Thursday, April 26, 2012

Trade Waiting Special - Avengers Forever

Warning: This post may make your brain explode. And contains spoilers.

In time for the release of 'Avengers,' (or 'Avengers Assemble as it's known here in the UK,) I thought I'd share some words about one of the most highly regarded Avengers stories in recent times, Avengers Forever.

Just how do you go about writing the perfect Avengers story? How do you write a finite story that encapsulates almost (at the time) forty years of sometimes convoluted and almost always preposterous continuity? This was a question that Marvel asked themselves in 1998. Luckily they had a writer who was currently writing the main Avengers book who was more than up to the task; Kurt Busiek. Not only that, they had an artist who was in the prime of his career and quite possibly has never drawn better, Carlos Pacheco. Follow the jump to read more.

Avengers Forever
Plot by Kurt Busiek and Roger Stern
Script by Kurt Busiek
Art by Carlos Pacheco and Jesus Merino

Kurt Busiek, during the time he was writing Avengers Forever, was one of the top writers in the industry with his creator owned Astro City leading the way for human point of view looks at a world filled with superheroes, (it may sound like an overused and somewhat clich├ęd concept nowadays but at the time was groundbreaking,) and almost single-handedly, albeit with living legend George Perez, made the Avengers not just a commercial success but a critical one for the first time in many years. Similarly, Carlos Pacheco was probably the most proficient artist on Marvel’s books at that time, fresh from a then career defining run on X-Men, seemingly marrying the cartoonish expressiveness of Joe Madureira and the Adonis like figure work of Andy Kubert; the previous two X-Men artists.

The story starts with The Avengers escorting Rick Jones’ comatose body to the dark side of the moon to consult with The Kree Supreme Intelligence on how to save him. Once there Immortus, the master of time, makes an attempt on his life only to be thwarted by his younger self, Kang the Conquerer. You know those times you want to punch your boss in the face but then stop yourself? Yeah, that happened on a cosmic level! From there, The Supreme Intelligence and former Zodiac Member Libra guide Rick to use the destiny force that lay dormant inside him to summon seven Avengers from different eras to help in stopping Immortus’ seemingly nefarious plans. The Avengers are: a disillusioned Captain America who has lost faith in the government, Yellowjacket during his mental breakdown ‘I’m not Hank Pym’ stage, the then current era Giant Man (also Hank Pym) and Wasp, a post Kree-Skrull War Hawkeye, a former villain now leader of the Avengers in the future Songbird, and an even further in the future Captain Marvel, son of the original bearer of the name. They group together with varying levels of trust and distaste for one another and team up with Kang to defeat his former self. They traverse the timeline trying to save Rick, the future, and themselves and find that to do so, they need to infiltrate certain points in Avengers history that may or may not have happened. These include a nightmare future where the Avengers, led by Black Panther and consisting of characters such as Jocasta and Killraven, are humanities last line of defense against the Martians, a Wild West where Marvel’s gunslinger heroes such as the Kids Rawhide, Two-Gun, and Colt are trying to stop Kang conquering America, and a Nixon as Skrull era 1950’s where the Agents of Atlas were in fact the original Avengers. It soon becomes apparent that Immortus is just a cog in a very large machine controlled by The Time Keepers, a group of um, time keepers that entrusted Immortus with the protection of 70 centuries of the Earth’s history, past, and present, and is trying to kill Rick due to a future destroying and conquering planets and ruling with an iron fist. Obviously, The Avengers aren’t going to hand over their sidekick supreme and go out of their way to save the timeline and Rick both.

Hands down, the most interesting characters are Immortus and Kang. Kang is someone who is trying his best to not become Immortus, regardless of the fact that it is inevitable. It’s a strange and interesting take on someone not becoming their mother/father even though they are predestined to do so. Immortus is possibly one of the more sympathetic villains in Avengers lore. He paints a picture of a man who is tired, who knows what the outcomes are and has to act on them whether he agrees or not. It’s clear he has affection for the Avengers but doesn’t see them as peers and knows that his affection for them has led to the problems that he faces within the book. It’s somewhat like a pet owner who loves their pet but knows they only have themselves to blame when the dog makes a mess on the carpet.

The comic requires your full attention at all times. Just the Kang/Immortus main subplot requires a PhD in Avengers history to wrap your head around. (Not only do we have Kang and Immortus, we also have a younger Kang trying to destroy the Wild West and Rama-Tut, a younger version of Immortus who once was the ruler of Egypt! That’s right fight fans, four iterations of the same character, each with different and sometimes polarising characteristics and philosophies, all in the same book.) Also, whilst not imperative, the more you know about Avengers the better as the book has an Avengers Easter egg of some kind on virtually every panel. Having said that, you can still have a fun time reading this with only a rudimentary knowledge of Avengers history and Busiek takes great pains to make the book as accessible as possible.

It takes a brave man to tackle a story that contains forty years of complex and sometimes convoluted Avengers history but if there was someone who could do it, it would be Kurt Busiek. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of the team is staggering, better than anyone this side of Mark Waid, often using plot points from early Avengers issues that were once one panel throwaways to introduce new concepts to the Avengers lore. The ability to take something old and add something new to it without making the original idea redundant is something Busiek does many times in Avengers Forever. His explanation of how Immortus had a hand in the creation of The Vision deserves plaudits from all of us. His grasp of each characters personality is spot on, especially so as most of the heroes have come from an era when their personalities were so unlike the most recognisable versions of each character. A great example of this is his portrayal of Giant Man and Yellowjacket. He makes them two distinct characters with completely different personalities even though they are the same person.
The statement made earlier in this article that Carlos Pacheco has never drawn better isn’t a back handed compliment, nor is it a slight on his more than competent current output. Avengers Forever has so many different characters and scenarios that in a lesser artists hands the book may have failed, yet Pacheco handles each with aplomb. In any one issue there is The Wild West, a future where the planet is ravaged and more and Pacheco handles each one with the same enthusiasm. Not only that, he is just as adept at handling the smaller moments and the emotions and personalities of the cast. The loss of faith in Captain America, the cocky arrogance of Yellowjacket, and the strong determination of The Wasp are all apparent within Pacheco’s pencil work. Last but not least, Pacheco knocks it out the park with his handling of big action and crowd scenes. Honestly, the only other person to cram this much detail into their work is George Perez, one of the greatest to ever do it.

One word of warning; this book is dense. Written pre ‘New-Marvel,’ there are a lot of words on each page and each issue takes twenty or so minutes to read, a culture shock in the decompressed era that we live in. Similarly, this isn’t the Avengers that we have got used to in the last few years. Having said that, it does have the make up of a classic Avengers team; Captain America, former villains turned heroes (Songbird, Hawkeye,) a legacy character (Captain Marvel,) two founding members (Giant-Man and Wasp,) and a cocky sociopath (Yellowjacket.) More importantly, the tone of the book is straight up classic Avengers, ‘big problems no one person can solve but they manage to overcome as a team,’ is as Avengers as it gets. Would it be something to recommend to someone who has seen the Avengers film and wants more? Definitely not, that award goes (begrudgingly) to The Ultimates. Would it be something to recommend to a fan of Marvel Comics in general? Without a doubt.

Over a decade has since passed and it can be argued that Avengers Forever is the last great book of the ‘old’ pre-Quesada Marvel. With the benefit of hindsight Avengers Forever really does read like one last swansong for forty years of Marvel before it was dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty first century. A book like this wouldn’t have a chance of being published in today’s climate, and that’s not to say the current Marvel output isn’t any good, some of it is astoundingly so, it just means we should be happy that Avengers Forever got it’s chance when it did.

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Jean Claude said...

Agreed, at the time I had absolutely no knowledge of The Avengers (I was more of an X-Men reader in the 90's, who wasn't?) and the story managed to hook me in despite that. I then reread the Busiek/Pacheco run which was really good, sadly I haven't been convinced ever since by the latest Avengers stories.

Anonymous said...

Oh this is DEFINITELY worth the money. Worth the art, worth the story, worth taking a weekend to read and re-read...and re-read.

Oh yeah - cueing David and his desperate website plug in 3, 2, 1...I know you do this on your website and if it was THAT good, I'd already be there.

Ken Boehm said...

Like Jean Claude, this was my first Avengers story I read outside of that Bloodties crossover. And reading it in trade format, right before trades became the big thing, was a real treat. It has a weird effect on you; the first issue or two you're just confused, but the dialogue moves things along and the pretty art makes things easy to understand. And then issue by issue you get sucked in more and more and then by issue 9 you want the story to go on forever (pun!).

This story and Busiek's final arc on Avengers, the Kang War, are my top two Avengers stories. Nothing matched the scale, even modern day events.

Mentor said...

Great article. This is in my top 5 greatest comic book stories ever. I never get tired of reading it. Even got several pages of art from the series hanging on my wall.

Jean-Claude said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
googum said...

Shoot, I haven't been able to find my issues of this one, except for a quarter-bin spare of the last issue. (I think I lent it out, and yoink!) I'd kinda prefer to have the singles again rather than the trade, for ease of checking out that art.

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Avengers Assemble said...

Your work has always been a great source of inspiration for me. I refer you blog to many of my friends as well.
Thanks for sharing knowledge..

Taylor Pithers said...

The Avengers Assemble- Me? Surely not, you are far too kind :)

Nathan Adler said...

However, the continuity implant from this series that Kang's allies were a bunch of Space Phantoms doesn’t work for a number of reasons.

Take for instance the powers of Space Phantoms.

When Space Phantoms returned to Limbo it was regularly pointed out that they always materialised in the exact location their subject had been shunted to there, something never shown in either The Crossing or Avengers Forever for ANY of the characters they were revealed to be masquerading as; and in fact The Crossing regularly showed Luna, Malachi & Tobias, Elder Cotati/Swordsman and Mantis stepping directly back into Limbo through portals from Earth with nary a subject in sight.

If this wasn't enough, you'll find a scene in Iron Man #325 where Kang joins his adopted son, Tobias, in a rigorous combat training session, and only the two of them are present. At the end of it, Kang berates Tobias for being too soft and unprepared to be a fit heir to him… Well, if they actually were Immortus and a Space Phantom, why in hell would they keep on pretending under such circumstances, with nobody to fool around…

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