Tuesday, December 20, 2011

JIM SHOOTER SHAKES THE AVENGERS




Tragic Linnea. Quirky Tigra. Emotionally stunted Molecule Man. Troubled Ghost Rider. Comical Stankowitz. Imperious Moon Dragon.
One volatile mix of core Avengers, set against the perils of Pym. Shake well with renderings by Bob Hall, Alan Weiss, and embellish it with Brett Breeding. Drink in Jim Shooter’s 1980’s Avengers.



I found an absorbing depiction of Pyrrhic victory in the guest-filled Michael Korvac saga, but when Shooter returned three years later, working with sub-plots and strong characterization, the stops were truly pulled out!



I haven’t made it through every issue of the late 1970’s incarnation of AVENGERS---I found the entirety of the 1980 issues sadly unreadable, with art that
looked like its figures are melting and one fill-in writer after the next. Mr. Shooter himself has detailed the end of Gene Colan’s run, coinciding with the membership shake-up that began a year of Jim Shooter’s Avengers. Everything fundamentally funky 70’s about the title starts to vanish; Wonder Man, the Beast, Jocasta, Scarlet Witch and the Vision all depart. With the unlikely ingredient of Tigra added to provide a regular person perspective, everything really, really old was new again: founders Thor, Iron Man, the Wasp, and Henry Pym (in his psychosis-inspired Yellowjacket guise) and Captain America (the member replacing the Hulk, in #4) become the players in an emotionally-volatile continuing saga of the sort which traditionally never included such standardized stalwarts. Granted, the great catalyst is member Hank Pym, as volatile changes are usually reserved for the individual books of Cap, Iron Man, and Thor, but everyone’s connection to Pym and the foundations of the team itself set off deep characterization and drama reflective of the sorts of adult difficulties which had not driven the comic in years.



The first thing I noticed was how annoying the Beast was in #211, bouncing on top of everyone’s heads joking. Then from the Vision on, heroes are all acting dickish; in Vision’s case, he tells desperate Jocasta he is NOT a fellow robot and can’t help her with her problems fitting in. Granted, he’s about to make the decision to split with Wanda and finally try having a normal life together, nor is it out of character for Hercules to begin his friendship with Wonder Man by testing his “Thor-like strength and invulnerability” with a brawl. Wonder Man confesses earlier he’s maybe less inured of facing mortality “a dozen times a week,” as a witness to death being no fun! Wondy’s likeable here, though I was horrified by what he did to that poor tree; he challenges Hank McCoy’s assertion they are living the ultimate high-life, contrasting that satisfaction with the Beast’s mostly-ignored brain power. Granted, all he does is run off to join the Defenders in the meanwhile, but at least it’s a credible, if rushed, consideration in him leaving.



Moon Knight and a changing blob purported to be Ice Man get into a testy conflict just before Tigra chases the Angel, but it’s not long before we realize the mental might of Moondragon’s behind some of this excessive aggression. Unfortunately for the team, her manipulation’s not a one-off occurrence. It’s sad to see Jocasta’s lonely feelings drive her away unbidden, though it’s quite in keeping with early Marvel. Nonetheless, the entire purpose of the issue is a set-up for the real drama to come. Many elements---such as the “wow, they do this every day? I can hardly believe this is happening!” point of reference character, which is Tigra here---are fundamental to what Roger Stern will do in his years scribing the Avengers. In fact, the initial resolution of Hank Pym’s troubles provides Stern his first emotionally-gripping storyline.



Hank Pym’s troubles are probably the center of the most memorable Avengers storyline in fandom, and while the push occurs quickly, it’s set up in a very rich story. Hank’s disgruntlement and inferiority complex, and how they shake up his life with Janet, is paralleled beautifully with warrior Gorn and his enchanted Elf Queen, Linnea. The issue, #212, is jam-packed with panels, easily containing the content of two or even three of today’s issues, so it starts off with a relaxed pace, demonstrating the daily lives of the Avengers as they rise in the morning. That’s how we get the scene with the Pyms and the Elfqueen in striking parallel. Gorn and Hank both wish to leave the quietude of their “happily ever” lives, each feeling a moribund existence. Both fit very poorly as they emerge into the world, testily blaming their lovers for their dissatisfaction, both clumsily engaging with those around them. Without the long-standing affection accorded by the other Avengers, Tigra clearly sees troubled behavior. Hints of domestic violence creep in when Hank destroys one of Janet’s costumes.



The ill-fated adventure of the Elf Queen actually moves my heart each time I read it; her husband is slain on the streets of Washington, D.C., as he provokes the police into firing. In her grief, Linnea terrorizes the capitol, bringing the Avengers running. With his disruptor beam on the fritz, Hank still manages plenty of disruption, intimidating Janet, who stays behind to retrieve his working device. He clearly resents her wealth now and blames her coddling for his apparent mediocrity, leading us to the lesson one should never hinge happiness on comparison to others, with a companion assessment that love deserves appreciation.



Linnea’s got this one line when Iron Man shows up, flirting like a himbo, though separated by a language barrier. “A flying man in armor! How Gorn would have marveled…but he is dead now!” She evokes the other side of her apparently brusque husband’s personality, makes us sorry a real person has died through a misunderstanding…makes us feel her grief. Her singular appearance here truly moved me.


Cap puts his life on the line to show Linnea he means no harm; at this point, Yellowjacket attempts a star turn by blasting her in the back! Adding insult to injury, the Wasp saves his life when his sting fails on the counter attack. Cap’s nobility wins the day; the reader’s heart aches for the fleeing Elf Queen; Hank finds himself court-martialed.


Hank’s plan to attack the Avengers with his own robot, complete with vulnerable spot to guarantee his heroic victory, reflects his nervous breakdown. If he had but once stopped to talk to the Avengers, they are all considering how his mistake was one any of them might’ve made…how they sympathize with his vulnerability. Unfortunately, he’s fed himself an unhealthy diet of what makes them heroes, what makes them admirable…what makes him unworthy. When he strikes his own wife---in a blow, in Shooter’s later writing, amplified in its horror by the artist, beyond his written intent---we see a hero destroyed. Domestic abuse is an appalling crime, rarely reported, rarely confronted. Anyone committing beating in their own home needs serious help, as though it is the most serious problem in that person’s life, because this undermines all that love is about, and all being a hero is about.


Here is one crucial thing: he runs away after this because that is what he’s doing on every level: turning his back on all he has ever loved.
Here is another: when he does come back out of hiding, he’s involved in very convoluted circumstances setting him up to fall for his arch enemy, the ingenious Egghead, Eliah Starr, and this detours the possibility of coming back to his home life with Janet Van Dyne Pym, and this remains long delayed. The next time he is free of all other machinations, however, he’s claimed his own problems.
Here is one last critical thing: The Wasp doesn’t get the opportunity to let him back in, but even with time and sympathetic circumstances, she decides not to get back together with him. If Janet and Hank had attempted to go back into their relationship and resume as though nothing had happened, this would have been a terrible example to any impressionable readers, of which there were still many in 1982. The truth is, when you cross a line like Hank did, your rectification is going to take time. The more times he had denied his problem and hit her again (can you even dream of them depicting a heroine in a chronic abuse situation?), the more shame and stupidity would’ve necessitated both of them losing all they had.



Instead, Janet keeps helping people as an Avenger, and soon volunteers herself as the leader, which satisfies her generous nature while challenging her to know herself, others, and for what to stand, when. She discovers she does not need him to be strong. She does not forgive him and let him keep doing it. The change is his own responsibility, the reality of who he should be, his own. It’s my understanding in today’s Marvel he’s gone on to become a teacher of super-heroes, and I would say his disgraceful experience serves him with a wisdom in the ways of people that is effective now, not only because he has being a hero in mind, but he has let it grow all the way from deep inside himself.


NEXT: Fallen Angels and Molecule Madness, AVENGERS #214-217.



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