Essential Defenders volume 1

By Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Len Wein, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1547-2

Last of the big star conglomerate super-groups, the Defenders would eventually count amongst its membership almost every hero – and a few villains – in the Marvel Universe. No surprise there then as initially they were composed of the company’s bad-boys: misunderstood, outcast and often actually dangerous to know.

For Marvel, the outsider super-group must have seemed a conceptual inevitability – once they’d finally published it. Apart from Spider-Man and Daredevil all their heroes regularly teamed up in various mob-handed assemblages, and in the wake of the Defenders’ success even more super-teams comprised of pre-existing characters were mustered – such as the Champions, Invaders, New Warriors and so on but never with so many Very Big Guns…

The genesis of the team in fact derived from their status as publicly distrusted “villains”, but before all that later inventive approbation this cheap and cheerful black and white volume (collecting Dr. Strange #183, Sub-Mariner #22, 33-35, Incredible Hulk #126, Marvel Feature #1-3, Avengers #115-118 and Defenders #1-14) re-presents three linked tales that would impact on later issues of the title. Confused yet? You will be…

For kids – of any and all ages – there is a simply primal fascination with brute strength and feeling dangerous, which surely goes some way towards explaining the perennial interest in angry tough guys who break stuff as best exemplified by Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner and the Incredible Hulk. When you add the mystery and magic of Doctor Strange the recipe for thrills, spills and chills becomes simply irresistible…

The first tale in this volume comes from Dr. Strange #183 (November 1969). In ‘They Walk by Night!’ Roy Thomas, Gene Colan & Tom Palmer introduced a deadly threat in the Undying Ones, an elder race of demons hungry to reconquer the Earth, but as the series unexpectedly ended with that issue the story went nowhere until the February 1970 Sub-Mariner (#22) ‘The Monarch and the Mystic!’ brought the Prince of Atlantis into the mix, as Thomas, Marie Severin & Johnny Craig told a sterling tale of sacrifice in which the Master of the Mystic Arts seemingly died holding the gates of Hell shut with the Undying Ones pent behind them.

The extended saga concluded on an upbeat note with The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970) with ‘…Where Stalks the Night-Crawler!’ by Thomas and Herb Trimpe wherein a New England cult dispatched helpless Bruce Banner to the nether realms in an attempt to undo Strange’s sacrifice. Luckily cultist Barbara Norris had last minute second thoughts and her own dire fate freed the mystic, seemingly ending the threat of the Undying Ones forever.

At the end of that issue Strange retired, forsaking magic, although he was back before too long as the fates – and changing reading tastes – called him back to duty. Meanwhile Sub-Mariner had become an early advocate of the ecology movement, and in issues #34-35 of his own title (February and March 1971) he took the next step in the evolution of the Defenders when he recruited Hulk and Silver Surfer to help him destroy an American Nuclear Weather-Control station.

In ‘Titans Three’ and the concluding ‘Confrontation’ (by Thomas, Sal Buscema & Jim Mooney) the always misunderstood trio battled a despotic dictator’s forces, the US Army and the Mighty Avengers to prevent the malfunctioning station from accidentally vaporising half the planet…

With that debacle smoothed over life resumed its usual frenetic pace for the Hulk and Namor until giant sized try-out comic Marvel Feature #1 (December 1971) presented ‘The Day of the Defenders!’ as a mysteriously returned Dr. Strange recruited the Avenging Son and the Jade Giant to help him stop the deathbed doom of crazed super-mind Yandroth.

Determined to not go gently into the dark the Scientist Supreme had built an Omegatron weapon programmed to obliterate the Earth as soon as Yandroth’s heart stopped beating and only the brute strength of the misunderstood misanthropes could possibly stop it…

Naturally the fiend hadn’t told the whole truth but the day was saved – or at least postponed – in a canny classic from Thomas, Ross Andru and Bill Everett. That comic also revealed how Strange regained his mojo in ‘The Return’ by Thomas, Don Heck and Frank Giacoia: a heady ten-page thriller which proved that not all good things come in large packages.

Clearly destined for great things the Defenders returned in Marvel Feature #2 (March 1972) with Sal Buscema replacing Everett as inker for a Halloween treat ‘Nightmare on Bald Mountain!’ Capturing his arch-foe Dr. Strange, extra-dimensional dark lord Dormammu invaded our realm through a portal in Vermont only to be beaten back by the mage’s surly sometimes comrades, whilst in #3 (June 1972) Thomas, Andru and Everett reunited to revive an old Lee/Kirby “furry underpants” monster in ‘A Titan Walks Among Us!’

Xemnu the Titan was an alien super-telepath who wanted to repopulate his desolate homeworld by stealing America’s children until thrashed by the Defenders, but older fans recognised him as the cover-hogging star of Journey into Mystery #62 (November 1960) where he acted as a road-test for a later Marvel star in a short tale entitled I Was a Slave of the Living Hulk!

An assured hit now The Defenders leapt swiftly into their own title (cover-dated August 1972), to begin a bold and offbeat run of reluctant adventures scripted by super-team wunderkind Steve Englehart. As a group of eclectic associates occasionally called together to save the world (albeit on a miraculously monotonous monthly basis) they were billed as a “non-team” – whatever that is – but that didn’t affect the quality of their super-heroic shenanigans.

With Sal Buscema as regular penciller an epic adventure ensued with ‘I Slay by the Stars!’ (inked by Giacoia) as sorcerer Necrodamus attempted to sacrifice Namor and free The Undying Ones, a mission that led to conflict with an old ally in ‘The Secret of the Silver Surfer!’ (inked by John Verpoorten) and the concluding, Jim Mooney inked ‘Four Against the Gods!’ as the Defenders took the war to the dimensional dungeon of the Undying Ones and rescued the long imprisoned and now totally insane Barbara Norris.

Clearly a fan of large casts and extended epics Englehart added a fighting female to the non-team with ‘The New Defender!’ (inks by new regular Frank McLaughlin) as the Asgardians Enchantress and Executioner embroiled the anti-heroes in their long-running love-spat, bringing the Black Knight briefly into the mix, and turning Barbara into the latest incarnation of Feminist Fury (these were far less enlightened days) The Valkyrie.

Issue #5 began a long running plot thread that would have major repercussions for the Marvel Universe. The denouement of the previous tale had left the Black Knight an ensorcelled, immobile stone statue, and as Strange and Co. searched for a cure the long defused Omegatron resumed its countdown to global annihilation in ‘World Without End?’

The Surfer “rejoined” in #6’s ‘The Dreams of Death!’ as new lightweight magic menace Cyrus Black attacked, and, after a spiffy pin-up, issue #7 saw  Len Wein co-script ‘War Below the Waves!’ (inked by Frank Bolle) as tempestuous ex-Avenger Hawkeye climbed aboard to help defeat the undersea threat of Attuma and the soviet renegade Red Ghost; a bombastic battle-tale concluded in ‘…If Atlantis Should Fall!’

Since issue #4 Englehart had been putting players in place for a hugely ambitious cross-over experiment: one that would turn the comics industry on its head, and in a little prologue taken from the end of Avengers #115 he finally set the ball rolling here. Drawn by Bob Brown and Mike Esposito, ‘Alliance Most Foul!’ saw Dormammu and the Asgardian god of Evil Loki unite to search for an ultimate weapon that would give them final victory against their foes. They would trick the Defenders into securing the six component parts by “revealing” that the reconstructed Evil Eye could restore the petrified Black Knight, a plan that began at the end of Defenders #8…

The first chapter in ‘The Avengers/Defenders Clash’ was ‘Deception!’ as a message from the spirit of the Black Knight was intercepted by the twin gods of evil, leading directly to ‘Betrayal!’ wherein the Avengers, hunting for their missing comrade, “discover” that their oldest enemies Hulk and Sub-Mariner may have turned the Black Knight to stone. This and the third chapter ‘Silver Surfer Vs. the Vision and the Scarlet Witch’ comprise the contents of Avengers #116, illustrated by Brown & Esposito, wherein the rival teams split up: one to gather the scattered sections of the Eye and the other to stop them at all costs…

Defenders #9 (Buscema & McLaughlin) began with the tense recap ‘Divide …and Conquer’ before ‘The Invincible Iron Man Vs. Hawkeye the Archer’ and ‘Dr. Strange Vs. the Black Panther and Mantis’ shed more suspicion and doubt on the mystical villain’s subtle master-plan. Avengers #117 ‘Holocaust’, ‘Swordsman Vs. the Valkyrie’ and the turning point ‘Captain America Vs. Sub-Mariner’ by Brown and Esposito, led to the penultimate clash in Defenders #10 (Buscema & Bolle) ‘Breakthrough! The Incredible Hulk Vs. Thor’ and the inevitable joining together of the warring camps in ‘United We Stand!’, but sadly too late as Dormammu seized the reconstructed Evil Eye using its power to merge his monstrous realm with ours.

Avengers #118 provided the cathartic climactic conclusion in ‘To the Death’ (Brown, Esposito & Giacoia) as all the heroes of the Marvel Universe battled the demonic invasion whilst the Avengers and Defenders plunged deep into the Dark Dimension itself to end the threat of the evil gods forever (or at least for the moment…).

With the overwhelming cosmic threat over the victorious Defenders attempted to use the Eye to cure their stony comrade only to find that his spirit had found a new home in the 12th century. In #11’s ‘A Dark and Stormy Knight’ (inked by Frank Bolle), the group battled black magic during the Crusades, failed to retrieve the Knight and went their separate ways – as did departing scripter Englehart.

With issue #12 Len Wein assumed the writer’s role and Sal Buscema & Jack Abel illustrated the return of the mind-bending Xemnu in ‘The Titan Strikes Back!’ as the pared down cast of Strange, Valkyrie and the Hulk began a run of slightly more traditional fights ‘n’ tights capers.

The first of these and the last storyline in this volume was a Saves-the-World struggle against the villainous Squadron Sinister that began with ‘For Sale: One Planet… Slightly Used!’ (with an early inking job from Klaus Janson) and concluded in the Dan Green embellished ‘And Who Shall Inherit the Earth?’ as the Batman-analogue Nighthawk joined the Defenders to defeat his murderous ex-team-mates and the aquatic alien marauder Nebulon, the Celestial Man.

With the next volume the Defenders would become one of the best and weirdest superhero comics in the business, but to get there you really need to observe this unruly, uncomfortable selection of misfit heroes in their salad days here. So the fact that their widespread and far-reaching origins are still so eminently entertaining is both a relief and delight.

Go on, Enjoy, Pilgrim…
© 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Black Widow: The Coldest War – A Marvel Graphic Novel

By Gerry Conway, George Freeman & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0- 87135-643-0

By 1990 Marvel’s ambitious line of all-new graphic novels was beginning to falter, and some less-than-stellar tales were squeaking into the line-up. Moreover, the company was increasingly resorting to in-continuity stories with established – and company copyrighted – characters rather than creator-owned properties and original concepts.

Not that that necessarily meant poor product, as this intriguing superhero spy thriller proves. The Coldest War is set in the last days of the US/Soviet face-off with what looks to be a pasted-on epilogue added as an afterthought, but as the entire affair was clearly scripted as a miniseries – most probably for the fortnightly anthology Marvel Comics Presents – an afterword set after the fall of the Berlin Wall doesn’t jar too much and must have lent an air of imminent urgency to the mix.

The Black Widow started life as a svelte and sultry honey-trap Russian agent during Marvel’s early “Commie-busting” days. She fell for an assortment of Yankee superheroes – including Hawkeye and Daredevil – and finally defected; becoming an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and occasional leader of the Avengers. Throughout her career she has been considered competent, deadly, efficient and cursed to bring doom and disaster to her paramours.

Gerry Conway provides a typically twisty, double-dealing tale set in the dog-days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” (“openness”) government when ambitious KGB upstarts undertake a plan to subvert Natasha (nee Natalia) Romanova and return her to Soviet control using the bait of her husband Alexei Shostokoff – whom she has believed dead for years. Naturally nothing is as it seems, nobody can be trusted and only the last spy standing can be called the winner…

Low key and high-tech go hand in hand in this sort of tale, and although there’s much reference to earlier Marvel classics this tale can be easily enjoyed by the casual reader and art fan.

And what art! George Freeman is a supreme stylist, whose drawing work – although infrequent – is always top rate. Starting out on the seminal Captain Canuck, he has excelled on Jack of Hearts, Green Lantern, Avengers, Batman (Annual #11, with Alan Moore), Wasteland, Elric, Nexus and The X-Files (for which he won the Eisner Award for colouring). He co-founded the design/colouring studio Digital Chameleon in 1991.

Here, inked by Ernie Colon, Mark Farmer, Mike Harris, Val Mayerik and Joe Rubinstein with colours from Lovern Kindzierski he produced a subtle and sophisticated blend of costumed chic and espionage glamour that easily elevated this tale to a “must-have” item.
© 1990 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Avengers Battle the Earth Wrecker

By Otto Binder (Bantam Books)
ISBN: F3569

One thing you could never accuse Stan Lee of was reticence, especially in promoting his burgeoning line of superstars. In the 1960s most adults, including the people who worked there, considered comic-books a ghetto. Some disguised their identities whilst others were “just there until they caught a break.” Stan and Jack had another idea – change the perception.

Whilst Jack passionately pursued his imagination waiting for the quality of the work to be noticed, Stan sought every opportunity to break down the ghetto walls: college lecture tours, animated TV shows (of frankly dubious quality at the start, but always improving), and of course getting their product onto “real” bookshelves in real book shops.

In the 1960s on the back of the “Batmania” craze, many comics publishers repackaged their old comics stories in cheap and cheerful paperbacks, but to my knowledge only monolithic DC and brash upstart Marvel went to the next level and commissioned all-new prose novels starring their costumed superstars. The publisher Bantam Books had been specialising in superhero fiction since 1964 when they began reprinting the 1930s pulp novels of Doc Savage, so they must have seemed the ideal partner in this frankly risky enterprise.

The first of these novels was an unlikely choice, considering the swelling appeal of both Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four, but I imagine that the colourful team of adventurers selected was one that Lee was happy to let another writer work on, and perhaps it was even a way of defending their trademark in all arenas (after all the British TV series The Avengers was screening in America to great success (necessitating Gold Key’s comic book tie-in being titled John Steed and Emma Peel).

Whatever the reason, The Avengers Battle the Earth-Wrecker launched with little fanfare (I don’t even recall an ad in the comic-books themselves, at a time when company policy dictated that changing one’s socks got a full write-up on the “Marvel Bullpen Bulletins Page”) and it didn’t garner a lot of praise…

Which is actually a real shame, as it’s a pretty good yarn extremely well told by pulp and comics veteran Otto Binder, whose Adam Link prose stories inspired Isaac Asimov’s ‘I, Robot’ tales whilst his Captain Marvel, Superman, Captain America and uncounted other comics scripts inspired just about everybody.

The heroic team, consisting of Goliath, the Wasp, Hawkeye, Iron Man and Captain America (but not Quicksilver or the Scarlet Witch who both look so good on that spiffy painted cover) are called upon to battle Karzz, a monstrous alien mastermind from the future who has travelled back in time to eradicate the entire Earth, in a fast-paced thriller that barrels along in fine old style, and doesn’t suffer at all from the lack of pulse-pounding pictures.

This is, of course, only really a treat for the most devout fan, either of the Marvel Universe or the vastly underrated work of one of the true pioneers of two genres. At least it’s not that hard to track down if you’re intrigued and hungry for something a little bit old-school and a little bit different…
© 1967 Marvel Comics Group. All rights reserved.

Essential Avengers volume 3

By Roy Thomas, John Buscema, Gene Colan, Barry Smith & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-0787-3

Slightly slimmer than the usual phonebook sized tome, this third collection of the Mighty Avengers’ world-saving exploits (here reproducing in crisp, stylish black and white the contents of issues #47-68 of their monthly comic book and their second summer Annual) established Roy Thomas as a major creative force in comics and propelled John Buscema to the forefront of fan-favourite artists. These compelling yarns certainly enhanced the reputations of fellow art veteran Don Heck and Gene Colan and made the wider comics world critically aware of the potential of John’s brother Sal Buscema and original British Invader Barry Smith…

With the Avengers the unbeatable and venerable concept of putting all your star eggs in one basket always scored big dividends for Marvel even after the all-stars such as Thor and Iron Man were replaced and supplemented by lesser luminaries and Jack Kirby moved on to other Marvel assignments and other companies. With this third volume many of the founding stars regularly began showing up as a rotating, open door policy meant that almost every issue could feature somebody’s fave-rave, and the amazingly good stories and artwork were certainly no hindrance either.

Opening this fun-fest is ‘Magneto Walks the Earth!’ from Avengers #47 by writer Roy Thomas (who wrote all the stories contained here), illustrated by John Buscema and George Tuska wherein the master of magnetism returns from enforced exile in space to put his old gang together by recruiting mutant Avengers Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch… whether they’re willing or otherwise…

Tuska assumes full art chores for the second chapter in this saga, ‘The Black Knight Lives Again!’ which introduced a brand new Marvel Superhero, whilst furthering a sub-plot featuring Hercules’ return to an abandoned Olympus and #49, (pencilled and inked by Buscema) concluded the Mutant trilogy with ‘Mine is the Power!’ clearing the decks for the 50th issue tussle as the team rejoins Hercules to restore Olympus by defeating the mythological menace of Typhon in ‘To Tame a Titan!’

Reduced to just Hawkeye, the Wasp and a powerless Goliath the Avengers found themselves ‘In the Clutches of the Collector!’ in #51 (illustrated by Buscema and Tuska), but the brief return of Iron Man and Thor swiftly saw the Master of Many Sizes regain his abilities in time to welcome new member Black Panther in the Vince Colletta inked ‘Death Calls for the Arch-Heroes’ which premiered obsessive super-psycho the Grim Reaper.

Next follows the slightly disconcerting cross-over/conclusion to an epic X-Men clash with Magneto from (issues #43-45) that dovetailed neatly into a grand Avengers/mutant face-off in the Buscema-Tuska limned ‘In Battle Joined!’ whilst issue #54 kicked off a mini-renaissance in quality and creativity with ‘…And Deliver Us from the Masters of Evil!’, which re-introduced the Black Knight and finally gave Avengers Butler a character and starring role, but this was simply a prelude to the second instalment which debuted the supremely Oedipal threat of the Robotic Ultron-5 in ‘Mayhem Over Manhattan!’ (inked by the superbly slick George Klein).

Captain America’s introduction to the 1960s got a spectacular reworking in Avengers #56 as ‘Death be not Proud!’ accidentally returned him and his comrades to the fateful night when Bucky died, which segued neatly into 1968’s Avengers Annual #2 (illustrated by Don Heck, Werner Roth and Vince Colletta). ‘…And Time, the Rushing River…’ found Cap, Black Panther, Goliath, Wasp and Hawkeye returned to a divergent present and compelled to battle the founding team of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Giant-Man and the Wasp to correct reality itself.

Buscema and Klein were back for the two-part introduction of possibly the most intriguing of all the team’s roster. ‘Behold… the Vision!’ and the concluding ‘Even an Android Can Cry’ retrofitted an old Simon and Kirby hero from the Golden Age – an extra-dimensional mystery-man – into a high-tech, eerie, amnesiac, artificial man with complete control of his mass and density, and played him as the ultimate outsider, lost and utterly alone in a world that could never, never understand him.

As the adventure and enigma unfolded it was revealed that the nameless Vision had been built by the relentless, remorseless robotic Ultron-5 to destroy the Avengers and especially his/its own creator Henry Pym. Furthermore the mechanical mastermind had used the brain pattern of deceased hero-Wonder Man (see Essential Avengers) as a cerebral template, which may have been a mistake since the synthetic man overruled his programming to help defeat his maniac maker.

Avengers #59 and 60, ‘The Name is Yellowjacket’ and ‘…Till Death do us Part!’ (the latter inked by Mike Esposito moonlighting as Mickey DeMeo) saw Goliath and the Wasp finally marry after the heroic Doctor Pym was seemingly replaced by a new insect-themed hero, with a horde of heroic guest-stars and the deadly Circus of Evil in attendance, followed in swift succession by yet another crossover conclusion.

‘Some Say the World Will End in Fire… Some Say in Ice!’ wrapped up a storyline from Doctor Strange #178 wherein a satanic cult unleashed Norse demons Surtur and Ymir to destroy the planet, and the guest-starring Black Knight hung around for ‘The Monarch and the Man-Ape!’ in Avengers #63; a brief and brutal exploration of African Avenger the Black Panther’s history and rivals.

The next issue began a three-part tale illustrated by Gene Colan whose lavish humanism was intriguingly at odds with the team’s usual art style. ‘And in this Corner… Goliath!’, ‘Like a Death Ray from the Sky!’ and ‘Mightier than the Sword?’ (the final chapter inked by Sam Grainger) was part of a broader tale; an early crossover experiment that intersected with both Sub-Mariner and Captain Marvel issues #14, as a coterie of cerebral second-string villains combined to conquer the world by stealth.

Within the Avengers portion of proceedings Hawkeye revealed his civilian identity and origins before forsaking his bow and trick-arrows, becoming a size-changing hero, and subsequently adopting the vacant name Goliath.

The last three issues reprinted here also form one story-arc, and gave new kid Barry Smith a chance to show just how good he was going to become.

In ‘Betrayal!’ (#66, inked by the legendary Syd Shores) the development of a new super metal, Adamantium, triggers a back-up program in the Vision who is compelled to reconstruct his destroyed creator, whilst in ‘We Stand at… Armageddon!’ (inked by Klein) Adamantium-reinforced Ultron-6 is moments away from world domination and the nuking of New York when a now truly independent Vision intercedes before the dramatic conclusion ‘…And We Battle for the Earth’ (with art from young Sal Buscema and Sam Grainger) sees the team, augmented by Thor and Iron Man, prove that the only answer to an unstoppable force is an unparalleled mind…

To compliment these staggeringly impressive adventures this book also includes ‘Avenjerks Assemble!’ by Thomas, John Buscema and Frank Giacoia: a short spoof from company humour mag Not Brand Echh, the five page full-team entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and a beautiful terrific team pin-up.

As the halcyon creative days of Lee and Kirby drew to a close, Roy Thomas and John Buscema led the second wave of creators who built on and consolidated that burst of incredible imagineering into a logical, fully functioning story machine that so many others could add to. These terrific transitional tales are exciting and rewarding in their own right but also a pivotal step of the little company into the corporate colossus.

© 1967, 1968, 2001 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


By Mark Gruenwald, Brett Breeding & Danny Bulanadi (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-364-4

In advance of the Best of Hawkeye trade paperback due at year’s end I thought I’d take another look at this little gem from 1988, collecting one of Marvel’s earliest miniseries – 1983 – and one of the very best adventures of Marvel’s Ace Archer, written and drawn by the hugely underrated and much-missed Mark Gruenwald, ably assisted by inkers Brett Breeding and Danny Bulanadi.

Much like the character himself this project was seriously underestimated when it was first released: most of the industry pundits and more voluble fans expected very little from a second-string hero drawn by a professional writer. Boy, were they wrong!

Clint Barton is probably the world’s greatest archer, swift, unerringly accurate and supplemented with a fantastic selection of trick and high-tech arrows. After an early brush with the law as an Iron Man villain he reformed to join the Mighty Avengers, where he served with honour but always felt overshadowed by his more glamorous and super-powered comrades.

In the first chapter here, ‘Listen to the Mockingbird’, he is moonlighting as security chief for an electronics company when he captures a renegade SHIELD agent. She reveals that his bosses are crooks, secretly involved in some shady mind-control experiment.

After some initial doubt he teams with the svelte and sexy super-agent in ‘Point Blank’ to foil the plot, gaining a new costume and a rogues gallery of foes such as Silence, Oddball and Bombshell (part 3, ‘Beating the Odds’) in the process. As the constant hunt and struggle wears on he succumbs to but is not defeated by a physical handicap and wins a wife (not necessarily the same thing) in the concluding ‘Till Death us do Part…’ where the mastermind behind it all is finally revealed and summarily dealt with.

In those far away days both Gruenwald and Marvel Top Gun Jim Shooter always maintained that a miniseries had to deal with significant events in a character’s life, and this bright and breezy, no-nonsense, compelling and immensely enjoyable yarn certainly kicked out the deadwood and re-launched Hawkeye’s career. In short order from here the bowman went on to create and lead his own team: the West Coast Avengers, gain his own regular series in Solo Avengers and later Avengers Spotlight and consequently become one of the most vibrant and popular characters of the period.

I’m unsure how easily you can lay hands on this specific, terrific tale of old-fashioned romance, skullduggery and derring-do, but since its scheduled to be the main portion of the aforementioned collection you shouldn’t have too long to wait.

But oh, the tension, the tension…
© 1988 Marvel Entertainment Group Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Avengers/Invaders – UK Edition

By Alex Ross, Jim Kreuger, Steven Sadowski, Patrick Berkenkotter & Jack Herbert (Marvel/Panini Publishing UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-413-3

I’ve mentioned before my innate antipathy to time-travel stories, which can too often simply be an excuse for empty posturing and flamboyant stunts without impacting on a profitable brand.

It’s all true, and I stand by my view but every so often an exception comes along to shake my surly foundations and Avengers/Invaders happily falls into that rare category.

Released as a 12 part limited series this is a classy and well thought out romp set in the post Civil War Marvel Universe with renegade heroes on the run from the government (represented by superhero technocrat Iron Man,) for refusing to submit to federal registration and licensing.

In 1943 war-time super-team the Invaders (Captain America & Bucky, Human Torch & Toro, Sub-Mariner, Spitfire and Union Jack) is battling its way into Hitler’s Fortress Europe when a cosmic mishap sucks most of them to New York in our era. Disoriented and wary they encounter a battle between government-sponsored heroes and the unlicensed outlaw Spider-Man, and jump to the uncomfortable but logical conclusion that the Nazis won World War II!

They soon come into conflict with Iron Man’s Avengers and battle is joined…

And that’s just the start of a compelling epic which combines chilling mystery and a universe-rending threat with sheer, bravura comicbook shtick as childhood icons battle in spectacular manner, whilst the plot contains many twists and surprises to keep the accent on action and suspense.

Even though this sprawling epic contains a host of guest-stars the creators never forget the cardinal rule that every comic is somebody’s first one; meaning that even the freshest reader can happily navigate these continuity-packed pages with comforting ease, particularly in the extended sub-plot concerning Cap meeting the mystery man who replaced him (sorry, no spoiler hints from me!). This makes Avengers/Invaders a magnificently accessible tale for all lovers of the superhero genre in its most primal form.

Also included in this volume is the Sketchbook issue containing Alex Ross and the greatly underrated Steve Sadowski’s working drawings and un-inked artwork, plus a gallery of the many cover variants that graced the original comicbook releases.

© 2008, 2009 Marvel Entertainment Inc. and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.

New Avengers: Illuminati

By Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Reed, Jim Cheung & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2436-8

The remodeling of the Avengers franchise continued and expanded with this tale (originally released as the five part miniseries New Avengers: Illuminati) wherein the intellectual and factional powerhouses of the Marvel Universe form a clandestine cabal to guide and dictate the future of the world.

Writers Bendis and Reed spin back to the end of the Kree-Skrull War (relatively recent in story-terms but the epic from Avengers #89-97 was first published in 1971-1972) as a battle between intergalactic rivals nearly destroyed our world. And here the story begins with Charles Xavier of the mutant X-Men, Black Bolt of the Inhumans, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Iron Man of the Avengers, the mystic Doctor Strange and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four materialize in the Skrull throne room to threaten the recently defeated emperor, warning him that no further attacks on Earth would be tolerated.

The confrontation leads to massive bloodshed (an attitudinal and moral shift that would appal older fans) before the earthlings are captured and intensively “studied” by the shape-shifting aliens. Although the humans eventually escape back to Earth the damage has been done; the Skrulls will never rest until our world is theirs and now they have a keen understanding of all types of Terran super-humanity…

Safe on Earth the elite star-chamber of champions resolve to meet whenever necessity dictates: the next recorded incidence being after the Thanos Quest/Infinity Gauntlet affair (1991 for us) as the heroes brave overwhelming terror and temptation whilst trying to put six gems which can control all of time, space and reality beyond harms reach. The third mission deals with the secret origin and final fate of the Beyonder (Secret Wars I and II – 1984-1986) whilst the fourth tale is a more intimate exploration as this disparate group of older men discuss love and loss whilst deciding the fate of Kree invader Marvel Boy who had declared open war against all of humanity.

The final chapter leads into and kicks off the publishing event Secret Invasion (2008). The cabal fragments when Iron Man reveals that Skrulls have replaced an unknown number of Earth’s super-humans as a direct result of their failed first mission. The shape-changing invaders are not only undetectable even to Professor X’s telepathy but they have also duplicated all the unique powers of their long-time adversaries…

The habit of strip-mining and in-filling the history of Marvel’s universe has had some high and low points in the past, but I’m happy to say this intriguing idea is one of the better ones, however a fairly good knowledge of the referenced material is predicated so if you’re a bit of a newbie, best be prepared for some confusing moments. For older fans, myself among them, the real shock is the casual abandonment of such abiding principles as “all life is sacred”: oddly, I always thought this was daft and impractical as a young reader, but seeing the obverse operating is disquieting: aren’t your heroes supposed to be better than you?

Still, this is a cracking good read, wonderfully illustrated by Jim Cheung with inkers Mark Morales, John Dell and David Meikis; cohesive enough that it can be read independently and satisfactorily without further reference to the greater Secret Invasion saga.

© 2007, 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. Marvel Publishing, Inc., a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

She Hulk: Time Trials

By Dan Slott, Juan Babillo & Marcelo Sosa and various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-78511-795-7

Let’s re-cap: She Hulk is the cousin of the Incredible Hulk. Her alter-ego, lawyer Jennifer Walters, got a blood transfusion from Bruce Banner and the inevitable result was a super-powerful, ample-bosomed, seven foot tall green Valkyrie who is the poster-child for “As If…”

For most of her comics career she’s been played slightly skewed to the rest of the Marvel Universe. For a good deal of it she was the only character to refer to her life in comic-book terms, with all the fourth wall comedy that could be wrung out of that situation. In this incarnation (reprinting her five issue miniseries from 2005 – in which #3 is celebrated as her 100th full issue) she returns to the prestigious Manhattan law-firm which specialises in the fledgling legal grey area known as Superhuman Law (see also Single Green Female).

This volume is marginally less tongue-in-cheek, but still follows the delightfully accessible formula, albeit with a slightly darker overtone as the human Jennifer needs artificial methods to transform into her seven foot glamazon form due to psychological traumas incurred as a result of the Avengers: Disassembled storyline and her rampaging destruction of the city of Bone, Idaho.

Nonetheless she is soon back at work on a time-travel murder case with a fascinating underlying idea. As everybody in the potential jury pool has been prejudiced by constant media coverage of the attempted murder (the victim isn’t dead yet at time of trial) Jen’s defence team comes up with the brilliant notion of calling jurors from the recent past – courtesy of the multiversal temporal police force the Time Variance Authority…

It’s all going so well until Clint Barton is selected as a jury member: how can Jen work when one of the twelve is secretly Hawkeye – a fellow Avenger she feels responsible for killing!? Guilt-racked and conflicted, Jen decides to break her oath and the rules of time-travel to warn the Ace Archer of the doom that awaits his return to his own time…

The Time Variance Authority is infallible however and when Jen is accused of the capital offence of time-tampering she faces having her entire existence erased from the annals of reality.

This third chapter is also her 100th anniversary issue and features guest art from Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar, Scott Kolins, Mike Vosburg, Amanda Conner & Jimmy Palmiotti, Ron Frenz, Joe Sinnott & Sal Buscema, Mike Mayhew, Don Simpson, Lee Weeks and Eric Powell as well as dozens of costumed guest-stars from her jaded career as a hero/villain, whilst #4 is a brief interlude in the greater story (illustrated by Scott Kolins) as She Hulk explores the aftermath of her Idaho rampage with the poignant and rewarding ‘Back to Bone’ before the jurisprudence and chronal carnage concludes with the rescue and return of a dead hero…

This is a priceless, clever romp with devastatingly sharp wit and low, vulgar slapstick in equal amounts plus loads of the mandatory angst-free action: a great read and possibly the Best Whacky Legal Drama since Boston Legal. But don’t listen to me: catch this book and judge for yourself…

© 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

House of M: Avengers

By Christopher Gage, Mike Perkins & Andrew Hennessey (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2750-5

In the company crossover event House of M reality was rewritten (yes, again!) when the sometime Avenger Scarlet Witch had a breakdown and altered Earth continuity so that Magneto’s mutants took control of society and where normal humans (“sapiens”) are an acknowledged evolutionary dead-end living out their lives and destined for extinction within two generations.

Collecting the ancillary miniseries House of M: Avengers this volume is set in a world of perfect order, but one where certain malcontents and criminals are determined not to go quietly. Rallying around escaped convict and artificial superman Luke Cage, a gang of criminals calling themselves the Avengers fight to survive and get by however they can, inadvertently becoming a rallying point for Sapiens in a world only too eager to see them all gone…

With the likes of Hawkeye, Tigra, Mockingbird, Moon Knight, Iron Fist, Misty Knight (no relation, not even close), Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu, Mantis, Swordsman, White Tiger and the Punisher on hand, as well as villains such as Kingpin, Elektra, Bullseye, Taskmaster, Black Cat, Typhoid Mary, the brotherhood of Evil Mutants and Gladiator among the cast there’s plenty of familiar faces and lots of action, but as the countdown ticks towards a big climax and the re-establishment of “real” continuity it’s hard to muster any sense of connection.

Marvel has used this plot to kill off and resurrect our favourites purely for momentary cheap effect so many times its difficult to care…

Weaving established Marvel continuity skilfully into their portion of the overarching epic Gage and Perkins tell an intriguing but frustratingly quick and facile tale that just can’t stand alone (so you will need to read at least some of the other House of M collections for the full picture) that doesn’t fairly reflect their great talents nor deliver the punch we were all hoping for. Pretty, but not for the casual or occasional reader

© 2007, 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.