Monday, February 11, 2008

The Avengers

The Avengers are a fictional superhero team appearing in comic books published by Marvel Comics. The team, comprising existing Marvel characters variously created by writer-editor Stan Lee, artist and co-plotter Jack Kirby and others, first appeared in The Avengers #1 (Sept. 1963).

Tagged by the company as "Earth’s Mightiest Heroes", the Avengers originally consisted of Ant-Man, Wasp, Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk. Almost from inception, however, the roster has been fluid, with the Hulk departing and Captain America joining. The rotating roster has become a hallmark of the team, although one theme remains consistent: the Avengers fight the foes no single superhero can withstand - hence their famous cry of "Avengers Assemble!" To that end, the team has featured humans, robots, gods, aliens, supernatural beings and even reformed villains.

The first issue features the Asgardian trickster god, Loki, who seeks revenge against his adopted brother, Thor. Using an illusion, Loki tricks the Hulk into destroying a railroad track, and then diverts a radio call by Rick Jones for help to Thor, whom Loki hopes will battle the Hulk. Unknown to Loki, the radio call is also answered by Ant-Man, the Wasp and Iron Man. After an initial misunderstanding, the heroes unite and defeat Loki. Ant-Man points out that the five work well together and suggests they form a combined team — with the Wasp naming the group the Avengers. The original members are known as the "founding members," and courtesy of an Avengers Charter are responsible for the good name of the team. As a result, their wishes regarding the direction of the team are given additional weight and deference.

The roster changes almost immediately; by the beginning of the second issue, Ant-Man has become Giant-Man and, at the end of the issue, the Hulk leaves once he realizes how much the others fear his unstable personality. Feeling responsible, the Avengers try to locate and contain the Hulk (a recurring theme in the early years of the team), which subsequently leads them into combat with Namor the Sub-Mariner. This would result in the first major milestone in the Avengers' history - the revival and return of Captain America. Captain America joins the team eventually becoming field leader. Captain America is also given "founding member" status in the Hulk's place. The Avengers go on to fight foes such as Captain America's wartime enemy Baron Zemo, who in turn forms the Masters of Evil; the Lava Men; Kang the Conqueror; Wonder Man; Immortus; and Count Nefaria.

The next milestone came when every member but Captain America resigns and is replaced by three former villains - Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Although lacking the raw power of the original team, "Cap's Kooky Quartet" (as they were sometimes jokingly called) proved their worth by fighting and defeating the Swordsman; the original Power Man; Doctor Doom and Kang once again. They are soon rejoined by Henry Pym (who changes his name to Goliath), the Wasp, Hercules, the Black Knight and the Black Widow, although the last two do not obtain official membership status until later in the book's history.

Under the tenure of Roy Thomas as writer, the stories begin to focus more intently on characterization. The Black Panther joins the team, followed by the Vision. Thomas also established that the Avengers are headquartered in a New York City building called Avengers Mansion, provided courtesy of Tony Stark (Iron Man's alter ego), who also funds the Avengers through the Maria Stark Foundation, a non-profit organization. The mansion is serviced by Edwin Jarvis, the Avengers' faithful butler, and also furnished with state-of-the-art technology and defense systems, including the Avengers' primary mode of transport: the five-engine Quinjets.

Thomas continued his run into the early 1970s, with highlights including a version of the Justice League called the Squadron Supreme and the Kree-Skrull War, a ten-part storyline about an epic battle between the Kree and Skrull races and guest-starring the Kree hero Captain Marvel. This storyline also features the first disbanding of the Avengers, as Skrulls impersonating Captain America, Thor and Iron Man use their authority as founders of the team to disband it. The true founding Avengers, minus the Wasp, reform the team in the 100th issue in response to complaints from Jarvis.

The Vision falls in love with the Scarlet Witch, who eventually responds with a love of her own. Their relationship, however, is tinged with sadness as the Vision believes himself to be inhuman and unworthy of her.

Writer Steve Englehart continued with the emphasis on the cosmic, introducing Mantis, who joins the team along with the reformed Swordsman. Englehart linked her origins to the very beginnings of the Kree-Skrull conflict in a time-spanning adventure involving Kang the Conqueror and the mysterious Immortus, who are revealed to be past and future versions of each other. Mantis is revealed to be the Celestial Madonna, who is destined to give birth to a being that would save the universe. This saga also reveals that the Vision's body had only been appropriated, and not created, by Ultron, and that it had originally belonged to the 1940s Human Torch. With his origins now clear to him, the Vision finally summons up the courage to propose to the Scarlet Witch. The Celestial Madonna saga ends with their wedding, presided over by Immortus, a future version of Kang.

Englehart's tenure coincided with the debut of George PĂ©rez as artist. After Englehart's departure, Jim Shooter began as writer and penned several long story arcs including "Bride of Ultron", the "Nefaria Trilogy" and "The Korvac Saga", featuring nearly every Avenger in the canon. New members added during this time include the Beast; a resurrected Wonder Man; Captain America's former partner the Falcon; and Ms. Marvel.

Shooter also introduced the character of Henry Peter Gyrich, the Avengers' liaison to the United States National Security Council. Gyrich is prejudiced against superhumans, and acts in a heavy-handed, obstructive manner, insisting that the Avengers follow government rules and regulations or else lose their priority status with the government. Among Gyrich's demands is that the active roster be trimmed down to only seven members, and that the Falcon, an African American, be admitted to the team to comply with affirmative action laws. This last action is particularly resented by Hawkeye, who because of the seven-member limit loses his slot to the Falcon. The Falcon, in turn, is unhappy to be the beneficiary of what he perceives to be tokenism, and decides to resign from the team, after which Hawkeye rejoins.

Shooter's greatest contribution during this period was a storyline that chronicled the breakdown of Henry Pym. Shooter saw Pym's frequent changes of costume and name as symptomatic of an identity problem and an inferiority complex. After abusing his wife; failing to win back the confidence of the Avengers with a ruse and being duped by the villain Egghead, Pym is jailed. The main writer during the 80's was Roger Stern, who resolved the Pym storyline by having Pym outwit Egghead and defeat the latest incarnation of the Masters of Evil single-handedly, thereby proving his innocence. Pym reconciles with the Wasp, but they decide to remain apart. Pym also retires from superheroics, but returns some years later.

Stern developed several major storylines, such as "Ultimate Vision"; the formation of the West Coast Avengers; and "Avengers Under Siege", which involves the second Baron Zemo. Zemo reforms the Masters of Evil, now a virtual army of super villains, and conducts a coordinated attack on the Avengers in an attempt to break Captain America's spirit. The plan finally failed, but not before Hercules was beaten and rendered catatonic. This immediately led into the "War on Olympus" storyline, as an enraged Zeus decides the Avengers are to blame for Hercules' injuries. New members during the 1980s included an African American Captain Marvel named Monica Rambeau (who became the team's new leader); She-Hulk; Tigra, Namor, and Hawkeye's wife, Mockingbird, while Henry Pym emerges from retirement to join the West Coast Avengers.

In 1988, Stern left the title in the middle of a storyline after a disagreement with Editor Mark Gruenwald over the removal of Captain Marvel as Avengers chairman. She was to appear incompetent and be replaced by Captain America. Gruenwald believed that Captain America's return as Avengers chairman would boost sales of the character's solo title. Stern disagreed and after expressing his views was dismissed from the title.

John Byrne eventually took over writing both titles and made several significant contributions, including a revamp of the Vision; Wonder Man harboring feelings for the Scarlet Witch and the discovery that the children of the Scarlet Witch and the Vision are actually illusions. The loss of the Scarlet Witch's children and the Vision drives her insane, although she eventually recovers and rejoins the team. This, however, would have repercussions years later.

The 90s were a turbulent time for Marvel Comics, as the company adopted an aggressive business expansion model tied to increased publication. This coincided with a speculators' boom (which was followed by an industry-wide slump, which proved devastating for Marvel: filing for bankruptcy in 1997). Bob Harras and Steve Epting took over the title, and introduced a stable lineup with ongoing storylines and character development focused on the Black Knight, Sersi, Crystal, Quicksilver, Hercules and the Vision. During this period, the team finds themselves facing increasingly murderous enemies, and are forced to question their rule against killing.

This culminated in "Operation: Galactic Storm", a 19-part storyline that runs over all Avengers-related titles and showcases a conflict between the Kree and the Shi'ar Empire. An argument of the actions of The Supreme Intelligence, which resulted in mass genocide, splits the team. Iron Man and several dissidents execute the Supreme Intelligence against the wishes of Captain America.

After the demise of the West Coast Avengers, Iron Man would form a proactive and aggressive team called Force Works. During the team's first mission Wonder Man is apparently killed again (his atoms are simply scattered and reform later). Force Works later disbands after it is revealed that Iron Man has become a murderer courtesy of the manipulations of the villain Kang.

Along with the Fantastic Four and others, the Avengers team-members apparently die stopping the gestalt psychic entity Onslaught, although it is later revealed that Franklin Richards preserves these heroes in the "Heroes Reborn" pocket universe. Believing the main team gone, the Black Widow disbands the Avengers, with only butler Jarvis remaining to look after the Mansion.

Marvel contracted out several titles set in the pocket universe to Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, two of the founding creators of Image Comics. The previous continuity of the Marvel Universe was set aside as the heroes were "reborn" in this new setting. While the Avengers was relaunched as a new series, the "Heroes Reborn" line ended after a year as planned and the license reverted to Marvel.

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