Marvel Comics Retro-Review: Avengers Vol. 3 #57-76 by Geoff Johns, Olivier Coipel and others

Avengers Vol. 3 #57-62; 64-76 (October ‘02-February ‘04)

Written by Geoff Johns (#57-62, 64-76)

Pencilled by Kieron Dwyer (#57-60), Gary Frank (#61-62), Ivan Reis (#64), Olivier Coipel (#65-70), Steve Sadowski (#71, 76), Scott Kolins (#72-75)

Inked by Rick Remender (#57-60), Jon Sibal (#61-62), Oclair Albert (#64), Andy Lanning (#65-70), Andrew Currie (#71, 76), Chris Sotomayor (#72-75)
Spoilers (from eleven to thirteen years ago)

What do you do when a legend like Kurt Busiek finishes a highly-respected and successful run on one of your marquee comics?  If you are Marvel in 2002, when the company is experiencing a lot of success and critical acclaim for bringing in some big-name writers (like Grant Morrison and Mark Millar), you apparently poach some talent from DC, and grab an up-and-coming writer.  And so Marvel got Geoff Johns to come over for about a year and a half, and he brought with him some artists that he already had a strong working relationship (Steve Sadowski, Scott Kolins), or artists that he would become strongly associated with over the next decade (Ivan Reis, Gary Frank).

I’m not sure how much freedom Johns was given to play with the team’s line-up, as he pretty much stuck to the characters that Busiek had used, with the addition of Falcon.  Here’s a list of the team members during his run:

  • Captain America (Steve Rogers)
  • Iron Man (Tony Stark)
  • Wasp (Janet Van Dyne; on vacation #64-70, 72-76)
  • Yellowjacket (Hank Pym; on vacation #64-70, 72-76)
  • Vision
  • Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff)
  • Warbird (Carol Danvers; leaves to work for Homeland Security #70)
  • Jack Of Hearts (Jack Hart; dies #76)
  • She-Hulk (Jennifer Walters; disappears after #68; found in #72)
  • Falcon (Sam Wilson)
  • Ant-Man (Scott Lang; leaves #61 but returns and becomes active #62)
  • Black Panther (T’Challa)
  • Namor the Sub-Mariner (becomes active #58, leaves #61)
  • Thor (becomes active #59, leaves #61)
  • Hawkeye (Clint Barton; returns #73)
  • Hulk (Bruce Banner; appears #74-75)

Also of great importance are two supporting cast members:

  • Edwin Jarvis
  • Henry Peter Gyrich (unofficially returns to his old job as government liaison #57; becomes official UN liaison #61)

Let’s look at the events of this series in detail, with some commentary as I go along:

  • Wasp and Yellowjacket are in Washington, which has been rebuilt after Kang destroyed the city much quicker than Falcon says the World Trade Center will be rebuilt, which is an interesting observation to make.
  • The two heroes attend an art gallery together, when some kind of earthquake interrupts their day, and the discover that there is some sort of being storm brewing.
  • Captain America and Falcon are out looking to help a coworker of Falcon’s, who is in an abusive relationship with Calvin Zabo, aka Mr. Hyde.  They find him buying drugs which help to enhance his monstrous transformation.  The rest of the team appear (Scarlet Witch, Vision, Warbird, and Iron Man) and after a fight they knock him out.
  • Jarvis recalls the team to the Mansion, where they learn that capital cities across the Earth have disappeared.  She-Hulk, Jack of Hearts, and Ant-Man appear to back up the team, although Jack and Ant-Man get into a pretty pointless and awkwardly inserted argument, which Johns uses to suggest that Jack’s anger could lead to the loss of control over his powers or something.
  • Black Panther and Henry Gyrich arrive to assist, and the Secretary-General of the United Nations ask the Avengers to take control over the world as a response to this crisis, which makes no kind of sense.
  • We also keep being given hints that something isn’t right with Scarlet Witch, culminating in her seeing things in her Tarot cards.
  • Cap, She-Hulk, and Black Panther, accompanied by Gyrich, go to address the UN and begin coordinating their response to the missing capital cities.  Vision is on monitor duty, and we see a number of Avengers, like Quicksilver and Black Knight, helping out in other countries.
  • Warbird and Falcon attempt to pierce the weird vortex around Washington, but have no luck.  They are observed by a familiar figure.
  • Iron Man addresses the EU, with Ant-Man and Jack of Hearts accompanying him.
  • We learn that similar vortexes are opening up in the oceans, which has Namor upset, and which threatens to drain the Earth of water within a number of hours.
  • Wanda gets weirder, appearing to look like the In-Betweener.
  • Inside the vortex, Wasp and Yellowjacket show us that the various missing cities are all neighbours now, and that Scorpio, wielding the Zodiac Key, is behind everything.  His plan is not completely clear, but we see an all-dark side, quiet version of the In-Betweener with him.
  • At Avengers Mansion, Iron Man locks Jack of Hearts into a ‘zero room’ for ten hours, but nothing about this is really explained very well.
  • Wanda goes into full exorcist mode, spitting flame at Carol and Jen.
  • Later, at a meeting, Namor gets all upset about the state of the world’s oceans, and the team learns that T’Challa shared information with Doctor Doom, who was able to identify the vortexes as being made by the Zodiac Key.  Everyone argues until Ant-Man asks what the Zodiac Key unlocks.
  • Wanda arrives to explain that the forces of Order and Chaos, usually held together by the In-Betweener, have come separate.  She figures that they just need to find that entity’s Order half, and she’ll be able to fix everything.
  • They find him in Virginia, but he attacks the team, holding them off until Thor arrives.  It’s not clear, but apparently he sends Cap, Vision, Black Panther, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, Iron Man, and Falcon to the other dimension where the capital cities went, leaving a handful to fight him.
  • Scorpio attacks the heroes who have just arrived, bringing Wasp and Yellowjacket with him, along with an army of scorpions and weird creatures, and the chaos half of the In-Betweener.
  • Thor takes down the order half of the In-Betweener in Virginia, and Scarlet Witch uses him to bring everyone to the other dimension, where Falcon’s bird Redwing has grabbed the Zodiac Key and managed to free all the Avengers.
  • There is a huge brawl.  Ant-Man takes control of the scorpions, and Scarlet Witch merges the two halves of the In-Betweener back together.  After Scorpio disappears, the In-Betweener returns all the cities, the Earth’s water, and the Avengers home.  The In-Betweener leaves with a warning that a big evil is coming, and that an Avenger is going to die.
  • We learn that the Avengers return control of the world to its various governments.  Gyrich tells Wasp that the Secretary General of the UN is on the line for her, but we don’t know what he wants.  She calls Cap, and he expresses surprise, but to what we don’t know.
  • We see that Scorpio was never intending to win in this weird conflict; he just wanted to test the Avengers on behalf of the Zodiac, who sit in shadows, so we don’t know who they really are.
  • We learn that the Avengers have become recognized by the UN as a world power, and now report directly to them.  That means that Avengers Mansion is now sovereign territory (whatever happened to that notion?).  The US government (remember, this is the George W. Bush era) is not happy about that.
  • Captain America decides to appoint (hire?) Henry Peter Gyrich as the team’s liaison to the UN, despite knowing that the man is difficult to work with.
  • Namor brings the team a table, but laughs off their invitation to join.  Vision kind of flirts with Scarlet Witch.  Falcon agrees to stay on the team while Thor vanishes in a huff.  Iron Man has a strange conversation with T’Challa, but the king stays with the team.  Ant-Man decides to leave, while Jack of Hearts sits in a room.
  • We learn that Dell Rusk, the Secretary of Defense for the US, makes an overture to Gyrich, and then when he is rejected, coerces him into working for him.  Redwing, the Falcon’s bird, watches this whole conversation.
  • We finally learn why Jack of Hearts has been sitting in a room for hours at a time, and been so difficult to work with.  The energy that powers his body puts him in danger of exploding.  He learns from Tony and Hank that his father created his Zero Fluid as a way of trying to help his human/alien physiology.  We also learn why he’s been such a jerk to Ant-Man, which has felt very forced and a little silly.
  • Scott Lang loses custody of his daughter Cassie, and we meet Blake, Scott’s ex-wife’s new man (who has been very absent from the recent Ant-Man series).  Having lost custody because of his association with the Avengers, Scott decides there is nothing left for him to do but join the team.
  • I skipped issue 63 because it was part of a cross-over with Iron Man and Thor, and I had no interest in reading those issues, despite Alan Davis’s art.
  • Issue 64 is a Falcon solo issue.  He meets with Gyrich in the park and they talk about their past, before learning that Gyrich’s neighbour’s daughters were kidnapped by the Scarecrow.  Falcon tracks him down and rescues the girls.
  • Later, Gyrich passes sensitive information to Rusk, the Secretary of Defence (who meets him at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, of course).  Redwing watches this go down.
  • Olivier Coipel joins the book with issue #65, and a lot of things change.  There are new costumes, and Johns takes a much more decompressed approach to his plotting, basically giving us a whole issue where a cloud of red smoke appears over a town, and some Avengers walk into it.
  • We see the red smoke appear over Mt. Rushmore, and then cause boils to appear on people it comes into contact with.  Emergency responders prepare to help the infected in a town called Keystone South Dakota (a nod to Johns’s Flash comics?), and a park ranger keeps talking about what direction the wind is going to blow.
  • Captain America and the Vision work together to help a young boy get on an evac helicopter which is full of other evacuees.  
  • The rest of the Avengers (Jack of Hearts, Warbird, She-Hulk, Ant-Man, and Scarlet Witch) arrive (many wearing new costumes), argue with the general in charge, and then put on protective suits and walk into the smoke.  That’s a whole issue, and while the Wasp is on the cover, she is not in the comic.
  • Black Panther and Iron Man travel to the CDC to look into stopping the virus, which is a form of weaponised flesh-eating bacteria.  T’Challa offers access to a treatment Wakanda has been developing, but they are interrupted by the arrival of Dell Rusk and some government goons, who don’t want them there since they are no longer agents of the American government.  T’Challa steals some samples of the virus and the two heroes go their separate ways.
  • In Custer State Park, Warbird tries to coordinate the evacuation and treatment of the infected.  There is some question as to whether or not the disease is contagious.
  • In the red cloud, the Avengers (who are not working in pairs, despite the fact that Cap paired them off last issue) wander around.  She-Hulk acts weird, and Wanda notices a hidden entrance to an underground bunker, proving that the cloud was made by the US Government.
  • Ant-Man discovers that the virus is called Project Bloodwash, and that it was intended to wipe out non-white people, although its makers were never able to get that aspect of the virus to work properly.
  • Tony, T’Challa, and Ant-Man try to figure out how to stop this thing, when the first two people are attacked at Stark Industries by soldiers working for Rusk, who arrest and charge them for treason.
  • Jack of Hearts has an introspective moment while the rest of the Avengers explore the rest of the facility.  They discover a group of AIM operatives, probably the people responsible for releasing the virus, and get into a fight.  She-Hulk’s containment suit is ripped open, and she contracts the virus.
  • Vision stops the AIM goons, and when one throws a grenade, they are all killed.
  • Jack of Hearts attempts to fly She-Hulk back to the surface, but she goes a little crazy, tries to stop him, and then reverts to her human form.  It looks like she dies from the virus.
  • We learn that the red cloud is growing at one square mile per hour, but somehow some official talking to Warbird predicts that the entire midwest will be covered within a day, which makes no kind of sense.
  • She-Hulk transforms back into a larger version of herself while Ant-Man figures out that it’s Dell Rusk who is behind the development of the virus.  She-Hulk attacks the Avengers, smashing Vision, and making everyone afraid that she will rip their suits.  Wanda is injured and/or infected (it’s not clear).
  • Warbird has a chat with the forest ranger guy about her origin, for no real clear reason, when she gets a distress call from Wanda.
  • Tony Stark and Black Panther posture in whatever holding sell Rusk stuck them in, and then Tony calls in his remote armor to rescue them.
  • Henry Gyrich chats with Rusk, who accuses him of giving him invalid codes to access the Avengers’ computer systems.  Falcon is watching over him, and when Rusk leaves, they talk.  Falcon is shot by Rusk, who reveals himself to be the Red Skull (it’s an anagram!).
  • Warbird and the parks guy go looking for the Avengers.  They load them into a helicopter, but don’t know where She-Hulk went, and no one comments on the fact that Jack of Hearts is not with them.  There is concern that his radiation-absorbing powers are messing with her gamma-based abilities.
  • While the Red Skull beats Gyrich, he also releases a different poisonous gas in the Pentagon.
  • Iron Man’s armor arrives to rescue Tony Stark and Black Panther, who are also apparently in the Pentagon.
  • The Red Skull goes into villain narration mode, but is interrupted by the arrival of Captain America (who has flown a helicopter from South Dakota in less time than it took Iron Man’s armor to fly from New York).  They fight, and the Skull reveals that he has the Falcon beaten and trussed up.  He captures Cap in a room and starts pumping in the red virus gas, while still villain narrating (he’s going to make it look like Wakanda is behind the terrorist attack at Rushmore, to start a war).  Iron Man and Black Panther bust into the room.
  • Warbird carves a giant pentagram into a nice suburb so that Wanda can work some chaos magic to stop the Red Zone from spreading (not sure why it took them five issues to decide that they should stop the cloud from killing more people instead of just walking around inside it).
  • Tony and T’Challa continue their fight with the Red Skull, who says some pretty horribly racist things.  Tony gets trapped in the same room as Captain America, who is being exposed to the virus.  When it looks like Cap has died from the disease (without exhibiting any of the skin lesions we’ve spent five issues looking at on all the other victims), Tony takes off his helmet to give CPR, even though that exposes him to the virus too.
  • Falcon, still trussed up on the wall, wakes up and gets a bunch of weird looking birds to fly through a window in the Pentagon, which gives T’Challa the chance to punch out the Skull.
  • We see that the US spreads a yellow mist that counteracts the red mist.  This was developed by Wakanda.
  • We also see that Ant-Man is in bed resting, and that Jack of Hearts is sealed in a high-tech bed thing.  Tony and T’Challa agree to share more scientific information.
  • George W. Bush (yes, really) pops by to thank Cap.  We learn that he’s given Warbird a new job as Chief Field Leader for Homeland Security (did we ever see her in that role) so she leaves the team.  Bush also offers Gyrich a job as an advisor, but he turns it down, preferring to stay with the team.  Cap and Dubya share a cheesy moment, while off in South Dakota, Vision (who has been miraculously repaired) and Wanda visit the kid that he helped in the first chapter of this bloated, poorly thought-out arc.
  • Issue 71 is a spotlight issue on Wasp and Yellowjacket, who have been chilling in Vegas, on their first vacations ever.
  • Johns starts the comic with Janet writhing in bed.  A naked tiny Hank Pym crawls up from between her cleavage, telling her it’s “her turn” in what might easily be the most suggestive scene ever published in an Avengers comic. A little later, we learn that they’ve been having a great vacation.
  • In another hotel room, Whirlwind beats on a prostitute that he’s dressed as the Wasp, and then throws her out a window to her death.
  • To be clear, this comic does not have a ‘mature readers’ warning, despite cramming cunninglingus and the murder of prostitutes in the first six pages.
  • Later, walking through the town, Hank proposes to Jan, and she says no.  They talk about their relationship (which has a lot of baggage in it) until Whirlwind attacks them.  He takes out Hank, and then manages to knock Jan down, which is when it looks like he’s going to rape her (he is shown spreading her legs and licking her cheek).  Again, not a mature readers warning in sight.
  • A gigantic, now naked, Hank attacks Whirlwind, who is then knocked out by an angry Wasp.  Jan and Hank kiss.
  • Geoff Johns gets a lot of flack for being very bleak in his DC writing, but I’m not sure he ever wrote anything there as pointlessly dark as this issue.  I had dropped this title at this point, but recently picked up the rest of Johns’s run in a huge $0.50 sale.  I had no idea this is what I’d missed all those years ago.
  • Issue 72 starts the ‘Search for She-Hulk’ arc, which is a misleading name, seeing as they find her within the first issue.
  • Jen, still affected by whatever weird radiation thing happened to her in the Red Zone, has reverted to her human form, and is wandering around Idaho looking for her cousin Bruce Banner.  She ends up in a small town, where she has a bit of a breakdown in a diner bathroom, and tells a waitress all about how her and Bruce used to read books to each other as kids.
  • Captain America, Iron Man, and Scarlet Witch arrive in town, looking for Jen.  
  • Jen emerges from the bathroom into an empty diner, where Wanda is waiting for her.  She tries to calm her distraught friend down, and then uses a hex to help her (apparently by starting to collapse the ceiling of the diner).  This frightens Jen, who turns into She-Hulk, because apparently it’s not rage the triggers her transformations, it’s fear.  She-Hulk, in lacey underwear, tries to clobber Wanda with a wooden beam.
  • Ant-Man gets to hang out with his daughter for a bit in Avengers Mansion, and then gets sad when she is picked up by her new step-father to go home.
  • She-Hulk continues to fight the Avengers who have come to Idaho to help her, and ends up blowing up the diner where she had previously cried in the bathroom.
  • Ant-Man walks Jack of Hearts to the Zero Room, and decides to pick an argument with him because Jack is sad that he has to spend fifteen hours a day in a locked room, in pain, while Scott would like Jack to care that Scott misses his daughter.  Scott lays on the guilt, claiming that Jack is responsible for the changes to She-Hulk.
  • She-Hulk continues to wreck things and put Cap, Iron Man, and Scarlet Witch in danger, but we should all feel relieved to know that Hawkeye has shown up, and he can maybe stop her with a trick arrow.
  • Hawkeye takes on the crazed She-Hulk all on his own, trying to get her out of the town, while narrating his life story and ultimately getting his butt kicked.  She’s about to trample him when Bruce Banner shows up and starts to talk her down, reminiscing about hanging out at the library, and quoting The Scarlet Letter.
  • In town, the Avengers bust out of the rubble just as the US Army and Doc Samson arrive.
  • In the woods, Jen sees the army arrive and gets all mad again.  To stop her, Hawkeye shoots Banner in the shoulder with an arrow, causing him to turn into Hulk.  The two Hulks start fighting each other.
  • Iron Man calls back to the Mansion to get Ant-Man to get Jack of Hearts out of his Zero Room (despite the fact that the sixteen hour time limit isn’t up).  Scott has to use his ant buddies to help him pick the lock on the Zero Room.
  • In Idaho, the police chief holds off the Army so that they won’t interfere in the Avengers handling the Hulk situation.
  • Jack arrives as the Avengers keep getting beaten on by one Hulk or another, and explodes, blows the top off a mountain, irradiating everything, turning She-Hulk back to Jen Walters, and then returning her to her normal She-Hulk self before absorbing all other radiation in the area, and blacking out.
  • Banner says goodbye to his cousin and takes off, then the Avengers arrive.  Everything is back to normal, except Jack is still unconscious.  It turns out that Hawkeye’s back on the team too.
  • Cassie, Scott (Ant-Man) Lang’s daughter stops some boys from burning ants in the schoolyard, and then gets lured away by a fat dude in shorts.
  • At Avengers Mansion, the team is assembled to discuss what to do with Jack of Hearts, and the fact that his powers have an adverse effect on She-Hulk’s powers.  There is some suggestion that one of them needs to leave the team.  Hawkeye thinks that it should be a seniority decision, giving Jen the right to decide.  Scott has a lot to say (despite having no seniority himself), and Jack walks in while Scott is going on about why he thinks he should leave.
  • Jack walks out, and Cap sends Scott to go talk to him and apologize.  While they are talking, Scott’s ex-wife calls, and he takes off.
  • We learn that the guy who took Cassie also murdered his own daughter.  Jack arrives on a hostage scene, with cops surrounding the building where the guy is holding Cassie.  
  • In the building, Scott attacks the guy, but (confusingly) gets shot in the shoulder.  He gets the gun, and is about to murder the dude, when Jack busts in the room, stopping him.  The dude gets the gun again (or it’s a third gun), but Jack stops him from shooting Cassie.
  • Jack needs to return to the Zero Room before he releases all of his radiation, but instead, he grabs the crazy dude and flies off to space with him, where he explodes, killing the dude and himself.  Before he leaves, he makes a short speech to the effect that he’s finally becoming a hero (because that’s what committing suicide to kill a single overweight dude in dad shorts really is).
  • Even stranger, Scott finally views Jack as worthy of being an Avenger.
  • And that’s the end of Geoff Johns’s tenure.  Thankfully.

Having read all of these comics in a short span of time, I am sorry to report that Johns’s Avengers comics were just not that good.  He had some good ideas, but too often, his decompressed plotting really hurt his stories.  

He introduced the idea of the team working for the United Nations, but after the Red Zone story, that notion just disappeared completely, never to be mentioned again.  His first storyline ended with an ominous prediction by the In-Betweener, that the Avengers would lose a member in a battle with a big evil, but that ended up being the very ambiguous and non-dramatic death of Jack of Hearts in Johns’s very last issue, as if he just remembered that he needed to address that plotline.  Similarly, he hinted that there would be a big conflict coming with the Zodiac, but that just never gets mentioned again either.  Coming off of Busiek’s run, where plots developed over fifty issues, this feels shoddy.

Now, I fully accept that it’s possible Johns’s run got truncated.  We all know that he was followed by Brian Michael Bendis’s Disassembled storyline (after a different writer filled in for a while – more on that next time), so it’s not hard to imagine that Marvel editorial started giving him orders around what had to happen with certain characters (it explains Hawkeye just walking back into the comic, rather randomly).  I also don’t know the circumstances around Johns’s leaving the title.  Did he become DC exclusive at this time?

Either way, there’s some pretty messed up stuff that happens during his run.  We see Wasp almost get raped by Whirlwind, after naked Hank Pym climbed up and down her cleavage in bed.  We see Ant-Man start an endless number of arguments with Ant-Man for no reason.  We see Iron Man and Black Panther at each other’s’ throat for no good reason.  None of these things are really in character, beyond the meanness that Johns has become known for post-JSA.

Another problem with his run is that almost complete lack of character development.  His Captain America is a cardboard figure, and characters who usually get some space to grow in this title, such as Scarlet Witch, Vision, and Warbird are basically extras.  When we do get character development, like with Falcon, Jack, Ant-Man, or even Hank Pym, it feels kind of forced, and inorganic.

The art during this run is all over the place as well.  Kieron Dwyer started with Johns, and that helped to bridge the transition in writers, but after that, we got more DC-style artists.  Gary Frank had some strange portrayals of these characters, while Ivan Reis was completely bland.  Steve Sadowski’s art lacks the energy that made his JSA issues so memorable.  I’ve never been a big fan of Scott Kolins’s art, especially the overly loose, weirdly proportioned and angled stuff he did during the She-Hulk arc.

Olivier Coipel’s first Marvel work happened in this run, and his stuff looked terrific.  I liked his new costume designs (although I’m not sure what Warbird’s was all about), and he threw a lot of energy into the comic (although the story he had to work on was pretty dull and slow-moving).

I’d dropped this run while it was coming out, and only filled in my gaps (aside from #63, which I just couldn’t bother with) because of a particularly fruitful warehouse sale that happened as I was reading these comics.  I realize that my instincts at the time were the right ones.  As bad as things got, it got worse after Johns left, but more on that next time, as we look at the issues written by one of the most maligned writers that Marvel hired in the early days of the 21st century.

If you are interested in my earlier articles about the Avengers over the course of my readership, here are some links you may enjoy.

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