I’ve really been enjoying, over the past few months, dipping back into the archives of Mighty Marvel Comics to read some classic stories I’d never read before. As my anticipation for the Avengers theatrical film grew, I found myself drawn to a variety of stories from Avengers history. I do love me a nice handsome collected edition, and it was great fun to read some of these classic tales.
Captain America: The Captain – This lengthy tome collects the story-line that ran for about a year-and-a-half in Captain America back in 1987-89. When the U.S. government tries to exert control over Steve Rogers’ actions as Captain America, Rogers chooses to give up his super-hero identity. He eventually adopts a new identity of “The Captain,” while the government selects another super-human, John Walker, to become Captain America. But when tragedy strikes his family, Walker becomes increasingly unstable, leading to an inevitable confrontation between the two Captain Americas. I was just getting into comics in 1987, and I remember reading references to this story-line in various other Marvel comic books that I was reading at the time. But I’d never actually read the Captain America story, so it was really fun to revisit this lengthy chunk of Captain America continuity, written by Mark Gruenwald. There are aspects to the story-line that are a bit simplistic (the Presidential Commission assigned to oversee Cap’s activities comes off as just a little too evil), but the central story is a great one. I like that Mr. Gruenwald lets us spend a lot of time with John Walker. (After Cap quits in Captain America #332, for the next several issues we don’t see Steve Rogers at all — instead we follow John Walker’s story.) Walker is clearly flawed but also sympathetic, which creates a strong dynamic in the stories. I was pleased that this collection also included Iron Man #228, a key confrontation between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark (from the famous Armor Wars story-line) that takes place in the middle of this Captain America story-line. (That’s a nice attention to detail by the editors.)
Avengers: The Children’s Crusade – While most of these collected editions I’ve been reading have been collecting stories from 20-30 years ago, this handsome hardcover collects the nine issue mini-series that Marvel published last year. This story brings some resolution to story-lines begun by Brian Michael Bendis nearly a decade ago, in the famous Avengers: Disassembled story. After Disassembled and her actions in House of M, Wanda Maximoff (the Scarlet Witch) has been pretty much absent from Marvel Comics, her fate unknown. But with The Children’s Crusade, writer Alan Heinberg set out to bring some closure to Wanda’s story, and return her to the Marvel Universe. The Children’s Crusade centers on the characters of the Young Avengers. I had not read any of Mr. Heinberg’s previous work writing those characters, but that wasn’t a problem at all. Mr. Heinberg clearly and smoothly introduces us to all the characters, and I quickly found myself up to speed on their back-stories and inter-personal dynamics. I hadn’t read this mini-series when it was first published because I thought it was primarily a Young Avengers adventure. But The Children’s Crusade is an epic story that focuses as much on the Avengers and the X-Men as it does on the Young Avengers. It’s exciting, dramatic, and BIG. I really loved it. I enjoyed the focus on the Maximoff family — not only Wanda but also Quicksilver and Magneto get a lot to do in the story. And I was thrilled to see Dr. Doom finally back as a major Marvel villain. My complaint with the series, though, is that while I understand Marvel’s desire to walk-back some of what Wanda did in Bendis’ stories, I felt The Children’s Crusade took a way too easy path, suggesting that she was under the influence of the mysterious (and never quite explained) life force that she and Dr. Doom had summoned. That ol’ mind-control excuse is way too simple an explanation, and a disappointing way to absolve Wanda of any responsibility for her actions in Disassembled and House of M. Also, having a character refer to the climax (in which Doom briefly obtains ultimate power and becomes a beautific, albeit still totalitarian, super-being) as being reminiscent of that from Secret Wars (and what a thrill it is, by the way, to see a reference to the ORIGINAL Secret Wars in a 2011/12 Marvel comic book) doesn’t detract from the fact that the climax IS indeed very similar to that of the original Secret Wars! Sigh. Well, let’s instead focus on Jim Cheung’s absolutely magnificent, jaw-dropping art. Hyper-detailed and beautifully realized, Mr. Cheung’s work (enhanced by Mark Morales’ inks and Justin Ponsor’s coloring) is absolutely astounding, the pinnacle of what super-hero comic book art should be. I drool with envy at his skills.
Avengers: The Contest – This Marvel Prestige collection collects the three-issue Contest of Champions mini-series from 1982, as well as the two-part sequel in West Coast Avengers Annual #2 and Avengers Annual #16 from 1987. I’d known about the Contest of Champions, one of Marvel’s very first line-wide crossovers, but I’d never actually read it. It was neat to finally do so, though I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed. John Romita Jr.’s artwork isn’t at all recognizable as the JR JR we know today — it’s very generic Marvel house style. And the story is pretty straightforward. Nothing terribly bad, but not that exciting either when read today. I got more enjoyment from the two-part Annual cross-over from 1987. I didn’t realize this when I bought this collected edition, but once I got to Avengers Annual #16 I recognized it immediately as one of the very first super-hero comics I’d ever bought! I mentioned above that 1987 was when I really started getting into comics. That Annual — an epic super-hero slugfest — blew my mind as a kid, and I still very much enjoyed it when reading it now. Each segment is pencilled by a different famous artist — it’s a bit choppy, but all the artists are so good that it’s a fun tour de force of Avengers artists. And I appreciated that, in this two-part story, the heroes were given a far more convincing reason to fight than in the original Contest of Champions. (Though the Annuals did not actually resolve the very noticeable plot-hole in the original Contest of Champions which, according to the introduction by Tom DeFalco, was the whole reason for returning to the story-line in the first place.)
Avengers: Nights of Wundagore – Digging deeper into Avengers history, this collection reprints Avengers #181-187, from 1979. These issues, written by David Michelenie, Mark Gruenwald, and Steven Grant, and pencilled by John Byrne, picks up right where The Korvac Quest (a classic Avengers tale that I reviewed here) left off. We bid farewell to the Guardians of the Galaxy and get a classic “Who will be on the Avengers roster?” issue. I was already tired, in The Korvac Quest, of the way the Avengers allowed themselves to be bossed around by their government liaison Henry Gyrich, and I found that equally irritating here. But things pick up as the series focuses on revealing the true origin of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. It’s funny, it’s so ingrained in my head that Pietro and Wanda are Magneto’s children (and that has played such a huge part of recent Marvel stories, including the above discussed Avengers: The Children’s Crusade) that I forgot that their family lineage was not originally a part of their back-story. But as Mark Gruenwald and Steven Grant recall (in the letters page from Avengers #192, which was very cleverly included in the back of this collection), this story was designed to try to explain the many apparent inconsistencies in Wanda and Pietro’s stories that had cropped up over the course of their earlier adventures. What’s especially intriguing about these Avengers issues is that, while they do contain many revelations, they do NOT confirm that Magneto is their father! Indeed, the issues don’t mention Magneto at all — but they do provide one key piece of information, that clever readers of the time connected to a scene in an issue of Uncanny X-Men. (And again, props to the editors of this collection for including that page, from X-Men #125 from 1979, in the back of this collection.) The story over-all is a bit expository, but the moment when Wanda turns evil is pretty cool. (And an unknown-by-me heralding of Wanda’s turn evil in John Byrne’s famous “Darker Than Scarlet” story-line from West Coast Avengers, which in turn inspired Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers: Disassembled tale.) While Nights of Wundagore isn’t the most thrilling read ever, it’s a neat piece of Marvel history.
West Coast Avengers: Assemble — Having read and enjoyed two previous collections which reprinted the early issues of West Coast Avengers, when I realized that there was one more collection that took place before those issues, I decided to track it down. Assemble reprints the original four-issue West Coast Avengers mini-series (that lead into the regular West Coast Avengers series), as well as a series of pages from various issues of Avengers that set the stage for the formation of the new Avengers group, as well as an early West Coast Avengers adventure from Avengers #250. I’m glad to have read this collection, but I found it to be far less interesting than the two collections of the regular West Coast Avengers series I’d already read. Steve Englehart brought a lot of life and character to the characters in those issues, but I found the original 4-part miniseries, written by Roger Stern and reprinted here, to be something of a bore. The characters seemed a lot flatter, and the mini-series didn’t have much narrative thrust. It was more of a series of random adventures. It’s not terrible, just not that gripping. I did enjoy the way various pages from issues of the Avengers were edited together to form a sort of prologue to the collection. (Though the obsessive part of me wishes those pages had been identified somehow — maybe in small text at the bottom of the pages? — as to which issues of Avengers they came from, and who wrote and drew them.) For completeness’ sake I’m glad to have read this collection, but I’m more excited to read the recently published third collection of Steve Englehart’s West Coast Avengers series, “Lost in Space-Time”… I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on that one, and more comics fun!