Review by Ian Keogh
It’s assumed that the original Secret Wars was the first blockbuster uniting of all Marvel’s heroes within a single story, but this first try at Contest of Champions was two years earlier, originally appearing in 1982.
Elder of the Universe, The Grandmaster has arranged a game, the prize being an opportunity to resurrect his dead brother the Collector. The ultimate aim of his opponent isn’t clarified, but after every superhero on Earth is gathered at an unknown venue it’s revealed that should the Grandmaster lose, the population of Earth will remain in suspended animation forever. Each of the game players selects a team of twelve, who’re further split into groups of three to compete for possession of quarters of a golden globe. The team amassing the most quarters wins. It might be considered that as the pair playing the game are the among the galaxy’s greatest powers they might have spotted the inherent mathematical flaw in their set-up.
What’s still nice about the story is the downright perverse obscurity of some characters used, with Marvel for some reason wanting to stress the international range of their superheroes. The likes of Arabian Knight, Blitzkrieg, the Collective Man, Darkstar, Defensor, Le Peregrine, Sabra, Shamrock, and Talisman had barely been seen before, and few have been used much since, but their presence makes for much less predictable outcomes.
With a little help from Bob Layton, everything is nicely pencilled by John Romita Jr, just coming into his own in 1982, still a little cluttered in his layouts and not yet anywhere near what would become his signature style. However, those layouts are largely dynamic, he mixes the heroes well and fashions viable environments for them.
Neither the Grandmaster nor his opponent considering four contests could result in a draw doesn’t matter, as the unknown opponent is also prone to amnesia, forgetting Shamrock was on their team, and conceding defeat. It’s addressed in Tom DeFalco’s amusing afterword. Once the game has been played the writing team of Bill Mantlo, Mark Gruenwald and Steven Grant get down to the identity of that mysterious opponent, someone most readers of the time would surely have recognised anyway. There’s a trick left to play in what’s been an entertaining romp if you can cope with almost every world balloon being a character introducing or explaining themselves.
A two part Avengers follows, a continuation reversing the roles, with the Grandmaster now needing restored to life. In the 1980s the Avengers operated both an East Coast and West Coast branch, and the individual members are pitched against each other in a series of conflicts averaging out at four pages, after which the collected membership individually face some characters who’d died. Neither portion is perfect. Steve Englehart’s plotting of the first segment involves some interesting battles, but all life is sucked from it by Al Milgrom’s very basic art. He’s trying for Jack Kirby, but lacks the talent. The variety of artists used on the concluding segment is better, with Jackson Guice inked by Kevin Nowlan the standout chapter. It pits Black Knight, Dr Druid, Iron Man, and Mockingbird against the original Black Knight, Dracula, Red Guardian and Terrax. Bob Hall’s layouts finished by Tom Palmer are also good. DeFalco’s dialogue induces wincing in places, but his plot’s solidly entertaining, with Hawkeye’s audacious final contribution a treat.
This is fun if you make an awful lot of allowances for the era. If you’re really keen, the most recent edition is a hardback changing title to Avengers: The Contest, but the digital edition omits the Avengers content. There were follow-ups in 1999 and 2016.