Friday, May 9, 2008

Celestial Madonna: Avengers 130-131

Avengers 130 Cover
Avengers #130 (1974)
Doug: These two issues seem to be grouped together, due in large part to the setting, the introduction of Immortus to the tale, as well as the burgeoning origin of Mantis.

Karen: Yes, the two issues really felt like one long story.
Doug: These were issues I had as a child. My memories of #130 center on the Slasher and his amazing costume, and the short battle between Thor and Iron Man. As I was very young and early into my comics reading, I found it very odd that two heroes would fight each other! Obviously, my Marvel knowledge was only just beginning!

Sharon: #130’s main battle is not particularly memorable to me—in fact, the whole issue seems like a fill-in issue…but there are some interesting little touches, such as the Thor-Iron Man fight.

Doug: My impression of #130, as I read it for perhaps the fourth or fifth time, is really dominated by the racist caricatures of the Vietnamese men in the tale. I’ve used two versions of the book for this research – the DVD-ROM and the Celestial Madonna trade paperback. In the scans used for the digital version, the coloring of the Vietnamese hearkens back to the propaganda that comics publishers put out during WWII – yellow skin tones, and of course the exaggerated eyes and mouths. I would assume that the trade paperback had been “re-mastered”; however, in the scene where the Slasher robs the jeweler, the Vietnamese are colored a putrid green color; in the scene where the man runs from the Titanic Three, his skin is the peach tone used normally for coloring Caucasians. Oh well – on to the tale itself…

Steve Englehart makes an assumption of the assembled Avengers in regard to the passing of the Swordsman – that “they miss him more than they can say.” I’m not sure that would be entirely true, and even if it were, would they miss him because they missed him, or because a comrade had fallen in battle? Unless I am mistaken, the Swordsman was the first active member of the roster to fall in battle, so this was certainly uncharted territory for the team (I am not counting Wonder Man due in large part to his brief tenure with the team – anyone feel differently?). I would guess, too, that given Hawkeye’s presence at the funeral, his mind might have been swimming with all sorts of emotions. So I didn’t care for Englehart’s attempt to force me to feel the emotions that he thought those assembled should be feeling.

Karen: I thought about that too. As you say, Hawkeye might have reason to feel badly, and Mantis of course, but the other three (Thor, Iron Man, and the Vision) barely knew the guy. Rather than a deep feeling of loss, I expect they would be feeling a sense of unease or heightened awareness of the dangerous nature of their lives.

Sharon: I agree. I’m not so sure why the Avengers would feel so badly about the Swordsman, other than out of compassion. And why does Englehart have Hawkeye think that he (Hawkeye) always gave the Swordsman a hard time? It was the other way around; the Swordsman was the one who’d always belittled Clint previously. And there’s that annoying use of “Sword” again!

Doug: I was also struck by Iron Man’s in-your-face demeanor at the meeting shown in the flashback scene. He just seemed so impulsive, which I guess is how he’s portrayed today – maybe it wasn’t so out-of-his-ordinary. But, picturing Tony Stark behind the faceplate just made me think that at times in the boardroom he had to be more diplomatic. I was feeling this again later in the aforementioned scene where he goes toe-to-toe with Thor. And in regard to that short skirmish, I guess there’s no doubt where Thor ranks in the Avengers power department. He dispensed Iron Man as not much more than an after thought. I guess I’d always thought of Iron Man as 1A in the category of “Strongest Avengers”… but when you factor in the Vision, Hercules, Namor, and Wonder Man, IM might be in the middle of that list, hmmm?

Karen: I know I mentioned this before, but I really liked the fact that Englehart made it obvious that Thor was way beyond the rest in power. This was one of the few periods where I felt like the thunder god was given his due. And Iron Man was much more of a hot-head back then, wasn’t he? Of course, he had every right to feel that way about the North Vietnamese, since they were responsible for his heart injury. Of course nowadays that’s all been retconned away, as it would date things too far back in Marvel time. I understand why they feel the need to do this, but still, I miss some of those now-anachronistic touches.

Doug: The Slasher, while visually stunning to my 8-year old mind, seems quite silly to me now. I guess his “power” is not unlike DD’s old foe the Gladiator, but the Gladiator a) looked cooler, and b) had a personality. The Slasher is just a punk, and that suit is just so impractical were it “real”.

Karen: Did you notice that when he first appears, in one caption he seems to be referred to as “Buzzsaw”? I thought this was an odd gaffe.

Doug: Big question – how in the world did the Avengers land a quinjet in North Vietnamese airspace?? When they faced the Titanic Three, it was clearly stated that the Americans had no authority in the North. I’m thinking there would have been Red jet fighters in the air to attempt an intercept.

Thor’s homily at Mantis’ request was somewhat touching and served to show a spiritual side to the Thunder God that, even though he’s often invoking the name of Odin, is not usually dealt with.

Karen: It was a touching scene. I like when the writers deal with the fact that to Thor, his human comrades will live but a short time, so in a sense all of his friendships are quite transient. Busiek really dealt with this nicely later on.

Sharon: Well, I guess having an immortal deliver a eulogy on life being temporary is a comment on what happens to Mantis later on. Overall, a touching scene.

Doug: Interesting that the Radioactive Man says he and his allies are not criminals in North Vietnam, and that no other political entity could touch them. Englehart politicizes what America felt at the time, with Saigon to fall in the very near future. The Slasher’s use of the term “Commies” near the end of the story is certainly temporal, too. The Vision’s soliloquy at the conclusion of the issue is good: “But isn’t that always the way, Thor? Whenever a war is fought, it is never the people who must fight it – who have any reason to bring it about.” This issue, only a few months after Englehart’s very political Secret Empire saga that ran in Captain America, paints the author as somewhat of a spokesperson for the Left of the day.

Karen: After reading Secret Empire, and now this, one might be left with the (false) impression that the Marvel of the 70s was highly politicized. But I think this is more about Steve Englehart expressing his opinions than any actual trend.

Sharon: Yes, Englehart didn’t hesitate to insert his beliefs into his stories. What the Vision says echoes what many Americans felt about the US taking part in the Vietnam War. Englehart used these sentiments (with the wording slightly changed) again in a few of his Cap stories.

Doug: Mantis’ musing as to her true origins, and her true self, was interesting. That she felt she falls short of being a Madonna due to her chasing after the Vision was a strange confession (particularly in light of what comes later!).

Sharon: I had a hard time believing that she felt unworthy because she –what, made a pass at someone? Was that so heinous?

Doug: Overall, issue #130 was a bridge between the initial volley launched by Kang and what is to come. It’s really rather a quiet story (the altercation with the Titanic Three aside), and continues to reveal some of the layers of Mantis’ origin. While Kang is only in the story in a flashback and as an explanation used to bring Hawkeye up to speed, his menacing presence hangs over the Avengers.

Sharon: As mentioned, despite its action, #130 seems like a fill-in issue to me; its chief purpose was to lay some groundwork for the Vision and Mantis to “discover” themselves.

Doug: Issue #131 had a faster pace, right from the splash page. To continue a point I’d made earlier, the artwork in this issue was certainly toned-down racially – maybe not noticeable to all, but it just struck me. Anyway, I really enjoyed the Kang/Rama-tut/Immortus interactions. And, at this point we haven’t learned that Immortus is actually part of this whole Kang mix. The thing I love/hate about the way most writers handle Immortus is that you never really know where he stands – what he’s up to. That’s good – he’s a character who keeps me on my toes!

Karen: That was particularly evident in Avengers Forever.

Doug: The art by the Sal Buscema/Joe Staton (Staton give us more of Sal as the series goes on) team was again very strong. I especially liked Sal’s introduction of each member of the Legion of the Unliving. Englehart excelled in his choices – as Kang himself stated, what a varied lot of characters! He alluded to Immortus’ former use of fictional characters – here we have an awesome tour of Marvel history.

Karen: Immortus’ choices back in Avengers 10 were interesting in some sense, because we would see versions of the same ‘fictional’ characters later on – mainly Hercules and Merlin. But I would agree, those opponents were not nearly so full of emotional force as the ones Kang chose.

Doug: The inclusion of Nomad, while nostalgic I suppose, seemed merely a selling point for the Captain America series. As I’d complained earlier about the inclusion of Robert E. Howard references in Englehart’s scripts, this seemed in a similar vein. Now, whether it was actually the author’s doing, or mandated from editorial, I don’t know. But, looking at it with a marketing eye, it seems painfully obvious why the scene(s) is included. Did it really add anything near-approaching a plot device? I think not. I’m not sure that knowing that Cap was about to trounce the Serpent Squad would make me run out and buy his book – I’d have probably already been buying it. I guess I sound cynical – but by this time (late 1974) the Marvel Universe was firmly established – we know that characters meet and intermingle. But given that only a few months earlier (in the Secret Empire arc in Cap’s own book) Cap had sworn off the U.S. government, was on the outs with SHIELD, and was hitchhiking, I just found it silly that he all of a sudden pops up because he “was in the Pacific”. No way…

Karen: I have to admit, as a kid I really liked seeing Nomad show up, because that sense of a shared universe still seemed somewhat novel at the time. However, I can see where you’re coming from now, Doug, so many years alter. Still, it is kinda cool to see him there, although I always thought that Nomad outfit was just atrocious. For an artist, Steve Rogers wasn’t much of a costume designer!

Sharon: The Nomad interlude seemed intrusive and out of place. All of a sudden this smiling blond in a silly costume shows up, and he and the Avengers have a chat, and then he departs? Steve seems so simple here; he’s all aglow because his first case (as the Nomad) is a success- -does Steve really see things in such black and white terms? Apparently so; and when things turn out to be gray, that’s when Steve bails- -as we saw at the conclusion of Secret Empire.

Doug: Regarding the scene between Mantis and the Vision – am I supposed to now think that Mantis is completely remorseful for any prior obnoxious behavior? I don’t know – it just seems like Englehart wanted to do this big redemption story; while the Swordsman got his right at the beginning, Mantis’ would be drawn out. I would also add that he obviously had big plans for her – many have commented that Mantis was his “pet” character much the same way Bendis has used Spider-Woman recently. From the time she showed up (#114), it was apparent that she would have some serious face time in the book. A culmination of events (of sorts) was inevitable. Interesting, too, that as we get to this scene where Mantis apologizes to the Vision for her attempt at seduction that I am reminded of how “chummy” she and Wanda were right after Mantis’ introduction.

Karen: Mantis being Englehart’s pet was quite apparent; it bothered me back then and it bothers me still now. Rather than growing organically to be an important character in Avengers, it just felt like she was forced on the readership.

Sharon: While I felt Mantis’ apology to the Vision was excessive (again: is flirting a crime??), even stranger was the Vision’s reply that if he could feel flattered, then what heights would she reach? Huh? A clumsy connection at best. The only line I found realistic here was when Mantis says she was happy…as she was. The rest of the dialogue in this scene seemed contrived.

Doug: Hawkeye’s “cellphone” is certainly large, isn’t it??

Karen: Yeah, but it had a cool viewscreen!
I thought the very brief conversation between the Vision and Iron Man regarding Vizh’s confusion over his love life was awkward. It went nowhere, and I really don’t see IM being so uncomfortable talking about this subject. Was it simply a way for Englehart to have the Vision express his concerns?

Sharon: Iron Man’s discomfort was certainly out of character. Not sure why he would be so embarrassed.

Doug: I really like the separation of the team as the adventure shifts to Limbo. Not the old-formula of two heroes together, but each Avenger separate. This was a nice way to build suspense for the next issue.

I don’t have anything to really say about the reappearance of the Swordsman, other than to ask if there was any precedent that you can think of for this. It predates Obi-wan Kenobi’s merger with the Force – the first and only example of a ghost-like presence that pops into my head.

Karen: At the time, I assumed he was non-corporeal, I guess because of the green glow. But he was actually the Swordsman’s body re-animated by the Cotati, right? So he is a real, physical presence and not an immaterial spirit, like Obi-Wan? Or was Obi-Wan solid? It all confuses me…

Sharon: Effective scene and good visualization of Mantis’ guilt.

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