Heroes Reborn Pt 3: The Avengers
by Travis Hedge Coke
“The world be a joyless place! No reaving. No pillaging. No executions!”
– Thor, Avengers v.2, #9, words by Walt Simonson.
I love how scared Thor looks on the cover to issue one.
Launching with Rob Liefeld, Jim Valentino, and Chap Yaep, and going through iterations written by Walt Simonson and Jeph Loeb, The Avengers had the most tweaks of any of the four Heroes Reborn titles, with their origin receiving ground up reinvention and many of the characters changing in look, personality, and dynamics. In 2006, Jeph Loeb said of enthusiasm, “Rob has it patented,” as they went into revisiting this world, and here on the ground floor, those early issues of Avengers, enthusiasm bursts through everything.
This was the book Liefeld wanted to draw before he left Marvel to co-found Image. These are characters, superheroes primary to Liefeld’s fandom. In the mid-90s, he felt “the grandeur was lost,” and aimed to bring it back out of “the sewer or a high tech factory,” and into the open, into the world.
The very first page of Avengers will introduce us to a faceless, flying Loki with barbed, armored claws at the ends of his fingers. The Vision and Captain America are mostly the same as their traditional designs. Agatha Harkness retains her one and only look, as mentor to a very young Scarlet Witch, whose costume actually reflects her earliest styles perfectly, but in that, makes her stand out against the modernizations elsewhere.
Women take a backseat to often to male characters, and visually, the range is from fabulous to lots and lots of hypersexualized posing. There are blips of fabulousness, but this is a book of male characters who, at least until Simonson is writing, happen to know some women.
The Swordsman, an old school Avenger pretty much only known to fans of old school Avengers stuff, is reworked to enhance his narcissism and the overcompensation befitting a sword-swinging otherwise normal man who is running into fights alongside Captain America and Iron Man. He has a little bullfighter’s capelet in his bedroom, wearing five swords at once, holding another, watching himself in the mirror, surrounded by more swords.
The Heroes Reborn Hawkeye will be called, later, “A brown Plant Man,” but the brown and the stylized mask mostly evoke the X-Men’s Wolverine, who he will eventually be revealed as or replaced by when Liefeld comes back to these stories ten years later.
Hellcat receives the biggest immediate reinvention, previously being an athletic young woman, Patsy Walker, famous for having a franchise modeled after her and her teenaged friends by her mother, who dressed up in another hero’s costume, and just determinedly joined the Avengers, then the Defenders, as the plucky, happy go lucky Hellcat. In this Avengers, Hellcat is a merger of Walker and the hero whose costume she took, Greer Nelson, originally the Cat, then, Tigra of the Avengers, using not the Cat costume for inspiration, but Nelson’s later, furred, cat-like appearance.
As I speculated in Reconsidering Franklin Richards’ Versions of the Marvel Universe, knowing that a child shaped this world from memories and hopes, as well as accessing the minds of a handful of adults who entered this world, it is possible that these conceptual mergers, Hellcat/Tigra, Wolverine/Hawkeye are the result of him conflating the real people, having probably had limited exposure to any of them in his life.
When Walt Simonson takes over the title, these dramatic changes, including the hulking, loud, off-accented Thor who joins the team, will allow Simonson to comfortably transition us from reading this as earnest re-creations and as engineered facades, baited traps and awkward doppelgängers.
Why Valentino and Liefeld chose Loki as our entryway character is up for debate, but it does humanize him for us, and his frustration with non-magical beings, his curiosity at synthezoids, the reveal that the Scarlet Witch is the daughter of Norse god, Enchantress, and Loki’s speculation that head chief secret agent, Nick Fury, could be an incarnation or aspect of a god are all more intriguing than the normal getting to know the cast approaches.
I have come to appreciate this run’s approach to Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne more since The Ultimates (Bryan Hitch, Laura Martin, Mark Millar) was published, another revamp that took a harsher, and genuinely sickening look at the domestic abuse and bipolar aspects of their relationship, positing that even in domestic abuse, “it takes two to fight.” They are just shy of being a late 1950s sitcom couple in this Avengers run, and that light touch allows me to enjoy them, what they once were, what here they can be again, without completely being haunted by the specter of what comes, in traditional continuity, after these early days.
The Avengers lose their early fights. Loki more or less walks away. The time-traveler, Kang, the Conqueror is quickly victorious, even though he is so deluded he’s drooling when he tells Mantis his does what he does out of love for her.
Kang, like Iron Man, had been tainted by the very awkward crossover event, The Crossing, which is not, in retrospect, very terrible, but also did absolutely no characters or books any favors. His past few appearances anywhere before this run were exercises in dilution. Jamming together his cosmogony with Mantis’ and framing his attacks in immediate victory gives Kang the oomph he had been missing.
Mantis, traditionally a woman who led many, diverse lives, with an odd way of talking and a destiny as the Celestial Madonna to a species of tree people, has been repurposed in place of Kang’s object of love and sometimes manipulator, Ravonna, so that when the Avengers do have him on his back, she implores with them, “If you must take a life this day – take mine!” He is only attacking them, attacking our time, our world, because he is trying to establish himself as a champion, a great conqueror, to win her favor.
And, what a fight it is! Captain America diving through the sky to fall fist-first into Kang. Kang smacking Cap straight across the jaw with his own shield. And, all the while, Kang obviously taking pains to keep the combat non-lethal. He wants to humiliate his enemies, embarrass them, but presumably he cannot risk altering time so badly as murdering the premier superheroes of Earth might do.
The Savage (not Incredible) Hulk, gigantic and buck-green-naked, the equally naked and bizarrely horny oedipal Ultron robots, the naked liar (totally clothed), Loki, and the mysterious talking cat, Ebony build over the course of the earliest episodes, into a counterpoint to the Avengers team. The Avengers have tension amongst their ranks, but they respond as unit against anything from outside. “When a big green naked guy busts into my house,” as Hawkeye puts it, “I put him down!”
It did a lot of readers a lot of good, at the time of publication, just to see a charmingly naive, gives everyone a nickname Hulk. I grew up on back issues, and always had an aversion to the ongoing Hulk writer who was in the midst of a twelve year straight run on the character in the main title, in the proper Marvel Universe, but even in guest appearances, contemporary Hulk was smarmy, condescending, and judgmental, and in his own book, the entire tone was smarmy, condescending, and judgmental. Witty, too, but I could read back issues of The Defenders for ten cents or twenty-five at the most, and see what fun child-like, deer and beans loving Hulk could be. Leave me alone Hulk. Hulk who called people Fuzzy Hair Girl or Bird Nose Man. Rob Liefeld and his associates brought that back with modern storytelling, modern art.
Hulk trying to lift Mjolnir may seem like inappropriate comedy in the middle of a huge, destructive brawl, but that is Hulk the way I want Hulk. The way many readers do. Hulk can’t be all violence and anger. Some of Hulk has to be confusion, and some should be his frustration at things he absolutely cannot help. Like James Kochalka’s genius Hulk vs the Rain, Hulk can never lift Mjolnir, but he will also never understand why he cannot and stop trying. That it does not work is reason enough to keep trying.
Jeph Loeb had only met Rob Liefeld shortly before they began collaborating on Heroes Reborn, though Loeb stresses that the stories they told were Liefeld’s stories, he was facilitating. They both had fun when Loeb took over the writer seat on Avengers and it shows in the energy their issues have. The previous issues are more than a little scattered in sensibilities and plot, and Marvel, itself, seems to have been more than a tad rocky at the time. Liefeld says he met with three different company presidents before the first issues were released, many of the talent under the normal chain of command had no idea that these characters were being shunted to an imprint with separate handling and some felt, rightly or not, that they were being cheated or treated as chattel.
The sensibilities were different. The politics, at least from the outside, were opaque.
A look at the in house advertisements around the time Heroes Reborn launched will show you a serious tonal difference between normative Marvel and the HR imprint. The main line of advertising for their Marvel Universe comics was a series of nostalgia ads referencing touchstone moments, lots of character names, and tag lines like, “Putting the character back in comics.” A Spider-Man one has some playful arrangement to it, but the Fantastic Four ad boils down to, “Just give me the old stuff; here’s a thirty year old slogan.”
The HR Hulk, especially showcased in the crossover that ran through the sixth issue of each title, Industrial Revolution, was both closer to a classic Incredible Hulk and distanced from the racist caricature that was being laid over the Hulk in the main Marvel universe. In those comics, under other talent, Hulk was wearing a bone necklace, face painted, attended by breechclout wearing savages with tiki motifs and plenty of unga bunga. That same writer would handle the return of these characters to that main universe, Heroes Return, featuring a collage of people around the world that is simply racist.
The Liefeld issues of Avengers make no effort at representational physiology, or even matching art styles or representation page to page, favoring exaggeration, cartooning, and impact over careful accuracy. But, while Marvel was paying for its “main” Hulk to be dressed up in racist rhetoric, Liefeld and team were managing to not be racist. A small, but important agenda they probably should not have to have.
When Rob Liefeld left the Heroes Reborn imprint, Avengers was going to be left without an engine or a rudder. Liefeld was so into this title, that he drew several pages of the first issue solely because he could not let the issue go out without having drawn some of it. This was work, but it was a work of love.
Enter (re-enter?) Walt Simonson.
Simonson had worked on some issues of the previous Avengers volume, though he left fairly quickly, and he was, as much as anyone, synonymous with 1980s Marvel, an older Marvel. Simonson was also a writer, artist, total package comics-maker who never stopped experimenting, taking risks, trying to make the best and freshest comics he could, something that continues though to today.
When Simonson came onto this Avengers, concurrent with the early prep for The Multiverse with Michael Moorcock, John Ridgway and others of a very different, but just as innovative cache of talent, Simonson did not take the Avengers back to an earlier feel, and he did not continue on with what Liefeld and associates had been doing. He turned the entire first half of the series on its head, making not just the issues he wrote, but the entire series his. He owns this Avengers.
Suddenly, dramatically, the issues that Liefeld had done with Valentino, Yaep, Loeb, et al, became prologue, prelude, set up for the epic shelling and earthquakes of Simonson’s story.
While Liefeld and Lee were comfortable, even eager to retell stories – the finding of a teammate worshipped as a god trapped in ice for an age, Ant-Man running around inside Vision’s synthezoid body fighting his robotic white blood cells – to put polish on lively presentations that were already, to them, classic, Simonson would later tell Comic Boards, “I did read the Thor/Hulk fight back when Stan and Jack did it for what I presume was the first time in [Journey Into Mystery] 112 or thereabouts. Maybe because of that, I never felt the urge to revisit the idea.”
The Simonson issues, with penciler, Michael Ryan, start with a direct narrative carryover from the previous, the Avengers in battle against villains who haver attacked their new home, and with a sense of humor that redirects some flawed execution into intentional wrongness. For half a year, across the HR titles, the Asgardian characters have spoken a degraded form of the already nonsensical cod-Shakespearian dialect that Stan Lee originally established for them, most notably, that “my” is rendered as, “mine.” By hanging a lampshade on those “mine” and other dialectical peculiarities, the seeds are sown for the reveal that this is not the real Thor, that the other Asgardians are, not only not the real gods they appear to be, but wholly fictive, characters in a child’s made up universe. This draws back to an unexplored concern, in issue one, that Loki cannot locate Asgard or the other gods, giving it new life and new legs.
“How can we be fellow Asgardians,” Loki asks the Executioner, “when there is no Asgard?”
With Loki’s “We are merely puppets,” realization, we enter a storyline we will see replayed a few years later in Kim Krueger and Alex Ross’ Earth X comics, and elsewhere.
This arc also continues the affirmation of Nick Fury as central to the Avengers and to the Marvel Universe. In the traditional MU, Fury was a mid-60s character who appeared in modern day books as the dashing head of a spy and world police outfit, SHIELD, and as a rougher, grit-teeth World War Two soldier in another title. He shared a world with the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers, but he rarely had any influence on their lives or stories. A later pocket-dimension reinvention, The Ultimates (Millar, Martin, Hitch), and the successful Marvel films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have continued the centering of the superheroes around Fury and his agendas from this groundbreaking shift, which Jim Lee has called one of his proudest accomplishments at Marvel.
Simonson also enters into an interesting class-conscious dynamic, drawing attention to the fact this Avengers has no manservant, with the traditional Avengers, to that point, being served by Jarvis and a full staff under his command. Thor, especially, is increasingly bothered by the expectation he should participate in duties like cleaning after himself or getting his own food, following the line Loeb took, where Thor wanted to be apportioned a village to raid.
The supervillain sieges are almost parodic, with the Lethal Legion attacking in the issue previous to Simonson, and through the first half of his first issue, with the issue drawing to a close as the Avengers are again attacked by a team of supervillains, this time the Masters of Evil.
The Masters of Evil, like the Lethal Legion, have no real reason to work together or to lead full-on attacks at the Avengers’ front door. They do, because villains do. They, like Loki, like all, are “merely puppets,” in a child’s fantasy universe. They only recognize the consequences of their actions and even their existence in increments, long after it should have occurred had they had real time, prior, to plan and live. They, simply, have not. The Masters of Evil only start to worry about one of their number’s radioactivity mid-battle, when two of them come too close to the Radioactive Man. The time, in getting to know each other and plan this attack, in which they should have realized this was a concern may not exist. In a pocket universe, no history or unseen event can be taken for granted.
“We seem surrounded by riddles,” says Captain America in issue 10, as they only then realize that there is a nuclear reactor just off the shore from Manhattan and maybe someone should have considered how risky that is sometimes before now.
“Old foes” we and the team have never seen, “coalesce,” into being. When a new Thor, a truer (and in fact the real) Thor appears, he remembers the Avengers clearly, though not having, in this reality, yet met them, and they are forced to admit that he seems familiar, and more natural than the Thor they have been teammates with since issue one.
Thor misunderstands this pocket dimension, having his memories from before they entered, before issue one. He believes they are in Valhalla, having fallen in battle.
His brother, Loki, convinced he is not real or truly alive, gives up the horned helmet and muscled look so traditional at that point, for a very on-point Hiddleston look, tall, gorgeous hair, nice green suit and subtly trippy pattern on his necktie, about a decade before Hiddleston would take the role in films.
The nuclear reactor is not a nuclear reactor, just as the “old foes” are not necessarily people they have chronologically, causally met before. The Avengers reach out to genius Reed Richards, of the Fantastic Four, who suggests, “[The] island may house something entirely unique in our experience… a dimensional rip in the space-time fabric of the very universe… manifesting itself as one of the most powerful and dangerous creations on Earth… a nuclear reactor!”
These various manifestations which the Avengers and others took for granted, were not considered more reasonably because they mask something that makes even less cognizant sense. The wake of Loki’s realization of unreality, Kang’s manipulation of time and history, and the unstable nature of this pocket world are converging at a point in the Avengers’ home base. Centering around the Avengers. Later, Neil Gaiman will write his first work for Marvel around a similar notion of chronal drag and reality a priori begetting reality with Captain America as a bomb that starts a Marvel Universe in 1602.
Avengers began the most maligned for the four Heroes Reborn titles, somewhat fairly, a fair bit of it projection and assumption, but no one could have foreseen that by the last issues it would be a strong, heady mix of base human failings, powerful heroism, and questions like, How can you tell if someone’s agency is their own or manufactured, if it is manufactured convincingly and well? What is life? What is consciousness? How true is chronology without kairology? How much truer in a telling, in story, is kairological time?