by KC Carlson
I’ve always been drawn to comics that ask – and answer – a question.
In the 1960s, I almost exclusively read comics edited by Julius Schwartz (Justice League of America, The Flash, Green Lantern) and Mort Wiesinger (the Superman Family comics), as they both deliberately designed their covers to ask questions – usually literally. Why do these initials (flaming L.L.s!) mean death for the Man of Steel? Why are bystanders walking over the seemingly dead body of the Flash on a busy city street? WHY?
By the 1970s, writers like Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart lured me into the world of Marvel Comics by answering the questions that I had had about the characters from afar. (As well as spending a large portion of their writing careers tidying up after Forgetful Stan Lee’s dropped plotlines, inconsistencies, or flat-out mistakes. In 1982, Marvel actually published a collection of Marvel’s classic mistakes – The Official Marvel No-Prize Book - that Stan (often gleefully) annotated.)
It wasn’t long before I was having serious discussions that went, “Okay, these issues of Fantastic Four feature a Dr. Doom robot, and those issues feature the real Dr. Doom!” Like there was a real Dr. Doom…
So it wasn’t too surprising that Avengers became my favorite comic at Marvel. Whether it was the ongoing (and long-running) saga of the Vision’s true origin, or minutia about Skrull cows in the closing of the Kree-Skrull War, to the secret history of how Captain America got from World War II to present-day Marvel (and what happened to Bucky?), there was always something going on with at least one member of the gang in between the big epic battles.
At Justice League headquarters, after they got done beating up evil scientists and giant starfish, the JLAers basically just shook hands and went home. Over at Avengers Mansion, there was always somebody’s parentage to figure out, or Jan would have new costumes that she just had to show off, or it was just plain fun to watch Jarvis trying to roast an entire wild boar for Master Thor or Hercules. Or when Mantis married a plant and then turned into pure energy at the same time a robot married a witch. The latter later gave birth to imaginary babies and then de-powered (or killed) most of the mutants on earth. Good times.
It wasn’t just continuity or history that drove the best Avengers stories. It was also the epic sense of adventure, and some darn cool battles over the years. And if we learned a little history along the way… It was all good. Avengers Forever offers up a little of both. An epic cosmic conflict that asks plenty of great questions –- and answers more than it asks! First up: “What brings together Avengers from throughout time to stop their most persistent and powerful villain?”
Avengers Forever is a team-up story like no other. First of all, two of the best Avengers writers teamed to plot out the complicated story. Roger Stern wrote the Avengers for over four years in the 1980s. Most notably, he wrote the emotionally wrenching “Siege of the Mansion” storyline where the Masters of Evil become a supervillain army and destroy Avengers Mansion, almost killing several Avengers in the battle. Kurt Busiek wrote the regular Avengers title for more than five years, many of them in conjunction with artist George Pérez, and their run has become highly regarded as one of the best overall runs of the title. (Busiek and Pérez also collaborated on the instant classic JLA/Avengers project in 2003/2004.)
Avengers Forever started life as a 12-part maxi-series, published in 1998 and 1999, while Busiek was simultaneously writing the ongoing Avengers title. It stands alone from the main book in that it features many disparate Avengers members, all plucked from different prime periods in the team’s history. Hawkeye comes from the past, just after the conclusion of the Kree-Skrull War, so he’s young, brash, cocky, and not using gimmick arrows any longer. Yellowjacket is pulled from one of the times he was mentally unbalanced, just before his marriage to Janet Van Dyne (Wasp). So he’s obnoxious as hell and doesn’t realize that he’s Hank Pym. From (then) present-day Avengers continuity we have the Wasp and Giant-Man. They’re the only normal members of the team, although Hank is understandably confused by having himself as a teammate, an unstable version to boot. From the near future Avengers comes Captain Marvel – Genis-Vell, the son of the original. From slightly further in the future (and from an alternate universe) comes Songbird, whom the present-day Hank and Jan know only as being a member of the (then) villainous Thunderbolts.
The final Avenger is Captain America, but he is nothing like the Captain America the others are used to. Cap has been pulled out of the past only moments after witnessing the suicide of a high-ranking government official (it was implied that this was the President of the United States in the original stories), after he has been exposed as the leader of the Secret Empire. Extremely disillusioned from this revelation, Cap is in no condition to fight, much less lead the team. (In the original continuity, he abandons his Captain America identity for a time and becomes Nomad, the “man without a country.”)
The Avengers are initially summoned by an ailing Rick Jones, who finds himself in an uneasy alliance with the Kree Supreme Intelligence and the mysterious Libra (former member of the criminal Zodiac group and also the father to Mantis, Marvel’s Celestial Madonna). They are all caught up in some sort of conflict between the time-traveling Kang the Conqueror and Immortus. Longtime Marvel fans know these two are different aspects of the same person (among several other personas). Their conflict is the heart of Avengers Forever, and virtually every page of the series presents a nugget (or seven) of exactly how richly textured and deeply layered the Marvel Universe is, as presented by creators who truly love the concepts and the characters.
The magic of Avengers Forever isn’t that it’s just one big continuity-fest; there’s a sweeping cosmic epic here as well. That it is largely based on two characters who are usually thought of as inherently (and stereotypically comic-booky) evil, is a real testament to the talent of all the creators involved. They all bring their A-game – and then manage to kick it into that rarified arena of superheroic stories whose greatness can only be communicated in lame clichés or inadequate bon mots.
The continuity-fest (I prefer to look at it as an epic historical retrospective) is pretty much confined to just two issues of the series, back-to-back tour de force interludes that examine “The Secret History of the Avengers”. They touch on everything from Space Phantoms to Cosmic Madonnas to what the hell was going on with Iron Man during “The Crossing” (something that Busiek had already tackled in his Avengers and Iron Man runs, but there was a lot of ‘splaining to do to fix that story). Plus, there’s yet another look at the heart-of-the-Marvel-Universe connection between the original Human Torch and the Vision, which I would rule the definitive word on the subject, but this particular subject seems destined to remain controversial among hardcore Marvel fanatics.
The follow-up issue, “Reflections of the Conqueror”, is the definitive look at the life and death of the man who would become Kang and Immortus, and Rama-Tut and the Scarlet Centurion, and maybe even Dr. Doom, as well as the final word on the whole Ravonna/Terminatrix thing. The story is only 23 pages long, so there just wasn’t room to explore the Kang/Willie Lumpkin connection that seems so obvious to me. (Or is that just in my head?)
There are four pages of copious notes on the series in the back of the collection, mostly citing first appearances and other important reminders for those of us with increasingly fading memories. Almost certainly written by Busiek, these notes aren’t essential to your enjoyment of Avengers Forever, but they are a testament to how much love and research was involved in assembling this epic story.
Despite the deep plotting and spot-on dialogue of the characters (a speech by Hawkeye where he exuberantly acknowledges the confidence that Jan has instilled in him for her decision to have him lead a sub-mission is brilliant), the rest of Avengers Forever is artist Carlos Pacheco’s show. Called upon to produce hundreds of alternate and/or amalgam Avengers, as well as reproduce the settings of dozens of well-loved time-centric characters (Marvel’s Old West characters, the Killraven-led “War of the Worlds” alter-future, the 1950s Agents of Atlas) as well as the highly imaginative futures of Kang and Immortus, Pacheco proves himself to be just as crazy as George Pérez in the “How many characters can I get into this panel?” sweepstakes.
Part of the fun of this beautiful book (it’s in the same large format as the Busiek/Pérez Avengers Assemble series, with the nice glossy paper) is flipping it open to any random page to admire Pacheco’s excellent “choreography” and layout (as well as his spot-on storytelling skills – increasingly a lost art in many current comics). As Busiek calls out in his notes, Pacheco gets so caught up in the sheer fun of this story that he can’t help throwing in the occasional obscure (and uncalled for in the script) character (Devil Dinosaur, anyone?) or a sly reference or two to characters from the Distinguished Competition (a time-honored Avengers tradition).
Tying it all together is the skillful inking of Jesus Merino, Pacheco’s longtime collaborator. Take a look at any one of the amazing battle scenes in Avengers Forever (and its multiple planes of action) for a crash course in how much line weights and shading add to the overall storytelling. Also, big points to the coloring work of Steve Oliff (with Olyoptics) and the lettering of Richard Starkings (with Comicraft). These guys have always been at the top of their craft, and on this project, they were at the peak of their skills. Avengers Forever is one of those books that you’ll want to flip through again and again just to look at the art and presentation.
But where Avengers Forever excels is in the quiet moments. Seeing Jan self-assuredly leading the team once again, when Cap was unable to, drove home how important a character the Wasp is to the MU – and how much she is missed since her death in Secret Invasion. Watching Captain America struggle to overcome his doubt about his country and his mission, and rally to aid his team when he is needed, is forceful and moving. Busiek and Stern also provide a much needed characterization makeover for the then-new Captain Marvel – an a-hole of a character upon conception, but a worthy star of his own series after given a heroic pumping-up here.
Songbird’s appearance serves as a reminder of what a great character she had become in Busiek’s hands as he developed her in Thunderbolts. As that title has evolved into a completely different comic over recent years, her current absence underscores how important her optimistic and balancing presence was on that team at the time. And one of the best moments of Avengers Forever is the revelation of exactly why these specific characters (and why their specific time periods of origin) were selected. It answers a very important question.
Although Avengers Forever is now more than ten years old, it reads like it was created yesterday. And though it’s fashionable for many of today’s fans to trash what they think are old-fashioned continuity-fests, there’s actually nothing here that’s really any different to what Brian Bendis was doing in his recent Avengers run of stand-alone behind-the-scenes stories, revealing the deep plotting involved in the revelations behind Secret Invasion. There’s nothing wrong with stopping the seemingly endless cycle of superheroic battles once in a while to provide the background and history – and answering the questions – behind the motivations for the fights. It actually makes the epic struggles even more epic. Avengers Forever is one of the ultimate templates for the sorts of stories that more comics should aspire to. There’s a reason why many Avengers fans point to this story as one of the very best Avengers stories, ever.
Find out why.
While we’re talking about Avengers epics, I just wanted to pass along a little update about another classic Avengers tale previewed by Bob Greenberger right here, several months ago. Recently collected in hardcover for the first time, Avengers: The Korvac Saga was one of the early Avengers epics. It’s also one of the early examples of long-form storytelling, with a slow build and some excellent sub-plotting and foreshadowing. Next thing you know, you’re sucked into a story that won’t let go – which ended on a shattering “Did I really just read that?” ending, one which seemed to require a little bit of wrap-up, and a chance for readers to start breathing again.
That didn’t happen. The following issue was an Avengers-business-as-usual story. When The Korvac Saga was first collected as a trade paperback in 1991, writer Mark Gruenwald and artist Tom Morgan provided that new four-page epilogue. In 2003, editor Tom Brevoort dropped that same epilogue when the book was republished, as he felt it unnecessary. When this new hardcover edition was solicited, the epilogue was not mentioned as being included (as Bob reported).
Guess what? It’s back in the new hardcover after all, along with reproductions of the previous collection covers – and you can see with your very own eyes how much coloring technique has evolved since 1991 – as well as the original Marvel Universe Handbook entries for the (then) Guardians of the Galaxy and Korvac. The epilogue is somewhat heavy-handed and flawed (as is some of The Korvac Saga itself – nature of the beast, since it passed through five different writers and at least as many artists), but I’m glad it’s included, as it makes the book that much more of an archive-type volume with the addition of this “lost” epilogue.
KC Carlson has been working in, around, and adjacent to comic books since the 1970s, most notably for DC Comics as an editor (including Collected Books) in the 90s. KC’s Bookshelf is an ongoing attempt to catalog the great comic book collections and history books that should be on your bookshelf.
The cover to Flash #171 comes from the Grand Comics Database.