Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Comics! Avengers Assemble, volume 1!

Our book today is the great graphic novel collection Avengers Assemble,Volume 1, originally published in an oversized hardcover a decade ago and now at last re-issued in paperback. I owned and often re-read the hardcover (an indulgence I seldom make for graphic novels, but this one was well worth it), but alas, it failed to survive the ravages of my Summer of Homelessness, and since in the meantime the thing had never appeared in paperback, I assumed the worst and figured it never would.

But we live in the great age of comic book reprint collections, and so here it is - a burstingly colorful volume featuring the first nine issues of the title's late-'90s relaunch, written by Kurt Busiek and drawn with mind-boggling mastery by George Perez.

This relaunch happens in the wake of Marvel's disastrously poorly-conceived attempt to 'coolify' some of their most venerable titles by giving them entirely into the hands of a few fan-favorite artists and having a kind of company sack-race to see who could dump the most crap on the market in the shortest amount of time.

The Avengers and lots of other Marvel heroes (but not the X-Men) had voluntarily sacrificed themselves, you see, by leaping into some kinda void in order to defeat a boringly all-powerful bad guy named Onslaught. This gave Marvel a chance to do two things at the same time: 1) finally have a continuity that was mutants, mutants, and more mutants, and 2) launch a series of books set in a new continuity, where the origins of titles like the Avengers or Captain America could be entirely re-thought. It seemed like win-win. But even a win-win scenario will quickly head south if it involves boneheaded and blasphemously untalented fan favorite artist Rob Liefeld, and this one did. Liefeld is the most notoriously inept artist to get regular work since Herb Trimpe, and he's not only inept but droolingly adolescent, so obsessed with his ability to draw huge boobs that he infamously even gave a pair to Captain America.

So this relaunch continuity quickly descended from crappy-but-bearable to unbearably crappy to so-crappy-we-want-our-old-crap-back, and Marvel learned once again that it had some fans of things other than its best-selling books (sadly, the company apparently needs to re-learn this lesson every decade or so - witness the lineup of the current Avengers, featuring Spider-Man, the Thing, four clones of Wolverine, President Obama, and some free tacos). An event was concocted - Heroes Return - and the divergent reality was scrapped in favor of re-starting a handful of flagship Marvel titles starring old favorite characters as fans remembered them, not as a comics convention full of overgrown drunken frat boys felt like making them.

Hence, this Avengers #1, written by Kurt Busiek, drawn by George Perez, and opening in a rare moment of complete peace and quiet for Marvel's most powerful super-team. They're back from their alternate-dimension adventures, yes, but they haven't fully adjusted and aren't even officially a team again - just a small group of friends sitting around talking in stately Avengers Mansion, wondering about the meaning behind the day's outbreak of attacks on many Avengers past and present by various beings that seemed plucked from Norse mythology. Norse mythology, you say? Why, that sounds right up Thor's ally - except Thor disappeared in the super-confusing lead-up to the switcheroo, and his own title didn't get a relaunch with the others.

But he soon appears, looking ragged and telling a tale of having found himself alone in the ruins of Asgard. It turns out several of the city's most powerful magical do-hickeys - including the Twilight Sword and the Norn Stones - had gone missing ... only we learn they're now in the hands of Morgan le Fay, the centuries-old sorceress and dedicated Avengers-hater. She uses those talismans - and the reality-altering powers of the Scarlet Witch - to create yet another new reality: this one a warped variation on the medieval times Morgan loves so much, in which a huge team of temporarily re-imagined Avengers serve as her brainwashed personal bodyguard. Seems like the perfect plan - since this IS reality now, there's no chance of anybody opposing her.

It's a daring move on Busiek's part, re-launching the book with just the kind of alternate-reality storyline that raised fan ire and caused all the mess in the first place. But it's an entirely justified gamble, since a) Busiek is a very strong comics-writer who generally doesn't set challenges for himself that he can't meet, and b) he's joined here by the aforementioned legendary George Perez, whose artwork on this Avengers run (this first volume of "Avengers Assemble" and the two that will - hopefully quickly - follow it in paperback) is the best of his entire career. The result is a triumph of good old-fashioned superhero comic entertainment.

Morgan is eventually defeated (she's fighting about forty Avengers, so she didn't have that much of a chance), and the team eventually settles in back at Avengers Mansion to do that most quintessential of all Avengers activities: picking a new line-up. Busiek is a lover of comics essentials - a firm believer in the 'if it ain't broke' school of writing that's all but vanished from comics these days - so his new team has no Gilgamesh, no Doctor Druid, no Rom the Space Knight ... instead, we get Avengers staples: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and the Vision, plus a wild card, Warbird, and two requisite new additions - Justice (who spends the entire run pumping his fists in excitement and generally tripping over himself) and his girlfriend Firestar (who spends the whole run, girlfriend-style, moping and criticizing him).

There follow some really fun issues full of Perez's amazing artwork (with one fill-in annual by Carlos Pacheco) and Busiek's spot-on characterizations - the highlight of which is certainly "The Court-Martial of Carol Danvers," in which the Avengers are forced to deal with the fact that Warbird likes to drink while super-heroing.

My only quibble? Well, apart from the fact that a super-team that faces such world-class dangers as Kang or Ultron would never voluntarily saddle itself with a pair of dim bulb third-stringers like Justice and Firestar, I in fact do have a very small quibble with this first volume - really, with just a touch of Busiek's dialogue. At one point when the extended team has gathered to discuss the threat of all those Asgardian attacks, somebody asks the Black Widow her opinion - and Busiek has her say "I'm not sure my record entitles me to speculate" - surely a reference to the string of issues where she lead the team back in the 1990s. Those issues were written by Bob Harras and drawn by Steve Epting, and in my opinion they remain the least-appreciated great arc in Avengers history - well deserving of a couple of nice graphic novels just like this one.

But those are pretty minor quibbles - the Black Widow is just one panel, after all, and the Avengers have always had dippy third-string members mixing with their A-listers. On the whole, this big volume does nothing but delight. Avengers fans should snap it up right away and then wait impatiently right along with me for the subsequent volumes.


Michael M said...

Ah, this was one of my favorite comic books growing up. In fact, it may have ruined me for everything that followed. It was fun when it wanted to be, serious when it needed to be, without ever feeling overdrawn or burdened by a need for gravitas. And the Ultron story...that was the sort of thing every comic geek loves, wasn't it. An epic event told with the character's personalities in the forefront.
Hope you don't mind while I wax nostalgic. I've been away from comics for a long time, but if there were more like this, I just might return.

Steve Donoghue said...

Ah yes, the Ultron story! It'll feature prominently in my post on the next volume! An all-time Avengers classic!

Garth said...

Any idea when volume 2 will be released?