No one else decimated Avengers Mansion quite like writer Roger Stern and the legendary art team of John Buscema and Tom Palmer in the classic “Under Siege” arc of AVENGERS #270-277.
In the first of a two-part interview, Stern explains to Marvel.com how he, Buscema and Palmer took the Masters of Evil and the Avengers to new highs and lows in a 1986 tale that still resonates with fans 28 years later. The writer also revisits his creative decisions to make members of Captain America’s “family” such as Hercules and Jarvis suffer the most and pays tribute to Buscema and Palmer.
Marvel.com: How did you decide who to include in this Masters of Evil lineup?
Roger Stern: Good question. I’d already used a different incarnation of the Masters early in my run on AVENGERS, one without Baron Zemo. I’d wanted to bring them back and build them up into a force that would make them even more formidable adversaries for the Avengers.
But then, that was a challenge I faced with every issue. Apart from Kang and Ultron, the Avengers didn’t have all that many major villains who were exclusively their own. The original Masters of Evil, of course, was a team made up of the enemies of individual Avengers. And in looking back over the previous stories, I noticed something: the first Baron Zemo had organized the Masters as a sort of one-to-one match for the Avengers, with five villains opposing five heroes.
And it occurred to me that the best way to make the Masters a real threat was to have them overwhelm the Avengers with superior numbers. I mean, they were the bad guys. Would they play fair? Of course not! So I had Zemo’s son—the new Baron Zemo—assemble a small army of super-villains and let them take out the Avengers one by one. And I decided to up the ante by loading the new Masters with as many heavy-hitting Kirby-esque strong men as I could find, which meant the Wrecking Crew and Mister Hyde and the Absorbing Man and Goliath along with returnees like Moonstone and wild cards like Blackout, the Fixer, and Yellowjacket.
At the heart of it, I was just trying to write a story that I hoped the readers would enjoy, with villains tough enough to give the AVENGERS a hard time.
Marvel.com: In developing the arc, how early in the process did you decide one of the major conflicts would be Zemo aiming to break Cap’s spirit?
Roger Stern: Actually, that was in the back of my mind right from the beginning. Breaking Cap is always Zemo’s aim, isn't it?
Zemo thought of the Avengers as Cap's “family.” Destroying them would be his revenge for the breakup of his own family. Of course, we all know that Cap was not responsible for that. It was the elder Zemo’s mania that led to his family’s breakup. But both father and son had blamed Cap for their own failures.
Even after Zemo had Captain America taken prisoner, that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to break Cap’s spirit, and he did it by attacking the Avengers.
Marvel.com: “Under Siege” is remembered by many for the savage beating of Jarvis by Mister Hyde. Did you ever consider having him retire from the Avengers, or was it always your plan to have him recover?
Roger Stern: Oh, of course, he was going to recover! Jarvis had long been an integral part of the Avengers. The story might have put him in mortal danger, but I knew that he was tough enough to survive. Certainly, getting beaten by Mister Hyde was no walk in the park. Jarvis would need time off to rest and recuperate, but I’d always intended for him to return.
Marvel.com: Hercules nearly died in this legendary arc; do you recall what prompted you to pick him to be one of the ones to suffer the most?
Roger Stern: Well, I was hoping to surprise the readers. I mean, how many hundreds of thousands of heavy hitters had Hercules faced before that? And how many had seriously defeated him?
That was my way of establishing the sheer power of the new Masters: by having them beat Hercules to within an inch of his life. They put a god in the hospital. Top that, Kang!
Marvel.com: Before reading this Marvel.com piece in 2010, I did not realize you would add art elements yourself to some panels: “I personally added Goliath's feet in one panel and an outline of Captain Marvel in another, knowing that [inker] Tom Palmer could take my rough sketches and make it look as though [penciler] John Buscema had drawn it.” Is that a testament to how much Buscema trusted you, to allow you to add art to his pages?
Roger Stern: You know I'm not sure John was even aware of my doing that. He would occasionally omit some small story element, say, forgetting to include the Wasp in a group shot, and I would loosely scribble a little figure of the Wasp into the panel. It wasn’t really adding “art,” it was more an indication to Tom Palmer of what elements needed to go where. It didn’t amount to more than five or six times over the course of 30 issues. I don’t even know if John kept photocopies of his penciled pages. And if he had, I don’t know that he ever would have checked them against the finished art.
Alas, there’s no way to ask him now.
Marvel.com: Speaking of Buscema and Palmer, what was it like to work with those two artistic legends?
Roger Stern: Well, John was far and away the finest illustrator I ever worked with. And I think that working with him made me a better writer. John was so good and so fast, I often felt as though he could draw the AVENGERS faster than I could write it. He always made my stories look great.
But by the same token, it was sometimes frustrating because John’s heart was never really into drawing super heroes—despite his being able to draw them better than just about anybody. Of course, he could draw everything better than just about anybody.
Man, can you imagine how good the Avengers would’ve looked if he had liked drawing super heroes?
And I can never say enough good things about Tom Palmer. His finished art, over John’s breakdowns, was a thing of beauty. Tom was a very accomplished artist in his own right; he's really the unsung hero of the AVENGERS art team. I spoke earlier about how John would sometimes overlook a story element, and I would loosely sketch the missing element into the panel. I am certainly no artist, but Tom would turn my rough scribbles into finished art so good that you never would have guessed that the writer had added it. That’s how good Tom Palmer is; he made my amateurish scribbles look like Buscema/Palmer artwork!
Later this week, Roger Stern talks more about AVENGERS: UNDER SIEGE! For more of Marvel’s 75th anniversary celebration, visit marvel.com/75