Classics Reissued: Avengers Forever
by Kurt Busiek (script) and Carlos Pacheco (art)
Marvel Comics, 2011
Re-issued by Marvel Comics and in bookstores now is the epic 1998-99 “Avengers” mini-series “Avengers Forever,” ranked by many comics fans as the ultimate Avengers saga. “The Avengers” as a comic – a title featuring a staggeringly large cast of Marvel super-heroes banding together to form a super-team vaguely along the same lines as the Justice League – has, over the course of its fifty years of life, tended to be prone to epic sagas, extended story-arcs telling much more elaborate dramas than usually found in any given issue – so the title “greatest Avengers saga of them all” is a hotly-contested one, not an honor lightly bestowed even by such a febrile lot as die-hard comic book fans.
Avengers Forever writer Kurt Busiek is one of those die-hard comic book fans, and in this mini-series he takes it upon himself to tell what is certainly the most lovingly detailed of all Avengers story arcs. I’ve heard this mini-series referred to – by people who should know better – as a perfect introduction to the world of the comic, but this is lunacy. In an afternoon of pondering, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a graphic novel non-fans would find more impenetrable than Avengers Forever. It’s re-issue now (more than ten years after the last reprint) is exactly what the original mini-series was: for die-hard fans only. Newcomers are completely out of luck.
But oh, those die-hard fans – especially the few who might be coming to this story for the first time – are in for a treat, perhaps the most purely, specifically directed treat on offer anywhere in the world of comics. Busiek has not only read but studied every Marvel superhero comic ever written, and he has steeped himself in the long and twisted history of the Avengers – and he’s done all that in order to re-write that history virtually from scratch. As an undertaking, it’s that rare combination of nerdy and audacious.
There’s no real way to synopsize the plot, but I’ll give it a whirl regardless. Rick Jones, the feckless teen sidekick civilian who was originally responsible for drawing the Avengers together, is, it turns out, a mutant with vast latent reality-altering powers (in the original groundwork for this mini-series, back in the 1970s, we were told that Rick was just representative, that all humans had those same vast latent powers, but that would have been too unwieldy a premise even for Busiek, and it’s quietly ignored for most of Avengers Forever). Unchecked, those powers will eventually lead him and his descendants to become cruel overlords of the galaxy. Immortus, the self-styled future-guardian of the time-stream, becomes determined to reach back in time to Rick’s era and kill him before he can become a threat to time itself. The Avengers naturally dislike this idea, and in that they’re joined by the most unlikely of allies: Kang the Conqueror, the hyper-aggressive tyrant from the future who’s bedevilled the team on multiple occasions and who’s actually a younger version of Immortus himself (one’s from the future, the other’s from even further in the future).
Rick Jones’ latent powers are used to pluck seven Avengers from different time-periods in the team’s past – and future – and this is Busiek’s greatest plotting stroke of genius: a story like this succeeds or fails on which Avengers are involved. He chooses his seven characters with exquisite care: a powerless but wisecracking Hawkeye the archer, the assertive team leader The Wasp, a super-powered by demoralized Captain America, two unknown Avengers from the team’s future, and Yellowjacket and Goliath, both of whom are Hank Pym, only from two different time periods (and two very different states of mental health). These seven have just the perfect balance of powers and personalities to breathe life into the core of the mini-series.
With the Avengers now allied with Kang to protect the life of Rick Jones and defy the plans of Immortus, Avengers Forever erupts into a jubilant frenzy of Busiek resolutely re-writing forty years of “Avengers” continuity, and for any long-time fan, it’s a joy to watch. At those points where he can smooth out some apparent contradiction in that continuity (and since dozens of writers have tried their hand at “The Avengers” over the decades, there are quite a few such contradictions) by clever plotting, he does so – his invention never flags, in page after page of bewildering detail. When he reaches points where some extant fact about a character or event simply can’t be made to fit with the bigger, smoother story-line he has in mind, he simply invalidates it on its face. In the second chapter of Avengers Forever, after hearing the Wasp narrate a piece of Avengers history, an alleged participant in that history blandly tells her “You must be mistaken” – and the reader is given nothing more … in fact, the reader is expected to believe the Wasp is mistaken, and that all the other characters are at some point or another simply wrong about some aspect of the team’s long and convoluted history. No alternate realities, no altered memories – just “You must be mistaken.” The exact like of it had never been seen in comics before.
On this latest re-reading, by far the most enjoyable aspect of Avengers Forever is, oddly enough, Kang the Conqueror. He’s unquestionably the book’s star, a larger-than-life character whom Busiek simply can’t bring himself to characterize as an out-and-out villain. Instead, he’s a passionate man who angrily resents his apparent fate of growing into becoming Immortus, whose mission of guarding the time-stream strikes Kang as unacceptably timid:
“He calls himself the Master of Time! Faugh! Gardener of Time is more truthful! He prunes away the chronal branches deemed by others to be dangerous – reducing reality to a bloodless meadow! But such is not the way of warriors – of men! I say let it be a forest! Let it be a jungle! Let it be something we must strive against and conquer, whatever comes!”
As magnificent as Pacheco’s artwork is throughout the book, it’s Kang, a tired conquering bureaucrat longing to be a man of action again, who calls out his best work – Busiek’s best work too: the book’s 9th chapter, “Reflections of the Conqueror,” is not only an incredible summation of Kang’s entire life as a Marvel character but also a surprisingly moving meditation on the perpetual struggle to gain satisfaction from life. Stan Lee had done a similar interlude thirty years before starring his beloved Doctor Doom, and this chapter is actually worthy of the master.
The philosophical underpinnings of Avengers Forever run throughout the Marvel Comics ethos Lee created, and one essential part of that ethos can be stated simply: the future is a horrible, dark, dystopian place. In DC Comics, the future was traditionally rosy (Kingdom Come being a standout – and tellingly Marvel-like – exception), the playground of technological advancement, the home of the heroic Legion of Super-Heroes. In Lee’s more anxiety-prone Marvel Comics, by contrast, the future is where bad things happen – teams break up, valiant mutants are hunted down and exterminated, Martians, Badoon, and half a dozen others invade and conquer Earth. The entire plot of Avengers Forever hinges on the threat of Rick Jones unleashing yet another dystopia upon the future (in the actual monthly comics, bad-future storylines are repeated with alarm-clock frequency – almost all of them involving Kang).
The saving grace of this particular iteration of that old Marvel trope is right there in the book’s title: no matter how dark things get, we’re assured, there’ll always be the Avengers, battling for what’s right. There are plans afoot at Marvel Comics for a deluxe hardcover re-issue of this same mini-series, but fans of the comics – and, alas, only fans of the comics – shouldn’t miss this much more affordable paperback of what amounts to perhaps the greatest fan love-letter to other fans ever written.