BHOC: AVENGERS #161

Now this was a great issue, a classic entry in the history of AVENGERS. I picked it up in a 3-Bag, having only started to follow the title a number of months after this. But I was excited about it just from this cover–you see, I recognized Ant-Man from his appearance in the first AVENGERS issue reprinted in SON OF ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS, and so I instantly knew that there was going to be some history-related shenanigans going on in this issue. As I was completely into such shenanigans, I was primed and ready. This stellar cover by series artist George Perez didn’t hurt things any, either. Perez was fast on his way to becoming by favorite artist–he was all over the Marvel books at this time, his only real competition for the spot being the equally productive John Byrne.

Writer Jim Shooter, who would in just a few months take over as Marvel’s Editor in Chief, had started writing the series shortly before this, and he quickly established himself as one of the best AVENGERS scribes in the book’s history. Probably due to his formative experiences writing the Legion of Super Heroes for DC, Shooter was especially adept at juggling the team’s huge cast of characters and giving them all individual moments and some nice characterization. This was especially difficult during this period, when new issues contained only 17 pages of story. In these efforts he was helped immeasurably by Perez, who was similarly skilled at packing a lot of panels and a great deal of incident onto every page, and not making it all look cramped. They made for an excellent pairing.

The story opens with the Avenges taking in the new costume created for Wonder Man by the Wasp. This was an outfit that I liked, though from what I’ve gathered over the years, I was pretty much alone in that assessment. Anyway, as this is going on, the team is being watched by unseen, tiny eyes. It’s Ant-Man, one of the founding Avengers, but something is wrong with him. He confronts Iron Man, recognizing the armored Avenger despite he fact that he’s wearing new updated armor and demands to know who all of these interlopers are. Ant-Man has come for the fist meeting of the Avengers, he says, but his tone is belligerent, angry. When he isn’t given answers quickly enough by the confused Avengers, he resorts to force, hurling himself and his insect legions against the team. Now, you’d think this would be a three-second battle, but Ant-Man comes across in this sequence extremely well. For all that he’s clearly a bit deranged, he’s able to keep the entire team on the ropes, with a combination of speed, skill and the fact that it’s simply difficult for them to track him or deal with him thanks to his small stature.

In fact, Ant-man has the Avengers reeling on the ropes and may even have been able to finish them off, if not for the timely arrival of his wife, the Wasp. At a similar size and with similar powers (though much enhanced in the years since Ant-Man was an active identity) she’s easily able to zap Hank Pym and bring the battle to a close. She then discloses to the rest of the team the fact that Hank had been battling mental illness for many years now., Here. Shooter makes a bit of sense out of a number of disparate stories from over the years, during which time the character and his series was constantly being retooled in order to try to make it sell better. Shooter’s Hank Pym is a profoundly troubled man, with some serious rage issues roiling underneath the surface. Things reached a breaking point a day or so earlier, Jan reveals, when Hank, then in his Yellowjacket identity, suddenly turned and bolted away from her. She found his laboratory in shambles, and so headed to Avengers Mansion in the hopes that she would find him there. But everybody concerned is certain that Hank’s mind has snapped, and that he’s effectively regressed in memory to his early Ant-Man days.

Iron Man attempts to use Tony Stark’s Subliminal Recall-Inducer on Hank to bring back his memories, but he suggests that the Beast and the Wasp head to Janet’s home, where they can collect some of Hank’s things that may help him to remember his past. At the same time, Captain America sends out a call to other former Avengers who long served with hank, figuring that their presence might also snap him back to reality. But Thor and Quicksilver are absent, and Hawkeye is away from his equipment (though this gives Shooter an opportunity to check in with Clint Barton and his time-tossed buddy, the Two-Gun Kid, who have been perambulating around the midwest.) At the Van Dyne Estate, the Beast and the Wasp are attacked and overwhelmed by a mysterious assailant. The Beast, though, is able to get away and stagger back to the Mansion to warn his fellow Avengers–but only instants before his attacker, Ultron, crashes into the place.

Ultron had been around for a number of years by this point, but this was the storyline that really jumped him to the head of the list of the Avengers’ best recurring villains. For one thing, in recreating his long-destroyed body, the robotic villain had cast his new form out of unbreakable Adamantium, making him just about impossible to damage or destroy. This was also the storyline that defined Ultron’s motivations as Oedipal in nature. Having been created by Hank Pym, in addition to just a general revenge against the Avengers, Ultron desires to kill his father and marry his mother. He goes through the Avengers like a hot knife through butter. You would think that, having been taken to the mat twice in the space of a single issue would make the Avengers seem like pushovers, but in the way it was handled in this book, the opposite was true. It really made both Ant-man and Ultron appear formidable and unstoppable. There’s one moment when the Avengers are almost able to rally, when the Scarlet Witch steps up t the plate. Wanda’s powers are mystical in nature–in fact, this may be the story that established that what she does is alter probabilities, making the impossible possible. But the key thing is that Ultron, for all his might, has no defense against her attack.

Unfortunately, just as Ultron is reeling, Captain America hurls himself between the Scarlet Witch and her target, attempting to tackle Ultron himself, and disrupts her spell. Cap making these sorts of tactical mistakes became a running subplot in the book at this time, as did his developing friction with Iron man, who here was serving as the Avengers’ chairman. In any event, Ultron takes advantage of the blunder to mount a counter-offensive, one that annihilates both Cap and Wanda. At this point, it’s the Ant-Man who leaps into the fray–he doesn’t quite understand what’s going on, but he heard the Beast tell the Avengers that Ultron attacked Jan, and that’s good enough for him. Sadly, though, he’s not good enough for Ultron, who vacuums the tiny crusader up into an unbreakable chamber within his own finger. And then, having accomplished what he set out to do, Ultron turns off the lights and leaves, with both Hank and Jan as his captives. Returning home a few hours later, Jarvis, the Avengers’ butler, turns the lights back on–only to find the destruction and bodies that have been strewn in Ultron’s wake. To Be Continued! And man, I wanted to know what was going to happen next (even though it had all happened a few months back from my vantage point.)

7 thoughts on “BHOC: AVENGERS #161

  1. I understand that some who worked under Shooter at Marvel have animosity toward him, but as a kid collecting the Avengers in the 1970s, I didn’t know anything about that. All I knew is that he was responsible for some pretty great Avengers storylines, like the Bride of Ultron and the Korvac Saga. I shared an elevator with him once at a Chicago Comicon (in either 1980 or ’81), where he was forced to listen my teenage fan ramblings about the state of Marvel Comics, which he did quite pleasantly and with very good humor.

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  2. While I hate this kind of Rogue Team Member story, particularly the way the rogue member always kicks everyone’s butts, it was a better handling of Hank snapping than when Shooter tried it again in the early 200s After the following issue things rebooted so fast to normal, I assume he was told no, fix Ant-Man by someone higher up.
    There were also a few too many “one enemy takes down the Avengers” stories around this time — some Atlantean agent of Attuma’s being the worst, but Grim Reaper and Graviton too (nobody but Kurt Busiek ever managed to make Graviton even remotely interesting).

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  3. This Avengers tale was published in it’s french translationin the early eighties within weeks of the Avengers issue where Yellow Jacket was being framed by Egghead, As I didn’t understood english at the time I thought Pym had gone really bad which shook me deeply even though I did not know him much.

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  4. I’m not sure how I feel about this one. Yes, it is a great issue. But with the benefit of hindsight we can see it is also the beginning of Jim Shooter taking a wrecking ball to Hank Pym. That of course culminated in the infamous Avengers #213 where Hank hit the Wasp, and that has haunted the character ever since. No one seems to be willing to let go of the the view of Hank as a mentally-ill wife-beater.

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    1. You can blame Shooter for the story in issue 213 (and does everyone else not believe the claim Hall drew it more harshly than instructed to?) but blame every writer before this for not giving Hank Pym good stories that resonated and outweighed the slap. Peter Parker backhanded his wife once and it’s largely forgotten because it’s a blip amidst decades of great stories. Even Pym rehab stories couldn’t move the needle back. Hank Pym giving his wife a black eye couldn’t even be supplanted by Busiek’s amazing efforts in that arc where Ultron killed a country!

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  5. I love this Avengers run. Its really well plotted and each character is their own. If I remember correctly, Perez’s art was great and Pablo Marcos was a good inker for him at this point. The only thing is Shooter’s Avengers lost a lot and they needed luck and Thor saving them.

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