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Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: An Avengers Retrospective Part 2: Four Against…(Issues #17-35)

The Avengers #17

Guest contributor Eugene Selassie is back with the second part of his retrospective of Marvel‘s The Avengers. He started at the beginning covering the first sixteen issues. He’s back discussing issues #17 to #35!

We continue my biweekly recap of my deep dive, reading every single issue of The Avengers from the beginning. In the second half of the Stan Lee era of the book, we see more of a focus on the personalities and the private concerns of each Avenger. We also notice a shift in the power levels of the villains they face to complement the more grounded roster. The political thriller vibe of some of the arcs, predating The Ultimates by about 35 years, was welcome…but the racial caricatures were not. Several allies and Avengers mainstays debuted around this time. Finally, these issues really hit home how much a different inker can completely change an art style.

The first few issues of the “kooky quartet” era established the dynamics of the team rather quickly:

  • Captain America was now unquestionably the one in charge. Steve Rogers exuded even more confidence in action than in previous Avengers stories, if that’s even possible. Complex team strategy and tactics are now on full display with this roster, which was a treat. On the contrary, Cap’s constant brooding while alone at the mansion sometimes felt a bit off-putting. So did the fact that he took on a mission that could’ve caused an international incident, just to look good for SHIELD recruitment (issue 18). When Steve quit the team at the end of issue 22, it could have led to the end of the Avengers, if not for Kang’s subsequent attack, which brought the team back together. Cap was a bit of a dick at times. It felt justified when he was dishing it back out to Hawkeye. Conversely, demanding that Hank Pym prove he’s the real Giant-Man, even though Hank explained that there have been health concerns and the strain of changing size could kill him, went a bit overboard. Equally perplexing was insulting Hank to snap him out of his funk, but from what I’m discovering, that was a common storytelling device at Marvel during the Silver age.
  • Hawkeye was the wild card of the bunch. The action man archer trying to repent from Tales of Suspense #57 up through Avengers #16 is gone and the cocky Clint Barton that we all know and love is present. I laughed heartily because Clint’s luggage wasn’t even unpacked yet before he started mouthing off to Cap. Around issue 25 is where we start to see Clint at least being self-aware that he’s a jerk and gives Cap too much crap…yet he does nothing to actually correct this. He and Cap bickered like an old married couple.
  • While the Scarlet Witch was written not as ineffectively as Jan was in these early issues, Wanda Maximoff is still treated the way all women were written in that era. She pined for Steve 50% of the time. Also, her being a brunette back then really threw me for a loop. Her powers were not as dangerously unpredictable as they would later be written as.
  • Quicksilver’s personality is the furthest from modern renditions. Pietro Maximoff is not quite a pompous ass yet. The one trait that does carry over to modern times is him being overprotective of his sister, Wanda. His personality, for the most part, is just him shouting “don’t talk to my sister that way!”. One minor facet that I never knew existed was both Maximoffs having a fondness for show business. Pietro, especially, took a liking to daredevils and high wire acts in the circus. In battle, he was quite effective, although he used the “tie people up in cloaks/curtains/blankets shtick as his offense…a lot.

While the team still took on “foes that no single hero could withstand” in several of these stories, there was a noticeable pulling back of the power levels of foes to coincide with the lesser powered roster.

  • The Swordsman appears in issues 19-20. This is where we get our first glimpses into Hawkeye’s past as Swordsman’s protégé and Clint getting pulled into a life of crime due to his mentor’s actions
  • Power Man (Erik Josten) in issues 21-22 makes three times (along with Wonder Man and Swordsman) in less than two years that the “villain pretending to be a hero” shtick was used against the Avengers.
  • The Keeper of the Flame (issue #31) was a change of pace in that we hadn’t seen any sort of cult leader in the book as of yet. Their eternal flame was powered by cobalt. Cobalt is treated like plutonium in this issue in that they treated it like it could destroy the entire planet. The Avengers figured both sides of this ancient conflict over ownership of the flame pose equal danger to the globe, so they snuffed out the flame. This felt like the “ending of Rocky IV” level of tone-deaf in the slightest and “violating the Prime Directive” at the worst.
  • In issue 32, the hate group, known as the Sons of the Serpent, shows up and viciously attacks a random Latinx bystander. One would think that the concept would feel dated…the last few years have proven that, sadly, they’re still relevant.
The Swordsman The Avengers #19

This period also is the starting point for several familiar faces in the annals of Avengers history, to make their appearance. It was good to see Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne again (issues 26-28). Hank now refers to himself as Goliath. A fun fact I never knew is that Wanda designed and created his blue and yellow Goliath costume. Jan seemed much less flighty, but within the span of six issues she was captured and imprisoned three times, then is knocked out cold after falling out of a tree, ugggh. Hank’s size-changing has caused health concerns and at one point, he gets stuck at ten feet tall, with no way to shrink or grow without fatal results. To assist him in research towards a cure, Tony Stark refers him to one of the most brilliant bio-chemists on the planet, Bill Foster, who would one day become Goliath. Foster was attacked just down the block from Pym’s house by the Serpents in issue 32. Pym went into a full-on rage and canceled all experiments so he could make sure the Avengers made the Serpents a top priority. Not saying there’s anything wrong with Pym, more so than any of the other Avengers, taking umbrage with racially motivated hate crimes and wanting to plant his foot up the asses of those responsible, but I was surprised how “woke” he was. To get more intel on the Serpents, Steve reached out to Nick Fury. Having not read anything with the O.G. Fury in almost a decade I realized how much I missed him. This also marked his first appearance in an Avengers comic. Of course a barber shop is a front for a SHIELD base. This felt oddly on point for a 60s spy organization. Unbeknownst to the Serpents, one of their recruitment meetings has been infiltrated by the Black Widow. It would seem that her road to redemption began here. What also began here was an unsavory pattern.

Issue 18 saw the team go toe-to-toe with the mammoth cyborg dictator known as the Commissar…a bad East Asian stereotype. Issues 32 and 33 revealed that the mastermind behind the Sons of the Serpent was actually a Communist General…who was a bad East Asian stereotype. Issues 34 and 35 revealed that Living Laser had hired himself out to those looking to stage a coup in the fake Latin American country of Costa Verde. Guess what, they were bad Mexican stereotypes. I had to facepalm at a lot of this. I’m hoping that there’s not too much more casual racism masked as patriotism in these early years because that will severely hamper my reading experience.

One thing that stood out more than anything was the different inkers that worked with artist Don Heck. In all of my years of reading comics, I’ve never seen an art style change so drastically with the changing of an inker on a book, until now. The legendary Wally Wood brought a level of intricate detail to the layouts yet unseen during Heck’s run. Shifting to John Romita inks was fun as he was a master of highlighting the character’s acting and emotion. Frankie Ray’s inks were not as detailed as Wally Wood’s but still got the point of Heck’s pencils across, which were probably in their purest form here. The style then drastically shifted when Frank Giacoia did the inks, giving the book an almost “romance comic” vibe. All of these craftsmen were highly talented. I just never knew an inker alone could change the look of a comic to this degree.

I’m very excited to get to the next leg of this journey, the Roy Thomas era of the book. It’s here where new members of the team begin coming in fast and furiously. Hope you’ll return for the coming of Hercules, Black Panther and several others. Until next time, AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!

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Movie Review: Ant-Man

ant-man movie posterI’m sure when many folks heard that Marvel was planning on making a movie about Ant-Man, many scratched their head either asking “who?” or “what the hell?!”. For those who don’t know about the classic character, Ant-Man is one that goes back to the early years of Marvel dating back to 1962, including being one of the founding members of the Avengers.

While many have donned the identity, Ant-Man the film focuses on two key players, Hank Pym as played by Michael Douglas and Scott Lang played by Paul Rudd. The story at its most basic core is a heist film mixed in with a redemption story. Pym hires Lang to steal a super suit in order to save the world. Lang is an ex-con looking to do the right thing and see his daughter again. Mixed in there is the ability to shrink, lots of references to other Marvel superhero films, humor, and a lot of heart.

The film is a much more dialed back experience compared to Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and especially the Avengers. Most of the film really centers around and focuses on just three people, Lang, Pym and Hope Van Dyne (Pym’s daughter played by Evangeline Lilly). In that there’s some mixed results, and that’s how I’d describe the movie as a whole very mixed. Rudd plays his usual likeable self, though I never quite was won over as him as an ex-con or technology genius. His is the same role he’s done time and time again in numerous movies. Likeable, and solid comedic timing as expected. Douglas is his older gruff self, and brings a bit of gravitas to the film. Lilly is about as I expected, she’s never been an actress I’ve particularly liked, and here she’s rather bland. I’ve tried to think who else I’d have cast and come up short. I will say, she’s at least age appropriate opposite Rudd.

The movie overall is mixed for me. It doesn’t quite know if it wants to be a heist film, a comedy, or an action film. There’s montages that could have been great comedy (any else notice how many changes of clothes folks went through in 3 days?) and fall a little short. There’s also some fantastic humor strewn about. It also follows the familiar Marvel origin film. Hero is introduced and shown to be flawed. Hero trains and finds out what it is to be a hero. Hero battles bad guy at the end. After credit scene(s). It’s that battle where the movie really stands out from the rest.

Before getting to the good, the bad is the film riffs a bit too much on what has come before. Corey Stoll‘s Darren Cross feels like Jeff Bridge’s Obadiah Stane in Iron Man, even down to the bald head and corporation that’s actually going to do bad. The plot follows the same narrative structure as previous films. The special fx at times felt a little retro and Honey I Shrunk the Kids. And now for the good.

I find the boss battle endings of Marvel’s movies have been generally lacking, but the opposite is here. The final battle is actually rather inspire, taking advantage of the diminutive size of the antagonists and resulting in some fantastic humor and scenes due to that. It also allowed for things I really haven’t seen on-screen, ever. That had me beyond entertained and still found myself laughing at moments that have been spoiled in the movie’s ads and trailers. Here we see inspiration that much of the movie lacked.

The real standout of the film is Michael Peña‘s Luis. Peña in the past has balanced both comedic and serious roles and here his comedic ability shines with a motor mouth character that can’t quite get to the point. His is the glee I was hoping to experience myself, and did at times, just not enough. It’s also hopefully a role that puts his talent in front of more individuals (when you see him you’ll be like “I know him from xyz film/television show,” he’s that type of actor). He’s a very talented actor and I thought stole every scene he was in, even when it’s just serving waffles.

The after credit scenes are interesting and I totally agree “about damn time.” The second of the two scenes will make a lot more sense when Captain America: Civil War hits theaters, and felt a bit choppy with its intro.

The film is entertaining, and it’s nice to see Marvel do a film on a smaller scale. This one though at times comes off like it’s unsure of exactly what it wants to be, not shocking considering it has six writing credits directly involved with the film. It also makes me wonder what Edgar Wright’s original vision was before he left the project. It’s a fun movie though, and very enjoyable, it’s also a slight stumble for the Marvel movie juggernaut.

Overall rating: 7.5

Review: Ant-Man Larger Than Life

antmanIn the midst of the Secret Wars crossover which is pretty much everywhere at Marvel these days, it should be remembered that not every series is part of the crossover, and also that Marvel still has an interest in its other properties.  In this case that would relate to the cinematic universe, as the second and less anticipated Marvel movie to hit the theaters this year is about to be released.  It should be said that all along that Avengers was going to steal the spotlight.  Its trailers were dissected and analyzed as soon as they came out, but when the Ant-Man trailer was finally released, many thought it to be somewhat of a disappointment, not providing enough of a grip for fans to want to go to theaters.  That being said there is still some need to get some interest in the film, and issues such as this one might be the way to do so.

Instead of focusing on the movie’s Scott Lang, this special focuses on the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym.  Perhaps to cut short the origin story from the consciousness of fans, this special introduces Pym as what he is, a superhero that can shrink to miniature sizes.  It shows him honing his ability to communicate with ants and the unfortunate sequence of events which befalls him as he has to go down to their level to speak with them.  The remainder of this issue is comprised of a reprinting of Tales of Astonish #27 and #35 as part of the hero’s origin, the first appearance of Pym and the costume respectively.

While this might be a bit below most people’s radar, it is also probably worth a look.  While Avengers was also destined to be bigger, Ant-Man might be destined to be better as it takes a more character-centric approach.  That is evident here as this is much more about the character than it is about the big spectacle, but it still manages to tell an interesting story.  Those interested in a little bit of comic history will like the backup features as well as we get introduced to Pym for the first time all over again.  This issue is worth a look, especially for those that want to get refreshed on Ant-Man before the movie comes out, and proves that good things sometimes come from taking the smaller approach.

Story: Will Corona Pilgrim Art: Andrea de Vito
Story: 8.3 Art: 8.3 Overall: 8.3 Recommendation: Read

Review: Age of Ultron vs. Marvel Zombies #1

Age of Ultron vsTo say that this is a story about killer robots and superpowered zombies is only partially true.  Granted that there a lot of both of those categories running around in this book, but there is also a bit more going on as an alternate version of Ham Pym is introduced and might be another part of the clue as to what will happen to Battleworld.  This series is born from the same inspiration as most other Secret Wars tie-ins.  Without a multiverse anymore, all worlds and all realities are thrown together on Battlworld, and in this case it includes the Age of Ultron timeline as well as the Marvel Zombies timeline.  They are both harder timelines to incorporate so their inclusion here together might raise even more eyebrows.

The implementation of this idea is simple but also effective.  Battleworld is built off a number of locales, all of them somehow held together by Victor Von Doom.  To violate the borders of the locales means that Doom will not be happy and that someone must be punished for it (including as has been seen to thrown someone out of the locale.)  What happens in the outside area has not really been covered yet, except to know that it is patrolled by various others.  In this case though it is revealed that in addition to any other threats, that the Ultrons and the zombies roam the wilds looking to prey upon those unfortunate souls that have found themselves there.  With this as the setting this story is broken into two side arcs.  The first features Tigra as she explains the nature of the zone as she tries to escape from the zombies.  The second features an alternate reality Hank Pym who must choose where his exile will be to, either to the zombie area or the robot area.  Although seemingly unrelated, it seems like the two will join each other soon enough as Hank Pym might hold some information to make Battleworld go away.

This would seem to be an unlikely pairing of different sources, but it works pretty effectively here.  While the setting might be a bit bland on the surface or a giant robot vs/ zombies battle (which sounds fun in its own way) it is amplified here by the inclusion of two other characters that make this work well.  It seems unlikely, but two characters were chosen to focus around to make this series work, and the right two were chosen as they give something that zombies and robots lack, a soul to build around.

Story: James Robinson Art: Steve Pugh
Story: 8.5 Art: 8.5 Overall: 8.5 Recommendation: Buy

Push Comics Forward – The Female Super-Scientist

j4p4n_Scientist_Woman_(comic_book_style)Recently the head honchos at BOOM! Studios put out the idea that comics needs to change and to not be stagnant as a medium.  Long since dominated by superhero stories, the medium has indeed made a number of changed in the past couple of decades and the change is noticeable in some regards.  Equally though, comics are somewhat of a niche when it comes to their perception in popular culture.  Although there is an increasing amount of female readers, the medium is slower to make the changes to draw in fans of all backgrounds, and especially at the big two publishers instead still focuses on mostly a collection of characters who are both white and male.  While the interest in push comics forward doesn’t necessarily lie solely with the big two publishers, change has to happen there as elsewhere in order for the medium to evolve.

Science in comics was a bit of an x-factor until the onset of the silver age.  Until that point, science was usually grossly misapplied in order to move along a plot.  Gross inaccuracies were made and aspects of scientific knowledge would be presented, leaving what was actually used of the science to be misappropriated and simplistic.  As the silver age started, the focus on science is what rescued comics from being a medium for children, and instead allowed the medium to mature.  The changes first came at DC, though with the generally more god-like powers of the characters, the science was not as pertinent.  Hawkman and Green Lantern became intergalactic police, the Atom used White Dwarf matter to give himself powers, and the Flash became a scientist that gained powers by a scientific accident.  While the science was there, it was not until Marvel arrived that it redefined science in comics.  Although still unreal, the science was still presented in a way that it could be real, at least in our imagination.  Instead of characters that were either given or born with their powers, the new wave of heroes earned it the hard way, by building it themselves.  Not every Marvel hero was a scientist, but there were a few – Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Tony Stark, Hank Pym, and Reed Richards.  While this did push the envelope forward for comics as a medium, what was left behind were the women.  The female leads to these heroes were still sometimes heroes, but they fell back into the template of having powers given to them.  Sue Storm was a college dropout, and Janet van Dyne was just an girlfriend.  They even did better than Betty Ross, Pepper Potts and Mary Jane Watson, who were often relegated to secondary status as damsels in distress (though Sue Storm also performed this role despite being a power superhero.)

lego women scientistsWhile there are perhaps more men than women in science still as a profession, there is no real clear reason why.  Women at younger ages are as adept as their male counterparts, and the interest for science is equally there.  Some consider it to be a genderized problem, that the “old boys club” of science discourages women from entering its field in some cases, and that women are taught gender roles by society to be less focused on science as opposed to other ventures.  While there is debate on these assertions, it is true that women have no more or less natural inclination to science than men do.  So why can’t there be a female version of a super scientist?  There are of course some very intelligent women in comics.  The female version of the Hulk is an accomplished lawyer, and others have shown an ability to pursue more academic fields than what is traditionally typified by their genders, but there is still a gap in terms of the heroes, and who can do what.  Female characters can still be powerful, but it is unlikely that their minds are capable of giving them those powers.  In fact a large portion of female characters derive their powers from either magic or the supernatural.

What has been an interesting and worthwhile development in the cinematic versions of comics, is that the women characters are presented in a way which is a lot more progressive.  Jane Foster is an astrophysicist and in the previous round of Fantastic Four movies, Sue Storm was shown to a be a scientific genius in her own right.  This is because as the characters move to a more popular medium, they are forced into a more acceptable presentation of the role that women play, more so than just damsels in distress, but also as able thinkers on their own.  So why is there no female superscientific genius yet in comics?  This comes back to the inherent idea behind #pushcomicsforward, that there can and should be such female characters, because the medium simply has not caught up yet to the reality of the world.  There is even maybe not a need for as many as Marvel has, but a character that is at least adept at science, and who knows the periodic table from the kitchen table.  There is no reason not to, as such a character wouldn’t even have to carry a series, but they could still be there, guiding the scientific discussion to a place that is more realistic.

There Are No Strings on Me

no strings 02Somewhat unexpectedly yesterday, Marvel Studios released earlier-than-expected the first live action trailer for what might be the most anticipated comic movie in history – Avengers: The Age of Ultron.  Not to be listed as being light on action, the trailer relied heavily on the battle between Tony Stark in Hulkbuster armour against the Hulk.  Perhaps more interestingly though is that the trailer introduced three new characters, new Avengers Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, as well as the movie’s antagonist Ultron.  While there is bound to be analysis and over-analysis of the trailer by those that can’t wait until next May, there is very little in terms of plot which can be discerned from the trailer.  It would seem as though after the teaser scene at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that it is Ultron that rescues the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, and the battle between the Hulk and Iron Man which might set up the rumored next Hulk film focused on World War Hulk are both present, but no plot is there, and anything else beyond some speculation would only border on gossip.  What is interesting though is the theme of the trailer, and whether that will be an underlying theme of the movie.

Ultron and the twins

Ultron and the twins

Even dedicated fans of Disney would have been unlikely to recognize the melancholic version of “There Are No Strings on Me” playing in the background of the trailer, and if not for the final words of the villain at the end of the trailer, might have even gone unnoticed.   Robots searching for their humanity is one of the most common themes in regards to stories involving the artificial beings, and forms the basis for many of the most famous characters and stories in science fiction, whether it be Data in Star Trek or the replicants in Blade Runner.  Often times, and especially with well-established characters, there are references made to the artificial men of literature.  For instance, in one episode of Star Trek TNG, Data is compared to the Tin Man, who himself sought his own heart.

In a bit of a twist, Ultron though he is a robot with artificial intelligence has never been very concerned with his humanity, declaring his own sentience to supersede that of humans, despite having been patterned on the  persona of Hank Pym, though presumably someone else in this movie seeing as Pym has not yet shown up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.   The artificial man in reference in the trailer is Pinocchio, who as far as artificial men go is in a category of his own.  As the story goes, the wooden boy was first sculpted from a piece of magical talking wood, and strove for true humanity, but with a background based on magic, the impulse is still the same, to be truly human or as the song says “there are no strings on me”.  As a choice for the underlying music of the trailer it is therefore a little bit confusing.  Ultron is not the best example of a robot trying to understand humanity, and it is even seen as one of his fatal flaws, as the hero The Vision was able to overcome Ultron in an early appearance because The Vision had a conscience whereas Ultron did not.  Perhaps then, another reading of the music is necessary, not holding true to the story or the genre at all, but rather taken at face value.  Ultron and machines will not be ruled by man and this is all the setup that the new Avengers movie needs.

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