Aug 26, 2013

Back Issue Ben: The Avengers vs. Superman!

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here

The Avengers vs Superman
Back Issue Ben

Longtime Back Issue Ben readers (who am I kidding, nobody is reading this) know that my love of the ‘80s art of John Byrne, is almost as strong as my hatred of Superman. This week, we’re going to look at the time Byrne stepped in for George Perez on the Avengers series, and pit Superman against the Avengers in a battle royale for the ages.

In these pages contains the titanic tussle between Superman and Thor that you wished JLA/Avengers had given you (Thor would totally win, I don’t care what Busiek says).

How could Superman appear in an Avengers comics, you ask? Well, technically, it’s not Superman, but they find a suitable stand-in by using…well, you’ll just have to keep reading won’t you.

Let’s ball this melon!

Avengers #164. Resident Writer: Jim Shooter; Guest Penciler: John Byrne; Itinerant Inker: Pablo Marcos; Inevitable Editor: Archie Goodwin

Tony Stark, Hank Pym, and Black Panther finish up a battery of tests on Wonder Man. They conclude that he is now a being of living energy, practically a new form of life. (In my head they also conclude that he’s absolutely worthless.) The Beast, frustrated about his lack of inclusion with the big brains, goes for a walk, where his frustrations are quickly eased by a group of female admirers.


An ominous figure drives by the scene in a Rolls Royce, arriving at a factory where the former villain formerly known as Power Man is working (that’s right, two “formers” in one sentence, I don’t care).


The figure is revealed to be Count Nefaria, and he promises to increase the former Power Man’s power levels, if he will agree to work for him (that’s right, two “powers” in one sentence. I never claimed to be a writer).

In an East Side apartment, the elderly Whizzer sees a news report of a super-powered bank robbery, and suits up for action. He’s stopped by his “daughter” Wanda, better known as The Scarlet Witch (when did this assumed parentage happen?), and scolded for not allowing himself to recover from his recent heart attack. He agrees not to go, and she springs into action in his place.

The bank robbery is being carried out by a reformed Lethal Legion, consisting of Power Man, Living Laser, and Whirlwind (the least exciting collection of supervillains ever). Captain America, Yellowjacket, Black Panther, and the Wasp arrive on the scene, and the battle begins.


The Avengers appear to be losing, until the Scarlet Witch arrives to save the day.

The Lethal Legion decide to flee, with the Laser igniting the road behind them into a “river of molten, flaming tar.” Apparently, the Avengers aren’t in the mood to chase them.

Meanwhile, Count Nefaria arrives at his secret, sub-basement laboratory, where a team of scientists prepare ‘Project N’ for him. One of the scientists happens to be a former assistant to Baron Zemo, named Professor Sturdy (ah, Nazis, is there anything they won’t do?). Sturdy has agreed to complete Project N for Nefaria, for the large sum of money that the Lethal Legion was in the process of acquiring from the nearby bank, in exchange for an upgrade in their powers.

Cap and the present Avengers await the arrival of their other teammates, to discuss how much they’ve been sucking lately. (Reminds me of a military meeting.)

Beast arrives, having just finished what is suggested to be (and I’m going to assume was) a five-some with the adoring ladies from before. Before they can get to any business, a car crashing through the wall interrupts the proceedings, courtesy of the Lethal Legion (and knocking out the Wasp in the process).

This made me laugh. “But—no, they’d cheat!”
I don’t know why, easily amused I guess.


Wonder Man goes flying into battle, only to get clobbered by Power Man (which is his role in the universe). Beast tries to corral Whirlwind, but the Lethal Legion’s powers have been noticeably augmented. Power Man sends Beast soaring across the city (seems like he shouldn’t survive that).

Yellowjacket, enraged by Jan getting hurt, calls dibs on Power Man, and attacks him with his new sonic disruptor. It has little effect, but before Power Man can finish throwing the chunk of rubble he grabs off the ground, his power fades completely, flattening him under the rock. Whirlwind and Laser’s powers drop as well, leaving them wide open for defeat.



While the Avengers try to puzzle out what just happened, the ground beneath them rumbles and explodes upward. Before them stands the super-powered might of Count Nefaria.



My brain thoughts: I really can’t take a character wearing a monocle all that seriously; it just makes me think of Mr. Peanut. Which, now makes me want a battle between Mr. Peanut and the Avengers. If Mr. Peanut battled Wonder Man, how badly would he hurt him? I’d hesitate to say that he’d punch him right out of the comic book into the real world, where Wonder Man could use his powers to…fail us miserably probably, like Superman saving Metropolis from Zod. Or, more accurately, not saving Metropolis from Zod. Between Batman letting Bane completely devastate Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises, to Metropolis in Man of Steel, things are not looking good for real estate in the DC movie universe. That’s almost Wonder Man levels of failure. Maybe Wonder Man, now that he’s in the real world, could have his own version of the “Superboy Prime punch” and he could make DC not suck again.

Avengers #165. Writer: James Shooter; Penciler: George Perez; Inker: Pablo Marcos; Editor: Archie Goodwin

An extremely powerful Count Nefaria is slapping around the Avengers with ease (courtesy of his new powers, including super strength, super speed, and invulnerability). Beast leaps into battle, in a rage since the last time he had seen Nefaria, he was supposedly killed in the same explosion that killed fellow X-Man Thunderbird. This prompted the standard expository explanation about the circumstances of his survival.


This all reads very Byrne-like to me. For those of you that don’t know, Byrne would become well-known throughout his career for providing explanations for the “why’s” and “how’s” of comic book minutiae, to diminishing returns as he went on. My Byrne-sense is tingling here.

Nefaria’s “mutant scum” comment sparks Scarlet Witch’s entry into the proceedings, but Nefaria easily deflects her attack with his laser vision. (I guess because I grew up a Marvel kid, it doesn’t automatically occur to me that a character with Nefaria’s new powers is probably a Superman analog, but as Duy told me once, in a drunken stupor no doubt, heat vision is what really makes that connection for him. Plus, I guess he is wearing a red cape.)


Wonder Man takes his turn, actually knocking Nefaria around a little bit (while also whining once again about how he gets scared and doesn’t want to die, and he left his purse at home, I don’t know, I stop paying attention after a while). But Nefaria collects himself, and gets a moment to plant his feed and stand his ground, causing Wonder Man’s next blows to have no effect whatsoever (driving home the “immovable object” homage to Superman).



That kind of scene always reminds me of the Hulk wailing away on an unmoving Superman in the classic treasury-sized Superman and Spider-Man, which was written by…Jim Shooter. See how the world connects, my friends. Also, that was bull, the Hulk could totally at least move Superman.

Wonder Man is sent crashing into the mansion. Jarvis gets him back on his feet, and Wonder Man advises Jarvis to check on the house’s systems, in case he damaged them by being thrown through the wall. (It’s sound advice, because Wonder Man can find a way to make anything worse off. He spends more time flopping around than Lebron James.)

This prompts Jarvis to check on the Vision, who is apparently still recovering from the fight with Ultron and his robot bride from previous issues. Cap and the Beast combine their strength into one coordinated shield throw, but Nefaria snatches it right out of the air.

Nefaria briefly tries to crush the shield, but finds that he cannot, giving him his first momentary thought of doubt about the limits of his new strength. He casually tosses it away, which happens to be with enough force to take out the Black Panther.

Nefaria then picks up a nearby building and drops it on the helpless Avengers.



Convinced that his enemies are dead, Nefaria walks to a nearby bank, thinking to himself the whole time about how his new costume was developed to conduct the super energy from Sturdy’s machine into his body, providing an unnecessary explanation for something that nobody was probably questioning at that point (Byrne-senses…tingling!). Nefaria rips off the door to the vault, and makes it rain (where’s Janet?) with the money inside, just to show how trivial he thinks it all is now.



After letting loose with the statement “Nothing can stop me! I can indulge any whim I’ve ever had!” he spots an attractive young woman nearby, and leaps away with her. (As he explains to his new captive, he can only leap miles, not fly. Byrne-senses!) Up on the roof, the young woman struggles against him, until the Whizzer arrives to interrupt the moment. (He was totally going to…..assault that girl, right? Man, ’80s comics were overflowing with innocent females getting mind-controlled, and adolescent power fantasies.)
 

The Whizzer’s punches are having zero impact on Nefaria (probably because he’s elderly, and the elderly are useless) but it does distract him enough for the young woman to escape (I guess not totally useless). As Nefaria prepares to drop the Whizzer over the side of the building, the Whizzer is able to get into his head a little bit, playing on his apparent fears of getting older and being past his prime. This panics Nefaria enough for him to leave the Whizzer and go leaping off, with a new purpose only he knows.

Meanwhile, in the wreckage of Nefaria’s secret laboratory, Professor Sturdy slowly crawls his way out of the debris.

Elsewhere, Iron Man arrives to try and dig out the bodies of his teammates from under the wreckage of the building that was dropped on them. He’s delighted to find them alive and well, inside a foxhole carved out for them by the Scarlet Witch. The team regroups back at the mansion, but spend all their time arguing about their next step, instead of accomplishing anything (I blame Wonder Man).

Nefaria comes crashing through the wall (the Avengers must spend a lot of money on patching up walls) looking for Thor. Iron Man takes his turn against Nefaria, managing to get him on his heels a little bit, and the rest of the team joins in. Nefaria recovers, and uses his strength and speed to take out the Witch, Yellowjacket, and Cap fairly simply.



Iron Man regroups for another attack, and holds his own for a moment. Nefaria lets slip that he’s looking for Thor so that he can learn the secret of his immortality.

Wonder Man watches on, shaking in his boots at how easily Iron Man was defeated. He finally grows a pair and makes a last ditch effort anyway, but is soundly beaten once again (I don’t really need to point it out anymore at this point, do I?).

Nefaria, triumphant over the Avengers, is suddenly surrounded by lightning.


Thor has arrived, and he is not happy.

My brain thoughts: I vehemently disagree with the ease in which Nefaria is dealing with the Avengers. Primarily because I will never admit the Avengers could lose to Superman. Never, I say! It is interesting that they went with a non-flying, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, version of Superman to use. (Byrne-senses tingling!) I wonder if that was for story reasons, or if they were afraid DC would get mad. Or maybe they just didn’t want to be too obvious about it.

Avengers #166. Story: Shooter; Art: Byrne and Marcos; Editing: Goodwin









Thor and Nefaria square off for a titanic bout of legendary proportions. Nefaria takes Mjolnir right in the belly, and Thor comes swooping in for a massive blow that sends Nefaria flying.


After a moment of doubt, Nefaria regains his confidence, feeling he’s already taken two of Thor’s mightiest blows and survived unharmed.

“Neither your stupid boasts nor your overrated powers can stop me, Thor!”

Nefaria unleashes his laser vision, which Thor blocks with his spinning hammer.

“Bah! I will show thee power, Nefaria! Behold!”

Thor’s hammer, continuing to spin, is opening a portal to another plane of existence. To avoid being sucked into it, Nefaria picks up another building and throws it at the portal, covering both it and Thor.



Thinking that is the end of it, Nefaria turns his attention back to killing the Avengers, but Thor breaks free from the rubble, more than a little ticked off. He lets loose the heavens, sending down rain and lightning, and swinging mighty Mjolnir at Nefaria. Nefaria stops the hammer mid-swing with his hand, shocking Thor with his strength.

Inside the mansion, Beast finds Yellowjacket working in the lab, momentarily accusing him of cowardice. Pym is not hiding, but instead working to up the team’s power levels by reviving the Vision. He is successful, and with a quick update on current events, the Vision is off to join the fight. (The Beast makes note of how much more robotic the Vision sounds and seems.)



Outside, while Thor is off-balance, Nefaria hits him with a super-powered punch, and then moves in to claim his hammer. The Vision rises out of the ground in front of him, cutting him off from Thor. Vision goes to his standard move, by trying to put his transparent hand into the chest of Nefaria, but is shocked when it will not penetrate his body.


Apparently, Nefaria’s body is too charged with super-energy for Vision to be able to pass through it (Byrne-senses!). Nefaria uses this momentary advantage to hit Vision, the first time anyone has ever stuck him in his ethereal form.

Upstairs, the Wasp finally recovers (she should be used to taking blows to the head), and looks outside to see Nefaria about to smash a bus over the head of Thor.

Professor Sturdy (remember him?) barrels through the police blockage surrounding the area in Nefaria’s own Rolls Royce, crashing it, crawling his battered body out of the wreckage, and approaches the scene of the battle. Nefaria is shocked to see Sturdy survived. Sturdy explains to Nefaria, that before he tried to kill him and his crew, they were not able to complete the process of giving him his powers, and that he is in fact, aging at a rapid rate, and will be dead in the span of a few days.



Only Sturdy could have controlled the process, he explains, before collapsing in pain, apparently dying. Nefaria confirms this by checking his reflection in a nearby window, seeing his noticeably aged face.


Thor offers Nefaria the help of the Avengers in saving his life. But with Nefaria’s worst fears realized, he lashes out in a rage, and prepares to take the whole city with him into death.

Wasp revives the rest of the Avengers, and they prepare to rejoin the titanic clash outside. Cap is still too weak to join them, and passes off his shield to an honored Wonder Man (of all the choices?).

Nefaria is destroying a part of the city with his laser vision, before Vision comes swooping in with a massive mid-air blow, taking advantage of Nefaria’s inability to fly and knocking him to the ground. Wasp, Wonder Man, Iron Man, and Thor press their advantage, raining mighty blow after blow upon Nefaria. Scarlet Witch uses her hex powers, flooding Nefaria’s body with a mind-numbing burst of pain.



Thor unleashes another mighty punch, knocking Nefaria into a nearby building. With Nefaria staggered, the Vision, high above the action, increases his mass and comes dropping down right on top of him, like a meteor out of the sky.



When the smoke clears, the Vision stumbles to his feet over an unconscious and defeated Nefaria.


The team celebrates their victory by immediately resuming their argument about Iron Man and Thor’s current lack of availability and seeming commitment, and the overall suckitude of the team lately.

Yellowjacket stops them, reminding them they have bigger concerns at the moment. Apparently Yellowjacket was able to talk to Sturdy before he made it to the scene of the battle and promptly died. He revealed to Pym how to return Nefaria to normal. Sturdy was also lying about the advanced aging process, with it only being a temporary side effect, hoping to con him into volunteering to be reverted back to normal. In fact, the super-energy in his cells would have extended his life indefinitely, essentially rendering him immortal.


With that ironic revelation, the issue comes to a close with a mysterious bearded stranger boarding a boat to America, for a long-delayed reunion with his children…Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch?!?

But that is a story for another time.

My brain thoughts: It seemed like they ran out of room a little bit at the end there, having to wrap up the story in a neat little bow over the span of a few expository panels. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for Sturdy to stop for a little chat with Yellowjacket on his way to confront Nefaria, but whatever, I’ll take it. Thor versus Superman/Nefaria was a good one, having Thor doing well enough to not get embarrassed, but still probably overmatched by Superman (I’m looking at you, Busiek). It’s interesting that they are essentially saying that the Vision would basically be the difference-maker in this matchup.

My final brain thoughts: Wonder Man is useless, Beastly five-somes, Byrne-senses tingling, Mr. Peanut, useless elderly, and Thor versus Superman (the good version).

The first time I read this, it didn’t even dawn on me that Count Nefaria was being used as a Superman analog. Reading it again this time, with that knowledge in hand, made it just that much more enjoyable. As hard a time as I give DC and Superman, I have no problem admitting that their characters largely outclass Marvel’s in terms of power levels. All I ever want to see in any Marvel versus DC matchup, is neither side getting embarrassed (unless it’s Wonder Man or Green Arrow, embarrass them all you want). Marvel should at least be competitive. (Unless it’s Superman, beat him, finish him!)

Byrne’s art, once again, is better than just about anyone else from that time, but still not quite in the prime of his career yet. It’s a shame his time on Avengers would wind up being so short. Jim Shooter, once the wonder kid of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes (and teased for having a Marvel-like writing style), had a pretty remarkable run here on Avengers before taking over as Editor-in-Chief. I will never change my stance on being a full-fledged Shooter apologist. I will concede that he probably was out of control towards the end of his reign, but I refuse to believe he was the big bad wolf that some former freelancers make him out to be. If he wouldn’t let you do your story, that’s probably because it was a bad story, not because he wanted to eat your face. He took a company that was losing money, on the verge of collapse, and righted the ship, turning it into the powerhouse of the industry, dominating DC for most of the decade. (There are stories of freelancers getting high in the hallways of the office, that place needed a kick in the ass.)

There you have it, another round of unapologetic John Byrne praise, with a healthy dose of Jim Shooter love this time out for good measure.

Next time out, um…..I haven’t decided yet!


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