New Avengers: The Reunion


By Jim McCann, David López & Alvaro López (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3855-6

The Marvel publishing event Secret Invasion revoked a number of hasty decisions made by writers and editors in the day-to-day, hand-to-mouth hurly-burly of periodical publication, among them a couple of “deaths”. The Skrulls, shape-shifting aliens, had been infiltrating all corners of the Marvel Universe for years, even abducting and replacing certain heroes. Thus when Bobbi Morse-Barton, Mockingbird, ex-super-spy, West Coast Avenger and wife of Hawkeye was killed, it wasn’t her…

Freed and returned to Earth Mockingbird is having trouble readjusting. The world is a far darker place, and terrorists have overtaken super-villains as the greatest threat, Hawkeye is now the enigmatic warrior Ronin – and wants to pick up where they left off. When Bobbi “died” the couple were going through a divorce, but he has since convinced himself that that was the Skrull impostor playing mind-games…

This is a rare thing for a Marvel graphic novel; a love story/Romcom with genuine sentiment and quite a few laughs riding shotgun on the traditional moody adventure the company generally specialises in. Collecting pertinent portions of Dark Reign: New Nation and the miniseries New Avengers: The Reunion #1-4, the saga opens with ‘Supicion’ as Clint Barton violently forces himself back into Mockingbird’s life and realises that his one-and-only is still carrying a secret trauma from her time as a Skrull prisoner. She wants nothing to do with him and has her own cure for what’s ailing her…

‘The Lady Vanishes’ finds the persistent Ace Archer making a pest of himself until she lets him join her new endeavour. Not prepared to rejoin the Avengers Mockingbird has returned to her old profession and working with a group of other returned Skrull captives has created her own spy network. The World has gone to hell in a hand-basket and if the superheroes can’t fix it her World Counterterrorism Agency will – by whatever means necessary.

Against her better judgement Bobbi allows her once-hubby to come along on a mission and ‘Double Indemnity’ finds them matching wits with the terrifying Monica Rappaccini, new leader of evil think-tank Advanced Idea Mechanics and the world’s most ruthlessly ambitious poisons specialist…

How the odd couple reconnect, save the world and come to terms with the horrors Bobbi experienced on Skrullworld makes for a rollicking, complications-free action-romp that is bright, breezy and just the tonic for romantic fans of modern lovers.

Saving civilisation, punching each other out and gradually redefining the term “True Love” this snappy little package is everything Mr. & Mrs. Smith should have been and writer Jim McCann and artists David López & Alvaro López have my fervent support for a sequel any time they’re in the mood…

© 2009, 2010 Marvel Publishing, Inc, a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

New Avengers: Secret Invasion volume 1


By Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos, David Mack, Jim Cheung, Billy Tan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2947-9

The Skrulls are shape-shifting aliens who’ve bedevilled Earth since Fantastic Four #2, and they have long been a pernicious cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. After decades of use and misuse the insidious invaders were made the stars of a colossal braided mega-crossover event beginning in April 2008 and running through all the company’s titles until Christmas.

The premise of Secret Invasion is simple: the would-be alien conquerors have only just survived a devastating catastrophe which destroyed much of their empire; subsequently leading to a mass religious conversion. They are now utterly resolved and dedicated to make Earth their new homeworld. To this end they have gradually replaced a number of key Earth denizens – most notably superheroes and other metahumans. When the plot is discovered no defender of the Earth truly knows who is on their side…

Moreover the Skrulls have also unravelled the secrets of Earth magic and genetic superpowers, creating amped-up counterparts to Earth’s mightiest. They are now primed and able to destroy the world’s heroic champions in head to head confrontations.

Rather than give to much away let me just say that if you like this sort of thing you’ll love it, and a detailed familiarity is not completely vital to your understanding. However, for a complete experience, you will need to see the other 22 “Secret Invasion” volumes that accompany this on, although you could get by with only the key collection Secret Invasion – which contains all eight issues of the core miniseries, a one-shot spin-off “Who Do You Trust?” plus an illustrated textbook “Skrulls” which claims to provide a listing and biography for every shape-shifter yet encountered in the Marvel Universe (but if they left any who could tell?).

Collecting issues #38-42 of New Avengers, the saga contained in the book under review here is only the first part of the team’s response to the Invasion, focussing on individual character pieces to propel the narrative rather than vast battles. There is a second Avengers volume, so naturally this one ends on another thrice-accursed cliffhanger…

Scripted throughout by Brian Michael Bendis, the first chapter is illustrated by Michael Gaydos and deals with the aftermath of the superhero Civil War, as Luke Cage and his wife Jessica find themselves on different sides as she leaves a team of outlaw Avengers for the stability of the State-sanctioned alternative, whilst the second chapter (art by David Mack) sees that illegal team – Wolverine, Ronin, Iron Fist, Spider-Man and martial artist Maya – encounter the alien first strike when they narrowly escape death from a multi-powered doppelganger of Daredevil.

The scene then switches to the recent past and the devastated Skrull homeworld, detailing the rise of the new religious faction and the opening days of the Invasion (stunningly pictured by Jim Cheung & John Dell) before segueing to the Savage Land (illustrated by Billy Tan) and a confrontation between Earth’s costumed defenders and a Skrull ship full of what appears to be old friends – some of whom have been or dead for years. Are they escaped humans – or another batch of the new undetectable super-Skrulls?

That particular confrontation resolves itself in the aforementioned Secret Invasion – that’s why I said it was key – but this chronicle closes with another informative reminiscence drawn by Cheung & Dell as the new Skrull Queen recalls how she took lead strategic role in the campaign by replacing Spider-Woman in the Government-Approved Avengers.

As the book closes she readies her team for action, preparing to betray and destroy them all…

You will also definitely benefit by checking out the collections Secret Invasion: the Infiltration, Secret War (2004), Avengers Disassembled, and Annihilation volumes 1-3, as well as the rather pivotal New Avengers: Illuminati graphic novel.

Despite that copious homework list I’ve provided this book is still is solid action-adventure read, with plenty of human drama to balance the paranoia and power-plays. Reading it might be confusing and will be expensive, but for dedicated Marvelites and keen followers of Fights ‘n’ Tights action it is pure guilty pleasure.

© 2010 Marvel Publishing, Inc, a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Ultimate Avengers: The Next Generation


By Mark Millar, Carlos Pacheco & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-442-3

The Marvel Ultimates project began in 2000 with a thoroughly modernizing refit of key characters and concepts to bring them into line with contemporary “ki-dults” – perceived to be a potentially separate buying public to we baby-boomers and our declining descendents, who seemed content to stick with the various efforts that devolved from the fantastic originating talents of Kirby, Ditko and Lee. Eventually this streamlined new universe became as crowded and continuity-constricted as its predecessor and in 2008 the cleansing publishing event “Ultimatum” culminated in a reign of terror which apparently (this is comics, after all) killed three dozen odd heroes and villains and millions of lesser mortals.

Although a good seller (in contemporary terms, at least) the saga was largely trashed by the fans who bought it, and the ongoing new “Ultimatum Comics” line is quietly back-pedalling on its declared intentions…

The key and era-ending event was a colossal tsunami that drowned the superhero-heavy island of Manhattan and this post-tidal wave collection (assembling issues #1-6 of Ultimate Comics Avengers: The Next Generation) picks up the story of the survivors as well as the new world readjusting to their altered state. In this dangerous new world global order has yet to be fully re-established and, just like after World War II, Princes and Powers are constantly jostling for position.

Before the Deluge Nick Fury ran an American Black Ops team of super-humans called the Avengers, but he was eventually toppled from his position for sundry rule-bending liberties – and being caught doing them. Now, in the aftermath of the disaster he’s back:  attempting to put another team together – and get his old job back.

Captain America was one of America’s first super-soldiers – a key factor in the Allies beating Hitler and one of the deadliest men alive. Just as in the Marvel Universe Proper, he survived into our era. Whilst fighting terrorists in the sky over Chicago he is soundly thrashed by a man with no face: an incredible assassin with a red skull, who easily overwhelms him and throws him to what would have been certain death, if not for the intervention of master marksman Hawkeye.

All through his second career secrets have been kept from Captain America by his superiors. He had no idea that when he was “lost in action” his girlfriend was already pregnant with his son and that whilst he was dormant the American government confiscated the child to train as another human weapon. On awakening in a new era Cap could not be told how warped and malevolent that boy became or how, on reaching maturity, the lad had murdered everyone who had trained him, embarking on a decades-wide path of horrendous nihilistic slaughter in all the world’s most troubled hotspots: Vietnam, Cambodia, Uganda, Chechnya, Dallas…

Now Cap knows the truth and goes rogue just as the Red Skull allies with the intellectual terrorist sect Advanced Idea Mechanics to build a Cosmic Cube, capable of restructuring reality itself. Only Fury and his new team of Avengers have any chance to stop them, but his motley crew of heroes all have their own plans…

As well as Hawkeye, this next generation includes James Rhodes: an angry soldier wearing devastating War Machine battle armour; Gregory Stark, Iron Man’s smarter, utterly immoral older brother, Nerd Hulk, a cloned gamma-monster with all the original’s power but implanted with Banner’s brain and milksop character; ruthless super-spy Black Widow and paroled assassin Red Wasp, who has history of her own with the Skull…

As the catastrophe-clock ticks down, Fury inexplicably sets his dogs to capture Captain America rather than tackle the Skull, but in this deep, dark, and superbly compelling thriller there are games within games and everybody is working to their own agendas…

Once removed from the market hype and frantic, relentless immediacy of the sales arena there’s a far better chance to honestly assess these tales on merit alone, and given such an opportunity you’d be foolish not to take a good hard look at this spectacular, beautifully cynical and engrossing thriller from Mark Millar and Carlos Pacheco, ably assisted by inkers Dexter Vimes, Danny Miki, Thomas Palmer, Allen Martiniez, Victor Olazaba & Crime Lab Studios.

This is a breathtaking, sinisterly effective yarn that could only be told outside the Marvel Universe, but it’s also one that should solidly resonate with older fans and especially casual readers who love the darker side of superheroes.

™ and © 2010 Marvel Entertainment LCC and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. A British edition released by Panini UK Ltd.

Siege


By Brian Michael Bendis, Olivier Coipel, Michael Lark & others (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-452-2

The things that superhero comic-books do best are Spectacle and Cosmic Retribution: the cathartic comeuppance of someone who truly deserves it. So this collection, reprinting the Siege: Cabal one-shot and the four-issue Siege miniseries it led to (selected portions of the vast 2010 publishing event that partially re-set and restored the traditional “Stan & Jack” Marvel Universe) is an effective and welcome hint of a new dawn in the recently bleak and unfriendly world of Captain America and his costumed cohorts…

Norman Osborn, one-time Green Goblin, has through various machinations become America’s Security Czar: the “top-cop” in sole charge of the beleaguered nation’s defence and freedom. Under his meteoric rise the Superhuman Registration Act led to the Civil War, Captain America was arrested, murdered and resurrected (see Captain America Reborn), and numerous horrific assaults on mankind occurred: including the Secret Invasion and the “Dark Reign” which led up to the graphic novel under review here

As well as commanding all the covert and military resources of the USA, Osborn now has his own suit of Iron Man armour and as Iron Patriot leads a hand-picked team of ersatz Avengers. The country should by rights be beyond any possibility of threat or harm. However as the events of Siege: The Cabal (Bendis, Lark & Stefano Gaudiano) graphically depict, Osborn is playing a deadly double game. The Cabal is a Star Chamber of super-villains comprising Osborn, Asgardian God Loki, gang-boss The Hood, mutant telepath Emma Frost, Taskmaster, Sub-Mariner and Doctor Doom.

But cracks are beginning to show, both in the criminal conspiracy and Osborn himself. When Iron Patriot promises to conquer Asgard for Loki, Doom secedes from the group, prompting a disastrous battle between the Masters of Evil…

Asgard is currently displaced and floating scant metres above the soil of Oklahoma. Using his position as Chief of Homeland Security Osborn manufactures an “Asgardian incident” and launches an all-out invasion on the Gleaming City, overruling the new American President to do so.

And so begins Siege (by Bendis, Coipel & Mark Morales) a knock-down, drag-out fight pitting all the long-cultivated metahuman resources of Osborn – paramilitary strike force H.A.M.ME.R., the Dark Avengers and the villainous penal battalion of The Initiative – against the sorely pressed and time-lost Asgardians…

However Osborn has gone too far and the President fires him.

So What?

Well, now the scattered and fugitive “real” superheroes such as Captain America, Nick Fury, the original Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Vision and all the other underground and Secret Avengers are safe to act, but they had better hurry because Thor’s hard pressed people cannot stand against Osborn’s god-killing ultimate weapon…

Despite feeling a little rushed in places, this is a grand, old-fashioned Fights ‘n’ Tights cataclysmic clash of good guys and bad guys, magnificently illustrated and astonishingly compelling. After years of dark and dangerous anti-heroics it’s a splendid palate-cleanser for what Marvel promises to be a new Heroic Age
© 2010 Marvel Entertainment LCC and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. A British edition released by Panini UK Ltd.

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.

Hawkeye


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.