalities and create a sense of a plot, not just a bunch of mindless grudge fights. The art is more workmanlike (Sal Buscema inked by Joe Staton and Dave Cockrum inked by Joe Gilla) but tells the tale.

Jump ahead almost twenty years to #352-354 (titled Fear the Reaper) it's a similar idea with the Avengers (now an almost completely different -- and mostly second string -- roster!) wandering around other dimensional caverns getting into fights with dead friends and foes. It's actually the most self-contained of all the tales, in so far as there's little in the way of any on going sub-plots being referenced. In this case it's the long-dead Grim Reaper who's behind the villainy and, stylistically, it's the story here that most seems to want to play up the inherent horror/supernatural aspect of the theme. Despite the un-dead theme, most of the stories here are still mostly super hero adventures -- but this one tries for a little added spookiness and mood, making for a tonal contrast even if the premise is familiar. It's enjoyable -- but lacks the extra layers of the earlier tale. The art by M.C. Wyman seems to vary depending upon the inker.

The West Coast Avengers issue is the only single issue story -- once more Immortus is involved, and despite the West Coast name, the roster is mostly familiar heroes. Unfortunately it's also the story that reads least well in isolation -- not only is the story itself one of those revelatory issues where much of it is spent explaining and recapping past stories as it climaxes a long brewing sub-plot (that has little to do with the cutaways to the Avengers battling undead foes) but it's in the middle of that story so that, even though the battle with the undead resolves, the issue still ends "to be continued."

The Avengers Annual leaves me mixed. Actually it's the second of a two-parter (began in a West Coast Avengers Annual) in which the teams are manipulated by the Cosmic Grandmaster (he who periodically sets up grudge fights between heroes) but what went before isn't that relevant. It's a traditional idea of the various Avengers sent off in short chapters to battle an undead foe/friend with the added gimmick the chapters are illustrated by different artists -- often top tier guys. It gives it a nice, special feel, and puts one in mind of some classic anniversary issues. Unfortunately, it is just a bunch of fights (albeit set against strange and exotic locales).

The most recent entry in the theme comes from Busiek and Perez's acclaimed revival of the team -- but I'll be upfront and say I was never a big fan of their run. As likewise, this doesn't strike me as the strongest tale here. Oh, Perez' art is certainly insanely detailed and complex (although I'd argue it can also be a bit cluttered and busy). But Ijust found Busiek's handling of the writing underwhelming -- the plots often just a bunch of fighting (admittedly, a criticism one could lay at many an Avengers tales over the years) with his main interest the characters and the soap opera -- without, to my tastes, really feeling he made that work (the way some of the earlier tales reprinted here did genuinely make me feel these were real people behind the masks). The first chunk of the story is just day-in-the-life soap opera (with the Avengers feted at a parade) before The Grim Reaper -- yup, him again -- shows up for a brawl.

Ultimately, as with any collection, it's hit and miss. Funnily the earliest tale here, despite reflecting an older, simpler time, I would argue stands among the best. While the Fear The Reaper arc adds a slightly spooky, Halloween flavour to the collection. The repetition of the theme of battling undead foes without much effort to come up with significant variations on the concept is maybe a weakness, but it is fun being able to skip through a few decades of Avengers' lore. A decent collection.

Cover price: $__.


The Avengers: The Morgan Conquest  2000 (SC TPB) 112 pages

cover by George PerezWritten by Kurt Busiek. Pencils by George Perez. Inks by Al Vey.
Colours: Tom Smith. Letters: Richard Starkings & Eric Eng Wong. Editor: Tom Brevoort.

Reprinting The Avengers (3rd series) #1-4 (1998) - plus covers of 1, 2, 3 (including variants of 1, 2)

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

Number of readings: 2

When various ex-Avengers are attacked, the entire team re-unites -- really. Just about everyone who had ever been an Avenger and can still walk or crawl gathers together, totalling something like 40 super heroes. Before they can accomplish much, though, their foe is revealed to be Morgan Le Fay, from the King Arthur legends (being in the public domain, Morgan's a popular gal in comics, with both Marvel and DC utilizing the character from time to time). Morgan re-shapes reality into a medieval state and brainwashes the Avengers into being her knights, all with spanking new medieval-themed costumes. Eventually some of the Avengers shake-off the brainwashing and try to set things right. The final story included here has the Avengers, having defeated Morgan and restored reality, trying to settle on a more manageable membership.

This kicked off the current Avengers series, and writer Kurt Busiek plays the nostalgia card heavily as he reunites the disbanded team. Unfortunately, since the Avengers only disbanded a little before this, it doesn't generate a nostalgic lump in the throat one might get if this was, I dunno, a revival of the Inferior Five or something. These guys haven't been gone long enough for the fans to really miss them. Busiek also falls whole-heartedly into the trap of what I've come to dub the "Iconic Age of comics." If the "Marvel Age" of the '60s and '70s was about writing super heroes as people, with real problems and personalities, the "Iconic Age" of the 1990s is where fanboys-turned-writers emphasize the super over the human. Iron Man tells us that he and Thor are friends...but Busiek never shows us. Instead we get lots of dialogue about how great the Avengers are, and how unflappable Captain America is...and how dry scenes can be of 40 superheroes patting each other on the back and saying how wonderful everyone is. Throughout characters gush about how great the team is, how in awe they are of the various heroes -- to the point where you think they (or Busiek) needs to get a room. He even adds to the team a young hero, Justice (formerly of The New Warriors), whose main power seems to be hero worship!

It all gets just a bit saccahrine -- and creepy! (As mentioned, nor is it uncommon these days, with Superman treated almost like a God over at DC Comics).

Personally I think The Avengers work best when the focus stays on their humanity.

Eventually the adventure stuff kicks in, and the concept is certainly grand, but again, hurt by Busiek's handling of characterization. It would've been a great opportunity to explore why the different characters react the way they do to the brainwashing. And there are some nice character bits -- a scene between Captain America and Hawkeye, reminding us that Hawkeye really likes being an Avenger, or some solo scenes of the Scarlet Witch, or the reasons for Iron Man's reaction. But overall, the character stuff is thin. With 40 odd characters, most really have nothing to do except show how many people George Perez can draw in a single panel. Indeed, another impetus for the story might've been to allow Perez to conjure up a whole new (temporary) medieval-themed wardrobe for the team.

The plot to the 3 part Morgan story (called "Once an Avenger..." inside the book) is a bit undeveloped. For such a nifty idea -- all those Avengers, reality-warping, medieval times, etc. -- Busiek doesn't really shape it into anything more than an O.K. time-waster. It's not that it's wretched or anything. It's just a bit...pedestrian, lacking twists and turns and intimate scenes. I suppose the fact that, technically, that part of the story only involves two issues means it's not really an "epic" story.

It's the final issue that sparks and starts to catch fire.

The action-adventure stuff is minimal as the Avengers attempt to prune their roster (change-of-membership issues asking "Who Will Be an Avenger?" being a semi-regular staple of the series). But Busiek finally does character-stuff right. Oh, there's still an undue amount of sycophancy, but suddenly the "icons" revert to being people and there's actually a bigger rush of nostalgia in just seeing these characters in character than in all the chest beating and trumpet sounding of the earlier scenes. This is the Avengers, and these 22 pages gives one more faith in Busiek's ability to handle the team than the epic Morgan trilogy.

A long ago Avengers artist, George Perez's art is jaw-dropping to look at here, but maybe a little too much. He's always been a detailed artist, but here it's maybe a little too busy occasionally, with intricate panels where the minutia threatens to obscure the key elements. Still, that's a minor quibble. And the problem may rest as much with colourist Tom Smith's overly dark colours that kind of sap some of the energy.

The letterering employs varied fonts to portray the speaking voices of various characters, but not always successfully. Iron Man's words are etched out in mechanistic bubbles...but since Iron Man is a man in a suit, surely it better captures the character to portray his words in normal balloons, emphasizing the contrast of the mechanical suit with the man inside. And, I'll admit, I'm just not a big fan of the computer-generated lettering used by many modern letterers.

The Morgan Conquest is comprised of an O.K. but unexceptional adventure...and an appealing character-driven one-shot issue.

The next TPB chronologically was Supreme Justice.

Cover price: $21.95 CDN./$14.95 USA.


The Avengers: Nights of Wundagore
In this age of proliferating TPBs, sometimes older comics get released in more than one collection...but the Nights of Wundagore storyline might be among the most oft collected. It has been collected in at least three different volumes...usually with some slight variation in the issues collected (some collections including just the core issues, others throwing in a few extra, but non-essential, comics). This story has appeared as the colour TPB, The Yesterday Quest (re. #181, 182, 185-187), and as a black & white digest-sized collection as part of the (very short-lived) Backpack Marvels line (rep. #181-189), and more recently as the full colour Nights of Wundagore TPB (rep. #181-187).


Backpack Marvels: The Avengers: Nights of Wundagore 2000 (SC digest-sized TPB) 160 pgs

cover by Greg HornWritten by David Michelinie, Bill Mantlo, Steven Grant. Pencils by John Byrne. Inks by Dan Green, Klaus Janson, Gene Day, Dave Hunt.
Letters: various. Editor: Roger Stern.

Reprinting: The Avengers (1st series) #181-189 (1979)

Black & White

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

The Avengers return to the European nation of Transia to learn the deadly secret behind the origins of the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver -- as well as other adventures in this reprinting of 9 consecutive issues in black and white.

Years ago the reprint medium of choice was digests -- half the dimensions of a regular comic, but with lots of pages. However digests fell out of favour, eventually replaced by expensive Trade Paperbacks which are at the opposite end of the economic spectrum from the cheap digests.

Marvel seems to be testing the water for a resurgence in low-cost digests with their Backpack series which are (slightly) bigger than the digests of old and similiar to Marvel's Essential books, in which a bunch of issues are published in unbroken continuity in black & white (Marvel's also produced a Spider-Man and at least one X-Men book in the format)

The art by John Byrne, back in his glory days, takes to the shrunken format quite well, everything clearly portrayed and comprehensible, and printed sharply on white paper. This put me in a nostalgic mood -- I used to love digests (what kid on a budget wouldn't?) -- and it harkened back to my misspent youth, and a time of the Avengers with which I was already vaguely familiar, having issues from around that period.

Nights of Wundagore was a lot of fun. Perhaps not on the same level as Jim Shooter's characterization-intensive run that these issues follow, but these are nevertheless engaging in a kick-off-your-slippers-and-relax way, with David Michelinie's capable scripting and Byrne's crisp, detailed art. The membership roster alone keeps you on your toes, with characters leaving and then rejoining within a few issues. Avengers who appear in significant turns include Iron Man, Captain America, The Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Quicksilver, the Beast, The Falcon, Ms. Marvel, Wonder Man, The Wasp, and Hawkeye, with Jocasta having a few lines, and cameos by others.

The "Nights of Wundagore" storyline, clarifying the origins of the Scarlet Witch and her brother Quicksilver and involving a confrontation with an ancient evil, could have been covered by reprinting #181-182, 185-187 -- and was! I believe those issues were allready collected in a full colour TPB called The Avengers: The Yesterday Quest. But following the trend of the Essential books, in this book we get an unbroken stream of continuity (#181-189) that is appealing. As such, no single story is expected to shoulder the burden of entertainment exclusively. The Wundagore stuff is the highpoint, but isn't flawless. But when combined with a few other "filler" tales, such as a two-part battle with the Absorbing Man, it works nicely.

The Wundagore story may've been building for years (the old man who arrives in New York in #181 was shown embarking for America wa-ay back in #166), or it may've been a desperate attempt to explain continuity errors. The story contains the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver's recollections of quite different origins (We were raised by Gypsies -- no, no, we're the children of the superhero The Whizzer), which are woven together. It's clever, gradually showing how the different fragments contain partial truths, scenes acquiring new significance when viewed from a new perspective. There's a nice sense of a narrative progression, too.

Admittedly, there're confusing references to other comics, and not just in the mythos-intensive Wundagore issues. These stories were published concurrently with Iron Man stories (collected in The Power of Iron Man TPB) and partway through Iron Man disappears, then reappears a few issues later, with only cryptic references as to what happened. That's why I'm an advocate of annotations in collections to fill in gaps, so confusing references can be cleared up for modern readers. In that vein, this contains character profiles of the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver at the back of the book that answer a question left unanswered in the stories themselves: namely who their biological father is. Because of that, a dangling question that could be aggravating...isn't. O.K., I knew who their father was, but it's a plus for those not aware of that little genealogical tidbit.

Still, I'm curious as to the how the people who decide what goes into these collections make their selections. You see, Nights of Wundagore begins with the Avengers forced to operate under tighter government regulation, with Marvel's resident smary bureaucrat, Henry Gyrich, insisting they adhere to (supposed) equal-opportunity guidelines and recruit the (black) Falcon. The final story ends with Gyrich vowing to shut down the Avengers entirely.

Here's the thing. In the next two issues which aren't included (#190-191) the whole Gyrich story resolves! What's more, the Falcon (finally) proves his mettle, putting to rest any doubts he, and others, had about his membership. In other words, had this collection included just two more issues, not only would it have brought closure to one sub-plot, but thematic closure to another.

As is, Nights of Wundagore, reprinting Avengers #181-189, is an entertaining collection of mainly decent tales. But had it reprinted #181-191 it would've made a true graphic novel -- with a beginning, middle, and end. And isn't that what they should be aiming for?

The whole equal opportunity thing is kind of awkward anyway. The characters, including the Falcon, are insulted by the concept, but once the Gyrich/government regulations thing was dumped from the series, the Falcon (I believe) quickly followed. In other words, whether by accident or design, Michelinie and company may've actually proved the value of such policies, since, without 'em as a story ploy, the Avengers quickly became an all white group. Food for thought, eh?

Anyway, it might be nice if Marvel did more Backpacks, using it as a format for stories that maybe aren't "hot collectibles" but might be attractive to readers in this more modest format. And DC Comics, too -- you listening? O.K., DC has conspicuously refused to emulate the success of Marvel's Essential books, so I don't think providing entertainment for people on a budget is high on their priorities...but we can dream.

Ultimately, this is nothing classic, but crisp writing and art combine -- particularly with the cheap price tag -- to make for compulsively enjoyable reading.

Cover price: $9.95 CDN./$6.95 USA.


coverThe Avengers: The Private War of Doctor Doom 2008 (HC TPB) 140 pages

Written by Gerry Conway, with Steve Englehart, Jim Shooter, Bill Mantlo. Pencils by George Perez, John Buscema, with Sal Buscema, Jim Shooter. Inks by Pablo Marcos, others.

black & white. Letters: various

Reprinting: The Avengers (1st series) #150-156, Giant-Size Avengers #6, Super-Villain Team Up #9 (1975-1976)

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

Number of readings: 2

Before launching into my review here, it should be pointed out that all these issues -- and many more besides -- are also reprinted (in black & white) in Essential Avengers, vol. 7 for a much cheaper price. But this review is aimed at those who might come upon this hardcover collection by itself, or prefer it in colour.

And truth be told, this essentially is just part of a sequential series of Avengers collections (soft cover and hard cover) -- coming between The Avengers: The Serpent Crown and The Avengers: The Bride of Ultron. I say that because you might have assumed that if Marvel was going to collect these issues all these years later, they must be a great story -- but equally it's just part of a series chronological reprints. Indeed, the problem with some such collections is the original creators never intended (or imagined) they would be collected as a "graphic novel" and they were, in many cases, just writing month to month. This isn't one straight storyline, but a succession of stories that segue into, and overlap with, each other, concocted by a number of writers (mainly Gerry Conway, but with other writers pitching in).

With that said, the collection kicks off with a convenient jumping on point for a new reader -- one of The Avengers recurring "membership review" stories (stretched over two issues). On one hand it makes for a slightly dry opening, being mostly the characters sitting around, talking (and with a chunk devoted to reprinting a previous changing-of-the-guard issue by Lee & Kirby which might make a new reader think the writing and art style in this collection is more old fashioned than it is). But it effectively sets up the team, the relationships, and foreshadows things to come, making it feel like the "start" of a new story arc (even if they do reference recent events a lot).

What follows is an enjoyable enough succession of adventures -- but that fail to quite coalesce into a proper story arc, seeming more like, well, just a string of adventures that spend a lot of time referencing past events, alluding to concurrent stories in other comics, or hinting at things to come.

The main hook initially is the return of Wonder Man -- a former ally-turned-enemy-turned-ally who died years before and returns as a zombie, in all its voodoo-inspired context. This leads to the team going to New Orleans and clashing with a voodoo priest -- except it turns out he didn't resurrect Wonder Man, but was just taking advantage of the situation. Then there's another couple of issues (including the Giant-Size) in which aging hero, The Whizzer, shows up and the team help him trackdown his missing son, the mutant Nuklon (who they had fought before) which then segues into the longest arc involving The Sub-Mariner, an evil Atlantean warlord named Attuma, and the titular Dr. Doom, which crosses over into a comic called Super-Villain Team Up which starred Doom and the Sub-Mariner (the latter not really a "villain" but certainly an anti-hero). It's certainly twisty and complicated what with picking up on-going threads from the Super-Villain Team Up and with all those heroes (The Whizzer continuing to hang around and Wonder Man now a member of the team). And the various stories overlap (characters from both the Nuklon plot and the Attuma/Doom plot appearing in shadow in the first few issues of this collection) but without, ultimately, quite satisfying as a definite story "arc."

Heck, by the end of this collection we still don't know who or why or how Wonder Man was resurrected!

Just as more than one writer is involved, so too are different artists at play -- though to mostly good effect. George Perez and John Buscema, both top tier talent (I'd argue John Buscema is even the superior, at least in terms of storytelling and the way characters move and flow), and each draw a handful of issues (both men with long on again/off again associations with the Avengers). While Sal Buscema (John's brother) draws one issue as does Jim Shooter -- yes, Shooter, better known as a writer and editor (he scripts some here as well). Shooter's art isn't great, but it's professional enough for the time. Different inkers are at play, also adding to the variation, but with Pablo Marcos settling in and providing a more uniform look in the second half. Indeed, I wasn't exactly a big Sal Buscema fan (though he was a solid storyteller and one of the pillars of Marvel at the time) but with Marcos' finishes (adding polish and contour to the figures) he's quite good here and there's a surprisingly seamless flow from Perez to S. Buscema.

I suppose the problem with this collection as a collection (and as an expensive hard cover) is, as I say, it's not really a story "arc" per se, with a clear focus and resolution. Yet even as simply a collection of different stories, a lot of emphasis is placed on the on-going threads, so that at times the front-and-centre plots can seem short changed (like the voodoo story that starts out well, but then it's almost a surprise when it ends -- because it never really went anywhere). By that I mean the individual stories here, though certainly enjoyable page turners, are, for the most part, not in and of themselves that notable (and, as I've mentioned, spend a lot of time alluding to outside adventures -- though most is explained as needed).

So certainly an enjoyable enough run of Avengers stories, but nothing more and, as such, probably just as well enjoyed in the Essential collection as in this prestigious hard cover.

(These same issues are also included in Essential Avengers, vol. 7)

Cover price: $___.


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