Or – “The Team That Saved The Day When There Was No Team…”
The 80’s were a weird time for comics, especially in the Marvel Universe. The Fantastic Four joined the Avengers, there were two Things running around, and the X-Men all died in Dallas. And never returned. Which would be sad, if not for all the horrible stories we theoretically avoided with their demise. (That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking with it.)
Avengers Annual #17
Script: Walt Simonson
Pencils: Mark Bright
Inks: Mike Gustovich; Valerie Gustovich
Colors: Evelyn Stain
Letters: Bill Oakley; Michael Heisler; Rick Parker
Editing: Mark Gruenwald
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Previously, on The Avengers: The High Evolutionary was dead, thanks to a merciless pummeling from the Hulk, but (as with most Marvel types) he got better. And with his new physical form came a new plan: to eliminate the silly homo sapiens and homo superior types and evolve his own creatures, a form of life that would be loyal only to him. His battle raged across the Marvel Universe, and involved the major heroes of the world circa 1988, including X-Factor, the New Mutants, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and (strangely enough) The Punisher. There was some fooferfaw that put the lie to the claims that the Jackal ever really cloned anyone, which I prefer for the sole reason that it would have offset the Ben Reilly ‘Is he or isn’t he?’ madness of a few years hence, and the Young Gods appeared briefly, which proves that there would be six more weeks of winter. (Much like the cicadas, they rise up en masse every few years or so, then hibernate until it’s time to fight again.) Unfortunately, the efforts of these dozens of heroes failed to stop H.E., and the artist formerly known as Herbert Wyndham continued inexorably towards his eventual domination of Earth. With all the major hero groups down, he puts into place a contingency to wipe out Earth’s Mightiest Heroes by resurrecting one of their own fallen members…
In case you’re not fully versed in 70’s/80’s era Avengers, the lady’s name is Jocasta. Built by Ultron in the image of his “mother,” The Wasp (Eww… His Freudian slip is showing.) she turned on her evil master and joined the Avengers, only to be blown to smithereens in battle with him. Her call does not go unanswered, as the Avengers central computer records her distress call, and assesses the active membership. In the wake of Doctor Druid’s disastrous run as leader, the team’s membership consists of… nobody. Thus, the priority call goes out to all inactive members, declaring a Code One emergency situation. First on the scene is a mysterious man in black.
Having given up his uniform and role as Captain America to a corrupt Commission on Superhuman Something Or Other, Steve Rogers is currently rushing about as an unaffiliated hero called The Captain. The mysterious voice turns out to belong to his partner The Falcon, followed quickly by Hercules (who may or may not still be suffering from some brain damage from getting Pearl Harbored by the Masters of Evil.) The Beast and the gray Hulk arrive together, working a truly entertaining Laurel & Hardy routine, and the heroes set off to engage the mysterious call for help, when a sudden buzzing sound is heard from a closet.
Why Hydrobase has closets and looks like a New York brownstone has yet to be revealed. (I suspect Dormammu’s involvement.) The team hijacks a Quinjet and sets off to figure out what is up with the distress call from a dead Avenger, busting into H.E.’s anti-Avenger lab in heroic fashion. There is some tension between The Captain and the super-brutal Joe Fixit Hulk, but the team manages to corral one of the Evolutionary’s lackeys, forcing him to make with the exposition…
There’s a certain magic within this grouping for me, with Captain America’s bossiness somehow offset by his new status quo, the streetwise Falcon, the brainy Beast, the surly Hulk, a punch-drunk Hercules and a completely out-of-place Yellowjacket II trying to make her way among the big names. The De Facto Avengers walk right into the midst of a turf war between Attuma’s Atlantean forces and Warlord Kro’s Lemurian army, a battle manufactured by H.E. to distract the underwater types from his activies in the Sunda Strait. It’s kinda wonderful to watch Herc and Hulk punch their way to success against the ENTIRE ATLANTEAN FLEET, while Cap and Beast figure out the real target…
Art here is by a very young Mark Bright, showing the first signs of the unique style that would come to define his work on Iron Man and Icon, with (slightly overpowering) inks by Mike Gustovich. One of the unique things about Marvel at this point was the vast gulf between art styles on the major books. For every John Byrne issue of Fantastic Four, you’d get a super-scratchy Al Milgrom job on West Coast Avengers. (That’s not to discredit Al, a strong inker in his own right, but pencilling WCA clearly wasn’t his best work.) Gustovich is an artist that I love on certain books (Justice Machine is classic) but whose work is an up and down proposition, especially in this time period. Still, the Bright/Gusto combo balances pretty well here, save for Cap’s headwings. The team convenes with Jocasta, who helps them to get into H.E.’s massive oceanic battlewagon and enact their makeshift plan.
Learning that H.E. is using his evolved ani-men as lieutenants, the Avengers turn his people against one another, as the human Purifiers have been brought together with the belief that they’re cleansing the human gene pool. The Evolutionary gets personally involved, and as you might expect, the battle takes about ten seconds. Unfortunately, the shortness of the engagement isn’t a good thing for our heroes… Two street-fighters, a girl who can shrink, two strongmen, a mutant acrobat and a robot against a man with the power of the cosmos at his fingertips?
Again, a bit of background: In 1988, the Hulk was powered down in his gray incarnation, Herc was recovering from injuries, and The Beast was more physically powerful than ever, thanks to the powers of Infectia. You heard me. This escape sequence is another reason why I love Simonson’s work on this issue so much, and the camaraderie of these catch-as-catch-can Avengers is truly infectious. Even when their backs are to the wall, and they come up with a last-ditch plan to save the entire world, Hercules does it with a smile worthy of Brave & The Bold Aquaman.
The Hulk throws the plan out of whack by demanding that he be the one evolved, slowing things down long enough for the High Evolutionary to arrive and ambush them. The Hulk is teleported away with a wave of his hand, taking one of the most powerful heroes out of the fray. Hercules manages to get a boost of power, but H.E. blasts him to atoms. Yellowjacket zaps him in his inner ear, making herself useful, and Hercules regenerates his powers. Avenger and villain fight it out, constantly increasing in power, until both are giants of pure energy. “Thou should have aspired to less godhood and MORE HUMANITY!!!” yells the Avenger as he strikes the decisive blow against H.E.
Hercules evolves far past human form, turning into energy and dispersing into the fabric of the cosmos as his horrified friends watch. With the villain gone, the Avengers realize that his footsoldiers have taken over the ship, trying to set off the volcano/bomb and finish his last works. Jocasta manages to plug her shattered form into the computers and cause the warp core to breach and annihilate the whole ship in a blast of antimatter. But will it take out the gene-bomb? The four remaining Avengers fight their way back to the ship, and take off, seconds ahead of the massive conflagration.
The last panel is one of the weird parts of the issue for me, seeing as how two of their cohorts (possibly three, seeing as nobody knows what really happened to The Hulk) annihilated makes the smiles seem a little bit off. And you can see what I mean about the head-wings there. Still, it’s a minor flaw in an issue that has stuck with me more than most annuals of the time. I have NO idea what happened in Atlantis Attacks, for instance, save that ‘Ghaur needs women.’ And as for the gloop that fought it’s way past the Punisher to eventually face down the Silver Surfer, the less said, the better. For me, The Avengers really shine when they’re NOT Earth’s Mightiest Heroes with massive resources and endless power, times like Cap’s Kooky Quartet, or the Goliath/Wasp/Vision/Hawkeye/Black Panther team, or even the underground heroes of Civil War-era New Avengers. The Avengers reformed a couple of months later, with a nucleus of Thor, Cap, half the Fantastic Four and a guy in a cow-suit, but few groupings have worked for me like this issue did, even teams with favorite characters all over the place. Avengers Annual #17 is the biggest stepping stone in my early love of the team, and even if there are some issues with the art, and massive crossover madness slopping out the airvents, it’s still a beloved book, earning 4 out of 5 stars overall. I’m sure some of this is my youth talking, but this is one of the comics that demonstrates what good comic stories are all about…
Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day (A Day Late): What unlikely team lineups are on your fave-rave list? Detroit League, anyone?