Top 10 Avengers Hidden GemsA column article, Top Ten by: Samuel Salama Cohén
This "top ten list" is a special one. A personal one. Mainly because it features ten stories that hit home to me, feeling closer and more special than some of the epics every Avengers' fan knows, such as the Kree-Skrull War, the Korvac Saga or the Celestial Madonna storyline.
I am about to present to you the top ten hidden Avengers' gems, those stories that, for one reason or another, be it creative storytelling, unique page layouts, developments in the characters' lives or all of the above, are special but underrated. Forgotten.
10. The Day the Death Died! (Avengers Annual #16)
The Elders of the Universe have often played games with the Avengers. There are plenty of classic stories featuring them: the Collector, his brother the Grandmaster...
Beings of great, unknown power, almost reaching a godlike level, the Elders usually lie in order to achieve their goals. They are not immortal, and yet these beings have died and won their way back to life.
Let's add to this mix that the Grandmaster lives to play high-stake games, and that he seems to have a particular affinity to choose the Avengers as his pawns in these cosmic games, and we end up with the premise to this great Annual.
Featuring both the West Coast and East Coast Avengers, this story features talented writer Tom DeFalco and a multitude of artists (each of them penciling a chapter of this special) such as Bob Hall with Tom Palmer on beginning and end, John Romita Jr. with Bill Sienkiewicz,Keith Pollard with Al Williamson, Marshall Rogers with Bob Layton,Jackson Guice with Kevin Nowlan, and finally Ron Frenz with Bob Wiacek.
Back then, Annuals didn't feature great stories, and the rule of thumb was to choose a fill-in creative team and ask them to create a fill-in story, entertaining and easy to read, without any real meat at all.
So, basically, one could skip an Avengers or X-Men Annual without missing on developments to his favorite characters.
That was not the case here, as all the Avengers... fought to death. Literally. Well, not all, there were two left standing:, Captain America and Hawkeye.
But how did this came to be? Well, it has an easy explanation, believe me:
After trapping Death itself, the Grandmaster gained the power of life and death, and as he couldn't resist creating a game, he created five bombs full of Death power, putting them over the five corners of the Earth. If the Avengers didn't find and stop the bombs in time, they would explode, erasing the Universe and creating a new Big Bang...
There. Oh, and one more thing: The team had to oppose the Grandmaster's version of the Legion of the Unliving while finding and stopping the bombs. Easy, right?
The Avengers, divided in small groups, knowing the stakes, faced small groups of the Legion of the Unliving, sometimes with more luck than others... and meanwhile, the Grandmaster, with Death trapped at his side, was watching the developments, and how with each explosion more and more Avengers died, and with them, parts of the Universe ceased to exist.
Round One: Hawkeye, Thor and Hank Pym vs. the Swordsman, the Executioner, and Nighthawk (who, surprisingly, wasn't really dead at the time). The place: Hell. Avengers dead: Hank Pym, brutally stabbed from behind by the Swordsman, and Thor, who makes the ultimate sacrifice to transport the bomb to another plane and thus, help save the Universe. John Romita Jr. and Bill Sienkiewicz masterfully depict Hell's atmosphere, and the scenes have a harshness to them that's unusual on this title. Finally, Clint's face as he realizes that his friends are dead says it all...
Round Two: Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau), She-Hulk, Tigra and Moon Knight confront the deceased Captain Marvel, Drax the Destroyer, Green Goblin and Viper... in order to get to the floating death-bomb before it explodes.
She-Hulk gets the killing blow first, her spine brutally destroyed by Drax, just before the Goblin kills Moon Knight, and Tigra loses the fight with Viper, mortally wounded... However, even in death, the team triumphs, as Captain Marvel reaches for the bomb and destroys it, just before the dead turn on her with full force... and everything is over.
Round Three: Silver Surfer (helping the Avengers on this game) fights Korvac in deep space, ending with the destruction of the bomb and their two lives.
Round Four: Iron Man, Dr. Druid, Black Knight and Mockingbird versus the first Red Guardian, Terrax (not dead, but oh well), the first Black Knight and Dracula. A pity that when Tony Stark was about to dismantle "their" death-bomb, Dracula attacking Mockingbird distracts him. Boom! Everybody dies.
Round Five: The final one, as Captain America sees the Wasp die at Baron Blood's vampire hands, and Hyperion collides with Wonder Man right into the Sun, killing them both...
And the super soldier has to face his worst nightmare... a dead Bucky Barnes. But good old Steve makes it, and he manages to destroy de bomb in time.
Only two Avengers remain, Cap and Hawkeye, and the Universe depends on them. As they face a new Legion of the Unliving, with all of their dead comrades in it, Clint Barton comes up with an idea, a game of chance: Two arrows, just one head. If the Grandmaster picks the one with the head, he wins, if he doesn't, he loses.
But Hawkeye doesn't play by the rules.
And the Grandmaster falls into the trap, just during enough time for Death to free herself, exile the Elder from her domain and give the Avengers a second chance, as everybody is alive and well again.
Overall, this is a great Avengers Annual, the way all of them should be, proving us that life and death are not so definitive in the Marvel Universe.
9. Wings and Arrows! (Avengers #189)
In the late ‘70s, after the Avengers had gone through revelations about Quicksilver and Wanda's origin in Transia, survived a desperate battle against the man-god known as Korvac, and Simon Williams was starting to feel more confident in his role as Avenger, befriending his teammate the Beast, there was one Avenger who had to take on a new job. As a security guard, no less.
Hawkeye the marksman, who had gone through every incarnation of the team, came back from a time off-duty in the American west, to find his greatest enemy inside Avengers Mansion: Henry Peter Gyrich.
Gyrich was the team's government liaison, and he didn't enjoy a good relationship with the Avengers. But the worst move he made was forcing the Falcon on the team just because he was black, leaving Hawkeye out.
So Clint had it simple. His life as an Avenger was over, but he still had his abilities to count on. And on this issue, one of the forgotten ones of this Avengers era, Steven Grant and John Byrne (in all his glory) had the marksman travel the route from bitter to sweet.
Funnier than ever, Clint Barton sees an advertisement on the paper, while mourning over his bad luck in his tiny apartment (funny how the archer still has a crush on Wanda, and a big picture of her on the wall).
After all, if this "Cross Tech" company is having trouble with thieves - I bet Clint Barton thinks - they could use my help as chief of security, and I sure could use their money...
Writer Steve Grant knew how to capture Hawkeye's essence, and with Byrne's pencils, the archer looked just perfect. He was blending very well with his new job, but just two days on the job and he had to take care of an intruder!
The alien Shi'ar known as Deathbird attacked the factory, and with only Hawkeye standing, it was left to him to stop the alien from getting her hands on whatever she wanted.
There were no questions asked... Hawkeye just released all his frustration about being left out of the new Avengers roster on Deathbird, while the Shi'ar warrior kept fighting him, using her alien javelins and lethal wings as weapons.
Reeling from her defeats at the hands of Ms.Marvel (who had just become an Avenger), the Shi'ar wanted to redeem herself at the eyes of her people, but the archer just wouldn't let her win.
I had so much fun with Hawkeye's situation - and reaction to it- on this issue. I have always liked it and offbeat issue from time to time, and though this one developed the archer in a surprising and interesting, my moment of fun comes right at the very end.
When the Shi'ar Deathbird is about to escape, Hawkeye traps her with a bowling net from one of his arrows, and when the guards are taking her out of the company, the warrior starts shouting at the archer, mad with rage...
The last thing poor Deathbird expected was to get spectacularly kissed by an amused and cocky Hawkeye, who tells her bye-bye in his inimitable manner:
"If you don't call me, I will"
The cover price of this issue when it got released? 40 cents.
Seeing a John Byrne-drawn Hawkeye kissing a mad Deathbird, smiling ironically at her afterwards? Priceless.
These 22 pages had the flavor of a classic offbeat Avengers issue, which is what the title needed after a year of big sagas and challenging villains, being one of John Byrne's lightest issues on the Avengers.
A few years later, Clint and Deathbird met again, during Operation: Galactic Storm, and I forgot to check if the Shi'ar warrior had a special interest in killing Clint...
8. Mightier Than the Sword? (Avengers #65)
This issue marks the end of a plot that had been running through the Avengers title for three issues, with a different subplot on each of them.
Egghead, that ugly Hank Pym old foe, tries many tricks to end with the Avengers during the course of these three issues. From faking Nick Fury's voice and image to send the team after a false lead, to a fight with robots on a space station...
It always keeps getting better...until things get too personal, too fast.
Barney Barton, a New York hood, shows up at Avengers Mansion, telling them about Egghead's plans and the location of the space satellite from where the villain has fired a blast that destroyed an entire city.
After some discussion, the Avengers choose to believe the criminal and they soar above on one of the team's quinjets.
As they make it to the ship, a battle erupts, between the Avengers and a small army of robots...a battle which outcome is decided by Barney Barton, that in a heroic last effort, jumps towards Egghead and destroys his command console, leaving the station useless and saving the Earth...but at the greatest of costs.
As Barney is dying, one Avenger rushes to his side, to hear his last words and try to comfort him, to convince himself that they can save him...and on one explosive panel, the readers learn that Goliath is also known as Clint Barton, a man that has just lost his brother.
Thus, Roy Thomas and the unique artist Gene Colan, best known for his Dracula, Conan or Namor achievements, set the reader up for the explosive and revelatory issue which is Avengers #65.
After saving his bald head, Egghead doesn't lose any time, contacting the Swordsman and asking him to perform a dangerous feat: trap both Hank Pym, formerly known as Goliath, and Hawkeye.
Little do both villains know that the giant Avenger calling himself Goliath and Clint Barton, are one and the same...so imagine the Swordsman's confusion when, after breaking into Avengers' Mansion, sees a giant talking like Clint Barton.
But the real interest of this story is not the return of the Swordsman, or Egghead's villainy.
No, the spotlight here is in Clint Barton and all the revelations about his past, which remained unknown for the Avengers, until now.
Here Roy Thomas uses two different vehicles – Egghead and Goliath himself - to tell the untold story of the common past that the man who would become Hawkeye and the one that would become the Swordsman, have.
Through the retelling of how Clint Barton surprised the Swordsman stealing money at the carnival where they performed and refused to join him as partner in crime, readers got to see the moment when the paths of Clint and his brother took separate ways.
The brutal impact of the revelation that Clint, the young archer he taught at the carnival, is now Hawkeye, makes the Swordsman go more determined than ever at his former pupil, to show him who is the master.
However, like Roy cleverly shows on the issue's ending, Clint's rage over the death of his brother makes his aim better than ever, and the Swordsman, after the archer has saved his life, is forced to admit who is the master now.
Apart from the emotional dose of the issue, the spotlight is on Gene Colan, who gives us the best and more original Swordsman depiction ever.
His entrance sequence, lashing out with an amazing fury and determination at the hard, cruel alleys of New York, lasts for the first three pages, and has a color and composition more in tone with a Daredevil comic (a hero that Colan excelled at penciling), but fits perfectly with the tone of superiority which always surrounded the Swordsman.
I'm sorry, Swordy, but you're not the master anymore.
7. What to Do Till the Sentinels Come! (Avengers #102-104)
Roy Thomas, along with Stan Lee and Steve Englehart, is one of the three defining scripters in the Avengers lore.
His run lasted for about 70 issues, and he was responsible for creating the Vision and for crafting the longest and most important romance: the Scarlet Witch and the Vision.
He also was known, during a period of time, for his work on the X-Mentitle.
He was really one of those sci-fi lovers who knew how to blend reality and mundane affairs with the most surreal plots.
On his last arc on the title, he introduced many subplots, closed others...and though Steve Englehart devoted his first issues as anAvengers writer to wrap up the various loose ends, Roy had time to leave us one full, shattering last tale.
What makes this story work is the perfect characterization of every Avenger.
Not the Sentinels, not their ability to adapt to all the heroes powers, or their obsession to end with all mutant life. That's not what makes Roy finale tick.
The idea is simple. If you were leaving town for a long time, wouldn't you want to have all your friends with you one last time? Or at least the ones you love the most? The most significant to you?
That's what happens here. We have the Avengers trinity (Captain America, Iron Man and Thor), Hawkeye, the Vision, Wanda, Pietro... and Rick Jones.
Actually, even unwanted members of the family show up, as the Grim Reaper appears to tempt the Vision, that enigmatic being that he calls "brother", with the possibility of a human body and thus, a life rid of problems, a life where he could love Wanda and be treated as a normal human, not...something else, something entirely different.
The Vision shines in this farewell, being impetuous and illogical at some moments, like when he detects a menace approaching to a thoughtful Wanda , or when he sees Clint giving Wanda a passionate kiss which she , after only a second, refuses to tell the archer she is in love with the android.
However, his coldness is still there, like when he Wanda is held by a Sentinel, or at the end of the first issue of the arc, where his logic makes him unfit to emphasize with an enraged and crying Pietro, left alone in Central Park, feeling that he has failed her sister, if just for one brief moment, but enough for a Sentinel to take her away.
As you might or might not guess, this time the cruel spotlight is on Pietro, the speedster Avenger, mutant and gypsy, who, driven by the worst feeling known to him, guilt, uses his powers like never before, running and thinking at the same time.
Run. Find the creator of the Sentinels. Run. Find Wanda. Run. He would know the answers. Run. Find Judge Chalmers. Run. Find Larry Trask.
When he gets his hands on Larry Trask, son of the creator of the Sentinels, Pietro doesn't give the man a break, passes by the police so fast that they almost can't see him...and in the end, by his own means, learns what the Avengers learn thanks to the Starcore satellite: Wanda is captive of the Sentinels in Australia.
And, as the rest of the team, with the quinjet powered by the mighty Thor's hammer to get to Australia in the span of moments, is already fighting for their life against the Sentinels; Pietro is on his own, on a desperate quest around the globe, with the clock ticking because the Sun's about to explode, and, according to Larry Trask's visions, so is the Earth...
Rich Buckler started on the Avengers title right after #100, but I would assume that, after seeing his portrayals of both natural landscapes, desperate emotions, and action sequences, readers wanted him to become a regular.
And Roy Thomas, he gave here his best and perhaps more personal shot. And it really worked.
Pietro and the Vision following different paths in order to save the same woman, the one they care for so much.
Clint and Wanda. Wanda and the Vision. The Vision and Pietro. Pietro and the Avengers. Every relationship that had been relevant throughout the writer's tenure gets explored over the course of this three-issue arc.
And when Pietro thinks he is about to die, after sacrificing himself so that his sister may live, a light fills the room, but he cannot move, and neither can Buckler's shot. That would be a secret until Steve Englehart came onboard, and happily for the speedster, it meant the coming of the inhuman Crystal into his life.
But that's another story, for another time.
6. The Coming of Red Wolf! (Avengers #80-81)
This story introduced an Indian-American hero called Red Wolf, in order to enrich the gallery and variety of Avengers. That's what many people might think, if they remember this story at all.
And they would not certainly be wrong. But there is another factor here: that hero disappeared at the end of the second chapter of this mini-epic. And, apparently, he went back to his homeland for sure.
But seeing only that would be seeing too little, too fast.
Because on these two issues we get serious character developments on many Avengers, such as the Black Panther, who doesn't approve of the team's way of thinking and dealing with threats, as he sees that a black child who hasn't been given the chance to study and grow into his own man is as serious a problem as the Crime Cartel Scorpio, that terrorizes the U.S. once more.
There could be a lot of debate about this, about whether the team was meant to fight the foes no single hero could withstand, and about if that meant that street-level problems shouldn't be as important as the next villain.
I loved the debate that was presented here, and I think I wasn't the only one, or just look at today's depiction of the team, and where we had the regal Black Panther today we have the street-level Cage, but in the end they both wanted the same thing: to tackle the issues that were being left behind.
And it is in the middle of this intense debate that the Red Wolf, with his wolf by his side, wakes up and, after a few explanations, like how and why did he get there – the answer to both questions being the same, the Vision found you – gets the help of three Avengers – Scarlet Witch, Vision and Goliath II – while the rest of the team, with Captain America leading them, wonders if their internal dissension over which threat to prioritize means the end of the Avengers and the way they were.
It is on these two issues where the legend of the red wolf comes to life, yes, but at the same time a new form of love starts to grow, with both Wanda and the Vision starting to care for the other a little bit too much.
And what about the villain, the counterpart?
He is just magnificent. Van Lunt, The Lex Luthor of the Avengers, exploiter, mafia leader...he is just lovable. I mean, disgusting. But doesn't he represent the real world? He just wants to get rid of the poor Indians, as he sees them, and create his empire. And if someone stands in his way, in the way of his business...he gives his men the order to start a war.
Roy Thomas knew how to tackle real life issues in a fabulous setting and with colorful and super powered people running around.
This time, the interesting part is that even the good guys don't know who to help first, the local but more Global menace that Scorpio represented, or the cries for help of the minorities, such as T'Challa or the Red Wolf demanded.
Having "Big John" Buscema riding this car with Tom Palmer assisting on inks is a delight to the senses. They both give this adventure the look and feel of a five stars Avengers story. The artist was always a specialist at drawing quiet scenes, excelling when the fight started and the Avengers put all their efforts into doing some avenging.
Yes, the coming of Red Wolf was a very special, intimate, story. Roy here was a precursor on many fronts, and he made sure this issue wouldn't be easily forgotten.
5. Some Say the World Will End in Fire... Some Say in Ice! (Avengers #61)
There was one Bendis' Avengers comic not so long ago which made me think of this instant classic by the titanic duo of Roy Thomas and John Buscema.
That issue, sadly, was released as a 2009 FCBD giveaway, and had nothing to do with the current Avengers plot.
The weather had gone haywire and the Asgardian frost giant Ymir was responsible. And can you believe that Clint, disguised in his Ronin costume, remembered having fought the giant long ago? I've got to say that was a nice, albeit too brief, homage to one of the Avengers' forgotten gems.
Remember when the first page of an issue used to depict some scene from inside the comic? Well, here that goes to the extreme in an amazing display of talent by Buscema, showing a damn scary Surtur right about to fight Hawkeye and the Black Knight, both mounting Aragorn (Dane Withman's winged horse), with the first part of the title "Some say the world will end in fire... ", and you just had to turn the page and astonish as the frost giant Ymir, facing the android Vision and a feline Black Panther, had the next part of the title written with big icy letters over him: "Some say in ice!" .
The issue starts like any other night at Avengers Mansion, with Hawkeye and the Panther using a solar ray machine to "recharge" the Vision's solar gem.
Suddenly, a floating figure comes with the warning of a terrible danger that could mean Earth's destruction. It is the astral projection of the master of the mystic arts, Dr. Strange.
A member of the cult called the Sons of Satannish (scary name, man) has unleashed two very old forces upon Earth: the ice and the fire. After that, Strange tells the trio of Avengers, he has used a magic weapon called the crystal of conquest to take down the Black Knight.
After Strange leads Hawkeye and the Panther to the dark mausoleum where the body of the Knight lies in a coma, things start moving really fast.
And that's what's great about guest appearances. Then, when Strange wasn't a member of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, he was key in bringing Dane Withman back to life, with the help of the Avengers' machines (ever heard about Hank Pym's rejuvenator? I have. Just this once, as T'Challa used it on the Black Knight).
He didn't have to join the club, but hey, without him, Surtur and Ymir would have brought chaos to the Earth.
And with Dane Whitman now awake, news started to come in: volcanoes erupting in the Antarctic circle, Ice freezing everything in the warm African nation of Wakanda... the prophecy had come true, and two Asgardian giants, one of ice and one of fire, had started their siege on Earth.
The fight that ensues is a beautiful and interesting one. Though clearly the teams of the Black Knight and Hawkeye, and the Vision and the Black Panther, are no match for the respective might of Surtur and Ymir, they battle bravely, without any fear at all.
While the Black Panther is fighting for his kingdom, Wakanda, with the help of the android Avenger, Hawkeye keeps shooting different arrows at a crazy Surtur.
And thought they do their best to keep the threats contained, it is not until Dr. Strange "does his magic" that the two giants appear in front of each other, without time to stop...
Fire finishes Ice. It was the only way that battle could end. Is that what you call a "deux-ex-machina" kind of ending? Maybe, but it was an spectacular one, and each of the Avengers and their guest stars fought bravely, forgetting about the level of the threat.
Was this a fill-in? Well, I wouldn't say it was as important as the previous chapter, the wedding of Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne... so, let's call it a 1969 told-in-one story. But I wished, oh how I wished, that all fill-ins were as consistent and intense today, more than 40 years later of Avengers stories.
4. The Blaze of Battle... the Flames of Love! (Avengers #75-76)
What would you think if I told you that the Scarlet Witch's first love encounter has always been overlooked? No? Nothing?
Well, the fact is that there was once a barbarian from other world, a dying one, known only as Arkon, who wanted to make her his empire's queen.
Sure, things weren't smooth at first, because after all, Wanda had been kidnapped, taken as a prisoner against her will.
And in the span of a few days things had changed completely, as Arkon, lone ruler, started learning how to be gentle with Wanda, while she started imagining herself at his side. The flame was starting to burn between two hearts...
When comics are so good, you have to understand, sit down and enjoy.
Understand that comics are fiction, and not an accurate depiction of the real world we live in. Understand that hey, a story without a twist would be plain and simple.
Sit down and enjoy the wild ride, as the Avengers, with Thor's help, bridge the gap between Arkon's world and the Earth, to save Wanda from the barbarian, and save the nuclear physicists that Arkon has kidnapped to tell him how to power his planet and prevent it from dying.
It is said that Arkon's character was a test run for the Conan comic-book series, which this same Avengers duo (Thomas-Buscema) would create in the ‘70s. A ruthless barbarian and yet, capable of loving and being tender.
On this tale of love and war, of might and tenderness, camaraderie and heroic acts, readers of the time got to see, after an absence of more than two years from the title, the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilvercoming back to the fold, while the team's married couple, Hank Pym and Janet Pym, left to explore the wildness of Alaska (where they would be seen again on a prelude to the Kree-Skrull War).
Once more, the Avengers title was living a change of the old order. Like it happened way back on #16 with Stan Lee running the show, Hank Pym and the Wasp were leaving, giving way to the mutant brothers.
But this time things were really different, as Wanda returned with the adult pencil of John Buscema, and the mind of Roy Thomas. She returned as a woman, one capable of finding true love. The mutant wasn't a girl anymore, and she certainly didn't have a childhood crush on Steve Rogers. Those first days were long gone, and right after knowing what love was during her brief time with Arkon, she met a certain Avenger for the first time: the Vision.
But Wanda's return wasn't the only big change of this two-parter, full of war, love, and broken hearts.
Clint Barton, the Avenger known as Hawkeye and Goliath, had been running around a beautiful and deadly SHIELD spy, Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, for a long time.
He had already gotten used to her sudden and unexplained disappearances, but now that he had lost his brother forever, Clint couldn't face losing her lover as well.
Deep in his heart, Clint understood that she couldn't be with him anymore, that she was devoted to something bigger than the love between two people, so he let her go, not before asking Natasha to tell him that she never really loved him.
And, as she kept walking away from him, a tear dripping from her eye, Natasha mumbled those hard words. Penciled by John Buscema, this scene had more impact on me than the ones with the Avengers trying to build the D-machine in vain, a machine that was supposed to transport them to Arkon's realm.
But what stays with us after all the thrills and dangers of these two issues, is a lovers' gift. Something as simple as a flower, and yet so full of meaning.
So, as Wanda would tell Arkon, with the flower of life between her fingers, before their lovers' moment was over:
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies...
I hold you here, root and all,
In my hand, little flower...
But if I could understand what you are,
Root and all, and all in all...
I should know what God and man is.
3. Betrayal! (Avengers #66-68)
The Vision. Even the name sounds creepy, right? So why don't add more layers to the first Avenger created in the pages of the title (not counting Wonder Man, whose brain patterns the android shares), might have been Roy Thomas thinking when he took on the task of crafting this story.
In fact, with the Vision's character came a lot of planning, because with such a complex character ("son" of a robot which at the same time has been created by Avenger Hank Pym, and with the brain patterns of a deceased avenger, Wonder Man), many story possibilities arose.
Like: what must it feel like being partly human but knowing that the answer and connection to all those human feelings lies ten feet under?
Or: what if this intelligent android joined forces with the mad robot that created him? Wouldn't that destroy the Avengers?
The answers to all of those questions lie beneath the pages of this three-issue gem, crafted by Roy "The Boy" Thomas, Barry-Windsor Smith and Sal Buscema.
Under the pencil of Barry Smith, the Vision looked more deadly and grim than ever, but truth be told, each issue looked different than the previous one in this trilogy.
On #67, the real stars are the art and the color choices, or should I say the impressive and really original layout of many of the scenes, such as Thor shaking his mallet on page 1, a depiction of three scenes into one on the last panel of page 4, the creepy Vision scene at Simon Williams' grave on page 8, the transitions between a talking heads scene to an action sequence on page 9, or the terror sequence as the Vision attacks a SHIELD agent on page 13, being my favorite one the scene on the Avengers study with Thor, Iron Man, Yellowjacket and Goliath (Clint Barton), depicted on page 15 (Un-be-lie-va-ble).
I've got to admit, if all the talking heads that we get in comics these days had the amount of story, tension and the amazing composition that we get in this one single page, I'd be a happy fan.
Still not sure this storyline is a gem? Let me convince you with only four words:
Indestructible. Adamantium. Ultron-6. Origin.
That's right; the Vision took Ultron's lost head and body pieces from the remnants of their first fight, and remade the murdering robot, but better. Adamantium-enhanced. The body of the sinister robot with an indestructible alloy, only vulnerable to Wakanda's richest source of power: Vibranium.
Wait, I think I've got more...Vision. Foe. Friend. Both.
A complex new character at the time, the writer doesn't want readers to know where the Vision's allegiances are...and that's why, after betraying the team, fighting them, and helping Ultron rebuild himself and enter Avengers Mansion, the character has a change of heart and decides to follow the murdering robot to his base, in order to be a true Avenger, and help save the day. Save humanity from the evil of his creator.
Really, I could be doing this all day, but the key to this story is that it gets you and doesn't let go.
And guess what? If you're looking for the Vision to be innocent of bringing back Ultron, to be (this is comics, right?) mind-controlled, or with a virus, or something...you are going to feel surprised.
Vision, as he did later under Busiek, has some strange decisions, but after all, if he is partly human, shouldn't he obey his father? Feel the urge to bring him (it) back to life renewed, better than before?
And if you enjoy characters saving the day, wait until you know how, after confronting his "father" on the second chapter of the arc, the Vision, realizing the extent of his acts, takes it upon himself to stop Ultron-6 from unleashing a wave of nuclear radiation all over New York...or how Hank Pym puts his genius at work and, with the help of T'Challa, the Black Panther, some hypnosis from the wasp and a the memorized commandment "thou salt not kill" puts an end to Ultron and his threat...at least for awhile.
2. To Tame a Titan! (Avengers #48-50)
There was a point in time when being an Avenger was being part of a club, of the super-hero elite. It was hard to get in, and yet, somehow the roster kept changing, more dynamically than most readers wanted.
There was a time when Captain America left the Avengers without explaining why. When Hank Pym was Goliath, self-secure, assertive and badass hero. When Pietro and Wanda did not yet know their true heritage, and were manipulated by Magneto into leaving the very humanAvengers and joining him and the Toad.
There was a time when Hercules, after having proved his mettle as an Avenger time and again, went back to Olympus only to find the temple of the Promethean flame laying in ruins, destructed by the titan Typhon, and the Olympians cast to Limbo.
There was a time when scientist Dane Whitman, trapped by Magneto inside his own castle, decided to don the Black Knight armor and make good on a promise to his dying uncle, and amidst the confusion, ended up fighting the three remaining Avengers (Hawkeye, Goliath and the Wasp).
Well, this was the stage at the beginning of this second hidden gem, the once powerful Avengers reduced to a trio, with the rest of the members scattered on different missions. Oh, did I forget to say that due to the stress of years of size changing Hank Pym was losing his powers and was about to park the Goliath identity for good, without the Wasp or Hawkeye knowing?
As we delve further into this storyline, we find that it is one of the direst moments in Avengers history, as the three remaining had just tried (and failed) to stop Magneto's carefully woven display at the United Nations, where the master of magnetism, after sending a false message of peace between mutants and humans, directed a shot from the guards' guns at Wanda's head, making Pietro crazy with rage against all humans, including his former pals, the Avengers, unable to reason with him.
This was the first serious introspection into the mutant twins' motivations, and the first time that them being mutants was more important than being Avengers. And though Wanda still didn't trust Magneto's intentions, he seemed to be there to care for a peaceful cause when the world hated them enough to shoot at them... that's what Pietro saw that day. And the reason why the Avengers lost two of their proudest members for more than two years.
The magic of this story resided, however, in the Roy Thomas-John Buscema tandem, a magic that worked because Roy knew Big John's strengths (mystic creatures and fights of godly proportions) and let the artist loose, letting him ink his own work on both Avengers #49 and the landmark Avengers #50, where the Hercules-Typhon-Avengers trio thread would collide in an spectacular display of pure, godly strength.
Hercules was leaving the Avengers, yes, but leaving a mark on them, as he spectacularly defeated the Titan Typhon.
As Hercules tells Zeus: "Though I be now an Avenger, I am first and forever... an Olympian!".
You just got to admire issue #50 page by page, and marvel at Buscema lashing out, from the first-page splash of two desperate Avengers shouting at each other, to Hercules taking his revenge on Typhon starting on page 11, not to mention the demigod's save of the pantheon of gods and the ensuing celebration on pages 17 to 19.
This was, indeed, a powerful storyline to say goodbye to the Olympian Avenger, and one that Roy Thomas used to unite Clint, Jan and Hank even more, while taking the time to introduce a future Avenger, the Black Knight, and setting the stage to an imminent throwdown with Magneto and (why not?) the X-Men.
Here, Hawkeye evolved from being mad at Cap for leaving the team, to desperate at seeing how Wanda and Pietro left as well... to support Hank Pym's leadership, what a more mature archer than Stan Lee's depiction would naturally do. And of course, after the huge but organic change in the line-up and only three Avengers remaining, Roy Thomas had to end it properly, and what better way than having Hawkeye shout: Avengers Assemble!
1. Once an Avenger... (Avengers #23-24)
Always an Avenger! Yes, I guess many of you know that famous quote already. But did you know it was coined by Stan "the man" Lee and that it happens to be the title to issue #23 of the Avengers?
You may know all that, fellow Avengers-versed readers, but what you wouldn't guess is what makes this two-parter my #1 hidden gem. Let me try to put it bluntly: Steve Rogers could be many things (soldier, Nick Fury's friend, man lost in time... ) but above all of them, he had the responsibility to carry on the Avengers legacy after all the founders left.
He had been doing so since the old order changeth until the good name of the team was discredited, and the Avengers disbanded (only to win everything back in the end) after a plot orchestrated by the Enchantress and Power Man. That was it.
Steve had failed the team so he decided to quit. And (sorry for the big intro) there's where the Avengers are at the beginning of this story. A team composed of two young, wanna-be leaders (Hawkeye and Quicksilver) and a blue Scarlet Witch, missing Captain America as she tours around the mansion, like in a daze.
Obviously, Kang realizes this is his finest hour, when his foes don't have the soul that Cap embodies, so he manages to trap the "kooky trio" and transport them to the "far future" (31st century, to be precise). But Kang's motivations are more complex this time than just destroying the Avengers, as the masterful trio of Stan Lee, Don Heck and John Romita Sr. , succeed at showing us.
He has conquered almost everything, he has all the armies of the different ages at his disposal... but he doesn't have his true love's heart. And as a man of war, his way of showing the extent of his love forRavonna, princess of a small kingdom, rests in offering her the chance to surrender, so he will spare her kingdom utter destruction.
So blinded by love is Kang this time, that when Cap arrives in the 20thst century, to show Ravonna that he is able to crush every opponent, every Avenger.
And that he does, in a display of force, tech and skill. In front of Ravonna's eyes he has made futile the triumphant return of the team's leader, the embodiment of hope and faith.
Stan Lee does here what he did best. Give the story unexpected twists. Sure, his stories were filled with clichés of the time, but for once, an story involving Kang is not just about time traveling and fighting endless armies, or strange and sinister machines attacking the heroes at every turn, but about a man determined to do anything out of love.
And the messages of this two-part story are not just about love, but also about friendship, camaraderie and sacrifice. These values represent what the real Avengers stand for.
Sure, there's the occasional bickering, but what Stan and Don portray over these 40 pages is a fast-paced tale featuring four people named Clint, Wanda, Pietro and Steve determined to save a kingdom and a princess, both under siege of a very human villain. Four people willing to do what it takes to save innocent lives without thinking of the cost.
Stan Lee got the Avengers right: they are not an army, they are not JLA impersonators, they are not vigilantes, they are, first and foremost, a community of trusted friends.
On the second chapter of this story, "From the ashes of defeat!", things start moving and changing pretty fast, as Kang's armies launch a brutal attack on the kingdom, conquering it easily.
The Avengers now trapped, the kingdom conquered, Kang is free to marry Ravonna (who still opposes him), but in another turn of events, he finds dissension in his ranks, as Baltag, his second-in-command, accuses him of being weak and merciful for letting the conquered princess live.
I will stop here for a second. This issue (Avengers #24) is part of a #1 gem because of several reasons: the romantic and unexpected twist at the end, a weakened team surmounting nearly impossible odds without the heavy hitters, the first Kang alliance with the Avengers against his own people (sorry, Bendis), but above all that, because of one page that captures the depth of Kang's feelings, his sadness, his love, his angst.
A close-shot of Kang's face on page thirteen, and the brutally sad development on the last page, both of them perpetrated by Don Heck and inker Dick Ayers, are enough reason to admire this 9th art tale, crafted when the medium was still young and innocent.
Who said villains were two-dimensional characters, cheaters, liars and criminals? Back then, in 1965, Stan Lee showed readers that there are greater things than conquer for some of them, and that honor and love are two of them. In 2010, I still can't help feeling sad for Kang and Ravonna.
And these were the ten unknown Avengers' treasures, the ten hidden gems. It has been a pleasure to share them with all of you guys.
Until next time,