Saturday, June 30, 2012

When Heroes Battle—And It Works! Examining “The Avengers/Defenders Clash”

Avengers # 116. ™  © Marvel.

Summer is upon us, which means super-hero comics publishers roll out their latest mega-crossover extravaganzas—story lines which usually encompass several titles.

Crossovers have become a cliché these days.  Many fans complain that the stories are seldom worth the effort to buy, yet they buy them anyway—hence the reason Marvel and DC keep publishing them.

I wrote about the classic “Avengers/Defenders Clash” briefly a few months ago, but I thought it worth taking another look at this model crossover. 

“The Avengers/Defenders Clash,” alternating between Avengers # 115-118 and Defenders # 8-11, back in 1973, was written by Steve Englehart and principally drawn by Bob Brown (Avengers) and Sal Buscema (Defenders).

The premise of the story is simple and time-tested:  two teams of super-heroes are tricked into fighting each other.

However, “The Avengers/Defenders Clash” holds up today for one simple reason: Englehart and his collaborators adhered to some very simple principles of storytelling and structure—principles any writer can use to craft a classic.

1. Limit your story’s scope.

Modern crossovers sometimes involve every title a company publishes; while such an approach is intended to be epic in scope, it often creates the opposite effect: Having so many heroes and villains causes the story to lose its focus.

Englehart limited his crossover to just two series, The Avengers and The Defenders. While events from other series and past stories are referenced (the use of the Evil Eye from Fantastic Four, Loki’s blinding in Mighty Thor), these events merely form the backdrop of the present story. “The Avengers/Defenders Clash” does not crossover with any other books.

As a result, our focus remains on the heroes of these two teams, even though the stakes are very high. The main villain, Dormammu, wants nothing less than world domination—and, at one point, he appears close to getting it. 

But rather than bringing in a world full of heroes to oppose him, Englehart restricts the main action to the membership of the two teams. Other heroes appear only in cameos, dealing with collateral damage.

2. Give the heroes a goal worth pursuing.

“The Avengers/Defenders Clash” grew out of an earlier story, Defenders # 4, which guest-starred the Black Knight, a sometimes Avenger. After a villain turns Black Knight into stone, it becomes the Defenders’ quest to restore their new ally to human form.

Helping a friend is always a worthy goal.  Such a purpose makes your readers care about your heroes and want them to succeed.  It also gives readers an “end goal” to keep in mind—something to maintain suspense while the other events of the story unfold.

(In Hitchcockian terms, the Black Knight becomes the “MacGuffin”—the thing the heroes of the story seek.)

In a twist, Englehart gives the Avengers the same motive.  Having not heard from the Black Knight in some time, they investigate and learn of the Defenders’ involvement in his disappearance. 

Thus, the two teams want the same thing even though they don’t know it.

3. Let the characters drive the plot instead of the other way around.

“The Avengers/Defenders Clash” succeeded because the characters behave true to themselves.

The Defenders, then a new team, consisted of six anti-heroes (Doctor Strange, the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner, the Valkyrie, the Silver Surfer, and Hawkeye) who had either clashed with the Avengers or were regarded as mysterious by them.  (Hawkeye, a former Avenger, had recently left that team in a huff.)    

The Defenders valued their secrecy and weren’t keen on asking other heroes for help.

The Avengers, one of the most established and best known Marvel teams, represented law and order in the way the Defenders might represent a clandestine, underground force. The nature of the two teams was already boiling over with the possibility of conflict.

Englehart also relied upon individual characters behaving in accordance with their personalities
and previous experiences. Thus, the Vision loses control when an accident triggered by the Silver Surfer injures Vizh’s new love, the Scarlet Witch.  The Vision’s rage actually sets the conflict in motion.

The Vision -- losing it.
Likewise, the turning point occurs when two characters who once fought on the same side during World War II stop fighting long enough to realize they've been duped. No other two characters could have come to this realization, or arrived at it in the same manner.

4. Know when your story should have a turning point and a conclusion.

For a story that features fourteen heroes and two villains, “The Avengers/Defenders Clash”  follows a surprisingly traditional story structure: it has an inciting incident, rising action, a climax, falling action, a denouement, and a resolution.   

And even though the story stretches out over nine issues, it keeps moving.

The climax (turning point) of the story occurs when the two aforementioned characters—Captain America and the Sub-Mariner—cease hostilities and realize they’ve been misled.  From this point onwards, the battle between the two teams effectively ends and they can focus on who set them against each other and why.
Cap and Subby come to an understanding.

 (In an effective move, Englehart doesn’t fully reveal this climax until after the two mightiest members—Thor and the Hulk—have had a chance to clash. The gathering of the two teams is then handled in flashback.)

Likewise, the conclusion effectively wraps up the tale. Here, Englehart took necessary shortcuts by removing most of the heroes from the battle very quickly. It all comes down to one hero, acting in cahoots with another, surprising character, to win the day.

Some may complain that their favorite hero is taken out of the fight too quickly. But Englehart does not play favorites. Just as limiting the scope of his story helped increase the tension, the conclusion magnifies that tension: 

The fate of the world comes down to one hero. 

Even in a team book, sometimes a hero must go it alone. (And, in a nice twist, the hero who saves the day is the one who had contributed so little to the story until now.)

5. When all is said and done, something must change for one or more characters.

A story is traditionally defined as one character’s journey from how he or she was to how he or she became. Without change, the story has no purpose; the journey is meaningless.

What changed here? The Avengers now know of the Defenders’ existence, and the two teams part as uneasy friends. But that change alone does not make the story worthwhile.

No, the actual change happens with the Black Knight.

Remember him? The MacGuffin?

Defenders # 11 serves as the “epilogue” of the story. The battle between the two teams over, the villains vanquished, it is now up to the Defenders to return to their original task: restoring the Black Knight.

(The Avengers are absent from this issue, except for the beginning. It would have been nice, I suppose, had they participated in resolving the fate of their own teammate, but, in a show of trust, they leave it in the Defenders’ hands.)

In a rather improbable plot twist, the Defenders catch up with the Black Knight’s soul in the distant past—the era of the Crusades, to be precise—where he occupies the body of his ancestor and wages war on behalf of King Richard the Lion-Hearted.   

Turns out the Black Knight wants to stay, so the Defenders return to the present without him.

Though disposing of the Black Knight in this manner may seem awfully convenient, the “epilogue” actually works. 

Had the Black Knight returned to the present and resumed his sporadic super-hero career, nothing indeed would have changed. By having the Black Knight say goodbye to his friends, Englehart gave the story a wistful, emotional ending (an ending that resonates even more when most of the Defenders, having accomplished their goal, part ways).

And that emotional connection—that feeling that something significant has happened—is what makes any story worthwhile.

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