We take a trip back in time to 1999!
Writer: Kurt Busiek | Artist: Carlos Pacheco
Publisher: Marvel Comics | Date of Publication: 1999 (original miniseries)
By Robert Marrujo:: Back in the mid-nineties, Marvel Comics did something crazy: it killed the Avengers. The Fantastic Four, too, but today we're here to talk about Earth's Mightiest Heroes. The deaths came in the wake of the massive Onslaught crossover that saw the entirety of the Marvel Universe embroiled in some of the highest stakes drama yet seen at that time. The Avengers were among those who sacrificed themselves to end the threat and were subsequently "Reborn" and eventually deemed worthy of a proper "Return" to the mainline Marvel U (that's a story for another Binx Reads!).
When the Avengers returned to their original universe, writer Kurt Busiek and artist George Perez were handed the reins to the series. It was one heck of a duo, as they reinvigorated the franchise and made it more relevant than it had been in years. Still, for as much as Busiek and Perez were killing it in the monthly book, the writer still had other ideas fo the characters that wouldn't quite fit in anything other than a miniseries. Busiek turned to another industry stalwart artist in Carlos Pacheco and, with Perez's blessing, they began work on what would become Avengers Forever.
The series was an ambitious, 12-issue exploration of multiple facets of the Avengers and their history. The movie franchise surrounding these heroes might be about ten years old, but the comic book dates all the way back to 1963. Over the multiple decades of publication that The Avengers has enjoyed, a lot of different storylines have come and gone, with some even outright contradicting others. Busiek's goal was to prune many of these chaotic and disjointed threads while also honoring the series.
He settled upon a universal epic that spanned across multiple timelines. Rick Jones, former Hulk companion and longtime Avengers ally, had fallen ill, beleaguered by symptoms that only the Kree's Supreme Intelligence could hope to understand, let alone mitigate. Quickly after the Avengers depart, Avengers foe Kang the Conquerer and his older counterpart Immortus would come to do battle over Rick. Immortus wanted Rick dead because he believed that Rick would come to unlock something in mankind called the Destiny Force. This would in turn enable the ruthless and unstoppable expansion of the Avengers into space where the team would eventually evolve into an empire of merciless tyrants. Kang, meanwhile, acted to stave off his eventual transformation into Immortus and to save humanity from the oppression of Immortus's overlords.
The mysterious Libra, formerly of the terrorist group Zodiac, comes to aid Rick as Immortus and Kang face off, nudging the Destiny Force within the young man to reach out into the fabrics of both space and time to pull in a small squad of Avengers. Rather than deliver an all-star lineup of team members, however, Rick instead gathers a disparate assemblage of Avengers comprised of a freshly disillusioned Captain America, a mentally unstable Yellow Jacket, a brash Hawkeye, future (and thus unknown quantities) members Captain Marvel and Songbird, and the then-present day Giant Man and the Wasp.
That's as far from the on-screen movie lineup as it gets, not to mention even the average set of heroes that usually makes up the comic book team. Yet, this oddball combination of Avengers is precisely what makes the series so wonderful. Avengers Forever places its emphasis on story above all else. This wasn't an attempt by Busiek to put together some flavor of the moment lineup (well, to be honest, Songbird was on Busiek's Thunderbolts team and Captain Marvel eventually got his own series, but we'll ignore that!). Instead, he compiled a set of personalities that would provide the most interesting pairings and interactions while also making it work within the context of the story. There are some unforgettable scenes with the team that foreshadow various things for the past Avengers that await them in the future, while also offering the future members some insight into themselves and their collective pasts that would have otherwise been impossible. Don't let the time travel intimidate you, as Busiek does a sublime job of balancing it all while keeping the storyline accessible to the reader.
Speaking of the storyline, talk about a crowd pleaser. There are all sorts of insane, over-the-top antics on display in Avengers Forever. Busiek weaves through countless bits of Avengers lore to close plot holes that were, in some cases, years old, bringing a sense of cohesion to the series that longtime readers were thrilled by. For newbies like me when I first read Avengers Forever as a kid, the history was interesting but immaterial, because I was more entertained by the pure grandeur of it all. The scope and scale of both Kang's intergalactic empire and Immortus's machinations were thrilling. These two were clearly threats on another level and Busiek sold it with Kang's domineering bravado and Immortus's brutal tactics and conflicted nature. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the outstanding work that Pacheco did with the art. This is arguably the work of his career, a lush tapestry of intricate details, neck-breaking angles, and pitch-perfect visual storytelling.
Coming back to Avengers Forever after so long has made me appreciate it in a different way than I did before. Take, for instance, the characterizations of Kang and Immortus. The way Busiek portrayed them is something that, frankly, many modern comic book writers don't know how to do. It's the Brian Michael Bendis effect, as I like to call it. Bendis brought a realism to superhero comics that was a step removed from anything that came before him. Initially it was just Bendis's dialogue, colloquial and expressive, that did this, but his impact extended into other things, too, including diminishing some of the grandiose, bawdy, and ostentatious personalities of the villains. Characters who sounded regal and imposing for decades were overnight transformed into ignorant street thugs, entire personalities upended in an attempt to make everything and everyone more relatable.
Which has sort of worked for some characters and even, occasionally, made them better. Someone like Dr. Doom, though? Bendis never could wrap his brain around how to put words into that character's mouth. I think because at the end of the day, Doom is not an everyman in any sense of the word. Some characters simply are not able to be made "relatable" because by their nature they're not. Kang is supposed to sound like a pretentious, preening, and prideful because he is. Unflinchingly, unapologetically. He doesn't need to speak the way that a couple of folks getting coffee do. He's supposed to have a quasi-noble quality about him. Take that away, and he and every character like him loses their edge, loses their essence.
While I do bemoan some of Busiek's corny dialogue for the Avengers themselves in this series, his appreciation for and understanding of how to make the bad guy feel like a genuine source of danger remains as compelling as ever. Avengers Forever embraces every bit of its outlandish scenario, lifts up its villains as villains, and puts all of its bombastic action right into the reader's faces. Nothing is dumbed down, nothing is limited. Avengers Forever basks in its complexities and is all the better for it. If there's anything that is being lost on some of the writers of today, it's the notion that a comic book can embrace both its grounded and ostentatious elements and still be a good read.
Avengers Forever can still be bought today, so anyone who's curious to see the Avengers at a time when their stories were less constrained but also not quite as hackneyed and simplistic as some of their older adventures, this is a great book to read. Busiek eventually followed up this storyline with The Kang Dynasty arc in the monthly The Avengers book, but I think I'm going to argue that Avengers Forever was his definitive work on the team. It encapsulates nearly everything that the franchise is all about. While I do enjoy some of what Bendis and other writers since have done with the Avengers, Busiek is perhaps the last writer to truly tap into the classic concept of the team and series, at least for now. Do yourself a favor and give it a read!