[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]