Monday, 2 May 2011

Avengers: The Serpent Crown

Back when I was collecting back issues (as opposed to collections, which 95% of my comic budget goes on these day), I had a pretty sizable run of Avengers, stretching back to the late 60s. There were plenty of gaps in that collection though, most notably the early George Perez issues which had never been distributed in the UK so were much harder to come by. Consequently, though I had read the second half of the story collected in this book, when I was much younger, I'd never read the first few issues and Perez's artistic debut.

For those who believe the multi-threat superteam adventure was a creation of Grant Morrison in JLA, it's fun to see writer Steve Englehart doing exactly the same a quarter of a century earlier. Here the Avengers are divided into two teams for two separate yet concurrent storylines. Firstly, Thor and Moondragon travel back to the 19th Century Wild West to rescue a time-lost Hawkeye and team up with various old Marvel Western heroes like Rawhide Kid, Two Gun Kid and Kid Colt (everyone was a kid in them days) to defeat Kang The Conqueror. You have to wonder whether a young Grant Morrison might have read this book, not only for the split-team dangers, but also a mind-melting explanation of the link between Kang, Immortus and the pharaoh Rama Tut that shows Englehart at his big idea-ed best.

While all this is going on, a second team of Avengers is taking on the evil corporation Roxxon Oil who are using the other-dimensional Squadron Supreme and a pan-dimensional Serpent Crown to wreak all kinds of havoc. Included on this team are Iron Man, Cap, the Vision and Scarlet Witch, a newly recruited Beast and Patsy Walker, who adopts her Hellcat identity for the first time here - though exactly how she does so (pretty much tripping over the Cat's pre-Tigra costume in a warehouse and saying "I know, I'll become Hellcat") is probably the weakest bit of plotting here. The best thing here is the Avengers versus an expanded Squadron Supreme - originally devised as Marvel's alterniverse versions of Superman, Batman, the Flash and Green Lantern, Englehart now introduces spoofs of Hawkman, Aquaman, the Atom, Black Canary and Green Arrow (who for some reason has the worst Dick Van Dyke cod-British accent you'll ever read). They even have their own equivalent of the JLA satellite - Rocket Central. The story climaxes with a giant battle against Orka the human killer whale which also features one of those classic Perez shots of the whole team strapped into some funky machine designed to drain their powers before that hoary "we need to have a big line-up change" cliffhanger leads us into the following month's 150th anniversary issue... sadly not collected here.

Englehart's writing is stronger than I remembered. There's an interesting theme about the evils of big business / corporate sleaze that shows people were worried about globalisation even back in the 70s, but the writer also takes time for plenty of the bickering, resentment, romance and camaraderie that made the Avengers what it was. Perez, at the dawn of his career, takes a while to warm up - though this is largely due to the fact that he's teamed with Vince Colletta early on, possibly my least favourite inker in the entire history of comics. It's a welcome relief when Sam Grainger takes over. Even in his first Avengers work though, Perez shows how to handle large casts and large panel counts (up to 12 on a page) with ease - no wonder he's rightly hailed as the definitive team-book artist.

I bought Avengers: The Serpent Crown on eBay some time ago for about £7.50. It's currently available at The Book Depository for £9.26, which is about £1.50 cheaper than Amazon. It collects 7 issues in total - but 7 issues of George Perez storytelling is the equivalent of about 10 for most modern artists (or about 14 for someone like Ed McGuinness, who struggles to draw more than 3 panels per page most days).

Good, solid, Avengering action. Glad I finally got to read it.


  1. I don't think I've ever read most of these issues, either, but I really want to and will definitely pick up a copy of this book at some point.

  2. I half remember some of this from Marvel UK reprints. I'm pining to see the comics collected here already.

  3. I've been catching up on these in the Essential collections -- the Serpent Crown stuff was in the most recent book, volume seven -- and I've been struck by how influential Englehart was on Kurt Busiek's later run.