Not one but five guest stars this month, as Marc Sumerak delivers the payoff for the last year's worth of flavour-of-the-month stories.
It's not all supervillains and disaster relief for a superhero. Like other celebrities, they get to use their star power to flog their favourite causes. It seems Stark Enterprises runs a charity softball game, and Iron Man has dragooned the other Avengers into taking part. I suppose this is the Avengers equivalent of donating to a co-worker's cancer bike-a-thon or buying their kids' Girl Scout cookies. The Avengers are more graceful about it than I would be.
It's hard in a team book to set up individual characters for new readers, but the softball games allows an opportunity to showcase the key attributes of our heroes: Hulk is strong! Storm can fly! Giant-Girl whines about not having "cute team uniforms"! Sigh.
Having gotten this terribly important business—charity softball, Giant-Girl's shallowness—out of the way, the story begins (on page four) with the five Avengers being kidnapped by a mysterious teleportation ray! Spider-Man, who arrives late because he was on a snack run, informs Cap back at Avengers Tower. Cap's concern at his teammates' disappearance is heightened by the fact that the homing beacon in Iron Man's armour places it somewhere in Earth orbit. Reasoning that rescuing their comrades will require more mojo than Cap and Spidey can muster alone, Cap turns to the Avengers computer to "select the best candidates from this list according to the mission parameters I've entered... In baseball terms, think of it as an expanded roster."
According to the screen, the roster consists of every guest star we've seen in the past year (with the interesting exception of the Black Knight), plus a few we haven't, and whom I don't even recognize. (An official SpiderFan No-Prize to anyone who can identify all the characters on page 6!) Out of these twelve candidates, the computer narrows the lineup for the rescue mission to five: Black Panther; Hawkeye; Black Widow; Quicksilver; and Ant-Man.
Spidey's unimpressed. "The computer must be busted. Those guys [sic; sorry, Black Widow] are all complete loners!" Me, I'm more surprised that Thor isn't on the list. I would have thought that Thor would be a good guy to have your back on any mission. Cap is nonetheless pleased with the computer's assessment, as he knows he can persuade all five to participate. Quicksilver wants to prove himself, Hawkeye wants fame and glory, Black Widow wants a chance to ogle alien tech, Ant-Man is grateful to get out of his lab, and Black Panther wants to score brownie points with his old girlfriend.
Having completed his emotional manipulation... er, persuasion... of his new teammates, the new Avengers (catchy, that) rocket into space aboard a Quinjet, where they discover that their missing colleagues are being held aboard a gigantic, city-block-sized spacecraft. The spacecraft engages the Quinjet, destroying it in a fusillade of thermal missiles, but not before our heroes manage to don space helmets and surreptitiously escape into the void. Seems it was Cap's plan all along to send the Quinjet in as a decoy so his team could spacewalk aboard the larger vessel undetected. Spidey wonders how they're going to get home at the mission's conclusion. We readers wonder that, too.
By the way, the Avengers spacewalk in space helmets, but not space suits; let me say ouch on behalf of Hawkeye's forearms, which are exposed to the absolute-zero temperatures of the vacuum. He doesn't seem to mind, though.
Aboard the vessel, the Avengers make short work of the robotic security drones. Reconnaissance by Quicksilver at super-speed reveals that the spacecraft, while huge, is almost entirely devoted to cells, each one holding a different species. The Avengers wonder if this a space jail, but the Black Panther knows better: it's a zoo. As the Avengers study the inhabitants—including a humanoid figure covered in living black goo; hmm—the curator appears. 616 readers will recognize him as the Collector, the cosmic-powered Elder of the Universe whose vocation is collecting "the best that the universe has to offer." And since the Avengers have so graciously entered his ship, he's more than happy to add them to his collection of super heroes.
Battle is joined, consisting mostly of the Collector shooting blasts of fire like a cut-rate Human Torch. While the main force of the new Avengers engages him, the Black Panther frees some of the imprisoned aliens, who are eager to join the fight. Meanwhile, Quicksilver escorts the Black Widow to the cells where the original Avengers are imprisoned. She uses her espionage savvy to free them, and the Collector quickly is crushed by the combined might of all twelve Avengers.
Ant-Man locks up the Collector in one of his own cells while Iron Man reprograms the ship to return all of the zoo exhibits back to their home planets, including the Avengers themselves. Not sure how that works, given the ship is much too large to make planetfall, but let's not quibble. Back on Earth, the core Avengers and their reserve members wrap up the final bit of business: their softball game! The readers' attention is drawn to two silent, smiling figures in the stands whom I don't recognize, but I'd be willing to bet that the male half of the duo is Marc Sumerak, who's leaving the title after this issue. (Another SpiderFan no-prize for anyone who can identify the woman sitting next to him.)
For once, the cast-of-thousands approach pays off. It gets off to a slow start: far too much time is wasted in the early going, with the unfortunate result that the Collector's defeat is depicted in an abstract montage. But the bulk of the book moves along nicely, showcasing many of the recent guest stars interacting with each other and with the core Avengers. It's a fun read. Also, if I'm reading it right, Sumerak manages to work in homages to two separate tropes of the mainstream Avengers book, to please long-time fans: firstly, the changing of an Avengers lineup, a mainstay of the book throughout its history, as well as an intra-Avengers softball game, a trope that Mark Gruenwald featured in the Avengers annuals back in the mid-1980s. Well played, sir.
All these references to extended rosters and winning lineups comprise a third homage, I think. If I'm reading them right, they form a metafictional commentary on the writers that have been filling in on the book in the last few issues. Over at www.marvel.com, the promotional page for the next issue of this title blares that "fan favourite" Jeff Parker is returning to the book; I think Sumerak is intimating that he's happy to have had a slot on the team to fill, but that he's also happy to cede the position to the original job-holder. If my reading is right, then let me just tip my cap to Sumerak: it's a very classy gesture. No one has been agitating more loudly than yours truly for the return of Jeff Parker to this title, but on the whole Sumerak did a decent-if-uneven job, saddled as he was (or so I suspect) with an ill-starred editorial mandate to focus on guest stars. Bowing out in this fashion is a subtle message to the fans about how he feels about his own tenure on the book. I appreciate it, Marc.
A competent issue. The last year's worth of fill-in writers and guest stars draws to a close with this story, which manages to add some value to the last eight issues or so: not easy, given the latter's quality. The cleverness of the whole affair, and the sincerity of the metafictional hints at the end, earn it an extra half-web.
Here's the stinger:
Hawkeye: "I like your style, lady!"
Black Widow: "You say that like I should care."
It's even funnier when you consider the 616 history of these characters, namely that the Widow seduced Hawkeye in his first appearance.