Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s regular Avengers series from the same time was pretty good, too, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve always thought this 12-issue miniseries Busiek wrote (with an assist from Roger Stern) was even better, or at least, more interesting. And interesting comics are what I am interested in.
I want to mention artist Carlos Pacheco’s work right off the bat so I don’t tack it on as an afterthought at the end, because it’s so vital to the project. I feel like this story, so rooted in Avengers comics past, would’ve been a little too on-the-nose with Perez’s art – I mean, he drew some of the stories this book name-checks; he was there! While I don’t want to minimize Stern’s contribution (although I’m not sure what it was, precisely…plotting assist?), this series is really about Busiek and Pacheco, two guys who’d read those stories when they first came out, now revisiting and re-exploring them from their late-90s perspective. You can tell Pacheco loves those old comics, but his style is fresh and new. I’ve always thought of Pacheco as the ultimate artist of the 90s (which I mean as a sincere compliment, not ironically or sarcastically) – you see in his artwork the clean lines of the Silver Age, the handsome figure work of the Bronze Age, the energy and flair of the Image guys, the stylization of his contemporaries, all combined in an artistic goulash that just screams THIS IS WHAT SUPERHEROES SHOULD LOOK LIKE. Also: guy draws some really dramatic hands, I don’t know how he does it. Just look at them.
Of course, the first thing everybody mentions about this series is the continuity surgery, and Pillock and I had some rollicking back-and-forth about retcons and what-have-you last week. It may surprise you, but I don’t even think the continuity stuff is the most interesting part about this series, but you can’t really not write about it.
On the one hand, where Busiek doesn’t want to step on anybody’s toes in Untold Tales of Spider-Man (it’s about adding history, not retconning it; tidying up a few loose ends but not really making any radical changes), Avengers Forever does have some big, fat, “Everything you know is wrong!” changes that overturn some comics you may have read. Busiek reveals the master manipulator Immortus as being behind a whole mess of important events in Avengers history, from Avengers #2 to “The Crossing.” Along the way, we find out the Vision really was built out of the Human Torch (although the Torch exists as a separate being as well through some time-travel tinkering – Busiek wanted everybody to be happy, here), Kang’s claim that he was behind Hank Pym’s mental breakdowns was a lie (turns out that wasn’t even Kang!), and an old Thor story happened in a totally different way than originally portrayed. So this story does some undemocratic, totally authoritative retcons that don’t play nice, that insist that you take them as canon from now on and retroactively.
Why, then, does it not bristle the way many similar massive retcons do?
Well, to be upfront with you, part of the reason for me is that I’ve never actually been a hardcore Avengers fan (although I know you’ll call me out on the concept of “not a hardcore fan,” Pillock!). I’ve read enough Avengers comics over the years, but I’m not emotionally invested in them the way I am with, say, Fantastic Four or the Flash. So, y’know, you tell me some of the characters in some comics I’ve never read from the 70s and the 90s were Space Phantoms, it’s really no skin off my nose. It was just fun for me to get a quick summary of the 35-year metaplot of the Avengers to that point, additions or no.
But leaving that aside, many fans believe the “Everything you know is wrong!” type retcon to be a show of arrogance. I feel that’s severely overstating things in most cases, but there is an element to it that when you decide to contradict an established storyline, it’s implied that you’re doing so because you know better or you have a better idea.
Yet, I don’t read a drop of vanity in Avengers Forever (well, it’s maybe a little harsh on “The Crossing,” but who wasn’t, in those days?). To read it as hubris, as Busiek imposing his will on over three decades of Avengers history, would be a mistake. I mean, read the thing. This was a labor of love, but it was most certainly a labor! This was something Busiek knocked his brains out over, trying to reconcile nearly every loose end and continuity error (and the whole thing hangs together about as well as it possibly could), and he didn’t do it to write his own name into the Avengers legacy, or even for a No-Prize. He did it for us, we readers of Marvel Comics in the late 90s. The early 90s (even the late 80s, in places) had been pretty unkind to the Avengers, and so Busiek went about fixing holes – “Avengers continuity’s fine, I got it to make sense, I balanced the checkbook and took out the garbage. Let’s carry on, shall we?”
And that carrying on is important, because like I said, I don’t have a deep personal attachment to the Avengers, and so a big continuity patch manual alone isn’t gonna do it for me. Fortunately, Busiek’s got that discipline that I mentioned in talking about Untold Tales, enough discipline not to let it take over the narrative; it’s toward the end as sort of a reward for anyone who’s stuck it out and is interested, but what’s really driving this series is a story.
And what is that story? It’s long and complex and twisty and would take a whole blog post in itself to summarize, so I’ll just cut it down and say: Kang vs. Immortus, for all the marbles. Of course, Kang is Immortus - Kang was a time-travelling warlord, and Immortus was a mysterious, time-travelling manipulator, and eventually it was decided that both of these old Avengers villains were the same guy at different stages of their lives (Immortus is Kang’s future self), working at cross purposes.
What’s so interesting is the animosity between Kang and Immortus. Kang is obsessed with war and conquest, and considers Immortus a feeble academic who’s turned his back on the glory of it all. Immortus, meanwhile, seems embarrassed of Kang the way we might be about our teenage selves. And there’s something to that; although Kang describes himself wearily as “so old…”, there is something childish about Kang and the way he loves war for war’s sake, the way kids just love to play without an agenda. I mean, here’s a guy who likes to conquer galactic empires, but hates running them – he’s the kid who likes getting presents on Christmas morning but never cares enough to play with them!
And yet, there is something almost heroic about Kang here. Partly because Immortus is working an agenda for some higher-ups that involves destroying entire timelines, and so working with Kang is the lesser of two evils for the Avengers. But beyond that, what I find so compelling is that even though Kang knows he must become Immortus (having met him through time travel and all), he fights his destiny. He’s not fighting his future self alone, but inevitability itself. When he crushes the body-swapping device he’s used in past Avengers stories to cheat, the message is clear: "Hope I die before I get old"! Kang is every elementary school kid who doesn’t want to go to middle school, every high schooler who’s afraid of going to college, every twentysomething in love with the privileges of adulthood who doesn’t want to face the responsibilities, and every grown man or woman dreading the day they become a senior citizen. Kang is Peter Pan, and it works – the timestream is his Never-Never Land! He’s fighting adulthood, but not in the form of Captain Hook, because an adult with a hookhand and a pirate ship is still kind of cool. He’s fighting the Robin Williams adult Peter Pan from Hook; it’s bad enough getting old, but do you have to be so boring?
And the most striking thing about it is that Kang wins! The story doesn’t force him to accept his lot in life and mature (which is the knee-jerk way you'd end such a story); he gets separated from Immortus (sort of; if you’ve read it you know it’s trickier than that) and becomes master of his destiny once again. Free to be that child forever! Would it be playing “postmodern games” to read Kang’s refusal to quit as a metaphor for the Avengers franchise itself in this series? Kang doesn't have to get old and boring, and neither do the Avengers; it's telling that Immortus too gets a new lease on life. A new course is charted into the future for the "new" Captain Marvel, and heck, even Libra’s revealed to be still knocking around. I meant it when I said "everybody wins" - I read this series as Busiek and Pacheco saying, “Well, the Avengers had a patchy couple of years there – and if you want to be totally honest, the franchise has always had some inconsistencies, its good times and bad – but we survived. Nothing is broken, because the Avengers still work!”