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Kurt Busiek’s Avengers – Avengers Assemble! Vol. 5 (The Kang Dynasty) (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.”

I’ll be honest. I am still not sure what to make of Kurt Busiek’s Avengers run, republished here in five lavish oversized hardcovers. The first three volumes of the set included the stellar artwork of George Perez, but the fifth and final volume contains the entire Kang Dynasty (aka Kang War) saga. For those unfamiliar with the storyline, it was a fairly massive plot told over fifteen issues and an annual, and marked the climax of Busiek’s five-year tenure on the title. For better or for worse, it’s a more than adequate conclusion to his run – complete with many of the flaws which chipped away at it, but also possessing many of the recognisable strengths.

"Don't blame me, I voted for Kodos!"

This volume really bring The Avengers into the modern era. As I remarked in the review of the first volume, Busiek took over the title just as Marvel was emerging from the nineties. Very few fans look back at the era especially fondly, particularly fans of major characters. Busiek’s time on the title brings the characters through from the mess which was Heroes Reborn to the modern, event-driven era of Marvel. Those two different iterations of Marvel are so distinct that they are sometimes hard to reconcile – in fact, it came as a bit of a surprise to find Beast sporting his New X-Men outfit and appearance when he guest-starred in Busiek’s final issue. We’ve come a long way, baby.

And yet it’s hard to really discern the transitioning period during Busiek’s run. I kept spotting slight indications that the millennium was approaching at Marvel. It was the Nuff Said issue which clued me in. Nuff Said was a “theme” month in which a variety of titles did silent issues. Some were pretty damn effective, if I say so myself, while others… weren’t. Anyway, Busiek and his artists offer us one of the more effective ones, demonstrating that sometimes words are superfluous.

Of all the Avengers' foes, Kang is the most ambitious... bar none...

However, it was at that point – around mid-way through the gigantic saga – that I paused to take note of something. The Nuff Said issues I am familiar with – from Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, Peter Milligan’s X-Force and Brian Michael Bendis’ Daredevil – all took place early in their respective runs. These were the “next generation” of Marvel comic books, offering bold new ideas and brave new worlds to explore. The vanguard of popular comic books. In contrast, Busiek’s Nuff Said chapter comes solidly near the end of his run. It’s the point at which I realised that all these new books were on the horizon, and Busiek was allowing his Avengers to bow out gracefully.

Busiek’s Avengers wasn’t bold or revolutionary, at least not in the context of greater comic book history. Instead, the series was essentially a return to core Marvel values, an attempt to consolidate the title after the rockie era of the nineties. It’s easy to spot the spirit of the more classic and iconic Marvel writers in Busiek’s work. His style reminds me of the boundless enthusiasm of Stan Lee, something I mean as the sincerest flattery. “Zounds!” Thor declares at one point. The comparison to Stan Lee is a bit of a double-edged sword, for as much fun as it is to read his dialogue, each character typically only has one verbal tic to render them unique (She-Hulk, for example, is fond of describing people in terms like “man”, “babe” and “pals and gals”). Characters are prone to soliloquies at the most inappropriate moment – Thor declaring “Captain America is more than just a man!” amid what must be a three-minute bromantic speech while engaging hordes of radioactive zombies comes to mind. I also frequently spotted “Kirby dots”, the artistic method of indicating strange and advanced technology with multi-coloured dots, the favoured tool of Stan’s frequent collaborator, Jack Kirby.

Being the God of Thunder means you can always provide some atmospheric rain...

In many ways, I felt as if I was reading a very old comic book. “Whatever he’s jabbering about — he’s got the chops to back it up!” Iron Man thinks to himself, clearly having read one too many classic comic books. A bad guy stops in the middle of a fight scene to hit on Warbird. “Perhaps when hostilities are over, we will be able to meet under less fractious circumstances,” he suggests, ever the charmer. It is strange, however, to see these classic sensibilities running around inside a comic book clearly so decompressed – it’s a weird fusion of classic and modern styles which perhaps suggests that Busiek is positioning his saga as a weird bridge between the two.

Similarly, I get a sense of Chris Claremont’s crazy soap opera plots in Busiek’s stories. Be it the long-running self-esteem issues of various Avengers through to a secret conspiracy around Triathalon and a love triangle around the Scarlet Witch, there are any number of crazy personal problems which just seem to insert themselves into the story – looking for a resolution before Busiek leaves the title. It’s not uncommon to take issue-long breaks from the action to focus on these elements, which perhaps explains how the story reached fifteen chapters. Of course, some of these tie into the plot, and Busiek generally tidies up a lot better than Claremont (who left threads dangling that have only been answered recently).

There’s a sense that Busiek is relying heavily on the clichés associated with the superhero genre, perhaps founded upon a strong sense of nostalgia. The Master of the World falls back on the old cliché of relating his life story and plans to his captives, simply because the audience needs exposition. Kang himself puts honour before reason repeatedly. This is very much the sort of stuff that one associates with classic comic books, and which can seem quite jarring to a reader trying to jump on in. And yet, on closer examination, there is more.

Kang was alway great, he just needed a platform...

In many ways, Kang War feels like Busiek looking to the past while contemplating the future. He is, of course, more than entitled to do that – he’s written over fifty issues of the title, after all. Kang himself seems to suggest a meta-fictional awareness that this is the closing of this particular chapter, so to speak. “Conquering this earth was never the true aim, my son,” he explains, which seems somewhat inevitable – we know that good must triumph, no matter how bad things get. “It was my gift to you. To my heir. The finale to my legend…” It’s the passing of the torch. For, as much as Kang War is about nostalgia and old-fashioned story mechanics, it is also about the future.

There’s a lot in here which modern comic book readers will recognise. The story feels like an event, like Civil War or Secret Invasion. It is so big and all-consuming that it is easy to lose a sense of scale. It’s easy to imagine Busiek pitching the story today and being told to write a seven-issue miniseries with a billion tie-ins. And yet, perhaps due to its length, Busiek seldom loses track of his characters amidst the carnage. He has a huge ensemble, but he manages them all really well. I also admire the decision to anchor the event in a single book, rather than disrupting an entire line of writers on other characters and forcing them to tie into this event. I respect the decision to keep The Kang Dynasty confined to The Avengers and I don’t think it suffers too much at all.

Perhaps the Pen is mightier than the Sword-shaped attack ship...

However, there’s also a consciously darker element which creeps into the book with the Nuff Said issue, as Kang stops being a silly man in a stupid costume and starts to appear to the audience as a genocidal mad man. The start of book is populated with decidedly “retro” threats, as introduced by Kang in his silly floating recliner chair.  “The world as you know it is doomed — doomed to destruction,” he melodramatically states as he introduces all manner of decidedly old-fashioned threats. There’s the almost classical idea of lunar rebellion, juxtaposed against the atomic age fear of the “living death — radioactive soldiers”. H.G. Wells’ “fleet staging from the planet Mars” competes with the corporate nihilistic future of every eighties science movie as the threat that will extinguish mankind. Most of these ideas are silly and corny, old fantasies returning to bother us now that we’re grown up.

And then Kang destroys Washington.

He doesn’t host a tournament that our heroes must fight in, nor does take on the lead character one-on-one. He doesn’t hire a silly novelty bounty hunter, nor construct a stupid death trap. He destroys the city of Washington D.C. and all those who live there. It’s powerful and shocking, because it’s the last thing you expect a Kurt Busiek comic-book-villain to do.

Kang drops the ball...

There’s a lot of carnage and violence and destruction and death once you reach the halfway mark of Kang War – as if all the lighter stuff has been swallowed up and shall never return. Those who decry modern comics for their cynicism and violence may recognise the feeling – Busiek portrays the violence and its consequences in a very serious and cold manner, which calls to mind a lot of comic book work today. I’ve no doubt the author was watching current trends and attempting to reconcile the old-fashioned nature of his book with the modern cynicism of the medium.

That said, perhaps Busiek isn’t quite so cynical. Although it’s easy to read the destruction of Washington as a commentary on 9/11, which occurred only months before the issue was published, it was reportedly planned from the start – sure, there were probably some items added or deleted, ramped up or toned down (there’s something uncomfortable about the way Captain America says “we’re a resilient lot, but it’ll be months, maybe years before all this is behind us”), but I imagine a lot of this was planned beforehand.

Sure, the story has some holes...

Indeed, in his introduction to the first hardcover collection, Busiek admitted his admiration for the Celestial Madonna Saga as one of the defining “event” comics and the first time he really felt how epic a comic book story could be. His fascination with the character of Kang, who has always been an interesting threat (albeit slightly gaudy), already featured in Busiek’s more-than-slightly self-indulgent Avengers Forever miniseries, but a mega-arc featuring Kang taking over the world (the first villain, I believe, to do so without mind control in the Marvel Universe) seems like the sort of story which the writer always wanted to write, and so it makes a fitting conclusion. Even Kang himself seems to acknowledge how great this adventure would be as a finale. “I would have died,” he states, indicating he’s aware of the closure he will never get as a comic book character. “And my life would have been complete, my legend eternal.”

Despite this, the saga has its weaknesses. The most obvious is the fact that it lacks a consistent artist. Don’t get me wrong, most of the five artists who work on the arc are of the highest quality – but their styles don’t gel. Whereas Alan Davies’ artwork looks like a collection of carefully sketched profiles, Keiron Dwyer’s drawings are noticeably cartoony. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but it’s the transition which doesn’t work. One minute there’s this carefully drawn panel and by the next issue everything has gone slightly crazy. It doesn’t help that some of the early Dwyer issues look a little rushed – objects aren’t especially well-defined – perhaps due to the team finding their feet or perhaps due to an awkward transition.

It's not the end of the world...

More than that, though, the story is just a little too cheesy. Every Russian in the script seems contractually obliged to declare “bozhe moi!” anytime that anything happens. The characters narrate and think in almost irritatingly straight-forward terms. If Iron Man is restless being on the sidelines, you’ll get a thought bubble to tell you. It doesn’t help that the characters insist on hammering out their personal issues in the midst of a gigantic crisis. Thor’s issues with mortality are fascinating, but surely somebody should have told him to get ahold of himself and promise to talk about it later.

Busiek undoubtedly has a great sense of character for the entire roster, but he overplays his hand. I got a lot from Quicksilver’s introduction, so I don’t need him to remind me of his defining failures (he’s “a failed husband” and “an absent father”) every few pages.

Busiek’s meditation on Thor’s immortality is clever, and I love it. “I am a god, playing at mortality,” he observes at one point, “pretending to something I am not.” However, Busiek insists on turning the volume up so loud that it’s hard to appreciate it. “She has set out to make a disheartened Thor see the error of his ways,” he narration explains, as if we missed it the first dozen or so times, “to get him to stay with the Avengers when all this done. But will she succeed in changing his mind — she wonders — or will he change hers?” Melodrama alert! Indeed, Captain America seems to acknowledge the excess from time to time, declaring “Enough chatter!” early on and telling Warbird that they’ll deal with her personal issue later (even though he only bothers to tell her this at the end).

Master of the World? That's a little self-important, isn't it?

The plot is disjointed to the point of almost being random. Sure, Busiek points out most of what’s coming through those handy alternate futures that he threatens the world with (which admittedly made me anticipate a Magneto cameo), but still… The sequence of events feels a little tenuous, at the very best. It all sounds almost like a breathless eager storyteller who constantly adds “and then..!” every time it seems like the story might run out of steam.

“Kang invades! And then the Presence is back! And then all these other Earth lifeforms attack! And then the Master of the World appears! And then there are Sentinels! And then Whirlwind appears for like half a page! And then I tie up the 3D Man thing!” It’s almost as if Busiek had a “to do” list when he started the title and realised that had only so many issues in which to fit everything. I almost wish that Busiek had trimmed some of this and just given us the straight-forward “Kang conquers the world and makes the Avengers surrender” plot.

In fairness, Busiek does great work with Kang as a villain. He’s been a long-term Marvel comics foe, but he’s never achieved the heights of infamy of Loki or Dr. Doom or any of those iconic villains. However, here, he’s actually a credible threat. Despite the fact that there’s nothing revolutionary in his portrayal (using an army of bad guys from all different walks of life to undermine a superhero team while causing global uncertainty is part of every decent supervillain’s playbook), Busiek makes him seem like a true challenge to “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”. Perhaps it’s his sense of awareness – at times it seems like he’s winning simply because he’s read a lot of comic books – or perhaps it’s the fact that Busiek manages to make him seem truly evil without removing any of his earlier characterisation.

Just Kangin' around...

Indeed, Busiek plays well with Kang’s inherent misogyny during the run. It’s only fleetingly mentioned, and then in an issue where Kang himself seldom appears. “In you, he’ll honour it,” the Scarlet Witch advises Wonder Man. “I hope. But in a woman? We can’t take that chance.” And yet it ticks away in the background – in the way that Kang treats women as opposed to men (you’ll notice that there are no women among his amassed invasion force or cadre of supervillains). It’s dealt with subtly, but it’s still there – and it serves to make him deeply unlikable, even if we aren’t really aware of it until a second reading.

In fact, Busiek does well with the series’ gender issues. In particular, he does very well to call back to an old Avengers plot featuring Warbird. I won’t go into particulars, but it essentially gave the character a “happily ever after” where she was hypnotised into loving her rapist, who she later went on to give birth to. Yes, it was an exceedingly weird and disturbing comic, on so many levels. While this was offered as something of a happy ending for the character at the time, Busiek takes time out from his over-crowded plot to offer his own revision of the tale, where Carol Danvers was abandoned by her male friends and “feels hallow, and used, and violated”, while they considered it a happy ending. I’m not usually a fan of continuity for continuity’s sake, but it’s very gratifying to see Busiek take the time to call out that unfortunate piece of writing for what it was.

When Kang heard he wasn't being taken seriously as a villain, he took the matter in hand...

I can’t argue that The Kang Dynasty is a truly classic story arc. It’s too uneven, it’s too long and it’s too random. The plots don’t so much flow as stop and start. However, I can argue that it’s an ambitious one, and a far smarter one than it is often given credit for. And, to be entirely honest, I think I enjoyed it mroe consistantly than any of Busiek’s run on the title. It’s a weird synthesis between the old-style hookie comic book style of Stan Lee and company and the more modern event-driven aesthetic that defines today’s market. There’s a lot going on here, and Busiek was perhaps a few years ahead of his time. It’s easy to imagine the story becoming an “event” these days. After all, Brian Michael Bendis originally pitched Secret Invasion as a simple New Avengers storyline – and it became a behemoth of an event.

It’s interesting to note that one of the contributing factors which led Busiek to leave the title was the fact that Marvel decided to push The Ultimates as the “cool” version of the Avengers. Perhaps the story arc is best read in that light, even if it might not have been intended as such. While The Ultimates perhaps laid the blueprints for the future of the Marvel publishing line, The Kang Dynasty bids a fond adieu to the high-stakes colourful fantasy of the past, acknowledging that something altogether more cynical lies ahead. This isn’t a judgement on either work, just an observation and a suggestion of the context of Busiek’s finale.

It's a beast of a collection...

It’s not perfect, but it’s a more than fitting farewell to Busiek. Those used to more modern comic books will find the dialogue corny, the pacing wrong and writing heavy-handed, but there are diamonds scattered amid the story. At the very least, it gives Busiek’s celebrated run a well-deserved and proper send-off. His tenure on The Avengers doesn’t end with a full stop or an ellipsis, but an exclamation mark. As well it should.

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:

2 Responses

  1. Reading this, I can see why marvel would push Ultimates as the “cool” version of these characters. Reading it’s contemporaries, and even comics a few years removed in either direction, this stuff reads like more of a Saturday morning cartoon than the actual superhero cartoons of the time.

    • I quite like The Kang Dynasty, even if I really dislike the rest of Busiek’s run. I think it’s because it feels more like an actually Saturday morning cartoon and less like a reheated soap opera starring boring people.

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