A birthday salute by Fred Van Lente. Good times…
UPDATED 9/17/22: Roger Stern turns 72! Perfect time to re-present this piece, which ran on the writer’s birthday in 2020 in slightly different form. Dig it. — Dan
Whether you love him from Spider-Man, the Avengers, Superman, Doctor Strange or any of the other major characters he’s chronicled over the decades, Roger Stern remains one of comics’ most popular writers.
Stern — born Sept. 17, 1950 — is turning 72, so as a birthday salute, comics writer-cum-13th Dimension contributor Fred Van Lente has pulled together the TOP 13 ROGER STERN AVENGERS STORIES — RANKED.
By FRED VAN LENTE
Hi, my name is Fred Van Lente, and I read old comics so you don’t have to. Or, more accurately, I read a metric crap-ton of old comics, and then I come and tell you which 13 of those you should read, somewhat arbitrarily ranked in order of preference, because the human brain has developed a Pavlovian attraction to listicles.
Happy birthday to one of the best writers The Avengers ever had, Roger Stern. In the 1980s this was the Marvel Universe’s Book of Record, in a way it wouldn’t be again until Brian Michael Bendis took over the title in 2005. Except Bendis set the agenda, while too often the Stern Avengers were reacting to it: when the Casket of Ancient Winters opened in Thor, when Galactus ate the Skrull homeworld in FF, when Jean Grey came back to life in X-Factor, the Avengers were dragooned to comment on it like they were CNN talking-heads and not policy-makers in their own right. Stern’s Avengers was the Village Bicycle of Marvel continuity; every other title (Spider-Woman, for Christ’s sake) got to take a ride, long before whining about endless crossovers got trendy. But somehow Stern never let that get in the way of his fine sense of character and ability to dream up a spectacular action sequence.
The Avengers has always been my favorite Marvel book, and the Stern era lasted much of the 1980s, producing some of the title’s best moments. Here’s my TOP 13 picks, beginning with what to me is a very special one.
13. The Avengers #286: The Fix Is On! This is something of an Honorable Mention, but a deeply felt personal one. I was 15 when this comic came out, and some time before I had written to Marvel voicing my desire to become a comic-book writer and asking if they had any advice.
Avengers editor Mark Gruenwald wrote a very encouraging note back to me on Marvel letterhead — Spider-Man letterhead! — and included with it the Roger Stern “Marvel Method”-style plot for this issue, to show me how it’s done. The story is about a deeply oddball line-up (Sub-Mariner, his wife Marrina, chairwoman Monica Rambeau, Dr. Druid, the Black Knight and She-Hulk) fighting the Fixer for control of the Marvel Universe’s robots. Sadly, I have long since lost that letter and Stern’s plot, and I never got to thank Mark Gruenwald for his kindness, because he died of a heart attack in 1996 before I fully “went pro.”
But go pro I did, and I did not even realize until this re-read that this issue was dialogued by Ralph Macchio, who would become my editor on Marvel Zombies and Iron Man once I got to work at Marvel myself. Seeing that got me choked up a little — just as I’m getting a little choked up typing this now. Thanks, Mark. You didn’t have to do that for a kid in nowhere, Ohio, but I’m glad you did.
12. The Avengers #232: And Now… Starfox! Eros of Titan has never gotten as much love (pun intended) as his fellow New God-ripoff brother Thanos, mostly because conflict not comity drives drama across all genres. But his “Marvel’s Lightray” personality is a great addition to the team mix. Hilariously, in order to grant him the proper security clearances to join the Avengers, Ronald Reagan makes him change his name to Starfox because Eros is too “provocative.”
When the newly christened Starfox complains, Captain America says it’s cool because his real name isn’t Captain America. (Eros: “It isn’t?”) He’s immediately thrown into the deep end going after Plantman, who’s trying to mess up the US Navy with a giant kelp monster. Also, we get a drunk Tony Stark at his most belligerent and slurry. Good times.
11. The Avengers #262: “Many Brave Hearts…” You’ll notice a lot of my choices feature Hercules, for whom I have a well-known affinity. In a classic Marvel-style real-world complication, the FAA bans the Avengers from flying their quinjets into the heart of Manhattan because they are magnets for property damage, so they have to contract airfield space from Stingray’s floating island. The Sub-Mariner is visiting, having just lost his kingdom in some other title. He is understandably down in the dumps, so Hercules less understandably slaps the crap out of him until he feels better. It works. Namor joins the Avengers. Good times.
10. The Avengers #229: Final Curtain! Pity Henry Pym, the Fifth Beatle of the O.G. Avengers. He’s not even the most interesting shrinking person, scientist or blonde guy on his own superhero team. Since writers don’t know what the heck to do with him, his story has been a long, sad series of identity crises, nervous breakdowns, and domestic violence. Even his archenemy is the second-best Egghead (the first is obvious). So bless Stern for giving Pym some redemption here.
After being framed by Ovum-Cranium and then “rescued” by the Masters of Evil at his own trial, he’s forced a la Jesse at the end of Breaking Bad to cook up some new gadgets for the bad guys. Instead, of course, he invents some power bands to whip their butts. Also in this issue: Jennifer Walters can’t turn into She-Hulk, so Hawkeye mansplains at her until she turns green and slaps the Sherwood Forest out of him. Then he accidentally murders Egghead. Good times.
9. The Mighty* Avengers #251: Deceptions! Though most people will probably call Under Siege the most memorable storyline of Stern’s run, I am partial to Vision-Takes-Over-the-World, mostly because Vizh is one of my all-time favorite superheroes. Stern does such a great job of building his increasing ambitions, thanks to his link to ISAAC, the computer mind that runs Thanos’ homeworld Titan. It is one of the rare instances where the ambitions of a world-conqueror are genuinely sympathetic. Here, there’s a nice little side adventure in which the Wasp goes on vacation and romances, then teams up with, the mercenary Paladin. Good times.
(* Starting with #241, Avengers jacked Thor’s adjective and became Mighty, like they were in the late ’60s. Then, as of #256, they stopped. Don’t ask me why.)
8. The Avengers #239: Late Night of the Super-Stars! Fame-whore Wonder Man uses his Avengers status to get him booked on David Letterman’s show. When secretly-plotting-to-conquer-the-world Vision gets wind of this, he thinks it’s a great global PR move, and calls in a bunch of reserve Avengers, including recently married Hawkeye and Mockingbird, to join him on set.
Unfortunately, everything that could go wrong on show night, does. Hawkeye has been partially deafened in a previous adventure and keeps giving the wrong answers to all of Dave’s questions. Paul is wearing a deeply tacky Captain America t-shirt. Oh, and a mad scientist attacks with his murder-gadgets in the middle of the interview. Dave, trouper that he is, tries to convince everyone it’s all part of the show, even going so far as defeating the villain himself.
While most appearances of real celebrities in superhero comics are deeply cringeworthy (or awesome, when I’m in charge), this one is actually a lot of fun, and Stern absolutely nails Letterman’s voice, to the point where I wonder if his staff got to give notes on his lines. Good times.
7. The Mighty Avengers #245: Bombshells! Stern co-created Monica Rambeau over in The Amazing Spider-Man. He knew that the best way to get fans to grok your new creations is to cram them sideways down their throats in whatever big-name book you’re currently working on, as my pal Greg Pak also wisely did with Amadeus Cho in Incredible Hulk.
Fortunately, like Amadeus, Monica is a great character, with a solid backstory and spectacular power-set. Stern does a fantastic job writing her as the new kid with fresh eyes and a heavy dose of imposter syndrome. She takes center stage here as Rom takes a spin on the Village Bicycle of Marvel Continuity. The Avengers are caught between warring genders of shapeshifting Dire Wraiths on both Earth and in space. Good times.
6. The Avengers #267: Time—And Time Again! I am either getting more gullible as I get older or I am getting more jaded at the ability of old-school comics writers to fool me, because this issue opens with an Avengers team consisting of Storm, Colossus, Cap, Herc, Wasp and Iron Man and I totally bought it until Kang showed up and murdered them all. Of course, it’s an alternate-reality Avengers, and this is an alternate-reality Kang. His various temporal duplicates have formed a Council of Kangs to separate winners from losers. One Kang plots to wipe out the others, in a scheme that ropes in our Avengers — but what other Darwinian outcome would you expect from a bunch of psychotic time travelers combining forces? Good times.
5. West Coast Avengers (Vol. 1) #2: Technically, this miniseries is a spin-off of the storyline in the main book: Vision sends Hawkeye to Hollywood to extend his influence across the continent. Which is ironic, since the mini’s finite nature lets Stern finally toss the Continuity Bicycle into the river. WCA is a great story, with distinct, well-motivated characters and a strong beginning, middle and end without Stern having to tie up loose story threads from fucking Rom.
Also, penciller Bob Hall and inker Brett Breeding produce the best art Stern enjoyed for any of his many Avengers stories. It’s baffling to me that Marvel saddled one of its flagship titles with such ho-hum pencilling for most of Stern’s run, even from 1960s Avengers MVP Big John Buscema, who was clearly pining for Hyboria for the entirety of his 1980s stint.
In this issue, the Blank, a walking Zip-A-Tone outline, tries to make a name for himself robbing L.A. blind. He’s some rando putz who literally had a super-suit fall into his hands when its inventor got hit by a car. Unfortunately for this dipstick, the newly formed second branch of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have nothing else better to do than to track his ass down. Good times.
4. The Avengers #283: Whom the Gods Would Destroy! Zeus Panhellenios, noted skyfather and asshole, blames the Avengers for his son Hercules’ beatdown in #2 on this list and banishes them to Hades for punishment, forcing them to fight, The Warriors-style, through all the realms of Olympus to freedom. I love Stern’s final full storyline to death, and was having a tough time choosing which issue to include here, but Buscema gives us some rare Big John Magic with Hephaestus’ golden femme bots, which I liked so much we brought them back in Incredible Hercules, so I went with this one. Good times.
3. The Mighty Avengers #252: Deciding Factor! Anti-mutant racists in New York’s Florida, New Jersey, burn down the Vision and Scarlet Witch’s house, goading Vision into setting his long-simmering world takeover scheme into motion by concocting an imminent attack by the long-dead Thanos. First, he tricks most of the Avengers team into bogging-down in the Titan’s old base on Earth. Next, he sends Monica Rambeau, the most powerful Avenger, on a wild goose chase to Thanos’ spaceship, where she’ll ultimately get kidnapped by Nebula, in that future-MCU star’s first appearance. Finally, and most importantly, he sends Jarvis to visit his mother. What fiendish genius! I love it when superhero characters have to use their brains (see #1 on this list) and the skill with which Vision counters his fellow heroes is a triumph of Stern’s skill at long-term plotting. Good times.
2. The Avengers #274: Divided… We Fall! Baron Zemo the younger has gathered together an army of villains to take over Avengers Mansion because he blames them for the death of Baron Zemo the elder. The super-sized Masters of Evil have a jolly old time torturing Captain America, Black Knight and Jarvis, and send a floozy to drug Hercules’ drink. Over Wasp’s objections, hopped-up-on-goofballs Herc decides to take on the entire army by himself, and they beat his ass in to a coma, leaving the Wasp the only un-captured Avenger. I prefer the episodes of series where things look the grimmest (like, for example) and this issue is perhaps the darkest of Under Siege, the most famous storyline of Stern’s run. Given Buscema’s feelings about superheroes, you get the sense he really enjoyed drawing them getting beaten half to death. Good times.
1. West Coast Avengers (Vol. 1) #4: Finale. Accidentally summoned to Los Angeles by the Blank, Graviton takes over the So Cal mobs with his awesome ability to make things heavier or lighter. Oh, and he’s in the process of murdering Wonder Man.
The remaining Avengers—Hawkeye, Mockingbird, Iron Man (Rhodey), and Tigra—realize Graviton is way more powerful than they are, so they launch an elaborate undercover operation to take him down. It’s a clever plan, bringing to a head the personal conflicts of the past three issues and proving to their boss, the Vision (as well as the comics-reading public), that the Left Coast’s Mightiest Heroes is a concept that’s gonna fly.
I teach comics from time to time and one thing we always emphasize is for writers, beginning and otherwise, to F-O-C-U-S. Set aside your multi-year epic and hone your skills on the short story, the one-shot, the mini. There’s no better example of that principle than West Coast Avengers, which in a tight four issues proves the best showcase for Stern’s many strengths.
Fred Van Lente is a comics writer, historian and playwright. His latest project, The Comic Book Story of Basketball, is out Sept. 22. (Click here for more info.)
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September 17, 2020
Great breakdown of an underrated era! Good times!
September 17, 2020
This is a very fondly remembered era of The Avengers for me (I have the floppies from 250 through Simonson’s departure to FF). Big shout out to perennial MVP Tom Palmer for his exquisite finishes over Big John’s breakdowns.
September 17, 2020
Happy birthday to Mr. Stern!