A Brief History of Kang, Part 12: Games Conquerors Play

By Robert Clough

Flashing forward to Avengers 69-71 (now firmly placed in the Roy Thomas era), we find the Avengers rushing to the hospital in an effort to save Tony Stark's life. Tony had been injured by a renegade LMD (Life Model Decoy, a super-lifelike robot) and was near death. The team waited and worried while Thor brought in a specialist to save his life.

The Wasp finds a little glowing doll in the hospital; turns out it's a Stimuloid, a robot that grows every time it's struck. She throws it in a garbage can, and it climbs out, killing two SHIELD agents. The Stimuloid, known as the Growing Man, then gets real big and kidnaps the unconscious Tony Stark. The Avengers get all over his case, with Thor recognizing as a creation of Kang. After a brief clash, Growing Man summons "the Light of the Centuries" and he disappears, bathed in light. The Avengers follow, knowing full well that it's a trap.

Next thing they know, they're in the throne room of the one and only Kang himself. I'll let the Vision describe him: "That fiendish, frowning visage...the hint of unrelieved cruelty that plays about the mouth...! His regal bearing...as of one accustomed to wielding supreme power...! Who could it be, but he of whom you spoke...he whom you call...KANG THE CONQUEROR!!" Couldn't have said it better myself, Vizh.

There are a few odd things going on. First, they notice the supposedly dead Ravonna stuck in a tube. Second, they don't see Tony Stark anywhere. Third, they notice a "glowing sphere" floating next to Kang. Kang then says that Tony has been shrunken down and placed in the energy beam that brought them to his era. And one of the reasons why is that Kang wants the Avengers to be his servants!

Thor doesn't cotton to this and a fight breaks out between the Assemblers and Kang's Endless Army (TM). They're about to take on the man himself when they are halted by...the Black Panther! T'Challa had been snatched away by Kang from Wakanda, and he tells them that they must team up with Kang...if Earth is to live! Kang is a little more polite this time, and explains exactly how and why he needs them.

Turns out that Kang had been brooding over Ravonna's inert form, neither truly dead nor alive. Kang said out loud how meaningless his life was, and wished how he had power over life and death. Suddenly, a mysterious figure calling himself the Grandmaster pops up. He claims that he has the ability to temporarily grant the powers that Kang desires...if he can beat him at a game. If Kang loses, his planet (earth) is destroyed...forever. Hearing this, the Avengers agree to participate, if Tony Stark is returned to Earth. As Kang agrees, the Grandmaster reappears, reminding Kang that he's never lost a game. Thor, Cap and Goliath then disappear, to be joined by a fourth member, somewhere on Earth. They are confronted by the Grandmaster's champions: Dr. Spectrum, Hyperion, Nighthawk and the Whizzer...collectively known as the Squadron Sinister!

The next issue opens with Kang throwing a tantrum at dinner, tossing his food aside and demanding to the Grandmaster that they get on with it. Grandmaster replies that he was busy creating his own chessmen...and then proceeds to obliterate the soldiers who were about to fire on him. He is not amused by Kang's little ploy and lets him know it, as does the Black Panther. But hey, it wouldn't be Kang if he didn't at least try to cheat a little...

Meanwhile, Iron Man joins Cap, Thor & Goliath. Tossing aside questions about his prior whereabouts, he and the Avengers turn to face the Squadron Sinister; or rather, their "astral images". They explain that the Grandmaster created them to destroy the Avengers. (Of course, the SquaSini were an homage to the Justice League of America, for those who might not be in on the joke. Hyperion=Superman, Nighthawk=Batman, Whizzer=Flash, and Dr. Spectrum=Green Lantern.)

Cap beats bored millionaire Kyle "Nighthawk" Richmond, preventing him from destroying the Statue of Liberty. Iron Man defeats Dr. Spectrum (whose Power Prism is sentient) by zapping him with ultraviolet light. Thor beats Hyperion by...wait, I'll let Yellowjacket explain: "Somehow, his hammer duplicated...and reversed...the atomic process that gave Hyperion his powers!" Umm, OK. Lastly, Clint "Goliath" Barton is close to beating the Whizzer in London when Dane Whitman, the new Black Knight, interferes. Clint grabs the Ebony Blade away from BK just as the Grandmaster calls him back, declaring this part of the contest a draw because of the interference. Dane vows to somehow follow them across time to make up for his mistake...

Dane lights the brazier that enables him to communicate with Sir Percy of Scandia, the first Black Knight and Dane's ancestor. Sir Percy shows him a vision of the future. Kang gives a little speech that's very interesting:

"Curse the day that I accepted the fatal challenge of the Grand-Master. I would never have done it--never--but for the love of the beauteous Ravonna!! For months she has stood like this--not dead, yet strangely not alive! Can any blame me, if I would risk a planet's history to see her draw another breath? Can any blame Kang the Conqueror...because he is also...a man? But there must be no tears...no moments wasted in idle remorse! That is for lesser beings...not for Kang!"

Kang then turns on a viewer to observe another team of Avengers (the Black Panther, the Vision, and Yellowjacket) fight the Grandmaster's champions. They've been transported to German-occupied France in WWII. But they're not fighting Nazis; instead, they're fighting the greatest superheroes of the era...Captain America, the original Human Torch, and Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner!

Dane then decides to act. Because of his link with the Ebony Blade, he can follow it anywhere and anywhen. So the link enables him to travel forward in time, where he battles Kang's guards and finds the Wasp. They plan to set the Avengers free.

In terms of raw power, the Torch and Namor outclass the Avengers. But the Avengers have the advantage of knowing their foes' weaknesses. They manage to steer the future Invaders into a row, and the Vision pulls his partial-materialization trick, knocking them out.

Kang is gloating as the Grandmaster points out that he's a hero, "for perhaps the only time in your centuries-spanning life!" He then notes that because the first round was a draw, Kang could only choose the power of life OR death, but not both. He's about to choose the power of life when the now-freed Avengers burst into the room, and they are seriously annoyed. But they're willing to let bygones be bygones if Kang sends them back. Kang says..."Send you back? Let you escape from my grasp, now that you have done my bidding? NEVER! Even more than I love the fair Ravonna...I despise the very name 'Avenger'!" Kang is so peeved that he asks for the power of "death to the Avengers", believing that his "own genius can resurrect her!"

The Avengers are goners this time. Kang is completely invulnerable and invincible...Mjolnir just passes through him harmlessly. They're about to die when the Black Knight surprises him. He wasn't affected by Kang’s blast because he's not an Avenger, and Kang was VERY specific in his demands! Dane whacks him with his blade, knocking him senseless, and the Avengers are now unharmed. As the Grandmaster leaves, he says "Think on Kang...and have pity! Because his heart held more hate than love...his hands are now empty!" The Avengers then make the Black Knight their newest member.

One of my favorite Avengers stories. Yes, there are lots of silly moments that don't make a ton of sense, but it's so damn fun that it's easy to ignore. The slugfests between the Avengers and the Squadron Sinister & Invaders are a ball. The Grandmaster is appropriately mysterious. It's a huge roster of Avengers. Kang is at his arrogant best. Kang's supreme arrogance was once again his undoing. He's so sure of himself that he is never able to improvise when a new element disturbs his plans. His love for Ravonna, I think, is partially wrapped up in conquest once again. He wants to conquer life and death because it's a new challenge. He's the perfect opponent for the Grandmaster, the ultimate competitor.

It seems to me that there are several intriguing What Ifs? that could have been written from this issue. What if the Black Knight didn't interfere, and the Avengers helped Kang win both life and death? What would Kang have done? Or, what if he had chosen life a split second BEFORE the Avengers burst in? All in all, a fine tale, that really starts to hint at how unbalanced Kang really is. This would be fleshed out later in Englehart's run. But first, Kang had to encounter two heroes; one who was an Avenger who had never faced him before, and another who was to become a future Avenger...

--Clough the Conqueror