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Kurt Busiek’s Avengers – Avengers Assemble! Vol. 4 (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.”

Read our review of The Avengers here.

I don’t envy the fourth collection of Avengers Assemble! On one side of this collection, you have three volumes of work featuring the collaboration between writer Kurt Busiek and artist George Perez. On the other side, you have the epic conclusion to Busiek’s run, The Kang Dynasty. Between the two, you have this collection – which features only six actual issues of The Avengers, the rest padded out with annuals or specials or miniseries. It’s something of a transitional time. A lot of the story is about the impact of what has happened so far, while foreshadowing what’s to come.

One 4 all?

So it feels a bit unfulfilling, to be honest. With Perez gone from the title, Busiek finds himself working with a steady stream of “Guest Pencillers”. It’s not that they are poor choices (indeed, John Romita and Steve Epting are fairly big names and as impressive then as they are now), just that there’s no sense of consistency. Even when artist Alan Davies joined the title, it proved to only be a temporary arrangement. There’s a sense that stories collected here are just treading water, for lack of a better word. Busiek isn’t really doing anything especially bold – he’s just tying up some loose ends and setting up some twists to come down the line. It’s housekeeping, so to speak, it needs to be done, but it isn’t the most compelling of subjects.

I guess what it boils down to is that there’s very little to recommend this hardcover above any of the others. The first volumes can be recommended for the change to see Busiek and Perez at work, as well as any number of stories. Ultron Unlimited, for example, is a storyline which makes the second volume in the set so highly recommended. The final volume has a large sprawling epic which is unlike anything seen in modern comics (for better or for worse), and that’s reason enough to distinguish it. Whereas this volume is just… there.

You just couldn't planet like that...

That’s not to say that the collection is devoid of interest. Those who enjoy Busiek’s writing or have followed the first three volumes will love it. Busiek understands these characters, and it’s always entertaining to see him working with them – even if very little is actually unfolding. Of course, stuff does happen (this collection includes an “event” miniseries, for example, and various plots are advanced and developed through it), but it’s never truly gripping or compelling in the same way that the rest of the collections are.

Still, there’s something about seeing the writer work with these characters. Indeed, the opening miniseries, Maximum Security, is worth a look simply to see Busiek handles a second-stringer like U.S. Agent. For those without an encyclopedic knowledge of the fictional universe, U.S. Agent was a replacement for Captain America. He was designed to be rougher around the edges, much like most of the character revisions of the time. Mark Gruenwald, highly regarded as a Captain America writer, seemed to be a little ahead of the curve, pitching and deconstructing a subversive anti-hero substitute several years before the nineties would make the practice popular. After all, it would be almost a decade before DC would have the real Batman and Superman claim their titles from a bunch of darker-and-edgier substitutes.

Live by the sword...

Now, as Marvel enters a new millennium, U.S. Agent is “the substitute Cap who won’t go away.” He’s a loud-mouthed conservative pundit who had a chip on his shoulder the size of one of the larger states. He’s got a job in law enforcement which allows him the authority that he feels he is entitled. He throws around phrases like “the silent majority” (borrowed from Richard Nixon) and is more than slightly aggressive to his former team mates. And yet Busiek makes the character almost likeable, and certainly intriguing.

Over the course of the miniseries, in which the character assumes control of the Avengers as the Earth is locked down and converted into a galactic prison planet, the reader comes to see that he’s actually a decent guy beneath the attitude. I think it’s great to see an old character like this relatively rehabillitated. In the years after Heroes Reborn and the disastrous attempt to “nineties-fy” the Marvel Universe, it’s reassuring to see some of these old imitators coopted into a narrative and used with some measure of affection. It’s a testament to Busiek’s work that Dan Slott would go on to use the character when he took over writing duties on The Mighty Avengers a few years back.

They ain't necessarily the Avengers, but they're assembled...

Maximum Security opens the collection, and it’s an interesting choice. It’s a four-issue miniseries (a prologue and three regular issues) with a single tie-in issue of The Avengers included. It’s pretty much like modern event comics, with a miniseries spinning off into various tie-in issues of existing series. To be honest, I’ve always been surprised that Marvel opted to publish Maximum Security like that, but not Busiek’s final Avengers storyline, The Kang Dynasty. This seems like the kind of story that could easily have been a four-issue arc of the main Avengers title, while The Kang Dynasty took up fifteen issues. Still, I suppose it’s not really too relevent to pick apart a business decision made over a decade ago.

This miniseries feels almost rushed, with countless subplots farmed out to the supporting titles. In fairness, all of the references to these issues are flagged via footnotes – which is a quaint practice that I find myself appreciating in nostalgic or retro comic books, but would not like to see reintroduced in modern ones – and most are superfluous. However, some of the plot points handled outside the miniseries seem a little bit ridiculous. For example, Gambit is – despite being trapped inside the planet’s atmosphere – able to retrieve “information on the process likely used to compress and imprison Ego in the first place” – giving our heroes the capacity to solve one aspect of the miniseries’ high-stakes climax. It’s a tad convenient. What happened? Did the bad guy just happen to drop it? On Earth? Right next to Gambit? But, hey, that’s what tie-ins are for, I suppose.

Secret Agent Man...

Despite some of the issues with the miniseries, it’s nice to see some focus on cosmic Marvel. I have a soft spot for concepts as far out as the Silver Surfer and Ego the Living Planet, so it’s great to see them drawn into this sort of massive event. It represents the intersection between Earth and the cosmic aspects of the Marvel Universe which have become increasingly rare in recent years (as both inevitably do their own thing).

However, if you peel back the layers of the onion, there is some interesting stuff going on underneath. Although a lot of people have criticised storylines like Civil War or World War Hulk for failing to portray the heroes in an especially flattering light (to the point where some would argue that they are “deconstructions”), one can sense that Busiek himself is toying with similar ideas here. The first issue in the collection opens with what is essentially a trial of humanity, conducted by a selection of alien races. These arguments frequently point out the moral relativism of the actions conducted by these characters.

Green as far as the eye can see...

“Sometimes humanity — or human allies — interfere with good effect,” one observes, “and sometimes with bad — but rarely are they bound by any rules other than those they set on themselves.” After all, who are humans to decide on the outcome of any number of galactic affairs. I know the argument is somewhat undermined by the fact you can argue that, in each case, a clear and present danger presented itself, but – collectively – it’s a very potent charge. Given how we react when nation states use a threat to their sovereignty as an excuse to impose their will over other populations, perhaps the Avengers aren’t quite as perfect as we might imagine. There’s an arrogance to this “super club deciding for the little people what’s important and what ain’t.”

Mark Millar’s Civil War explored the potential of actions by these self-appointed vigilantes to directly impact civilians, but Busiek also toys with the idea here. Using U.S. Agent as a stand-in, the author remarks on how impossible it must be just to live as a citizen within the Marvel Universe – to be one of “the people who shouldn’t have to have their lives interrupted and threatened by all this super-violence that erupts without warning!” It isn’t especially well-developed here, but it’s an interesting idea ticking away in the background.

Thor moves like lightning...

The theme continues through to the regular issues written by Busiek. The team is consistently undermined – attacks are no longer simply directed at members, but at the team’s very institutions. The Mansion is attacked and the team has their public image eroded slowly away. Lord Templar even addresses the media as a form of attack on his foes, advising the public, “the avengers are a threat.” Of course, it’s all part of a grand plot to wear the heroes out, but there’s some legitimacy to the criticisms.

Even Captain America himself recognises the damage that has been done and the flaws in the team. The quick succession of attacks are, he acknowledges, a sign of fundamental weakness in the team itself. The team faces a number of emergencies in quick succession as they deal with problems they faced before. Indeed, one they’d let go “just because he wasn’t a threat right then and there.” It’s that lack of action which led to the problem. “We should have been prepared,” Captain America suggests. “We should have handled them earlier.” Even the Wasp acknowledges the team’s weakness, “We’ve been too reactive lately.”

Hulk! Crush!

It’s a nice bit of self-awareness from Busiek to point out one of the key flaws of most superhero teams – the fact that they essentially end up fighting fires rather than affecting real change. So it’s interesting to see his attempt to remedy this with a “proactive” approach as the team attempts to track down known villains still at large. It’s a decent idea which reminds me a lot of the way that Luke Cage used the Avengers for “impact policing” in New Avengers. That idea was never developed as well as it should have been, and Busiek has a similar problem here. By the time he has suggested that the Avengers should be proactive, he’s into his final arc on the title (and then he’s left completely). There’s a good idea there, which could be properly developed rather than simply teased.

It’s also interesting to see Busiek pitting the team against their darker alternate versions in The Ultron Imperative. The team take on flawed robot versions of themselves, in a bit of meta-commentary which calls to mind the struggle of old-fashioned heroes to remain popular when confronted with the “darker and edgier” versions that flooded the market in the nineties. These robots are – we learn – “broken” because they are indifferent to loss of life. It’s the way that the character value life which defines them.

Their justice system is alien to us...

There are, of course, the usual flaws with Busiek’s writing here. He’s over-reliant on old-fashioned tropes. At one point, a major villain actually utters the line (in a completely unironic fashion) “and because it suits my mood, I shall explain…” before revealing their entire evil plot. There’s a tendency to dwell too heavily on corny life lessons. When Hawkeye admits he feels invisible, Hank Pym informs him (in true “lesson of the week” fashion), “Consider it to be a taste of how it feels to be a minority, Clint. Even today, too often.” I feel like I learnt something.

That said, there is an element of wit to some of Busiek’s scripting. His style suits Thor perfectly, for example, and there are moments when it seems he’s aware of how reliant he is on cliché. “Once I’d have kept you alive to witness my triumph – which I then wouldn’t get,” Alkhema explains, as she prepared to just kill the heroes. “But the great thing about living is learning!”

The fourth volume of the series isn’t the most essential. It feels mainly like a bridge between the first three volumes and the last one, as if it’s almost like an appendix rather than part of the narrative. There are some great ideas in there, but there’s nothing too revolutionary which jumps out as a perfectly-formed piece of Avengers history.

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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