Essential Avengers, volume 8Marvel Comics, 2012It's a safe assumption that the editorial decisions behind Marvel Comics' very successful "Essential" line of black-and-white back-issue reprint volumes are financial, not creative: 240 pages of material = $19.99, and $19.99 = 240 pages, with little or no thought given to shaping each volume as any kind of aesthetic unit. How could it be otherwise? After all, the comics being reprinted are for the most part ongoing monthly titles, very often carrying forward plots and sub-plots for months at at time, with the whole process designed to be if not seamless then certainly never-ending. So when it comes time to stuff one of these new volumes full of reprints, you count your issues, decide which parallel-but-connected issues to include, make sure the last page doesn't cut somebody off in mid-sentence, then wrap the whole thing up and send it to the printers. Only very recently did monthly comics begin to be created with eventual graphic novel unity in mind - for the first six decades of Marvel's existence, it was just one damn thing after another.Marvel's sprawling super-team comic The Avengers is a perfect case-in-point. The book started in 1963 as a team-up franchise, with several of Marvel's popular superheroes - Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Ant Man & the Wasp - banding together to fight super-villains. The title was a success with fans, and as the years passed, the roster of the team grew and changed, as did the cast of villains the team encountered, until a rather detail-heavy tapestry had been created, with a great deal of back-story and a great deal of forward momentum. Each "Essential" volume can fit about 25 issues of that ongoing saga, which means the contents of each volume are virtually guaranteed to be so uneven that newcomers picking up a recent volume - Essential Avengers Volume 8, for example - will find it very hard to tell the players without a scorecard.Marvel doesn't provide such an introductory "who's who" scorecard, although it would have been fairly easy to do. The main reason Marvel has saturated the market with Avengers reprint volumes lately is because in early May a $250 million "Avengers" movie comes to theaters, and preparatory to that long-awaited event, Marvel would like to minimize the number of people who've never heard of their little band of adventurers. It's a valid question how successful this prep work can be, since the majority of people who'll make "The Avengers" a massive theatrical hit on 4 May will be comics fans of long standing (the type of creatures who, if told that you're favorite character is The Whizzer, will not only not laugh at you but will immediately ask you "Which one?" and solemnly wait for an answer). Still, you can't blame Marvel for trying.Essential Avengers Volume 8, by random chance, will likely be one of the last such prep-reprints to hit bookstores before the movie opens, and, as noted, it's random chance that dictates where this volume's contents start and stop. Still, there are patterns - in the case of the Avengers, a large and very powerful super-team, some fairly predictable patterns. In a two-year sampling of Avengers issues, you'll likely get a) lots of relationship trauma (a staple of any team-comic, ever since Marvel's presiding genius Stan Lee imported it to the genre back in the aforementioned '60s), b) simple slug-fests (comic book fans liking that sort of thing beyond all reason), and the Avengers speciality of sprawling cosmic storylines.This volume has all three. There's plenty of interpersonal squabbling (in retrospect, this turns out to be a very turbulent period for the team, with even long-established team-members calling each other names like they were at a wine-soaked Nova Scotia book club), there's one of the most fan-beloved slug-fests of the title's entire run, and there are two cosmic stories - one that fails, and one that oh, succeeds so well.The slug-fest is a three-part arc from the late 1970s. Written by the legendary Jim Shooter and pencilled by the soon-to-become-legendary John Byrne, the story essentially pits the Avengers against an evil Superman: third-string super-villain Count Nefaria coerces a mad scientist into giving him virtually limitless super-strength and super-speed, and he promptly attacks the team, intent on killing them all. His opponents at this point in the team's history are the super-agile Black Panther, the energy-sting-wielding Yellowjacket and the Wasp, the apelike Beast, the 'hex'-casting Scarlet Witch, the super-armored Iron Man, the android Vision, and the super-soldier Captain America - and with very little effort, Nefaria trounces them all. But his victory is hollow to him: now that he's all-powerful, he wants to be immortal. This makes him determined to seek out the Avengers' resident immortal, Thor, and 'wrest the secret of immortality from him.' Before he can do much seeking, a very angry Thor shows up, and the slug-fest goes on. Fans ate it up, and its pattern - the team getting trashed and being saved from annihilation only by the last-minute triumph of its most powerful member (to put it mildly, DC Comics faced a similar pattern with Superman and the Justice League) - was set so firmly here that it would be repeated virtually down to the last detail by the next thirty years of writers (most recently at the conclusion to Marvel's "Siege" mini-series).Fans also loved one of this volume's reprinted cosmic story arcs, Shooter's "Korvac Saga," although precisely why has always been something of a mystery. The villain of the piece - a pouty-faced blond guy named Michael Korvac whose 70s-style jogging shorts do nothing to hide his 70s-style hairy legs - was once your typical evil cyborg from the future, but Shooter comes up with some comics mumbo-jumbo to explain why Korvac suddenly possesses the powers of a vengeful god. He uses these powers in much the same way a retired successful Manhattan orthodontist would: he takes a split-level house in the suburbs of upstate New York and plots universal domination while his young girlfriend serves him hot cocoa. His various byzantine machinations eventually get noticed by the Avengers, and about thirty of them show up at Korvac's door, and an enormous fight ensues. In Korvac's living room. He easily kills virtually everybody on the team, and when the survivors manage to kill him, his girlfriend puts down the cocoa and uses her own godlike powers to lash out at our heroes. Until Thor stops her (the destroyed suburban couple's last act is to bring all the dead heroes back to life). The whole thing features intensely wretched artwork by somebody named David Wenzel and some of Jim Shooter's most embarrassingly mis-played scripting. It's 'cosmic' done very, very badly.Fortunately, this volume also contains 'cosmic' done just about as well as it can be done, and it features one of those parallel-but-connected issues mentioned already. In 1977 writer/artist Jim Starlin conceived a cosmic story so big it couldn't be contained even in the space of an extra-big Avengers annual, so the second part of it was run in the extra-big annual of Marvel Two-in-One, a team-up book featuring one of the characters from The Fantastic Four, the rock-skinned Thing. In the Avengers annual, Adam Warlock - a space-faring minor character Starlin helped to re-invent as the mortal foe of a granite-faced villain named Thanos - travels to Earth to warn the Avengers that Thanos plans to cause the sun to go super-nova and wipe out all life in the solar system. The team joins Warlock in going off to battle Thanos, but the fight goes against them and they're all captured, and Adam Warlock himself is killed (he awakens to find himself living in a blissful paradise surrounded by friends).A telepathic Avenger manages to fire off a mental SOS right before the team is defeated, and that SOS reaches Spider-Man back on Earth, who convinces the Thing to use one of the Fantastic Four's space-ships to bring them both to Thanos, in the hopes of freeing the Avengers and saving the solar system. Starlin grounds all these space-opera goings-on with real emotion and highly charged dialogue (in the space of twenty pages, for example, he gives us better and more believable versions of the Thing and especially Spider-Man than those character's respective monthly titles had given readers in many months of trying), and he underpins it all with the tragic-heroic story of Adam Warlock, who's summoned from his peaceful afterlife in the midst of the climactic battle in order to deal with his arch-enemy Thanos one last time. Even after forty years, it's leanly-handled thrilling stuff, exactly the way 'epic' Avengers stories should be done.Long-time Avengers fans will finish this latest "Essential" volume well able to do a little calculation and guess some of the big story-lines that will appear in the next collection, give or take a few parallel titles and fill-in issues; long-time fans are accustomed to possessing such excruciatingly useless knowledge. But with any cinematic luck, those long-time fans will soon be patiently explaining the difference between Charlie-27 and Ultron-7 to hordes of new fans. Those new fans would be well-advised to start with Essential Avengers Volume 1 and work their way forward through the decades the way the comic book gods intended.