Nostalgia’s a hell of a thing. Looking back on stuff we liked when we were young, we can sometimes overlook their shortcomings. But then you sit down and actually watch a couple episodes of He Man and the Masters of the Universe, and you realize how far we’ve actually come, and how our entertainment has improved vastly over time.
Such can be the experience when reading older comics. If you peruse certain corners of the internet inhabited by old time comic readers, you’d think Joe Quesada’s modernization of the medium, to make it more cinematic in style (among other things), was one of the greatest mistakes in history. It took all the fun out, disrespected the past, made comics inappropriate for kids, etc.
But then you read Acts of Vengeance and you want to kiss that beautiful man on the lips for helping to save our beloved medium from tedium and eventual, total irrelevance.
And it’s not even that old! Acts of Vengeance is the 1989-1990 Marvel crossover (but not really) that features Loki assembling a team of “mastermind” villains to delegate lesser baddies against heroes they don’t usually fight (sort of). It’s exposing the weird idea of arch-enemies to begin with, which might be a Quesada-like strike against it to old-timers, but that should be the least of someone’s concerns.
Reading a summary of Acts of Vengeance, as I’ve done many times at the becoming-slowly-forgotten gem of a website, the unofficial Appendix to the Handbook of the Marvel Universe, it sounds like a pretty neat, well-directed story. Loki (in disguise) assembles a group of the baddest, smartest villains in the world to finally take down their adversaries once and for all. Yet this “team” isn’t really seen doing anything. Many of the villain fights seem to be set up in other ways, with no mention of the greater plan being plotted from behind the scenes.
And the whole conceit of Loki pretending to be a lackey for these guys in bringing them together is really thin. Why are the world’s brightest evil minds following this guy they’ve never met into an activity they’re clearly not completely on board with? At least there are some good interactions between the characters, showing there’s no honor among thieves, but the fabled Magneto/Red Skull showdown is sadly over pretty much before it even starts. It was an advanced idea for the time that probably should have been expanded on, without so much of the uncomfortable “mongrel” talk from Skull (not just about mutants, but also about Falcon. Ugh.).
Dr. Doom was smart enough to avoid the whole mess, as his representative at the council is revealed to be a Doombot for … reasons? It doesn’t change anything in the plot, and seems to be thrown in for not-so-shocking shock value. And the Red Skull is back, somehow, after being interred by Magneto. It’s never explained, until it’s revealed he’s ALSO a robot, in the epilogue issue, Avengers Annual #19. Yes, an epilogue issue that is literally just Captain America summing up everything that happened in the crossover, and nothing more. Maybe this was useful in the days before Wikipedia, but if someone tried that now, fans would run the writer out on a rail and declare Marvel the most money-grubbing, callous corporation on Earth.
Of course, some people will still insist it was all about the “art” back then, even though it really wasn’t that artsy. The standouts of this volume are Dwayne McDuffie’s Iron Man issues, though his story ends with a tragedy that’s just kind of laughed off, Terry Austin’s Mutant Misadventures of Cloak and Dagger #9, just for how weird it is, and Mark Gruenwald’s Quasar issues, a character which, I guess, they thought was going to be a bigger deal than he was?
One thing Acts of Vengeance does well is fight choreography, though the art from Al Milgrom, Herb Trimpe, John Byrne et al is very “Marvel house style,” without much variation. But then you want to scream at how often those fights are ended with deus ex machinas of powers you never knew the heroes had before (yes, Thor’s murmured about teleporting is in here). Hey though, you do get the debut of the New Warriors in The Mighty Thor #412, as they help Blondie out with the Juggernaut, even if they do all sound, excepting Night Thrasher, like they’re speaking in the same voice.
Which is a common trait found throughout the volume. Characters just aren’t individualized beyond a list of powersets, and sound very much interchangeable with each other. Those familiar with the MCU (read: everyone) will be surprised at a Tony Stark largely without quips, and only a touch of his now-trademark hubris. Oh, and that he’s still tricking people into thinking Iron Man is his bodyguard. Man, does that ever feel dated.
Jesus, I haven’t even mentioned the rising tide of anti-hero sentiment and the threat of a registration act, more than 15 years before Civil War finally pulled the trigger. Maybe that’s because it’s all resolved with a wave of the hand, even though … logically … wouldn’t people want it MORE after these villains caused so much destruction due to the heroes’ mere existence?
Acts of Vengeance is typical of its time period, and that’s not a great thing. If you take off the rose-colored glasses of hindsight, many older comics just aren’t structured that well as stories. There are flashes of more penetrating ideas to come, but they’re quickly shuffled off to focus more on punch-ups. Marvel’s hallmark of emphasizing the person as much as the costume turns out to really just be guys in capes complaining about not getting to work on time. Taken as an example of its era, Acts of Vengeance isn’t any worse and is at least entertaining, but that feels like grading on a curve.