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Acts of Vengeance Omnibus (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.”

As The Avengers is getting its U.S. theatrical release this weekend, I thought I’d celebrate by taking a look at a gigantic crossover. I’ll be reviewing individual tie-ins over the weekend, so check back!

Truth be told, I would have been quite disappointed if I made it all the way to the end of the month without taking a look at one of those token “big, dumb” crossovers featuring Marvel’s iconic characters. Truth be told, Acts of Vengeance just looked kinda fun. Although it spread to Marvel’s whole line, it was directed by writer and artist John Byrne, who was behind Avengers and West Coast Avengers at the time, so I’m totally counting it as an Avengers crossover. It’s one of those incredibly silly concepts that could only ever work in the context of superhero comic books. Basically, tired of being soundly defeated by their heroes, a bunch of supervillains decide to band together and exchange partners. Hilarity ensues as the line struggles to maintain editorial consistency.

Shattered heroes…

I’ll be the first to concede that I probably over-intellectualise superhero comic books. I’ll tend to go looking for some deeper observation or commentary, jumbled amidst a whole bunch of random nonsense, probably where no deeper meaning was intended. Still, never let it be said that I am incapable of turning off my critical faculties and enjoying very dumb “fun” on occasion. Okay, well almost. The geeky premise of Acts of Vengeance is one that doesn’t just require one to suspend their critical faculties, so much as completely abandon them. But, if they can do that, there is some fun to be had.

The plot of the event, as much as there is one, sees the villain Loki deciding to get a whole host big bads together and swap superheroes with them. So instead of fighting the X-Men, Juggernaut fights Thor. Instead of causing a bit more pain for Iron Man, the Mandarin ties himself up with Wolverine. Magneto attacks Spider-Man. Ultron hassles Daredevil. That’s the basic premise of the event, in a nutshell. No years of continuity set-up or planning or in-jokes. Acts of Vengeance is, quite simply, an excuse to pit familiar heroes against unfamiliar bad guys and enjoy the resulting battles spilling out into countless individual titles, so many that they required their own spin-off omnibus.

Master of magnetism!

Now, you’re probably wondering why Loki is doing this. If you expect a more complex motivation than “because he hasn’t got a more creative way to screw with his brother”, this probably isn’t the book for you. Hell, I’m still trying to figure out how the villains think this will work within the context of the story. I mean, maybe the element of surprise might work in their favour, but villains tend to specialise in a particular hero for a reason. While that might mean some more powerful villains face some weaker heroes (“a tiger to crush a kitten,” as Graviton boasts on pulling Spider-Man from the metaphorical hat), the opposite is also true – some small time bad guys will inevitably find themselves ridiculously outmatched.

Walt Simonson’s Fantastic Four tie-in had the four easily tackling a whole selection of Spider-Manbad guys, remarkably quickly. Similarly, I question the management of any evil scheme that feels Dr. Doom is best allocated to take on the Punisher. Dr. Doom normally fights four superhumans including perhaps the smartest man on the planet, while the Punisher… has lots of guns. If that doesn’t count as a bit of a waste of resource, I don’t know what does. (Of course, the Punisher fights him to a standstill, because… well, it’s the Punisher’s book.) That’s not to dismiss the fun of those issues (I actually quite like that Punisher crossover), but more to illustrate some of the faulty logic at play.

Something stopped the Juggernaut…

Hell, part of me wonders why so many villains are so eager to swap. The cabal in question features several iconic “big bads”, but they seem to have the capacity to control and cajole the entire supervillain population. Sometimes writers try to justify it, sometimes they don’t. Given that so many supervillains are inherently individualistic, let alone occasionally psychotic, it seems to require a lot more organisation than simply “hey you! go over there and fight him!” Then again, this isn’t the crossover with the best supervillain characterisation on record, to be fair.

Why is it even called “acts of vengeance” any way? Surely these villains can’t be revenging themselves on heroes they have never met before? Maybe it’s a meta-reference to how absurd the “avengers” is as a title for a superhero team. It does sound quite ominous the first few times that Loki drops the title (“All it will take is a simple act… an act of vengeance!” (dun dun dun)), but it gets a bit old after a while.

A monstrous leap…

Indeed, at one point, Loki even goes out of his way to explain that the plan is for the exact opposite of an act of vengeance. “The reason super-criminals fail is that they become obsessed with vengeance,” he outlines. “After being beaten by a certain foe, what do you do? You go back, only to get beaten again. My advice to your team is simple: exchange opponents!” Of course, this logic doesn’t hold for the first time that the villains encountered the heroes, or any villains that have shifted from one good guy to another. Still, at least Magneto does try to tie this theory into the title of the event, suggesting, “Vengeance is ours — by proxy.”

All this pointless plot- and story-related nonsense aside, Acts of Vengeanceis remarkably straight-forward. John Byrne didn’t pitch this idea because it was clever or insightful or going to redefine comics. The writers seem as aware as anybody else that the logic holding this together in-story is tenuous at best. It happens for one reason, and one reason only: because it’s a fun idea. It’s the kind of geeky thought that occupies certain idle minds at the strangest moments – the desire to pit various fictional characters against one another. Who would win in a battle of wits between Sherlock Holmes and Batman? What would happen if Doctor Who bumped into the Borg? Could the Enterprise stand a chance against the Death Star?

Do we have a hit on our hands?

I think that every young adult has had some variation on the “who would win in a fight debate”, and the crossover provided the impetus for this sort of fun throwdown. The best tie-in issues positively bask in the glory of the event’s absurdity, as we see Daredevil go head to head with Ultron, for example, or the Punisher adapt remarkably well to Dr. Doom’s attempt to kill him. It is silly, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. It’s also worth noting that most of the fun (in an “insane off-the-wall” sort of way) are actually found in the Companion Omnibus.

Still, it’s worth watching those various super villains interact. Like the most awkward first date ever, it immediately becomes clear that the group has next-to-nothing in common. There’s mutant supremacist Magneto, exiled ruler Dr. Doom, New York mobster Kingpin, died-in-the-wool supervillain the Mandarin and former Nazi the Red Skull. It’s hilarious to watch them verbally abuse one another, especially when Doom tries to get all regal and the group cuts him down. “Watch your tone, Doctor,” the Mandarin warns. “It ill behoves you to play monarch, when the monarchy is lost.” The Red Skull chides him, “Brash words from one so often evicted from his own kingdom.”

Acts of Homage!

I especially like the Kingpin’s deadpan response to this bickering. “The children are at play again, I see,” he moans. He’s the most mundane villain present, but he also seems to be kinda above all this bickering. After all, he did fairly comprehensively deconstruct Daredevil back in Born Again, which is closer than any of his foes have every really come to truly breaking a superhero. This dynamic is mostly fun. I say “mostly”, because it’s hard to talk about this event without discussing Magneto, that great divisive comic book character.

There are several versions of Magneto. There’s the psychotic mutant terrorist. There’s the former holocaust victim trying to protect an embattled minority. There’s the anti-villain trying desperately to be a hero. There’s the pragmatic villain who seems to realise that he can only protect his people through inspiring fear in others. That’s a lot for one character to be over the space of a fifty-year existence. Unfortunately, Magneto is most of these over the course of the event.

He’s perfectly in control…

Byrne seems to like the old supervillain Magneto, even though he tries to reference the more nuanced portrayal in the years since Byrne worked with Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men. He struggles a bit in West Coast Avengers, writing that more developed Magneto with a penchant for cheesy supervillain monologuing. “Think you Magneto cares one whit for such paltry scheming?” he thinks. “When first you approached me with the seed of your idea, I saw not so much a chance to crush the costumed cretins who call themselves super heroes… but a chance for the ultimate betterment of my own mutantkind! And a chance to reclaim an allegiance that is mine by right!” Of course, that logic doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny – he’s going to make the world better for mutants by killing the Avengers… how?

It’s slightly surreal, because various writers in the event have various different takes on the character. For example, David Michelinie, in fairness to him, tries to rationalise Magneto’s confrontation with Spider-Man by suggesting that Magneto thought Spidey might be a mutant. It’s a pretty flimsy justification. Spidey can somehow now control atoms, so Magneto suddenly thinks he’s a mutant – what did Magneto think he was when he was swinging around New York hanging off walls? Still, Michelinie tries, and I respect that. It just seems like a lot of writers were stuck with problems they didn’t really deserve.

Bringing the Skull to heel…

In fairness, the event did allow Mark Gruenwald to write Magneto in a style more in keeping with Claremont’s. Gruenwald’s Captain America run is crying out for a nice omnibus collection, by the way. Rather ingeniously allowing Magneto to confront the Red Skull, Gruenwald actually makes some astute observations on the character, making remarks that would seem almost prophetic during Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run.

We are very much alike, you and I, Magneto, both of us wish to see our Master Race inherit the Earth. You call my Fuehrer barbaric? Am I mistaken or did you yourself not kill hundreds of men by sinking a submarine a few years back? To help realise your minority group’s destiny, would you balk at the imprisonment of inferiors? The extermination of the unfit?

It’s nice, clever writing that almost justifies the mess that Acts of Vengeance made of Magneto’s character. After a fairly clear arc from Chris Claremont in Uncanny X-Men, it seems like future writers would go back and forth on whether Magneto was villain or anti-villain.

Taking them all on at once? That’s Loki!

In fact, that really cuts to the heart of one of the major problems with Acts of Vengeance, reading it all together in one collected edition. It seems quite clear that many writers didn’t like having to shoe-horn in strange new bad guys into their planned story arcs. “I’m sick of being attacked for no reason at all!” Michelinie’s Peter Parker remarks at one point, perhaps expressing his author’s discontent with having to bow to editorial mandate. In one wonderfully silly moment, Loki pits the Juggernaut against Thor. The character openly acknowledges that he has no idea what’s going on or why. “This is great!! Don’t know how I got here! Don’t really care!”

Mark Gruenwald seems to be having a great deal of fun in Quasar as he not only pits his character against new a baddie, but shoe-horns in gimmick after gimmick as if ridiculing the concept. He’s sure to include an inset of Venom on the cover of a Quasarissue he barely appears in, before pitting the character against a ridiculous amount of mismatched foes in rapid succession. It would seem like Gruenwald wasn’t taking it entirely seriously.

Avengers assembled…

There are some plotting flaws quite evident in the event itself, especially towards the end. The evil cabal kinda just collapses on itself. I suspect that was John Byrne’s point – he was attempting to illustrate that villains can’t win because they lack the same capacity for teamwork that many heroes take for granted. It’s inevitable that villains will fail because their egos are too large to acknowledge that they are equal contributors to a common goal. It’s a fine idea, and a reassuring commentary on superhero comics themselves, but the problem is that it doesn’t quite work as an ending. The event ends with the Avengers taking on Loki. Given that Thor singlehandedly deals with Loki on a regular basis, it feels a little underwhelming.

More than that, though, the most fascinating plot threads are left running. The omnibus does not include, for example, the issues of West Coast Avengers dealing with the Scarlet Witch’s mental breakdown as it starts here. It does leave the ending feeling more than a bit sudden. Coupled with the disappointingly banal “dogpile on Loki” finale, it’s hard to finish Acts of Vengeance being entirely satisfied.

He’ll be skeletal by the time Magneto lets him out…

That said, I’ll freely concede that I quite enjoyed it for what it was. I think, at its best, it serves as a wide cross-section of the comic books that Marvel was publishing at the time, giving a wide sampling of a particular era of a character or creator. This represents, after all, a small selection of Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America run available in oversized hardcover, and the companion features small sections of Ann Nocenti and Mike Baron’s work on Daredevil and Punisher respectively.

Outside of that, it is interesting just how much Acts of Vengeance seems to have influenced writer Brian Michael Bendis when he took over the Avengers books. After all, Bendis’ New Avengers opened with a breakout from the Vault, just like this. Acts of Vengeance suggests that the destruction of the Avengers’ hydrobase is “more of a beginning than an ending” – just like the demolition of the Mansion in Avengers Disassembled. Indeed, Wonder Man even used the word “disassembled” to describe what happened to Wanda’s husband, which itself would become a major plot point in Avengers Disassembled.

Thunderstruck…

The Scarlet Witch’s mental breakdown in the pages of West Coast Avengers following this collection would form a major part of the back story to Bendis’ Avengers Disassembled. While certainly not the only story to use the idea, I can’t help but wonder if the appearance of two crooks masquerading as Hawkeye and Mockingbird might have inspired his Dark Avengers. And that’s without getting into the visual references that Bendis used during his run explicitly referencing the story arc.

Indeed, Mark Gruenwald’s epilogue annual seems quite a few years ahead of the times as Captain America ponders how to learn from what just happened. “The question before us, gentlemen, is how can we prevent something like this from happening again?” Steve asks, in a rare moment of responsibility for a major superhero. It seems to acknowledge the responsibility that a hero owes to the general population in a way that didn’t normally come up – that this was their fault. If the Avengers didn’t exist, none of this would have happened. It’s a nice reflective question.

That’s why he’s the smart one…

In fact, the Vision provides a rather astute answer, foreshadowing decades of existential angst for superheroes. “Perhaps if we were to take a more aggressive approach to world security… orchestrating more preemptive strikes on perpetrators at large…?” As the push for more verisimilitude in comics asked for tighter causality and more logical approaches to super-human law enforcement, the notion of the “reactionary” superhero would become a figure haunting the genre. Of course superheroes are “reactionary” – there needs to be a bad guy to confront, a fire to fight, a cat to save. Proactive superheroes are generally the subject of deconstructions like Red Son or The Ultimates.

It’s interesting to note that, over a decade before Civil War, Acts of Vengeance explored the idea of a Super Human Registration Act. Of course, it isn’t taken nearly as far here, but I do think that Acts of Vengeance does a better job seeding the idea than Civil War does. It’s bubbling away in the background throughout the event, rather than arriving out of almost nowhere in Civil War. It’s another illustration, though, of just how big a debt modern Marvel owes Acts of Vengeance, and how influential John Byrne’s crossover way.

Supervillains, assemble!

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a major plot point, but it’s a clever observation hidden amid all the sound and fury. I think Acts of Vengeance is fascinating, even if it’s never a complete success. It’s a whole that is actually far smaller than the sum of its parts. The best parts of the crossover were the more fun and bizarre one-on-one encounters that are mostly confined to the Companion Omnibus. Still, it’s a bit of fun, and it’s enjoyable for what it is. There are some good ideas here, even if they are never quite followed through on.

In celebration of Acts of Vengeance, we’ve taken a look at some of the more memorable tie-ins and crossovers:

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4 Responses

  1. I guess there’s an audience for this. Just not me.

    • Yep. It’s certainly an acquired taste. But I thought, in the spirit of the film, I’d branch out and try to get an overview of the Avengers-related books.

  2. Hi Darren. Just curious; does the omnibus feature the issues in chronological order or does it group each series together? Thanks!

    • I don’t have the omnibus to hand, but I think the main omnibus does it roughly chronological, with some grouping (I think the months tend to close and open on the same series if possible). The companion definitely groups by series.

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