Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #14: May 1992

Shock and Awe








 












Avengers # 347 
writer: Bob Harras     
penciller: Steve Epting
inker: Tom Palmer
colorist: Gina Going-Raney

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I’ve read tens of thousands of comic books in my lifetime, but there are only a select few for which I can remember the exact time and place I read them. One of those is Avengers #347.

I was sleeping over at my friend Stan’s house. I’d brought some comics over to show him (he was a dabbler) and to read before falling asleep. As I lay there on the floor in my sleeping bag, a single halogen lamp for light, my mind was blown by what I read in Avengers #347, which was the conclusion of a nineteen(!) part storyline called “Operation Galactic Storm.” The previous 18 parts had been underwhelming, with the story sinking under its own weight and having no real coherence. So for the story to end in such an unexpected and thought-provoking way was a real shock.

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There are two kids of major events in comics. One is the Infinity Gauntlet type of event, where a mini-series tells the main story while the monthly books have tie-in storylines that typically aren’t all that essential. The other is where a story runs across multiple monthly titles with no anchor book. “Operation Galactic Storm” was one of the more expansive and ambitious examples of the latter, taking up three months’ worth of seven different Avengers-related titles (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Quasar, Wonder Man, Avengers, and Avengers West Coast).

In short, the story concerns rapidly escalating tensions between two alien empires, the Kree and the Shi’ar. The Avengers get involved when Shi’ar agents kidnap Captain America’s (and Captain Marvel’s and the Hulk’s) former sidekick Rick Jones in order to steal his nega bands. This is in addition to the fact that both sides of the conflict are using stargates that threaten to destabilize Earth’s sun. So the Avengers split into three groups, all with the mission of trying to prevent a war.

As I said, the story has an intriguing premise, but ends up feeling padded and meandering. This is largely due to the involvement of six different writers trading off roughly linear chapters between seven different books. But even within that, the story is not particularly well built. It’s not initially clear why these two empires want to fight. There are too many new Kree and Shi’ar characters who don’t get a proper introduction. And the Rick Jones part of the story is completely abandoned halfway through, robbing the narrative of what could have been a strong emotional center.

A reason for the reader to actually care about all of these grand events does come along, but it’s not until the last two issues of the event. 

The penultimate chapter is presented in Wonder Man #9, written by Gerard Jones and drawn by Jeff Johnson. The issue finds Vision and Wonder Man trapped in Kree space with the Shi’ar Negabomb (built using Rick's nega bands). They verbally and physically spar over whether or not to allow the bomb to detonate. Vision argues that – though it will result in many deaths - it will end the conflict, bring peace, and prevent further deaths. Wonder Man argues that it would be genocide, and that Vision doesn’t understand the true value of life because he can’t die. Underlying this all and giving it heft is the fact Wonder Man died once, overcome a crippling fear of death, and that Vision was patterned on Wonder Man’s own brainwaves. In the end, Wonder Man wins the argument, but the bomb becomes unstable and goes off on its own, killing billions of Kree.

Avengers #347 explores the aftermath of that horrific event. As the Avengers come together once again, having all miraculously survived, they discover that a supercomputer called the Kree Supreme Intelligence had masterminded everything. It had sacrificed the majority of its people in the hope that the few survivors would rise up stronger than ever before. This sets off a debate between the Avengers: Do they take the Supreme Intelligence into custody, or do they kill it and prevent further heinous acts?

After a heated discussion, which includes an exploration of whether or not killing an artificial intelligence is morally wrong. Captain America argues vigorously against killing the Intelligence. 

But Iron Man is unmoved.


He then leads those who agree with him on an assassination mission (ironically, this time Wonder Man is in favor of murder). They carry it out, with the Black Knight delivering the killing blow to the brain-like mainframe. When they return to the others, Cap is bitterly disappointed and gives a speech shaming those who chose to participate in the
assassination. And as anyone knows, Cap being disappointed in you is the lowest feeling there is.

On top of that, a brief epilogue shows us it was all in vain, as the Supreme Intelligence was able to upload his consciousness elsewhere before his physical mainframe was destroyed. It turns out that fracturing the Avengers was just another layer of his plan.

The issue was done by writer Bob Harras and penciller Steve Epting. As a teen I was no big fan of Steve Epting, nor Tom Palmer’s overwhelming inking style, but looking at their work now I have a great appreciation for its clarity and solidity. And Harras has committed many sins during his time in comics (his overbearing approach as editor of the X-Men titles driving long-term writers away, his role in DCs New 52), but he (along with his co-plotters Mark Gruenwald and Fabian Nicieza) deserves great credit here for delivering an ending to a story that is way better than it deserves to be.

All of it - the debate, decision, the gut-punch ending - was genuinely shocking to me at the time. There was the fact that I was very used to comics where the hero or heroes pull out a last minute triumphant save, and there was the fact that this was a time in superhero comics when gleeful killing of “bad guys” was portrayed without any sense of restraint. The story in Avengers #347 seems almost to be a direct commentary on that (which is rich considering Bob Harras edited some of the very books he seemed to be criticizing). To read something with genuine nuance and a moral dilemma, especially at that particular moment in comics history, was thrilling. It felt real.

Even as a sophomore in high school I recognized there was true life allegory involved in this story. I had by that time studied World War II, and knew about the debate over the use of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which is echoed in the Wonder Man issue. The conflict in Avengers #347 also had World War II themes (namely the punishment of Nazi war criminals after the war had ended), but was also pertinent to the Gulf War and the “Operation Desert Storm” that the event's title plays on. At that time, President George H.W. Bush did not go so far as to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and some might argue that decision came back to haunt us, while others might call it prudent (to use one of Bush's favorite words).

Just as that decision had long-term real-world consequences, in comics, this fundamental disagreement between Captain America and Iron Man would become a recurring theme. It led to the 2006 Civil War miniseries, which of course then became the basis for one of the best MCU movies, 2016's Captain America: Civil War.

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