Avengers Forever: a second opinion

Sometime last December, I read Avengers Forever a second time (which I have in the lovely tpb), and when I saw it in Greg’s queue for upcoming reposts, it really got my mental juices flowing. I was already formulating all kinds of points I thought I would leave in the comment section once his piece was posted. But then after some back-channel communication with Greg and few other AJSers, I was convinced that my response should be a post of its own.

This may seem like a rebuttal of sorts, but it really isn’t. Generally I agree with Greg’s overall assessment that Avengers Forever is a rather good good story. However – and this became particularly apparent during the second read-through – I think it has some pretty serious flaws, too.

This hefty trade paperback edition, by the way, is the best way to read it, flaws notwithstanding…

First, the trivial complaints: the core team used in this story all seem color coordinated, so that they’re dominated by blue, yellow and red. It almost made me wish for the line-up to include She-Hulk, just to throw a splash of some different colors in there. Hawkeye, at least, should have been wearing his regular purple duds.

Another thing: all of the dudes (if you don’t count Rick Jones, and I don’t) basically have blond hair! Was that intentional? Once it hit me, I couldn’t stop dwelling on it.

My main complaints, though, are very much tied to the plotting and major story elements. First and foremost, if one of the aims of this story was to smooth out the often convoluted continuity of the Avengers’ immense backstory, then I think that it ultimately fails. This is because the explanations for certain continuity conundrums were unsatisfying.

For example, the ‘explanation’ of the whole Vision/original Human Torch problem, perhaps one of the key aspects of the whole story, honestly left me as perplexed as before. Basically, it involves Immortus creating a divergence in the timesteam, but keeping both divergent vectors in the same stream. Simple, right?

You and me both, Hawkeye

I also found the retconning of the Space Phantom(s) into some kind of limbo ghosts who are used as slaves a very forced solution. First, it makes them somewhat like time-travelling versions of the Skrulls, since they’re also shapeshifters, and, second, and worse, they become a convenient deus ex machina for Kurt Busiek (and, I guess, Roger Stern, too) to fix any inconsistency that they can’t otherwise explain. Case in point, they play a key role in the aforementioned ‘fix’ for the Human Torch/Vision problem.

And just in storytelling terms, perhaps the most obvious failure of the plotting was the fact that it required two whole issues, #8-9, that were basically extended flashbacks – the latter issue is literally Kang sitting in his den reminiscing. They’re kind of like the comic-book version of clip shows, but used to tie together so many of the various threads. Even with twelve issues to work with, Busiek (and co-plotter Stern) still needed to resort to this device. (Surprising to me, because in, say, Triumph & Torment, Stern in particular showed that he could incorporate flashbacks – the origin stories of Drs. Strange and Doom in that specific case – into a larger narrative pretty seemlessly.) It really kind of breaks down the momentum of the story as a whole.

The chapter even has the word ‘break’ in the title!

I guess the problem here was that there was so much that Busiek wanted to tackle that there was no other way – but both times that I read this I found those two chapters a bit tiresome, and I say that as someone who generally has no problem with continuity porn (as I mentioned on this site once before, I absolutely ate up that story by Roy Thomas in World’s Finest #271, which explained all of the ‘first time Superman met Batman’ stories that appeared in that title). I think that the problem with Avengers Forever is that sometimes it tries just a little too hard, in that some of the retcons (especially the Space Phantom thing) are a bit heavy-handed.

*lengthy digression begins*

Otherwise, during my recent, second read-through of this story, I also found myself contemplating the rather eclectic line-up of Avengers who drive the story. The central idea of Avengers taken from different points in their history is, I think, quite good, and I really like that the team’s de facto leader is the mature, confident Wasp who first emerged in the early ‘80s when Roger Stern became the main Avengers writer. Some of the others were a bit questionable; mainly, I really don’t like there are two versions of Hank Pym – I think the story would have worked just as well without the quiet, mentally stable version from the ‘contemporary’ period. Personally, I would have preferred another female member, like Scarlet Witch, perhaps from her early days in the team, or better yet, Ms. Marvel either from before the whole Marcus fiasco or after it, i.e., just after her return from Limbo but before Rogue stole her powers and memories in Avengers Annual #10.

However, since Busiek included the disillusioned Cap from the end of the Secret Empire saga and the mentally unhinged Hank Pym who thinks he’s another person, Yellowjacket, it occurred to me that the a more interesting line-up would have been all of the charter members plus Cap, but most of them from periods in their lives when they were not at their best. So, yes, the same Cap and Yellowjacket we have in this story, but also Tony Stark/Iron Man from his ‘Demon in a Bottle’ phase, at that point when his alcoholism really became debilitating; Thor from one of two points in the Simonson run, either when he was scarred by Hela and wore a bandana to cover his lower face, or when he had to wear a special armor because his body could no longer recover from injuries; and Hulk from the early issues of Avengers, i.e., the mostly intelligent yet surly and belligerent version who spent most of his time fighting the others.

So, yeah: these two guys…
…plus these three guys…
…or maybe, alternatively, this version of Thor

The sole exception to the down-and-out versions of the others would be the same confident, ‘contemporary’ Wasp that we also have in this story. So Jan would really have even more of a task keeping everybody in line and getting things done.

No doubt that she’s up to the task, though

In fact, that’s a story I’d still like to see told, but at this point it would be too derivative of Avengers Forever.

*lengthy digression ends*

All that said, I think Avengers Forever is a mostly enjoyable story. In fact, I can say that I liked it better when I re-read it recently. The basic idea, a bunch of Avengers from different periods participating in a temporal war between Kang and Immortus (the same man from different times in his life), is actually quite cool, and despite my criticisms above, I think it mostly delivers. I particularly loved all of the bits when the various characters traveled to different points in the past and possible futures. And yes, the art, by Pacheco, Merino and Oliff, is simply gorgeous – it’s eye candy from start to finish. In fact, I think that helps elevate the story quite a bit.

So it’s well worth reading – if you already like the Avengers. What I would perhaps contest, though, is Greg’s assertion that it’s really something your average comics reader *should* have, given some of the criticisms I made above. If you’re just a comics fan who’s not that into the Avengers or even superheroes, it might not be required reading – and, in fact, I’d recommend trying out other major Avengers story arcs first. For example, although it’s not absolutely necessary, I think you get a greater appreciation for Avengers Forever if you first read the Celestial Madonna Saga.

A few others that would make my “you should really read it” list of stories are from my personal favorite era of Avengers, i.e., The Serpent Crown, The Korvac Saga or Nights of Wundagore, but also the outstanding Under Seige. And if you still want a generous dose of Busiek (plus Perez doing the art), there’s always JLA/Avengers.

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