The final panel of Avengers #99 had promised that “this hour” would see an imminent invasion of “the hallowed halls of Olympus!!“, as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes prepared to mount a rescue of their amnesiac comrade, Hercules, who’d just been snatched away by servants of Ares, the Greco-Roman God of War. So you’d naturally expect the next issue to begin with such a scene — or if not, then maybe a scene of something happening simultaneously to the invasion, just to draw out the suspense a little bit longer.
As we’ll see momentarily, that’s not quite what happens in the opening pages of the Avengers’ hundredth issue. But our heroes’ delay in launching their assault on the home of the gods turns out to have some justification behind it. After all, it takes a little time to gather all of the characters on view in artist Barry Windsor-Smith’s instant-classic cover image — a first-time-ever assemblage of every Marvel character who’d ever been an Avenger as of March, 1972.
That cover withstanding, it was still a surprise to my fourteen-year-old self fifty years ago when I turned past that cover to the first page, and was greeted by the sight of a hero whose last featured appearance had occurred well over a year prior, in Avengers #84…
Barry Windsor-Smith provided the inks as well as the pencils for this lovely opening splash, as well as for the five equally lovely pages that follow — though not for the entire story, as acknowledged by the credits. (Though those credits don’t specify which inker handled which page, as we move through the story we’ll be noting the transitions from one embellisher to another, following the attributions given in the Grand Comics Database.)
Following this dazzling double-page spread, Joe Sinnott takes over as inker for the next five pages. Decades after this comic’s publication, in a 1998 interview for Comic Book Artist, Barry Windsor-Smith would characterize the overall multiple-inker situation on Avengers #100 as a “disaster”; however, he made a point of noting that “the one and only Joe Sinnott did a couple of pages over mere layouts and, as always, Joe was wonderfully rich and detailed.”
I have to say that the entrance of the Black Knight’s Ebony Blade — which, like its long-time wielder, had last been seen in Avengers #84 — into the current storyline is a plot development that seems to come out of nowhere. Still, it works (at least for me).
Ares’ struggle to extract the Ebony Blade from a tree-trunk is likely to remind many readers of the Arthurian motif of the Sword in the Stone — but there’s also another, somewhat less well-known story, found in Norse mythology, of a “sword in the tree”. Scripter Roy Thomas would draw more directly on that latter tale some eight years later for a Thor storyline, but it seems likely that he had it in mind here, too.
Ares doesn’t explain the circumstances under which he and the Asgardian enchantress known as, um, the Enchantress had previously been allies; and since Thomas didn’t bother to include a footnote, my younger self figured that “days of yore” probably meant just that, and that the two characters’ prior association involved some untold tale of the distant, mythical past. But Ares and the Enchantress actually had some shared, and relatively recent, Marvel Universe history; as originally shown in Avengers #38, they’d previously joined forces to make trouble for both Hercules and the Avengers in what had been Ares’ most prominent appearance to date, prior to the present storyline.
The Enchantress’ showing up here in Olympus follows after her last set-to with the Avengers in the aforementioned issue #84, at the conclusion of which she’d seemingly fled the scene just before the Ebony Blade went into the Well at the Center of Time and vanished. Evidently, she’d followed the sword’s trail through multiple dimensions, all the way to its final destination (though she’d also somehow found the time and opportunity along the way to briefly bedevil the Hulk in issue #142 of the latter’s series. Busy woman.).
As to why her hair color has suddenly changed from blonde to white, and the dominant color of her attire from green to red, I figure the answer is simply that the uncredited colorist was unfamiliar with the character and was winging it. But if you want an “in-universe” explanation, I guess we could assume that the changes were an accidental by-product of her interdimensional wanderings. Or maybe the lady was just ready for a new look.
Elsewhere in Olympus, Hercules is enjoying a friendly sparring match with his fellow divinity Phoebus (aka Apollo), held for the amusement of a group of spectators including their father Zeus; of course, not a one of them has the least suspicion of the disaster about to befall (seems there’s never an oracle around when you need one)…
Believe it or not, this is the second appearance of that particular variety of Greco-Roman god known as the Yellow-Crested Titan, one of whose ilk had fought Hercules back in Thor #129 (Jun., 1966). Roy Thomas had evidently been taken enough by this Stan Lee-Jack Kirby creation that he just had to bring him back (and in stereo, even), despite the fact that, as Thomas later put it in his introduction to Marvel Masterworks — The Avengers, Vol. 10 (2010), the name Yellow-Crested Titan “always sounded to me like the name of a bird.”
At this point, Joe Sinnott turns the inkwell back over to Barry Windsor-Smith for a single page…
The spirit of the original Black Knight, Sir Percy of Scndia, concludes with a quick, one-panel recap of the main events of Avengers #98 and #99 — and then we’re back to the present (as well as to the inking of Joe Sinnott, who’ll stick around through page 15 before departing again)…
Re-reading the above dialogue for the first time in many years, it strikes me that Thomas didn’t know any better than the Hulk did why Thor was looking at him in that third panel — but that’s what Windsor-Smith had drawn from what they’d plotted together, so that’s what he had to script.
I’d say that the Avengers go pretty easy on the Swordsman here, considering the amount of trouble he’s caused them in the past (not to mention the whole breaking-out-of-prison thing). On the other hand, the fate of the world is at stake, and time’s a-wastin’, so I guess we’ll roll with it.
And speaking of time, one might wonder at this point whether our storytellers are going to have time, as well as space, to finish up their narrative by the end of the book. After all, we’re already thirteen pages in, and most Marvel comics are featuring 21-page long stories these days…
The centaur who just took down Iron Man is swiftly dispatched by the Black Knight’s power lance — but then Dane Whitman himself is beset by another couple of beast-men types, leaving only Thor and the Vision to proceed on to Hercules’ place of captivity. (What’s happened to the Hulk, you wonder? Just give it a few more pages…)
Syd Shores comes on as inker with page 16, and remains in place to the end of the story. Barry Windsor-Smith appears not to have been all that happy with Shores’ efforts, but I have to say that, aside from the minor issue of Kratos and Bia’s appearing rather less defined and distinct here than in the Tom Sutton-inked versions of Avengers #99, these pages look fine to me — if not quite as drop-dead gorgeous as those inked by Windsor-Smith himself.
Remember all that fuss back in Avengers #99 when the Vision refused to engage with Kratos and Bia as the two Titans prepared to flee with the captive Hercules, choosing instead to attend to the stunned but otherwise uninjured Scarlet Witch? That issue ended with just about everybody — even the Scarlet Witch herself — pissed off at the android Avenger. But as the matter never comes up again following this scene, we’ll have to assume that Thor later fills in his teammates regarding the heroism shown by the Vision here, and that that takes care of the issue. Considering how much drama Thomas and Windsor-Smith had wrung out of the original situation in #99, however, it’s hard not to see this speedy resolution as somewhat perfunctory; a consequence, perhaps, of the storytellers trying to cover more ground in this concluding chapter of their “Olympus Trilogy” than could comfortably be managed within their allotted number of pages.
OK, so… the whole Warhawks business in Avengers #98 turns out to have been about Ares trying to open a portal to Asgard through worldwide nuclear holocaust.* That tracks well enough, I suppose. But now the God of War has given up on that plan, and has his minions seeking “other means” to accomplish the same goal… which somehow involves launching a direct Olympian assault on Earth via London, England? I’m sure that my fourteen-year-old self just rolled with this explanation back in 1972; in 2022, however, my sixty-four-year-old self can’t help feeling that something’s missing. It’s an unsatisfyingly vague piece of exposition which, like the resolution of the “Vison’s cowardice” business a couple of page earlier, would likely have benefited from Thomas and Windsor-Smith having more room in which to tell their story.
As Thor flies to the Black Knight’s aid against one of the Yellow-Crested Titans, the Enchantress flees the scene. Ares attempts to do the same — but is pursued by Dane Whitman as well as Thor, who puts the Titan down with a single blow. Meanwhile…
Perhaps it’s coincidental that Thomas and Windsor-Smith had just recently completed work on Conan the Barbarian #14 and #15, featuring a guest appearance by Elric — the sword-and-sorcery hero whose relationship with his own cursed black blade, Stormbringer, had earlier inspired the backstory of the Black Knight’s Merlin-forged weapon — and perhaps it isn’t. Either way, I’d say they were correct in realizing that Dane Whitman is a lot more interesting when burdened by the Ebony Blade than he is when waving around a high-tech “power-lance”.
And so, “Whatever Gods There Be!” comes to its conclusion on page 23, having run two pages longer than was standard operating procedure at Marvel in March, 1972** — and still feeling rushed, for all that. A modern reader might wonder why the publisher didn’t simply make Avengers giant-sized for one month, given the special occasion; that, after all, is how numerical milestones are commemorated in American comics these days, and have been for quite some time now. (By point of comparison with Avengers #100, the 750th issue of the title, published in December, 2021, features 84 pages of content. Of course, it also costs $9.99 compared to #100’s $0.20 price tag, so…) But that’s not how things were done back then, probably because the newsstand distribution model preferred predictability; if Avengers #99 was 32 pages for 20 cents, then #100 should be as well, and so should #101 and so on. (Sure, Marvel had published one issue of Avengers at 48 pages for 25 cents, some eight months earlier. But #93 had been intended as the first issue in a new regular format for the title, rather than the anomaly it ultimately became.)
Still, understanding why something happened the way it did doesn’t stop one from wishing things had gone down a little differently — and it’s hard not to wonder how much better “Whatever Gods There Be!” might have been had it had a little more room to breathe. Along with the rushed story beats and instances of inadequate exposition already discussed, Barry Windsor-Smith clearly needed more pages to render the back half of the story; as a result of the seriously compressed storytelling, the Battle of London barely has a chance to make an impression before it’s over.
All that said, however, I still think that Avengers #100 is a pretty terrific comic book, just as it is. It commemorates the occasion of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ hundredth issue in a way that feels appropriately special, with a conflict of literally mythic proportions that allows every Avenger at least a single moment in the spotlight. Though one can easily wish the story had been longer, the one we have is a rouser, and a well-told one, at that. It’s a fine way for Windsor-Smith to end his second short tenure as Avengers’ artist, as well as for Roy Thomas to cap off his considerably longer one as the title’s writer. (Yeah, I know that Thomas continued to script the book through #104, but I kind of like to think of those last four issues as a victory lap.)
*By way of contrast, in a storyline running concurrently to this one over in Thor, the Greco-Roman god of the underworld, Pluto, finds his way into Asgard simply by… sailing up to it in a big boat. (Yeah, Asgard was traveling between dimensions at the time, which I suppose could have made it more accessible, somehow… but still.) Between that and Thor scripter Gerry Conway’s rather casual approach to providing his godly villain with mythologically appropriate henchmen (Pluto is served by trolls, who are Norse, rather than by the more authentically Greco-Roman satyrs, centaurs, titans, et al, who are employed by Ares), it seems a pretty sure bet that there was little, if any, coordination between these two story arcs attempted on the part of anyone at Marvel.
**Curiously, despite what it says in the final caption, neither of the two pages requisitioned to accommodate the story’s extended length pushed out the letters column, which ran as usual; rather, the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page was sacrificed, along with an advertising page.