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Waiting for the Trade - Avengers

Waiting for the Trade

by Bill Miller
Avengers: The Big Three
by Steve Englehart, Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Jim Shooter, Kurt Busiek, George Perez, Jack Kirby and many others.
collects Captain America 176, Avengers 150-151, 215-216 and 224, The Terminatrix Objective 1-4, Avengers (vol3) 21 and Thor 81.

Why I Bought This: This was in the discount bin of my favorite comic shop and as I love me some Avengers and this premise could be interesting (see below), why not?

The Plot: Released in conjunction with the first Avengers movie, this is not so much a plot as a collection of stories over the years that focus on the relationship of the Avengers “Big Three” of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man.

(spoilers below)

Chapter 1 – After the resolution of the Secret Empire storyline in which the President of the United States was revealed to be a traitor and killed himself in front of Cap to prevent capture, Steve is disillusioned with America. He considers giving up the Captain America identity and talks to Thor and Iron Man about it first (and later to Falcon, Peggy Carter, Vision and Sharon Carter). He ultimately decides to give up the name and mask.

Chapter 2 – It’s a changing of the guard issue as it seems they have too many members at present. Thor quits the team. Iron Man agrees to stay. Cap is asked if he wants to stay which leads to a long flashback of when everyone quit but Cap and then Hawkeye, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch first joined.

Chapter 3 – Cap decides to stay. Hawkeye and Two Gun Kid are made reserve members. Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Wasp all decide to stay but Hank Pym wants to quit and go back to being a scientist much to Jan’s disappointment. Moondragon refuses membership on the grounds that she is a “god.” Beast joins the team. Hellcat also accepts to join but then Moondragon talks her out of it. Pym reconsiders to at least be a reserve member. This is apparently the first time the reserve status is used by the team, as Thor praises the idea and then he, Moondragon and Hellcat all accept reserve status as well. The active members do the usual press conference but it is interrupted by Wonder Man returning from the grave and accusing Vision of stealing his mind.

Chapter 4 – Newest Avenger Tigra is enjoying her new found fame. Meanwhile Silver Surfer bumps into Molecule Man in NJ and they share origin stories. This inspires Molecule Man to want to eat the Earth ala Galactus. He then defeats Surfer fairly easily by trapping him in the ground though Surfer is able to send his board away for help. It finds the Avengers, who are only four members at the time: the Big Three and Tigra. They free Surfer and with much effort the heroes break through a force field Molecule Man created around a castle he materialized. They send Tigra to sneak around but he captures her easily. When the rest of the heroes arrive Molecule Man disintegrates all their special weapons with a wave of his hand (i.e. Cap’s shield, Thor’s hammer, Surfer’s board and Iron Man’s armor.) He then captures the male heroes (Cap going down last) and seemingly kills them all in front of Tigra by dropping a giant anvil on them.

Chapter 5 – Molecule Man tells Tigra she can live as his pet. The FF arrive but cannot get through the force field. The male heroes turn up alive as Surfer phased them through the floor at the last minute. Meanwhile Thor has reverted to Don Blake without his hammer and thus he, Cap and the armor-less Tony learn each other’s secret identities for the first time. Despite being powerless Tony and Don insist on fighting alongside Cap and Surfer. Tigra considers killing Molecule Man as he sleeps but is too scared to even try. As she slinks away dejected, Cap finds her. Molecule Man attacks first by disintegrating some spare tech Tony cobbled together and then nearly crushing him in an avalanche. MM has the heroes on the defensive but ignores Blake and as a result gets a broken nose from a punch, which causes him to flee. Blake has to tend to Tony’s injuries so it is up to the three super powered heroes to fight. Surfer tries the direct approach as he too can manipulate matter but ultimately Molecule Man proves more powerful and wins. Cap however dodges everything Molecule Man throws at him and KO’s him with one punch. Tony and Cap debate whether to kill him or not (with Tony on the pro-side) but it becomes moot when Molecule Man awakens and Tigra convinces him to see a therapist. As a gesture of thanks he reconstitutes the heroes’ weapons for them. Surfer is offered membership but declines, while Tigra decides these kinds of threats are out her league and quits the team.

Chapter 6 – Hank is in prison and Wasp has filed for divorce. Tony in a total cad move decides to date her as Tony when she still doesn’t know his secret identity. Cap completely disapproves. Thor is more understanding but he feels Tony owes Jan the truth about who he is. When he tells her she doesn’t take it well and ends things with him on the spot.

Chapter 7 – Terminatrix, who has recently assumed Kang’s empire while he is in a coma due to the terrible “Citizen Kang” crossover, encounters a time traveling entity called Alioth who has an even larger time empire that predates Kang’s. She returns to Chronopolis (Kang’s capital city outside the time stream) to learn the Anachronauts that served Kang feel no loyalty to her and are resigning. Then yet another female time traveler named Revelation summons U.S. Agent, War Machine and Thunderstrike (all replacements for the Big Three in their solo titles at one point) and sic them on Terminatrix. She escapes into the old West and then pulls Cap, Thor and Iron Man to her through time.

Chapter 8 – Terminatrix gets the heroic trios to fight each other. It ends in a stalemate (although you’d think the originals would route the replacements) and then she sends a bunch of robots to attack all six heroes. She time travels far into the future to escape but bumps into Marcus (Immortus’s son with Ms. Marvel). The heroes defeat the robots and compare notes. Marcus captures Terminatrix but she time jumps again only to end up in Limbo captured by Immortus. Meanwhile the Avengers find their way to the Cross Time Council of Kangs.

Chapter 9 – Three members of Kang’s council find the true Kang’s comatose body, then reveal themselves to actually be members of the Timekeepers. They note that in over half the timelines today is the day Chronopolis falls. One of them wants to help Kang because Alioth is worse but they have a non-interference vow and teleport away which is an awfully convoluted way to insert foreshadowing into the story. Meanwhile the Avengers retreat from the Cross Time Council. Meanwhile Immortus tells Terminatrix along with several other women in stasis who are all apparently divergent versions of her (including with absolutely no explanation Nebula and a female version of Grandmaster) today is the day he dies of old age. Immortus has an older version of Ravonna with him who wants to die at the same time he does and he is looking for a volunteer to do it. Also this version of Marcus is his kid with Ravonna (and doesn’t want to kill his mom, hence the nonsense with Terminatrix and her counterparts). Then just to make this thing more complicated Immortus gives us the origin of Tempus and it is yet another time loop: Old Immortus built him now and is sending back in time to serve Silver Age Immortus, who up until today never knew where Tempus came from. That done Immortus drops dead. Teminatrix volunteers to kill Ravonna but uses their grief as a distraction and escapes only to bump into Revelation. The heroes enter another wormhole and end up in Timely, Wisconsin—an early 20th century town founded by Kang under the persona Victor Timely that was part of the aforementioned Citizen Kang crap. Meanwhile in a surprise to absolutely no one Revelation reveals she is a future version of Terminatrix. She then produces a map of the time stream that looks like an eighth grade rendition of Europe to explain how Alioth defeating Kang would be bad for her/their own future empire in a bid to convince Teriminatrix to revive Kang so he can defeat Alioth—plus she reveals that she and Kang get together at some point anyway. Terminatrix agrees and is given a potion of healing by Revelation. Meanwhile the Avengers defeat hi-tech keystone kops and steal the car which is of course a time machine. Their time jump stalls out in a mysterious black fog that reveals itself to be Alioth.

Chapter 10 – Terminatrix wakes up Kang. The Avengers get saved from Alioth by Limbo Whales. Kang explains Alioth is a “primordial force” that eats time travelers. He goes to find the Cross Time Council but Alioth has (thankfully) killed them. Kang explains Alioth cannot be stopped by time travel so Terminatrix & Revelation recruit the Avengers to stop it. Kang gives the heroes environmental suits and a key and send them to battle Alioth. Thor’s hammer does nothing but when he pulls the key out it transforms into Tempus. Kang then sends the Avengers home and professes his love for Terminatrix. Revelation informs Marcus this is when she and Kang became a couple but this time Terminatrix stabs Kang and places him back in his coma pod. Then because this crap isn’t convoluted enough she travels back to Timely, Wisconsin so she can date Kang as Victor Timely instead. On the final page we see Tempus and Alioth engaged in a stalemate for all time.

Chapter 11 – So now we jump to the middle of Busiek’s classic “Ultron Unlimited” arc. UN Troops are trying to free the nation of Slorenia from Ultron only to discover that he has killed the entire population and outfitted the corpses with cybernetic implants to make necro-zombies. The Avengers arrive to save the day consisting of our Big Three, Firestar and Black Panther. Meanwhile Ultron has captured his “family”: Pym, Wasp, Wonder Man, Vision, Scarlet Witch and Grim Reaper and plans to use their brainwaves to create a new race of robot children. The Avengers find Ultron’s hideout and Ultron-16 confronts them. We then get an absolutely epic battle with the team doing everything it can to penetrate Ultron’s adamantium shell--Panther throws intangible energy daggers at him, Firestar uses microwave energy, Cap has his energy shield and shoves it down Ultron’s jaw, Iron Man builds a electronic disruptor—and none of it works. Ultimately Thor goes all out and manages to blow Ultron up. The Avengers are exhausted and enter Ultron’s headquarters only to find Ultron-17 waiting for them. They’re pretty dispirited by that and it only gets worse when Ultron-23 shows himself; followed by Ultron 458 in the cliffhanger.

Chapter 12 – We are in part 2 of 6 of a Thor story called Ragnarok (from “Avengers Disassembled”). Thor, Cap and Iron Man are walking through a burned out Asgardian forest. Next they came across a city of dead trolls. Cap finds an Asgardian child hiding in a closet who says a Giant did this led by Loki. Sure enough said Giant shows up along with Loki, Ullik the Troll and Fenris (a werewolf). A huge fight breaks out with the heroes doing well against the monsters. Then Loki has Thor’s hammer (since this is part 2 of a longer story there is no explanation of how that’s possible) and turns it on Iron Man. Cap uses his shield to prevent the killing blow. Thor stands alone and pummels both Loki and the Werewolf with his bare hands until the villains retreat. The Avengers continue on to find Balder the Brave’s funeral. Thor also learns his mother is dead. With that he sends the Avengers forcibly home via teleportation to guard the Earth from Loki should he fail. Thor then gives a rousing speech to the remaining Asgardians though he believes this is Ragnarok and they are all destined to die.

Critical Thoughts – While the concept is sound, the delivery is terrible. Most of these stories are throwaways or lack context, while the story that takes up the most space is atrociously awful. Let’s take them one at a time.

We start with Cap giving up his identity. While in its entirety this is a legendary story and worth reading, for this book I don’t see why it is included; especially as the opening story. Sure Cap talks to Tony and Thor but he talks to other heroes too. Furthermore he doesn’t take their advice so how does this demonstrate the bond between the three heroes?

Next we get the two-part changing of the guard issue. Again the inclusion here is baffling. The basic scope of the story has no particular connection for the big three. The Avengers tell this reshuffling of the roster story repeatedly in their first 30 years or so of continuity so it is not a big pivotal moment for the title let alone the big three. Furthermore, Thor doesn’t even agree to stay on the team. Most bizarrely Marvel is so embarrassed by this story that even 35 years after the fact they reprint the letters page of issue 151 wherein they publicly fire Steve Englehart for missing his deadline on the previous issue thus forcing them to reprint large portions of issue 16 verbatim as part of the 150th anniversary tale (a reprint incidentally that focuses on Hawkeye, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch not Thor and Iron Man). Think about that for a minute: I’ve never seen the letters pages of a Marvel comic reprinted in a trade. Whether it is deluxe hard covers that sometimes have extras like scripts, interviews with creators or rough pencils they tend not to have letters pages; nor on the other end of the spectrum do the Essentials, which collect two years of comics at a time in a bare bones black and white format, include the letters page even though it would easily fit in with the theme. But here Marvel feels the need to reprint a 35-year-old letters page that apologizes for the preceding story—which begs the question: then why include this story at all?

The two-part Molecule Man story is the first one that really makes sense for inclusion. It’s a bare bones team that is primarily made of the Big Three and it features a key moment in their dynamic as they learn each other’s secret identities. We get to see two of them be heroes without their powers. All in all it is a decent Avengers story. I wouldn’t consider it great—Molecule Man’s motivations are all over the place for one thing, but I generally liked it and it was something I hadn’t read before.

The story with Tony dating the Wasp is just sort of there. While we do see the three heroes debate ethics a little, ultimately there’s no action/threat and the ethical quandary does not seem as dire as the writer makes it out to be.

Then we get to the Terminatrix thing. Now I can understand why they included this. The only Avengers in it are the Big Three and their replacements, whom they get to fight. For the theme of this trade including it makes sense, especially since it has not been reprinted before in trade and was unlikely to ever be a stand-alone trade. Of course there is a reason for that—namely it is a terrible frickin’ story. Kang was involved in an escalating series of nonsensical dreck from the late 80s and through the entire 90s. There were four or five different Kang stories in that era that were all terrible in every conceivable way. In many ways Kang was to the Avengers what the Clone Saga was to Spider-man in that timeframe (though at least Kang’s bad stories weren’t 45 consecutive issues long): in that the Kang stories featured too many players, many of whom were the same person, doing things that made no sense in badly-written, overly-talky, poorly-paced stories bereft of any possible consequences since there were half-a-dozen versions of the same character often dying or resurrecting in any given issue. That Busiek miraculously untangled the mess of Kang’s continuity in the 2000s with Avengers Forever is a minor miracle (note to do this he killed Terminatrix off-panel in the first issue where she has thankfully never been referenced again). This story in this trade represents the nadir of that era of bad Kang stories. It is unrepentantly awful from beginning to end.

From the lowest low to the highest heights we next look at the Ultron story, which may be the greatest single fight scene in Avengers history. It is easily the best story in this trade and it fits the theme well. Yet as great as this chapter is, I feel the need to point out you can find this issue reprinted in two other trades, both of which include the entire Busiek Ultron masterpiece (while mercifully omitting the Terminatrix story.)

Finally the Thor chapter has really nice art and camaraderie among the three heroes. It fits the theme well, yet at the same time it is a fraction of a larger story. I haven’t read that story but I feel one would be better served just buying that trade than this one.

I’ll end saying given some of the questionable choices in this volume. I’d argue at least three or four could have been replaced at no loss to the theme, it would have been nice to include Thor 390 where Steve proves worthy to lift the Hammer for the first time and which had never been reprinted in trade at the time this was released. There’s also a story from the Shooter era wherein Moondragon hypnotizes Thor and sends him to fight his teammates of whom the only members are Cap, Tony and Wasp (along with guest star Drax) that probably would be a better fit than several that were included. Throw in one of the many Cap-Iron Man moral disagreements and this would have been a much stronger collection.

Grade F – If this was a numeric grade it would be a 25 rather than 0 only because the Molecule Man story is a rare find and the Ultron story is a classic even if it can be found elsewhere. Otherwise we have a bunch of odd choices, incomplete stories and a catastrophically bad miniseries. There is no way in a million years this is worth the $30 cover price. It wasn’t even worth the discounted price I paid for it.