One of the great geek debates of all time is Marvel vs DC. I’m not sure I exactly understand why, because I personally am in favor of as many fun stories as I can have, regardless of which giant company is producing them, but whatever. People get really defensive about this type of thing, and obtain some serious brand loyalty, to the point that they’ll get in huge fights over the internet about which company’s heroes are better. I’m more of a Marvel guy, but I would never tell someone they’re wrong for liking the Justice League more than the Avengers. But there are people who do. And there are also people who believe that the only way to prove which team is better is to have them fight to the death! Which seems impossible, since the two companies really don’t like to mingle like that. But then prayers were answered in 2003 when Kurt Busiek and George Perez….oh wait, no. That’s JLA/Avengers. That’s not the story I’m talking about here. No, that story’s just kind of okay. The story I’m here to tell you about is far strangers, and features the Avengers fighting some low-rent knockoffs of the Justice League, the Squadron Sinister! There’s a lot to unpack and love about this story, which features Avengers, the Squadron, Kang the Conqueror, the goddamn Grandmaster, and even the Black Knight. So let’s jump on in to the craziness!
Things start off in the middle of some craziness, with the Avengers entering a hospital that Tony Stark is in, possibly dying. The team is a pretty odd one, with Vision, Yellowjacket, Wasp, and the version of Goliath that was Clint Barton. Yeah, there was a period of time that Clint stopped being Hawkeye because he felt like his archery skills weren’t doing anyone any good, so he started growing huge. So the Avengers chat with some SHIELD agents about Tony’s health, and wait for Thor to show up with some doctor that can save Stark. And wouldn’t you know, Thor shows up just then, with the doctor and Captain America, and he gets to work helping Stark. But as the rest of the Avengers are standing around, hoping that Tony will be okay, Janet notices some weird little glowing doll under a table in the room. She picks it up, thinks it’s ugly, and throws it away in a trash can out by the SHIELD agents. Which was a bad call, because it’s not some ugly doll, it’s a robot called the Growing Man, which can grow in stature and strength every time it’s physically hit. And the impact of the trash can brings it to life, and it starts beating up the SHIELD agents.
So the Growing Man beats up the agents, and then proceeds to burst into Tony’s room and kidnaps him. The Avengers then start stupidly beating him up, letting the thing start to grow. They just keep whaling on the stupid thing, watching it grow and not piecing it together until Thor finally remembers what the thing’s deal was, and tells them to leave it alone. He also remembers that the Growing Man was a possession of Kang the Conqueror, and figures that that must mean Kang is involved. And I don’t know about you, but I love Kang the Conqueror. He may honestly be my favorite Avengers villain, and I really think that he would be an amazing villain for the movies, if he wasn’t inexplicably linked to the Fantastic Four movie rights.
Anyway, The Growing Man becomes gigantic, and smashes out of the hospital, carrying the limp little body of Tony Stark with him. At which point Clint does the only thing he can do, and grows gigantic to compete with the Growing Man. So the two giants have a goddamn Kaiju fight in the middle of New York, which probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, since it’s already been established that this stupid thing gets bigger when you beat it up. C’mon Clint, get your shit together! Anyway, Growing Man easily beats the hell out of Clint, because he really sucked as Goliath, and the Growing Man marches away with Tony. But the Avengers are in luck, because he stops and signals some communication with Kang, which causes a tractor beam to blast down and start lifting Growing Man, Tony Stark, and the Avengers up into space. And in the blink of an eye they’re transported to the year 4,000 in the throne room of Kang the Conqueror.
At which point the Avengers obviously freak the hell out. Kang is one of their more deadly enemies, and he’s been nothing but a thorn in their sides, so they really aren’t sure what’s going on. They kind of assumed that Kang had kidnapped Tony in order to get him to build Kang a weapon or something, but no matter the reason, they know that they can’t trust Kang. Especially since last time they’d seen him it was when they failed to help him save the princess Ravonna, making it so she’s trapped in that little bottle up in the above picture. So he’s probably mad at them. Which makes them decide to immediately spring into action and start beating the hell out of Kang’s minions. So the Avengers start beating up all of the soldiers, until a surprise guest shows up to get them to stop. Black Panther!
He tells the rest of the Avengers that they need to stop fighting, and talk with Kang, because it’s a matter of planetary life and death. This is enough to get the Avengers to stop beating up the soldiers, and give Kang a shot. So Kang takes that opportunity and explains what’s going on. He tells them that ever since he last saw the Avengers he’d been spending every waking hour trying to find a way to ave Ravonna. And he makes the mistake of saying that out-loud, which somehow summoned one of the Elders of the Universe to his throne room, the Grandmaster. Now, this is some weird cosmic Marvel stuff right here. In case you don’t know, the Elders of the Universe are a race of nearly omnipotent beings that have weird singular obsessions. Like the Collector, he’s probably the most famous one now, since he was in the Guardians movie. But the Grandmaster is an interesting guy. His whole deal is that he appears throughout the universe and challenges people to insane contests. So he chats with Kang, and makes him a wager. If Kang can best him in a contest, he’ll give Kang the power over life and death. And if Kang loses, he’ll destroy the Earth.
So, like an idiot, Kang agrees, and thus needed to get the Avengers to fight for him in the contest. At which point the Avengers agree that they have to help Kang for the good of the Earth, and get ready for the game, which the Grandmaster compares to chess. But I have a better comparison. Pokemon. Because Grandmaster’s idea is for Kang to assemble a group of heroes to compete against Grandmaster’s superhumans. And just on time, Grandmaster shows up and gets ready to compete. So he separates the Avengers into two groups, and takes one with Thor, Captain America, and Goliath, and brings them back to Earth in 1969, and introduces him to his team. Green Lantern, Superman, Batman, and the Flash. Oops, I mean not those characters at all…
Yep! The Squadron Sinister, a group a blatant Justice League parodies. And these are the people that Grandmaster wants the Avengers to fight. So let’s get to the action! We briefly check back in on Kang, the Grandmaster, and the rest of the Avengers, who are going over some of the rules, while we see that there’s a surprise addition to the away team. Iron Man comes zipping down to be with Cap, Goliath, and Thor, saying that Tony Stark is fine from earlier, and he could come help out, since this was still a period where no one knew Iron Man was Tony Stark. And once Iron Man is there, the Squadron kind of explain things. Turns out the Grandmaster was able to rewrite history to create four villains to compete against he Avengers, four villains that he think will be perfect reflections of the Avengers. And once all of that information gets out, they move on to the next stage of the plan. They flash up four locations on Earth, the Statue of Liberty, The Taj Mahal, Big Ben, and the Sphinx, and the Squadron tell the Avengers that these are the locations that they have to fight at. So the Avengers split up, and travel around the world to fight their villains.
First up we get Captain America vs. Nighthawk, which is taking place at the Statue of Liberty. Cap gets there, and is walking around the ground, admiring Lady Liberty, when he’s snared with a goofy Loony Tunes trap. Caps’ then dragged aboard the Hawkcopter or whatever it’s called, and the two chat for a bit, leading to the amazing line from Nighthawk: “In case you’ve forgotten, my friends would call me Nighthawk. If I had any friends!” Great. Anyway, Cap and Nighthawk fight a little bit, until Cap realizes that Nighthawk has chained the Statue of Liberty to the copter, and has lifted it off the ground so he can drop it and destroy people’s hopes. So Cap does what he needs to, and knocks Nighthawk out by deflecting an explosive pellet Nighthawk threw at him.
Next up is Iron Man vs Dr. Spectrum at the Taj Mahal. And right from the beginning Iron Man realizes he’s outgunned. The power coming from Spectrum’s Power Prism is much stronger than Iron Man, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to stop it. That is until the sentient Prism starts mocking Iron Man, and mentions that it has a “poly-chromatic” shield, which gives Iron Man an idea. He turns on an ultraviolet ray from his armor, and since that’s beyond Spectrum’s color abilities, it’s able to affect him, and knocks both Spectrum and the Prism out. Two points for Kang!
Once Spectrum is out of the picture we cut over to Egypt where Thor is getting ready to fight Hyperion. Which isn’t going to go well, since Hyperion is really damn strong. He also explains his weird background, where he lived on a planet the size of an atom that was destroyed when humanity split it to create a nuclear bomb. That’s weird. Whatever. Anyway, Hyperion and Thor start fighting, and it’s clear that things are pretty evenly matched. Mjolnir isn’t really able to affect Hyperion that much, but it’s at least able to deflect a lot of Hyperion’s energy beams and whatnot. But then Thor has an insane idea, and throws Mjolnir in a way that it spins around Hyperion super fast. Which for some reason shrinks Hyperion and encases him in glass? I don’t know, and neither do any of the other Avengers watching the match on TV, but who cares, three points for Kang!
So it’s time for the final match, which is taking place in England with Goliath against the Whizzer. Yeah, the Marvel Flash is called the Whizzer. Deal with it. But right from the beginning we see that there’s a problem, because Clint is clearly messing with someone that’s not Whizzer. It’s the Black Knight. Now, at this point in the series, Dane Whitman had taken over the role as Black Knight for his evil uncle, and has been trying to convince the Avengers that he’s a good guy, but they keep not believing him. So he sees Goliath and decides to help, not realizing that there’s some crazy game of fate playing out. And instead of just explains the situation, Clint ignores Black Knight, and starts fighting the Whizzer, leaving Dane no other option than to attack the speedster too. Which promptly disqualifies the fight, causing the Grandmaster to show up, scream at Dane, and teleport away with Clint, Whizzer, and the Ebony Blade that gives Dane his powers. So, having no idea what the hell just happened, Dane makes a promise to save the Avengers and prove his worth. And to do that Dane travels to his ancestral home to commune with the spirit of his ancestor, the original Black Knight. Because he knows what’s going on?
Oh, I guess he does know. I stand corrected. Anyway, the original Black Knight explains to our Black Knight everything that’s been going on in the previous two issues, and gets him up to speed. At which point Dane realizes that the only way he can save his friends is to concentrate really hard on the Ebony Blade, causing him to teleport through time and space to Kang’s fortress. Wait, what? Whatever, it works and Dane gets into the fortress at the same time that Kang and the Grandmaster are preparing for stage two of their contest, since apparently he’s throwing out the entire results of the first game because Dane ruined Clint’s match. That seems shitty. But at least now we get to see Black Panther, Yellowjacket, and Vision play. No love for Wasp I guess.
But the game’s changed a bit, because now all three heroes get to fight together, in Nazi-occupied France, against the Invaders. And in case you don’t know, the Invaders were a team from World War II comprised of Captain America, the original Human Torch, and Namor. They have no idea what’s going on, so they just spring into action, beating up the Avengers because they assume they’re Nazis. And while the Avengers fight the Invaders, we cut back to the year 4,000 where Dane is getting to work. He gets the Ebony Blade back, and uses it to break Janet and the first team of Avengers out of their cells, getting everyone ready to go fight Kang.
Meanwhile, the Avengers are doing their best to fight the Invaders, and things are going great. Captain America is still Black Panther’s physical equal, even this 1940’s version, and the two just keep on grappling while Cap makes weird references to wanting a round shield. Yellowjacket somehow go stuck with Namor, and his best idea is to shrink down tiny and have bees attack Namor…which isn’t going well. And even Vision is doing poorly against the android Human Torch, since Vision’s solar-beam power doesn’t do much to a robot made of fire. But in the end they’re able to stratagize a bit, and get all of the Invaders lined up to come attack Black Panther and Yellowjacket, at which point Vision flies through them, half solid and half phasing, which causes them all to drop down unconscious. So the Avengers win!
At which point Kang starts gloating like an asshole to the Grandmaster. But the Grandmaster is a petty loser, and since the Avengers apparently didn’t win their first contest, because of Black Knight’s interference, the Grandmaster is changing the prize. So he tells Kang that he’ll give him either the short-lived power to give life, or take it. And right as Kang is about to tell him he’ll chose life and save Ravonna, the Avengers comes busting in to confront him, demanding he send them back. Kang then decides to be a dick, and tells them that he not only wont sent them back, but he thinks that getting the power to kill the Avengers is more important than the power to save Ravonna. So Grandmaster gives Kang the power to kill the Avengers, and he gets to work, blasting them with death-energy. Unfortunately Black Knight is not an Avenger, and is thus able to just smack Kang over the head with the Ebony Blade, ending the whole stupid contest. So Kang is defeated, the Grandmaster didn’t destroy the Earth, and Dane Whitman has finally proved that he should be an Avenger. Everybody’s happy! Except Kang.
Hell yes. I don’t know about you, but I freaking love stories like this. It’s stories like this one that remind me why I love comics. This wasn’t superheroes dealing with depressing issues, or being moody and grim. It was about superheroes doing whatever it takes to save the Earth while being stuck in some sort of insane competition with the whole Earth in the stakes. That’s superheroics to me. And really, everyone is in top form here. The whole team is working together great, Black Knight makes a strong case for why he should be an Avenger, and it’s a hell of a great lineup. And the villains are great too. I’m a huge Kang the Conqueror fan, and the idea that he would put the very Earth in the crossfire to get the power to save his crush, while also forcing the Avengers to fight for him, is pretty great. This may be my favorite Kang story I’ve come across yet, because it’s just so damn Kang. The Grandmaster’s great in it too, just oozing cockiness and the obnoxious obsession that the Elder of the Universe have. He’s just such a strange character, and I’m beyond excited to see him played by Jeff Goldblum in the third Thor movie. And then there’s the Squadron Sinister. I love these guys. They start out as just as stupid joke about DC, and show that the Avengers could totally beat all of them in a fair fight, but then took on a serious life of their own. If you haven’t read the great Squadron Supreme book by Roy Thomas and Sal Buscema, you should. It’s basically a parallel world where this version of the Justice League decide to stop dicking around, and just use their godlike powers to save mankind. And things do not go as they planned. The characters are great, and have had some real staying power, to the point that several of them are still in the mainstream Marvel universe, and are pretty beloved. And it all started in this weird story where Kang the Conqueror made them fight like Pokemon. I love it. I love comics so damned much, and this is a shining example of how fun, insane, action-packed, and just all around enjoyable that they can be.
The Avengers #69-#71 were written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Sal Buscema, 1969.