Thursday, May 8, 2008

Celestial Madonna -Avengers 129, GS Avengers 2

Avengers 129 Steve Englehart
Avengers #129 (1974) 
Books discussed: Avengers 129, Giant-Size Avengers 2

Doug: The Celestial Madonna has always been one of my favorite Avengers tales, which is sort of funny since I didn’t come to the story completely until several years ago. Buying the issues off the newsstand as a kid, I owned #’s 130, 131, and Giant-Size #’s 3 and 4. That’s a pretty sketchy coverage to a 10-issue epic. But, the books I did have made a great impression on my young imagination.

Karen: I was pretty much in the same boat. I had a few issues here and there. I finally got all of them about ten years ago.

Sharon: I bought a few issues a couple of years ago; these were my introduction to Mantis. Then I came upon the tpb and read the whole thing.

Doug: First of all, the Avengers’ line-up was without peer – Thor, Iron Man, the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, Mantis, the Swordsman, and Hawkeye. Power, stealth, angst, and personalities galore. Even without Captain America (how in the world did he get on the cover of GS #2 when he was embroiled in the Nomad storyline in his own book??), the team had a dynamism that left the reader truly believing that this was the “varsity”. The JLA with Superman, J’onn, Red Tornado, Zatanna, Black Canary, and Green Arrow might not have been as impressive a bunch as this Avengers team.

Secondly, Kang is a super-baddie that matches up well with any incarnation of the Avenger. He has at his disposal the gadgets, strategies, and knowledge of all of time. In addition, he can disappear and be virtually unfound, only to strike again without warning. Next to Ultron, he’s my favorite villain.

Karen: Englehart writes Kang well. This seems to be the version that most likely influenced Kurt Busiek when he did his Kang saga in volume three of Avengers later on. Kang is an efficient, ruthless, relentless foe.
The whole Kang/Rama-Tut (and later, Immortus) connection was always quite intriguing. I know there has also been some talk that Dr. Doom was also Kang but it seems that that was dropped.

Sharon: The Scarlet Centurion is supposed to be part of this too, right…not this particular storyline, but part of the whole identity thing? Or was that dropped? I always found these multiple identities fascinating—confusing as hell, but fascinating and very imaginative.

Doug: Yes, I’d forgotten about the Scarlet Centurion identity. Do either of you know when or where it was discussed that Dr. Doom was an alternate version of Kang – I recall that, too.

Karen: I was trying to remember that too, Doug. It seems like it’s been changed now so that Doom was Kang’s ancestor, but I would’ve sworn at one time, he was considered to be Kang himself. And the original cover for GS Avengers #2 actually had Doom standing there, Rama Tut and Kang! If anyone has a copy of FOOM #8, you can see it for yourself.

Doug: Third, how can you knock these two teams of do-badders: Crimson Dynamo, Titanium Man, Radioactive Man, and the ever-lovin’ Slasher… plus the Legion of the Unliving?? ‘Nuff Said!!

My re-read of these issues was only the second of my “career”. So, I came to them somewhat with a lens of freshness. First off, let me say that the art in these two books was just fantastic. I really like Sal Buscema in this era – I thought he was even more solid here than in the CA/F books we recently discussed.

Sharon: Sal does his usual, effective storytelling job.

Doug: Joe Staton is credited as the inker for #129; I’d previously known Staton from his DC work on the revived JSA in All-Star Comics in the late 1970’s. While possessing a somewhat unique style (these tales have recently been collected in two tpb’s if you’re interested), I didn’t get the impression that he was exerting any of his own influence on Sal B’s pencils. Enhancing, yes, but certainly not overpowering – his style is really only evident in some of the faces. Dave Cockrum pencils the GS issue with no inker credited. This pre-dates his All-New, All-Different X-Men and is just as solid as Buscema’s work. I think there has always been something distinctive about Cockrum’s faces – I can’t exactly pinpoint what it is. Sometimes I think it’s the eyes, sometimes the mouths. He has an inventory of facial expressions that are recognizable whether I’m reading Legion, Avengers, or X-Men. I will add that I thought his characters had a depth to them spatially – definitely filled out, well-rounded… I really enjoyed the close-up headshot of Jarvis when he was talking to Hawkeye early in the story. And how about that Hawkeye splash page?? One beef – I didn’t care for the bubble-headed Kang. I’ve seen him drawn with a much less-round helmet.

Karen: I just want to say that I love this Dave Cockrum art! Seeing this, I wish he had been able to be a regular Avengers artist. His style is smooth and dynamic.

Sharon: Er, don’t stone me, but I am not a Dave Cockrum fan. I don’t really know why but I have never loved his art. It’s good, but just not distinctive to me. I can never recognize his work. I don’t like his faces, I don’t like his take on Hawkeye’s mask, and so on. His art always seems rushed to me.

Doug: Dave Cockrum is as distinctive to me as John Byrne. As I said, his faces are very unique. I suppose if I only saw a headless figure, his art wouldn’t stand out as much.

Karen: I’m so glad Englehart brought Hawkeye back into the fold. Nearly as much as Cap, he’s the quintessential Avenger. I’ve always felt that of all the Avengers, Hawkeye may have been the character that experienced the most growth. From his beginnings as a hot-headed loudmouth, to eventually becoming a team leader, the readers got to see Clint Barton mature. This issue shows some of that, as Hawkeye realizes what a mess he’s stumbled into, sees the Swordsman on the brink of a breakdown, and tries to keep things on a steady path. I enjoy him as our point of view character.

Doug: Yes, Hawkeye even shows up with his usual chip-on-the-shoulder, but his sense of duty overrides any mischievousness he might have been waiting to unleash.

As good as the cover to #129 was, I thought the cover to GS #2 was that bad – not the art, just the design. What were they trying to do with the giant images of Kang and Rama-tut? It didn’t work two issues in a row. And as I said above, why is Cap with the team?

As far as dialogue, I thought Englehart was OK with the pop-culture references. The Kissinger line was OK, but I did find it odd that he mentioned Nixon in China in GS #2 (but maybe that’s only because we’ve just read “Secret Empire”). I didn’t care, in the GS issue for Hawkeye’s incessant address to the Swordsman as “Sword”. Just seemed weird, and the over-and-over was overbearing!

Sharon: It was awful! Made no sense; Hawkeye had never called him that before. Plus, Hawkeye always resented the Swordsman. I found the easy acceptance a little hard to swallow.

Doug: Another sore spot was the twice-over shameless plug for Marvel’s sword-and-sorcery mags, with references to Robert E. Howard, Crom!, and King Kull. Blatant self-promotion.

Karen: You have to wonder if Rascally Roy put those plugs in there!

The inclusion of Amen-Hotep, the vampire, was odd as well. Of course, this was at a time when Marvel was publishing all sorts of horror books. But this vampire looks a lot more like a demon than a traditional vampire.

Doug: I liked that both issues started with a bang – it was a great hook. As I have read many of the issues in the era where the Swordsman went straight, I really came to like him as a “loveable loser”. That the spotlight fell on him in this first issue was OK with me. I understand why a lot of folks don’t like Mantis – I’ve always liked her. Yeah, her speech patterns are annoying, but she could really kick some butt. When they fought the Macrobots, I was waiting for her to take one down like Karnak would have. Didn’t happen, but she was fearless nonetheless. Keep in mind that this was the kung fu era in comics, so she wasn’t out of place in that regard.

Karen: I thought this issue was well-paced, moving quickly from scene to scene while still giving us a great story. Re-reading it now, I could feel the excitement it generated in me as a kid, the first time I read it! These were really some of the golden years of the Avengers, as far as I’m concerned.

Doug: Agreed – younger readers coming to the Avengers in their current incarnation really have no idea about solid storytelling and well-paced artwork that involves the reader, peeling layer after layer away to expose character development.

Karen: It’s quite painful to see the poor Swordsman in his pity-party. He did get screwed over left and right, though. Jarvis summed it up well when he said, “Everything he tries to do goes wrong, somehow!”

This is appropriate of nothing, and sort of embarrassing, but as a kid, I always thought Mantis looked a bit like a hula dancer. I guess her skirt looked like a grass skirt somehow…even today I’m not sure what her costume is made of or supposed to look like.

Sharon: I was surprised at Mantis’ costume; her hips were often totally exposed. In some issues you can see the colorist colors her hips green (to give the appearance that she’s wearing something under the skirt, I suppose) but it’s a pretty daring costume. Well, by 1974 the Code was passé and essentially ineffective—it was still around but comics publishers just ignored it.

Doug: It’s funny you bring this up, as it had never really occurred to me as a kid. However, upon reading these comments, I immediately thought of Alex Ross’ portrayal of Wonder Woman in Kingdom Come – she is shown wearing a VERY split skirt, with her hips fully visible. In effect, the Amazon Princess is wearing a thong!

Karen: The split skirt is actually still a lot more modest than the “butt floss” some of the female characters wear today –and I’m looking at you, Ed Benes’ Wonder Woman!!

Doug: I have often been confused about the different personages of Kang. Englehart did a pretty good job of explaining the Kang/Rama-tut relationship, although I did read it three times just to be sure I had it. I’ll be honest – when I read Avengers Forever, I didn’t really get it. I have only read it as it was available on a monthly basis – I have the tpb and need to read it all in one sitting or at least over a couple of days.

Overall the story got off to a nice start. The Celestial Madonna mystery was not carried out too long, and reached a predictable conclusion (hey, did you really think Kang was going to get it on with Agatha???).

Karen: This still makes no sense to me: why would Kang take Agatha Harkness? Surely the elderly sorceress was far past her childbearing years.

Doug: Ah, but so were Sara and Abraham – this wouldn’t have been the only Bible allusion in comics had Englehart chosen that path to explore…

Karen: OK, possible…but icky!

Doug: I absolutely loved the cat-fighting between Mantis and Wanda when they were in the test tubes, and knowing how the story progresses it was nice foreshadowing. The Swordsman’s death was done with dignity, and left a nice sort of “new direction” for the coming issues. But don’t get me going on the Cotati…

Karen: The squabbling over the Vision by Wanda and Mantis seemed particularly adult for the time (although pretty commonplace now). It’s even more interesting when you realize that this was Englehart’s original purpose in bringing Mantis into the team: she was going to be the tramp who came on to all the guys and got the team discombobulated! But I think he grew to love the character so much he really couldn’t go the whole way with that idea.

Sharon: Wanda and Mantis’ bickering had me scratching my head. Was Wanda, a veteran Avenger, really so insecure that she would engage in this at such a time? Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; Englehart on previous occasions had shown her to be emotional, needy and insecure about her relationship with the Vision (one of the points of this arc). I remember being stunned in an earlier issue (vs. Klaw) when she argued with Vision at an equally inopportune time…plus at that time she basically prevented Vision from helping T’Challa. Talk about selfish! And based on the letters of the time (the published ones, anyway), the hostility between Mantis and Wanda was a hit with fans. But I cringed at Englehart’s constant use of “my man”, just as I cringed at the use of “Sword” (as we mentioned earlier). It just sounded strange.

Doug: Do you suppose this was a natural evolution in Wanda’s personality due in large part to the absence of Pietro since he’d left to be rehabbed (seduced) by Crystal? She was somewhat like a browbeat wife whenever her brother was around. Maybe this was her way of asserting herself. While I agree the timing seemed off, this could have been a potential plotline Englehart never finished.

Karen: I do think that Englehart was trying to present a more ‘liberated’, stronger Wanda. But in reading her, she does come off as very needy and insecure.

Sharon: I also noticed that Englehart tends to rely on a lot of expository, authorial captions to tell his story, much more than Roy or Stan ever did. Just one example is when he explains to the readers that Hawkeye and Swordsman have had reason in the past to dislike the Vision, but that is “now forgotten” or some such thing. I guess this is simply how Englehart liked to tell his story, but I have always found it annoying and unnecessary. I’m not familiar enough with other Bronze Age scripters to know if this was the norm back then, or just something Englehart liked to do.

Karen: The Swordsman’s somewhat addled enthusiasm for being an Avenger – I loved his little “Avengers Assemble!” thought balloon on page 17 – shows how desperate the man was to feel important and most of all, not a failure. Being a member of the most powerful superhero team on the planet should help boost one’s ego, but it always seemed he never felt he deserved to be there – and maybe he didn’t! There have been a lot of Avengers over the years, and not all were as successful as others. In retrospect, do you consider him to be a legitimate Avenger?

Sharon: Yes. He tried to fit in, and was eager to redeem himself. Once he was part of the team (for real) he contributed as best he could.

Doug: I consider him an Avenger, and was very excited during the Gatherers storyline (which as I’ve said before I did not overall care for) when it looked like he would be back. I only regret that it wasn’t him, although his character was somewhat similar.

Karen: I also consider him a legitimate member of the team – I’ll always give him an A for effort! The poor guy tried so hard. Ultimately, he did succeed at being a hero.
The fight between the Thor-powered Macrobot and the rest of the Avengers was another example of how, during Englehart’s tenure, we got to see just how incredibly powerful Thor really was. Thor finally felt like the Superman of the Avengers. Of course, this ultimately led to him leaving the group, after Moondragon kept bugging him about it.
OK, I have to say I am absolutely stunned by Wanda’s summoning of that meteorite. I didn’t remember that at all! Isn’t that a Phoenix-level stunt? That alone puts her way into the top ranks of power. Of course, the problem is, they always made Wanda’s powers so inconsistent that the next thing you know, she’d have trouble getting away from somebody like the Toad…

Sharon: When I first started reading Marvel, I considered Wanda’s powers to be similar to Chemical King’s: she could speed up, slow down, or cause chemical reactions or processes, which would then lead to a myriad of effects. (A reader in the early days of the Kooky Quartet suggested this, in a letter column, and it made sense to me.) I disliked it when Wanda’s powers later on became more “mystical” and when she sometimes referred to her powers as “spells” (they weren’t!) Making a “chair walk like a man” (in an earlier issue, under Agatha’s tutelage) was ridiculous and a perversion of her power. But it was apparent by this time Marvel wanted to increase her powers. Changing the course of a meteor I could just about buy (reluctantly), because it fits into the Marvel thesis that her power “alters probability” (though not reality, as Bendis would have us believe).

Doug: I’m still wondering why, in Avengers #153 Wanda is shown flying – both ascending and descending. In addition, she is shown transmuting concrete to water to “cushion her fall”. Your Chemical King analogy is most appropriate here, and it is a mystery as to why there was the sudden interest in changing her powers. Do you suppose her powers as they were originally conceived were an amped-up version of the Black Cat’s bad luck powers?

Karen: Cockrum’s work on the two-page spread, showing time itself unraveling, was just breath-taking. The man knew how to tell a story! And of course, the little skull in Swordy’s eye pretty much let you know what was coming.

Sharon: I did like Cockrum’s work here, very much. The death skull in the Swordsman’s eye was very chilling and effective. The two-page spread was a great example of things comics can do that no other medium can.

Karen: Despite the fact that the Swordsman was indeed something of a loser, his death was very affecting. He tried so hard to live up to heroic standards, yet life seemed to be against him. His sacrifice for Mantis, despite her rejection of him, was moving. He may not have been a great Avenger, but in the end he was someone I think the average person could relate to. Englehart really did an outstanding job with this character, in taking a nobody and making the reader empathize with him so.

Sharon: I have no problem with the ending, and the Swordsman’s death; it was touching, tragic. But again, I had to force myself to believe this played out this way because in his appearances prior to hooking up with Mantis, he’d been portrayed as a self-confident, swaggering sort of fellow (and not as down to earth as, say, Hawkeye; the Swordsman always had an haughty arrogance about him). I mean, look at him in #19 and #20…he comes across as resourceful and confident and he looks like Tony Stark! He’s snobby and disdainful of Hawkeye in #65. Look, I know people can change, especially when they’ve hit rock bottom; but I felt the premise of him being such a loser was hard to swallow. I guess as a reader I could have done a better job ignoring his previous incarnations. Still, despite my misgivings about his characterization, the story and his death were effective.

Doug: The points you each raise only solidify why the Avengers have been the greatest team in comics – here we see the Swordsman redeem himself not only as a member of the team, but as a man as well. In his sacrificial act, he dies a hero and a devoted lover to Mantis. His circle becomes complete.

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