Monday, July 23, 2012

Giant-Size July: Avengers Annual 14

Avengers Annual #14 (1985)
"Fifth Column"
Roger Stern-John Byrne/Kyle Baker

Doug: It's the home-stretch of Giant-Size July, as Karen and I finish it up with a nifty 2-parter (or are they concurrent?) featuring Marvel's premiere super-teams (admittedly, the X-Men were in a universe of their own by 1985). For those of you who already know what FF Annual #19 looks like, it was a neat idea to make it a see-through image of Avengers Annual #14. Although a spoiler is given away before we even open up the book, it's a fun idea nonetheless. And with a creative team that includes Roger Stern and John Byrne, can we lose? Let's check it out...

Doug: We open with an Avengers team comprised of the Wasp (as chairperson), Cap, Hercules, Starfox, Captain Marvel, and the Black Knight. This was the line-up that was in place when I returned to comics after a four-year hiatus from collecting. We also find only a page or so into the tale that this is a continuation of the events found in the monthly book, issues #'s 259-260. Question -- how did you feel when Annuals and/or Giant-Sizes were used in conjunction with the monthly to serialize long storylines? Anyway, a band of Skrulls is actually breaking into a prison colony -- a penal institution that has never been breached! During the operation, one of the Skrulls is offed by security, leaving only two to carry out this dirty deed. As they battle their way toward a specific cell, an explosive is affixed to the door. The poor sap who set the charge is lost in the "KROOM", and it's up to the leader to step inside and to inform one Prince Dezan that he is now liberated. The prince, wearing the Skrull version of "the man in the iron mask" is surprised, confessing that the nature of his crimes surely would have inhibited anyone from taking this chance.

Karen: I had the same thought, "Oh, it's the Man in the Iron Mask." Instantly I assumed Prince Dezan is the guy I should be rooting for. This line-up of Avengers wasn't bad, particularly with Roger Stern at the helm. I liked Stern's creation, Captain Marvel -although I wasn't all that happy with her using that name. It was also good to see the Black Knight and Hercules back in the Avengers. I'd only really seen them as Avengers in reprints so it was exciting to see them back on the team. As you mention Doug, this was the era of cross-overs, and I thought it was fairly irritating. For years the annuals suffered from this. We had 'The Evolutionary War,' 'Atlantis Attacks,' and maybe the most frustrating for me, 'Operation Galactic Storm.' The reader was forced to buy titles they really didn't care about to get the complete story. Gee, things haven't changed that much, have they?

Doug: You know, I hadn't thought about all of that cross-over business, but I think you are right! I wonder if this was the first one? Man, those became an expensive pain-in-the-butt! But hey -- I did it!

Doug: Cut to a Skrull armada, where on a command ship General Zedrao entertains the Avengers as they all view the now-imprisoned starship Sanctuary II -- formerly belonging to Nebula! We the reader are brought somewhat up to speed on past doings by some dialogue between Hercules and the General. Firelord, who had been a player in the earlier part of this, lies injured in a stasis tube -- cracks me up that instead of flaming hair, it's bubbles! Starfox is feeling his oats, and pledges to get Nebula, no matter the cost. He's given a "whoa, whoa, whoa" from the Wasp and Black Knight. But the general steps up and offers a solution -- passage to an asteroid that contains an energy grid through which Nebula might be tracked. And in yet another notch on his "hero" belt, Cap defers to Jan as chairperson, and she accepts the idea. Thoughts on that scene?

Karen: By this time the Wasp had undergone a pretty serious maturation, from air-headed hanger-on to a seasoned hero. The interaction between her and Cap was perfect, I thought. If I recall, during her leadership she often called on Cap to formulate battle plans, while she retained overall authority. Pretty smart if you ask me.

Doug: Once aboard Starfox's vessel, the Avengers are escorted to the asteroid. The Knight deciphers some of the technology, and again author Roger Stern uses dialogue to tell the reader what is going on. This form of narrative was noticeable, and effective I thought. Dane brings up the fact that Galactus had devoured the Skrulls' homeworld (Fantastic Four #257), and the Wasp gives him a "waitasecond..." about whether or not this asteroid still exists. Dane assures her that it probably does. Then we get to look in on the Skrull who is in a different ship, escorting our heroes. I tell you, these guys practically write themselves! What a curmudgeonly bunch! Stern does a nice job here. As the ships make a warp, they emerge into a startling scene: they are greeted by WWI-era biplanes and a huge zeppelin! Drawn into the giant blimp, the Avengers see that their assailants are gangsters -- ya gotta love it! And who should lead these guys, but Humphrey Bogart himself!

Karen: I think I liked this story better when it was on Star Trek as 'A Piece of the Action.'

Doug: Not being a Trekkie, I didn't catch that at all. I'm sure you did find the plot swipe annoying. See, this is why you're here -- to give these reviews a bit of pop culture depth! Me, I'm admittedly kind of shallow.

Doug: Let's take a quick break, now that we have this set up, and talk about the art. As you saw above, John Byrne is providing the pencils, with Kyle Baker the finishes. When I set about laying out the top of the post I was surprised at this, as I'd not remembered Baker's presence. But you know what? It works for me. Yes, I see a bit more Baker and a little less Byrne, but the amalgamation is pleasing in most cases, particularly facially. Byrne's storytelling is intact, but I'll go on record as saying Baker enhances Byrne's work. You?

Karen: I'd put Baker somewhere in the middle. Not the worst inking on Byrne by a long shot, but not the best either. There's something very...grainy about his work, that kind of bothers me.

Doug: I always wonder about the printing process of the time whenever you and I use words like "grainy" or "muddy". That's why I love to look at original art -- there are just no doubts about the creative process.

Doug: The Skrull disguised as Bogart takes the Avengers first through a casino and then to an office where there is apparently another Skrull the team should meet. But when Prince Dezan steps out, the Avengers' escort about drops his teeth! But Dezan calms him enough to relate his purpose and plan: Dezan had been part of a triumvirate of conspirators, left-wing radicals bent on reforming the empire in their own image. But as their traitorous notions came to the fore, Dezan was captured and imprisoned (there's more to this than meets the eye -- I'd have guessed genocide when he'd earlier described how heinous his crimes were), his mate Zabyk took off to the outer reaches to scheme, and Myrn stayed within the empire, played it straight, and became one of its leading scientists. However, after Galactus had "eaten" Throneworld, Myrn nearly went mad. At that time, sensing opportunity, Zabyk returned and took advantage of his former friend's scattered mental faculties. It was at this point that Dezan was freed from prison -- in hopes that he could head off Zabyk's plans for conquest.

Karen: It seems like the destruction of Throneworld really shouldn't have had such a devastating impact on the Skrulls. I had the impression they were a huge empire, with many worlds under their control. But here, they seem like space nomads.

Doug: But do you suppose the destruction of Throneworld became symbolic for the empire? Did it show that the "infallible Skrulls" really weren't as invincible as they had so long thought? I mean, these guys had fought the Kree and who knows who else (the Badoon? - I don't know), and then the Big G shows up and WHAMMO -- no more Throneworld. It must have seemed too easy.

Karen: You have a point there -perhaps it was so demoralizing they just fell apart. Of course -going back to Star Trek here - I had the same issue with the destruction of the Klingon moon in Star Trek 6. A vast empire shouldn't collapse based on the loss of one planet. But I suppose if it were their seat of government, or just such a huge symbolic loss, it could cause the cracks to appear.

Doug: As Myrn had detailed to Zabyk the presence of a near-functional "ultimate weapon", the Skrull escort blew his stack -- further questioning why Dezan had been freed and questioning why oh why he'd be taken anywhere near such a device. Starfox stepped up and volunteered the Avengers to break into the power asteroid and destroy the weapon; he was quickly admonished by Cap and Jan (Jan wasn't happy that he'd overstepped her command). The team does decide to attack the asteroid -- and it's pretty funny when they do! As their "host Skrulls" had been in love with gangster movies, the Avengers masquerade as Vegas toughs. They gain access, and while their papers are being checked Dane and Jan burst out of a crate -- surprise! The Avengers make short work of the guard detail, and Captain Marvel flies off to scout. Meanwhile, Zabyk has discovered the invasion and is none too happy about it. Myrn tells him not to worry -- and activates the hyper-wave bomb! All that need be done is throw a switch, located a few levels below. Myrn shows Zabyk insulate-armor, which Zabyk dons -- and then kills Myrn.

Karen: Captain Marvel shows her versatility by using her many energy forms to clear the way for the Avengers through the complex. I always thought she might be one of the most powerful Marvel characters of all, if her powers were properly harnessed. I like that crazy suit of armor Zabyk slithers into -the way he gets into it reminds me of Gleep and Gloop from the Herculoids!

Doug: And then, and then... who should arrive to assist the Assemblers but Thor himself? With a couple of Rigellians, no less! As the team heads in the direction Thor dictates (he knows where Zabyk hides, after all), Cap mentions that it's too bad Goliath had to stay behind on monitor duty. Thor agrees, and states that his tremendous height would be a boon. Obviously, there hasn't been a Goliath since the Kree/Skrull War, so the jig is up -- and Herc decks "Thor". At about this time, a squadron of Skrulls arrives to dispatch our protagonists. Game on. Of course, the Knight uses the flat of his blade -- this isn't a Conan mag, after all! And then who should burst into the room, but the Fantastic Four?!? As above, the Avengers don't believe it and a small bit of fisticuffs breaks out. But it doesn't last long, as Reed and Cap ask enough questions that only the other would know -- and both end up satisfied that they're looking at the real McCoy. By the way, this was during the period when the She-Hulk (dumbest name ever?) was filling in for the Thing.

Karen: It is a terrible name, which is too bad, because I grew to like the character. The faux-Thor has a decidedly chubby face. I guess Byrne or Baker was trying to give him more individual features, but he just looks like he's been drinking too many horns of Asgardian mead.

Doug: Zabyk appears on a viewscreen and challenges the Earthers. Dezan reveals himself, but is disguised as one of our gangsters. But as Zabyk rants, Captain Marvel enters the chamber. Zabyk doesn't see her, but Cap does. Cap orders her into the control panel, at the same instant Reed tells her to stop -- this scene is really well done, as Byrne/Baker take us through a page and a half in a split second. Monica emerges with the teams and tells that she did nothing. Zabyk, however, pushes the fateful button which initiates the launch sequence. Suddenly the entire asteroid begins to vibrate. A wave of light spreads across the known galaxies, affecting every Skrull. Zabyk is seemingly killed, and Dezan emerges seemingly unscathed -- as a truly handsome prince (well, contrary to Skrull standards anyway).

Karen: I agree, the art showing Capt. Marvel inside the machine was really well done. It got across the idea of her dealing with tremendous energy.

Doug: She-Hulk and Hercules smash out to go find Zabyk -- when they do, he's actually alive but trapped inside the armor Myrn had given him. The bomb had been created to stop the genetic deviation of Skrull DNA -- in effect, what it did was freeze every Skrull in whatever shape they were in when it went off. As Zabyk had been forced to shapeshift in order to get into the armor, it was now his prison. Dezan mused about Skrull society now that every Skrull was different; Cap gave a soliloquy on liberty and the celebration of difference. Dezan said those were nice ideals, but time would tell. A short time later, the Avengers were back on a ship heading Earthside. The team debriefed on the end of their adventure, and Monica questioned aloud why Dezan was considered so dangerous. Cap smiled, and said he wondered that himself -- so he'd had a private conversation with him. Dezan was the most dangerous Skrull of all -- his beliefs ran contrary to the very ideals of Skrull existence. Dezan, you see... wanted peace.

Karen: I could never understand why anyone thought it would be a good idea to take the one thing about the Skrulls that made them unique as aliens and get rid of it. Obviously, this got rolled back at some point. The ending also had a very Star Trek feel to it.

Doug: Did you notice that the Avengers really didn't do much in this mag? Other than Captain Marvel's sabotage of the systems in the various Skrull locales, there wasn't very much super-heroing. Yet the story was very entertaining, and as I'd said above visually pleasing. So I guess I'd say it was a bit offbeat, but well worth the read.

Karen: I have to be honest and admit that I didn't find it very engaging at all. As you say, the Avengers didn't have all that much to do. The whole 'alien race imitates human culture' thing seems like a tired cliche. I hate to be the 'bah, humbug, here, but that's the way I feel about it.

Doug: And you are certainly entitled to feel that way -- I take no issue with your point of view, as this story would seem atypical of what one might expect out of the summer annual. While I did catch the repeat of the Skrulls as gangsters from Kirby's last few issues of the Fantastic Four, I thought it was still funny -- Stern paid an able homage (or flat-out swipe, if you will). We'll see next Monday how Byrne does as his own scripter -- we'll take a look at this same story, but from the FF's perspective, in Fantastic Four Annual #19.


Anthony said...

I do like the Byrne / Baker art a lot and I really liked seeing the gangster Skrulls again. I loved them since their appearance in Marvel's Greatest Comics 73 which reprinted F.F. 91. even if they do rip off Star Trek.

As to the disintegration of the Skrull empire I always believed several things factored into it.
1) A sizable portion of their fleet was probably destroyed by Galactus. 2) Without sizable forces to control rebellious colony worlds more of the empire broke away. 3) I've never viewed the Skrulls as being that unified a race. Without a strong military and central government different factions broke the empire apart even further. I think they played upon this aspect in Secret Invasion.

Star Trek 6 I always thought was less believable and I felt the same way about Return Of The Jedi until someone told me that one of the novels explained that many regional governors perished on board Vader's flagship. The subsequent invasion of the Empire, it's civil war and reemergence as a galactic threat helped make the story more realistic.

david_b said...

Doug: It's too funny that our timing is nearly exact regarding our comics interest. I just started picking up the Avengers during this Stern/Buscema tenure at the same time, and found this Annual a nice, breezy read.

Obviously cross-overs have gone on in Marvel for decades by this point (long before the Avengers-Defenders clash..), but except for an issue or two perhaps for Secret Wars II or Galactic Storm, I never bought other titles for these events, just stuck with my normal collecting.

I found the Avengers-FF Annuals interesting, probably preferring the Avengers side to the FF version of events. Not as big a Byrne fan as most here, the layouts and inking was genuinely well done. The Goliath ruse with Thor was a nice touch, as was the 'iron mask', both startling and visually cool idea.

I also found the DNA revision of not being able to change form a bit depressing. Once you take that away, you wind up with another race of basically green-panted Ferengi..

As a Trekker, I didn't find Star Trek 6 all that hard to believe. I figured the Klingon Empire by this time was in ruin, it's once proud empire at a crossroads, only living on it's previous victories (again an overly-blatant comment on the Soviets at that time). If Praxis was indeed a big feather in the Empire's cap, it could be considered a 'final nail' into the Klingon's strength as an empire, as was hinted as far back as 'Day of the Dove', where Kang's wife lamented about the Empire continually reach out to more planets to survive.

(It still contains the funniest Vulcan proverb of all time..: 'Only Nixon could go to China'.)

As a returning Avengers fan, I as well found it initially unsettling to have Jan as leader, but like most, I found it a clever use of a veteran character, perhaps the ONLY saving-grace to result from the Shooter-YellowJacket disgrace. I still didn't know why StarFox was an Avenger, nor did I like Captain Marvel much, but I soon got used to these line-ups where you had all great stallworths veterans, then Marvel threw in a 'Doctor Druid' or something..

All in all, it gave me a wonderful warm feeling back in '85, that at least with the Avengers alone, perhaps I couldn't go back home but at least make a visit every so often, and find all is well.

Dougie said...

Haven't read this one since it was published so much appreciated.

Also pleased to see Monica Marvel again. Despite being a mainstay of the Assemblers in the 80s, she's never had a significant run subsequently. Yet the much less powerful and interesting Carol Danvers has been in the spotlight for years with her second-hand Kree shtick.

Edo Bosnar said...

Never read this annual (or the related FF one), as they came out at a time when I was on a bit of a hiatus from comics reading - just the opposite of Doug and david_b. However, based on the panels here, I rather like the art - but then again, I pretty much like any artwork done by Byrne.
Anyway, I'll just make a few general comments. First, as to Doug's question about Annuals or Giant-Sizes tying into stories in an ongoing series: I think I've made it well known in past comments that I think annuals in particular should be done-in-ones not directly tied to any stories in the regular series. Also, I'm not at all fond of the annuals of different titles continuing into each other (the only exception would be Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel 2-in-1 Annual #2 which concluded the Warlock saga), and I abhor those "event annuals," i.e. a big long story that continues through every annual coming out in a given summer. That said, the concept here, in which the Avengers and FF annuals each tell the same story from a different perspective seems like kind of a clever idea.
Second, like Karen, I love the Monica Rambeau character, but hated that she had that hand-me-down name. They should have called her Photon or something from the start to make her completely distinct. (And unlike Dougie above, I really like Carol Danvers - she should have just assumed the CM mantle once the original died.) And I agree with you both that She-Hulk is indeed a pretty lousy name, but Byrne in particular turned her into one of Marvel's most engaging heroes.

david_b said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
david_b said...

One of my earnest 'guilty pleasures' was to collect the Byrne She-Hulk title (perhaps if there's a TPB out there somewhere with all her Byrne stories..). I never liked She-Hulk as an Avenger (partially due to the Shooter/Milgrom era, terrible terrible time for Avengers fans..), but grew to like her as a FF member. Even during this time when Johnny Storm had that AWFUL '80s punk haircut..

Agreed on Monica having the CM name.. I mean, "Seriously House of Ideas..?? That's the BEST you can do..??"

As for annuals, I never had many as a kid; when I started collecting in '73, Marvel had gone away from making annuals and started calling 'em 'King Size Specials' and 'Giant Size ...' titles (still seemed like 'annuals' to me).

I didn't mind some continuation from current storylines, except for the Celestial Madonna story, when after Avengers 129, I couldn't find any stores stocking Giant Size 2,3, OR 4. Sure kaboshed my Avengers collecting prematurely.

J.A. Morris said...

Nice write-up, I haven't read this since it was first published. I recall being a bit letdown when this came out, I don't think I've read it since 1985.

But this story makes me think a problem I have with all "Skrull" stories. Once they introduced Super-Skrull (one of my all-time favorite villains), they made every other skrull weak and uninteresting. I don't care if the FF or Avengers are fighting 3 skrulls or 300, they're really just generic aliens at that point.
Just like the Captain America or Fury stories where the villains are countless nameless hydra goons.

William said...

Thanks for another great review. This book came out at pretty much right around the peak of my interest in comics. I was reading and enjoying a lot of titles back then. Ahh how times (and comics) have changed. Love Stern. Love Byrne. But this story didn't particularly stand out to me then. I was not the biggest fan of the She-Hulk era of the FF. It was an interesting experiment, but it went on for waaaay too long. The FF w/o the Thing, is just not the FF, IMO. I'm not the biggest fan of Skrulls either. I never liked the "Body Snatchers" plot that was part and parcel of almost all Skrull stories. Yaaawn.

As Annuals go this one was pretty middle of the road. By this time the once great "Giant-Size Annuals" concept had been reduced to just telling a regular story with a few more pages. Back in the day, it was something truly special. I hold Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 up as the Gold Standard in this regard. Still I guess this was better than that years when Annuals were nothing but reprint volumes.

Speaking of reprints, I have this entire story reprinted in my "Fantastic Four Visionaries: John Byrne" trade paperback collection, so I'll have to dig it out and read it again. The nostalgia factor alone will make it worth the effort.

Dougie said...

I don't dislike Carol Danvers. I read almost every issue all of Ms. Marvel's 70s series and I hope her latest revival is successful, after all the indignities heaped on the character.

She was a distaff version of Mar-vell, however, who never quite had the charm of her Conway "cousin", Power Girl. Nor did she have Monica's distinctive power-set. I think Ms. Rambeau deserves her share of the spotlight.

Karen said...

All right guys, you inspired the subject of tomorrow's post: Captain Marvel #2, aka Photon, aka Monica Rambeau! Come back tomorrow and let's hear some more thoughts on this Avenger.

Anthony said...

The only reason why this Captain Marvel was created was so Marvel could retain rights to the name. Every 10 or so Marvel has to have a Captain Marvel in print. She-Hulk ( I agree a pretty dumb name but better than Rulk ! ) and Spider-Woman were created so that producers of the Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk TV shows didn't attempt to do any female spin-offs.

Fred W. Hill said...

This Annual came out at about after I had significantly reduced my comics collecting and this is one of those that I missed. Seems like a decent enough story with Byrne still producing great art. As for the Skrull gangster bit, I actually enjoyed that late Kirby FF tale this took off from (and if Stern & Byrne are to be accused of "ripping off" Kirby, welllll, of course Kirby was ripping off that old Star Trek episode).
Back when Englehart was doing all those Avengers stories that continued in the Giant-Size mags, I either couldn't find them or couldn't afford them when I did see them on the racks! Rather frustrating when I was a kid but I did finally get them all as an adult. Still, as an adult with more money, while I enjoyed the occasional events where stories would run from one series to another, but I did get tired of what seemed a barrage of such stories.

david_b said...

Forgot to mention, I agree about the sketchy, muddiness on most panels. That seemed to be the predominate output by the mid-80s, thanks to the new printing techiques being tried. I had trouble liking the art, but it's a rare example of story-carrying-art, rather than the opposite, more the norm.

We were missing a great Skrull storyline for a few years by then, happy to see them back. This was probably one of the few favorite team story arcs of the '80s I collected that I still liked, being disappointed by both the post-Perez Titans and Englehart/Milgrom's WCA by now.

Greg said...

Stern and Byrne, what a great team! I actually didn't mind when they used annuals to continue storylines, to me (at the time) the more the merrier! I liked the interconnectedness. Anyway this one is not really spectacular, but really like Byrne's portayal of the Avengers- such a great time for comics art.

I liked Stern's run on Avengers for the most part, although when I think about it I'm not sure why- I didn't care for the Skrulls losing their powers, didn't like Terminus destroying the Savage Land, didn't much care for Starfox or Captain Marvel (like others I think it was using the name that bothered me, not the character), and of course when Dr Druid showed up later... ugh. Did like Herc on the team though, and Nebula as a villain, and Firelord showing up, and even Namor on the team briefly. Thought there was lots of possibilities there at the time, given his history w/ Cap. Oh well, guess it was a mixed run like most are.

Nice review!

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