Essential Avengers v5

A comic review article by: Kelvin Green

Collects: The Avengers #98-119, Daredevil #99 and Defenders #8-11

With all due respect to the creative teams of the first hundred Avengers issues, they were just laying the groundwork; Steve Englehart's arrival as regular writer early in this volume is where things really start to come together. On the surface, it's business as usual; Englehart keeps the soap opera plotlines ticking along, and sets up an array of new and returning threats for our heroes, but he also starts setting things up with an eye to a longer run. He starts hinting and foreshadowing, and when the then-traditional constraints of a team book don't quite support the kind of story he wants to tell, Englehart changes the rules. It makes for a vibrant and always-interesting read, and it's not hard to see why this era (albeit later stories in particular) is the favourite of top Avengers scribe Kurt Busiek. Indeed, a lot of Busiek's Avengers trademarks seem to have their origins in Englehart's work; their characterisations of Thor are noticeably similar, and Busiek's handling of the Scarlet Witch/Vision relationship seems like a direct continuation of Englehart's work on the characters, with the twenty year gap almost imperceptible.

My favourite story collected here is #113, which despite a rather quaint presentation of suicide bombers (they even have little plungers on their heads to set off the explosives), is a tense and exciting story as the Avengers, instead of fighting vastly powerful enemies in fantastic locations, instead defend a hospital ward from extremists while the Vision undergoes surgery inside. It's a great example of Englehart's ability to shake up the format of the book without changing its essential character (hello Bendis!), and it's also a surprisingly deep story for a superhero book from this era. While Englehart stops short of providing any answers to the problem, he does explore the psychology of extremism and examines why people would go as far as blowing themselves up for their beliefs. It's an eerily prescient tale that still has a lot to say, and it’s a fun Avengers story too.

Aside from that tale, this chunky volume is packed with great stuff, with only a couple of stories (the short detour into a Hawkeye/Daredevil subplot, Roy Thomas’ unsuccessful adaptation of a Harlan Ellison story, the Halloween-themed Collector tale) coming across as filler, and as such, this is probably the most consistently good Essential Avengers volume so far. The main event though, is the complete Avengers/Defenders war, the first major superhero comics crossover, and an epic tale that still stands up well today. It's not the most complex of narratives, simply being a series of one on one fights hung on a simple quest plot, but it's exceptionally well told, with a number of highlights that stand the test of time. So much so that it’s quite often homaged; Busiek (of course) has made use of the format at least twice (once in the Avengers Annual from 1998, with the Squadron Supreme taking the place of the Defenders, and which also features Imus Champion, who is introduced in this volume; and again in the superlative Avengers/JLA), and Peter Milligan gave the story an affectionate ribbing in the last few issues of X-Statix in 2004. As far as the original goes, my personal favourite sequence is the fight between Hulk and Thor, that starts as the standard superhero slugfest, before Englehart shakes things up and develops it into something more interesting, as the two titans, unable to shift each other, stand almost motionless, straining against each other for literally hours. It’s just great to see a writer exploring the fun possibilities of the genre, without worrying about making it “filmic” or realistic.

Barry Windsor Smith moves on to new pastures after illustrating the landmark #100 (which includes perhaps the first of many spreads of all the then-Avengers together, and how anaemic it looks in relation to more recent reunions), but even though the majority of the volume may lack the flash and dynamism of BWS or John Buscema (who returns briefly for #105), Bob Brown, Rich Buckler and others provide solid and attractive art, and again there’s really no bad work here, although, again, that Daredevil issue is certainly having a go; to be fair, penciller Sam Kweskin is clearly uncomfortable with costumed heroes, and an Avengers crossover is really not the best way to showcase his talents.

This is easily my favourite volume thus far in the series, as Englehart’s stewardship of the Avengers title, while showing considerable influence from preceding writer Roy Thomas, is perhaps the first to truly push forward with an attempt to give The Avengers a distinctive flavour beyond simply being a team book. Englehart would go on to produce stronger work in later issues, but this is an excellent start from one of the title’s more important creative forces.

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