Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Jumping to Conclusions: the beauty of Roger Stern's AVENGERS, 1986

AVENGERS #264: The very first piece comes together long before Hercules is casually quaffing wine and popping grapes, indifferent to the Submariner’s desertion in #271. Here in this blog we’ve noted Roger Stern’s first AVENGERS storyline ties up the legal saga of Hank Pym and includes his dust-up with the Masters of Evil under Egghead.

In this story, a new villain---a rookie with some technological expertise---uses remote control devices to remove Pym’s Yellowjacket equipment and costume from within Avenger’s Mansion! It’s actually quite humorous to watch the costume seem to “walk” out under its own power, just beneath the notice of the Avengers and their temporary guests, the Fantastic Four. Hercules, for one, conveys his awe to Reed Richards concerning his ability to create all manner of marvelous machines---as well as his assertion that too many strange things have been happening around the Mansion of late! I’m amused to see Jarvis talking to Franklin Richards at play, as well, as the Yellowjacket outfit walks, as though inhabited by a ghost! On her own, the new Yellowjacket has become the first invader of Avengers Mansion, though she hasn’t been recruited to Baron Zemo’s organization yet.

The story opens with Dane Whitman, a.k.a. the Black Knight, running scientific tests on the new, expanded limits to the Wasp’s powers. (He does score a friendly dinner date!) Their session brings up her ex-husband, whose experiments led to her powers in the first place, and have proven more successful than he envisioned as Janet Van Dyne’s powers have adapted over time.

We also see Monica Rambeau (Captain Marvel) with her mom, trying on clothes, intercut with her firefighter dad bravely saving the day. (It’s nice to see a regular person do that in this book, now and then.) She ponders revealing her secret identity to the team---“Steve and Jan have been such wonderful friends---“ and has no problem with Cap, the Wasp, or the Black Knight (who is openly known as Dane Whitman). The two Avengers with no other identities, Submariner and Hercules, leave her with doubts. Namor’s new membership gives her reservations about sharing her private self, and she wonders if Hercules, for that matter, could be trusted to keep her secret (which she’s shared with her parents). She happens to be undressed---vulnerable, private---as she considers whether she should extend that trust. Judging from the events to come in #271, “Breakaway,” her caution seems grounded. This is the first small fracture in the team bond Stern explores.

The focus on Janet continues; she demonstrates super-strength enough to bend a one-inch diameter steel bar at her six inch size, and maintains her wings all the way up to just one foot shy of her regular height. The story ends with an attempted burglary of her mansion by the new Yellowjacket, which infuriates her. Her strategy to shrink Yellowjacket disorients the new criminal completely; she surrenders, disoriented and afraid.

Yellowjacket returns in #271---but this time, with Masters of Evil recruits Grey Gargoyle (whose touch can turn almost anything to stone) and Screaming Mimi (a super strong ex-wrestler with a devastating scream). With Hercules nursing his grudge, Namor devoted to his Atlantean vendetta, and Cap busy with his national hotline (as depicted in his own monthly title), the Wasp and the Black Knight are left to face the villains.

I’m compelled to note Buscema and Palmer’s clear storytelling and expressive faces; they are classic old-school examplars of illustration. One could primarily examine the art and find a wealth of discussion. When I return to these stories, I am sure to touch further upon it. This run is really a text book example of how to do super hero comics. They don’t veer off into the wild panel layouts; their perspectives are not obviously experimental. The story telling, however, is crystal clear, with strong anatomy to boot. Establishing shots tell you where you are; body language works with the dialogue to really bring the characters to life, as you connect with the internal state of the characters, their feelings.

Hercules’ thoughts that “not all my ex-wives together were as demanding as the Wasp!” is humorous while foreshadowing a boiling point in their conflict. Just as he is mulling over slinking back to Mount Olympus, he gets to show off and help right a delivery truck, which gets him an invitation to drinks. The Wasp, meanwhile, has another home invasion---an apartment break-in---but this one resolves nicely, a visit from Paladin. He points out how she should unwind from her stress, leading the Avengers: he casually notes his jet-setting, while making the conversation all about her. Their “date” involves Paladin escorting her to jail!

Captain Marvel, meanwhile, answers a call from Agent Freeman, who notes the break out of several super criminals of late (all the foundation for the Masters of Evil scenario). He also asks her to call him “Derek” and muses what an improvement in his life a woman like Captain Marvel would be! She promises him a date the next week; the idea really hits the spot with her, too.

This time, it’s Dane’s turn to explore the properties of his powers, actually, the powers of his mysterious Ebony Blade. He explains to the returned Captain Marvel that, angled right, it can absorb energy, but he doesn’t know if it’s a scientific property based on its metal or an enchantment of Merlin’s! Then, he begins working with her on the problem that, while she can convert to many different energies on the electromagnetic spectrum, she avoids cosmic and x-rays around people. He suggests the safe form of neutrinos, then recommends the best place to find that energy: the sun itself! This sets up her visit to our fair local star, and also takes her out of the loop when the villains attack. In fact, a crisis moment develops: he knows she trusts him to monitor the experience. Yet, as no other Avengers are present. he must aid the Wasp when Grey Gargoyle and Screaming Mimi attempt to break Yellowjacket out of jail. Stern’s already busy with his theme of divide and conquer from this first chapter.

Next issue, he will weave back in Submariner’s story in Atlantis, which has crossed-over, itself, from ALPHA FLIGHT---another example, like the homeless Fantastic Four from #264, of Marvel’s tight cross title continuity during these times, while still leaving the individual titles independent for reading. On the other side of that, the Siege of Avengers Mansion kicks into high gear! I’d love to examine specifically how he puts it together further, just as I’ve analyzed the characters at the heart of his run on the series. We’ll see how the next couple of days goes!

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