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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The Avengers were my favorite Marvel title...thanks for bringing back all the fantastic memories.

Thank you so much for including the Gatherers Saga. I thought I was the only one who liked that, and it brings me fond memories of my earlier days of comics collecting.

I also thought I was the only person who liked the Gatherer's Saga. Very nice to see it make the list.

Great list, Scott. To nitpick: I don't think Perez's pro debut was on Avengers, although it may have been his breakthrough.

LOVE seeing the Gatherers getting some love. To Chris and Jazzbo: I contributed a well-received chapter all about the Gatherers-era AVENGERS in the first ASSEMBLED! book.

"War On Olympus" is an all-time favorite that is looong overdue for a re-reading on my part. And it surely needs the trade paperback treatment.

Same can be said for Engleahart's WCA time travel story. If only WCA could have had John Byrne art with Steve Englehart plots. As it is, with that series you have to choose: do you want good writing or good art, because you're not going to get both at once.

Personally, AVENGERS FOREVER would rank a lot higher on my list.

You know, you're right. I could have sworn Avengers #141 was his first gig, but apparently he did some sons of the Tiger stories in the black and white Deadly hands of Kung Fu magazine from Marvel prior to Avengers.

Well, close enough anyway.