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Kurt Busiek’s (& George Perez’s) Avengers – Avengers Assemble! Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

April (and a little bit of May) are “Avengers month” at the m0vie blog. In anticipation of Joss Whedon’s superhero epic, we’ll have a variety of articles and reviews published looking at various aspects of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” And so we begin, one month short of the release date…

It is good to be together again.

– Thor, Once An Avenger…

A lot of life is context. In order to fully appreciate things, you need to know the history and events which drive it. Kurt Busiek’s massive almost-five-year run on The Avengers is well loved by comic book fans, but is quite hard for me to get a read on. The plots are simple, the cast is over-crowded and the dialogue is corny. However, these are perhaps the reasons why the run is held in such high esteem, because the fictional Marvel Universe of 1998 was quite different from how it looks today.

Consider them assembled... all of them...

The nineties was a bad time for comic books. Market trends were pushing big name titles towards “darker and edgier” reimaginings. At one stage, during the Onslaught saga, Marvel pretty much killed off their iconic stable of heroes in order to give the big creators of the day – like Rob Liefeld – the chance to put their own stamp on things. It was dark and depressing, and almost nihilistic – although the comics weren’t nearly self-aware enough to even realise they were. The industry as driven by a market based on speculation, #1 issues and variant covers rather than the principle of good storytelling.

As the company was circling the drain, Marvel brought back their iconic selection of heroes in the Heroes Reborn event. It did away with concepts as corny as Thunderstrike (the “darker and edgier” Thor) or “teenage Tony” (the attempt to reboot Iron Man as a teenager to make him more relatable), giving us back the selection of instantly recognisable heroes. It was a bold moment, when the bright and colourful characters returned to comic books, and it was okay to be a superhero who wasn’t borderline sociopathic.

Can the Scarlet Witch lift the hex on the franchise?

This is the backdrop to Kurt Busiek’s Avengers run. It’s very much a return to core values in comic books. Those who accuse modern writers of excessive nostalgia will be shocked to silence at just how “old school” Busiek’s approach here is. There’s hardly a cliché left untouched in this initial collection alone – from superhero teams fighting each other over a misunderstanding, to alternate universes and mind control. And, yet, that was the strength of the run.

The desired effect of Busiek’s writing is simply to wrap a warm blanket around the reader and reassure them that the old hokey values of comic books aren’t long gone. Those who accuse Busiek of emulating past writers on the title are missing the point entirely – it’s meant to be a retread, a throwback, a conscious reference to stories long gone. And, truth be told, it was exactly what the medium needed at the end of that tiring and exhausting decade – somebody to put a warm hand on their shoulder and assure them that everything was going to be okay after all.

For too long, the Avengers franchise has lacked Vision...

Whether or not this works will vary from reader to reader. Some will be able to jump into old-school adventures complete with thought balloons much quicker than others. I, personally, find it a bit awkward – but still rewarding. There’s a kooky charm to the way that characters insist on referring to themselves in the third person (“Moondragon is far more than mortal!”). This sort of style suits characters like Thor, perfectly – but is not really a comfortable fit with the rest of the cast.

Indeed, Busiek is clearly having a ball writing the Norse god. “They will have the wrath of Thor to contend with!” he remarks (bellows) of a bunch of enemies. In one particularly effective sequence, a speech bubble from off panel declares, “I say thee nay, miscreant!” The criminal in question pauses a moment to let that sink in. “I say thee —?” he repeats to himself, as a dawning realisation creeps into his voice. “Awww, nuts!” Sufficed to say that the thug isn’t a problem in the next panel. I love me some Thor smack talk, so I do.

"Verily, my hammer doth make a much easier choice for me to carry..."

Busiek’s introductory arc, Once an Avenger…, is notable for featuring every character who has been an Avenger up to that point. This is exactly the sort of encyclopedic knowledge of the fictional Marvel Universe which Busiek would go on to demonstrate month-in and month-out (with his obsessive continuity compulsion reaching its zenith in the Avengers Forever spin-off). That level of knowledge (and a reliance on it) can be quite daunting. Especially when it’s coupled with straight-forward plots, which give the impression that the author is using continuity to fill various gaps. However, as noted above, this was a different time – and perhaps what the readers felt they needed.

However, it’s Busiek’s thematic referencing which suits the story far than his countless continuity nods. His opening story feels like a proper Avengers story, because of the clever way that he mirrors the original formation of the team. The Avengers weren’t founded on a particular principle or with a mission statement. They weren’t the product of careful planning or of a big event. They were thrown together by randomness and chance to get whatever needed doing done. “But Avengers don’t pick and choose, do they?” the villainess teases, suggesting she’s aware of the nature of the team. “They do what must be done.” Even the name “Avengers”, as chosen by Janet Pym, wasn’t picked for a particular purpose (she just suggested it because it sounded good).

It's certainly VERY retro...

As someone far smarter than I once put it:

For all the many strengths of Avengers # 1, there’s apparently a single and obvious flaw in the very premise of The Avengers, or at least there would be if the book was being pushed out into the marketplace today, when mission statements and market share demand precisely-framed and deliberately directed product. It’s a problem which has been constantly referred to, intentionally and not, in the almost 50 years since “The Coming Of The Avengers”, and, of course, everyone has long since recognised it for what it is. For Mr Lee and Mr Kirby never came close to satisfactorily explaining what it is that the Avengers had gathered themselves together to do. We know what the commercial function of the book was, and we know a great deal about the many and various reasons for the team to exist that have been grafted onto the concept ever since. But in Avengers # 1, the only explanation we’re given for the Avengers existence is that they can beat up anyone else when they stand together as a group. It’s as simple as that. Justice is never mentioned, and beyond that questionable name that the team chooses for itself, vengeance is never referred to either. The title of the book, indeed, as has been so often mentioned before, bears no relation to the stated premise of the team’s existence. “We’ll never be beaten” declares Thor at the story’s end, and that’s why they’re together. “Avenging” in any accepted sense of the word rarely comes into it. They’re a group of superheroes who want to help each other dominate whatever brawls they find themselves in.

The Avengers aren’t the Avengers for any particular reason. They’re the Avengers… because they’re the Avengers.

Beastly business, all this...

So it’s oddly appropriate that Busiek’s wonderfully compressed and possibly over-crowded opening arc begins with members of the team being attacked by mysterious forces simply because the are Avengers. It’s a nice bit of symmetry which works quite well – Busiek recognising and referencing the essentially random nature of the group, ill-defined by any collective motivations or goals. “Together, they fight crime”, indeed.

More than that, the story references the original. Much as Loki brought together the original team, another Asgardian force (“the Twilight Sword” from Walt Simonson’s celbrate Thor run) serves as a plot device to get the group together and it is only after combatting this great threat that they decide the world needs a team of Avengers. And so, as if nothing had happened, the team pick up where they left off.

"Verily, now we can all talketh like Thor... eth!"

Busiek does acknowledge what has come before – the mess that he’s steering the franchise out of. Being honest, I can understand that it might have been easier (both to write and toread) if he pretended that none of that stuff ever happened. Still, I appreciate the effort Busiek makes to build upon what came before and to deal with the consequences of other writers’ creative missteps. That said, I’ll concede that it slows down certain portions of the book.

Busiek does great work with characters. He knows his cast ridiculously well, even taking time to feature the homeless D-Man, who Hercules refers to as the “fetid one.” Indeed, a small scene with Jarvis is wonderfully effective, as a colleague wonders how he feels on seeing the team fly away, day after day. He admits it isn’t easy, “but someone must keep things running — must take care of the small things, like the feeding of black knight’s horse, here — so that they may take care of the big ones. I’m honoured that they allow it be me.” It’s a very sweet sentiment.

Cap should punch his lights out...

That said, I’ve never really been sold on the “soap opera” aspect of the franchise. I’d rather see them tackling threats than dealing with an awkward triangle between Wanda and her two dead lovers. Even Captain America has trouble managing the group, “It’s like… riding herd on a string of high-strung racehorses sometimes.” Being entirely honest, I don’t mind the more subtle character development (Warbird’s alcoholism, for example), but some of it just seems awkwardly forced (Hawkeye’s issues with authority, for example, or the aforementioned romantic ghosts subplot). Being entirely honest, and at the risk of drawing the ire of fans, I am glad that Bendis’ New Avengers toned this sort of thing down.

It’s interesting to look at the type of bad guys that Busiek pits his Avengers against. Although he mostly uses established villains (including street hoodlums and sorcerors), there’s a recurring theme of corrupt corporations. Despite the fact that he doesn’t work at the company anymore (he’s busy being a supervillain), one bad guy introduces himself as “Mosus Magnum, owner and president of Magnum Munitions.”Imus Champion plots against the team from his corporate headquarters, and then hides behind his undoubtedly well-payed lawyer.

Pressing the new team...

In this volume, Busiek introduces the Triune Understanding, a shadowy group that would eat up a significant number of pages during his tenure, adding up to a subplot that would only be resolved towards the climax of his run (in his epic Kang War story arc). They’re a rich, vaguely religious organisation which recruits high-profile members (like superheroes). Hawkeye refers to them as “some kind of cult.” Hmmm… remind you of anyone?

There are hints of awareness peppered throughout the volume, which let the reader know that Busiek is aware of what he’s doing, playing out these archetypal stories. “Oh, man!” Hawkeye moans as he realises he’s trapped in a feudal world. “Not another alternate reality! Not again!” Later, when the Squadron Suprme confronts the Avengers, Hawkeye isn’t at all phased by their posturing. “Five’ll get you ten they’re being mind-controlled again,” he states, having spent long enough in the superhero games to know the rules.

Firestar is hot...

George Perez, the iconic artist behind Crisis on Infinite Earths, provides the artwork for this collection. He puts in, as usual, an insane amount of detail. It is gorgeous. Perez betrays his own interest in continuity, which likely runs at least as deep as those of the author. You can see some of Perez’s own tastes creeping into the comic. For example, he redesigns the Scarlet Witch’s costume, giving his favourite character a more sensuous look. It’s also interesting to note how much time the witch spends in bondage over the course of collection.

Busiek does seem just a little bit aware of Perez’s fascination with revealing costumes, and seems to draw a line through giving an especially skimpy outfit to the barely-legal Firestar. “I can’t wear this — I’m practically falling out of it!”she declares. Later on in the series, the colourist has added a bit more fabric to the costume. Still, Perez is a master of his craft, and there’s a reason he’s one of the most respected artists in comics. While Perez does sterling work and his issues look stunning, I couldn’t help notice that the transfer on the non-Perez issues looks a bit blurry, though.

Some assembly required?

Avengers Assemble! won’t be for anyone. It’s far too corny. And it isn’t just an aesthetic thing, like with Frank Miller’s Daredevil. It’s not the presence of thought balloons which overwhelms the text, but the writing style itself. There’s very little subtlety or nuance to be determined and certainly no ambiguity. Every character wears their heart on their sleeve and lets the reader know then and there. It’s very traditional – which seems quite outdated today. Still, there’s certainly a place for it. If you’re interested in nostalgia for form rather than just for themes and content, this is the collection for you.

You might be interested in our reviews of the rest of Busiek’s run, collected in a series of “Avengers Assemble” oversized hardcovers:

You might also be interested in our reviews of his other Avengers-related stories:

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