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- Published on Amazon.com
MARVEL SUPER HERO CONTEST OF CHAMPIONS came out in 1982 and has got bragging rights as the first ever limited series published by Marvel. It'll dawn on you just about right away that Jim Shooter lifted this premise for his own SECRET WARS project. And, fine, CONTEST OF CHAMPIONS isn't as good as SECRET WARS.
What had happened was... Death and the universe's ultimate gamesman, who calls himself the Grandmaster, embark on a wager and gather the entirety of Earth's supply of superheroes to use as their play pawns. With the world's population held in thrall under animated suspension, the heroes are forced to comply. The rules go as such: Something called the Golden Globe of Life has been broken up into four segments and scattered to the winds. Death and Grandmaster each select four teams, each team comprising three heroes. These teams compete to gather as many of the Globe's pieces. So, twelve superheroes versus twelves superheroes.
Bit of trivia... This story, in another form, was originally slated to be the "MARVEL SUPERHEROES AT THE SUMMER OLYMPICS" Treasury Edition, Marvel's intended tie-in for the 1980 Summer Olympics, before the U.S. boycotted. It sat on the shelf for a two years until some bright boy (Mark Gruenwald?) got the idea of retro-shaping it into - ta-daaa! - THE CONTEST OF CHAMPIONS.
The overriding draw is, of course, the gazillion heroes cooling their heels in the same room (in this case, a stadium orbiting in space) and later taking on each other (some of them, anyway). There must've been a hell of a charge in first witnessing that double spread page inhabited by EVERY FRIGGIN" SUPERHERO in Marvel! I have no doubt that this canvas of crowded gave George Perez a nutter, wherever he was at the time. But, other than this shiny hook, CoC is a pretty limp fish.
There are pluses and minuses with not showcasing all of Marvel's big guns. More well-known teams like the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the X-Men get hijacked and end up hobnobbing with lesser lights such as Alpha Flight and the Soviet Super-Soldiers. Wolverine, the Thing, Iron Man, and Daredevil are four of those chosen to participate, and they are high profile characters and so that's a plus. But it's also potentially rewarding when more obscure heroes are featured - Arabian Knight, Sunfire, Darkstar, Sabra, etc. - if only they were presented interestingly (except that they're not). That's not even counting characters who first appear in this limited series (El Peregrine, Talisman, Shamrock, and the Collective Man - whose awesome power is channeling the abilities of any and all citizens of the People's Republic of China).
The downside wins out for me. In a cast of so many heroes, these obscure capes get lost in the shuffle. I wasn't inclined to invest in them (with the possible exceptions of Shamrock and the Collective Man). I didn't at all care about the somewhat arbitrary team dynamics the writers come up with. I definitely could've done without a second stringer like Angel taking on a fifth stringer like El Peregrine.
Ultimately, I found most of the fighty fights pretty unspectacular. Even the more promising scraps - like Daredevil versus Iron Fist or Wolverine versus Black Panther - are so fleeting that they failed to deliver on the hype. There's also this exasperating plot device that the writers wear out, that of various team members allowing their temper or their cockiness to get the best of them and so we get lots of people wandering off on their own.
For those who obsess over this sort of stuff - even though these stories come from the 1980s - the following contains SPOILER bits.
And then came the Oops! moment. Someone, somewhere, performed some terrifying math, and this error wasn't found out until the three issues of CoC were already published. What had happened was... The final tally was the Grandmaster: 3, Death: 1. But a careful recount - or even a casual recount - demonstrates that the games actually end in a tie. The last round had Shamrock grabbing the final piece of the Globe, and the credit accordingly went to the Grandmaster... except that Shamrock was on Death's team! And so it should've been a tie.
In 1987, WEST COAST AVENGERS ANNUAL #2 and AVENGERS ANNUAL #16 attempted to right this wrong and settle the score, to have a clear cut winner. This two-parter starts with a fun game of baseball between the East and West chapters of the Avengers, only to have the Silver Surfer bust in with an ominous warning. This time around, the two gamblers are the Grandmaster and the Collector, with Death a silent and unwilling observer. WEST COAST AVENGERS ANNUAL #2 pits the East Coast Avengers against the Left Coast Avengers. AVENGERS ANNUAL #16 has all of the Avengers going up against the Grandmaster's legion of past dead Marvel characters for the fate of the universe, and we'll just try real hard to overlook the retroactive continuity gaffe of Bucky being counted amongst the dead.
I must say that I find the fighty fights in these annuals to be more involving than the ones in CoC. We get the Pyms engage in an undomestic dispute. We see Dracula test the will of Dr. Druid, and while Dr. Druid is the good guy here, he's such an asshat that I was rooting for the good old Count all the way, fate of the universe be hanged. And, back then, what could've resonated more than Captain America taking on his old sidekick Bucky? Hawkeye being one of my favorite Marvel characters ever, I was pretty stoked that he has such a prominent role. He manages to put down She-Hulk and, later, when Captain America can't do it, it's Hawkeye who ends up saving the universe... by cheating.
Out of all this, I come away with two What the Frack? questions: What were Iron Man (in full armor) and the Vision doing in the Avengers gymnasium running laps on the track? And wouldn't it have made more sense to break up the Globe thingee into an odd number of pieces, to preclude the possibility of a tie? Again, terrifying math at work.
This trade AVENGERS: THE CONTEST collects MARVEL SUPER HERO CONTEST OF CHAMPIONS #1-3, WEST COAST AVENGERS ANNUAL #2, and AVENGERS ANNUAL #16. It also features an introduction by then editor Tom DeFalco and reprints "a complete list of every single super hero alive today" - with "today" referring to 1982. The stories in the annuals are solid, but the narrative in CONTEST OF CHAMPIONS won't make you sit up and take notice, and there's just too many bits of lazy writing there. The art is okay, featuring a just starting out John Romita, Jr. If I were more objective, this trade probably wouldn't garner more than 3 stars out of 5 from me. But there's an inherent cool fanboy factor here, and it's convincing me to rate the thing 4 stars. So be it. I'm just a retro guy, after all. Me and Roy Thomas.