Sunday, November 22, 2009

1987-88 – The Mighty Avengers

The Mighty Avengers #275-286
Roger Stern, writer
John Buscema, penciling/breakdowns
Tom Palmer, finishes and inks

Roger Stern is perhaps the most underrated writer for Marvel Comics in the 80s. Despite the volume and quality of his work, which included major titles like Amazing Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and the Incredible Hulk, he never really broke into that superstar category, like Chris Claremont, John Byrne, or Frank Miller. However, the collaborative energy between Roger Stern and artists “Big” John Buscema and Tom Palmer produced the best Avengers stories in decades.

A key ingredient that made this run so successful was Stern's strong characterization. Each character had their distinct attitude and direction, as well as flaws, which provided a solid impression that these characters weren’t just stereotype, but actually real people. For example, Hercules, the Greek god of strength and the most powerful Avengers on the roster, didn’t take to well being ordered around by the team’s current leader, the Wasp, because she was a woman. His attitude, assisted by a bit too much alcohol, put his teammates in a dangerous situation. Stern succeeded in making these characters feel real despite their extraordinary powers.

Stern also paid particular attention to his female characters and developed them into strong, leading women. Captain Marvel had joined the team as an Avenger-in-training, and had developed into a formidable member in a relatively short time. She gradually became more skilled with her powers and gained confidence as an Avengers which lead to an eventually leadership role.

Another female character, the Wasp evolved throughout his run during her tenure as the Avengers' chairwoman. She was no longer a lovesick teenager, or dippy female sidekick who cared more about her clothes that she did her place among the Avengers. The Wasp matured and she earned her place as Avengers’ chairwoman and commanded respect. During the “Siege of Avengers Mansion” (Avengers # 273-277) story line, she faced her toughest challenge as chairwoman and as an Avenger. The Wasp was faced with the total defeat of the team and turned the situation around and freed her captured teammates which eventually led to Baron Zemo’s defeat.

Also, during the “Siege of Avengers Mansion”, Stern's portrayal of the super-villain team and its leader Baron Zemo II was notable. The dynamics and infighting within the Masters of Evil was realistic and broke the super-villain stereotype. Baron Zemo II, the son of the original Baron Zemo who died in a battle with Captain America, set his sights on destroying the Avengers in order to utterly defeat his arch nemesis, Captain America. Rather than having a group of super villains pursue their goals of world domination and eventually be stopped by the good guys, Stern came up with a wonderful idea that had the villains take the battle to the good guys directly. Once the good guys were defeated, then the villains could leisurely continue with their plans for world domination.

Zemo II patiently waited for the precise time to strike, and plotted and schemed to take advantage of the Avengers' weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. Zemo II had assembled a rather large group of super villains to form the Masters of Evil and Stern didn’t shy away from presenting some realistic problems in terms of keeping the group together as a team. The more physical members of his team itched for some action, while others were completely unpredictable including some who refused to acknowledge his leadership and became defiant rivals for leadership. Stern kept the story’s main villain busy juggling the logistic of keeping everyone busy, and also ensuring the team’s loyalty through respect or fear.

The veteran art team of John Buscema and Tom Palmer was a familiar one for long-time Avengers fans. Buscema enjoyed an earlier stint on the Avengers and was joined at the end of it by inker Tom Palmer. Buscema had since worked on other Marvel titles such as Conan the Barbarian and The Silver Surfer, while Palmer’s work graced the panels of Dr. Strange and The Tomb of Dracula.

Buscema’s dynamic layouts are seasoned with a wonderful sense of perspective. He employed a variety of “camera angles” that heightened the intensity of an action scene. His elaborately rendered figures and his mastery at drawing faces and expressions stood out in this run.

Tom Palmer’s inking style truly deserved to be described as embellishment. His finished art and lavish inks completed the overall artistic effort. His inks created the mood and added to the overall panel flow.

Unfortunately, the Olympian story line that ran through Avengers #282-285 was Stern’s last. He was fired by Avengers’ editor Mark Gruenwald after a disagreement over the upcoming story line. Here’s what Gruenwald had to say about the situation:

“I was not interested in doing any injustices to the characters either, but I also believed that the story line could be done without hurting any characters. I was also not interested in forcing a writer [Roger Stern] to write something he didn't want to. So, despite our five years' plus of amicable working relations, we had developed what seemed to be irreconcilable differences. Something had to give. I informed Roger that I wanted to proceed with the agreed-upon story line and thus, I would hire another writer who could get behind the scenario enough to do it justice.” (Taken from the letter column in Avengers #288.)

John Buscema and Tom Palmer chose to remain as the title’s art team, but despite the best efforts of Ralph Macchio and Walter Simonson, it never returned to same level it had enjoyed under Stern. The Buscema/Palmer art neatly complemented Stern's writing and allowed the title to reach one of its high points.


  1. Personally I can't think of a better Story line from the 80's than "under Siege". Never before I had seen a villain team up as calculating and Brutal as this. From the Savage beating of Hercules to the torture of Jarvis in front of Captain America. Thankfully in the end our heroes come out on top but are changed forever. For me no Avengers story since has been better.

  2. "Under Siege" was one of the best Avengers stories of all time. Maybe it is just nostalgia talking, but I've never understood why Stern doesn't get more recognition for his work from the 80s. Stern, Ann Nocenti, and a few others seem to be among a group of 80s writers that don't get the credit they deserve. Actually, Jason, you should do an entry on the unsung writers and artists of the 80s and where they are now.

  3. Thanks for the comments guys.

    Stern was wonderful, especially his run on Amazing Spider-Man. I'll have a post on that soon.

    Yeah, I'd have to chase down a few things, but would like to know what happened to Ann Nocenti or Mike Zeck etc ...

  4. Ann Nocenti recently wrote a small story in Daredevil #500. As for Mike Zeck, I haven't a clue. You're right on the money about Stern writing the best Avengers storylines in decades. I liked Roy Thomas's work from the Sixties, but sometimes tired of his cornball, overblown narrative. The thing I liked about Roger Stern's run is the way he revisited common themes which have plagued the Avengers since the Seventies like issues with the government, and Henry Gyrich's replacement, Sikorsky. He was also responsible for the ISAAC storyline. Although, Al Milgrom's pencils, while competent, are not a patch on Buscema and Palmer. The couple of issues Stern did on Fantastic Four were great also, before Steve Englehart took over and became so ashamed of the dross he was churning out he worked under the pseudonym 'John Harkness';-)

  5. Stern was so muCh better than Claremont, Miller, or Byrne, but gets overlooked because of his subtlety. His writing doesn't hit you over the head like those others. His Avengers are my Avengers, my favorite series of stories in that title including Thomas and the others who preceded him. I stopped reading shortly after he was fired as everything felt off and Gruenwald's wonderful (and borderline racist/sexist) idea to undermine Captain Marvel as leader of the team destroyed a great character forever. Anyone hear from Monica Rambeau since then?



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