Our book today is Essential Avengers No. 7, which carries Marvel’s ‘essential’ black-and-white omnibus collections of the Avengers forward into the 1970s and features some fascinating themes and moments in the series’ run. This volume makes for great reading, mainly because the writers of these issues – Steve Englehart, Gerry Conway, and Jim Shooter – were all comics fans themselves and were resolutely writing for adults who could be presumed to have better things to do than read comic books all day.
The anthology starts off with a bang – or is that a Kang? (sorry- couldn’t resist) As with any super-team book, certain bad guy story arcs get recycled, and this book opens with two of those familiar arcs in full bloom: the Avengers squaring off against the Squadron Supreme (think: a watered down ripoff of the Justice League, and you’ll have it pretty close) (hence the joke made by the Avengers’ resident bow-and-arrow man Hawkeye in the recent crossover mini-series in which the Avengers meet the actual Justice League; he assures everybody they’re just dealing with some watered down ripoff of the Squadron Supreme!), and the Avengers dealing with the recurring villainy of the time-travelling villain Kang the Conqueror.
The Squadron Supreme story is writer Steve Englehart at his most socially sardonic, mixing some lively superhero action sequences with cultural and political commentary, some of which appears to be delivered by none other than Nelson Rockefeller (it’s a long story):
They [the Avengers]’re not the real problem anyway – I am, I and all the other corporate and conglomerate executives who have taken control of this country! We run your lives and you don’t know it – since so few of us ever stop out from behind the scenes. Even then, all you see is an image – a carefully-crafted image, like any other products! We talk a lot about honesty, and pride, and team spirit – but what we really want is power! The talk’s just to get you to give it to us. And you do! We commit the most outrageous acts – turn completely around on anything we’ve ever claimed to stand for –and you go right along, pretending not to notice…
And as for the Kang story, well, there Englehart abandons all subtlety: the Avengers’ biggest gun, Thor the Norse god of thunder, is in these opening issues just coming off several frustrating encounters with Kang, and the highlight of this segment comes when Thor has finally had enough – he knocks Kang outside of his citadel and decides to finish things once and for all, in a classic sequence that features brute force over political commentary.
Another long-time Avengers story-theme that’s done very well in this anthology is the team’s changing roster. The Avengers was the first super-team book to make such a big fuss over this question of who was in and who was out – previously, various members would wander into and out of team-pages largely based on what use the writers had for them (anybody they couldn’t use that month was said to be ‘on a mission’ or some such). Here, it’s a media event, with reporters doing television specials on the speculation leading up to the announcement of a new team-roster. And there’s an illicit thrill for Avengers readers, too, in this theme – there’s always something fun about seeing a new lineup in place for the first time, wondering how its dynamics will play out (I wonder if this tradition will be maintained when Marvel re-launches the Avengers in the wake of the Siege mini-series … it would be a shame if the opportunity were wasted), speculating on the character interactions.
The roster in this entire ‘essential’ volume is remarkably stable: there’s the Beast (a former X-Man whose slow integration to the team is the thematic spine of this volume), Captain America (here written a bit less woodenly than previously or afterwards), Iron Man, the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, Hank Pym (here going under his Yellowjacket persona), and the Wasp … and for most of the volume, that core is joined by the disastrously boring revived character of Wonder Man (the Sentry of his day, as it were).
That team fights the Squadron Supreme, Doctor Doom, a lameass bad guy named Graviton, lots and lots of each other (Vision squares off against Wonder Man, the old World War II speedster the Whizzer takes on Cap, Iron Man, and the Beast, and – in one of the first panel-sequences that really started to show the burgeoning strengths of artist George Perez – Ant-Man comes believably close to taking on the whole team), and, of course, Ultron: the anthology’s epic confrontation with Ultron, the near-indestructible killer robot first created by Hank Pym, is not only the brooding high point of Jim Shooter’s writing career with Marvel Comics but also some of George Perez’s most visually detailed and arresting work to that point (Perez, as many of you know, continues still to improve as an artist – as seen most recently in Legion of 3 Worlds but also in yet another Avengers/Ultron showdown, from about ten years ago).
There are fill-in issues (including one with atrocious Herb Trimpe artwork and one with atrocious George Tuska artwork), naturally, and there are sub-plots that go nowhere or get metamorphosed along the way (Englehart , for instance, was notorious for that), but page-for-page, this is yet another fantastic volume in Marvel’s ‘essential’ line. Bring on volumes 8 and 9, I say; let’s hurry up and get to the Steve Epting 90s!
(a perhaps unnecessary end-note: of course Marvel's 'essential' volumes are in black-and-white, so the glorious colors you're seeing in these examples won't appear in the book you'll be buying - but that book is a whole lot less expensive than buying all those issues would be, so resign yourself to using your imagination a little, for pete's sake ...)