Saturday, April 09, 2005

Avengers Forever

By Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern, Carlos Pacheco, and Jesus Merino
Published By Marvel Comics

When Rick Jones is plagued by a mysterious illness somehow connected to the godlike power he briefly wielded in the much-celebrated "Kree/Skrull War" storyline, the Avengers bring Jones to the Moon to consult the Supreme Intelligence (imprisoned there after the events of the more recent "Live Kree or Die!" arc). Once Marvel’s favorite sidekick is left in the care of Marvel’s favorite Big Head, supervillains like Libra of the Zodiac, the time-traveling warlord Kang, and the temporal guardian Immortus come crawling out of the woodwork. One comes to murder Jones, and others come to aid him. Jones once again taps into the power that has, until now, rendered him helpless. Instead of calling for heroes from his imagination--as he did in the aforementioned Silver Age tale--this time Jones reaches into time for Avengers from the past, present, and future.

Avengers Forever delivers exactly what the title implies. It’s a big superhero cross-time romp, bringing the team of adventurers all across existence, from the wild west to a war-torn Earth where a Martian invasion renders the few remaining heroes much more vicious than their twentieth century counterparts, and eventually to the end of time itself. The story features some of the most wonderfully rendered epic battle scenes in comics, with heroes and villains standing side-by-side against armies of alternative universe Avengers, aliens, and most commonly Time Bandits-like regiments made up of European knights, Samurai, World War II machine gunners, Ice Age cavemen, and more. Busiek and Stern give us a story that touches every corner of the Marvel Universe and revels in its history in a way that simply wouldn’t be possible in today’s Marvel.

Pacheco’s pencils are one of the biggest highlights of the series, particularly impressive are the many vast battle scenes appearing in the series. There’s no mistake Busiek and Pacheco chose to work together on another war story, the fantasy-tinged World War I series, Arrowsmith.

Ironically, the battle scenes are one of Avengers Forever’s weaknesses. I had trouble putting my finger on why I had a problem with them, until I watched one of the many documentaries on the The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers Extended DVD set. In describing one of his worries concerning the Battle of Helm’s Deep sequence, Peter Jackson calls the problem, "Battle Fatigue," i.e., finding a way to keep the scene action-packed while not exhausting the audience. Avengers Forever suffers a different, but not completely dissimilar, strain of Battle Fatigue. There’s hardly a chapter in the 12-part story that doesn’t feature a huge battle between Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and regiment upon regiment of crazed bad guys. Not only can it exhaust the reader, but it kills the suspense. After viewing a half-dozen battles with hordes of combatants, and watching the heroes wade through them with ease, it’s tough to imagine the next batch of baddies is going to fare any better.

It's a shame Busiek and Stern didn’t have more time to explore the dynamics of such a truly mismatched team. The story’s team is comprised of, among others, a disheartened Captain America of the past considering giving up his crime-fighting career, the unstable Yellowjacket alongside his future counterpart Giant Man, the former villain Songbird, and a post-Kree/Skrull War Hawkeye who has yet to head two superhero teams of his own and still ignorant of his full potential. A lot more could’ve been done with such a strange group, but the focus is primarily on the action.

I never thought much of Kang as a character before this series. He seemed like, aside from the time traveling aspect, a generic baddie with a host unfortunate costume choices in all of his various incarnations. Avengers Forever gives us a Kang that is a joy to behold. In spite of the fact that he appears in the series as an ally to the heroes, Kang has never been more ruthless, more brutal, more tragic, or more noble. In fact, one largely Avenger-less chapter of the story is devoted to nothing but Kang’s complicated history and how it has affected his motives and deeds.

Which brings us to the issue of continuity. Along with the aforementioned chapter involving Kang, another chapter of the tale involves almost nothing but exposition concerning the history of the Marvel Universe and how it has lead to the events of the series.

For those who appreciate and, more importantly, know the continuity, this will come as a masterstroke. Busiek and Stern obviously worked tirelessly to construct this story within continuity while adding new elements to the past stories. One of Busiek’s strengths is the ability to explain complicated past storylines in a coherent manner, but still, with two whole parts of a 12-part series dedicated to nothing but reviewing the past, as well as brief flashbacks throughout the other chapters, to some it may seem just as daunting to read it all as it was to write it. There’s something very important in there about the Vision and the original Human Torch which, despite numerous re-readings of the trade, I still couldn’t completely explain if asked. If you know some of this history, it may not be a problem. But, if you’re one of the readers who agreed with Bill Jemas and friends with their thoughts on wading through the so-called "continuity mud," it’s likely this trade isn’t for you.

Avengers Forever is, at its heart, a celebration of the Avengers and their history, offering numerous homages to "The Kree/Skrull War" and constructing a story from just about every era of the team’s history, from its origin to future stories not yet seen (and in many cases never to be seen). As such, if you’re not a hardcore Avengers fan, picking up this trade may be risky. If you’re a regular Marvel reader and know at least a little bit about the team (like myself), you may still enjoy it. If you’re new to Marvel comics, this ain’t the book to start with.

Mick Martin

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