It might be unfair to call the two Earth’s Mightiest Heroes mini-series, brought together in this Ultimate Collection, an “origin story,” as the team assembles off-panel. In fact, many of the team’s major battles occur away from the main story. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is closer to Kurt Busiek’s Untold Tales of Spider-Man in that it takes the original Lee and Kirby stories and weaves around them. We see the behind-the-scenes of the characters reacting to their new world and to their own issues.
Much of the first issue, for instance, deals with the controversy surrounding the Hulk’s membership. Iron Man assures the public that he will keep the giant reined in … and shortly thereafter, the Hulk goes rogue.
Once Captain America appears in the second issue, the first mini-series locks in its characters’ roles. Iron Man is the logical team leader, harried by the pressures of his teammates, the press, and the government, represented by Agent Murch and the wonderfully psychotic Henry Peter Gyrich. Giant-Man is the distant scientist always trying to one-up himself; the seeds for his later madness are sewn. The Wasp does her best to be the team mom and her boyfriend’s confidante. Thor is an enigma, as at this point, not many people believed he was a god; even Iron Man was skeptical. Jarvis establishes himself as the team’s backbone, even trusting in Hawkeye before any of the others do. Rick Jones is there first as an annoyance, but then as Captain America’s moral compass.
As the first half goes on, the story sets up for “Cap’s Kooky Quartet,” the second of the team’s incarnations. Had I not read The Captain before this, I would have been angry that Casey portrayed Cap as shell-shocked and hell-bent on vengeance. But Gruenwald’s Cap and Casey’s Cap both go deep into his character and point out that he is simply a great man, not a god. Rick Jones helps adjust Cap to this strange new world, and his victory over Baron Zemo is satisfying. As the first new recruit, Hawkeye wants to be a hero more out of ego and showmanship than any spirit of heroism. Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch join up simply as a way to save their lives.
Unfortunately, there’s a big gap between the first and second Earth's Mightiest Heroes series, jumping right from the formation of the Kooky Quartet to the Seventies Era. An "infodump" catches us up when Jarvis and Hawkeye explain the history of the team to the Vision. I think this robs the story of a lot of its potential; there really should have been a third mini-series between these, letting us see the Quartet and their next recruits, Hercules and the Black Knight.
The second miniseries retells the Yellowjacket storyline, in which Hank Pym went crazy and the Wasp decided to marry him to bring him back to sanity. This is merged with the return of the Super-Adaptoid and a surprising subplot for the Black Panther, both of which redeem this part story-wise.
The art for the first mini-series is from Scott Kolins, and while his art has some of the more standard “Kolins lines” at the start, it softens as it goes on. This makes for a solid transition into Will Rosado’s work on the second mini-series. The one major difference is that Kolins loves his shadows, while Rosado’s art is far shinier, which is fitting for the somewhat happier seventies-era characters. Both artists are able to strike a solid balance between the long-past era of the original stories and the modern era.
Aside from a few lines about using the Internet and some of the super-technology, it’s hard to notice that this is an updated story. It would have been tempting to update the Quinjet and some of the costumes, like the Wasp’s pointy-headed first costume or Giant-Man’s bizarre mantle/helmet costume from Avengers #15, but leaving them alone makes it easier to read these alongside the originals.
Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes can be read as its own story. It’s mostly self-contained, and the off-screen adventures are briefly shown or alluded to. However, the best way to do it is to have a copy of the original stories on-hand, either in the Marvel Masterworks versions or the cheaper Essentials. Whenever they talk about one of their adventures, jump over to the older story, read it and go back. It takes a bit of work and time, but if you’re familiar with going back and forth from one of Alan Moore’s stories to Jess Nevins’s annotations, then it all should work out.
If you enjoyed the movie and/or the cartoon that shares this books’ name, then grab some form of the original Avengers issues and make your way here. Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes is a great second stop on an Avengers reading journey. Joe Casey fleshes out the original team members and updates them while simultaneously not making them clichéd. The artwork of Kolins and Rosado is beautiful, and be sure to check out the covers, which make up the chapter dividers. They each pair a letter of “Avengers” with a character or scene.
My only major complaint is that it feels like a chunk is missing out of the middle of the book. Casey has gone back and done the actual origin tale in his Avengers: The Origin, and I hope he does the same with the Kooky Quartet and the rest of the late sixties Avengers.
Next week, it’s Captain America, Thor, the Uncanny X-Men, Bishop, X-Man, Iron Man, the Avengers, Gambit, the Adjectiveless X-Men and the Unlimited X-Men, all together in a desperate attempt to keep Earth from turning into a prison planet. [And be here tomorrow for the Collected Editions review of Batman, Incorporated!]