Monday, February 14, 2011

Zodiac: A Sure Sign of Trouble!

Avengers #120 (February 1974)
"Death-Stars of the Zodiac!"

Steve Englehart-Bob Brown/Don Heck

Doug: Hey, Avengers fans! After our last look-in on Earth's Mightiest Heroes, just about anything we do has a chance of paling in comparison! Steve Englehart and George Perez created a tour de force with their sweeping Serpent Crown Affair. But what about our heroes pitted against a different super-team?
As this was (if memory serves) the first multi-part Avengers story I owned, I'm looking forward to seeing if it provides the same wonder that it did three decades ago.

Doug: Well, this one's off to an odd start! I had #119 as a child, so when I saw the splash page to #120 with the two teams fully engaged, I was like "what the heck??" Today we're used to the first page of a comic being a throwaway, but in 1973 it just wasn't common practice. But at any rate, we got rolling just fine once page 2 sat under our noses.

Doug: Comment right away on the art. I'll be honest, and you probably know what's coming. We've been hot and cold around here (well, at least me -- I shouldn't speak for my partner) with Bob Brown's art. But when I saw that the inks were going to be by Don Heck, I was quite fearful for my visual experience. But let me state in front of everyone -- I thought the art in this issue was really good.
There was the one obligatory scene Bob drew with some weird-looking breasts, but aside from that I thought the pacing, figure-work, and faces were quite nice. Maybe my surprise influenced my overall p.o.v., but I'm pleased that my memories from so long ago still ring true.

Karen: Unfortunately the Avengers went through a long spell of mediocre art. The book has the same sketchy look as Heck's pencils. What I wouldn't have given to have Cockrum or Buckler or best of all, John Buscema, drawing these stories.

Doug: So, plot synopsis: One Cornelius van Lunt pays a visit to the New York pen. He's interested in recruiting the old Gemini so they can get the Zodiac cartel back together. Joshua Link relates an origin of he and his brother, who is a cop. Seems an electron bath (wonder if that's moisturizing?) gave Joshua control over his good-guy brother Damian. Apparently all of this was revealed in the pages of Astonishing Tales, in some Ka-Zar stories. Partner, did you know any of this backstory, because I did not.

Karen: No, I did not. I've been slowly adding to my collection of Astonishing Tales but I haven't gotten any issues yet with Gemini. It's interesting how we see Englehart borrowing story elements from it here. Chris Claremont would take Zaladane and Garokk from those pages into the X-Men a few years later.

Doug: After the prison scene, we cut immediately to Avengers Mansion, where Jarvis is cutting out to head to the grocery store... on foot. Huh? Anyway, Damian Link gets access to the Mansion, and to our heroes. Seems he's a liaison between the NYPD, SHIELD, and the Avengers, and he has information about Captain America -- Cap's up on murder charges in his own book (although he did manage to sneak onto this mag's cover). But in the midst of the conversation, Joshua Link is able to possess his brother (electron bath, remember?). Mantis immediately picks up on it, and warns the Swordsman to be on guard. As Iron Man gives his officer buddy a tour of the facility (huh? Henry Peter Gyrich would be most displeased), Link spies a folder containing sensitive defense information -- yep, just laying out in the open. Link begins to pick it up when the Swordsman moves -- er, falls, right into Link, slashing the policeman's uniform and revealing the togs of Gemini!

Karen: A nice example of the subtle nature of Mantis' empathic abilities. However, Gemini -like much of the Zodiac -is no match for the Avengers. Seriously, even 12 of these guys shouldn't cause the team to break a sweat. Oh well, I guess their "nefarious plans" are the real threat.

Doug: Well, no sense for ol' Gemini to go quietly. A little donnybrook ensues, and Thor puts a stop to it with one punch. Man, I love the way Englehart wrote Thor!
But, as our heroes begin to ponder what just happened, the wall starts to glow and blammo!! In step the full ranks of the Zodiac! Caught by surprise, the Avengers are all-too-easily subdued. Jarvis returns to find the team splattered all over; his initial fears are for naught, however, as Mantis begins to stir. Once everyone's up and about they notice a tape recorder (hah! A little history lesson, ya young punks!) and play what is a challenge from van Lunt. The Zodiac has a star ray powerful enough to kill every Gemini in NYC and they plan to use it. I'll tell you how impactful this story was to me as a child -- I asked my mom what the Zodiac was all about. After she told me, I began reading my horoscope every day in the "Green Sheet" -- an insert in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, as I lived in that city for a couple of years back then.

Karen: Growing up in California, 'Zodiac' had a whole different meaning! The Zodiac Killer was on everyone's minds, and even as a young kid, I had heard about him. But I digress. I really enjoyed the segment with the Swordsman collapsing, and the team discovering that his wound suffered during the Avengers-Defenders War was never properly treated; the police took him to jail, not a hospital, because they thought he was a crook. The poor bastard mutters about trying to earn the team's trust, while his team-mates assure him that he already has. Swordsy was just so tragic!

Karen: I have a hard time buying that souped-up ray gun knocking out Thor! But it's a plot device, to move the story along. The tape recorder did make me chuckle though.

Doug: Our bad boys (and girl) put their giant star-ray doohickey way up on the World Trade Center (hey, Englehart -- the Sears Tower was open by this time, dude, and was the tallest building in the world, not the WTC). The Avengers deduce where the set-up will be and crash the party. While the ray is destroyed, it's not totally put out of commission and Taurus uses it to blast Mantis. As her body teeters on the roof's edge, Taurus issues a final challenge -- to be continued!


Fred W. Hill said...

Hi, Karen & Doug,
I actually had read that Ka-Zar story with Gemini, so I was at least familiar with him, but this was the first time I'd seen the whole caboodle and my 12 year old self was really into it, especially since I'd also been reading the Greek mythology on which these astrological signs were based. Not that I ever took astrology seriously, but it was a fun romp in fantasy. Looking back, the art definitely is scratchy and I also wish they'd had better artists on these stories, but it's not too distracting in this story -- at least not as much as some of the Don Heck art earlier in Englehart's run.
Oh, yeah, and we're seeing more signs that Englehart brought the Swordsman into the Avengers only to tear him down as part of a larger story that essentially begins here, although we wouldn't know it until the conclusion of this particular arc.

Anonymous said...

I can't think of a Zodiac story that didn't end up a disappointment in the end, whether it was Avengers or Defenders. I always thought of them as filler until we could get back to the good stuff.

Look at the potential with Gemini - a villain able to remote-control his cop brother who has an "in" with both Shield and the Avengers....and what do we get? A death ray on a skyscraper? Really? Is this the Avengers or Batman Family?

Doug said...

Eric --

I'm suddenly not feeling so badly about the tone I take in the third and final issue. Stick around...


Inkstained Wretch said...

I'ver read this issue in Marvel Essentials no too long ago. It's nice to see a few of the panels colored.

That said, this is pretty silly. Killing everyone in NYC who was born a Gemini? That accomplishes ... what, now?

I suppose the idea could work if the crime were some kind of magical curse or evidence of genuinely twisted nihilism on the part of Zodiac. Instead it is just presented as well, the writer thought world domination was worn out as a mcguffin.

The only thing it is missing is Hawkeye knocking out the bad guys with a boxing glove arrow.

Fred W. Hill said...

Speaking of that last segment of the Zodiac yarn, I couldn't find that when it came out, and it was about 15 years before I finally obtained it, along with some of the earlier Roy Thomas era Zodiac stories, and the Steranko Scorpio tales in S.H.I.E.L.D. Most of the members of Zodiac were ciphers, without any interest powers or personality (even if they managed to get in a few words). Of course, that's a regular problem when you have a large group like that in a relatively short story.

Edo Bosnar said...

Agree with you guys about Brown's art - to me it always seemed serviceable but nothing more.
Haven't read this story, so I can't give any thoughts, but I don't entirely agree with Eric's comment about the Zodiac story in the Defenders being disappointing. That's one of my favorite Defenders stories - it's just as good as any of the stuff from Gerber's run on that title.

david_b said...

Being this is my 'first' Avengers arc I ever read.., it's near and dear to my heart. Granted, looking back on it, it's probably a plausible, yet silly 3-ish romp, but it's strengthen by three delicious Englehart sub-twists: The Zodiac leadership splintering the group into near-mutiny, Swordsman in decline (whose character I really to liked..), and Mantis's father.

Yep, Brown's art was a bit sketchy, but I liked his faces as a huge improvement from Heck's art. Perhaps not as great as John B's, but it has it's own dark style which fits.

Killing on the the Gemini's..?? Yeah, that was odd, but at least it was mass killing on some sort of 'kooky level'.

The problem here is..: What do you consider filler..? I thought the trip to Rutland was filler. Steve Englehart streamed this arc cleverly into the Mantis story, then the space fight in 125 (filler?), to Quicksilver's wedding, to Kang, then onto Vision's story.. You get a nice paced stream of flowing stories which kept you in your seats for at least a dozen issues. I thought it worked well, thanks to ol Mr. Englehart.

Anonymous said...

I think we all agree that Englehart never really got the artwork he deserved until Perez rocked up (and I know you Buscema-ophiles are going to tell me that Englehart regarded Sal as the best interpreter of his stuff, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with him).

Doug - I think you’ve opened up an interesting sidebar on how comics raised our perception as kids and caused us to ask questions about the real world.

I particularly remember reading the Mordillo storyline in Shang Chi, with Mordillo’s plan to burn a hole in the ozone layer. I took it to my granddad (actually a scientist) and he explained to me in real detail that it was actually happening (I heard the term CFC’s from him in 1975!). It seemed impossible to me that there was a James Bond style supervillain preparing to destroy the world in a dastardly way, and, in fact, we were all actually destroying the world in that exact way every morning when we sprayed our armpits.

Not a completely random segue there, remembering that Englehart created Shang Chi.

( Yes, OK, Karen....Englehart and STARLIN, sorry :0) ).


david_b said...

Another couple of points left off from my last comment..:

1) Doug, I'm still here in Milwaukee, I sure miss the "Green Sheet" as well, but apparently it got too expensive to maintain about 30 years ago..

2) I guess that dandy new raygun Taurus uses explains **everything**, but I find it odd that the ish before, everyone nearly got zapped for not turning off the roof alarms, but here the Zodiac simply melt down a wall and walk on in.. Hmm.

3) I also found it strange that the team got taken down so quickly as well.., but I guess with that many villains enmass, it's bound to happen. The Zodiac must have monitored who the current lineup was.

Looking forward to reviewing ish's 121 and 122..!

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