Champions Classic, v. 1
Collects: Champions #1-11 (1975-7)
Released: June 2006 (Marvel)
Because you didn’t demand it, Marvel released the Champions in the 1970s. It was sort of the rock supergroup concept applied to superheroes: recognizeable heroes at loose ends tossed together to see what happens.
Just like with supergroups, the musicians aren’t usually the best, but they are credible. So in Champions Classic, v. 1, we get the Angel and Iceman at loose ends (they don’t like the All-New, All-Different X-Men all that much), occasional active Avengers Black Widow and Hercules, and relatively new hero Ghost Rider. I know what you’re saying to yourself: They put those people on a team? Yes. Yes, they did, and it worked about as well as you might expect.
The character concepts are almost completely incompatible, and all the characters have in common is that they are in Los Angeles. Ghost Rider fits with supernatural tales, Angel and Iceman to mutant rights, the Widow to espionage, and Hercules … well, he’s just larger than life. Despite the writers’ attempts, only Hercules strengths come across. The Widow doesn’t get to spy much, nor does she lead well; Angel doesn’t seem a very good business and is unable to keep the team focused on the raison d’etre he established; Ghost Rider is about as otherworldly as a club to the face; and Iceman doesn’t do much but complain that he’s leaving (until a pretty face comes along).
These problems aren’t insurmountable; they can be used as excellent plot devices. But by the time you get to #11, it’s difficult to think these are plots rather than just inherent difficulties with the team.
Just look at the cover: Herc in his gaudy leather and loincloth ensemble, Angel in his gaudy and Godawful costume, Iceman in his ice form, Ghost Rider in his leathers and motorcycle, and the Black Widow in her slinky black stealth suit. You can find two of these heroes that visually go together with no problem, but linking three is difficult, and five is impossible.
Tony Isabella and Bill Mantlo try their best, heaven knows. They give each hero a plot suited to their expertise: an Olympian plot for Herc in #1-3, a businessman goes bad in #5-6, a Russian four-parter for the Widow and her handler / trainer / sidekick Ivan in #7-10, and Wild West action vs. shadows for Ghost Rider in #11. But the rest of the Champions seem out of place in Herc’s and the Widow’s stories, and no one shines in the other two. It just doesn’t work.
The best storyline is that of Rampage, a genius inventor whose business is about to go bankrupt. The inventor dons the Rampage armor and tries to steal the money to get his business out of hock: sort of an evil Tony Stark. The team works well, the villain has a simple motivation and a reason for fighting the team as a whole, and his arc comes to an end satisfactorily. But there’s little satisfaction to be found elsewhere.
The writing seems to get a spark when Mantlo takes over for Isabella in #8. There seems to be an energy and a plan that had been absent in the first issues, but that could be just because I don’t see what’s coming up. Don Heck draws the first six issues, but it’s not his best work — too scratchy and shadowed for the brightly lit tales, and his line looks a little ragged compared to his best work. That could be the inker’s fault, and in any event Heck is still strong in storytelling and action, but it was a slight relief to my line when George Tuska (#7) and Bob Hall (#8-10). John Byrne, at the top of his game, is a treat in #11.
I’m not sure it’s the artists’ faults, but the costumes are pure ‘70s. The Olympian gods seem colorblind. The Black Widow wears a purple checked skirt over her suit in #1, an ensemble I have never seen before and hope never to see again. And then there’s the Angel’s monstrosity; Rampage destroys it in #8, earning my gratitude. (Also, there’s a scene where Hercules runs through the defense of UCLA’s football team, colored by someone who has never seen their uniforms.)
Now, I have to admit: If there’s a second volume, I will probably pick it up. The final page of v. 1 has the Stilt-Man announcing he’s about to become the Master of the World. If that ain’t a hook, I don’t know what is. (Besides, the team falls apart in v. 2, and that’s believable.)
Rating: (2 of 5)