Operation Galactic Storm, Epic Collection Review!

It speaks to the state of the comic book industry in the early 1990s that the contents of one story can fill an entire Epic Collection volume all by itself. At nineteen parts (including two double-sized issues), plus a one-issue epilogue, “Operation: Galactic Storm” is a sprawling tale, born of a then-booming comic book market. With comic book sales ever-climbing and new single-issue sales records being set and obliterated all the time, Marvel had accelerated its “flood the market” approach, putting as many books as possible onto the shelves. This was done, in part, by creating little “fiefdoms” of similarly-themed titles that could inspire additional spinoffs and be drafted into crossovers with one another (the better to force readers looking to experience the whole story to buy everything): there were the “X-books,” comprised of the two X-Men series and their spinoff titles, four monthly Spider-Man books, an assortment of series and one-shots starring the Punisher, etc.

While the “Big Three” of the Avengers – Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man – had been at least tangentially associated with the main Avengers title for decades, in the early 90s those connections were leaned on more heavily as part of this sales approach. In 1985, a second Avengers book, West Coast Avengers (later renamed Avengers West Coast to ensure it was shelved next to its sister title), launched. By 1992, those two series, along with the Big Three’s solo books and new series featuring Wonder Man (from Avengers West Coast) and Quasar (from the East coast team) formed a family of Avengers title, and with “Operation: Galactic Storm,” they all participated in one massive, interconnected story for the first time.

In addition to its sprawling size, the other defining element of “Operation: Galactic Storm” is the scope of its plot. The story finds the combined branches of the Avengers drawn into an intergalactic conflict between the alien empires of the Kree (a militarized race to whom the original Captain Marvel belongs) and the Shi’ar (vaguely bird-like aliens who are often allies of the X-Men). Their use of a stargate near Earth’s sun as a waypoint to move their forces through deep space threatens all life on Earth, forcing the Avengers into action as they attempt to end the war before humanity is destroyed. The Avengers had been embroiled in a larger intergalactic conflict for the fate of the planet before, but it had never been presented on as large a scale and with as big of stakes for the Avengers themselves. Ultimately, despite its origins as a commercially motivated 90s era crossover, “Operation: Galactic Storm” represents the pinnacle of cosmic Avengers storytelling.

Cosmic Redux

“Operation: Galactic Storm” isn’t the first time the Avengers got drawn into an alien war. That distinction belongs to the “Kree-Skrull War” story from 1971 and 1972, in which the shapeshifting Skrulls are the opponents of the Kree, whose star-spanning conflict comes to Earth and engulfs the Avengers. The “Kree-Skrull War” is routinely held up as one of the all-time greatest Avengers stories, and with good cause. It contains some truly exciting and iconic moments – the return of the Skrulls hypnotized into believing they were cows in the aliens’ very first appearance in Fantastic Four #2, the first time the US government seemed to turn against the Avengers, and Ant-Man shrinking down inside Vision’s body to repair his synthezoid form – as well as some stunning art from the legendary Neal Adams (at least in some issues). Yet for all that, it doesn’t really hold a candle to “Operation: Galactic Storm.”

For one thing, sprawling though it may be, “Galactic Storm” is tightly plotted. After using its opening chapters to establish the galactic conflict as it reaches the shores of Earth and the threat it poses to life on the planet, the narrative splits into three, following one team of Avengers as they attempt to negotiate with the Kree (chronicled in Avengers, Captain America, and Iron Man), another as they attempt to negotiate with the Shi’ar (chronicled in Avengers West Coast, Thor, and Wonder Man chapters), and a third team that stays behind as a rear guard on Earth (chronicled in Avengers West Coast as well, and Quasar).

One of the things that makes the Avengers the Avengers is the way the series often interrupts its high-octane action and arch character drama with moments of bureaucratic procedure. One of the highlights of “Operation: Galactic Storm” comes in Avengers #345, in which the mass of gathered superheroes are divided into the three teams and various characters wheel-and-deal to get assigned to one mission or another (Robert’s Rules of Order even gets cited at one point, always a highlight of such scenes). But the split focus helps fill the story’s nineteen parts, providing multiple threads to explore as the war goes on. Yet despite the parallel narratives, each individual chapter is constructed to build into the next, so that even when the plot jumps from one setting to another between issues, the transition is smooth and easy to follow. It’s an astonishing feat of editorial coordination to bring six writers working on seven series together and churn out something even mildly coherent, but “Galactic Storm” not only meets that bar, it clears it.

Compared to the intricate plotting of “Galactic Storm,” “Kree-Skrull War” is kind of a mess. It was, of course, written in a different time and with different goals, and by just one writer, Roy Thomas, who also contributes the Avengers West Coast chapters of “Operation: Galactic Storm”. But it struggles to rise above the limitations of those circumstances. While each chapter is largely standalone – a necessity in those pre-Direct Market newsstand days – this leads to something of a disjointed narrative even as each issue contains larger connective threads. At one point, the Avengers are fighting Annihilus (who is neither Kree nor Skrull), then they’re being turned into neanderthals, then they’re fighting government-backed Mandroids, etc. The overarching plot becomes subsumed to the demands of the immediate “plot du jour.” To that point, the most acclaimed and famous sequence of “Kree-Skrull War,” Ant-Man’s journey inside the Vision, is mostly tangential to the larger plot of the story.

Also, where the narrative arch of “Galactic Storm” is clearly well-considered and plotted out in detail to ensure each of the various creative teams know their responsibility to telling the larger story, Roy Thomas has said repeatedly, including in the foreword to the first collection of the “Kree-Skrull War” in 2000, that he was making up the larger plot of that story as he went along. There is certainly charm to be found in that kind of “winging it” approach; many of the greatest Marvel stories were born of it. But it’s much less effective at presenting a cohesive narrative.

In terms of the art, “Kree-Skrull War” has the clear edge, of course. It’s tough to beat legendary artist Neal Adams, and the journey inside the Vision is rightly held up as a stunning piece of comic book art. But Adams doesn’t draw the entire story, and while brothers Sal and John Buscema (who work bookends Adams’ on the story) are legends in their own right, neither are Neal Adams.

Similarly, no single artist working on “Operation: Galactic Storm” rises to the level of Neal Adams, and even by the standards of the time, “Galactic Storm” doesn’t feature any of the high profile, fan-favorite artists that were helping set sales records at the time (the future founders of Image Comics like Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee tended to stick to the more popular Spider-Man and X-Men titles). But the artists involved are no slouches either. Led by Steve Epting on Avengers (inked by Tom Palmer, who also inked Neal Adams back in “Kree-Skrull War”) and a young Greg Capullo on Quasar, while also featuring more quirky and distinctive work from David Ross and Jeff Johnson, there is a reliable consistency to the art in “Galactic Storm” that matches its measured and well-constructed plotting. Paul Ryan, for example, may not be the flashiest or most exciting of artists by 90s standards, but his work fits into the general house style and features clear, precise storytelling; if his work represents the “floor” of a crossover’s art, it’s in pretty good shape.

We Can At Least Avenge ‘Em

To be clear, “Operation: Galactic Storm” is far from perfect. It is a few chapters too long, and even given that, the “meanwhile, back on Earth” plotline gets short shrift. While the two space teams are more or less equally important to the advancement and resolution of the plot, the homebound contingent gets some token action in the middle of the crossover then quietly disappears to make more room for the space-set climax. The vagaries of scheduling also means there’s an “anniversary” issue of Captain America (#400) included as part of the story; writer Mark Gruenwald does his best to craft a story for that issue that both contributes to the overall “Galactic Storm” plot while also celebrating Captain America’s history, but in trying to serve two masters he ultimately pleases none.

But what really sets “Operation: Galactic Storm” ahead is that, for all its early 90s commercial-driven trappings, it’s ultimately about the question of what it means to be an Avenger (whereas “Kree-Skrull War” is ultimately about some combination of “humanity has lots of potential” and “Roy Thomas really loves old Golden Age superheroes”). As the war between the Kree and the Shi’ar comes to a head, the Avengers learn about the existence of a nega-bomb, a massive weapon the Shi’ar intend to use to end the war in one fell swoop. They manage to convince the Shi’ar not to use the weapon, but the bomb goes off anyway, killing billions of Kree. When the Avengers learn its detonation – and indeed, the majority of the war itself – was orchestrated by the Kree Supreme Intelligence in a bid to jumpstart the stagnant genetic evolution of his species by sacrificing billions, a schism forms in the team.

One group of Avengers, led by Iron Man, advocates for the execution of the Supreme Intelligence in response to its crime. Another, led by Captain America, insists that the Avengers need to uphold by their long-standing rule against killing their foes. Iron Man argues that the victims of the Supreme Intelligence deserve justice; Cap argues that doing so violates the Avengers terms of engagement; they went to war to end the threat to Earth, and now the threat is over. A vote is held; Cap’s side prevails. Iron Man, as the sole founding member of the team present on the devastated Kree homeworld, pulls rank. He leads a contingent of like-minded Avengers against the Supreme Intelligence, intent on executing it. Ultimately, Black Knight strikes the killing blow.

This schism will come to define the Avengers in ways big and small, for the next decade. A dejected Captain America – who, in the epilogue issue, holds a seminar on superhero ethics that is attended by only three Avengers – will leave the team for a time. The group will be drawn into repeated conflicts with both the victorious Shi’ar and the defeated Kree. Their roster will be influenced by the larger galactic role they’ve inadvertently taken up. These events will also play a role in the eventual dissolution of the West Coast branch of the Avengers, and the brief isolation of its members from the larger superhero body, as well as lead to another large crossover towards the end of the 90s in which the Kree strike back and Earth becomes an alien penal colony.

On a larger scale, the schism is also part of the ongoing conversation about morality which superhero comics were having with themselves in the early 90s. The rise of violent, more lethal anti-heroes in the 70s and their growing popularity throughout the 80s reached a critical point in the 90s, as many of the hottest and best-selling comics featured “grim ‘n’ gritty” stories starring these characters. Amidst the massive critical and commercial success of darker series like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, coupled with the increasing popularity of the bold, brash (but often lacking in basic storytelling fundamentals) artwork of the future Image founders and their copycats, more and more veteran creators found themselves wondering what their place and the place of heroes with more traditional morals and ethics was in the industry. Not surprisingly, in many cases, their efforts to answer those questions came across in their stories.

The same kind of questions that drove Batman’s “Knightfall” crossover (in which Bruce Wayne is brutally injured by a villain and replaced by a darker, edgier Batman wearing high-tech armor), the “Death and Return of Superman” (in which one of the four characters vying to replace the deceased Superman is a grim vigilante who coldly dispatches his foes with lethal force) and Spider-Man’s “Maximum Carnage” (in which the wallcrawler’s own strict no-killing rule is repeatedly tested by the rampage of a super-powered serial killer and his friends) are at the heart of “Operation: Galactic Storm”: what did it mean to be a superhero in the “dark age” of comics? Was there still a place, in-universe and in readers’ affections, for characters who followed a stricter code of ethics, who played by the rules and didn’t kill (or routinely threatened to kill) their foes? Was Captain America hopelessly naive and out-of-touch to defend a being who killed billions, when, as Black Knight argues, “Avengers” is right there in the team’s name? “Operation: Galactic Storm” can’t answer these questions, of course, but in raising them, it makes itself part of a larger, ongoing discussion.

Of Its Time

In much the same way that “Operation: Galactic Storm” has an advantage over “Kree-Skrull War” by coming at a time when the need to tell a complete done-in-one story in each comic wasn’t as much of a necessity, it also benefits from being able to engage with the decades-long history of the Avengers that passed between the two stories. If “Kree-Skrull War” is notable for being the first major “cosmic” Avengers epic, then “Operation: Galactic Storm” succeeds by taking that template even further while engaging with the history of the series to say something about what it means to be an Avenger. While certainly a product of its time – from its title, derived from the media-friendly name for military operations in then-contemporary first Iraq War to its sprawling scope supported by the “choke the shelves with comics!” marketing approach that led to an entire family of intertwined Avengers books – “Operation: Galactic Storm” is more than just a shameless 90s cash grab.

Tightly plotted with reliably clear and occasionally exciting art, it is first and foremost a fun and engaging bit of space opera. The idea of the Avengers going into space to battle aliens whose war endangers the planet is simply pure comic book fun, and the kind of story that should feature characters referred to collectively as “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” (it is, of course, at the heart of the “Kree-Skrull War” as well). But by taking advantage of the trappings of its time, it elevates that core idea. The “family” of titles tying in gives the story room to breathe and develop, while the more overt hand of editorial helps coordinate the story and ensure that the creators, while each doing their own thing, are still contributing to the larger Ur-narrative as the crossover progresses. By building the story around the question of what it means to be an Avenger in light of the group’s by-then nearly thirty year history and in the context of industry trends which questioned whether the appetite still existed for stories featuring the kind of traditionally heroic values the Avengers had long espoused, the creative team imbues it with a sense of history and thematic relevance lacking in previous entries of the genre.

It’s easy to look at the nineteen parts of “Operation: Galactic Storm” and its tie-in issues from solo books headlined by characters like Wonder Man and Quasar, stalwart team players who nevertheless wouldn’t likely have their own series in anything but a booming market, and write the whole thing off as another example of crass 90s commercialism, an attempt to goose sales by forcing fans to buy every possible Avengers book in order to get the whole story. It’s certainly impossible to separate the story from the circumstances of the era in which it was published. Yet at the same time, those circumstances also help elevate the story beyond the commercial interests (which certainly were a factor in its creation). To call “Operation: Galactic Storm” just another example of 90s glut is to do it a disservice and ignore what is one of the finest examples of a cosmic Avengers tale, one on par with – or even exceeding – many of the older and more critically-acclaimed entrants in that subgenre. It is a crossover, but one which still tells an entertaining story while also grappling with the notion of what it means to be an Avenger – to be a superhero – in the 1990s.

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