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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Scott, I really wish you had put some thought into your list. It seems like you just Googled "Avengers" then slapped it all together.
Ha, no, seriously, this was an awesome entry. Clearly you know your Avengers. After reading what went into your choice process I have to agree with the majority of your picks and their order of placement. This was a lot of fun. I'd love to see you take a stab at the best 25 Marvel storylines of all time, the best 25 DC storylines, etc. Or to simplify, the 25 best COMIC BOOK storylines of all time. Maybe even the best 25 writers and artists of all time.