Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Sword of Discernment: Act i, Classic Englehart Avengers, 1974

Who goes from the dregs of society to the Earth's Mightiest Heroes? Fundamentally, if the leap is made, a man can raise his spirit even in poverty, but if he is a cynic along the lines of Jacques DuFresne, a.k.a. the Swordsman, the leap just seems like a never-ending fall.

I probably found myself discussing these lesser-known characters because of curiosity to finally read Steve Englehart's entire Avengers run, and because blogger Colin Smith captured the pathos of the desperate Swordsman that runs almost too quietly through the outrageous fortunes and cosmic entanglements that become the saga of the Celestial Madonna.

Sword of Discernment

Let’s prepare to dispense with the comic books themselves to tell you how uncomfortably life-like is the Swordsman, under the pen of Steve Englehart. See, in comic book terms, this character---never given a real name until some writer thought about it, after the character meets his doom---would make an excellent enemy of Conan, who of course is a masculine daydream of skills at sword fighting, horseback riding, thievery. They would’ve made a terrific team up, as well, were he of that aged world. But what we get, when he arrives, is a real person’s struggles, when great skill and bravado no longer drown out the screams and cries of the innocent who suffer along the way, while he turns his mercenary buck. He begins to realize what a hateful person he is, compared to what a brash and ruthless man he has been---all this made possible by his brush with actually being someone who makes a difference.

It could be the story of a Wall Street trader---or even a wimpy pre-pubescent, reading stories to be close to heroes but never brave enough to stand up and say, “don’t call that girl names and treat her like she’s inhuman” or “stop calling that boy a fag” or any of a number of truths. But you, as a human, can be a pessimist, can be eaten with doubt, can be very afraid, indeed---and still strive to give the most of yourself and make a single situation better (not unlike Marc Spector, the mercenary of a previous post who became Moon Knight). We may hear ourselves, or a voice very much disguised as our own, saying we will never stand like true heroes, but we can take responsibility for raising up one worthy person.

So, having impatiently leapt to my theme first, let’s edit a bit and proceed to examine his character, within the structure of Englehart’s cast, while applying some discernment in cleaving illusions.

The Hero Who is Probably You

It was really Colin Smith, whose “Too Busy Thinking About My Comics” blog is a genuine gift to fans new and old, whose post on the mistakenly-overlooked swashbuckler made me realize I wanted to focus on Englehart's multi-layered, character-driven construction and its four primary building blocks: the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, Mantis, and the Swordsman. He put the ideas about how credibly Swordy really captures the actual identification point, standing beside these heroes with a lethal skill with very socially unacceptable consequences, standing in Hawkeye’s traditional place on the team for the heart and soul fighter trying to prove himself among the powerful, but tormented by a much longer wayward path and the colossal guilt of all he has betrayed. It’s a factor in his final screw-up and his final act of heroism. What can we learn?

AVENGERS #113 packs in a second prelude to the coming of Mantis, while continuing to give shadowy cover to the returning Swordsman, a character unlikely to have many diehard fans excited by the reveal. In fact, to expect him to generate little excitement is a boon to the writer, who then plays upon the fear---no, the certainty---of failure, of this man who wants to win the respect and love of the most amazing woman he’s ever known, and one whose compassion for him feels undeserved. It’s really Mantis, appearing in full daylight but without her special bar maid super heroine native costume, who is the true mystery. It’s funny how her emergence as a much-buzzed character reflects the eclipse felt by the Swordsman within the narrative, as well.

Could’ve all been different you know: Mantis first arrives to fight a bigot hassling the Witch, and when they go back to the mansion together, Wanda is the main proponent for the new membership. She’s the first person the newly-accepted Mantis hugs. Marc Kane, the soap opera fan, points out the liberal smattering of kisses Mantis gives out is NOT just a cute scene, but the beginning of sowing the rivalry with Wanda.

The Swordsman, meanwhile, appears with a hint of his familiar haughtiness and entitlement, offering his services while pointing out the team’s previous snub of him (in the #100 anniversary issue). Captain America remembers his treachery from the very first attempt to join the Avengers (in #19) and subsequent attacks (as with the Lethal Legion in #79, where he helps capture Avengers for a cash prize). Scarlet Witch, both strengthened and disturbed by the bigotry against her love of the Vision---while not entirely surprised, bitterly disappointed---goes to bat, not for Swordy, but tolerance and trust. One almost begins wondering what’s happened to make Thor and Iron Man concur so readily against Cap’s wishes, but soon they are pitching in side by side.

When a ghost, the Lion God from a couple issues previous, invades, Swordsman and Mantis call it forth, relying on her enhanced awareness. They appear to work with the god to fell the Avengers, surprising us with slight Mantis and her ability to stun any physical opponent, even Thor. Then, they turn the tables on our expectations again and hypnotize and defeat the Lion God with a mesmerizing display of their skills and captured glints of light. Swordsman has now lived down to the longtime readers’ expectations AND turned a corner in one story, while Mantis becomes even more enigmatic.

AVENGERS 116 During the confusion that is the Avengers/ Defenders melee, Swordsman draws the Norse Valkyrie as his opponent, in a transplanted German castle in South America. He proves his eye for detail and illumines us to his endless self-doubt all at a go, mocking the stone-by-stone recreation as “ridiculous and out-of-place” as he is, a scoundrel in league with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Soon the Swordsman’s Avengers-issue Quinjet is clipped by Valkyrie, astride her winged steed Aragorn. He executes a gutsy landing that is one grounded wing away from a fireball in the jungle.

He actually wins a duel that would please Errol Flynn himself, only to be zapped by the host, who wishes to keep the Eye of Evil piece to himself, as he does the location of his purloined Nazi treasure. Swordy puts the stick on ‘im before collapsing, however. Valkyrie does a sword salute to her strange but noble foe; “were he conscious, I think he’d like that.”

We’ll see Swordsman’s never really around to hear his praises, and maybe we learn what difference an encouraging word makes in a person’s development. We’re coming back now to where this conversation began, so with all our players introduced, tomorrow we can watch the fireworks fly.

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