Review: Avengers: Under Siege Premiere Classic hardcover (Marvel Comics)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

[This guest review comes from Chris Marshall of the Collected Comics Library]

I've always had a strange curiosity when it comes to death and comic book characters. Going back to my youth. I always thought that superheroes were immortal and nothing could hurt them no matter how evil the villain was.

This was proven to me when I watched the "History of Doom" episode from Challenge of the Superfriends. You may recall that at the beginning of the episode the Justice League and the Legion of Doom have decimated to the entire plant and all has been destroyed. Aliens visitor has arrived to find out what happened and in the end they reverse the war and set things right. Thus no one died. Later that same year Christopher Reeve turned back time in Superman: The Movie basically doing the same to save lives including that of Lois Lane.

Later as I got more into comics, I learned of Gwen Stacy and her importance to Spider-Man, but the original comics were impossible to come by and a trade paperback of reprints was non-existence at the time. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I read the entire Lee/Ditko/Romita story.

That brings me to 1996 when I was just starting to get back into comics after college. I had dabbled in the Image explosion and had gotten back into Batman but I was curious to see what I had missed in the Marvel Universe. I was in for a rude awakening when I picked up Onslaught. That was a persona of Professor X and Magento that devastated New York City and its heroes including The Avengers and The Fantastic Four, sending them to their death (or so we thought) They were actually sent to another dimension and the year-long Heroes Reborn storyline began.

In the wake (literally) of the apparent deaths, a new team of heroes came about to pick up the mantle of justice -- The Thunderbolts, headed by Citizen V, a descendant of the WWII superhero, and his team of MACH-1, Techno, Atlas, Songbird, and Meteorite. Not only was their origin a complex secret, which made you want more, they also came across as a team ready to kick-ass. And for a few issues they did.

Headed up by writer Kurt Busiek, The Thunderbolts took on criminals and even teamed up with Spider-Man. However, it was all a ruse -- and a damn good one at that. The Thunderbolts were secretly the Master Of Evil -- Baron Helmut Zemo, Beetle, Fixer, Goliath, Screaming Mimi and Moonstone (that is, the sixth incarnation of the Masters of Evil).

Then Marvel Comics did a very cool thing. To coincide with the release of the first Thunderbolts trade paperback, Justice Like Lightning, Marvel published a collected edition of their first appearances as their original villainous counterparts, Thunderbolt's Marvels Most Wanted. I was sent into a frenzy and wanted to know just who the Masters of Evil were. I did some digging online and purchased the Avengers: Under Siege storyline (The Avengers #270-277) off of eBay. It's now been reissued as part of Marvel's Premiere Classic Hardcover line.

For all intents and purposes, this is the origin of what would become the Thunderbolts. All the players are here including a few other villains like Blackout, Black Mamba, Grey Gargoyle, Mister Hyde, Tiger Shark, Whirlwind, Yellowjacket, The Wreaking Crew, and Titania and The Absorbing Man (who hooked up during Secret Wars). We see how Zemo along with Moonstone form the team that will take over and destroy the Avengers once and for all. The plan is seemingly brilliant and fool proof -- the more villains there are than heroes, then the task would be easy; the Masters of Evil would divide and conquer.

It also helps that the Avengers are not a very large team nor very strong at this point in their history. Captain America is second in command to the Wasp who is having a love triangle with the Black Knight and Paladin. Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau) is having trouble with her new-found powers, Hercules is half drunk and whining about humanity not treating him well and Namor flees just as the team needs him to avoid a court ordered summons. Add in that super-heroes pals like the Fantastic Four are off of Earth; neither the West Coast Avengers or Black Panther wi;; pick up the phone; Vision and Scarlet Witch are on vacation, and no one can find Daredevil or Spider-Man (but no one really looks); the Iron Men (Tony Stark and James Rhodes) are busy battling A.I.M.; only Thor eventually shows up to help save the day. But the worst excuse is that the Falcon can't help because he has the flu.

Even though the story is eight issues, nothing really gets going until Avengers #273 when Zemo arrives. The first three issues acts as an epilogue to the Prince Namor, The Sub-Mariner four-issue series from 1984. Writer Roger Stern had to do this not only to tie up loose ends with Namor, himself, but to spread the Avengers even thinner than they already were. )

I feel that Stern, and to an extent artist John Buscema, does his best here to show DC Comics that the Masters of Evil of the most formidable foes in either universe and to show how it's done in a simple, concise and powerful manner. There is absolutely no doubt that it worked and Avengers: Under Siege has become the go-to story when it comes to one good team vs. one evil team. Even now twenty-five years later it is referred to and copied over and over.

Stern created this version of the Masters of Evil to pay homage to Lee and Kirby. Then Busiek paid homage to Stern by reinventing the team into The Thunderbolts. This seems to me one of the hardest things to do in comics. It's not recycling old material -- it's taking a good idea and turning it on it's head to make it better. Ed Brubaker (Captain America) knows how to do this, so does Geoff Johns (Green Lantern), and to a similar extent JJ Abrams did it with Star Trek.

In the end it's no spoiler that the Avengers win and Zemo and his Masters lose. But the twist is why Zemo is doing this in the first place -- he blames Captain America for the death of his father. It's not an unfamiliar plot; it's laced throughout comic books, novel and movies and the theme is no different here -- family. The Avengers are a family built up with trust through time. Zemo on the other hand tries to quickly buy his family to help him get revenge for his father. He comes closer more then any other villain up to this point. The Avengers are down and out for the count and even though the mansion crumbles, it's about the people that occupy it and not the building itself. The Avengers will always come out on top.

I almost feel sorry for Zemo at the end of Avengers: Under Siege. Here he lies defeated and his master plan thwarted. His father is still dead at the hands of Captain America and there's nothing more he can do about it except wait for Kurt Busiek take over.

[Introduction by Roger Stern]
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8 comments:

  1. Great review, Chris - I'm not much of a Marvel guy beyond reading the Masterworks line (mostly for nostalgic value), so I like peeking in every now and again to see what's going on. Interesting how the Masters of Evil actually have a motive; more often than not, the Legion of Doom's motive is usually just fighting for fighting's sake (notable exception - the Krueger/Ross "Justice" series, which still stands as one of the better hero/villain combats).

    Your piece makes me wonder if it's possible for someone to switch from DC to Marvel: the fact that Marvel hasn't really rebooted its entire continuity like DC has, and the fact that Marvel does events that are bigger, longer, and usually more on time, make the task of entering the Marvel Universe seem a little daunting (maybe I need a good "starter kit"). Seems like "Under Siege" falls right in the middle of some major continuity moments, so I wonder how accessible it would be for a Marvel novice.

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  2. Zach, it's a good point and a problem that both major publishers have, reboots or no.

    When I decided to actually collect a full marvel series, I went for the ultimate universe, which is kind of a like a reboot, just a seperate one.

    But I still do collect some Marvel - I just do it by character or individual trades that interest me, which is probably more how the average reader gets into either universe. I don't delude myself into thinking too many people are crazy enough to try and get all of it, or even really make sense of the epic continuity.

    I think it would be great to see more event omnibus editions, so if you just wanted to read Civil War or something, it wouldn't be so hard. They do stand ok on their own, even if you just have a cursory knowledge of a lot of the characters.

    Chris, by the way, great to see you here and excellent discussion of this book. I finally read this arc last year for the very same reasons (I had just read Ellis' Thunderbolts, then Most wanted, etc.)

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  3. Ian - I agree that it's folly to assume anyone knows the continuity backwards and forwards; even Stan Lee probably doesn't have it all down. Marvel's continuity seems tied in major events like Civil War; I think the branding of the line of CW trades - "Civil War: Spider-Man" rather than "Spider-Man: Civil War" - speaks to the expansiveness of the picture over at Marvel.

    What I tend to do is follow creators at Marvel rather than characters or storylines. I know nothing about the Skrulls, but "Skrull Kill Krew" by Grant Morrison still read pretty cleanly. Ditto for GM's "New X-Men" - the only X-Men I knew before that was the team from the movies, but his was pretty accessible, even if there were odd moments where I felt like continuity might help.

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  4. At one point I picked up couple of large format Ultimate X-Men hardcovers (omnibuses?) cheap at a con, maybe in post-X-Men movie fervor, thinking I might get into Marvel's Ultimate universe as more accessible; bought a big Barnes & Noble Ultimate Spider-Man Omnibus for the same reason. But even the Ultimate universe has become complicated and even been rebooted, hasn't it?

    DC is hardly free of continuity chaos, but it's one reason I'm hopeful about the Earth One initiative; it'd be a lot easier for new readers to keep it all straight if it's a bunch of graphic novels to lay out on the floor rather than individual issues. And of course the Ultimate issues are collected in trade, but then there's miniseries and such in the Ultimate universe, which is much less likely to happen with a graphic novel-based publishing plan.

    Many of these Marvel reviews, however, including Chris's and the Dark Avengers review coming Thursday, make me want to try again at finding a Marvel starting point. Maybe with some Brubaker Captain America or Fraction Iron Man ...

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  5. Zach - I do the same. I tend to follow creators a little more because I feel they do a good job of telling you what you need to know to understand their arc. And they do tend to do their own thing at times so you don't really need to know too much.

    GM's NXM was my first foray into the X-verse and I was not lost at all. I think the same goes for Whedon's AXM as well. I though it was a great follow to NXM.

    CE - I'm just getting into Marvel too and I started with Bendis's NA because he seems to be the driving force behind their universe. I figured since that's the case, if you read his stuff you can get a good understanding of what's happening. I'm also starting with other writer's runs that have stood out; Brubaker's CA, Fraction's IM and so forth. I would like to start FF but I'm waiting for Marvel to release an omnibus-type book of Hickman's run like they did with Fraction's IM.

    What I realized as I started collecting Marvel trades is how much better their collections dept. seems to be. An example is Bendis's run on NA; there are five volumes (nice oversized HC) collecting his run so far. That's how I've been catching up with the MU.

    It is early in my collecting stage but I'm sure Marvel has some quirks in collections that I'll find sooner or later just like DC has. What I do like though is how quicker they get their trades out. I'm holding out on Dark Reign and Siege hoping they'll release an omnibus soon collecting the key arcs.

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  6. Yeah, the ultimate universe (especially because it was so character development based) quickly became very reliant on its own history. I don't think it would be nearly as enjoyable to read without having read the previous books. Of course, I stopped collecting it at ultimatum to concentrate on other things, so I'm not sure if the reboot of the reboot brought it back to its roots again.

    Still, though, I recommend starting with early Ultimate Spider-Man (which is still very easy to get your hands on) as a good introduction to the character. I think people can start with that and then jump to non-ultimate continuity spider-man and still understand what the character is about and who the major players are. It's hard for a lot of modern fans to get into the actual silver and bronze age stuff until they've already become really into comics.

    As for following creators - I dig it. Joss Whedon is one person who I can't resist. His Astonishing X-Men, though it builds on GM, was so much more enjoyable for me than the preceding work. I'm very glad I picked up those hardcovers.

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  7. First of all, thanks for this review Chris; I've been looking forward to seeing this in print since your audio version. (By the way, everyone, if you haven't listened to it, the audio version at Chris's site has slightly different content and discusses a number of issues related to the story that don't appear in this collection. Definitely worth listening to!)

    Some of the comments here about the difficulty of getting into Marvel Comics are really interesting to me, because they mirror my exact thoughts when I first became interested in DC. Having followed Marvel Comics for most of my life, I found the DC Universe nearly impenetrable at first.

    I think this was actually BECAUSE of all the continuity reboots -- it was difficult for me to tell which stories "mattered" and which didn't, much less why. After all, I thought, shouldn't how well a story is written (not how directly relevant that story is to future stories) be the determining factor in whether it matters? Having familiarized myself with both comics universes at this point, I can confidently say that it's perfectly doable in both cases, but in neither case is it easy. It requires asking other people, checking out resources like the timeline on this site, and sharing your own experiences with other people who are in the same boat.

    As for a Marvel "starting point," I think there are two big ones that you could potentially start from in recent years. The first is Heroes Return, which was an almost linewide reboot in 1998 - not continuity-wise, but many titles (the Spider-Man books, Avengers, Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, and others) began new series with new #1 issues and new creative teams. Although the first Thunderbolts series that Chris mentioned in his review was published about a year before that, it can pretty safely be lumped in with that creative rejuvenation. This is the period that I've been focusing on recently with the Marvel reviews I've been posting at my blog.

    After that, I think the only other really good starting point is Avengers Disassembled. That's when Bendis really started to have creative control over the main Marvel Universe. Everything published since then, from Civil War to The Initiative to Secret Invasion to Dark Reign to Siege, has flowed directly from Disassembled. That's not to say you couldn't start anywhere you wanted if you had a mind to, but Disassembled is the logical place to begin.

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  8. Well I'm myself getting back into Marvel. True, the reboots didn't help continuity at DC much, but it was important to the bunch of readers who were really frustrated about the stories, what's more, they gave us really GOOD stories. Crisis was great, without it we wouldn't have had the grim & gritty era, without Infinite Crisis we wouldn't have had the whole crossover era-where every damn DC title has the potential to tie in to another. I'll agree that Marvel has no reboots but their continuity isn't that great to follow.
    Creator wise, it's debatable as a few of the most stellar runs of stuff I know were from before the Crisis & are considered as high points even today-SWAMP THING by Moore, LSH by Levitz & TEEN TITANS by Wolfman.My only gripe is that with Marvel, the specific creators that I tend to favour on their specific series have no other universal favour, apparently.
    UNCANNY X-MEN by Austen
    HULK by Jenkins, Jones
    X-TREME X-MEN by Claremont
    PETER PARKER/SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN by Jenkins

    Rest all they have collected in one format or another.

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