How do you follow up the Kree-Skrull War?
That was the question facing Marvel Comics in general, and Avengers writer/de facto editor Roy Thomas in particular, fifty years ago. In terms of its length and scope, the aforementioned nine-issue storyline had been all but unprecedented at the publisher. Not to mention the fact that the epic’s back half had (mostly) been visualized by perhaps the hottest artist in American comics at the time, Neal Adams.
So what do you do for an encore? Well, if you’re Thomas, you segue right into a three-parter which, even if it can’t beat the KSW for length, at least gives it a run for its money in terms of scale — and which wraps things up with a very special 100th issue featuring every single Marvel character who’s ever been an Avenger, however briefly. And as your collaborator on this trilogy, you bring back an artist who, since his first brief Avengers stint in 1969, has evolved from a raw but promising young talent to, well, another of the hottest artists in American comics, Barry Windsor-Smith.
Windsor-Smith’s involvement with the final three issue of Avengers‘ first “century” does not appear to have been driven by any great desire on his part to return to the series; indeed, in 1998, he confessed to Comic Book Artist interviewer Jon B. Cooke that he recalled little about the experience save “the nightmare of drawing the 100th issue… all those bloody characters that I didn’t give tuppence about.” So, why was he even there? Any answer your humble blogger might suggest will necessarily be speculative, but we’ll begin by noting that the artist’s return to Avengers occurred at more or less the same time as his (first) departure from Conan the Barbarian. The reasons for that departure are themselves rather murky, but Conan had been knocked down to bi-monthly publication following the release of issue #13 in October; that move meant that Windsor-Smith had to either take a 50% hit to his Marvel-based income, or compensate by picking up other assignments during Conan‘s off months. There was one other option, obviously, which was to give up the bi-monthly Conan for another, monthly series — such as Avengers — which is in fact what ultimately happened. Of course, Windsor-Smith may have had other reasons for making changes as well; still, it’s worth noting that he returned to Conan (and abandoned his other Marvel work) just about as quickly as he could once Conan was restored to monthly status mid-1972. (True, he’d only remain on the book for another six months before leaving again, this time for good… but that’s another story.)
In any event, whatever Barry Windsor-Smith’s reasons for coming back to Avengers may have been, the fact remains that he did come back. And however indifferently he might have felt towards the assignment, that didn’t stop him from bringing his A-game when he set pencil to art-board — at least, that’s how I see it. But what say we take a look, and you can see for yourself.
Before we turn to the first page of Avengers #98, however, let’s pause a moment longer to consider the book’s cover — a fine piece of work which, I must admit, I’d assumed for close to five decades was pencilled by the same artist who drew the interiors, i.e., Barry Windsor-Smith — but which the Grand Comics Database assures me was actually pencilled by John Buscema, and only inked by Windsor-Smith. The combination of those two artists’ disparate styles works better than I would have expected — and kind of leaves me wishing that they’d collaborated in like fashion on at least an issue or two of Conan the Barbarian., just to see what that would have looked like. Alas, for what might have been…
But now let’s proceed with our story, which, in something of a reverse situation to the cover, is pencilled in its entirety by Barry Windsor-Smith, but inked by a Buscema — though this time it’s John’s younger brother, Sal:
Some of the most compelling images from Windsor-Smith’s earlier two Avengers issues (#66 and #67) were renderings of the Vision. As much as the artist’s style had changed since drawing those stories, he clearly still had an affinity for the character (though I don’t know if beginning the story with a full-page splash of the android Avenger was his idea or Roy Thomas’).
As readers of last month’s post about Avengers #97 will likely recall, Thomas and John Buscema had pretty well tied up all the varied plot threads of the Kree-Skrull War by the conclusion of that issue — with the ultimate fate of Goliath, aka Clint Barton, being the notable exception. The mystery of what had become of Clint — whom, as the Vision’s dialogue above indicates, we’d last seen taking on a spaceship full of armed Skrulls on his own, without his powers — had been a good way to hook readers to come back for #98; though, as we’ll see, once Thomas and Windsor-Smith have re-established the situation as the Avengers’ top priority at the start of the present story, it’ll get back-burnered almost immediately, not being referenced again until almost the very end of the issue.
Save for Goliath, the group of Avengers we see seated around their conference table represents the team’s complete currently active roster — which, in addition to the Vision, includes (as shown left to right): the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and… Rick Jones? Seriously? I mean, sure, I’ve always liked Rick, but come on — why is the former
companion of the Hulk partner to Captain America atoms-switcher with Captain Marvel still hanging out with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes? Doesn’t he have a music career to get back to?
But, moving on… Everyone agrees with Vision that it’s imperative to determine whether or not Goliath survived the end of the Kree-Skrull War, and to bring him home if he’s still among the living — but how can they search all of outer space? Thor promptly volunteers to journey to Asgard to make use of the magical scrying tools there; Iron Man follows suit by offering to access the resources of his “employer”, Tony Stark. After the others agree to do what they can at the Mansion, the meeting adjourns, with Iron Man advising his teammates not to worry too much about their missing member: “…he’s one Goliath I wouldn’t want to have to tackle with just a slingshot!”
The name of Mr. Wo Tong’s nation is never explicitly stated in our story — but around the same time Avengers #98 would have been written and drawn, the “real world” United Nations had voted on October 25, 1971 to recognize the People’s Republic of China as “the only legitimate representative of China”, thereby displacing the existing delegation from Taiwan; the P.R.C.’s initial U.N. delegates were first officially seated at a November 23rd meeting of the Security Council.
Regardless of where on Earth-616 Mr. Wo Tong and his colleague may hail from, however, the pale yellow used for their skin color is undeniably inappropriate, and embarrassing by today’s standards; unfortunately, such coloring was pretty much standard operating procedure for American comics in the early ’70s.
Captain America quickly susses out that the crowd is being unnaturally influenced by the weird music of the two cloaked pipers; of course, that doesn’t render these frenzied folks any less dangerous. And so, after Quicksilver has speedily built a makeshift wall out of sandbags borrowed from a nearby construction site, Cap prepares to unleash his most special superpower — the power to sway others through his inspiring rhetoric…
Well, that went south pretty damn quick, didn’t it? That last panel’s presentation of a rabidly anti-Communist Captain America is positively chilling — as well as something of a preview of an instant-classic storyline coming later in the year in Cap’s own title (though of course none of us reading in January, 1972 knew that as yet).
Thor explains to Vision how he made multiple attempts to penetrate the invisible barrier barring him from Asgard, to no avail, before deciding to pack it in for the nonce…
Vision is tempted to follow Thor, since that’s where his beloved Scarlet Witch is, but he bucks up and continues on to Tony Stark’s lab to do his duty. Meanwhile, en route to the scene of the riot, Thor wonders whether Goliath’s going missing, his own being cut off from Asgard, and this Warhawks business might all be connected somehow. (Of course, the laws of narrative convenience being what they are, it’s a good bet that if they aren’t now, they soon will be.)
Windsor-Smith and Buscema manage to make both Iron Man and the Vision look quite menacing, here. I know I wouldn’t want to get on either one of ’em’s bad side…
In January, 1972, my fourteen-year-old self was definitely not eligible for taking “one giant step“, as I’d missed all of Ares’ earlier appearances, the majority of which had been published before I started reading Marvel comics (for the record, they occurred in Thor #129 and #131, and Avengers #38, #49, and #50) — and thus didn’t have any idea who the man with the Mohawk was prior to Thor ID’g him.
But I’d guess that even a lot of longer-term Marvelites might not have placed Ares right away, considering that those five earlier appearances were all in a supporting role, rather than as a headlining villain. Ares’ main shtick to date had been to make trouble for Hercules — who, like the God of War, was a son of Zeus, and whom was resented by Ares for supposedly being better liked by Dad. Essentially, he’d come off as the Greek version of Loki, only a lot less ambitious. In Avengers #98, he seemed to have stepped up his game; if nothing else, he was getting involved in affairs on Earth in a way Marvel’s readers hadn’t seen before.
Thor soon discovers just how much trouble Ares has made already when he’s attacked by Captain America; the God of Thunder responds by quickly putting his hammer Mjolnir to work, though not against his teammates, or the other possessed New Yorkers…
Iron Man does as Ares bids, seizing Thor and bearing him down into the bloodthirsty crowd — though, as he says, the Thunder God was going to fall to Earth anyway without his hammer, so his action has just speeded things up a bit.
Thomas’ script doesn’t point this out — but most of us readers in 1972 probably knew without being told that Thor is in more danger here than might readily be apparent, as he’ll turn into the mortal Dr. Donald Blake if he’s out of contact with Mjolnir for over sixty seconds — and poor Don Blake won’t likely survive the frenzied violence of the mob for half that long.
“An arrow!“? Yes, and not one that looks like it was designed for use in World Archery Foundation-sanctioned athletic competition. Say, you don’t think…?
Yes, Hawkeye’s back, and he’s wearing a new costume. I’m tempted to make a crack here about “most of a new costume”, but the fact is, I don’t remember my younger self being particularly bothered by the Avenging Archer’s lack of pants, way back in 1972. Honestly, I was mostly just glad to have Clint Barton back as Hawkeye; even though I hadn’t necessarily objected to his taking on the role of Goliath in 1969, it had always seemed something of a borrowed super-identity, and not really authentic to the character. After all, “Hawkeye” had been the guy’s only name for practically the whole first half-decade of his existence — and “Hawkeye” is the name of an archer.
In retrospect, I can see why Barry Windsor-Smith’s makeover for Mr. Barton has had its fair share of detractors over the years. Simply based on the personality that Marvel had established for Clint by this point, it’s hard to believe he would be happy about showing that much leg on a regular basis. On the other hand, the outfit’s not a bad design in and of itself; it would almost certainly have worked for a Hyborian Age-era archer character in Conan the Barbarian.
Plus, it does have a good bit of purple in it. That’s something.
As I recall, I was delighted with the story’s final full page splash, and its dramatic reveal of Hercules, Prince of Power. One reason was that I was very interested in mythology (even if I did prefer the Norse stuff to the Greco-Roman variety); another had to do with my regret that I’d just barely missed most of Hercules’ original stint with the Avengers — for though he’d been formally admitted to the team (after hanging out at the Mansion for a number of months) in the very first Marvel comic I ever bought, Avengers #45, he’d exited the series by the time I picked up my second Avengers, #53. Since then, he’d only shown up in a couple of other Marvel comics (specifically, Ka-Zar #1 and Sub-Mariner #29), both of which I’d missed; and having become a huge Thor fan in the four years I’d been reading Marvel, I was keen to become better acquainted with the demigod who appeared to be the Asgardian God of Thunder’s analogue in the Olympian pantheon — at least in the Marvel Universe’s version.
And I was also fascinated by the riddle-like prophecy that closed the issue — a lively bit of verse that could have come right out of The Lord of the Rings. What could it mean? The “Next” blurb promised to disclose “The Meaning of It All!” in issue #99; in truth, however, we readers would have to wait until #100 for a full explanation of the portentous phrases rotely recited by the sadly addled Hercules. No matter; Avengers #99 would still have plenty going on within its pages to keep us engaged, even without answering #98’s closing riddle… but that’s enough said for this post. Check back in this space about a month from now, and I’ll be happy to tell you more then.