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Essential Avengers Vols. 4-5
posted June 4, 2012

imageCreators: Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, John Buscema, Sal Buscema and Many Other Laudable Folks
Publishing Information: Marvel, softcover, 640 pages each, $19.99 each.
Ordering Numbers: 9780785114857, 9780785120872

I have a soft spot right in the center of my skull for Roy Thomas-scripted comic books, Steve Englehart's specific contributions to 1970s mainstream comics, the Buscema Brothers' muscle-tastic art stylings and comics that frequently make no sense. You get all of that in these two volumes of Essential Avengers. This run of the Marvel team title goes simultaneously big and small. In the big category, you get to watch the creators -- particularly Englehart -- work out how modern comics were to be written, both the way that events took place in subplots that built to the next major crisis with one or two stories in between them and how mega-crossovers are supposed to work. The difference between the stone-cold mess that is the Kree-Skrull War -- a storyline that seems to consist of nothing but preliminary stories and features an alien invasion defeated by Roy Thomas' knowledge of Marvel Golden Age characters -- and the Avengers vs. Defenders plot-line seems an evolutionary difference of the lungs, feet and opposable thumbs variety. The comics themselves not only unfold in a more satisfying fashion in the latter story, they even manage to perform other sales functions that we see as part and parcel of these efforts today and which the proto-epics couldn't begin to handle. Wrestling fans of the genus "smart" will recognize the wisdom in the Avengers fighting their not-really-a-team counterparts and losing every battle consistently in a way that enhances the newer title's reputation without our heroes being totally embarrassed. These comics, that team: they do the job.

In the small category, you get to see brief runs by first The Black Panther and then The Vision at what was likely the height of those characters' individual popularity. With the Panther that means a run of TV-movie type situations, like his foray into teaching inner-city youth, narrative moments that frequently feel 18,000 feet below the collective power levels on display. The Vision's character arc is a bit more involved in terms of driving the comics stories themselves: he gets several big moments within most of the fights, and at least one major subplot: a romance. As far as I can tell, the Scarlet Witch and the Vision end up being attracted to one another by virtue of their being slightly less jerky to one another than the constant bombardment of crap attitude they receive from other team members. It's sort of weird how the second level of characterization demanded by Stan Lee's formula makes itself known here by several characters acting like giant tools. I'm not sure if the creators thought they were being funny, but the Swordsman showing up to join the team with his hooker girlfriend, Hawkeye so openly striving for some sort of self-satisfaction, self-pity perfect state in every single scene he could be the character on MASH and Quicksilver's all-time dick move of disapproving of his sister's robot romance despite being a mutant in love with an Inhuman, all of that seems hilarious to me 35+ years removed. It was a golden era for dickheaded superheroes, and for all the kids that didn't quite understand just how dickheaded they were being.

The second of these two books ends with the first Avengers comic I read as a child. The comic book in question featured a trip to Rutland, Vermont for a Halloween story and a wonderful scene where The Collector traps our heroes in the dead skins of divine, mythological animals: a sublime, throwaway moment evocatively drawn. It's impossible for me to review that issue rationally. It reminds me, though, that here was a time when comics were the first source for many kids as they encountered potent ideas in terms of wish fulfillment and simple genre exercises that I bet they get anywhere and everywhere else now. It didn't matter back then if the potency was diluted by being removed a half-dozen times from the source, or shoved into a place where it didn't really fit, or was shunted off to one side for some patented full-shouldered, Buscema-drawn throwdowns. These things still burned. I have no idea why people read such stories now, but I hope it's for a similar reason.