Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Secret of Libra Marvel Avengers: Under the Influence of the Stars 1974 pt 2

You know, I only spout comic book stuff---to you, but especially to the Marc Kane--- when there's some strong character development or intriguing concept. When I read comics, I tend to search out ones with these traits. If the story's not interesting to a person with no idea about the characters beforehand, it's relying on something other than solid basics.

I started out joking about a warehouse being blasted into outer space with Avengers and renegade Zodiac members inside, the most absurd element in this set of stories (on top of many, for this is a classic superhero comic), but over the next five minutes found the dramas engrossing in a manner that my soap-opera fan girlfriend could appreciate, because mysterious pasts, secrets, and matters of the heart are what drives those serials, too (though they have lost audiences as surely as comics have). To my pleasant surprise, I began telling their situation from memory.

I had a laugh over Thor, whose hammer has been shown to transcend space and time, hurling it out into the cold of space, only to discover the death trap has changed orbit and his magic mallet is returning somewhere he is not. After sixty seconds, as is the custom with the enchantment, his form reverts to his human secret identity, the crippled Dr. Don Blake, who then dives beneath a tarp to hide from the vicious, encouraged Zodiac criminal bosses. That gave the Marc a hearty laugh, too, even though we both thought the hammer returns to Thor's hand, not to the spot it's thrown, but hey, I don't know! The Vision, calculating android and red-skinned Mr. Spock-like philosopher, points out that continuing the fight may give them Thor's secret, but everything they need---water, shelter, air itself---is in the opposite direction, and if the death trap isn't turned around, it will not matter to anyone!

Thanks to a hex by the Scarlet Witch---who can alter probability, and therefore, the states of both matter and energy within her range---Iron Man flies outside the warehouse, and in the vacuum of space uses his boot jets to give it a push back into orbit, and gravity's pull. He's caught in the debris, however, and begins to heat up with the warehouse upon re-entry to Earth. That would be the end of the armored Avenger...but who sent both heroes and villains soaring skyward, and for what reason, by what means...can anyone intervene?

That's where Mantis comes in...actually, her past catches up with her...but it's a past she never knew she had!! Whut?

Despite the rotating art teams in the Avengers monthly comics of 1974, the storytelling's always clear and very involving. It's a great launching point for spinning the saga of four inter-related characters who are less well-known, but drive Steve Englehart's plots with the ebb and flow of their personalities---and that is key to great stories.

Let's start with issue 120, cover dated January, 1974. Financier Cornelius Van Lunt is re-assembling a team of crime cartel bosses, each with a code name associated with one sign of the zodiac. In particular we see him visit his Gemini in prison, a man who finds himself able to take over his cop brother's mind, which he uses to infiltrate Avengers Mansion (the posh Manhattan digs originally donated to the team by Anthony Stark, who at this time is secretly team member Iron Man, as well). A new star-powered weapon must be positioned at the highest physical broadcast point possible to send out a beam that will result in the death of all people born under the sign of Gemini. It's explained this sign was chosen by vote, and Gemini the crime boss was not present, so there you go; somehow he will be protected, he's assured.

The Avengers figure out where the weapon must be situated---at the this time, it's the legendary World Trade Center, tallest point in the city---and battle the augmented criminals. Apparently, the great empathy of Mantis opens her to suffer the deaths of others, though she is not a Gemini herself. The cliffhanger between 120 and 121 centers around her. Applying his ability to alter density, the Vision saves her, at some expense to the building facade, and with some timely aid by Captain America, who rushes up on the scene to help, though he's been immersed in another case.

The rescue helps firm up a motivation within Mantis: she cannot resist noticing the Vision's perfectly-attuned body and superior mental discipline. As someone who relies on control and harmony within her own body, and as a very natural sexual being, she cannot restrain herself from complimenting him and thinking about him, rather than the broken-down crimefighter and former crook the Swordsman, who she saved from a life of shame and addiction in Viet Nam. This sits not at all well with the team's most consistent female member, Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch.

Scarlet, as M.K. pointed out, was used to being the center of attention, in a way, as she was typically the only female member of the team, save for stints by founding member the Wasp, who came with her own man, Hank Pym, to the team. She is already doing time for the Vision, and as we'll see in her profile, she, the sometimes brooding outsider to the human race (because she was born with her powers, due to a genetic mutation), had already paid a price in pain for assuming a forbidden relationship with her synthezoid teammate. We will see the chasm between them grow again when Wanda begins a different kind of forbidden relationship: tutelage under her arcane new mentor, Agatha Harkness, the witch governess of Franklin Richards, child of the Fantastic Four's Sue and Reed Richards.

The Secret of Libra

After the Gemini killings are foiled, Ares---who is the second man to wear this mantle, and is in fact a rare black character---decides that Taurus the Bull is not leading the cartel effectively. He forges alliances with about half of Zodiac, excluding Libra, who wishes to beg off and remain neutral (balance!). As is often the slam against Libra---lack of commitment---the villains contact financier Van Lunt and prepare to meet at a warehouse in New Jersey. The Avengers arrive in their Quinjet, however, and Van Lunt disappears...only to reveal himself via video screen as Taurus, and this warehouse, as a rocket-bound platform blasting off for the limits of Earth's atmosphere, to the deadly void beyond.

Libra comes back into the picture, however, freeing the captive, cop Gemini brother from his trance state in which he was placed by his bro, and sending him to keep tabs on Taurus while he sets a plan into motion. The plan bears fruit as the Zodiac Star Cruiser ship arrives to rescue the warehouse-trapped friends and foes---but why? Before we can know, Taurus, now heavily outnumbered, reminds all of Zodiac they will go to jail regardless of whose side they choose if the Avengers win, and this strategy brings his cohorts back to his side for the battle, which is lost anyway. Now Libra's shocking reason for saving the Avengers is revealed. He mistakenly wanted to save Mantis. She is his daughter!!!

To her utter dissatisfaction, the blind but physically effective Libra then shares his story: a German mercenary fighting for the French in Viet Nam, he finds himself stationed in quiet Saigon. There, he falls in love with a local woman, but her criminal brother will not let this be. They run, they have a daughter, but the bigoted fool burns down their house anyway. Scarred for life, in agony, the man who became Libra says he ran for the jungle with little Mantis, and happened upon a temple. The Priests of Pama could train him to physical perfection and make him an agile fighter, but they could not provide the peace he needed in his heart...especially after they insisted that the price of their shelter was that they adopt Mantis. They train her from a baby, and regard her as a goddess. Why, then, does she remember a different life, on the streets of Saigon?

Further, the headstrong Swordsman, already losing her attention before this, is stunned to learn he worked for the devious uncle when he became a scumbag enforcer, as Mantis found him, a broken fool. Without a word, he takes the remaining Quinjet and flies for the other side of the world for revenge, for Mantis and himself. Stupidly, this leaves the Avengers stranded, as their other ship must be retrieved from the warehouse site in Jersey! Iron Man wonders if Swordsman's instability, Mantis' deeply-questioned past, Scarlet Witch's animosity towards human foibles, and the Vision's new tendency to freeze in action spells an end to his team...but really, with a combination like that, you are only now set to tell an exquisite story. He is right, though: it's the beginning of the end of this incarnation of Avengers!!!

Lately, I'm spurring my mind (ouch!!) to think of storytelling in pictures and words, just as I've been busy finding music to complement the words we sing. We can draw pictures and tell stories, but seeing it as pages and then preparing the panels and then putting together the pages is a labor, an art, and supposedly, a fun challenge. It's good to see it done well, even if you don't plan to imitate the subject matter (and really, if you did that, what would you have to say that is really yours?).
Next: the Vision!

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