From the Mighty Marvel Archives: The West Coast Avengers!
Surprising myself most of all, I’ve been really enjoying Marvel’s recently-published hardcovers collecting the early issues of their Avengers spin-off, The West Cost Avengers. (I wrote about my thoughts on the collection of the original West Coast Avengers mini-series here, and about the first collection of the West Coast Avengers ongoing series here and the second collection here.)
So, when a third collection was released, I eagerly snapped it up. Lost in Space-Time collects West Coast Avengers # 17-24, written by Steve Englehart and illustrated by Al Milgrom and several different inkers. This collection draws its title from the multi-part “Lost in Space-Time” story that ran through those issues. It is, for the most part, a fun romp through Marvel history as the West Coast Avengers find themselves zapped into the past by a super-villain, using Dr. Doom’s old time-machine (first encountered way back in Fantastic Four #5). The time-machone is damaged, so that it can only travel backwards in time, not forwards. Wonder Man hatches a scheme to use the time machine to keep jumping further back in time, all the way back to ancient Egypt, where they know dwells the Pharaoh Rama-Tut, really the time-traveller Kang in disguise (as seen in Fantastic Four #20). Of course, the team encounters one snag after another, and as the story continues the team becomes split amongst several different time-periods. Although the story is quite dated by today’s standards , I thought it was a fun adventure, and I enjoyed the connections with many famous aspects of Marvel universe history. (I also appreciated the collection’s containing the full story of Rama-Tut from Fantastic Four #20, as well as Dr. Strange’s time-travel-trip back to that same period — an adventure also referenced by Mr. Englehart’s story — in Dr. Strange # 53.)
But the most intriguing aspect of the stories in this collection were the two more serious story-lines. Picking up on the last issue in the previous collection, this story begins with Hank Pym contemplating suicide. It’s heavy stuff, though I was impressed at how that development seemed perfectly in keeping with Pym’s character, especially as Mr. Englehart had been writing him. I was quite engaged by the issue (West Coast Avengers #17) that dealt with Mr. Pym’s readying himself for suicide, though I was a bit disappointed that Mr. Englehart seemed to walk Pym back to heroic normalcy pretty quickly. The second serious story-line in this collection concerned Mockingbird. I was particularly interested in this aspect of the story, because it sets the seeds for her divorce from Hawkeye, which occurred in the very first issue of West Coast Avengers that I picked up as a kid. While trapped in the Old West, Mockingbird gets separated from the team when she is kidnapped by a besotten super-hero, the Phantom Rider. Desperate for love, the unhinged Phantom Rider feeds her some sort of potion that makes Mockingbird love him. The two proceed to live together and fight crime together, before Mockingbird awakens from her stupor and realizes what has happened. Though we don’t see anything on-panel other than one kiss between the two when she was under the spell of the potion, it’s pretty clear that that’s not all that went on between the two of them when she was under his control. In the climax of the story, a furious Mockingbird lets the Phantom Rider die by falling to his death. It’s some pretty messed-up stuff. The edge of the story is blunted somewhat by the storytelling techniques of the time, which are fairly simplistic by today’s standards. But it’s still a surprising turn for a mainstream super-hero comic from the ’80s to have taken, and knowing where the story winds up made it even more intriguing to read.
Since I had started reading West Coast Avengers, back in the day, with issue #37, I had a small gap between the end of this collection and the issues I had from when I was a kid, so I decided to pick up the missing issues on-line. West Coast Avengers #25-36 aren’t that exciting. There’s a multi-issue story-line featuring the villainous cabal the Zodiac. It was fun to read, particularly because Brian Michael Bendis has just recently resurrected the Zodiac as villains for his Mighty Avengers series, but I didn’t find them all that compelling as villains back in these WCA issues. Mockingbird’s turmoil at keeping everything that happened between her and the Phantom Rider a secret from her husband Hawkeye was the most interesting sub-plot, but that didn’t come to a head until issue #35. It was, frankly, a disappointment. That first issue I read as a kid, #37, was all about the fall-out of Hawkeye and Mockingbird’s split, so I was very excited reading these issues to see the event actually unfold. But unfortunately when the issue comes to a head it’s played out almost as a comedic moment, with Hawkeye saying “I’l divorce you!” and Mockingbird replying “Oh no you don’t! I’m divorcing YOU!” Sort of silly. It was also annoying that their break-up wasn’t really prompted by a legitimate disagreement over whether Mockingbird’s actions (letting the Phantom Ranger, who’d abused her, die), but over misdirection because Hawkeye is told a different version of the story by the 20th century version of the Phantom Ranger. That seemed like a hokey plot device, and one that was totally unnecessary because writer Steve Englehart had created such an intriguing set-up for a split between the two characters, with Mockingbird breaking the one rule Hawkeye holds most sacred as an Avenger. Over-all, this run of issues (#25-36) was my least favorite run of the series so far.
As I got closer and closer to issue #37, the first issue I’d picked up as a kid, back in 1988, I got more and more curious and excited to see how that issue would hold up for me now, reading it almost twenty-five years later. It held up pretty well! Although I was disappointed by the handling of Hawkeye and Mockingbird’s split in issue #35, this issue, that explores the repercussions of their break-up, was great. The team is torn in two with some characters quitting along with Mockingbird, while a handful of others stay to try to keep the West Coast Avengers going under Hawkeye’s leadership. It’s a good story, and it sets up a great dynamic that plays out over the next few issues, with the two groups of characters operating separately.
Unfortunately, issue #37, which seems to have been intended as the launching point for a whole new series of stories, heralds the end of Steve Englehart’s run as writer of the West Coast Avengers. (He’d been the writer since the first issue.) It’s weird — after the dramatic events of issue #37, issue #38 is a fill-in issue. Mr. Englehart wrote one more issue, #39, and then issues #40 and 41 are written by other authors. Then John Byrne comes aboard as writer and artist with issue #42 and takes the series in an entirely new direction. I’m curious as to the behind-the-scenes story of what happened to Mr. Englehart on the title. As much as I adore John Byrne’s run on West Coast Avengers (and I really do love it — it’s one of my very favorite runs on a super-hero comic ever), reading this series now I am disappointed that Mr. Englehart didn’t stay on the book longer. I am curious as to where he intended to take the stories.
I mean what I wrote just now, that John Byrne’s run on West Coast Avengers is one of my very favorite runs on any super-hero comic ever. I’m excited to move on and re-read that run now. I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on those great comics!