Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
At this time of year, I don’t have a ton of time to read stuff, so I’m a bit behind on the new entries to this list. But that’s why I have older stuff that needs to be reposted! So let’s get to the next one! But just a single issue? Why this one? Old-school comics readers will know why!!!! (Oh, and SPOILERS, as usual. Just in case you didn’t know!)
Avengers Annual by Chris Claremont (writer), Michael Golden (penciler/colorist), Armando Gil (inker), and Joe Rosen (letterer).
Marvel, 1 issue (#10), cover dated 1981.
Remember when Chris Claremont was an excellent comic book writer? These days it seems like he’s going through the motions, but back in the 1970s and ’80s – wow. Why he is writing an annual of the Avengers becomes obvious on page 4, when some familiar mutants show up. Claremont dominated the X-Universe like no one else has dominated a section of a company’s titles (not even Bendis), and when he wanted to use mutants, he used them wherever he felt like it, including an Avengers Annual, damn it!
This book is an example of why people often feel nostalgic for their comic book youth. This is an amazing book, packed with characters who are never overwhelmed by the magnitude of the story, plenty of action, ties to other comic books, excellent character interaction, and the introduction of a major player to the Marvel Universe. That character is, of course, Rogue. We’ll get to her in a bit. Claremont uses dozens of characters to tell the story, and even though we might think we’re going to lose track of them, he never allows this. It’s an impressive feat.
It’s also an unusual comic book in that the Avengers are partly guest stars in their own book, the villains are more than capable to defeating them (and Rogue kicks the crap out of more than one Avenger), and the Avengers don’t come off as the good guys in the book. This is a very mature comic book for its time and theme (superheroes, after all), and it makes all the more interesting to read.
We begin in San Francisco, where Spider-Woman rescues a woman who is falling from the Golden Gate Bridge. Claremont humanizes Jessica Drew in only a few panels, because she is unable to fly to shore with her burden, and instead must swim through the icy waters of the bay to rescue her. In the hospital, we learn the woman is Carol Danvers, a decorated pilot. We know she is also Ms. Marvel, the Avenger, but the doctors and police officers in the hospital don’t know that. The mystery of what happened to Carol drives the plot, and although it gets cleared up quickly (Rogue attacked her), it’s a nice way to begin the story. Instead of a supervillain simply attacking the Avengers, we get a mystery and not everything explained right away. Claremont also shows a little girl at the entrance to the hospital introduce herself to a cop as “Maddy Pryor.” Is it just a favorite name of Claremont’s, or was he plotting something even back in 1981? It’s the advantage of having one person write all the titles in one corner of a Universe – they have a long-term plan. [Editor: I’m fairly certain Brian did a “Legends Revealed” about this in which it was cleared up that Claremont just liked the name and had no long-term plan, but I don’t feel like looking for it now. Still, I love the fact that “Maddy Pryor” shows up years before, says “I been sick. But I’m better now,” which sounds vaguely portentous, and then disappears. Especially because there’s no reason for her to be in the panel.]
Jessica Drew asks for Charles Xavier’s help in determining what happened to Carol, because she’s in a coma and can’t answer questions. In three pages, Claremont gets Xavier to San Francisco and shows who attacked Carol, plus he throws in the X-Men fixing the Danger Room after the attack on Kitty in Uncanny X-Men #143, the famous Christmas demon issue. Ah, compressed storytelling – who doesn’t love it? On page 7, Captain America gets his ass kicked. I’m serious. On page 9, he gets thrown through the window of Avengers Mansion. On page 10, Mystique disables Tony Stark, on page 12, Rogue defeats Thor, and on page 13, she takes down the Vision. She tries to absorb Wonder Man’s powers on Page 14, but she can’t, so she chucks him into a dumpster and takes off. Seven pages, and the Avengers’ most powerful members are toast. Awesome. Rogue, of course, is acting on orders from Mystique, whose plan is to break the New Brotherhood of Evil Mutants out of jail, where they were put after the attempt on Senator Kelly’s life in Uncanny X-Men #141-142. See how Claremont pulls everything together? Rogue needs power, and they need Iron Man to disable the Riker’s Island generator (by dropping him on it). So the reason for the attack on the Avengers becomes clear.
Meanwhile, we get Carol’s backstory, as told originally in Avengers #197-200. She went off to some other dimension with Immortus’s son, Marcus, to make sweet love (or that’s what the Avengers thought). Why she returned to her world and then disappeared is still a mystery. Again, Claremont is very good at tying things in with continuity, yet keeping everything accessible. I never read old Avengers comics, so I have no idea what had happened. Claremont recaps it in two pages, and it adds enough to the story so that I’m not totally lost, but I don’t need to know it either. Marvel used to be good at this – note the use of the words “used to be.” I’m not a super-continuity geek, but I think it’s kind of cool that Marvel made an effort to keep everything in the same universe – if the X-Men fought with the Avengers, they would at least mention it in the next month’s magazines! Not so much anymore.
Mystique and Rogue attack Riker’s Island, and the battle royale begins! Destiny, Blob, Pyro, and Avalanche break out, and come oh so close to totally defeating the Avengers. Destiny uses her pre-cognitive abilities to keep the Avengers off-balance, and only the Scarlet Witch saves the day with her hex powers. See? Even when he’s writing an Avengers book, Claremont has a mutant save the day! That scamp! Of course, it’s not a complete victory for the good guys, because Rogue and Mystique escape. Claremont is always able to throw in little touches to heighten the mystery – Jessica Drew notes Mystique’s resemblance to Nightcrawler, and Iron Man wonders where Mystique got access to high-level military technology. The Avengers do their thing and beat the bad guys, but it’s fun to see how close they came to losing. Yes, I know that superheroes are always close to losing and then pull it out in the end, but very often it doesn’t seem real. Here, the worry in the Avengers that they will lose is evident, and since we know that Ms. Marvel has permanently lost her powers to Rogue (as our southern belle thinks to herself more than once), the possibility exists that Rogue could suck someone else dry.
Usually, that would be the end of the book – villains beaten, good guys triumphant, all is well. But this is a Claremont book, and there’s plenty of time for character interaction! The third act of the book takes place at Xavier’s School, where Carol is recuperating. The Avengers come to ask what happened to her, and she freaks out at them. They left her in another dimension with a madman, and all they cared about was her baby (she was pregnant at the time – it’s complicated, so don’t ask). Claremont turns the tables on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes – they didn’t look after one of their own, because they were too concerned with otherworldly “cool” stuff. Carol was a friend of theirs, but they were too busy playing dress-up to make sure of what she wanted. It’s a biting indictment of the superhero clique, and Claremont makes it subtly, without resorting to “let’s-take-over-the-world-and-ruin-it-even-though-we’re-trying-to-save-it” theatrics. This is not a happy happy, joy joy kind of book, because at the end, the Avengers have to wonder what makes them heroes and what happens if they fail. Carol, as we see in the years to come, has had part of her cut out, and it takes her years to overcome it and almost drives her attacker insane.
The art in the book is spectacular. Al Milgrom’s cover (which is, unfortunately, not too great; one wonders why Golden himself didn’t draw it) is a tribute to the great Silver Age covers, with six different pictures on it, each telling part of the story. How can you resist: “See: Captain America totally defeated! Witness: The invincible Iron Man knocked out of action! Observe: Spider-Woman’s daring midnight rescue! Behold: the deadly New Brotherhood of Evil Mutants!”? Answer: You can’t! It’s a cliché, but it’s true that they don’t make them like that anymore, and the comics world is a little sadder for it. As for the interiors – Golden doesn’t do enough these days, but he’s the kind of artist whose work I would seek out even if I’m not terribly interested in the story. He packs the pages with visual information, but never overwhelms you. The battle between the Brotherhood and the Avengers requires him to draw Rogue, Mystique, Destiny, Pyro, Avalanche, Blob, Spider-Woman, Iron Man, Nick Fury (it’s Mystique, but still), Wonder Man, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, Beast, and Jocasta, but he gets them all in and we’re always sure what we’re seeing and how the action is flowing (it may sound simple, but it’s not). His Rogue alternates between maniacal power and fear and uncertainty – when she absorbs Thor’s power, she is the picture of insanity, but when her power is fading, she looks like the scared girl she is. Golden’s full-page spread of Wanda turning Pyro’s flame monster into rock is beautiful, and when Blob hits Wonder Man or Iron Man smacks Rogue, we feel it. Similarly, Carol’s pain at the meeting with the Avengers is evident and raw, as is the shock on her ex-teammates’ faces. It’s a wonderful complement to the story.
This comic is famous, obviously, for the first appearance of Rogue. She is one of my favorite characters, and I think her arc over the years is one of the more fascinating in superhero comics. The fact that she almost kills Ms. Marvel and steals all her powers as a debut is great, and also sets up her problems, which Claremont probably knew it would. He tended to look long-term, after all. She shows how formidable she can be, and I don’t think she has ever been this formidable since. This issue also highlights her dependence on Mystique, something that would trouble her even after she went straight, as well as her insecurity, something it took her a long time to overcome. For the appearance of Rogue alone this would be a great book, but Claremont doesn’t let it stop there, and we’re better for it.
This book has fluctuated in price over the years, depending on whether Rogue was popular or not. I have no idea what it’s selling for these days. It’s been collected in at least one trade (The Greatest Battles of the Avengers), and it doesn’t look like the Essential volumes are up to it yet. I highly recommend picking it up. It’s the kind of book that makes you remember why you started buying superhero comics in the first place.
I’m starting to update the dead links in the archives, so check those out! Plenty of good comics available!
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