The Super Count Nefaria saga
(The Avengers (1st series) #164-165 -- 1977)
Written by Jim Shooter. Illustrated by John Byrne, Pablo Marcos.
An example that mindless, non-stop action...doesn't have to be mindless.
Long time Marvel villain, non-powered criminal mastermind, Count Nefaria, decides the failure of his past enterprises was because he relied on other (super powered) henchmen. So he recruits some second string villains, promising to get his scientists to boost their powers -- which he does. But it's actually only a temporary boost, and what he's really doing is having their powers duplicated, magnified a hundred fold, and transferred to himself. So the three villains -- Whirlwind, Living Laser and Power Man (not Luke Cage) -- attack the Avengers but end up getting defeated...only to have the new, uber powerful Nefaria attack next -- so unbelievably powerful that alone he can take on the entire team...including heavy hitters like Iron Man, Wonder Man...even Thor. Creating the genuine sense of a foe the team might not be able to defeat.
Yeah, so it's just a lot of fighting, with a villain whose sole goal is largely just to attack the heroes.
Dumb -- right?
Instead, it's a surprisingly gripping, powerful saga. And the reason is because writer Jim Shooter filters it through the characters -- their emotions, their different motives, capturing the voice and tone for everyone, from the flippant wisecrack to the angry harangue. I've sometimes remarked that a lot of modern comics will do big fight stories where the action is pretty anonymous -- it could be anyone hitting anyone. Here, every moment is dictated by the character in the panel -- heck, even a third tier villain like Power Man is given more realism and humanizing motivation in a few panels than a lot of character these days will get in whole "character defining" issues. And the Avengers are well realized, in all their strengths and weaknesses, their feet of clay humanity. There are just a lot of little bits, and throw away lines, that are just beautifully realized, including the intriguing characterization of Wonder Man who is physically among the team's most powerful, yet has very human fears and insecurities that can cause him to freeze up. Likewise, Nefaria himself is adjusting to his powers, and so will panic...only to then, belatedly, realize he doesn't have to.
And the scene where the Whizzer (in a small part) confronts Nefaria has always struck me as just one of the most intriguing scenes in comicdom.
Shooter also is clever enough to vary the action. The Avengers at that point was such a big team, he can shift the focus from issue to issue, so it's not just the same fight staged scene after scene (Thor doesn't even show up until the third chapter...though it's a bit ambiguous how he does show up, presumably relating to events in his own comic).
And there are even twists and moments of irony throughout.
The art is by John Byrne and, honestly, may be among some of the best I've seen by him. This was, I think, his first work on the team, so he may just have been a little more pumped at tackling this flagship series than later, when he was the regular artist. But not only is this solid work from him, in composition, and figure work, in, arguably his peak era, but I think he was immeasurably aided by Pablo Marcos' inks. Byrne's strength -- at least back then -- was his detail, his solid line work...but it was hindered a bit by an occasional flatness to his figures, a feeling they could look like, well, like 2-dimension drawings on a page. But Marcos rounds out the figures, giving them more contour, and adding depth to the environment.
A quarter Century later, Kurt Busiek and George Perez would revisit the idea of a super-powered Count Nefaria for an epic arc in their Avengers run, crossing over with the Thunderbolts, and climaxing in a double-sized finale...and it was just a pale shadow of what Shooter (and Byrne) did here (much more representative of that "anonymous fighting" I complained about).
An arc that has as much action and super feats as you could want (literally with buildings being knocked over!!!) yet paradoxically lingers in your mind as a compelling, nuanced character drama. What an Avengers story should be.