Avengers Assemble vol. 2Kurt Busiek et al (script)George Perez et al (art)Marvel Comics, 2012Marvel Comics' upcoming "Avengers" movie - directed by nerd cult-idol Joss Whedon and starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Mark Ruffalo - plods ever closer to a sticky-floored multiplex near you, and the hopes that this $200 million project will become a $20 trillion 'tent-pole' franchise is motivating Marvel to flood the market with Avengers-related goodies prior to the movie's launch-date. For long-time fans of Marvel's premiere super-team, this is almost purely good news, since the Avengers comic book has had some wonderfully enjoyable arcs in its fifty year life. Getting all that stuff back into print in snazzy new editions is a fan's dream come true, regardless of whether or not the movie turns out to be any good.The latest such reprint is Avengers Assemble Vol. 2, containing fourteen issues from the late 1990s written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by George Perez (with fill-in issues written by John Francis Moore and Jerry Ordway, and fill-in art by Ordway, Leonardo Manco, and Stuart Immonen, but this is still mostly a Busiek & Perez production). These stories were originally collected into overpriced hardcovers years ago, and now they're being released as overpriced paperbacks in time for what Marvel hopes will be a bottomless hunger for all things Avengers. Volume 1 of these run came out last year; Volume 2 is here now, and with any luck, Volume 3 will follow quickly after.These volumes are a pure joy. Busiek is what Marvel Comics impresario Stan Lee would have called a "true believer," a writer who manages to be both reverential toward Marvel's storied past (in his mini-series Marvels, he literally wrote the book on that past) and inventive in adapting that legacy to modern sensibilities. In this run, he takes a team with a fairly stable roster - Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, the Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, the Vision, Justice, and Firestar - through the a very realistic-feeling gamut of trials: not only the high-action, high-energy battles at which legendary artist George Perez so excels but also more mundane issues like household management and even public relations, which Busiek has Captain America, of all people, claim not to grasp:
"I hate this. All my training, my instincts - they all say to just do a good job, and let the public reaction take care of itself. This sort of political wrangle - it's the sort of thing you had to handle with your company, Tony, or T'Challa with Wakanda, but it's alien territory to me."
(To which Tony "Iron Man" Stark responds, "And that's one of the things that makes you as good as you are, Cap. You get the job done. And that's the bottom line. Always will be")The main conflicts of this particular volume are personal and epic by turn. On the personal front, Busiek does a good job of complicating an odd love-triangle between the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, and Wonder Man while keeping all three sympathetic (comics fans will recognize that the complication here comes from the fact that a) the Scarlet Witch and the android Vision were once in love and married, but no longer, b) the Scarlet Witch recently used her quasi-mystical powers to bring Wonder Man back from an oblivion very much like death, and c) Wonder Man's brain-patterns were used as the foundation for the Vision's android mind, making them brothers or mirror images of a kind)(this is the nature and scope of Avengers back-story any writer must deal with - it's to Busiek's credit that he does such an engaging job of it).On the epic front, our team outdo themselves: this is the volume that features the "Ultron Unlimited" story-arc that comics fans rightly rank as one of the best in the title's entire history. Here the evil and indestructible robot Ultron, once a laboratory creation of Henry Pym (aka Giant-Man, one of the founding Avengers) and now a periodically-reappearing malevolent force bent on world domination. In Busiek's story, Ulton returns at the head of an army of Ultron-clones nearly as indestructible as himself, and this team of Avengers (plus the Black Panther) is pushed to the very limit of their endurance merely to hold their own. By the time they finally win through to Ultron's lair, they're battered and bruised - but all the more determined to bring him down, as Busiek signals in Thor's understated comment, "Ultron, we would have words with thee." It's comics melodrama done deliciously right.This volume opens with a reprinted introduction writer/artist Jerry Ordway wrote in 2005, and it's padded in the back with pages of Perez's original pencils for the first issue of this re-lauch of the title, plus a couple of other make-weight fillers taking up space where another full issue might have gone - which makes its already astounding price tag of $35 all the more grating. But this Avengers run richly deserves a second shot at readership, so Marvel's avarice must be overlooked. The third volume is eagerly awaited - and while we're at it, we can hope for further deluxe reprints: an enormous volume featuring the Stan Lee/Don Heck era, lovingly re-colored, would be dandy, as would the entire Bob Harras/Steve Epting run from the 1990s. But this stunning Avengers Assemble run is certainly a good start - movie or no movie.