If you’re hot off the heels of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, and were amazed by the cunning mind of Helmut Zemo, why not settle into a story where he brings the Avengers to their knees? AVENGERS: UNDER SIEGE is a five-part story written by Roger Stern and pencilled by John Buscema that ran from 1986-1987. The story begins in AVENGERS v1 #273, featuring the Black Knight framed by the Marvel Comics 25th Anniversary border on the cover, that really couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. By 1985, The Avengers had split their membership into West and East Coast teams. With longtime mainstays Hawkeye and Iron Man the team in California, the team in New York is a little thin. Thankfully, the first issue opens with dialogue courtesy of Hercules, so readers are quickly caught up with information about himself and the other Avengers Captain America, Black Knight, Captain Marvel II, the Sub-Mariner, and The Wasp. The man Hercules shares a drink over conversation turns out to be The Wrecker, one of Thor’s most persistent foes, in disguise gathering intelligence.
It is soon revealed that Baron Helmut Zemo has spent weeks– months– on end, surveilling The Avengers. Like the version in the film, Zemo has dedicated himself to analyzing their individual behaviors, habits, temperaments, and interpersonal relationships all to better destroy them in dramatic fashion. To this end, he’s also coerced a dozen villains to work together, the latest incarnation of THE MASTERS OF EVIL, to surpass The Avengers’ mighty assemblage. The team consists of himself, Moonstone, The Fixer, Goliath, Titania, Absorbing Man, The Wrecking Crew, Mister Hyde, Yellowjacket, Tiger Shark, and Blackout. Not only do they have the power to match the Avengers, they already outnumber them more than two-to-one.
To date, this also happens to be the largest group of villains we’ve seen in one place. So a plan is put into action. With all of the Avengers away, the villains will play. They sack what amounts to an empty Avengers Mansion, taking hapless butler Edwin Jarvis as a hostage and destroying countless trophies and memorabilia. The mansion is theirs, and the Avengers none the wiser. The Masters lie in wait, ambushing each returning Avenger. Yellowjacket and Hyde surprise Black Knight. Blackout captures Captain Marvel. Fixer trips the mansion’s defenses to stop Captain America. And though valiant in his might, an inebriated Hercules is brought down by the combined strength of the Wrecking Crew, Mister Hyde, and Goliath. The Wasp escapes to get help, but finds that the Mansion has been surrounded by an impenetrable barrier of Darkforce energy.
Baron Zemo is triumphant.
The Avengers lie before him beaten and captured, but his plan goes so far beyond this– he wants their total humiliation before their complete destruction. Captain America receives the most personal of Zemo’s menace– the footlocker of all his personal possessions is destroyed right in front of him. His original badge-shaped shield, photos of his sidekick Bucky, and even the only photo of his mother. But Steve remains stonefaced and vigilant. He refuses to show any weakness– to give Zemo the satisfaction he so craves.
Meanwhile, The Wasp has been seeking outside help. She recruits Scott Lang and Thor, and with an escaped Captain Marvel, make an effort to return to the mansion and free their compatriots. Doctor Druid aids the Avengers in dispelling the Darkforce barrier preventing them from entering. Zemo’s plan begins to fall apart as a re-assembled Avengers incapacitate the Masters of Evil. In a final, desperate gamble, realizing the Mansion cannot be held without his allies Zemo attempts to convince Blackout to transport all of his enemies into the Darkforce Dimension, from where they might never escape. This brings us to the final showdown, and one of the most iconic covers in all of Avengers history.
Although, like many covers, this one is a bit of a deception. The Masters of Evil are certainly trounced, but The Avengers (taking their fair share of lumps in the trouncing) are still able to witness the final showdown between Captain America and Baron Zemo. On the roof of the crumbling mansion, Cap dismisses his teammates and admits, this was the way things should have ended all along. Zemo flies into a fury, attacking Steve with his own shield, ranting about Captain America’s role in the death of his father, the original Baron Zemo, in a battle with the Avengers years earlier. They trade taunts, and like a certain other Real American, Cap completely dominates the fight. Zemo makes one final lunge at his enemy and takes a seemingly fatal tumble to the ground below. The day is won, not easily, and not without cost.
Things end on a bit of a bittersweet note; The Avengers start clearing the debris that was once their home, Hercules remains in a coma, and Jarvis and Black Knight are alive but hospitalized. Captain America returns to the epicenter of the conflict, dropping to the ground and finally breaking down. He’s brought to tears, devastated by Baron Zemo’s destruction of his personal effects. Captain Marvel urges him to steady on, that the Avengers and the citizens need his help in rebuilding the future. True to form, the Star-Spangled Avenger rises proudly for next month’s adventure. It’s a powerful scene that, in two pages, gives you a sense of vulnerability in Cap’s character that hadn’t really been seen since he first left the ice. Sure, Zemo could destroy his home and rough up his friends, but trashing the only material items of his past life? A despicable act for which there is no recompense. (At least until some time travel-based reparations almost 20 years later.)
I enjoy this story a great deal for a few reasons, favoring it to the actual Civil War series the movie draws its inspiration (and title) from. AVENGERS: UNDER SIEGE stands on its own, and can be picked up by virtually anyone. It takes time to explain characters and scenarios– all the storytelling elements are put in place deliberately. Nothing seems forced or contrived, and there are lasting impacts and consequences that persist through pages of AVENGERS and CAPTAIN AMERICA issues following. It’s also a building point from which Baron Zemo emerges as a truly formidable threat and a fantastically tactical character, a trait that develops fully in the pages of THUNDERBOLTS (which I’ve written about here before). You’d also be hard pressed to find an artist that more characteristically represents Marvel Comics than “Big” John Buscema, here a twenty year veteran in the House of Ideas alone.
Modern readers may find some elements of the story a little dated (as thought balloons and broad expositions are all-but absent today), but the issues otherwise hold up very well, especially with the digital enhancement and presentation via Marvel Unlimited or a crisp trade paperback. Yet ultimately, AVENGERS: UNDER SIEGE stands as one of the all-time best Avengers stories, one well-worth experiencing.