BREAK: REFLECTIONS OF THE MANHUNTER
By "John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL"
Check out more insane ramblings by John's twisted alter ego, Doc Nebula, at http://www.angelfire.com/ny3/docnebula/index.html
In the spirit of embracing this whole "Yes, I DID go to college with Kurt Busiek and I'm not using a pseudonym anymore so I'll damned well write about it, too" epiphany recently forced on me by my old buddy viciously outing my pen name on an ASTRO CITY board, you'll find more anecdotes and personal reminisces, where appropriate, scattered throughout this article. I realize I could possibly be sued by the intermittently non-sane Mr. Busiek over this, except that, well, everything I write is truthful, so he'll have a hard row to hoe, there.
* * * * * * * * *
When reviewing a story that spans parsecs of space, centuries of time, and nearly infinite dimensions, it's understandably difficult to decide... where to start?
Okay. Let's try here:
Who hates Kang?
Hardly anyone real, actually. (Yes, that's 'anyone real', not 'really'. Lots of fictional people hate Kang.) If you ask most comics fans and/or professionals who know or care anything about the continuity of Marvel Comics' Class A superhero team, the Avengers, you'll generally find that as far as master class supervillains go, Kang is pretty well regarded. There is some ongoing debate as to whether he or Ultron should really be considered the Avengers' all time greatest and arch villain (all superhero concepts need to need to have one particular villain assigned as their 'arch villain'; Batman has the Joker, Superman has Lex Luthor, Spider-Man has the Green Goblin, Captain America has the Red Skull, the Fantastic Four have Dr. Doom, and the Avengers have either Kang or Ultron, depending on who you're talking to), but whether Kang is the Avenger's Number One Bad Guy or not (and I personally think Ultron edges him out by a non-hair), he's still generally thought of as a well conceived and, up to a point, well executed, character, in addition to pretty definitely being one of the Avengers Top Two all time greatest bad guys.
However, that's 'Kang' in isolation, the blue masked bad guy in the really striking purple and green Don Heck costume who, armed with various pieces of advanced high tech weaponry, keeps traveling from some distant future into our present in an ongoing and apparently obsessive attempt to prove himself History's Greatest Conqueror by bringing the 20th Century under his overarching militaristic heel. Such is the concept we were presented with in Kang's first appearance, and it's a pretty darned cool one, too.
However, with the death of the Silver Age, after the last truly great Kang appearance scripted by Stainless Steve Englehart himself (who, to me, pretty much embodies the absolute apex of both Marvel and DC's Silver Age anyway) one starts getting into all the increasingly convoluted Council of Crosstime Kangs crapola, with its variant overlapping timelines and Immortus showing up in one place and saying one thing which completely contradicts something he said another time in another title... and one pretty quickly gets to a point where one simply wants to throw ones hands in the air and whimper in despair. Immediately following which, one takes a heartfelt pledge to not only never think about Kang's various utterly bizarre and indecipherable interactions with mainstream Marvel continuity, but also, to never read another comic book with Kang in it, again.
We're here today, though, because I broke that pledge more than two years ago, when I, along with a lot of other people, was inveigled into yet another Kang time travel story, this one replete with all the damned plot complications and timestream convolutions you could ever twitch at, shudder over, or blink spastically and convulsively while trying not to think about, by much the same implied promise whereby an America that was "too proud to fight" was lured into World War I... namely, that this would be The Kang Story To End All Kang Stories, in which All Was Finally And Satisfactorily Resolved, Now and Forever, Amen, Amen.
Obviously, I'm talking about AVENGERS FOREVER, by Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern, and Carlos Pacheco.
Implicit in any such promise, at least, to Happy Little Me, is that 'satisfactorily resolved' means that not only will everything make sense, but that it will make sense in a way that is also good and, if not exciting, then at least, interesting, fiction. Given that the names attached to the plotting and writing of this series were people whose work, at least, within the framework of Marvel's continuity, I respected, and who had both been lauded throughout their profession as thoughtful, gifted, and deft writers, well, it seemed like a logical expectation.
Before going into what the crafters of AVENGERS FOREVER actually delivered, as opposed to what I expected from such celebrated creators, let's take a look at the admittedly difficult task they had set themselves:
As I've said, taken in isolation, everybody seems to like Kang fine. Of course, anyone who would set out to deliberately change history for virtually any purpose whatsoever would have to be crazy in hearts and spades in my opinion, as I don't even like to think about stuff like the timeline shifting from one moment to the next and whether that would give me one set of memories of only the new timeline or two sets of both the new timeline and the previous one and wouldn't THAT be confusing, but hey, Kang is a villain, and sanity is not a requirement.
Kang only begins to become complicated as a character when, rather later in Marvel's Silver Age, various writers, some of whom are cool and some of whom just aren't, keep giving into various impulses and whims whereby Kang's history and background becomes intertwined in various confusing and often conflicting ways with all the other time travelers that Marvel has lying around, from Dr. Doom to the Pharaoh Rama Tut to the Scarlet Centurion and even Immortus. Many of these insertions into Kang's continuity are well intentioned and some even seem inspired, but others seem to make little sense and are difficult to reconcile with other established bits of continuity. All told, it wasn't until Steve Englehart came along to write probably the most cohesively brilliant arc of Kang adventures in AVENGERS in the mid 1970s that all this trivia and apparently inconsistent continuity whirling around Kang abruptly came into coherency... and no sooner had Englehart brought all this into focus than he blew it apart again.
After being at pains to establish the Rama Tut - Kang - Immortus relationship, through a series of brilliant story arcs, as the sort of unending temporal loop that usually only gets handled quite so neatly in Heinlein fiction, Engelhart kicked the whole sand castle over again in the classic (if by now all but forgotten) Gods Go West storyline, somewhere around Avengers 141-143 or thereabouts. In this one, Kang the Conqueror, well and truly fed up with those insufferable Avengers who kept constantly screwing with his plans to conquer the 20th Century, abduct the Celestial Madonna, and through their child, rule the heavens (yeah, it's as weird as it sounds), decides to head back to the 1860s or thereabouts and conquer the world before there were any superheroes around to stop him. Unfortunately for Kang, destiny rears a hand as a pissed off Hawkeye the Archer, time traveling for (petulant) reasons of his own, runs into the blue masked futurelord and winds up organizing a buncha legendary Western gunslingers (Marvel fashion, which means, the Two Gun Kid, the Night Rider, the Ringo Kid, Kid Colt, etc.) to lead the resistance to Kang's nefarious schemes.
Eventually, a few more Avengers (Thor and Moondragon, to be precise) go looking for Hawkeye, too. Of course the result is that they foil the bad guy's schemes, but that's far from all. In the end, Thor, in an epic hand to hand battle with Kang, accidentally causes Kang to destroy himself... which of course means that he can never go on to reform and become the enlightened, elder version of Rama Tut who had helped the Avengers foil his plot to steal Mantis in the late 20th Century, and more problematic, Rama Tut could then never go on to complete his studies in temporal manipulation, becoming time's ultimate master, Immortus (who had been instrumental in bringing Thor and Moondragon back to the 19th Century in the first place).
Obviously, this introduces a classic temporal paradox into the unending cycle Englehart has established for Kang, and who knows, maybe that was his intention, to simply resolve the whole thing on an enigmatic note that no one would ever understand or adequately explain and move on. However, Kang is far too good a villain to leave scattered across the multiverse, and it was inevitable that someone, at some point, would take a shot at bringing him back.
Coming up with explanations for Kang's inevitable return wouldn't have been hard. Badly battered, his armor destroyed, lost in the timestream after a severe drubbing at the hands of a righteously pissed Thunder God, Kang would have been terribly vulnerable for an extended period to extermination at the hands of his enemies. Wanting to protect his past self and own current existence, Immortus simply lied to Kang's primary enemies (given that Thor, in an earlier issue of the Avengers, had sworn a private oath to kill Kang or die in the attempt, it would only make sense to do this), doing his little "The circle is broken - WE ARE FREE!" fade out in much the same way the little man behind the curtain projects the illusion of the Great and Powerful Oz, then heading on back to LaLa Land in the hopes that the Avengers would buy it and not go hunting for any of his various incarnations, believing them all to now be nonexistent.
Being gullible idiots who have apparently still not learned the 'if there's no body he's not dead and if there is a body it's a clone' maxim of Apparent Supervillain Mortality, the Avengers actually did swallow the whole light show and headed back to their native epoch, content in their delusory belief that all their time traveling opponents were now safely randomized. Eventually, Kang would manage to rebuild his temporal power base off in some future epoch and take up his life/continuity pretty much as had already been explained, inevitably one day turning into Rama Tut again and, beyond that, finally, at some point, evolving into Immortus. This would leave plenty of room in the timeline for further escapades, including further attempts at conquest and revenge on the Avengers, and all those other things that supervillains prefer to spend their time doing instead of picking up cute babes, getting stonkered on imported beer, or watching Must See TV like the rest of us.
In point of fact, prior to AVENGERS FOREVER, Kang's survival of this story was never really explained, although Kang did eventually return, and when he did, he brought along even further confusing stuff, like the Council of Crosstime Kangs and divergent parallel dimension storylines and mind control devices and I don't know what all for the good and simple reason that long before this, I had taken and kept that vow I mentioned before to never ever read another issue of a Marvel comic with Kang in it again. Apparently, though, all these subsequent appearances were pretty damned confusing and senseless, or so I gather from reading Marvel's latest and most ambitious attempt to explain and make coherent all this nonsense once and for all, AVENGERS FOREVER.
This, then, was the daunting task set before Mssr.s Busiek and Stern... to try to find a way to take this bewildering, self-conflicting mess of criss crossing variant possible futures, pasts, and presents, populated with a multitude of past, present, future, and otherdimensional time travelers and would be world conquerors, some or all or none of whom might actually be Kang, and straighten it all out in such a way as it all made linear and coherent sense, turning it into a straightforward timeline that could be more or less easily grasped by nearly any potential reader, or future writer/editor of a Marvel Comic involving time travel.
If anyone could have done it besides Stainless Steve himself, my money would have been on Kurt.
Which brings us back full circle --
BREAK: REFLECTIONS OF DOC NEBULA
A long time ago, I had a buddy name of Kurt Busiek. Kurt and I were college pals, fellow fans and wannabe writers, and, at one time in our mutual personal histories, had enough in common to at least feel what Kurt would now most likely describe as an entirely spurious and ephemeral sense of emotional closeness and bonding. (I'd call it friendship, but I've always been foolishly sentimental, and anyway, whatever we would have called it once, it no longer exists in any discernible form, so it's pretty much a moot point.)
During this halcyon, now all but mythical period back in that legendary time known as the 1980s, Kurt and I had many a long, rambling bullshit session, sometimes in the company of other college buddies and fellow fans, other times just the two of us, sitting up in our dorm rooms or the 9th floor lounge of Lawrinson Hall or a fast food place or dining hall or yammering on and on and on as we made the longish walk across downtown Syracuse from campus to Dream Days, the direct sales shop where we bought our comics, and then back again. These were heady days, my friend, when the world was younger and brighter and filled with promise, and the insane possessive jealousies and semi-professional rivalries and petty insecurities that were to come had not yet sucked the blood out of perhaps the finest, closest friendship I would ever have.
And in those long ago, bright as a shiny new penny days, I can remember having many discussions of time travel stories, and the concepts of time travel itself, with my good buddy Kurt Busiek. We ranged that topic like Taureg tribesmen searching the Sahara for Roman ruins, wandering from Heinlein's DOOR INTO SUMMER to Piper's PARATIME to Anderson's Time Patrol, and touching along the way on, of course, Kang the Conqueror and Rama Tut and Immortus. On the subject of Kang, Kurt and I, both Silver Age Englehart fanatics whose hearts beat as one on that subject, were in utter agreement that History's Greatest Conqueror was too good a character to leave dead, but we were in disagreement as to the best way to bring him back. I felt, as I've mentioned in one of the paragraphs above, that Kang's resurrection need be treated no differently than that of any other supervillain, especially since Kang was one of the few supervillains who could credibly have access to teleporters and clone bodies and identity transmitter machinery and all that good stuff whereby villainous victims of seemingly inescapable deaths had been running away to fight another day for generations, by that point. Immortus could have lied, I pointed out in that affected cynicism of 18 year olds the world over. Kang could have teleported away, or it might only have been an android duplicate, or he could have sent his personal psyche off to a clone body in some distant, future epoch.
Kurt, on the other hand, felt that Kang's status as Marvel's premiere time traveler opened the door to other possibilities, primary among which was the notion that there were potentially many different versions of Kang and how could we be sure which one had actually died in that 19th Century desert? Perhaps that was a Kang from a parallel timeline, or even some sort of temporal echo that would have eventually simply faded away had he not been destroyed in combat with Thor. There was no need, argued my pal cogently and incisively, to merely lumber so original a villain as Kang with the usual bad guy blather, when more novel approaches were available.
Now an argument could be made that my conceptual viewpoint, being more conventional and unoriginal, was inferior to Kurt's, which at that time, well before all the various criss crossing timeline and alternate future crap that would soon pollute the Marvel Universe had actually started polluting it, could be seen as fairly novel and innovative. (It was only novel and innovative in comic books, mind you; both Kurt and I had read David Gerrold's THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF and other books along those lines, so time travel twinning and temporal echoes weren't exactly unique inspirations originated by either of us.)
However, I maintained at the time, and still do, that introducing the sort of variable, elastic, existentialist, even solipsistic, view of time that Gerrold had presented in his thorough but extremely depressing exploration of the ramifications of time travel in a universe susceptible to personal editing, was something that would have extremely dangerous consequences in the Marvel continuum. At the point where Kurt and I were discussing this, "Days Of Future Past" was still a couple of years in the future, and the Marvel Universe could still be seen as having basically an immutable timeline, one in which, as with DC's early Silver Age continuity, one might travel forward or backwards in time, but ultimately, what had been done was what would be done, and the events that had occurred remained the events that would occur, no matter what past, present, or future perspective you looked at any particular space-time point from. In other words, you couldn't change the past, or the future, although you could write a lot of entertaining stories about people trying to do so and ultimately, and always dramatically, failing. Kind of like the first TERMINATOR movie, before Cameron went insane and ruined everything with his lousy sequel.
So it was that, although Kurt's hypothetical approach, at that time, had novelty and, within the realm of superhero comic books, even originality in its corner, and those are not attributes to be despised... still and all, I found myself deeply reluctant to seriously consider incorporating such 'slipstream' temporal metaphysics into a fictional reality I cherished as much as I did the Silver Age Marvel Universe... which, by that time, had long since passed into the Modern Age, but I didn't know that then. You never notice the signposts going by at the time, you can only pick them out in retrospect. But whatever the case, Kurt's idea just scared the hell out of me, and all I knew was, I much preferred a universe in which no one could change history no matter how hard they tried, rather than one where we'd never really know whether someone had or not, at any given point, until some later writer came along and told us.
Brilliant and novel though the idea of a 'slipstream' temporal metaphysics was as applied to a comic book universe, I was afraid of it. I wanted a place where we could have come clear grasp, from one issue to the next, of what was actually happening... a discrete, coherent timeline I could treasure as being, to whatever extent well loved imaginary universes can be, real.
Boy, was I gonna take a beating.
I just didn't realize the last guy in line, twenty years or so later, was going to be my old buddy Kurt.
BREAK: REFLECTIONS OF THE MANHUNTER
As our brief synopsis has hopefully shown, the general time travel continuity of the Marvel Universe, and specifically that pertaining to Kang the Conqueror and his various possible alternate incarnations, was a hopelessly convoluted morass by the mid 1990s. Setting that muddle back to rights again would be a truly Herculean task, the likes of which would require an all but encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel continuity, an enormous innate creativity, and a discernible talent for both consistent and innovative characterization across an extremely broad range of wildly eclectic fictional personalities. In addition to that, my own peculiar notions of 'set to rights' would also have to include within that necessary range of attributes a proper reverence bordering on worship for the works of Steve Englehart and, before him, Stan Lee, with the succeeding work in the Kang canon by far lesser writers being rated as having a considerably lower priority for justification and rationalization within any offered comprehensive, sensibly revised continuity.
In other words, if you're going to plunk your fat ass down in the middle of the Marvel Universe and sort out time travel in general, and Kang in specific, you'd damned well better know everything about it, have a great imagination, write at least competently and with an extensive range for dialogue and character motivation, and last but not least, you'd better understand that under no circumstances should anything by Stan Lee or Steve Englehart be in any way invalidated, while all the other crap that had been tossed in since was eminently disposable, if necessary, and would not be missed if ret-conned out of existence.
(Look, those are my priorities. If they bother you, go read someone else's articles... but please bear in mind that Mssr. Kurt Busiek is someone who has frequently and publicly claimed to revere GIANT SIZE AVENGERS #4, the climax of the Celestial Madonna saga, above all other issues of AVENGERS as the greatest in the history of that particular superteam.)
Given all of the truly terrible choices that Marvel could have made, if they were going to put such a project in train, you can probably understand how relieved I was to hear that in fact, this ultimate retroactive continuity implant, the Kang Story To End All Kang Stories, that would straighten out once and for all not only all the various conflicting and incoherent Kang storylines published over the past three decades, but that would also undertake to set to rights the general time travel continuity and metaphysics of the Marvel Universe itself... was being co plotted by Kurt Busiek and Roger Stern, and written by My Buddy, My Pal, Kurt himself.
Only if Steve Englehart or Stan Lee had agreed to tackle it could I have felt in better hands... and I'm not sure either Steve or Stan would have had Kurt and Roger's same near obsessive, almost all encompassing knowledge of modern Marvel continuity, either.
I was not even particularly troubled by my knowledge that, of old, Kurt had no real belief in a single, coherent timeline that could not, or at least, should not, be substantially and/or trivially altered. After all, it was no longer 1980 and the Marvel Universe had been well (actually, badly, but thoroughly) established (trashed) as place of widely divergent parallel timelines and strangely crisscrossing, weirdly interacting potential futures for... well... a good fifteen years by then. Kurt couldn't possibly make it any worse (I reasoned, erroneously) and hell, he was smart and talented and, in my heart of hearts, for no reason that had made any sense since the late 80s, I suppose I still trusted him. More fool me.
So it was I eagerly looked forward to AVENGERS FOREVER.
BREAK: REFLECTIONS OF DOC NEBULA
One thing that needs to be understood before we take this strange narrative/review any further is that there are exceptions to every rule, and that includes my decree about the necessity of keeping valid every single aspect of every single Silver Age Avengers story ever written by Steve Englehart. Even as fanatical an Englehart devotee as I am finds bits and pieces of Steve E's for the most part brilliant work that could benefit from a little hindsight ret-conning. In particular, and most relevant to AVENGERS FOREVER, was Englehart's controversial origin of the Vision, in which he revealed that the Android Avenger had actually been built from the inactivated body of the Golden Age Human Torch. And it should be noted, in Englehart's defense, that in fact, this notion was apparently original to Roy Thomas, which to my mind makes a whole lot more sense, because to my mind, Roy "Death Scream Of An Ant" Thomas has never been the wunderkind ball of fire writer/editor that everyone else in comics seems to think he is.
Although Englehart's telling of this tale is lyrical and flawless, with some of the most beautifully moving dialogue and eloquently written captions he ever penned for any comic book anywhere, I myself, as a teenager and as an adult, have never been emotionally persuaded that the Vision could in any way have actually been at one time the Golden Age Human Torch. I simply never found it convincing. And while I have raged in various other articles and essays about the stupidity of John Byrne's much later re-Vision, in which everything that Englehart had established was deconstructed and nothing whatsoever that made any kind of sense at all was erected in its place, I was not defending the original thesis when I did that, but rather, attacking Byrne's.
However, I also should note at this point that since the Vision's origin, whatever it might have been, had nothing to do with time travel, I honestly didn't expect it to come up in AVENGERS FOREVER. Silly me.
BREAK: REFLECTIONS OF THE MANHUNTER
When AVENGERS FOREVER first appeared in 1998, I found it to be thoroughly delightful.
Well, okay, not thoroughly delightful, but hey, maybe I expected too much from a Modern Age Marvel comic book. Sure, there were places where I found Kurt's writing to be a little bit sub par, as in the opening sequence where the horrible future timeline ruled by an Avengers derived army enforcing the tyrannical whims of an all powerful descendent of Rick Jones is clearly defined through the melodramatic, but ultimately stupid, device of having an entire planet frozen in time while hordes of Avengers-based troopers decimate one tenth of the enstasised population as punishment for the rebellion of a tiny cadre of natives. It's not the overwhelming brutality of this I object to, as clearly, Kurt was trying to show just how utterly vile this future timeline was, and the described sequence accomplished that task nicely. However, it simply strikes me as silly that in a universe where an entire planetary population can be frozen into immobility by the whim of an omnipotent ruler on a distant world, there is any need whatsoever for Praetorian enforcers, armed with Avengers-like powers or not. If he can freeze an entire planet with a thought, surely he can destroy a carefully calculated 10% of the population at precise random with another thought, and all these legions of Imperial Avengeresque troopers are, honestly, a complete waste of time, space, and resources. In fact, when the Timekeepers showed up and said that 'this wouldn't do at all', I was wondering if they were critiquing the plot, and thinking to myself that they should have sent Kurt an email back before he did his final draft. This was the sort of simplistic, confrontational, extraordinarily unsubtle melodrama for the sake of melodrama that a writer like Steve Englehart would never have needed to impose, especially at the start of his story.
But the story itself was exciting and beautifully drawn and I let myself be seduced by the action and the hoopla and Kurt's unfailingly glib, smoothly written dialogue and captions, especially when we flashed back to the present day and got into the cool stuff Kurt really does do better than anyone else currently working in Marvel's mainstream, with a team of Avengers visiting the Supreme Intelligence on the Moon in the hopes of enlisting its tendril-festooned help in curing Rick Jones of a comatose state. From there the story proceeded delightfully, with the reintroduction of old Englehart character Libra, which made no sense but who cared, as some sort of near divine force for Balance (who basically only showed up at times when the story really needed him as a plot device, but never mind that right now), and the entry onto the field of Kang, and the strange, metaphysical recruitment of some sort of crosstime Avengers team, featuring various characters plucked from different crucial points in Avengers history, some of which, fascinatingly enough, were in the future of the team as we knew it at that point!
There were aspects of this team I wasn't thrilled with, I admit, yet even I'm not egotistical enough to actually put them forward as flaws with the actual concept of the series. I myself simply do not like Songbird much as a character, especially as a potential/future Avenger; her personality for the most part annoys me, and I've never been able to swallow this 'solid sound' nonsense that's been a regrettable and to my mind, really stupid, part of the Marvel Universe for way too long now. But clearly Kurt is enchanted with her, and the tradition of writers on Avengers putting their own favorite characters in the team regardless of whether anyone else would have thought they'd fit in there has to go back to Don Heck and Hawkeye the Archer. Hawkeye has become nearly universally regarded as one of the Classic Avengers, and it's sobering to remember that at the time Heck and Lee put him in the team, most readers probably thought they were brain damaged, as he'd never been anything but a mediocre Iron Man villain prior to that. Songbird, I'll admit, worked out pretty well in AVENGERS FOREVER, and might work out well as an eventual Avenger, whenever she gets around to finally joining the team, so I'll just mark that down to an area where I disagree with the writer and will admit that I could eventually be proven wrong.
The new generation Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is an entirely different subject, for a lot of reasons. First, flashing forward to the end of the series, the way in which this new version of an established character was simply superimposed on the established version of the character was straight out unacceptably lazy, in my opinion. Beyond that, I don't know anyone who can coherently explain exactly what happened there, and I include Kurt Busiek in that coterie, as his explanation for how the present day Genis was abruptly supplanted by the AVENGERS FOREVER, future-version of himself, seems to be "it jest happened", and a similar explanation apparently applies to how a future version of Genis who was already metaphysically attached to a MUCH future version of Rick Jones, was somehow then metaphysically attached to the present day, much younger Rick Jones... all of which leads into the fact that I'm not wild about the way Rick Jones was tied to the character anyway, and I'm truly baffled by how future-Genis is still so young looking when the Rick he was tied to is so old... but none of it really makes any sense. Which, normally, is just what you'd expect from a Kang story, but let's bear in mind that THIS was supposed to be the Kang story that made sense out of all the other Kang stories.
However, by far the most egregious aspect of Captain Marvel Jr.'s introduction and ongoing presence in AVENGERS FOREVER was his blatant status as plot device. Any time Kurt needed to establish that something being told by a Space Phantom at that particular moment was 'really' true, Captain Marvel's cosmic awareness was right there, and any time the Avengers needed help figuring out something they couldn't have otherwise known, but needed to in order to advance the storyline, CM's cosmic awareness was their faithful Indian companion. Of course, any time the Avengers weren't supposed to know something, well, then, the good ol' cosmic awareness just happened to fail miserably. It was, consistently, the sort of blatantly manipulated and inconsistently defined plot device that one does not expect a writer of Kurt's general level of intelligence, talent, and skill to have to resort to.
I had little problem with the rest of the team, although I note that some of the explanations for just why Libra's balancing powers pulled those particular characters from the points in Avengers history that they did weren't overly convincing. Still, Captain America, Hawkeye, two different versions of Hank Pym, the Wasp, and pretty quickly, a restored to mobility Rick Jones, made for a fine team of 'established' Avengers, even if I wasn't wild about the two representatives from the future line up. And as the story progressed, other Avengers made at least cameo appearances, with an elderly version of the Black Panther showing up for a couple of issues in an alternate future timeline where he'd joined Killraven in leading a rebellion against invading Martians, while, in the climactic battle against the Timekeepers, nearly every character who had ever been an Avenger, and many who hadn't even come close, being pulled in as Avengers from alternate timelines, enlisted to fight on one side of the conflict or another. I myself was especially pleased to see the Armored Avengers from WHAT IF #2, a personal favorite of both mine and Kurt's, show up there.
Overall, then, and with the extensively noted exception of the new Captain Marvel, I had no objection to the Avengers Forever team roster.
BREAK: REFLECTIONS OF DOC NEBULA
Naturally, even someone only as peripherally plugged in to the fanstream as I am (it's been years since the computer I own was adequate to websurf, which cuts me off pretty thoroughly from fandom these days) pretty quickly got clued in that not only would AVENGERS FOREVER be tackling all the various wildly conflicting Kang stories and straightening them out, but, since the original telling of the Vision's origin had been intertwined with Immortus, Kurt and Roger were going to take the opportunity presented to straighten out that mess, too.
I was, to say the least, psyched. As noted previously, I'd never been satisfied by the 'Vision is the Human Torch' story, despite how beautifully it had been presented, and ever since the late 80s, even that story had been invalidated by a monstrously self indulgent and poorly conceived ret-con by John Byrne, who, as per usual for him, hadn't bothered to set up anything in place of what he had torn down. Exactly where the Vision actually came from, if he wasn't the Golden Age Human Torch (something that seemed self evident, since Byrne had revived the GA HT and he was, and is, currently alive in the Marvel Universe, right alongside the Vision) was an unknown, and I was looking forward to having those blanks filled in. Now, had someone like Mark Gruenwald or Chris Claremont been slated to provide that back story, I'd have shrieked like a little girl and hidden under the bed, but with Busiek and Stern in charge, I sat back and cheerfully waited for excellence.
And, what I got was without a doubt the biggest load of horseshit I've seen inflicted on comics since Marv Wolfman tried to convince me that Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, was someday going to grow up to be Tommy Tomorrow.
According to Kurt and Roger, working in a positively orgiastic excess of diplomacy, both Byrne's account, in which the Vision is not the original Human Torch, and Englehart's account, in which the Vision IS the Human Torch, are true. Immortus, using the power of the Forever Crystal (something he'd only gained a few issues previous to this in the AVENGERS FOREVER miniseries and thus, did not have during the periods when either Vision origin had occurred, but, yes, I comprehend that this is all about time travel and therefore we can't look at it in a linear fashion) combined two timelines into one... essentially, as Mike Norton summarizes it, pulling in an extra Golden Age Human Torch from an alternate timeline to turn into the Vision, while simultaneously leaving the GA HT unmolested to eventually be revived in the modern day.
There's little to argue with here, as it's all a product of a colossal plot device; if Kurt says Immortus can do that, well, then Immortus can do that. I find the idea objectionable not simply because it preserves a story I've never liked, which one could argue isn't precisely a valid critera to object to, but primarily because... it's BORING. Here we had this incredible mystery of exactly where it was the Vision actually came from, with the implication that it was something that might be even stranger and more interesting and more satisfying than the original Thomas/Englehart explanation... and after ten years of wondering, we're abruptly told... guess what? We're waving a magic wand and making the two incompatible stories compatible again.
All of which reminds of something else Kurt once said to me, when we were talking about how Alexander had solved the problem of the Gordian knot. Kurt's characterization of Alexander's supposedly wonderful, non-linear, 'thinking outside the box' solution to that ancient, seemingly insoluble puzzle was exactly the same response I had when, back in third or fourth grade, some teacher had explained the legend to our class:
You don't 'solve' the puzzle of a complex knot by drawing your sword and cutting it down the middle. That's not astonishingly innovative, years ahead of his time, genius level thinking. Rather, it's a straightforward, rather brainless, completely unsubtle, brute force approach... the sort of thing you'd expect from the first military man to walk up and look at such a puzzle, after centuries of scholarly sorts had tried to pick it apart. It's like James T. Kirk reprogramming the computer to let him rescue the Kobyashi Maru. In real life, all that counts are results, but in an artificial testing situation, you're not allowed to ignore the parameters of the problem. That's cheating. And that's how I felt about this "it's a floor polish/no, it's a dessert topping/it's both!" explanation of the Vision's origin. One can't argue with the logic, as, presumably, the ancient scholars couldn't argue with the sharpness of Alexander's sword. But... it's cheating. And even if you don't think it's cheating... it's boring. We were led to expect something new and, hopefully, better, instead, we got the same old cake.
Moving beyond that, though, if I can't argue with the fact that Immortus' could do that if he wanted to... and apparently, I can't... I can sure as heck wonder WHY he did it. Why would Immortus care whether or not the Vision is or is not built out of the inactive body of the Golden Age Human Torch, and if he is, whether everyone else thinks so, or not?
In point of fact, Kurt never really does explain this, but as he often does, he rather deftly distracts his readers from realizing that. Immortus does explain, at one point, that he had decided to prevent the Scarlet Witch's hypothetical children from being born by linking her romantically with the Vision (artificial men, presumably, being unable to father kids) and even if we accept that particularly screwy reasoning (how did he know Wanda wouldn't get artificial insemination? Get divorced and remarry? Become widowed and remarry? Or just plain sleep around?), it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Vision's origin. Apparently, it was only after Wanda and the Vision, through a strange manifestation of her innate chaos magic, managed to conceive of children that shared in both their essences that Immortus decided to... to... to... do what? Here's where the chain of logic breaks down... if Immortus wants to prevent Wanda from having kids, well, he's screwed that up, so how is proving the Vision isn't really the Human Torch going to help? Oh, but wait... Immortus knows that Wanda's kids aren't 'real' (they're actually just soul shards of Mephisto... oh, please, someone hand me the Tylenol bottle, but Kurt and Roger aren't to blame for THAT one, that's all John Byrne) and therefore, if he can make Wanda give in to despair, her children will cease to exist! So, therefore, if he gets the Vision disassembled by SHIELD, then Wanda will give into despair, and that should do the trick, right?
Er... well... I suppose... but still, this raises some questions, such as, well, first, if Wanda's kids aren't 'real', then what the hell does Immortus care if they exist or not? They're not real! Eventually Mephisto will reclaim his soul shards and they'll go away on their own, right? For that matter, can't Immortus just drop Mephisto an email and say "Yo, Pointy Ears, your soul shards are in the West Coast Avengers nursery, go get 'em?" But, no, Immortus is the Master of Time but, like all supervillains, he can't think in anything remotely like a linear fashion, so instead, he decides he'll make Wanda give in to despair, at which point, for some reason never fully explained her kids will cease to exist, and in order to do this, he has to have SHIELD disassemble the Vision.
Fine. So why, once the Vision is disassembled, does he then have to falsely disprove, using a panoply of Space Phantoms, that the Vision ever really was the Golden Age Human Torch? If all he's trying to do is make Wanda despair? I mean, her husband has been disassembled, reassembled with no artificial coloring and his magic love wand missing, not to mention his personality, Wonder Man has gone insane and refuses to contribute his brain patterns to the guy he thinks of as a brother, and is hitting on the chick he thinks of as a sister in law. She's pretty much in despair, dude. I don't think she really cares much about whether the Vision is, or isn't, the Golden Age Human Torch.
Bear in mind, we've been told that all this came about because Wanda is the nexus being of the Marvel Universe, whatever the hell that is, and her children will shake the stars in the heavens or some damn thing, which Immortus seems to think is bad and must be prevented, even though, actually, this has little to do with his covert agenda to keep humanity from spreading off Earth... another point we seem to be overlooking in all this jumping around. Therefore, as I've already briefly mentioned, Immortus decided to prevent her from having kids by pairing her up with the Vision, and in order to make the Vision put the moves on her, Immortus revealed to him that he had actually once been an entirely different android hero, which, we are told, Immortus believed would give him the confidence to propose.
Leaving aside the fact that the Scarlet Witch being the nexus being of the Marvel Universe is just plain dumb, not to mention semantically a null statement as we have no idea what it means, we're left with... no, let's not leave that aside for the moment, because it occurs to me as I type this that someone, somewhere down the line, has simply made a mistake here. Having never seen the Scarlet Witch declared to be the 'nexus being' prior to reading AVENGERS FOREVER, I have no idea if this is something Kurt and Rog made up, or something truly insane by John Byrne or maybe Roy Thomas, but whatever the case, I also think it's just simply a mistake. Why? Well, because this concept of an extremely important female Avenger whose child, or children, are going to rule the heavens, and whose destiny seems rather intertwined with that of Immortus... that seems awfully familiar to me. In fact, this sounds a great deal like Mantis, who, with Immortus' quite willing participation (he performed the ceremony) married a Cotati Elder and took off to tour the galaxy. (And, now that I remember that, I really have to wonder why it is that Immortus will go so far out of his way to keep the Scarlet Witch from having kids that might, some day, 'shake the heavens', when he did everything to bring about the birth of the child of the Celestial Madonna but knock up the bride himself... and in fact, as Kang, he'd tried damned hard to do that. You'd think that someone who was doing his best to keep humanity from spreading off Earth would have been awfully concerned with keeping the human Celestial Madonna from fulfilling her destiny.)
No. Honestly, the more I try to analyze it, the less sense it makes. Even accepting truly stupid shit like the Scarlet Witch being the 'nexus being' for the Marvel Universe, whatever the hell that means, and which may or may not be Kurt and Rog's idea, I still can't possibly make any reasonable or rational connection between that, and Immortus using the Forever Crystal to bring in an extra Human Torch from another dimension so he could, at some point in the future, convince Wanda and everyone else that the Vision, who was already disassembled and then reassembled without his personality by then, really wasn't who he'd previously gone to great lengths to establish he actually was.
For that matter, I can't see why, if Immortus' secret agenda is really to keep the human race on Earth, he cares whether the Scarlet Witch has kids or not, or how powerful they are.
Further, given that he not only didn't interfere in the marriage of the Celestial Madonna, whose child will be 'the One!', but actually did everything he could to help it... how are we supposed to believe he's really trying to keep humans on Earth? And if he didn't mess around with Mantis' marriage and potential family, why is he screwing with Wanda's?
Once again, I call your attention to the fact that AVENGERS FOREVER was supposed to be the story that EXPLAINED things, that smoothed out continuity wrinkles, that reconciled inconsistencies... that made everything make sense.
In terms of this whole "what is the Vision" question, I'd honestly have to say they fell rather short of that lofty goal.
BREAK: REFLECTIONS OF THE MANHUNTER
Accepting the choices in the team roster as being, for the most part, not only adequate but actually well picked, the next thing we look at is the villains in the plot, and the overall plotline itself.
Basically, we're told that in order to prevent a particularly heinous future in which some relatively small part of the Milky Way Galaxy is ruled by Earth humans, in the form of an Empire run by an all powerful descendent of Rick Jones and his all powerful relatives, who, despite their omnipotence, keep legions of Avengers-derived supersoldiers around for no good reason immediately perceivable, Immortus is going to kill Rick Jones just before the whole Avengers Forever plotline kicks off, to make sure Rick never manifests the Destiny Force again, after which, it will be too late to prevent that future from coming into being.
The Supreme Intelligence, for reasons of its own, intervenes in this, awakening Rick from his comatose state and, as it has once before, activating the Destiny Force that lies dormant in Rick's mind. At the same time, Libra, who is not dead yet despite the fact that he's died a couple of times previous to this, shows up with Kang in tow, also to prevent Immortus from killing Rick, because Libra, in some way that is never explained, has become some weird cosmic avatar of Balance, which basically means that he, like Captain Marvel Jr.'s cosmic awareness and Rick's Destiny Force, is this massive undefined plot device that Kurt and Roger use to move the story along whenever they have no other readily available mechanism available to do so.
As Kang battles the endless hordes of Immortus (who you'd think would have enough power to just blast Rick into a pile of steaming cinders where he stands, without bothering with unlimited legions of warriors from every era of history real and imagined, or, at least, I would), Libra and the Supreme Intelligence combine their massively undefined powers to activate Rick's massively undefined power and what emerges is a force of Avengers plucked from various different time periods in the history of the team... all of whom, as you might expect, are really confused (none of whom, the astute reader like me instantly realizes with something of a sigh, are going to remember any of this when they get back to their native time periods, either).
And now, we're at the end of the first issue, set for a cross time, cross dimensional romp the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Silver Age, as seven timelost Avengers battle alongside their greatest enemy to save their friend and mascot from extermination at the hands of a being who is a veritable god... all the while knowing that if they do keep their friend alive, they'll be bringing into being a truly horrible future timeline where the Avengers have become a force of evil oppression across the stars.
Now, I'll be the first person to admit here that that's pretty damn impressive.
BREAK: REFLECTIONS OF DOC NEBULA
Well, since it looks like in this thing, it's the Manhunter that gets to do the main, sequential narrative, while Doc is stuck doing the side comments, it's time to make a side comment on plot devices.
Look, every science fiction and fantasy plot has to have at least one plot device, and superhero comics, make no mistake, are always fantasy, and often science fiction. In the case of AVENGERS FOREVER, both science fiction and fantasy are present in large walloping dollops all through the plot... and there's really nothing wrong with that, in theory. It all depends on the execution.
Given that AF is both a science fiction and fantasy story, you'd expect it to have quite a few plot devices. And that's fine, too, in theory.
Where I start having a problem, though, is when every single time the plot requires a device to kick it in the ass and get it moving in the desired direction, said asskick and movement motivation is provided by something that comes out of left field, is never explained, or is never even reasonably defined.
Such things are the exact definition of the deus ex machina... literally, 'the god from the machine', a phrase that describes the tendency, during Greek and Roman theater, and later, in medieval morality plays, to lower a divine being on a scaffolding at the end of the drama, who would set everything to rights regardless of the complexity of the plot, or otherwise impossibility of doing so.
Deux ex machinas are, generally, completely unexpected (because they cannot be logically predicted, as there is nothing in the plot to give any indication they might appear), absolutely mysterious in their workings (as we cannot understand the nature or power of divine beings), and completely without limits in their powers (see prior parenthetical statement). They are inarguable, in terms of internal logic, because, by definition, well, they can't be argued with, since no one knows enough about them to really point out any flaws in how they are being portrayed. This makes them extraordinarily utilitarian, since, if we cannot understand how they work, or why they work, we cannot in any way argue with what they work. In short, they're what I call "'e's Makin' It Up As 'e Goes Along!" devices, and they are beloved of lazy, sloppy, or just plain darned bad writers in every genre and medium, now and throughout history.
As I say, they are, by definition, inarguable. They are not, however, unobjectionable. In fact, most analysts of works of fiction regard the deux ex machina sort of plot device (as opposed to, say, shrinking gas, or an indestructible shield, which is also a plot device, but a much more well defined and comprehensible one) as being the absolute creative nadir of whatever work they appear in, demonstrating either a staggering lack of imagination on the part of the writer, or an equally staggering laziness, or, you know, both.
Give you a random, comic book specific example of this that doesn't touch on AVENGERS FOREVER or Mr. Busiek. One of my least favorite comic book writers of all time is Chris Claremont, a guy who I have to think would happily trade his left nut and most of the skin off his ass to be entitled to put a 'Sir' in front of his name. Claremont's literary excesses are nearly limitless and all but legendary, but one of the truly execrable ways in which he excels as a spectacularly bad writer is in his use of largely undefined super powers as plot devices. Even if the super powers in question have actually been fairly coherently and specifically defined in the past, this does not daunt Chris, because Chris, like John Byrne and many others, pays only as much attention to past continuity as he has to, when it suits him to do so. And it is in pursuit of the largely undefined, or potentially undefined, super power, which he can use as an infinitely flexible deux ex machina, that Chris seeks out, or creates out of whole cloth, characters with 'mystical' or 'psionic' powers. He loves 'em. Why? Because 'mystical' and 'psionic' mean exactly what whoever is writing them at the time puts in the captions and word balloons at that moment.
Take, for example, that perhaps most extraordinarily and intensively abused 'psionic' character of all time, poor dear little Jean Grey. Now, under other, lesser writers, without the imagination of good ol' Chris Claremont, Jean was restrictively and boringly defined as having rather limited telekinetic powers and even more limited telepathic ones... she could read minds, if people were close to her, communicate messages amongst folks she was well acquainted with... that sort of thing. Certainly useful, nothing earthshaking.
Under Chris, though, all this changed, and changed in a heartbeat. In Jean's first appearance under Claremont in, I believe, X-MEN #97, the telekinetic abilities that previously had been primarily used to levitate team members and yank scissors across the room, had now turned into some sort of bizarre focused energy blast attack that was capable of trashing giant purple robots. But telekinesis is ultimately boring to Chris, since all you can do with it is... well, you can do a lot with it, actually, when you ignore all previous definitions and common sense, but still, what Chris really likes is telepathy. With telepathy, well, the sky's the limit. With telepathy, you can have your characters do pretty much anything you want, from absorbing, in a tenth of a second, the complex and demanding skill of space shuttle pilot from the brain of Peter Corbeau, to, in a recent adventure, projecting a complex and totally lifelike illusion of an ongoing combat to half a dozen different enemies, none of whom Jean had laid eyes on for more than ten seconds prior to this astounding feat's accomplishment.
Again, one of the key words in all this is 'undefined'. When you run into something in comics that is undefined, i.e., which you have no clear idea what it can do, what its parameters are, what its limitations are, or even what its inclinations are from one moment to the next... but you know that it can damned well do SOMEthing, generally, something very powerful... approach cautiously. Ready your hip waders. Prepare to deploy tongs.
And when you get the overwhelming impression that the writer in charge of said undefined area also really has no clue what the parameters, limitations, or inclinations of the thing in question are... that, in fact, the writer in question is quite happy with something that is so largely undefined, because it lets him consistently do whatever the hell he feels like doing at any given time, confident that his large undefined plot device will let him resolve his storylines tidily whenever he needs to... that's when it's a good time to look around for the lifeboats and think real hard about abandoning ship.
Now, with all that in mind, let's take a look at just how many undefined, effectively unlimited, and even in some cases, completely unexpected and unexplained, deux ex machina plot devices we can find in the pages of AVENGERS FOREVER:
*the Supreme Intelligence's powers are, and always have been, largely undefined, and ol' Greeny has often been used as a plot fulcrum before, due to this
*Rick Jones' Destiny Force, which starts and stalls like a '59 De Soto, but always manages to turn on and do exactly what the plot needs it to do exactly when the plot needs it done
*Libra, who, in addition to being Not Dead Yet, has also, somehow, in some way never explained, become a weird cosmic force for Balance, with vast, undefined, vaguely Balance related powers,
*Captain Marvel Jr's cosmic awareness, which always works exactly the way the writer needs it to work at any given plot juncture; if the Avengers need to confirm the truth of something they're being told by a Space Phantom or figure out how to use some piece of futuristic gear, they're golden. On the other hand, if the Avengers need to be ambushed by Yellowjacket in order to be captured at this point in the plot, well, that ol' cosmic awareness just happens to be a little slow this time
*the Time Keeper's powers
*the Infinity Crystal, which Kurt liked so much he used it to kickstart MAXIMUM SECURITY, as well
*and, last, most egregiously overwhelmingly undefined, and most terrifying in their potential for completely destabilizing any concept of validity any events depicted in any Marvel comic might have for any discernable length of time... the goddam horrible unbelievably ubiquitous and utterly undetectable by any known means 'oh please god save me from insane lazy writers misusing this concept' Space Phantoms.
AVENGERS FOREVER is not a story whose inception, ongoing evolution, climax, or ultimate resolution depends on a deux ex machina, or even a few deux ex machinas. AVENGERS FOREVER is a story whose plot is as studded with really wildly unlikely, completely unpredictable, and absurdly undefined deux ex machina type plot devices, as that guy in the Glenn Campbell song's cowboy suit is with fake jewels.
BREAK: REFLECTIONS OF THE MANHUNTER
With such pretty damn impressive pieces as I've already noted in place, I was fully prepared to set aside any vague, vestigial doubts I might have had and just plunge head first into what looked like it might very well be exactly what it had been advertised, and which might very well measure up to even the demanding standards that an old Steve Englehart fan like myself might want to impose on any time travel story involving the Avengers, Kang, Immortus, Captain Marvel, Rick Jones, and the Supreme Intelligence. I admit it, as I had been when I first heard about the story, now that I'd read the first couple of issues, I was psyched. I wanted more. I wanted to see where this was going, what happened next, how it would all come out, how Kang's survival after that long ago fight with Thor would finally be explained, what the Vision really was, exactly what the Council of Crosstime Kangs had to do with anything... and more than anything else, as Fox Mulder might put it, I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe that Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern, and Carlos Pacheco would really bring it off, that by the end of this 12 issue miniseries, all these conflicting aspects of continuity would be smoothed out, realigned, and deftly, seamlessly patchworked into the overall fabric of Marvel continuity.
And... perhaps because of the time that went by in between installments coming out, or perhaps just because for once in my life I was tired of thinking all the damned time about everything and I just wanted to sit back and trust my old buddy and mentor Kurt to get it all done without me harping and nitpicking all the time... I did believe. I put my higher reasoning faculties firmly into storage and I looked forward eagerly to each issue of AVENGERS FOREVER and I praised it to the comics shop clerk and raved about it in my email. And when little things, annoying things, problematic things, things that, on second thought or a closer, more analytical moment of sustained scrutiny, might not make a whole lot of sense, niggled at my attention... I ignored them. I was having fun. The artwork was great. Who really cared how Jocasta got into a female version of the Vision's body, or how in the name of God we were supposed to accept that Machine Man had somehow impregnated her, or how Hawkeye's personality was remarkably mature given the point in time he'd been plucked from, or... wait... explain to me HOW the Martians managed to take over a divergent Marvel timeline loaded to the gunwales with enormously powerful superhumans, all of whom, heroic or villainous, could be expected to fight side by side against a not particularly overwhelmingly powerful alien invader? The cropping up of Kang's Chronal Champions troubled me, as well, since for the life of me, I've never been able to see why Kang would want to bother with some cave man, or an ancient Indian warrior, and such like that, when he himself walks around with the equivalent of a 20th Century tank regiment in firepower hidden around his person, and he personally commands legions of infantry troopers from amazingly advanced centuries. For that matter, I've never understood why he and Immortus bother sending Roman gladiators and Old West Cowboys and WWI Germans and all that other crap into battle, either, when they can, presumably, muster effectively an infinite number of much better armed, trained, and disciplined troops from more futuristic centuries.
(There could, of course, be a logical explanation for this. Posit the following dialogue:
HAWKEYE: Say, Kang, why do all you timetraveling conqueror types always include all sorts of primitives and savages in your Armies of the Ages when you could just recruit an infinite number of better armed, better trained, and better disciplined infantry from the more technologically advanced eras instead?
KANG: Ummmm... well... you see, when battling other timetraveling conqueror types, I need to be careful because it's always possible that they might project a sort of entropic manipulation field which would render all high tech weaponry inactive.
HAWKEYE: So why don't you just give all your futuristic infantry guys bayonets on their ion rifles, then?
KANG: It... well... I...
HAWKEYE: You just think Roman gladiators and Bushmen of the Kalihari look good. Admit it.
KANG: Well, how do you fit those boxing glove arrows in your quiver?
HAWKEYE: Wrong universe, dude. That's the green guy you're thinking of. And, say, how do you get all those soldiers rounded up and organized and transported here, anyway? I mean, that's a pretty amazing troop deployment, what with all the billions of warriors from every epoch of human history assembling in one big horde and marching off to lay waste to Immortus and what not. Do you have mind control beams or something? That only work on thugs, but not on Avengers or other superheroes?
KANG: Shut up, would you?)
There were various other plot points that troubled me as I was swept along with the extraordinarily exciting flow of the story, I'll grant you. Still, I did my best to ignore them, and when we came to the issue where the Vision's real origin was finally explained in such an utterly boring and thoroughly inexplicable fashion, as Doc has already explicated... well, it gave me pause, but finally, I shrugged and said "Okay, well, that wasn't very good, but it's a side issue, and besides, all it is is a story told them by a Space Phantom, and all they ever DO is lie, so I can ret-con that out of existence some day", which is my standard way of dealing with stupid ret-cons or bad stories I don't like, even though, as I'm now pushing 40 and still no one at Marvel or DC has recognized my genius, my talent, my innate brilliance at every aspect of the comics writers' art, my ability to type very fast, and more important than all of these, my willingness to work really really cheap, it's come to seem less and less likely I'll ever actually get to. Nonetheless, the key point was, it's a side issue, ignore it, let's move on. So I did.
Even when I reached the point in my initial reading of the mini series where, through a series of flashbacks and journal entries and other narrative devices, Kurt attempted to reconcile a vast array of Kang stories done over the last twenty five years into one more or less coherent timeline, and, unfortunately, in my opinion, failed to make much real linear sense of anything, I wasn't overly troubled. Again, Kurt's writing itself was deft, his characterization was interesting, if strangely inconsistent, and he showed a very real and accomplished mastery of his craft simply by managing to give us what was essentially an entire issue of historical recapping and exposition which was always interesting, if not always entirely and immediately accessible.
And, as always, the artwork was fluid and expressive and beautifully rendered; Carlos Pacheco deserves nothing but praise for his work throughout the series, but in this particular issue, where he had to review probably hundreds of pages of source material and visual references, and still managed to present them in a manner that was inimitably in his own style, while remaining reminiscent of the original depiction of the event as well, he deserves every artistic accolade imaginable.
In my first reading, with a month or more between each issue, I continued to have occasional niggling doubts, but for the most part, found myself very impressed. On my second and third readings, often reading several issues in one stretch, I still considered the comic to be one that, while it might have some flaws in its internal consistency, and I honestly didn't care for the depiction of the Vision's origin... nonetheless, in my first, second, and even my third reading, at this point I was still convinced I was in the presence of near-greatness, and was reading a story that might well stack up alongside the classic Kang the Conqueror tales of Marvel's Silver Age.
BREAK: REFLECTIONS OF DOC NEBULA
I get to be the bad guy, I guess. That punk Jones says all the nicey nice, groveling, suck up stuff, while good ol' Doc is the one who has to stick the knife in.
Fine. Let's flash forward here a bit (hey, this is all about time travel) so we can include the exact words of AVENGERS FOREVER's award winning writer, Kurt Busiek, as he responds to the criticisms I am about to level here, in this article, that I had already leveled to him, in an email I sent him late last year after I'd had a chance to really sit down and think about the story and realize that in a lot of ways, it just didn't make sense.
In a posting on, of all places, an ASTRO CITY board, Kurt responded to a criticism I had made to him in an email of months before, by stating:
"He sent me a rambling, hostile, venomous email regarding continuity he himself did not like or approve of in AVENGERS FOREVER, even though the specific continuity he did not like had been an accepted part of Marvel continuity for years at that point."
I find it interesting that Kurt's defense of his use of a particularly senseless piece of continuity in AVENGERS FOREVER, is "Well, that piece of continuity was already in place, so don't blame me".
Gee. Silly me. I didn't realize that AVENGERS FOREVER was only about repairing the sensible, intelligently conceived time travel continuity, and that the really stupid stuff that made no sense was supposed to be considered as sacrosanct and left in place.
What Kurt tried to do, in this particular issue of AVENGERS FOREVER, was laudable, and very ambitious: he tried to find a way to reconcile, in an intelligent and articulate and clearly coherent fashion, as much as possible of all the various Kang storylines that had been done over nearly four decades of Marvel comics history, in one consistent, seamless, easily graspable timeline.
Or, at least, so I imagine he started out. Or, you know, I could be dead wrong, and maybe, given that he's the guy who always wanted to use other 'options', like temporal echoes and divergent selves and like that, to explain away inconsistencies in Kang's continuity, maybe he never intended to make it all into one coherent, traceable, consistent lifeline. Maybe he just decided to pull in as much of it as he could, shake it around, and see if it fell into anything like a sensible pattern.
Whatever it was he planned to do, what he ended up doing was detailing, in more or less linear fashion, a storyline that accomplished little I could see except to completely validate my earlier instincts, namely, that every appearance by Kang after his 'death' in the "Gods Go West" storyline was something that a sane person would at all costs avoid even becoming aware of, much less actually reading and thinking about.
To say it was confusing would be kind of like saying that space is large, that Pepsico employs several people, that there are unresolved issues regarding the legitimacy of the 2000 Presidential election. Such statements are accurate, yet they do not fully convey the depth and breadth of the concept we are attempting to communicate with them.
In a manner that may, in fact, be Kurt's most finely honed and well developed writing skill, Kurt did his best to distract the reader from how confusing this all was, setting things out in as close to a straightforward fashion as he could, bringing in various other plot devices to explain over the really funky parts, falling back on "I have no idea why I did all that, I must have in a really weird mood" dialogue to explain some of Kang's stranger plots (the ones that still had to be explained, after, in a previous issue, we'd been told that some of the truly weird stuff Kang had supposedly done had actually been done by a disguised Immortus and a bunch of Space Phantoms). Perhaps most deftly of all, to patch any cracks that might have remained and make the whole narrative move much more smoothly, Kurt lifted captions and dialogue by our mutual idol Steve Englehart intact from previous, Silver Age Kang appearances, giving his own undeniably glib wordplay a remarkable illusion of depth and lyrical power and lending a persuasive sense of authenticity and authority, at least, to any older fans like me who might be in the audience.
While doing it, he did his best to palm a whole handful of cards, in the hope that we'd be so busy looking at the truly beautiful artwork and (re) reading the truly beautiful recycled narration that none of us would notice little things like where he indicated that in point of fact, this particular Kang narrating all this, and acting as one of the prime movers of AVENGERS FOREVER, actually had no idea which of many divergent Kangs he was, because ever since some previous story involving a glowing Limbo disco ball that messed with his sanity, he'd completely lost track of his own personal timeline. Of course, given that, any attempt to explain anything is fruitless, but nonetheless, Kurt then goes on to tell us that... um... well... this is complicated.
You see, in the original Englehart story concerning Kang's attempt to secure the Celestial Madonna and through their child, rule the heavens (not, I grant you, your typical supervillain strategy for conquering the universe), Kang's own future self, the Pharaoh Rama Tut, who had also been Kang's past self, helped the Avengers to foil his plan. Why? Because, as Englehart originally wrote it and Kurt later shamelessly swiped and re-used it, "As my 60th year crept upon me, I realized the void I had made of my life. Conquest was a drug, stimulating for a time, but no more. In the end, I woke up alone." Lonely and bored, Englehart's aged Kang traveled back to ancient Egypt, to just after an adventure where the Fantastic Four had defeated his previous identity Rama Tut. Reassuming his reign over his people, who were overjoyed to see him return after his banishment at the hands of the "Blue Devils", he ruled them wisely and well, and there found the fulfillment that his 40th Century conquests had not brought him. Still, older, wiser, and more enlightened, he could not help but brood over his past defeats as Kang, and realize all the damage he had done in his pursuit of the Madonna. He decided to do what he could to undo some of the harm he had done, and so determined to re-enter his own past and oppose his own previous schemes.
Which he does, and, by the way, if you haven't read the original stories by Steve Englehart in AVENGERS and GIANT SIZE AVENGERS, you're missing a real treat, from an era when comic books didn't have to be stupid just because they were aimed at a mostly teen age audience, and writers like Englehart and Gerber were taking superhero comics to places they had never been before and wouldn't be again until Alan Moore came along with America's Best Comics twenty five years later.
Now, what Kurt did was change all this... subtly, and in ways I didn't see the first couple of times I read the issue. Although he was pulling up old Englehart captions and word balloons pretty much intact and using them to wallpaper over the cracks in his own adequate narrative skills, what he did in this case was, as the Kang of this particular story started describing his own 60th year, and the boredom that he felt in his fully pacified distant century... he left out that last bit Englehart had put in about how, "in the end, I woke up alone". This had originally been a reference to the fact that Kang's beloved Ravonna was in a permanent coma (thus justifying Kang's despair and loneliness, as Ravonna was the only woman he'd ever loved). Instead, Kurt changed the caption, and the whole future timeline, and, in fact, the whole future Kang who eventually becomes Rama Tut again, by showing us that in fact, in the new, official, 'coherent' and 'rationalized' Kang timeline presented in AVENGERS FOREVER, a divergent version of Ravonna had shown up to rule by Kang's side in the future. Eventually, bored with THAT, this subtly but entirely different Kang had gone back into the past to re-become Rama Tut.
Now, while I consider any tampering whatsoever with the original work of the Master (at least in regards to a Kang story, where Englehart really excelled) to be sacrilege, and a truly bad idea, I don't expect everyone else to agree, and I wouldn't criticize Kurt, normally, for doing that. (Although, late breaking newsflash: Recently on the Comic Book Resources Avengers/Thunderbolts chatboard, Kurt has stated explicitly that he considers GIANT SIZE AVENGERS #2 to be the greatest AVENGERS story ever told. He's got some kind of balls rewriting it for his own inferior Kang story, don't he?)
However, what I do criticize him for is that, with this one minor change, he's pretty much retroactively ruined that whole story by Englehart, by changing things so that the Kang who sought the Celestial Madonna is NOT the same Kang who eventually re-becomes Rama Tut and seeks to redeem himself by opposing his own past evil. What we're being told here... although it goes by quickly and you have to really pay attention to get it... is that the Kang in AVENGERS FOREVER is not the same Kang in those previous Englehart Avengers stories. He IS the older version of Rama Tut who journeyed via suspended animation into the 20th Century to oppose 'his' past in those stories, yes... but that Rama Tut grew from a divergent Kang, one who had a version of Ravonna helping him rule his 40th Century Empire. The Kang from the Englehart stories is the one who got killed in that combat with Thor. He's dead. He never became older, got disillusioned, attained enlightenment and wisdom, sought redemption, and ultimately failed to undo the series of events that led to the tragic death of the Swordsman.
Without that central paradox as its thematic, characteristic, and emotional core, Englehart's original Celestial Madonna storyline is pretty much flat and pointless.
Now, hypothetical readers can accept or reject this, I don't care... but it seems to me that when a writer sets out to make coherent sense out of past stories that are in conflict with each other, he should at least have the good sense, and respect for a superior talent, to be able to judge which previous stories were better than which other previous stories, and thus, should be preserved intact. In other words, I feel Englehart's Kang stories should have been given priority... and I will point out, to those who are now saying that's not a legitimate reason to criticize Kurt Busiek's decision to do otherwise, that Kurt most likely agrees with me, given the number of times he has gone back to Steve Englehart's Silver Age Avengers continuity and found aspects of it to develop in his own work on the title.
Beyond that, one of the consistent things Kurt Busiek has received praise for in his work on AVENGERS is his respect for past continuity, and specifically, his respect for Englehart's previous work on the series. Prior to this, he had gone to enormous time and trouble to reinstate Englehart's previous depiction of the Vision's origin, even though that story was hardly crucial or essential to the central one being told in AVENGERS FOREVER. It seems to me that if he is willing to go to that kind of effort to restore the validity of an Englehart story not even really part of his plotline, he should be willing to do the same for a story that is absolutely central and crucial to his plotline.
Beyond THAT, the Englehart Celestial Madonna story is one that is treasured and beloved by Silver Age fans and pros alike, that is considered not only classic, but by many, the absolute best that the Avengers, and Kang, have ever been portrayed. As with Englehart's equally classic depiction of Batman in DETECTIVE COMICS in the late 1970s, the Celestial Madonna story is considered by many to be quite simply the textbook definition of these characters, in that time period... not to mention without a doubt the greatest, most well written, most intelligently plotted and designed, and most astonishingly moving time travel story ever done in superhero comic books.
Now, there's no secret that in many ways Kurt Busiek considers himself to be a student of Steve Englehart, but in my opinion, he has never equalled Englehart's skill and talent, when Englehart was at the top of his form, much less surpassed it. And for all Kurt's talent, and skill, and excellence as a writer, I myself cannot think of any professional or any serious comics analyst who has ever stated otherwise. Kurt's a good writer; in fact, I'm one of maybe three people in the world who can honestly say that he's a considerably better writer than most people have ever seen. But he's no Silver Age Englehart, however much he'd like to believe otherwise.
Therefore, when he cuts the heart out of what may be the greatest thing written by a man who may be the greatest single writer who has ever worked in superhero comics... what, as I noted parenthetically above, Busiek himself publicly states he believes to be the BEST AVENGERS STORY EVERY TOLD... in service of a story that winds up being muddled, confusing, chaotic, inconsistent, and through the very aspects it adds to ongoing continuity, potentially ephemeral and easily invalidated... well, I can only call that two things:
And... bad writing.
But... wait! This was an established part of continuity for years before AVENGERS FOREVER!! It's not Kurt Busiek's fault, is it? And, by the way, that's not just some hypothetical Avid Busiek Sycophant saying that... no, that's the very defense Kurt himself tossed off, on a chatboard posting where he responded to a letter I'd sent to him on this very point, when he said:
"And most recently, through the apenation site, he sent me a long and
nasty e-mail excoriating me for establishing a point of continuity in
AVENGERS FOREVER that he didn't think was sufficiently respectful to
Steve Englehart, despite the fact that this bit he hated so much had
been established AVENGERS history for over ten years by the time it
turned up in FOREVER."
I think this is an extraordinary point, and one that deserves some exploration. Kurt's defense to his establishing, as definitive, on the same page where he extensively quotes from the original Englehart story, that that Englehart story was not what we thought it was or how Steve E. wrote it, but is, in fact, something much worse and far lamer... is "Hey, gee, guys, I didn't make that up! I just left it in!"
Well, Kurt didn't make up 'Professor Horton' showing up in WEST COAST AVENGERS and declaring that the Vision was 'not [his] work!'... so I guess he should have just left that in, right?
Kurt didn't make up the variant timeline where a bunch of goobers formed a team called the Avengers in the 1950s... so what the heck, he should have just left that in place in the Marvel multiverse, right?
Kurt didn't make up many, many late Modern Age stories where Kang supposedly mind controlled Iron Man, forced Hank Pym into yet another nervous breakdown, orchestrated a huge variant timeline adventure featuring many of the Avengers former friends and enemies... so, naturally, Kurt, not wanting to in any way tamper with past established continuity, should have just left all that utterly unaltered and untouched, too, yes?
I get it, I get it. AVENGERS FOREVER wasn't about getting rid of badly conceived continuity and retroactive continuity that made the whole Kang/Rama Tut/Immortus time travel concept impossible to understand, contradictory, and, well, crappy... oh no, not at all! Kurt and Roger weren't shaping, pruning, re-editing, and applying their immense creative talents into bringing some kind of more intelligent and clearly better coherency out of this muddled mess, and therefore, I shouldn't have expected Kurt to ever exercise any actual judgement and decide "Say, here's a piece of continuity that says that the Kang who tried to kidnap the Celestial Madonna and then fought Thor in the Old West was actually a variant Kang, and is REALLY DEAD NOW, and thus, the Rama Tut that helped the Avengers against him wasn't REALLY himself at a more advanced age... let's get rid of THIS piece of shit right NOW..." heck no! That wasn't what Kurt was doing! At no point in AVENGERS FOREVER did he pick and choose, make judgement calls, exercise priorities, point a finger and say "THIS piece of continuity can stay, but THAT piece... ew! Ick! Outta here!"
What the hell was I thinking? True, it's a really rotten piece of continuity, bad story idea, execrable, unacceptable... and that's not just my opinion; remember, Kurt's favorite AVENGERS comic EVER is GIANT SIZE AVENGERS #2, so it's probably his, as well. But why should Kurt have taken the opportunity to actually FIX it? It was an established part of continuity! For over TEN YEARS! BY THE TIME IT TURNED UP IN THIS STORY!!!
Well, hesh mah mouf'.
To my mind, it's very simple, and once I realized this, I realized it in full and utter completeness... according to AVENGERS FOREVER, the Kang who was first beaten by the Avengers in issue #8, who came back in #20, who saw Ravonna die, who sought the Celestial Madonna and was foiled, who traveled back to the 19th Century and battled Thor and seemingly died there... well, he didn't 'seemingly' die there, he REALLY DID die there. Permanently. Once and for all. He's DEAD, Jim.
The thing of it is, is... to me, that's the REAL Kang. If he's dead... and Kurt says he is, yes sir... then... what's the point? All the Kangs since then, including the Kang in AVENGERS FOREVER... they're fakes. Clones. Dopplegangers. Evil twins. It's like finding out that the Dr. Doom who shot the Baxter Building into space was really a robot, that the Fantastic Four were replaced by LMDs by the Wingless Wizard in issue #33 and no one has ever noticed, that a large, random number of Superman's Silver Age adventures actually happened to an unknown number of Superman robots.
It's like finding out Spider-Man is a clone.
Now, if you're still not convinced it's a truly, wretched, shitty, disappointing, disillusioning thing to discover, IN A SERIES THAT IS CLEARLY MEANT TO ESTABLISH A VALID TIMELINE FOR THE CHARACTER, let me just toss on the last little factor that makes it so truly lousy... this doesn't just kick the crap out of every Kang appearance since "The Gods Go West". Actually, if all this did was establish that the real Kang died at the end of that story, and it's all been divergent timeline Kangs and temporal doppelgangers since, I could live with that. That would make Englehart the last person to write the real Kang, and there would be justice in that. If my old buddy Kurt had sneakily established such a fact while no one was looking, I'd be clapping him on the back. "Good job," I'd say, although he'd pretty much ignore me, or, if he was in the mood, he'd spit on me on some public chatboard a few months later.
But no, this doesn't just invalidate all the Kangs since then. What this does is establish as part of Avengers and Marvel continuity and canon that the Rama Tut and Kang in the Englehart Celestial Madonna story were not two different versions of the same person... they were divergent versions of past and future versions of each other. Englehart's classic tale of redemption, in which Mantis came to realize and repent her failings... too late... in which the Swordsman finally redeemed all his past sins in one glorious, tragic moment of heroism... and in which a time traveling adventurer and former conqueror strove to undo some of the evil and tragedy that his own past actions had caused, thus finding some sort of redemption... and, ultimately, found himself helpless to do so... well, now, it's missing one whole dimension. It's less vivid. It doesn't work as well. It's flatter, less brilliant, less... special.
That is the major problem I have with AVENGERS FOREVER, and if the continuity point I have such a problem with had been established for years before Kurt wrote that story, then that continuity point sucked, and Kurt knew it sucked, and Kurt chose, for whatever reasons, to leave it in place, so Kurt's story sucks, too. And for him to bluster that it isn't his fault, that he didn't come up with it, that it was part of the Marvel Universe for years, when he himself knows that the specific purpose for doing AVENGERS FOREVER was to clean up all the stupid crap that has accrued to the Kang continuity in the last twenty or thirty years... well, that's just a pretty lousy and pathetic excuse, as far as I can see.
BREAK: REFLECTIONS OF THE MANHUNTER
With Kang's past more or less tidied up (or so I thought at the time), the story quickly proceeded into the endgame. Most of the truly shocking revelations were behind us now; what remained to be done was actual plot resolution... figuring out how our motley crew was actually going to manage to defeat the all but ominipotent Immortus' plot machinations and save Rick's life, all the while aware that by saving Rick's life, they might very well be creating a future timeline in which the Avengers had become of force for evil and repression, the enforcement arm of a dark, tyrannical Empire that spanned a significant section of the Milky Way Galaxy.
Along the way, adroitly sewn seeds of personal conflict erupted into treacherous ambush and personal betrayals, and even eventual triumph over such setbacks left the timeless Avengers squad no closer to figuring out exactly how they were going to go about beating an enemy with the demonstrated power to casually destroy entire divergent universes.
Then, in an intriguing plot twist, the Avengers learned that simply by managing to defy Immortus this long, they had placed their seemingly all powerful enemy in imminent danger of being killed by his own vastly more powerful temporal patrons, a group of chronal manipulators who called themselves the Time Keepers.
In a final climactic battle that actually managed to outdo in panoply and splendor even the previous all out clashes between armies drawn from all epochs of human history, every Avenger who had ever existed in any timeline battled to the death to determine the fate of Rick Jones. On the side of the Time Keepers were every Avenger from every timeline where the Avengers had become corrupt and evil, while, on the side of our Avengers, transported to the site of the final conflict by Rick Jones' newly reactivated Destiny Force, every 'good' Avenger from every non corrupted timeline took the field.
(Exactly why the 'bad' Avengers all aligned with the Time Keepers, while the 'good' Avengers all aligned with the Avengers is never really explained. I mean, if the Time Keepers are capable of asserting direct mental control over a near infinite array of 'bad' Avengers, why can't they do the same to all the 'good' Avengers? If Rick Jones' Destiny Force is capable of manifesting a near infinite array of 'good' Avengers, why can't it just cancel out all the 'bad' Avengers? Or put them all in stasis? I don't know, and apparently, only I care, so never mind.)
In the end, though, as it should, the final battle came down to Rick, Kang, Immortus, our time tossed seven Avengers, and the Time Keepers themselves... and only by coming together as a team, and using the power of the Destiny Force, did the Avengers manage to weaken the Time Keepers enough for Kang to finally gun them down in cold blood with what looked for all the world like a pair of celestial six guns.
The universe... was saved. More than that, as a result of the entropic forces unleashed, Kang and Immortus were now two entirely separate entities, free to pursue their own non-linked lifelines and destinies... while Rick, having heroically sacrificed himself to prevent the Time Keepers from triumphing, found his life force linked to that of the new Captain Marvel, in a truly, spectacularly poorly judged move that I can only hope was dictated to Kurt and Roger from on high in order to set up the current CAPTAIN MARVEL series, and wasn't actually either of their idea.
Last but not least, somehow or other, the Supreme Intelligence wound up with the Forever Crystal... doubtless Kurt's attempt to add something permanent and lasting to Marvel's canon of Cosmic Power Items.
All told, the AVENGERS FOREVER mini-series seems to have been the sort of thing that, had it been a movie, critics all over the country would have called "A WILD RIDE!", given four stars or a big thumbs up, and then cut out those quotes, pasted them up with their properly spelled names and newspapers or magazines carefully attributed underneath, and faxed them into the film's publicist in hopes of getting some free publicity themselves from the movie's national ad campaign.
And a wild ride it was, indeed. Exciting, pulse-pounding, filled with splendor and spectacle, cutting across dozens of separate past storylines, thousands of lightyears, dozens of dimensions, spanning centuries of time, this was the kind of classic epic Jim Shooter had once declared "don't work any more" in superhero comics. Universes lived and died! The destiny of the human race was decided on a single roll of the dice, winner take all! And unto the Marvel Universe, a new hero was born! Face Front, Frantic One! Mighty Marvel was once more on the march!
In the midst of it all, that single, lonely voice asking... "...but was it any GOOD?"... was all but drowned out by the crashing, cosmic cacophony.
BREAK: REFLECTIONS OF DOC NEBULA
As always, I get to be the bad guy. Now, we have to close this down by talking about the one single element of this mini-series that not only makes AVENGERS FOREVER a lousy story, but that also makes it something that no sane editor, or writer who honestly cares about the continuing coherency of the continuity of the Marvel Universe, should ever have had a part in publishing.
Yep. We're gonna talk about the Space Phantoms.
First, and this part is just my opinion, but nonetheless, it has always seemed to me that the Space Phantom story in AVENGERS #2 is without a doubt the absolute dumbest and most embarrassing story ever come up with by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The concept of a humanoid alien which possesses the power to take on the form of any living being so 'completely' that, due to some utterly bizarre rule about absolutely identical beings not being able to exist in the same dimension, the original entity gets displaced to Limbo... I'll tell you, the first time I read the story I kind of grimaced and muttered "Oh, THAT's crap", to myself, and by now, while I've read the story probably three or four more times since then (as opposed to the twenty or thirty times I've read the early Avengers stories that I actually love, because, you know, they make SENSE), I can never stifle the urge to cough into my hand and go ::hahhuhmBULLshit:: whenever I read that. It's nonsensical, absurd, has not the remotest shred of logic to it, and, honestly, it's just frickin' stupid.
When we compound this stupidity by eventually having the Avengers defeat the Space Phantom, not by pounding him into goo as he so richly deserves and then imprisoning him in a ketchup bottle, but rather, simply because Asgardians are immune to his powers, so that when he tries to duplicate Thor, HE gets sent to limbo instead... augh! It's horrible! It just offends any kind of willingness to suspend disbelief; frankly, I'm not willing and cannot be made willing to suspend my disbelief THAT much.
If ever there was a story that cried out for a ret-con, boy, that one was it.
And yet, strangely, no one touched it, and Steve Englehart, whom in most manners I revere as the closest thing to a god the comic book writing field has ever seen (even though he's mean and doesn't answer his email consistently) actually brought the hose monkey BACK a couple of times, and on neither occasion did he trouble himself to even try to explain away these ridiculous powers. No character in the history of the Marvel Universe has ever needed to be revealed as a hoax more than this big eyed, tufty-haired, psychotically ridiculous bing-bong, and yet, for some reason unknown to gods or men, he has apparently always been deemed as untouchable.
Then along comes AVENGERS FOREVER and accomplishes the impossible... not only does it bring back the Space Phantom and once more validate these unbelievably ridiculous powers that simply make no logical or rational sense... but now, there are millions of the little fuckers, all bent to fulfilling the merest whim of the apparently deranged and randomly dotty Immortus, who thinks nothing of assigning entire legions of them to accomplish rather dimwitted and dubious goals like sucking the time travel powers out of Thor's hammer, giving the Vision enough self confidence to propose to the Scarlet Witch, and foiling Kang in his final assault on the Celestial Madonna.
Not only are there apparently millions of these nasty little Space Cockroaches, now, but in addition, AVENGERS FOREVER also assures us that if Immortus wants to, he can condition them so that at any given time, they actually believe they are the being they are impersonating. (Apparently, this conditioning is such that although these impersonating Space Phantoms actually believe they really are the person whom they are actually duplicating, nonetheless, without conscious awareness, they nonetheless behave in whatever manner they need to in order to accomplish Immortus' devious, if not outright deranged, goals in placing them there in the first place.)
Doubtless, Kurt, or Roger, or whoever thought this monumental ploy up, believed this was brilliant... the ultimate in undetectable retroactive continuity ruses, by which they could simply point to any spot in any past storyline that didn't make sense within the conceptual framework they were trying to erect, and say "Look! That guy was ACTUALLY a Space Phantom! That's why he did all those silly things! Pay no attention to him!"
The problem I have now, of course, is that with your basic one swell foop, as I believe Gerry Conway's Thing might have once said, Kurt and Rog have introduced into Marvel continuity an element whereby any writer, at any time, can simply, easily, and irrefutably cancel out any previous story ever written. It's, without a doubt, the cheesiest escape hatch ever contrived. Don't like the way Dr. Strange was written in the Dave Kraft DEFENDERS? No problem - he was a Space Phantom! Nick Fury dead? No biggie - the Nick Fury that died was a Space Phantom! Think everything Chris Claremont did on the Fantastic Four sucks? Fine... they were all Space Phantoms!
That last idea has some merit, actually. Maybe the X-Men have all been Space Phantoms since, oh, just before GIANT SIZE X-MEN #1...
It's just an awful idea, and one that, without question, is going to be misused. In fact, it can't really be 'used', in the sense of used well or appropriately; it is, by definition, an abusive plot device.
A universe with an infinity of Space Phantoms in it at any given time, who cannot be detected by any known means, and whose perfidious plots can only be told at some later date, when somehow you manage to grab one long enough to torture the truth out of it, and just happen to have someone with cosmic awareness standing nearby to confirm it's telling the truth... this is not a universe that one can repose any real faith in the objectivity of.
From now on, at any given time, anything we see occur in the Marvel Universe may be a lie. Oh, sure, that was always true... but now, the falseness of what we're seeing can pretty much be assumed to be a constant. After all, we now know that at any given time, a significant percentage of the characters presented in any Marvel comic book MUST BE SPACE PHANTOMS. The only mystery left is, which ones will eventually be revealed as impostors by future writers wanting to ret con those stories out of existence?
Boy, talk about looking around a room and wondering what secrets everyone might be keeping...!
For me, this makes AVENGERS FOREVER not just a bad comic, but one that, really, should not have been published in its current form. I mean, I can live with the sloppy writing, the boring ret cons, the stupidly conceived conflicts, the not well thought through application of truly astonishing plot devices... as long as it only matters within the confines of that story.
However, this Space Phantoms thing is simply a blight on the entirety of the Marvel Universe... not just now, but apparently, for centuries in the past, and centuries to come.
AVENGERS FOREVER? Maybe.
But only if they aren't Space Phantoms.
* ** * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. Nor, for that matter, does his past and/or future self, Doc Nebula. Both of them, however, are convinced that in point of fact, the Marvel Universe is one immutable, seamless timeline that cannot be altered or changed and that has no divergent or potential timelines branching off from it. It is the considered opinion of everyone involved in typing this that in point of fact, all evidence that time is mutable, divergent timelines can be created, and the past can be altered within the Marvel Universe has been produced as part of a vast conspiracy and hoax meant to delude Kang the Conqueror and other MU time travelers into a false belief about the very nature of the space time continuum in which they dwell. That's our story and we're stickin' to it.