Wednesday, January 13, 2016

I Saw That Coming!

Cover art by John Buscema

If you're a superhero, you can pretty much expect to encounter death traps and vengeful enemies on a regular basis.

But in Avengers #78 (July 1970--interior art by Sal Buscema), Captain America is a tad confused when he's jumped by Man-Ape. This is a villain Cap has never encountered before--he's a Black Panther arch-enemy.

Some other Avengers show up, forcing Man-Ape to retreat. But he soon reappears again, kidnapping Panther's current lady-friend and daring T'Challa to meet him in one-on-one combat.

Panther rather unwisely agrees to this. And I mean unwisely. Gee whiz, if you have a half-dozen of the most powerful beings in the world right there in the same room with you, you don't say "No, my friends" and take off on your own. That's just dumb.

I suppose that criticism is a bit unfair. Panther promised to go alone and "The vow of a Wakanda chieftan is a sacred bond." One of the reasons I like heroes like T'Challa so much is that they have unbreakable codes of honor and are unfailingly honest. It's a point that can make for an interesting debate: is a promise made under duress (in this case, because a hostage is threatened) something an honest person is obligated to honor? One can admire Panther for keeping his word under any circumstances, but what if the best way to ensure the safety of an innocent is to break a promise the bad guy has essentially forced you to make?

And, to the surprise of absolutely no one, it is indeed a trap. After a brief fight, Panther is captured. He then finds out that Man-Ape isn't alone in this--a whole bunch of foes of the Avengers have banded together to form the Lethal Legion.

from left to right: Living Laser, Power Man,
Swordsman and Grim Reaper

That brings us to Avengers #79, with John Buscema now doing the interior art as well as the cover.

Here we have the Avengers and the Lethal Legion essentially trying to out-con each other. Grim Reaper assigns locations to the other Legion members while a confined Panther is right there listening, then a convenient power failure allows Panther to escape long enough to radio this information to the Avengers.

Gee whiz, Grim Reaper is an idiot! Or--is he? It is, in fact, a trap. The villains are waiting to ambush the Avengers and manage to capture them.

Gee whiz, Panther is an idiot for falling into such an obvious trap! Or--is he? Actually, Panther knows a mind-numblingly obvious trap and warned the Avengers by using a pre-established code phrase.

I actually like that part. It only makes sense for a team like the Avengers to have code phrases they can drop into a conversation to indicate traps or duress.

So the Avengers have just allowed themselves to be captured, giving them the opportunity to jump the villains and capture them all.

I missed this one when I was a kid and didn't read it until it was reprinted in an Essentials volume a decade or so ago. So I first read it as an adult. I enjoyed the story--Roy Thomas at that time was still overly-fond of melodramatic dialogue, but the plot is economically constructed and fun. The Buscema brothers (as always) provide great art and well-choreographed fight scenes.

But as a grown-up, I could see the plot twist at the end (they knew it was a trap all along!) coming from several miles away. It's just too obvious to fool an experienced comic book reader.

But what if I had read it as a nine-year-old when it was first published? Would I have seen it coming then? As a less sophisticated reader (not that I wasn't brilliant for my age, mind you), would I have had a "Wow, that is SO cool!" reaction to the plot twist? I suspect I would have.

I'm afraid I don't know the demographics for the average Avengers reader in 1970. By then, the Marvel Revolution of the 1960s had brought in a lot of older readers (or kept kids reading comics as they grew older), but I think the bulk of comic readers were still kids dropping their dimes for books pulled from the spinner racks at the local 7-11 and that the Marvel bullpen still wrote their stories with younger readers in mind. But I haven't seen any statistics (if such stats even exist) to back this up.

I brought this point up on a comic book historians group on Facebook and someone made the following sharp comment: Seriously, 1970 was at the height of the "comics on campus" fad, and Stan Lee was about to embark on his college lecture tours to spread the faith. I think the Marvel writers liked to believe they were resonating deeply with the college crowd, but I suspect their sweet spot truly was the average 12-year-old boy.

So most of the original readers of this story probably did indeed shout "Wow, this is SO cool!" at the end. How I envy them!

Next week, we'll take a look at how to make golf an actual interesting game.

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