Game Review: Diablo 3

Diablo 3 is out. But is it a game? Or is it the most brilliant money making scam in internet history?

Movie Review: The Avengers

Okay, okay, I posted my Avengers review. Get off my back already, geez.

The Most Important Comic Book You've Never Heard Of

Action Comics #1. Detective Comics #27. Why is All-American Men of War #89 as important as these great comics -- and why have you never heard of it?.

Tales From the Vault: Lois Lane #93

If you thought Superman was a total tool before, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Mass Effect 3: The Official Review

Mass Effect 3 isn't the end of the world, it just portrays it.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Avengers Day Special: Worst Avengers Stories Ever

Welcome back, compadres, to our special wrap-up of our Avengers Day celebration. Previously this week (and by this week, I mean like two weeks ago; blame Kang) we counted down the 25 Greatest Avengers Stories Ever (viewable here, here, here and waaaaay over here). But while Avengers has consistently been an excellent title over the years, particularly over its first 24 years or so, it's also had its fair share of stinkers. So without further ado, here's our list of the Five Worst Avengers Issues Ever.

Further Ado: actually, a couple notes. Firstly, I decided to go with single issues for this list rather than crappy extended arcs (we'll call this The Crossing Rule). And tying into that, secondly, nothing from Heroes Reborn counts for the purposes of this list. Because otherwise, why even bother? Okay, now with the ground rules established and without further further ado, here's our list:

5) Tie: Avengers #376 and Avengers #377

Okay, I know what you're thinking: a tie? That's total weaksauce, Mr. Cheater McGee. And normally I agree, because when list makers make lists and include a ton of extra choices just because they are too wishy-washy to actually man up, well, it's irritating. But in this case there's a semi-decent excuse, which is the fact that these two issues, while technically both solo fill-ins, are thematically connected (they spotlight solo adventures of separated couple Crystal and Quicksilver) and also were both done by the same team of writer Joey Cavalieri and Grant Miehm. And they both sucked so hard that it's really hard to pick between one or the other.

So what are these stink-bombs about? Well, Crystal's story deals with some lady trying to replicate the Terrigen mists; she does so by draining the energy from a grody new Inhuman named Sporr, who has the ability to split himself into multiple piles of animated snot. Quicksilver's tale, on the other hand, involves a retcon that introduces the only African-American kid ever to grow up among the gypsies of Eastern Europe. Apparently this dude has had a lifelong crush on Wanda that Quicksilver snuffed out, so he's finally decided to gain revenge by siccing his freaky children on Pietro inside a dilapidated crackhouse. And in both issues, a total crapfest ensues.

I want to add that being forced to re-read these issues in order to provide plot details has taken a massive emotional toll on my soul. Thanks, guys.

4) Avengers #210

Okay, I'm going to say this right up front: this story isn't that bad. Which I realize is a weird thing to say about a story bad enough to land on my list of the five worst Avengers comics of all time, but there's bad and then there's bad, and this is just bad in a specific, old-school way. See, back in the day, when stories were bad, they usually were at least competent (usually -- see Iron Man #39 for a notable exception). They might have boring art and crappy writing, but they at least could be read and understood. In other words, compared to a lot of the nonsense that has come out since Avengers #210, this comic at least wasn't totally incompetent.

Still, it was bad enough to earn a special place in Avengers lore: for many, many years, most Avengers fans (though not me, as you will soon see) considered this story of how Beast's girlfriend Vera became turned to crystal by evil weathermen to be the worst issue of Avengers ever. That attitude now seems almost quaint after stuff like The Crossing and Heroes Reborn, but legend is legend for good or ill. This comic also has the distinction of being the final Beast issue of Avengers, as he was dumped in #211 by returning writer Jim Shooter and shunted into Defenders instead. The end of an era.

3) Avengers #178

So if #210 wasn't the worst issue of Avengers ever, what was? Why, it's none other than one of the most disappointing fill-in issue of all-time (which is really saying something), Avengers #178 which, coincidentally (?) was another Beast spotlight story. This monstrous pile of crap featured some clanky, late-career art from Carmine Infantino and a horrible story about a two-faced robot dude that... you know what, I'm not even going to get into it, other than to say that bizarrely enough, this terrible comic actually had a follow-up story in Captain America that I also don't want to think about but which still wasn't nearly as bad as this. Making matters even worse: this issue followed directly on the heels of one of the greatest Avengers epics of all time, the Korvac Saga, meaning that tens of thousands of fans waiting to read the epilogue to that tale were instead flummoxed when they found this turd burger at the shop instead (and the next two-part fill-in story was nearly as bad, barely missing my list).

Epic fail on every possible level.

2) West Coast Avengers #38

Normally reliable pros D. G. Chichester and Tom Palmer turn in yet another awful fill-in issue, this one taking place in the pages of West Coast Avengers. Why are so many fill-ins so bad? Who knows.

It's especially too bad here because when you crack the comic open and see that this is a fill-in -- meaning you don't have to read about Mantis -- you're probably breathing a sigh of relief. But no. Instead, we get this story about a guy named The Defiler who, as it happens, is a heavy metal rock star who's sucking the life force out of his fans by shunting them to another dimension where they get stuck in what appears to be a giant pile of flan. The only way for the Avengers to save the day? While a mulleted Wonder Man distracts Deflier, Hank Pym leaps into the other dimension and uses his Pym particles to enlarge a skateboard to gigantic proportions. Then he ties a giant rope to it and the heavyweights on the Earth side of the dimensional portal tow them to safety. Mullets, skateboards and a villain apparently based on Glenn Danzig: what more could you ask from an Avengers comic?

Other than competence.

1) New Avengers #16

This is for all those Bendis fans wondering why none of his stories made my last Avengers list. Well, have no fear: he's on this one! And really, there was no doubt about it, because New Avengers #16 has the distinction of being the worst comic book I have ever purchased.

And that's without even getting into the fact that it also kicks off the worst extended arc in Avengers history as well (with only The Crossing really rivaling it for sheer awfulness). But we don't really need to drag that horrific Xorn nonsense into this one; New Avengers #16 earns this spot entirely on its own merits.

So what's so bad about it? Well, for one thing, it's new-style "widescreen" storytelling at its absolute worst, as Bendis and artist Steve McNiven manage to waste an unbelievable number of pages showing us that a guy from space lands on Earth. you wouldn't think that would take multiple full splash pages to tell, but apparently it does, especially when you're writing for the trade market and you have to stretch a really godawful idea out over five entire issues.

But, hey, maybe you like that sort of thing. Well, then there's also problem two: the Avengers aren't even in this issue. Nope. Nowhere. Not even for one panel. Instead, once the guy from space lands, the entire rest of the issue is a bunch of SHIELD guys talking to each other about their satellite feeds, bantering in that patented "everyone sounds exactly the same" Bendis style.

Indeed, the only "action" per se in the entire story is the death of Alpha Flight, as the entire team gets offed between panels for no apparent reason at all other than the fact that Bendis wanted to show how tough this new menace is. Except, they don't show it. Because it happens off panel.

So to recap: an entire comic book that costs readers $2.50 and consists of 1) a multi-page sequence showing the Earth getting closer and closer until a dude lands on it and 2) a dozen pages of SHIELD agents talking to each other about how bad the menace we aren't seeing is.

If this all sounds like something your normal, professional comic writer could have delivered in the space of two pages, you'd be correct. Instead, we get this: without a doubt, the single worst issue of any Avengers title ever printed and, incidentally, the story that eventually convinced me to stop buying Avengers after 22 years. Everyone involved, take a bow, because you're... NUMBER ONE!!!

Next: Coming soon, a special announcement about the project I've been working on that has prevented me from getting more Vault entries done. Also: reviews of all the new Avengers titles. Be there! or... here, I guess. Be here!

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Greatest Avengers Stories Ever Wrap-Up

Hello, chums, and welcome to the epilogue of The Vault's countdown of the Top 25 Greatest Avengers Stories Ever. For those few people on Earth who haven't already read the list itself, here are some quick links for you to get all caught up (Bam! Pow! Shazam!). Today, of course, is Avengers Day, so later on we'll be continuing the festivities with some reviews of the new Avengers book. But before we get to that, we still have some loose ends to tie up regarding our big list of the best avengers stories of all time, so let's take care of that first.

The most common question I've been asked so far has to do with the total lack of Bendis stories on my list. Now, I have a bit of a reputation as a virulent anti-Bendis propagandist, but I'd like to take a few moments to state the reasons for Bendis's absence from my list. And no, the reason isn't "Bendis sucks."

Actually, as I see it, there are three main factors that prevent me from placing any Bendis stories on my list, the first and foremost simply being that it's too soon to really judge his work objectively. Even now, years into his reworking of the Avengers franchise, Bendis is still a controversial figure. Because of this, the rhetoric on both side of the fan argument over his merits is still heated and overblown. Bendis haters habitually undervalue his work, while Bendis apologists habitually overvalue his work, and the more heated the argument gets, the more extreme both positions seem to become. In this environment it's really hard to get an objective sense of how the stories are actually being received by the average, non-lunatic reader, or just how lasting the impact -- both emotional and in terms of the continuing Marvel universe -- will end up being.

I suspect, however, from my readings of his work, that when the dust settles and we look back at the Bendis era after the fact, his work will end up being evaluated as pretty middle of the road. Which brings me to my second reason for not including Bendis, which is that Bendis's strengths as a writer don't lend themselves to the kind of epic superhero stories that Avengers has traditionally been known for. Bendis made his name on intimate, character driven stories like Powers or Alias and this is still what he is best at; for my money, his best New Avengers work was New Avengers Annual #1, with the Civil War tie-ins being a close second. Those issues, of course, were solo character spotlights. When Bendis tries to go epic, though, his big ideas and big action set pieces don't really hold up as well -- Secret Invasion being the poster child for this. So while Bendis has done some solid work on New Avengers, his best stories don't really lend themselves to comparison with the style of stories Avengers has been known for traditionally.

Which brings me to my final point regarding Bendis, which is simply that, good or bad, his work also doesn't lend itself to being easily defined for a list like this. Bendis's New Avengers work has been very reminiscent for me of Chris Claremont's long run on Uncanny X-Men in that the stories build on each other and flow from one to the next in a very organic way. This has the effect of drawing readers in and pulling them along as they become invested in long-term development rather than episodic plot-driven story arcs; but since a "greatest stories" list is predicated on evaluating those exact kind of easily defined arcs, it makes it very hard to fit him in. Sure, he has arcs that are defined as such for the purposes of collecting them in trade format, but few of his stories have defined beginnings or endings, being as they are part of a larger milieu. New Avengers is like Lost, while traditionally Avengers has been more like Law & Order. Bendis's work really needs to be considered as a whole and because of that, I didn't find any of his individual arcs to be appropriate for my list.

Okay, that's about enough Bendis for one lifetime. With that out of the way, let's take a look at some of the stories that didn't make my list and a couple that did. I've gotten a lot of feedback about stories people thought should have been included, but I've also gotten a bit about stories people don't think should have been on the list, so let's start with those. And the story I've gotten the most diverse feedback on is...

Kang Dynasty

This one seems to be a point of debate for a lot of people. Most comments I have received on this story have suggested that, while it should be on the list, I placed it way too high. One commenter, though, said that it shouldn't have been on the list at all as this story actually forced him to quit reading Avengers. The main complaint I have heard about it is that it is too long, followed by others who agreed with my frustration that the story's impact was lessened by Marvel refusing to acknowledge it in their other titles. Still, despite those critiques, I stand by both the inclusion of the story and its placement. I think as we get farther removed from the story, the criticisms lessen and five or ten years from now this story will be held in even higher esteem than it is already beginning to be looked at. To bring up another Lost metaphor, I think a lot of the frustration with Kang Dynasty is similar to Lost fans complaining that they don't get the answers and that ABC's promos are toying with them. Those are byproducts of consuming an extended storyline and mythology on a serialized basis. But when you read (or watch) the entire thing all at once, and don't have to deal with a year of waiting or think about what's happening in other contemporary Marvel titles, you remove those frustrations and can just enjoy the story for what it itself is. And in this case, what it is is one of the greatest Avengers stories ever told.

The Thanos Sagas

I also received some feedback from long-time Vault reader James Harrahy that the two Thanos epics on my list shouldn't be eligible as neither are truly Avengers stories; the first is a Captain Marvel story guest-starring the Avengers, while the second, even though it takes place in Avengers Annual #7, is a Warlock story shoehorned into Avengers to tie up loose ends. I think this is a fair criticism, particularly when it comes to the first Thanos story. That series did, however, cross over into Avengers #125 and prominently featured the Avengers, while as I noted, the second one took place largely in Avengers itself. While I agree that the inclusion of these stories is borderline, I'm comfortable with leaving them. However, just for the sake of argument, we'll assume these should be dropped. If they were, I would probably replace them with...

What If The Avengers Defeated Everybody? (What If? #29)

Rob Lettrick wrote in to ask why I hadn't included any of the awesome What If? stories that featured the Avengers, and there's a simple answer: I totally forgot. It's especially embarrassing considering I actually mentioned What If? in my discussion of Kang Dynasty, but there you have it. I'm not sure I would want to remove any of the 25 choices on my list to make room for this (really great) story, but if I were going to dump something from my current list, this would be my first alternate. The second story that would make the top 25 if I were to drop the Thanos issues would be:

Death be Not Proud (Avengers #56 and Avengers Annual #2)

Avengers Annual #2 in particular is a classic story that, in fact, is the basis for What If? #29. The classic Buscema cover by itself might warrant inclusion on the list. This story didn't make the cut mainly because I was already overloaded with Roy Thomas stories and I decided to go with the others that did make my list. There's no question, though, that some of my choices were influenced by personal preference; The Ultron storyline in Avengers #66-68, the Grandmaster story in #69-71 and the Squadron Supreme tale in #85-86 are all personal choices that I acknowledge may not have made the list had it been voted on by the populace at large. I'm sticking to my guns on them, though, because, well, I just like them better. I mean, Thomas was churning out so many classic stories in a row that in a way it's kind of a tossup between them to decide which are best. This just happens to be the side of the fence I've fallen on. The other Thomas story that deserved inclusion is, of course:

Behold... the Vision! (Avengers #57-58)

I think I got more comments asking why this story wasn't included than any other. And I understand; Vision happens to be my favorite character. I left this off, though, for a couple reasons, one of them being as I just explained the overabundance of awesome Roy Thomas stories in general. Beyond that, though, there were two factors that convinced me to leave this off (though it was one of my final cuts). Firstly, as Thomas explicitly references in the story itself by giving Vision Simon Williams's brain patterns, the plot for this story is heavily based on Stan Lee's masterpiece in Avengers #9 (which I will discuss more momentarily). So it loses a little for originality. Secondly, though these stories obviously go closely together, they are really two separate stories in my mind. I mean, just the way they are structured. You could read either of them without the other and the stories would still work. So lumping them together felt a little like a cheat, even though thematically it's one tale. For all those reasons, despite my love for Vision and the tremendous and iconic final pages of Avengers #58, I decided to leave it off. Whether that was the right choice or not, I'm not sure. It would have made the top 30 anyway.

Stan Lee's Avengers (Avengers #1-5, #9, #16, #23-24, et al)

Another common question has been about the lack of Stan Lee stories on my list. While I do think that #9 deserves some consideration, especially given how many times it has been ripped off by later writers, for the most part I think that Lee's Avengers work, though vastly underrated compared to his other early Marvel stuff, doesn't quite match up with the other stories on my list. The reason is because in the early issues, his most interesting material isn't really part of the plot. Twists like the Hulk quitting after two issues, the team hunting for him, Cap's angst at a world he doesn't understand and his feud with Baron Zemo are the highlights of the early issues. But none of those are really the main plot of the stories they appear in. Instead we get Lava Men and Space Phantoms and aliens and whatnot. The character work is innovative but the stories he set it in are just okay.

Now, I am a fan of some of his Kooky Quartet stuff, specifically his Swordsman arc in #19-20 and the Kang epic that introduced Ravonna in #23-24. But these don't make the cut for me as greatest ever. The only one of his actual plots besides #9 that I think deserves serious consideration is...

Sons of the Serpent (Avengers #33-34)

One of the good folks on the AvengersAssemble forums mentioned this story as a possibility, and it's a good pick. This story from 1966 is the earliest overt commentary on racial issues in comics that I am aware of. The Sons of the Serpent, who are introduced in this arc, are an obvious and unsubtle stand-in for the KKK. Also showing up for the first time here is Bill Foster, Hank Pym's new African-American lab assistant (and later, Black Goliath aka the guy who got killed in Civil War because they needed a death). Bill is attacked by the Sons of the Serpent, leading to some moral issues for the Avengers, who are simultaneously being blackmailed by the Serpents for the life of the captured Captain America. Even though Stan ended up couching the message in a more mainstream anti-communist lesson, it was still a bold an important story. Important but not exactly the most readable story he ever did. Something about the printing quality at this time really undermined Don Heck's art and made everything in Avengers seem really cluttered and murky, while the dialogue is sometimes laid on a little thick too. For these reasons and just the overall strength of the competition, I ended up leaving this one out.

Speaking of which, here's a short list at some of the other great stories and personal favorites that I was forced to leave off the list, but which I strongly recommend every Avengers fan reads:

The Wedding of Hank and Jan Pym (Avengers #59-60)

Graviton (Avengers #158-159)

The Yesterday Quest (Avengers #185-187)

Versus the Molecule Man (Avengers #215-216)

Ultimate Vision (Avengers #233-254 give or take)

Return of the Legion of Unliving (WCA Annual #2 and Avengers Annual #16)

To Serve No More (Avengers #280)

The Return of Kulan Gath (Uncanny X-Men #190-191)

A couple of those were also brought up by readers (specifically the Yesterday Quest, which was cool and has nice Byrne art) and the Grandmaster's game to the death in Avengers Annual #16 (one of my all-time favorite comics without question -- so frikkin awesome).

There also was one request from a member of the CSBG forums, who indicated he thought that Geoff Johns's Red Zone storyline from Avengers #480-485 should be number one on my list. This, I have to admit, is a story that didn't occur to me for my list, but in recent years I have been hearing more and more positive buzz about it. How much of this has to do with the current cult of Johns going on over at DC I'm not sure, but after some back and forth with the commenter I'm going to at least give this story another look; while I thought it was probably the best work Johns did on Avengers during his fairly unremarkable stint on the book, I don't recall it being particularly awesome. But, I admit I haven't read it in a long time, so perhaps it is time to re-evaluate Johns and Red Zone.

Lastly, there were two titles on my list that got more comments than any other. One of these was Avengers Forever. A number of people posted or emailed me to tell me they thought I had this ranked way too low on my list and that it should have been top ten. Frankly, in terms of my personal preference, I agree. The reason I placed it at 16, though, is because for every long-time Avengers fan who loved Avengers Forever, I've read a comment or complaint from a newer fan who found the story to be too confusing, too densely paced, too expository and just too downright unreadable for me to put it in the top ten. I suspect that for many readers their enjoyment of this series is directly proportional to their knowledge of and love for Avengers history. Because of that, I thought a much more accessible but similarly detail rich series like JLA/Avengers deserved the higher slot. But yeah, I love Avengers Forever myself, especially issue #9, the Kang spotlight issue.

But the comment I probably got more than any other was people thanking me for including The Gatherers on the list. As I said, this was pretty much the only Avengers story that really got me excited between Stern's departure in 1988 and Busiek's reboot in 1997. So, flaws and all, I think it deserves the spotlight. Even though it's embarrassingly 90's in presentation, the story underneath the stubble is rock solid awesome. And I'm not ashamed to admit it: I LIKE THE JACKETS. Okay? There, I said it. No, I don't think they should wear them all the time, over their costumes or into battle. But Avengers jackets for the team and their staff to wear while they are bumming around the Mansion working? Hell yes.

If I had one, I would wear it all the time.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Greatest Avengers Stories Ever: The Top Five

Happy Avengers Day, everyone! Yes, today, May 19, has been declared Avengers Day by Marvel in honor of the release of the new, relaunched Avengers #1. Of course, this isn't the first Avengers Day; that honor belongs to the celebration held way back in Avengers #45 by the grateful citizens of New York, a gathering that was sadly disrupted by the Super-Adaptoid. And that awesome event was only equaled by the most recent Avengers Day, which took place in Avengers vol. 3 #10, an issue given further legendary status by a cover appearance from the Jarvis Heads of Van Plexico's (of which I am a proud member, thanks for asking).

(And as CSBG reader Omar Karindu points out, there was also an Avengers Day mentioned in Avengers #22, but sadly, we didn't get to see that one. Bummer.)

But enough about me, let's get back to the reason we're here: The Vault's countdown of the Top 25 Avengers Stories of All Time! In case you're wondering how we arrived at this final five, you can find #6-15 here and #16-25 here. All caught up? Good, because it's time to dive into the five greatest stories in the history of Avengers and, of course, all of comics in general. And kicking off our must-read list? Why, it's none other than what nearly 30 years later remains the most controversial Avengers storyline of all time...

5) The Fall of Hank Pym (Avengers #211-213, 217, 221-222, 224, 227-230)

After a brief (and very rare) down period for Avengers, Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter returned to the scene of his greatest writing triumph and the result was one of the all-time classic Avengers tales, The Fall of Hank Pym. In a story that still drives developments even today, a disturbed Pym tries to prove himself to the team with disastrous results that lead to a nervous breakdown, his arrest and removal form the team and finally his total disgrace as the dupe of his arch-enemy, Egghead, leader of a new Masters of Evil. But it's the smack he gave then-wife Wasp that proved to do the most damage, both within the story and to Pym's reputation as a character. Still, though that action still stains Pym today, the way current fans (and writers) feel about Pym shouldn't detract from what was a groundbreaking and moving storyline of a hero's fall and ultimate redemption. Great work all around from both Shooter and Roger Stern, who eventually finished the arc in memorable fashion with Pym single-handedly defeated the Masters of Evil and Egghead both.

4) The Bride of Ultron (Avengers #161-162)

The definitive Ultron story, the Bride of Ultron also gave Avengers fans one of the most shocking cliffhangers in series history and one of the greatest, most tense battles Marvel has ever published. When Hank Pym suffers a mental breakdown, he suddenly forgets everything after the formation of the Avengers in Avengers #1. Believing the current team to be interlopers, he attacks them with an army of ants. Shocked, they finally overcome him, but their troubles are only beginning, because a far deadlier menace awaits: the indestructible, homicidal robot Ultron. This time, though, Ultron's got an all-new weapon up his sleeve -- the deadly encephalo beam, which apparently kills the entire team, leading to the shocking final page where Jarvis returns home to find the mansion trashed and the Avengers lying dead at his feet.

The next issue features the grim reserves and survivors gathering: Iron Man, protected by his armor, and Wonder Man, who survived by dint of already being technically dead, are joined by Thor and Black Panther. Their dual mission is to rescue Wasp from Ultron's clutches and avenge their fallen teammates in the process. But Ultron has yet another sinister plan; tricking his "father" Pym into helping him, he convinces Ant-Man that the only way to save Wasp is to transfer her soul into a new robot body -- one that, in a terrible Oedipal complex, he plans to then marry. When the Avengers find him, they attack, leading to a memorable sequence where Wonder Man realizes the entire team, even Thor, expects to die in the assault. At the last minute, though, Iron Man throw morality to the wind and holds Ultron's bride hostage, prepared to execute her unless Ultron backs down. The resulting finale not only had action galore, it opened ethical questions about the limits the team would go to that are still being debated in the pages of Avengers to this day. Maybe the single greatest fight sequence in Avengers history.

3) Kang Dynasty (Avengers vol. 3 #41-54)

It sounds like some sort of insane What If? story: Kang the Conqueror finally lives up to his name by defeating not just the Avengers, but all of Earth. With the world under his despotic boot, the Avengers and the rest of the world's superheroes are rounded up into concentration camps, with the only slim hope being a small group of resistance fighters struggling to implement a last ditch plan to free all of enslaved humanity. Yes, it would be a great "What If Kang had Conquered Earth" except for one thing: it wasn't a What If? story at all, it actually happened in the real Marvel universe!

Yes, it's Kurt Busiek's crowning achievement, the Kang Dynasty epic, which not only told the greatest Kang story ever but also tied up every loose thread of Busiek's classic run on the title and some from past storylines as well (see: Ms. Marvel and Marcus Immortus). The story ended in suitably mind-boggling fashion, with Kang and Captain America battling mano a mano first as enormous avatars in the depth of space and then in person amidst the crumbled ruins of Earth. Along with Avengers Forever, the definitive Kang story and without a doubt the awesomest enormous, universe-altering storyline that nobody outside of Avengers fans have ever heard of (seriously, Marvel, don't you think the other characters in your universe would notice the entire world being enslaved for a period of several months? Maybe one of them could mention this somewhere?).

2) The Korvac Saga (Avengers #167-168, 170-177)

For sheer action, few stories in the long history of the comics medium can approach the Korvac Saga, which combined cosmic scope in the form of the godlike Korvac with down to Earth realism (the Avengers in one sequence have to bus themselves to a battle because their flight clearance has been revoked by the government). Add in guest stars like the Guardians of the Galaxy and villains like Ultron and The Collector and you have the formula for an all-time classic.

Oh, and did we mention terrific art form the likes of George Perez? And how about a climax like no other: an entire issue-length fight sequence that resulted in the deaths of the entire Avengers team along with all their reserves and the Guardians of the Galaxy to boot? In the end, only Thor is left standing to oppose Korvac, who shocks everyone by not only committing suicide but also by returning all his foes to life. In the end the team is left to wonder if they have just saved the world -- or if they simply prevented Korvac from saving the entire universe.

1) Under Siege (Avengers #271, 273-277)

This was a close decision; right up until the very last moments I was torn between Under Siege or the Korvac Saga for the top spot. But in the end, I couldn't deny the power of Roger Stern's classic story, which saw the Masters of Evil infiltrate Avengers Mansion on a much grander scale than they had back in Avengers #54-55. Capturing and torturing half the team, Baron Zemo seemed on the cusp of destroying the Avengers entirely, with only their leader, the seemingly lightweight Wasp, escaping his grasp.

Yet that turned out to be enough as Wasp rallied reserves, friends and teammates to reclaim the mansion and wreak vengeance on the Masters of Evil for what they had done. Still, despite the intense action and fantastic artwork from the legendary John Buscema, for most people the most memorable sequence of the story came in the aftermath as, after remaining an unbreakable rock throughout the ordeal, Captain America breaks down in tears holding the remnants of what had been the only photo he had of his long-dead mother. A classic story in every sense of the word, there can be no doubt that Under Siege is the Greatest Avengers Story of All Time.

For more on Under Siege, our friends over at Comics Should Be Good just spotlighted the story earlier this week, so you can check out their review here for some great scans and commentary.

Tomorrow: The fall-out from this monumental list continues, as I address reader questions and concerns. And as a special sidebar: the Five Worst Avengers Issues of All Time. Be there!

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Greatest Avengers Stories Ever: #15-6

Welcome back to my countdown of the Greatest Avengers Stories of All Time. Yesterday we kicked things off in grand style with such classics as The Avengers/Defenders War and The Serpent Crown Saga. Now we continue our celebration of Avengers Day (tomorrow, for those of you keeping track) by revealing the next batch of ten epic stories from Avengers history. So settle in, because here we go!

15) Ultron Mark 12 (West Coast Avengers #7)

Okay, I know what you're thinking: WTF? But bear with me a moment. It's true that this stand alone story isn't generally recognized as an Avengers classic, but for my money it's one of the best explorations of Ultron's character ever written. In this moving tale, following the apparent destruction of Ultron-11, the newest version of the ever-evolving menace actually evolves into a version that has moved beyond his childish hatred of his father figure, creator Hank Pym. Naming himself Mark, Ultron Mark 12 tries and finally succeeds in forging a tentative relationship with the obviously very hesitant Pym. Just when the sin of Ultron's misbegotten creation seems to finally have been redeemed, the still-murderous Ultron-11 returns and Mark 12 sacrifices his own life to save Pym. In the end, Pym is left more devastated than ever, wondering what might have been if Mark 12 had lived to end Ultron's evil once and for all -- and become the son Pym always hoped for. A great story from Steve Englehart.

14) The Squadron Supreme (Avengers #85-86)

Right from the stunning John Buscema cover, this great storyline from Roy Thomas kicks things into a new gear. Accientally shanghaied into an alternate universe, the Avengers find themselves face to face with an all-new superhero team: the Squadron Supreme! Clearly based on DC's Justice League of America, the Squadron of course first mistakes the Avengers for attackers. But finally the two teams band together in order to stop a potential holocaust. The story sets the scene for decades worth of great Squadron Supreme stories while also providing a slam-bang action story that ends with a typical -- and memorable -- bit of Thomas philosophizing, as the Avengers, returned to their own home, wonder if they can ever be sure if the world they have come home to is actually their own or just another almost-identical alternate world. As a bonus, this story is also part of a meta-crossover with that month's issue of Justice League of America, #87, which featured the DC version of the Avengers, known as The Assemblers. Sweet.

13) The Death of Adam Warlock (Avengers Annual #7, Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2)

In this cosmic epic from Jim Starlin, Thanos is back for his second go-round with the Avengers. Along for the ride this time is Thing and Adam Warlock, who pays the ultimate price in his efforts to settle Thanos's hash once and for all. But thanks to the power of the Soul Gem, not even death can keep Warlock from saving the universe, as Starlin brings the Warlock-as-Christ metaphor to its logical conclusion. He also provides great art in what may be the best of his many Thanos storylines. The mega-event Infinity Gauntlet owes its existence to this story.

12) Ultron Unlimited (Avengers vol. 3 #19-23)

Kurt Busiek and George Perez blew it out of the water with their epic Ultron throwdown to end all Ultron throwdowns. Things look bad enough wen the Avengers struggle to tak down the latest iteration of Ultron. But when a slew of even more advanced Ultrons appear, things look especially grim; forget Ultron-16, when Ultron-453 comes around the corner, well, you know you are majorly boned. This story also added a new wrinkle to the Pym-Ultron dynamic as it is revealed for the first time that Pym used his own brain patterns to create Ulton's personality. But the story is first and foremost best known for the epic final battle and Thor's classic line, "Ultron, we would have words with thee," as he prepares to put Ultron down for good. Oh yeah.

11) The New Masters of Evil (Avengers #54-55)

When Roy Thomas decided to bring bring back the Masters of Evil, he went full out. In a precursor to Roger Stern's epic Mansion Siege, the new Masters of Evil get the drop on the team and capture them thanks to their sleeper agent inside Avengers Mansion: Jarvis! In fact, Jarvis is actually the leader of the Masters of Evil! Except, in a rare-double reverse twist, it turns out he isn't. The actual leader? Much to the shock of the Masters themselves, their leader turns out to be an all-new menace making his comics debut -- the one and only Ultron. Add in some fantastic art from John Buscema and the return of the Black Knight and you have an instant -- and enduring -- classic.

10) JLA/Avengers (JLA/Avengers #1-4)

An event literally decades in the making, JLA/Avengers didn't disappoint thanks to some genius art by George Perez and a great story by Kurt Busiek. Harking back to the Avengers/Defenders War and the first appearance of the Squadron Sinister (both of which appeared on yesterday's list -- check it out already), the Avengers and the Justice League find themselves on opposite sides in a cosmic game being played between the Grandmaster and Kronos. In the end, though, they team up to prevent Kronos from completely destroying the multi-verse and thanks to some wonky time-distortion, every member from the long histories of both teams manage to get in on the action, providing undoubtedly the most satisfying inter-company crossover ever. Favorite moment: when Hawkeye, in a nice bit of meta-commentary, realizes that the Justice League is just an alternate version of the Squadron Supreme. Nice.

9) The Celestial Madonna (Avengers #129-135, Giant-Size Avengers #2-4)

Steve Englehart brought back Kang the Conqueror with a bang in this classic epic which asked the simple question: how can you defeat someone who controls time? The answer? With great difficulty. The Avengers suffered their first death in this storyline, as the Swordsman fell in an eventually successful attempt to redeem his name. Along the way, Englehart and company also revealed the secret history of the Vision, the Kree and the Skrulls and the connection between Immortus and Kang. And, oh yeah, Vision and the Scarlet Witch got married while Mantis was revealed to be the Celestial Madonna, whose child is destined to redeem the universe. No wonder this story has become legend.

8) The Great Betrayal (Avengers #66-68)

Introducing the art of Barry Windsor-Smith to the world, this landmark story also developed a number of ideas that would continue to reverberate for years later throughout both Avengers and the larger Marvel universe. Adamantium, for instance, made it's debut here, as did the Vision's control crystal (later key to Roger Stern's Ultimate Vision storyline) and his ability to phase through people in order to knock them out (which was introduced in a classic Smith splash sequence). But it's the story that really endures, as the newly evolved Ultron-6 unveils his master plan, stealing the secret of adamantium and becoming an indestructible killing machine. The only thing that can stop him? His inability to understand human emotion. Decades of Ultron storylines were set in motion with this classic tale.

7) Nefaria Supreme (Avengers #164-166)

What would happen if the Avengers fought Superman? That was the simple premise behind this Jim Shooter / John Byrne collaboration. Simple, but magical. Count Nefaria, seeking to harness immortality, stumbles upon a procedure that grants him godlike physical powers. All the team's heaviest hitters show up here to gang-tackle Nefaria, with Vision, Iron Man, Wonder Man and Thor going toe to toe with the Count in the streets of Manhattan. The most memorable sequence has the Vision ascending a mile above the city before turning his mass as solid and heavy as diamond and dropping himself straight down onto Nefaria's head. Even this isn't enough to take him out, but the efforts finally overstrain his system and he burns himself out, the victim of his own lust for power.

6) The Kree/Skrull War (Avengers #89-97)

This story needs no introduction or explanation, but here's the short version anyway: an epic feat of storytelling, Roy Thomas here manages to tie together all the various continuity threads of Marvel's various alien races into one magnum opus. He also brings back the Big Three, ties up loose plotlines from Captain Marvel and Inhumans and, oh year, reintroduces the Timely Comics Golden Age stable of heroes ot the Marvel Universe. All of this (or, most of it) with brilliant art from the legendary Neal Adams in a space epic that not only defined comic book events but also acted as a precursor for later films such as Star Wars. Forty years later and the Kree/Skrull War remains a landmark in Marvel and comics history.

Tomorrow: The conclusion! What five stories could possibly top the Kree/Skrull War?! Find out on Avengers Day!

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Greatest Avengers Stories Ever #25-16:

Welcome back, true believers! As you know, in order to properly celebrate Avengers Day, which is this Wednesday, I'm counting down the Top 25 Greatest Avengers Stories of All Time, starting... right now. Today I'm kicking it off with the the first ten entries, #16-25 on our list. So let's cut the chit-chat and get right to into it, because when you're talking about some of the best superhero stories ever written, there's really no reason to screw around.

And what better way to kick off our list than with one of the most divisive storylines in Avengers history:

25) The Gatherers (Avengers #343-375)

Yes, it's the Gatherers! Okay, we all know the bad rep these stories have, thanks in large part to Black Knight turning into Luke Skywalker, a completely tedious love triangle involving two characters nobody on Earth gives a crap about, Crystal and Sersi, and the decision to X-ify the series by making everyone wear matching leather jackets and grow matching mullets and stubble. Okay, fair enough. But this should also be said: after the unceremonious ouster of Roger Stern following Avengers #285, this was the only cool storyline in an Avengers book for basically an entire decade (the over-bloated Galactic Storm notwithstanding). Plus, it had some really cool alternate-world evil Avengers as the bad guys and great art from Steve Epting. How can that be bad?

24) Once An Avenger (Avengers vol. 3 #1-3)

Speaking of alternate universes, Kurt Busiek relaunched the title after the Heroes Reborn debacle with this three-part epic that saw Morgan Le Fay transform Earth into a medieval fantasy world complete with the Avengers as her erstwhile Knights of the Round Table. The only thing that saved the world from this enslavement? A handful of Avengers whose connection to the team was so strong it overwhelmed their mystical transformation. Yes, just being an Avenger was enough to save the world. Pretty sweet.

23) The Avengers/Defenders War (Avengers #116-118, Defenders #9-11)

As we're about to see, the Avengers waged a lot of war back in the old days. But few of them were as important or influential as this one. The granddaddy of superhero crossover events, the Avengers/Defenders war spanned over a half dozen issues as two of Marvel's premiere teams battled it out with the fate of the entire universe at stake. Its influence lives on even today: Kurt Busiek's wildly popular JLA/Avengers cross-company team-up book (which you may be seeing later on) was inspired by this story.

22) The Olympus War (Avengers #281-285)

Roger Stern's swan song on Avengers (we're not counting his half finished Heavy Metal storyline) was another doozy, as the Avengers were kidnapped by the gods of Olympus and deposited in Hades as retribution for the injuries Hercules suffered during the Mansion Siege storyline. Things looked pretty bad, but only because Zeus hadn't yet learned the number one lesson of godhood: don't mess with the Avengers. By the time this ended, half of Olympus was in ruins and all of comic fandom was left agog at Stern's awesomeness. Why, Gru, why?!

21) The Thanos War (Captain Marvel #25-33, Avengers #125)

Our third war in a row escalates the stakes even more. Forget the Defenders and Zeus; Thanos the mad god was fighting to erase all life from existence. He's just that big a douche. One of the most influential epics in comics history, this storyline introduced Jim Starlin and his cosmic sensibilities to the world. It might have rated higher on the list except almost all of the story took place in Captain Marvel, meaning the Avengers, though they were a large and important presence in the story, were secondary to Marvel himself.

20) The Trial (Avengers #160)

One of just two single issue stories on the countdown, The Trial is an all-time Avengers classic: following the return of Wonder Man from the dead, his brother, the evil Grim Reaper, also returns. His mission: to decide if this re-animated Wonder Man is his true brother, or whether that title should go to Vision, the synthezoid whose mind and personality were based on Wonder Man's brain patterns. his solution is to hold a trial and make them plead their respective cases and whichever is found wanting faces death by scythe! This story set the table for decades of follow-up storlyines involving Vision, Wonder Man, Grim Reaper and the Scarlet Witch. And with a Jim Shooter script over awesome George Perez pencils, there's no wonder it's still considered an all-time great.

19) Lost in Space-Time (West Coast Avengers #17-24)

This story gets downrated or ignored often because of the subpar Al Milgrom art. But if you can get past that, you'll find one of the most complexly plotted, mind-bending time travel stories in all of comics history. Steve Englehart here crafted a story where each issue splits into another subplot in another time period, so that by the end of the story there are seven different time-lines that all come together for a blow-out finale. In the process, Englehart not only manages to tie together basically every Marvel Universe time travel story ever into one unified whole, he completed his redemption of Hank Pym arc, rewrote the history of Moon Knight and added him to the Avengers and also set up the most important story in WCA history with the confrontation between Mockingbird and Phantom Rider. The last, by the way, led to what is still one of the more nuanced treatments of sexual assault and its effect on a relationship that comics has offered up. Englehart's WCA run as a whole was far more mature than most contemporary superhero titles. It's just too bad it's been overshadowed by Milgrom's art.

18) Enter the Squadron Sinister! (Avengers #69-71)

In this neat three-part story, Roy Thomas continued one of the great runs in comics history with the return of Kang the Conqueror, who shows up to play a game with a brand new menace: the Grandmaster. In a twist, Kang picks the Avengers as his champions, while Grandmaster has two new teams at his disposal: the Squardon Sinister, Marvel's evil version of the Justice League of America, and the Invaders, who make their debut appearance in #71. Kang ends up winning the competition and is given a fateful choice: with the power of life or death, he can either return his beloved Ravonna to life or he can instead use his powers for evil and kill the Avengers. He chooses evil and the rest, no pun intended, is history.

17) The Serpent Crown Saga (Avengers #141-144, 147-148)

Before being abruptly booted from the title, Steve Englehart first turned in one of his greatest efforts, the Serpent Crown Saga. Bringing back their old JLA counterparts in the Squadron Supreme, Englehart fashioned a cautionary tale about what can happen when superheroes go wrong: duped by the President, who is under the influence of the Serpent Crown, the Squadron Supreme ends up establishing a fascist dictatorship over their alternate America. The Avengers are left to fight for the freedom of two worlds, while half of their team is gone, shanghaied into the 19th century by a resurgent Kang the Conqueror. Okay, technically these are two different storylines, but they read as one whole epic since they are interwoven together so well. Unfortunately, this saga is slightly marred by the intrusion of two random fill-in issues right in the middle of it. Otherwise it may very well have ended up higher on the list. Special bonus: the first issue of this story, Avengers #141, was the pro debut of the legendary George Perez.

16) Avengers Forever (Avengers Forever #1-12)

Remember when I said a couple paragraphs ago that Lost in Space-Time was the most complex time-travel story in comics history? Well, it was -- right up until Kurt Busiek delivered this Avengers fan's wet dream. Dovetailing pretty much every piece of Avengers continuity ever, Avengers Forever told the story of a group of mismatched, time-displaced Avengers from various time periods who have to team up to overcome the machinations of the master of time, Immortus. He, in turn, is trying to avoid the wrath of an omnipotent council of time lords from the end of the universe. And all of them are in the process of learning that you do not eff around with Kang the Conqueror. With fantastic art from Carlos Pacheco, this series not only explained away every contradiciton and loose end of the first 35 years of Avengers history, it gave us an in-depth character study of Kang and a slam-bang trip through Avengers lore. Of course, if you're not a hardcore Avengers fanatic, you might not quite follow it or understand everything, plus parts of it could seem just a bit exposition heavy. But for fans like me, this is about as cool as it gets.

Tomorrow: The countdown continues with #15-6! More Thanos! More Englehart! And, at last... Ultron! Check it out here!

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Avengers Day Preview

One of the most popular holidays in America is almost upon us: Avengers Day. Okay, maybe it's not quite as hotly anticipated in most circles as, say, Memorial Day, but for a certain select subsection of the country (i.e. me), it's pretty friggin huge. For those of you who somehow haven't heard the news, Avengers Day is this Wednesday, May 19. Technically, it's been designated as such by Marvel in order to hype the relaunch of Avengers following the end of Siege and the cancellation of the current batch of Avengers titles (all of which will be replaced by new titles, so don't worry, you'll still have your chance to drop nearly 20 bucks a month on this stuff).

But while the relaunch of Avengers isn't quite as exciting as maybe it could be -- i.e. if they had hired Ed Brubaker to write the new series instead of sticking with Bendis the Antichrist (apologies to the original Antichrist, John Byrne) -- it's still a good excuse to celebrate the long history of Earth's Mightiest Heroes and to hope that, with the return of positivity to Marvel via The Heroic Age, we might be at the cusp of a new era of fun, solid comic book stories from the House of Idea. I mean, probably not, but let's stay positive.

In order to celebrate Avengers Day, then, we here at The Vault will be counting down the Top 25 Avengers Stories of All Time beginning tomorrow, with the final five scheduled to hit on Wednesday, Avengers Day. And who knows, if we have some free time, we might even manage to squeeze in a gallery of the Top Ten Avengers Covers as well.

For now, though, we'll be focusing on the stories. So what are your favorite Avengers stories? Which classics and forgotten gems should make the top 25? Let me know what your choices are and keep an eye on this space to find out the official list, beginning...

Tomorrow: We count down #25-14 on the Top 25 Avengers Stories of All Time! Be there!

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