Jim Shooter was the Avengers' scribe during this period, and George Perez handled most of the artwork. Notable other illustrators included George Tuska (issue 163) and John Byrne (issues 165 and 166). Pablo Marcos was the inker for this run, I found him particularly effective over Tuska's pencils.
Reading this stack of books left me amazed at how much story was covered within the covers. There were plots and sub-plots which would extend all the way into the 180's! Foes included Ultron, Typhon, the Lethal Legion, Count Nefaria and Korvac/Michael (this last storyline would run up to issue 177 by itself). Shooter was masterful at weaving many threads together, and packing a lot into a 17-page story. One of those threads is the subject we will look at today.
Throughout this arc, there was a fair amount of underlying tension among the Avengers. The Beast was having self-doubt issues and was frustrated by his seeming lack of contribution to the team's efforts. Wonder Man also had doubts (he questioned the usefulness of Hawkeye in one scene and was quickly chastised by Thor), and struggled with fear of defeat. Iron Man was chairman, and his frequent absences were causing friction among the team as well (at this time his identity as Tony Stark was still unknown to the team). Captain America had recently lost his added strength (as told in Cap 218), a fact also unknown by the others. Hawkeye was still in the west, and Thor's inconsistent appearances were also a source of concern. Against the backdrop of all this, some tempers were beginning to fray.
We begin in issue 162, with the Avengers facing Ultron. In attempting to stop Ultron, Iron Man held the robot's intended bride (the newly-created Jocasta) and threatened to destroy her. His bluff worked, and Ultron left. But that action didn't sit well with the Black Panther, and when T'challa tried to bring it up, Iron Man brusquely stifled him...
Issue 163 was largely a fill-in, but a major plot point was the Beast's being held captive , forcing Iron Man to perform Typhon's intended attack upon Hercules and the Champions. Again, the Beast was left questioning his actual value to the team.
This led directly into issue 164, when things start getting uglier. Opening this story, Tony Stark, Hank Pym and the Panther are analyzing Wonder Man.They do a great job of ignoring Hank McCoy's attempts to contribute, and the Beast leaves in a huff.
Shortly thereafter the Lethal Legion attack, forcing the Avengers into battle outside the mansion. The fight isn't pretty, the Wasp and Panther are both put out of action. The Scarlet Witch manages to stop the Legion, who then promptly escape. Tchalla blames himself, when Captain America tells him not to worry: the whole team has been underperforming lately.
Back at the mansion, a meeting is held, and Iron Man's absence as leader brings sharp comments form Wanda and Cap. Said meeting was abruptly interrupted by the returning Legion, however.
By 165, Count Nefaria has appeared, taking over for his flunkies (the now-defeated Lethal Legion). The Avengers are still short-handed, the Vision injured, Hawkeye still gone and no Thor or Iron Man. Nefaria is giving the team a rough go, dropping a building on them. At this point Iron Man shows up, and tries to get the team to back off while he attacks. This causes Yellowjacket and Cap to question whether the team is actually functioning as such, and Wanda tells Stark to "Lead us...or step down"
In issue 166, Thor suddenly appears and joins the battle against Nefaria. Wanda lets him know she's had enough of his last-minute appearances. After the fight is over, Iron Man also takes Thor to task for his absences. This brings a scathing response from Cap, telling him "this team has hit bottom while you've been our leader in absentia". Yellowjacket steps in, though, and postpones the 'discussion'. By the way, apologies for the drastic difference in appearance of that page; all other pages are scans from the original books while the page from 166 comes to us via Comixology (lacking that issue in the longbox...).
Issue 167 opens with Nick Fury summoning the Avengers' aid in space, where a huge ship has appeared (containing the Guardians of the Galaxy, incidentally) , seemingly destined to collide with and wreck the SHIELD satellite. Iron Man is on board the satellite with Fury as Tony Stark, and so is delayed in joining the team. This holds up the mission, and when he arrives Cap reads him the riot act. Tony tells him to "shut up and get into the ship".
Cap is obviously still ticked; when they enter the mystery ship he proceeds to issue orders to the team, catching leader Iron Man off guard.
Thor later tells IM not to let it trouble him, but Stark worries to himself that things are getting dangerously personal.
Things come to a head in 168, Cap and Iron Man sniping at each other on the way back to Earth. Upon returning to Avengers Mansion, the team finds agent Peter Gyrich waiting for them, having gained easy entrance to the headquarters. Gyrich blasts the team for it's lack of security, and even Wanda notes Cap's displeasure. Iron Man attempts to reassure Jarvis that Gyrich's entry wasn't the butler's fault, saying "it's nobody's fault". That does it for Cap: he lays into Iron Man for faulty leadership, even calling him a "low life mercenary".
He slugs the Golden Avenger, and the two square off. Thor holds Tony back, and Wanda separates the two. She then rakes Cap over for his own lack of effective contribution. Cap stalks off, and IM apologizes to the embarrassed Guardians (who had been uncomfortable witnesses to the whole display).
Finally, in 170, the tensions are resolved. Cap is grumpily exercising, and not having any of the Beast's small talk. Iron Man enters, stating that he wishes to say a few things. Cap figures he is about to get an earful about his own inadequacies. Instead, Tony apologizes, for his failings, and offers to step down as leader. They open up to each other about their mutual concerns, and Cap sums it up : "You lead, I'll follow".
That's a lot of drama for a storyline covered in a few panels and scattered pages over 8 issues. Each member of the team was involved at some point, and the conflict over Iron Man's leadership manifested itself both in dialogue and in the action. Some of these stories qualify as classics, and the story and artwork were excellent throughout. Jim Shooter did a fine job balancing Iron Man's frustration at being preoccupied with Cap's building resentment over IM and his own lack of effectiveness. And true to the characters, they resolved the fight with discussion and mutual trust. I must say reading up for this post was a pleasure; this title was definitely enjoying a high point creatively.
Which brings us to this question : how might this storyline have worked out differently? It featured Shooter and Perez both at the top of their games. If , say, Steve Englehart or John Byrne plotted this arc ,what might have been the result? Would the two teammates still have buried the hatchet, or might a wider conflict have broken out? Would it have held up if expanded and presented as a stand-alone series (such as Civil War)? Do they even read as the same characters about to square off on the big screen? Your thoughts, please...