I tend to shy away from applying superlatives to my objects of geeky affection. While there are a few beloved constants — The Clash, malady Captain Marvel Adventures, and WKRP in Cincinatti — the “favorites” tag is an ephemeral thing applied to an ever cycling collection of things which have presently caught my attention. As my focus shifts, vitamin so does my roster of favorites, with some darlings getting shelved for eventual rediscovery and others getting permanently kicked to the curb.
It’s rare artifact which manages to retain a perennial place in my heart, and there are no hard and fast critera for determining what makes that cut. Finding fault, humorous or otherwise, is easy. Explaining that certain quality or qualities from which transcendant affection springs is a much trickier business. Every objective reason provided will be invariably offset by a host of subjective and deeply personal intangible which defy clinical analysis.
I guess what I’m getting at here is that I can definitively state that issues #211 through #254 of The Avengers is my favorite funnybook run ever, but the “how” and “why” behind that assertion isn’t easy to pin down and cut to the core of what I want from a superhero comic.
While the Avengers wasn’t breaking new ground or setting fandom a’twitter like other, higher profile fruits of Marvel’s 1980s renaissance, it managed to be a consistently entertaining read which maintained a note-perfect blend of soap operatic melodrama and serialized action-adventure tropes with a keen eye for the correct use of shared universe continuity.
The run was bookended by a pair of extended subplots — Hank Pym’s fall from grace as both hero and husband and the Vision’s misguided attempt at becoming a kindler, gentler Forbin Project — but its real meat and bones lay either outside or incidental to those narrative frameworks. There was no Ultron, no Kang, and little in the way of “OMG SUPEREPIC FUCK YEAH” threats. Instead Roger Stern (who took over writing chores from Jim Shooter and various co-scripters with issue #227) focused on an ensemble cast production with a changing roster, an abundance of guest stars, and opponents drawn from the the back benches of Marvel continuity — folks like Maelstrom, Morgana Le Fey, Plantman, the Blood Brothers.
That might sound a little underwhelming in the context of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” but Stern had a knack for both character interaction and conveying a sense of the Avengers as an institutional culture somewhere between a social club, a family, and a workplace. Hierarchical yet egalitarian, with its own cliques and members’ individual boundaries when it came to personal issues, this era of Stern’s Avengers perfectly encapsulated what Tom Spurgeon meant when he said that the classic superteam dynamics reflect what kids imagine the grown-up world to be.
(It’s also given a nice bit of contrast against Egghead’s incarnation of the Masters of Evil, who eschew much of the traditional histrionics of malfeasance in favor of mercenary amorality. While interpersonal frictions exist in both teams, the difference is that the Avengers’ members respect each other and the Masters of Evil hate each other’s guts.)
And it did so without ever losing sight of the slam-bang thrills or nods to a wider fictional world. Apart from a handful of dangling crossover cliffhangers, Stern’s Avengers run wove references and plot points around everything from Secret Wars to the Eternals to Starlin’s Captain Marvel mythos to ROM’s final stand against the Dire Wraiths without sacrificing narrative clarity. Given team’s diverse roster and defined status as world’s pre-eminent superhero team, it makes sense that the Avengers series would function as the crossroads of the wider Marvel Universe. Stern, like Roy Thomas before him and Kurt Busiek after him, nailed that aspect, and he did it just when my evolving fandom was most receptive to that sort of thing.
While the art lacked the level quality and consistency that John Buscema would bring with his return to the franchise, there’s a nifty retrofitted-yet-timeless quality to the Al Milgrom/Joe Sinnott work that predominates from issue #229 onward. The panel compositions and transitions may have gotten a little wonky at times, but it gave off a clean (if generic) “classic” Marvel vibe that perfectly matched the narrative tone. (The Bob Hall issues were, of course, first rate through and through.)
All in all, this period of Avengers was a solidly crafted effort which serves as a handly baseline for what I expect from a superhero team book. As for why I’d rate it higher than Miller’s Daredevil, Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Simonson’s Thor, or Claremont’s X-Men? That’s rooted in levels of nostalgic affection and adoration of the franchise that I doubt I could ever fully articulate, even if I thought anyone wanted to read such hopelessly subjective nonsense.
Instead, I’ll leave you with something from that three-and-a-half issue run upon whose magnificence we can call agree.
…a midnight to six man…