Monday, August 25, 2014

Eighties August 8 part III: Best Teams Of The 1980s

By Jef Willemsen (clarmindcontrol.blogspot.com)

In today's Eighties August 8 entry, it's all about teamwork. The 1980s were a watershed decade for superheroes (and villains!) banding together for a common cause. We'll be counting down the best teams or lineups of the 1980s.*

8) - Power Pack (debut: Power Pack I#1, August 1984)




It was 1984 and Louise Simonson just had an idea. Well, actually, the long serving editor on both Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants had been workshopping the idea for a series featuring children with powers for quite some time until editor in chief Jim Shooter gave "Weezie" the go ahead. Together with artist June Brigman, she came up with the four siblings Jack, Julie, Alex and Kate who after encountering the alien Khoffi gained wondrous powers which they sorely needed to fight such menaces as the Snarks and the Bogey Man.

Simonson, hailing from a family of four herself, partly based the children on popular kids' fiction she read when she was young, which always seemed to feature a foursome as well. Their powers were derived from Albert Einstein's E = MC2 (Energy, Mass, Speed of Light) equation, with gravity added to the mix. Joined by the aforementioned alien Khoffi and even Franklin Richards at times, the Power Pack battled evil, bickered amongst themselves and tried not to burden their parents with their alternate identities.

Next to Brigman's clear, inviting art, the main appeal of the book was the fact Simonson was able to make it accessible and enjoyable for all ages (the kids even had their own Inferno crossover!), without talking down to the readership or make a teen feel embarrassed for buying Marvel's first ever mainstream children's comic.

7) - New Mutants (debut: Marvel Graphic Novel I#4, December 1982)




When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the X-Men back in 1963, the book was about young teens trying to master their mysterious mutant powers, under the watchful eye of their teacher Charles Xavier. Almost twenty years later, very little of that original premise remained. Except for Cyclops, all of Xavier's first class had moved on and the current crop of X-Men were experienced and significantly older. Even 13 year old recruit Kitty Pryde didn't seem in any desperate need or assistance in using her powers.

In other words, professor Xavier felt like he was spinning his wheels even more so than usual. When the X-Men were lost in space for an extended period fighting the Brood, the professor (himself secretly carrying a Brood embryo) slowly started assembling a band of young mutants to help guide to adulthood. But it wasn't the 1960s anymore. The appropriately diverse, international new class consisted of Mirage, Wolfsbane, Karma, Cannonball and Sunspot, soon joined by Magma and Magik. Every single one of them a teen with incredible powers and attitudes to match.

Chris Claremont was already in his early thirties when he started the book. So, even though the New Mutants rarely spoke like the hip and happening teens they were supposed to be, the trademark Claremontian soap opera type of storytelling was a wonderful match for all the obvious angst, heartbreak and insecurities any teenager has to deal with. For a short, blessed time New Mutants and Uncanny X-Men read like one continuous story, with the two casts sharing the school and interacting as they went about their ways. They may have been called X-Babies, but New Mutants helped mature the X-universe.

6) - New Fantastic Four (debut: Fantastic Four I#308, November 1987)




A change's as good as a rest, really.

By 1987, the Fantastic Four had been around for over 25 years. Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben had enjoyed tremendous success in that period, most notably thanks to John Byrne's staggering six year run in the early 1980s that revitalized the concept... All this made writing FF a daunting proposition to say the least, so incoming writer Steve Englehart simply decided he wasn't going to do that. Instead, he came up with a new Fantastic Four.

An issue or two after he took over, Englehart set things in motion. First, he had Reed and Sue decide they finally needed to focus on bringing up their son Franklin, leading to the decision to quit the team and leaving Ben Grimm in charge. Ben, still fuming over the fact Johnny Storm had married his old flame Alicia Masters, accepted the job and promptly invited Johnny's first real love Crystal to rejoin 'his' FF. And, just to add more fuel to the soap opera style fire, Grimm brought in Ms. Marvel (Sharon Ventura), who was struggling to cope with the fact she'd been sexually abused by the henchmen of Dr. Karl Malus. As a result, she was uptight, emotional and couldn't bring herself to even touch a man.

This blog covered the exploits of the new FF extensively back in late 2012, but in a nutshell: even though Englehart's take on Marvel's first family was unconventional... In essence four seemingly incompatible, emotionally fragile individuals who were constantly arguing, that is *exactly* the same kind of jarring effect the original Lee and Kirby Fantastic Four must have had back in late 1961. Back then, all the heroes liked each other and everyone was pretty much perfect... Stan Lee and Jack Kirby rewrote the rulebook and for better or worse, Englehart tried his best to emulate that type of characterization for the 80s.

And hey, at least we got the She-Thing out of it, right?

5) - Marauders (debut: Uncanny X-Men I#210, October 1986)




Even more so than the massive Masters of Evil incarnation that took over Avengers Mansion, the Marauders might just qualify as the single biggest supervillain group of the 1980s. The original band of baddies was comprised of ten more or less Omega level mutants, deadly on their own but absolutely lethal together. They were also an eclectic, colorful and immediately recognizable bunch, helped in part through a few familiar faces such as Savage Land native Vertigo, the bestial mercenary Sabretooth and former X-Man Polaris who was pressed into service after the psychic Marauder Malice took her over.

The Marauders seemingly came out of nowhere, as far as the X-Men knew anyway. A few months prior to their first outing as a team, individual members like Scalphunter made their presence known by picking off stray Morlocks but when they attacked in full force in 1986's Uncanny X-Men I#210, the gloves were off. The villains tore through the New York sewers, absolutely eradicating the Morlocks and even the combined but seperate efforts of the X-Men, Thor, Power Pack and X-Factor did little to stop their onslaught.

The X-Men would fight with the Marauders on several occasions during the 1980s, and eventually it became clear they were merely the (cloned) pawns of the enigmatic mastermind calling himself Mister Sinister. But before they were picked off by the X-Men during the early hours of Inferno, the Marauders had proved crucial in ushering in the late 80s sense of gritty realism in comics. No one is guaranteed to come out alive... They also indirectly caused the formation of the British X-offshoot Excalibur ánd the number four on our list.

4) -  Outback Era X-Men (debut: Uncanny X-Men I#229, May 1988)




So it's come to this... and, wasn't it a long way down (under)?

Allusions to Leonard Cohen's song Dress Rehearsal Rag not withstanding, Chris Claremont was in fine form experimenting with the idea of the X-Men by the time the late eighties rolled around. So often these days, people complain about the cyclical nature of comics, the fact that "real change" is little more than an illusion. In the end, the proverbial reset button gets pushed, forcing all the toys back in the box. And while that might be true to some degree, consider the Australian outback era X-Men.

If, through some strange time portal, vortex or blue police box, fans of Uncanny X-Men in 1981 got their hands on any of these issues from 1988 on, they'd be hard pressed to recognize the comic they loved. Sure, Colossus and Wolverine are easily recognizable, and yeah that *has* to be Storm and Havok without his mask... But what is the Avengers villain Rogue doing there? Wo are the others and why is there a diaper wearing aborigine in the front whirling a stone on a rope? The answers to these questions led to some very exciting stories indeed.

"Plus se change, plus se la meme chose" is one of Claremont's favorite French sayings and it holds up... The more things change, the more they stay the same. Sure, the X-Men looked radically different during their time in Australia, yes they didn't use a jet but were teleported by the Aboriginal Gateway, but they were still fighting the good fight, taking on alien menaces like the Brood, protecting mutants from being oppressed and enslaved on Genosha and even keeping the entire universe safe from destruction caused by a former red headed ally who got corrupted and used as the focal point of universe altering powers. All of a sudden, 1981 doesn't sound that distant, eh?

Plus se change... 

3) - West Coast Avengers (debut: West Coast Avengers I#1, September 1984)




If you could reinvent the wheel, how would it look?

Nowadays, after the billion dollar success that was the movie, having more than one Avengers comic on the stands goes without saying. But back in 1984 the idea of adding a second team of Avengers was revolutionary to say the least. Still, regular Avengers scribe Roger Stern dutifully penned the initial West Coast Avengers limited series that saw Hawkeye and his new bride Mockingbird heading out to Los Angeles to set up an auxiliary Avengers operation. Over the course of four issues, they assembled Wonder Man, Tigra and Iron Man (James Rhodes) to help fight the menace of Graviton and the Blank.

The first mini proved to be a hit, so the Wackos (as the new team was affectionally called) were given their own, monthly book penned by Steve Engelhart. Joined by artist Al Milgrom, Steve penned most of the initial 40 issues, which explored what it meant to be the new kids on the superhero block. When they weren't fighting menaces like Ultron, Nekra and Master Pandemonium, they were out there having fun in the warm California sun.

West Coast Avengers never quite got the same respect as its parent title Avengers. Which is surprising, considering their adventures. An early highlight was the ambitious multipart timetravel epic Lost In Space-Time that saw the team spread out through time, the story spanning at least six eras before it ended with adding two new members to the team: Moon Knight and Dr. Hank Pym, who only months before that tried to commit suicide because he felt ashamed for his past failings. In the end, not even the introduction of classic members Vision and the Scarlet Witch helped rid the book of its "also ran" status. Eventually, Englehart left the book after creative differences, allowing John Byrne to take over, promptly rechristening the book Avengers West Coast.

It didn't help. Pretty art, though.

2) - Alpha Flight (debut: X-Men I#120, April 1979)



Sure, they made their debut in April of 1979, but Canada's premiere superhero team did not come into their own (series) until 1983's Alpha Flight I#1, written and drawn by one half of the team that initially introduced them: John Byrne. Only problem is: he had no real idea what to do with them, because to be fair: they were only ever created to survive a fight with the X-Men.

But their two issue stint proved exceptionally popular, so much so that Jim Shooter greenlighted the team to go solo. So here it is and there we went... And really, we didn't go anywhere in particular for most of the first year because the Canadian government had shut Department H and the team down. So even after banding together to stop the Great Beast Tundra in issue 1 and fighting the Master of the World alongside Namor and the Invisible Woman in issues 2 and 3, Alpha Flight wasn't seen together until they finally came to their leader Guardian's aid in issue 12... which ended with him dying.

Doesn't sound like too stellar a track record, and that's exactly what made Alpha Flight so memorable. They were understaffed, inexperienced, underpowered, ill equipped and ill tempered to deal with the menaces they had to face... but through it all, they preservered even though it cost them plenty along the way. John Byrne might not have been too sure what to do with the book, but that caused him to run with any crazy, off the wall idea that came to mind. Aurora's a schizophrenic? Sure! Northstar's gay with a penchant for older gentlemen callers? Hop to it! The newest member is an obese quadraplegic red head encased in living armor? Why not! Add to that villains like Pink Pearl, Gilded Lily, not to mention the Great Beasts and Byrne's first 28 issues read like a treasure trove of zany, frenetically charged devil may care macabre capers, all with great art and well under a buck.

Who could ask for more, eh?


1) - Post-Mansion Siege Avengers  (debut: Avengers I#278, April 1987)




The culmination of Roger Stern's 5 year+ run on Avengers was the line up of Thor, Black Knight, She-Hulk, Sub-Mariner, his wife Marrina, Doctor Druid and their chairperson Captain Marvel. True, a far cry from the founders heavy early days when one would expect Iron Man, Captain America and either the Wasp or Yellowjacket on the team. But this colorful assemblage of heroes were more than able to hold their own, possessing a wide variety of skills, contacts and backgrounds in both scientific and mystical matters.

Under Roger Stern (not to mention the consistent art team of John Buscema and Tom Palmer), the Avengers had continued to grow and evolve, culminating in the election of its first ever trainee recruit Captain Marvel to the position of chairperson. As one sees too often in group books, only two or three members get the chance to really shine, leaving the others as little more than glorified bitplayers forced to spout interchangeable, expositionary dialogue.

Not this particular line up, though. Thor was appropriately godlike, She-Hulk sounded like her familiar, sassy self, the Sub-Mariner displayed his trademark pomposity while Black Knight showed he was first and foremost a scientist. Even new recruits like Marrina and Doctor Druid were valued, vital and instantly distinguishable members of the team. In many ways, that makes these "post Mansion Siege" era Avengers like Cap's Kooky Quartet, the first ever line up change that saw Captain America heading up a team that consisted of Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. One'd hardly consider them Earth's mightiest, but for the briefest of times, they were.

Sometimes, history repeats itself.

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*Naturally, these picks are solely based on my own, anything but unbiased preferences. Think I'm wrong or an absolute idjit for leaving out your particular fave? By all means, join the conversation!

3 comments:

  1. Great picks. You hit all my right buttons here.

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  2. My own nostalgic bias would sub in Team America for one of those picks. Six individuals brought together because of a secret Hydra plot to create super powered sleeper agents, who could each become the mysterious guardian-angel biker known as the Marauder. My 9 year old self loved some those 12 issues. Looking back, the covers were often times the best part of the comics, but issues 11 and 12 are still an entertaining read for me.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks so much for these. Good articles!

    ReplyDelete

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