Monday, February 21, 2011

Lions and Bulls and Rams... Oh My!

Avengers #121 (March 1974)
"Houses Divided Cannot Stand!"

Steve Englehart-John Buscema/Don Heck

Doug: Avid reader/commenter Richard noted a few weeks ago that he'd like to further discuss the derivation of comic book titles. Students of United States history will recognize today's title as scribe Englehart's taking of liberty with a speech Abraham Lincoln gave during the Civil War,
when the President stated that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." And thus we enter the second part of our look at the Zodiac trilogy of issues that ran in the winter of 1973-4.

Doug: Catch your breath now, while you still can, 'cause this one's a non-stop rollercoaster! We lead off right where we left off, with Taurus and the rest of the crime cartel known as Zodiac atop the World Trade Center, with Mantis stunned and teetering on the side of the wall. Taurus is threatening to blast her over the edge, unless the Avengers surrender. And then something happens that struck me as quite odd... the Vision steps forth and plays off that neither he nor the other heroes really care, as Mantis is not an Avenger but a hanger-on with the Swordsman!
I just found this really out-of-character for him -- don't get me wrong; I knew what he was doing. It's just that it was the Vision playing the ruse, and not another. So while he tries to sucker Taurus, Wanda revs up a hex and destroys the so-called "Star Slayer".

Karen: I can see your point, but then again, by this time he was a pretty experienced hero. But how the heck did Wanda destroy the big gun? Did it just vibrate itself to pieces? Did every bolt and screw suddenly snap? There were times where they just gave up on explaining what she was doing and just had her blast stuff.

Doug: To say a donnybrook breaks out wouldn't exactly be correct; to say "all hell breaks loose" would be more accurate. In the melee, Thor is stunned by a hand-held version of the star ray, Wanda's knocked out by Virgo, and the Vision has another funny line as he takes out three horoscopers on his own. And then Captain America enters the fray. In one of the lamest cross-pollinations ever, Englehart has Cap burst on the scene, stating, "...when I happened to see you fighting Zodiac." On the tallest building in Manhattan. Uh huh. However, despite this new distraction, Aries makes his way over to the edge, picks up Mantis (yeah, that was a heckuva long balancing act), and chucks her into the Manhattan sky.

Karen: Yeah, Cap's arrival definitely felt contrived. But I love seeing him with the Avengers, so I can forgive Englehart. But again...I have to complain about the Zodiac. What are their actual powers anyway? I mean, Virgo attacks Wanda with a metal bar. The others seem equally unimpressive. Talk about worthless villains!

Doug: Then it's Vision-time (I'll tell you, he was often the focal point in this story). Vizh leaps over the edge and plummets after Mantis. She, having awakened due to the passing cold air, "spreads eagle" to slow her descent. Vision manages to catch her, and then solidifying his arm to diamond-hardness, shoves it into the side of the WTC and uses the tactic to slow the fall, until they land, albeit with a severe jolt. After the landing, the WTC is shaken, and the Avengers immediately spring to action to mend it. There's a great panel of Thor supporting the entire tower, so let's pause a second to comment on the art. This issue features guest-pencils by Big John Buscema with inks by Don Heck. It's obvious that Buscema's dynamism is present, but at times we see a bit too much Don Heck on the surface. But overall, I'd say the art is a success. Funny, though, because I actually thought that as a tandem, Brown and Heck were better last issue than Buscema and Heck this issue. Thoughts?

Karen: Vision's rescue of Mantis was pretty spectacular. I love the fact that Englehart explains that he can only fly when he makes himself lighter than air. It seems like so many other writers or artists would forget this, and we'd get scenes of the Vision carrying people.

Karen: I'm glad you brought up the art. It was great to get a glimpse of Big John Buscema again on the Avengers. Unfortunately there are a lot of Heck-isms. But the layouts, the poses, are obviously Buscema. The faces show much more of Heck's influence.

Doug: Zodiac has used all of the commotion to make their escape, so there's nothing for our good-guys to do but head back to the mansion. Mantis has put herself into a trance in order to heal from the jarring landing. Once in bed, the Swordsman (on the mend from an infection suffered in #117) wheels into her room. The Avengers question him as to Mantis' background. He confesses that he doesn't know much, but does reveal that he met her in Saigon while doing enforcer work for the Asian mob. At his lowest point, she saved his life. We also learn here that she was a simple barmaid. T'Challa then enters the scene, having returned from an adventure with Cap and the Falcon (which was actually the first couple of chapters of the Secret Empire arc).

Karen: What does it say about the Swordsman that he knew so little of Mantis? He even says he was wrapped up in himself so much that he never asked about her. Yet he traveled across the globe with her and brought her to the Avengers. They in turn, took her into their HQ without ever investigating her. OK, when you start examining it, it seems very unlikely. But she injected a sense of mystery into the book. Although she might be the poster child for "pet characters". I think this may also the beginning of the 'quadrangle' with the Vision-Mantis-Swordsman-Wanda, as the Swordsman interprets a comment from Vision as showing a romantic interest in Mantis.

Doug: Meanwhile, back to the bad guys. There's a little unrest among the Zodiac, as Aries has challenged the leadership of Taurus. In a somewhat silly scene, yet providing an excellent visual, they have it out with Taurus coming out on top. But leave it not to Aries to fall into line, as he instead calls a secret meeting of six other members who also disapprove of Taurus' leadership. They scheme against their leader, and decide to call Cornelius van Lunt for financial backing. Ha! Little do they know that van Lunt is secretly Taurus; the mutineers are lured to one of van Lunt's warehouses. While all of this is going on, Thor has been looking for clues to the cartel's whereabouts, and eventually spies their ship.

Karen: I love the picture of Thor sitting on his hammer, watching the ship! I don't think I ever saw that before, or since.

Doug: The other Avengers are alerted, and an assault on the warehouse begins. van Lunt sneaks away during the fracas, and soon after our combatants notice that the doors and windows are sealed shut. Suddenly van Lunt's voice is heard, and then his face appears on a viewscreen. He laughs aloud as he reveals his alter ego. And then the warehouse blasts off!


david_b said...

OK, as mentioned for ish 120, this is one of my all-time favorite Avengers arcs.. Great pacing, excellent art, interesting subplots starting (Mantis past, Swordsman introspective, etc). Steve did great in trying to fold in the events in CA&F with this storyline (more so during the Klaw story a few ishs later) and I think he did superb.

First, the appearance of Cap. Never did I find my 10yr old self actually jumping out of my seat whooping for a splash appearance like I did with Cap here. BIG into CA&F at the time, first year of reading comics and BAM, you get the sense that while not missed before, Cap arriving on the scene just 'completes' the team.

Then, the Vision rescue. Tearing a huge building full of people to save Mantis..: "Are you serious..?"

If the 'kooky quartet' would have done this much damage (like they did against Powerman years before..), they would have been arrested or something. This to me has got to be one of the silliest, over-dramatic rescues ever. Either Thor or Ironman could have flew down to scoop her up, Wanda could have made the molecules lighter under her or something. For a story I happen to love, I jut feel the utter destruction of one of the largest buildings in NYC to save Mantis was at best a wonky Avengers-style solution, but at worst a shortcoming of what otherwise was a fast-moving second part of this arc.

Incidently, that's what I love about Marvel story-telling..: Sometimes to really love a story, you really have to keep one eye shut..

Was the idea of slowing down Mantis's falling a obvious response to reader's reaction to Gwen's plunge just a few months past..? That's what comes to my mind first and formost.

Moving on, I loved the tracking down of Zodiac to the warehouse, and the startling final page ratchets up the excitement even more. My enjoyment of the events of this ish forces me to look past the silliness of the warehouse actually being a spaceship. For the cost of building/planning to lift a square warehouse into space, wouldn't a bomb simply have been more cost-effective to take out the Avengers..? Again, one eye closed.

Thanks Doug and Karen.

Fred W. Hill said...

Gotta admit I share both your joys and misgivings about this issue, David, and I was 11 when I first read this. An exciting romp if you just went with the flow, but a lot of silly elements as you, Doug & Karen all brought up, on reflection. And this wouldn't be the first time Cap, or, later, Nomad, would just happen to "bump into" the Avengers during Englehart's run. That he just happened to spot them above the WTC reminds me of a panel from the same era in which Spider-Man is shown swinging above the WTC, with his web apparently attached to an even taller building (someone won a No-Prize out of that gaffe). Considering that it didn't seem Cap had a whole lot of spare time between getting busted out of jail and making his way to Nashville in search of the Secret Empire, it doesn't seem likely he would have had an opportunity to make his way to the WTC to help out his avenging pals, but what's one more suspension of belief?
Regarding the Vision's ruse, Vizh had learned the tactic from none other than Captain America himself, as revealed in the Grim Reaper/Space Phantom yarn from issues #107-108. Doesn't seem too out of character that Vizh would resort to lying again when he felt it was necessary for the greater good, and as the Space Phantom noted, he could be an excellent liar.

david_b said...

Thanks Fred, excellent points.., can't wait to hear from everyone else.

Reflecting again on my comments on the Vish save..,

1) Yes, obviously the WTC wasn't 'destroyed' per se, since Vish's hand only went in about 6 inches or so.., just enough to break the concrete. And Ironman was there to fix the concrete brick (just how repulsor rays are supposed to 'fix' concrete is beyond me...). Just what are those rays made of anyhow?

2) But if you only cut into 6 inches, not enough to totally compromise the structure any more severely than Tony Stark's ability to physically mend.., then why would Thor have to stabilize the entire building..?

Totally agreed on Cap's appearance. The idea I took away was that he was concerned about his pals, and perhaps needed some good PR by fighting baddies with the team.

Still, one of my favorite Avengers issues ever.

Doug said...

I think some of the comments for this issue are interesting. I wrote my portion of the next issue's (#122) review well over a week ago, and thought I was overly critical of Englehart's storytelling. But after reading all of your comments, I'm finding that my reservations are not so much out of line with everyone else's.

And I, like you, David -- still like this story. Funny how forgiving we are when a particular tale has an anchor in our own personal age of innocence, isn't it?

Hey, thanks to everyone for always sharing -- maybe Karen and I don't say that often enough. I look forward to reading everyone's thoughts throughout my day!


cease ill said...

Cap happened to see them fighting Zodiac atop the WTC? Why didn't I catch the implausibility of that? Bwah-hahah! I think I moved on to the mysteries of the Mantis subplot; I can't remember when it crossed my mind how little background check she had coming in. Upon looking at the Avengers Trailer, it doesn't look like the careless rag-tag assemblage will come together in such off-the-cuff ways as members did before Gyrich.
Vision did present the messiest rescue possibility, but points for novelty! David b is right: the Kooky Quartet would be run in for this. My gosh, what am I doing with my morning? LOL

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