Chaos War: Dead Avengers #s 1 to 3, $3.99 US, published by Marvel Comics
Writer: Fed Van Lente; Pencils: Tom Grummett; Inks: Cory Hamscher & Terry Pallot
Rating 4 out of 5 stars
Death in superhero comic books has always been a transitory state. Deceased characters often return from the great beyond. Of late, though, this has become increasingly frequent at the “Big Two” comic book publishers, with entire crossovers revolving around mass resurrections. DC had Blackest Night and its follow-up Brightest Day. Marvel published the X-Men crossover Necrosha, and are now in the midst of the universe-spanning Chaos War.
I haven’t been following Chaos War closely. From information I’ve gleamed from the summary pages and dialogue in those tie-ins I’ve bought, the premise seems to thus: a god known as the Chaos King is on a mission of cosmic nihilism. He is not merely out to kill every living being in creation; he also seeks to destroy the souls of all entities, living or dead, wiping out both the material world and the various afterlives. In other words, the Chaos King seeks the total elimination of all reality.
During the course of the Choas War arc, the Chaos King has already destroyed a number of realities wherein the spirits of the dead were dwelling, resulting in numerous beings returning to the land of the living. Among these are a handful of individuals who have been affiliated with the Avengers. Chaos War: Dead Avengers focuses on these six souls: Captain Mar-Vell, Vision, Swordsman, Deathcry, Yellowjacket, and Doctor Druid.
The writer of Chaos War: Dead Avengers is Fred Van Lente. I’ve enjoyed his work in the past. Van Lent and artist Ryan Dunlavey created the informative and entertaining Action Philosophers, and he worked with Steve Ellis on the superhero crime series The Silencers. Given how successfully Van Lent has been at penning offbeat, cerebral material, I was curious to see how he would approach a superhero story concerning life, death, and the nature of existence. I was also drawn to the miniseries by some of the cast, specifically Yellowjacket, Deathcry, and the Swordsman.
Yellowjacket is Rita DeMara, a scientist who stole Hank Pym’s old costume and technology. Originally drafted into Baron Zemo’s Masters of Evil, Rita was never the ruthless criminal sort. After serving alongside the Avengers on one mission (Avengers annual #17, for those keeping track), she decided to become a crime-fighter. Yellowjacket ended up traveling in time to the 31st century, and began a lengthy stint as a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Eventually she returned to the present day. Unfortunately, upon her arrival Yellowjacket was immediately murdered by a mind-controlled Iron Man. Done to open the Avengers storyline The Crossing with a shock, I always felt it was a cheap, throwaway death that squandered an interesting character.
Deathcry is a Shi’ar warrior who was sent by Empress Lilandra to aid the Avengers in thwarting an alien plot to destroy the Earth. Truthfully, I originally hated Deathcry. She seemed to represent all that was wrong with superhero comic books in the early 1990s. Back then, the X-Men titles and “bad girl” comics were selling like hotcakes. And here was a character who was like a combination of the two, a female Wolverine-type badass possessing a short fuse and a mile-wide attitude. Oh, yeah, and she had “death” in her name, just like sixty-seven percent of the other comic book characters introduced in 1993. However, as months passed, Avengers writer Bob Harras gradually developed Deathcry into an interesting three-dimensional individual. By the time she was written out of the book, I was sad to see her go. When she finally resurfaced years later, I believe in one of the Annihilation tie-in books, she was killed off. It was, like Yellowjacket, a pointless death.
As for the Swordsman, he was a perennial second-rate costumed criminal and lackey to various super-villains throughout the 1960s. Writer Steve Englehart reintroduced Swordsman, showing that the failed mercenary had hit rock bottom, only to meet the mysterious Mantis, who encouraged him to apply for membership in the Avengers. Unfortunately, Mantis then began to distance herself from the Swordsman, attempting to seduce the Vision. The Swordsman’s newfound confidence was quickly shattered. In the end, despite what Mantis put him through, the Swordsman sacrificed his life to save her from Kang the Conqueror. Years later, another writer, Lou Mougin, revealed the Swordsman’s background in Avengers Spotlight #22. Mougin’s tragic origin for the Swordsman, depicting him as “a fallen idealist,” fit the character perfectly, and explained the often-contradictory actions he had taken in life.
Fred Van Lente utilizes the back-stories of this trio of characters to good effect in Chaos War: Dead Avengers. Yellowjacket realizes full well that her death was meaningless. She sees her revival as an opportunity to begin life anew, to fulfill the potential that she feels she never tapped into. Deathcry also recognizes that her death was without point. But unlike Yellowjacket, the fallen Shi’ar warrior regards her return as offering the opportunity to die again, this time in battle against the Chaos King’s forces, something she considers an honorable end. The Swordsman holds a similar view. Even though he saved Mantis, the embittered Swordsman regards his death as a “stupid accident.” Now, seeing that the Chaos King seeks to destroy reality itself, the Swordsman believes he has finally found a noble cause worth fighting and, indeed, dying for.
Deathcry is one of those characters who, as was a trend in 1990s superhero comics, had a mystery-shrouded past. Van Lente briefly delves into this, offering up a couple of answers. We find out exactly why Deathcry was exiled from the Shi’ar. We also learn that she is the niece of Lilandra (which would mean that she is the daughter of either Deathcry or D’Ken, assuming there aren’t any as-yet-unrevealed siblings in the Neramani family).
Opposing the revived Avengers on behalf of the Chaos King is the team’s long-time foe the Grim Reaper and his paramour, the psychic vampire Nekra. Besides being dangerous adversaries, the pair has personal connections to at least two members of their foes. The android Vision’s personality was constructed using the recorded brain patterns of Wonder Man, the Grim Reaper’s brother. In effect, this makes the Reaper almost a relative, and it enables the villain to really twist an emotional knife into the Vision. As for Nekra, well, she’s the one who killed Doctor Druid in the first place. So obviously there’s a lot of unresolved issues on Druid’s part that come right back to the surface when Nekra appears.
Van Lente even has the opportunity to work in some philosophical ideas to this story, such as a flashback to the Vision’s creation by the megalomaniac robot Ultron. The two are discussing Descartes” casual adequacy principle. Not surprisingly, Ultron does much of his “debating” with his fists.
For the most part, Van Lente’s dialogue is spot-on, and he really gets how these characters are supposed to sound. There are a few instances where someone utters a phrase that seems clunky or uncharacteristic. Fortunately, these are few and far between.
The only real failing of the miniseries is that, as part of a larger crossover, it really does not have an ending. At the conclusion of the miniseries, we are left wondering what is going to happen to those revived Avengers who were not erased from existence in the battle with the Grim Reaper’s forces. I became so invested in these characters, I was frustrated not to find out. Presumably the answers will be found in the final issue of the main Chaos War miniseries. It’s frustrating that there wasn’t much closure for some of the characters in Dead Avengers. I probably cannot fault Van Lente for that, though. It was probably an editorially-mandated decision.
The penciling on Chaos War: Dead Avengers is by Tom Grummett. He has what could be described as an “old school” superhero look. I find it to be very refreshing, especially in contrast to a lot of the more over-rendered work out there, or those artists who have their work printed from uninked pencils, with a lot of the finished look being achieved by computer coloring.
When I first saw Grummett’s work on Adventures of Superman and Teen Titans in the early 1990s, I recognized that he was a talented, proficient artist. However, at the time there was something about his style that did not particularly appeal to me, purely on a personal level. I knew he could be counted on to do a good, solid job; I just did not get excited by his work. That has changed in the last several years. Obviously Grummett has been developing as an artist, refining his style. This first became apparent to me in 2006, when he became the penciler on Thunderbolts. He did a really great job on that series. Since then, he has gotten even better. Some of the best work of his career has been on the recent X-Men Forever. That high level of quality is also present in Chaos War: Dead Avengers.
Inking Grummett’s pencils on this miniseries is his X-Men Forever collaborator Cory Hamscher, assisted in the third issue by Terry Pallot. Grummett and Hamscher go together extremely well, resulting in some high-quality artwork. There is a quality to Hamscher’s work that is reminiscent of Terry Austin, one of the best inkers / embellishers in the comic book biz.
Hamscher is a fan of classic Marvel artists John and Sal Buscema. So he no doubt enjoys working with Grummett, who has that traditional influence to his style. More specifically, it must have been fun to work on a story with appearances by Vision, Swordsman, Captain Mar-Vell, Grim Reaper, and Ultron. Those are all characters who either were first introduced or made appearances in classic Avengers issues that were drawn by one or the other of the Buscema brothers. There is even brief flashback to the Reaper’s original look in Dead Avengers #2 when the Vision explains the villain’s background and motivations. The artwork for that one panel is very reminiscent of John Buscema. It is actually a nice homage by Grummett & Hamscher to Buscema’s cover for Avengers #52, the first appearance of the Reaper.
The casual comic book reader who is not intimately familiar with Avengers history might not find Chaos War: Dead Avengers as interesting and compelling a read as a long-time fan such as myself would. I expect the target audience for this book is older readers versed in Marvel continuity. That said, the majority of the older stories referenced in Dead Avengers are currently in print in the black & white Essential collections for those who want to find them. Indeed, that is where I first had the opportunity to read many of the issues from the 1960s and 70s. And even newer fans will find much to appreciate in the dynamic artwork.