I’m four decades past my own personal comic book Golden Age, so I don’t expect everyone else to attach a lot of importance to many of the books I’ve examined here at Longbox Graveyard. Titles like Ms. Marvel, Micronauts, The Defenders, and Deathlok were obscure in their day — I’ve celebrated them here but I am fully aware few of today’s fans share my enthusiasm for these moldy oldies. But there are some titles from my heyday that I would expect to resonate with “kids these days” — titles with characters that are still active today, with events that form the historic underpinnings of continuing comic book universes.
I thought the Avengers‘ Kree/Skrull War was one of those events, but no dice. My twenty-something office pal — who loves comics, and previously borrowed my copy of Avengers #196 to read the origin of Taskmaster — had never heard of the Kree/Skrull War!
What are they teaching in our schools??
Listen up, you whippersnappers! Before Avengers vs. X-Men, before Secret Wars, before Crisis on Infinite Earths, before even the Avengers/Defenders War there was the Kree/Skrull War! This was a mega-crossover in the old school style, the natural evolution of storytelling in a single book — not a mandated summer crossover, not some bloated high concept that poisons an entire comics line for six months of the year, and definitely NOT an imaginary story!
The Kree/Skrull War story arc ran from issues #89-97 of the Avengers (though when Marvel reprinted the saga in 1983, they restricted themselves to just the final five issues of the run). Nearing the end of his iconic six-year stint on Avengers, Roy Thomas — along with artists Neal Adams and Sal & John Buscema — delivered what was up to then arguably the longest and most complex continuing story in superhero comics, as Earth became a battleground between the warring Skrull and Kree star empires. Nowadays, company-wide meta-stories sprawling over dozens (hundreds?) of issues are a recurring summer plague, but in 1971 any story running more than a couple issues was a big deal.
The tale is deeply enmeshed in Marvel continuity but in the style of the day, it’s easy to jump on board as a new reader, thanks to liberal flashbacks and recaps of what has come before. Summarizing the tale makes it seem more complex than it reads, but I’ll give it a go anyways.
The action kicks off with Captain Marvel cracking out of the Negative Zone, then racing off half-cocked (and leaking radiation) on a mission to steal a rocket to return to his Kree homeworld. But no sooner do the Avengers lay him out cold than everyone is attacked by an awakened Kree sentry, acting on the orders of Ronan the Accuser, who has staged a coup against the Kree Supreme Intelligence and is seizing the moment to settle old scores with Mar-Vell and everyone else on Earth. The battle with the Kree sets off a worldwide alien panic, aided by a Skrull agent provocateur masquerading as a Joe McCarthy-style Senate investigator, and suddenly our heroes are facing some classic, shades-of-grey Bronze Age comic book hard choices as they decide whether or not they should turn Mar-Vell over to the authorities.
The public turns against the Avengers while Mar-Vell, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver become hostages of the Skrulls. The series climaxes with the Avengers facing down the Skrull warfleet, while Rick Jones — captured and brought to the Kree homeworld — is empowered by the Kree Supreme Intelligence to end the battle via a (frankly disappointing) deus ex machina. The story ends right when it should be getting started, offering an unfortunate and arbitrary end to what had been a superior run.
Despite this disappointing climax there is a lot to like here. The series is broad and ambitious, and there’s always something impressive about watching the Avengers fight in outer space, as they would later do in memorable issues of Captain Marvel and Warlock. But those later battles were all-hands-on-deck affairs for the fate of the universe. This battle was just a few Avengers in the lonely void of space against an entire Skrull battlefleet, made to feel underplayed and epic at the same time through Roy Thomas’ borderline-purple prose storytelling.
One of the strongest elements of this run is the way Roy Thomas handles the Vision. Introduced by Thomas in the classic issue #57 of Avengers, the Vision would evolve from android assassin to one of the most unique and fascinating members of the team. It’s hard to overstate what a superstar the Vision was during the 1970s (and one of Marvel’s great sins is how they so thoroughly worked over this character for no real gain in their late 1980s-era “Vision Quest” storyline). It is in this arc that we see the Vision’s soul well and truly begin to evolve, first by brooding on his sense of separation from and yearning for human emotions …
… then finding himself prey to all-too-human emotions as the long-simmering romance with the Scarlet Witch come out in the open in issue #91 (which also featured the debut of the Vision’s characteristic “rounded rectangle” word balloons, though they wouldn’t be yellow until issue #93):
What follows is the right kind of comic book soap opera, where the characters spend several issues coming around to what the reader has already accepted — that these two characters are made for each other. Roy Thomas gives us a master class in superhero romance.
The run is also kind of haphazard. Thomas admits he didn’t have a masterplan for the Kree/Skrull War, and the event really is more like a continuing subplot than a world-shattering event. Reading these issues today, you might be disappointed that there is so little waring between Kree and Skrull in the Kree/Skrull war! The event is largely off-stage, and while Earth is threatened with becoming the key battleground in the war between the empires, that event never materializes, as our heroes head off the worst of the war before it can get started. Likewise, issues devoted to the Inhumans and an (admittedly very cool) issue where Ant Man explores the innards of a deactivated Vision distract from the war, but it is important to remember that this was almost an accidental event, and that unlike the top-down editorial events of the present age, the point wasn’t to replace the rhythms of the host book so much as it was to provide context and color to the usual Avengers adventure of the month.
the Kree/Skrull War begins (and also rescues the Avengers from a tight spot in issue #91)
It’s worth noting how Roy Thomas assembled pieces from all over the Marvel Universe to create a story that was greater than the sum-of-its parts. Always a fiend for continuity, Thomas reached all the way back to Fantastic Four #4 to find the Skrull secret agents central to his story, and the Kree — who had been kicking around Marvel stories since 1967, mostly as the heavies in the pages of Captain Marvel — suddenly seemed more interesting, coherent, and purposeful than we’d seen them in earlier books.
The art, too, deserves mention. Even Sal Buscema — whom I’ve damned with faint praise here at Longbox Graveyard — turns in notable work, with clear storytelling and a bit of visual flair.
a nice three-panel sequence from Sal Buscema in Avengers #90
John Buscema is his reliable self here, coming to the end of his legendary Avengers tenure, but it is Neal Adams who is best remembered from this run, and it is easy to understand why. Adams’ realistic approach to composition and anatomy set him apart from most artists of his day, giving the Adams Avengers a kind of rooted and believable quality more akin to film than comic books.
Also deserving accolades is Tom Palmer on inks, who handles the final issues of the series, and smooths the transition between alternating John Buscema and Neal Adams chapters.
So what do you think? Am I living in the past by insisting events like the Kree/Skrull War form an essential part of the Marvel canon? Should I have picked a more recent Avengers event to celebrate here on the eve of the movie’s release? Or is this Avengers run a classic despite my callow twenty-something office mate’s ignorance of these mighty events? Assemble your Avengers reactions in the comments section below!
- Title: Avengers
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1963-1996
- Issues Examined By The Longbox Graveyard: #89-97, June 1971-March 1972
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B
- Read The Reprints: My Comicshop.com
This week’s F.O.O.M. Friday gets right to the point! (Two of them!)
FOOM #14 was all about Conan … and it is full of insightful and even scholarly commentary about what makes this character so great. It’s also an interesting time-capsule of an era when Conan was one of Marvel’s top-selling books.
But we don’t care about that.
We only care about the nipples. Men’s nipples!
I know this is a divisive issue. To judge by the Superbowl, America hates seeing men’s nipples. I don’t know how opinions might differ in the United Kingdom, but David Warner considered men’s nipples a waste of God’s energy in Time Bandits:
Comics have a complex issue with sexuality in general, but in classic mainstream superhero comics, it’s generally come down to women having (barely covered) naughty bits, while men don’t have them at all. Contemporary comics show plenty of skin, of course, so it may be difficult to understand how the original run of Conan the Barbarian by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith broke new ground by showing off shirtless heroes and scantily-clad wenches.
Even more remarkable, Windsor-Smith broke the seal on one of the more puzzling taboos in comics by having the temerity to draw nipples on men!!
yep, there’s some nipples, all right!
Why, you can practically hear the monocles popping out!
Not only did Barry blaze a trail, he even set a precedent!
Roy Thomas, from FOOM #14 (1976):
There were things for example, like having nipples on the male figure, which were not genrally done in comics before Conan and became part of it all. After Barry did them, I insisted that other artists like John Buscema and Gil Kane include them, even though they were reluctant to do so, or kept forgetting them. Sometimes I’d draw them on myself if the artist had forgotten, or have them added to a whole book not because I thought it was terribly important, but it was a consistency that kept the book being all of a piece.
I don’t know about you, but the thought of Roy Thomas drawing nipples on John Buscema or Gil Kane’s pages is obscurely delightful. It’s the professional equivalent of going through your comics as a kid and drawing mustaches (or … other things) on all the characters. It’s a scandal. It’s Nipplegate! And who was the poor intern who got their start in comics adding nipples to barbarian books at Thomas’ command?
But Thomas’ nipple continuity would go largely unnoticed, and it would be several years before comics would get its first genuine high-profile nipples-on-men controversy …
That’s right — nipples on the Bat Suits, courtesy of director Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin! It damn near toppled the Republic back in 1997.
Somehow we survived. (It chased poor Batman out of theaters for the better part of a decade, though!)
See you next week for another F.O.O.M. Friday!
FOOM #13 had a one-page feature spotlighting the work of students attending John Buscema’s School of Comic Book Artists.
What became of this next generation of talent, circa 1976?
Bob Hall went on to work for Marvel and DC Comics, enjoying a long run on Avengers in the 1980s, and turning in some of my favorite issues of Super-Villain Team-Up. He also worked for Valiant Comics in the 1990s.
Larry Mahlstedt went on to become an inker and cover artist for Marvel and DC.
Bob Downs became an inker for Marvel and DC, and I see he did some Ultraverse work, as well.
Mike J. McCann appears to have had no comics career, and he’s not the same as the Michael J. McCann who has enjoyed success as a crime novelist. Along with Charles Nanco and Josh Zissman, Mike appears lost to the mists of time!
Do you know more about Mike, Charles, and Josh (or any of the pros listed here?) Sound off, in comments, below!
See you soon for another FOOM Friday!
With news breaking last week that Paul Bettany will be playing the Vision in Avengers 2, this seemed a good time to take a look at FOOM #12, which featured … the Vision!
FOOM #12 cover from the unusual pairing of John Buscema and P. Craig Russell
The origin and nature of this new cinematic Vision are of great interest to Marvel fans, as it seems one of Marvel’s iconic characters of the 1970s can’t help but be a shadow of the original. With the Hank Pym story seemingly in flux for the pending Ant Man film, and with Ultron supposedly a creation of Tony Stark in the Marvel movie universe, the Vision’s origin will certainly be seeing revision (and to be fair, this is a character that’s always suffered a bit for muddled origins).
But back in 1975, the Vision was still a new(ish) kid on the block, and one of the most intriguing characters in Marvel’s line-up — intriguing enough to warrant an issue of Marvel’s in-house fan magazine mostly to himself.
This issue of FOOM dates to a time when Steve Englehart was developing the married relationship of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, having taken over Avengers scripting duties from Roy Thomas. Most interesting to me were little tidbits offered by Thomas and Englehart in separate interviews about the origins and nature of the Vision.
Roy Thomas, on the pragmatic origins of the Vision:
“The Vision was created because, at certain periods, I was not allowed, because of editorial policy, to use Captain America, Thor and Iron Man as much as I wanted to … I wanted to create an Avenger that I could play around with … and I wanted to bring back a new version of Jack Kirby’s Vision character … Stan, at the same time that I went over it with him, wanted an android character. He wanted the name Android Man or something like that … since I really wanted to get the Vision I talked Stan into having the Vision but as an android …”
Thomas, on John Buscema’s character design, which in Thomas’ estimation was heavily linked to Jack Kirby’s original:
“I explained to John what I wanted and sent him a picture of Kirby’s Vision … one of the early issues where he looked very grim … and I said I wanted that but I wanted kind of a helmet feeling. And I think I probably drew a picture of the head and mentioned the jewel and mentioned the diamond on the chest and so forth. John came up with it and we changed it between the first and second book only in how the cape fastened on the front. But it was basically a combination of sort of Kirby’s and mine and Buscema’s.”
the Vision, by Jack Kirby
Steve Englehart, referencing Roy Thomas on the original nature of the character:
“The Vision was created, as far as I could determine from talking with Roy, to be Marvel’s Mr. Spock. He was going to be the mysterious guy that everybody fell in love with … the sort of untouchable but super man. You know, the guy that everybody wants because he’s so unapproachable … (Now) he’s sort of like at Stage Two, having totally abandoned the pure concept of Mr. Spock. We’re into the stage now where we see what happens when Mr. Spock gets married.”
Englehart, on the Vision’s anatomy:
“It’s always been my opinion that the Vision could not be a natural father. I had played with the idea and rejected it as being impossible to explain in a code approved comic book … that the Vision could drop around to his local sperm bank and pick up a liter of stuff … it became very logical to me that Ultron-5 would not have endowed the Vision … given the fact that he was trying to build a sort of ‘son’ … you never think of your son as being a sexually together individual. A son is not thought of in terms of his sexual prowess.”
The Vision of the mid-1970s is “my Vision,” and I’ve always resented how the character was handled by later creators … but as we prepare ourselves for this new, cinematic version of the Vision, it’s worth remember just how much these characters owe to the variable and sometimes accidental confluence of necessity, convenience, pop culture influences, and collaboration by creators who may have seen their original … uh, vision … only part-way realized — and yet somehow the whole was greater than the sum-of-the-parts. Here’s hoping Paul Bettany’s Vision catches a little magic of its own!
See you again next week for another FOOM Friday!