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 AvengersAssemble.net (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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Wow,you almost lost me with this list, until 5-1. I kept waiting for The Fall of Hank Pym, The Korvac Saga and Under Siege, and I'll admit I was getting nervous. Then BAM! I should have had more faith.
I'm going to add a couple suggestions. Avenegrs 1-5, the Kirby stuff was such a powerful intro to the group that it was burned into my brain as a kid. The colors, the characters (Loki, Namor, Hulk)and Kirby.
Also, I have to say, some of the very best Avengers stories were What If? stories: What If the Avengers Fought the Asgardian Gods? and What if the Avengers Defeated Everybody?
And I loved Avengers #221 - New Blood where the Avengers decide to have a membership drive and end up adding She Hulk and Hawkeye to the roster.
Also surprised that you didn't have any current stuff on your list, the Bendis years... how come? Not that it matters to me, since I'm a purist.

I haven't read an Avengers comic in a long time. I got off track with Initiative, Secret, Dark, etc. but after finding your blog and reading through your lists, I've decided to finally read my copy of the Kree/Skrull War. And I'm very intrigued with Under Siege being your top pick. I'm missing a few issues of that storyline so I never got the full enjoyment of that story but I was a big fan of the creative group at that time. The trade is out of print, isn't it?

Rob -- Good point about What If? I have to admit that while I tried to consider every Avengers story ever, What If? completely slipped my mind. Both of the stories you mentioned would be good candidates, though I'm not sure I'd want to bump anything currently on the list for them. But they're certainly worthy.

I counted 221 as part of the Hank Pym storyline, but I agree it's a really cool issue.

As far as Bendis goes, I'll be explaining it in detail tomorrow, but basically I think it's too soon to objectively judge his work. I also don't think his strengths as a writer lend themselves to either the kind of epic superhero action stories Avengers has been so great with over the years or to easy classification on these kinds of lists. His work is a lot of Claremont's X-Men stuff, it just flows form one story to the next so it's not easy to chop it up into easily defined arcs for lists like this. But I'll go into more detail about that tomorrow.

James -- There's a hardcover reprint of Under Siege coming out in September. I'm not entirely sure what all it contains -- hopefully Avengers 271, which is a set up issue and not specifically part of the main action, but which I think is important. Under Siege also had some minor crossovers into other titles like Amazing Spider-man, but I doubt these will be included.

I am rather impressed by this list. Better than I would have done off the top of my head. I might reorder it a bit if it were mine, but there's little to object to as far as my personal tastes go, (except for one omission I'll mention in a moment).

Trying to step outside my personal tastes, the obvious omissions are Bendis stories and Stan Lee stories. I only read 29 issues of Bendis' run and there weren't any contenders in that, so that's probably a sensible omission.

And I'm not the biggest fan of the Stan Lee era either, but its omission might reveal a personal bias. Surely there's something in there worthy of peeking its head in. Perhaps Avengers #4.

The one story off the top of my head I would rank rather highly that wasn't able to squeeze its way onto your list was Avengers #57-58. That is the highlight of the Thomas/Buscema run rather easily in my mind. Buscema seems to finally hit his stride as an artist, and who doesn't choke up when Vision sheds a tear?

Avengers is my all time favorite comic series, and up until about 4 years ago I had an unbroken run from issue #132 up, with about half of the issues before #132 being in my collection. So I've read a few Avengers stories. If I made a Top 25 Story list, probably 20 or so of the ones you listed would have made mine. In different order, for sure, but still pretty close. We obviously have the same tastes in Avengers stories. It was nice going through the list and remembering the highlights.

I found this info about the HC from CBR:
Written by ROGER STERN
Pencilled by JOHN BUSCEMA
Collecting AVENGERS #270-277.
192 PGS./Rated A …$29.99
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4382-6

I'm inclined not to get a HC but I don't know if they'll release it as a SC after a few months. I'm still waiting for them to release Earth's Mightiest Heroes by Joe Casey as a SC.

Looking forward to your post on the Bendis Avengers. I haven't read any of them but would be interested in which ones are good.

Man, there's some great reading on this list. All of them absolutely mandatory reading for Avenger fans.

It is a crime that "The Fall of Hank Pym" is not a trade paperback. Or even one of those black, hardcover Marvel Premiere Edition things, or whatever they're called.

I might not have put Kang Dynasty quite so high, but it would definitely be in my Top 25.

Re: Stan Lee stories. I think they obviously important, but I'm not sure any of them would rank as all-time classics, with the possible exceptions of #9 and #16.

Another important-but-not-classic issue would be #28 when Hank and Jan return to the team. It is only with *this* issue that the idea of members returning ("Once an Avenger, Always An Avenger") is established.

I also enjoy the Wasp/Yellowjacket wedding in 59 and 60. I think 56-60 is a solid little run of consecutive issues, but they cover more than a single story.

You've covered most of the significant stories. The Yesterday Quest/ Wundagore Knights stuff is noticeably absent.

It's hard to imagine any Bendis stuff becoming classic. The Civil War series itself might qualify, but it was actually not written by Bendis and it's more of a MU story.

Great list, Scott. These are 25 reasons why the Avengers are great and why I've always loved the series.

Now you are going to make go re-read Fall of Henry Pym and War on Olympus.

Great, great list.

I was a little surprised to see The Gatherers and Lost in Space-Time, but I agree with the choices. The Gatherers was really the only decent storyline in a lousy era for the Avengers, and Lost in Space-Time was definitely the greatest WCA story ever.

It was nice to see The Trial, Nefaria Supreme, The Bride of Ultron, and The Korvac Saga. That was the period when I really started reading comics, and those stories made me an Avengers fan for life. Also great to see some of Busiek's best work on there, too.

My only addition might have been Operation Galactic Storm, because of the Iron Man/Captain America conflict that has dominated the Avengers over the last few years.

As much as people complain about Bendis, I do think he's added a lot to the Avengers. Maybe an expanded list could be in order in the future?

Nice work!

Very good list. I might quibble with the order on a few of them, but overall a good list. Man, the Avengers have sure had some great stories!