Picking up where we left off, with a hero history of California’s strangest super-team from the seventies, that west coast mingling of ex-Avengers and ex-X-Men, the Champions.
Big changes just keep happening starting with Champions #11 (February 1977), as John Byrne joins the team as artist (through issue #15) to add to Bill Mantlo‘s writing. The Russian mutant Darkstar joins the team, the team gets a new headquarters with the Champions Building and a Champscraft (their own custom flying vehicle), and meet Black Goliath.
Think that’s enough for one issue…hardly! During all this, the team helps former Black Widow associate Hawkeye and his time-traveling companion the Two-Gun Kid fight a shadowy Hulk foe…Warlord Kaa. While the team is out of their HQ defeating that villain thanks to teamwork between Hawkeye and the Ghost Rider, the Stilt-Man (a Daredevil foe) attacks Black Goliath who had set up there.
As revealed in Champions #12 (March 1977), Stilt-Man was looking for a device held by a friend of Black Goliath’s – the Null-Life Bomb. The Null-Life Bomb had been previously stopped at the cost of a man’s life, and destroys by engulfing a star system around it, then solidifying, crushing all that is within it. The Null-Life Bomb is activated and swallows some of the Champions as well as its creator, the Stranger (a powerful alien entity who first fought the X-Men, as well as the Silver Surfer and Warlock, and his appearance is misunderstood by the team, who attacks him not knowing that he planned to stop the device). The Stranger sends some of the Champions to retrieve the only item that can stop the device, the Runestaff, which the Stranger thinks is in the possession of Hercules’ old foe (who he had fought with his Avengers’ ally, Thor), the Possessor (aka Kamo Tharnn).
The problem is, as Champions #13 (May 1977) shows, the Runestaff is not in the Possessor’s realm, but is instead on Earth. Thankfully, Darkstar, using her darkforce powers, leaps into a portal created by the Stranger to get to Earth to retrieve the staff (with a lovestruck Iceman following, at great jeopardy to his own life as his ice powers are less able to weather inter-dimensional space)…and both land on Earth, with young Bobby Drake being ignored by Darkstar. Darkstar gets the staff, and with the Stranger’s help, expand the bomb beyond its range, saving the Earth’s solar system and rendering the bomb useless. And still more cracks in the team’s unity show…as again one person saved the day without regard for her teammates. The team does start to accept their new Russian addition in the lovely young dark wielding mutant Laynia Petrovna, but this just makes Ghost Rider feel less accepted by the team.
Ghost Rider leaves the team for his individual pursuits again (in Ghost Rider #23, in April 1977, probably because he hasn’t been on a Champions cover in a while! The team is there and is grateful he’s leaving for a time). And both Black Widow and Ghost Rider team-up with Spider-Man during this Champions break (Natasha to face Silver Samurai, Johnny to face the Trapster with the wall-crawler).
The team reunites in Champions #14 (July 1977, by Bill Mantlo and John Byrne), to be attacked by their own HQ! Iceman gets a new costume, and the team also bids farewell to Ivan, who is headed home to Russia (unbeknowst to the team, Ivan is kidnapped along the way, but the Black Widow does go to free him later). The team is also attacked by the new villain, Swarm (Fritz Von Meyer), who is a Nazi who, due to an accident, now only had a body composed of mutant bees.
In Champions #15 (September 1977), the team learns Swarm’s origin, continue to damage their already damaged headquarters, fight his enlarged mechanical bees as well as the normal bees that compose the villain in an attempt to save the citizens of the city, and defeat Swarm by dispersing the hive that composes him, leaving only his skeleton.
What a buzz kill!
But don’t worry Swarm fans, this was only a minor setback for the hive-master, he does return…though not to face the Champions, but instead, another hero that has bug related abilities.
The team then begins a round of guest appearances, with Black Widow, Hercules, Iceman and Angel appearing in Godzilla #3 (October 1977, by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe) when that dinosaur attacks the west coast and they have to help S.H.I.E.L.D., the whole team helps Iron Man face M.O.D.O.K. and the scientists of A.I.M. in Iron Man Annual #4 (August 1977, by Bill Mantlo and George Tuska ), and Black Widow, Hercules and Iceman fighting against Avengers Iron Man and the Beast due to the manipulations of Hercules’ old foe, Typhon, in Avengers #163 (September 1977, by Jim Shooter and George Tuska).
And, shortly after, Avengers #163, Fantastic Four foe, Dr. Doom, and X-Men foe, Magneto, confer about ruling the world in Super-Villain Team-Up #14 (October 1977, by Bill Mantlo and Bob Hall). Doom tells Magneto he’s already won. Magneto thinks him insane, until the Latverian lord proves it…Doom had released a neuro-gas into the atmosphere that enables him to control any breathing human, and proves it by having the assembled Avengers attack Magneto.
Magneto escapes with the Beast, freeing him from Doom’s mind-control, and intends to have the Beast take him to his ex-teammates, the X-Men. But, the Beast instead takes him to the west coast, and to meet with….the Champions! And, as they are arriving at the Champions building, the team attacks the Doom mind control free mutant pair…
…and the story continues in Champions #16 (November 1977, by Bill Mantlo and Bob Hall), the Champions fight Magneto and the Beast, having been led to believe the Beast has turned traitor. The duo flee to fight Doom, who has come to take control of the United States in Washington, DC, and had summoned the Hulk to act as his bodyguard. Magneto and the Beast fight the Hulk until the Champions arrive, then Magneto tricks the Hulk into attacking Hercules (who has had a history with the jade behemoth!). Doom asserts his control over the Champions…but it doesn’t work with the Ghost Rider…who doesn’t breathe! Ghost Rider hits Dr. Doom with his hellfire, forcing Doom to remove his gas-filtering mask, and he breathes the gas…which frees everyone else from the effects except for Doom, now waiting for commands that he’s unable to give.
And, with January 1978, the team’s last issue comes with Champions #17 (by Bill Mantlo, George Tuska and John Byrne). They go out with a bang, facing Brotherhood of Evil Mutants members – the Blob, Unus the Untouchable and Lorelei, and the evil mutant teleporter, the Vanisher. The mutants hatch a scheme to use Sentinels they had reprogrammed to kill the X-Men, who they were hoping the Champions could lead them to (or, that the X-Men would avenge, after the mutants kill the Champions). This didn’t work for the villainous mutants, as they were defeated by the heroes…but it did end the seventeen issues of the Champions.
The letter’s page promised an ending to the saga of the Champions over in the Avengers…but that was not meant to be!
Instead, for two issues of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man (#17-18, April-May 1978, by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema), we found out that the team finally fractured, with team financier, the Angel, being the only member still around in the abandoned Champions building. It seems the team should have kept Ghost Rider, as when he left, Darkstar left, then the rest of the team left as well, leaving only Angel. And, Angel was being attacked by Champions’ foe, Rampage! With a little help from a certain wall-crawler, Angel was able to defeat Rampage (and help out his buddy, Bobby Drake aka the Iceman). And, this was the end of the Champions in the 1970s.
But it wasn’t an end for the characters. Both Black Widow and Hercules rejoined the Avengers a few times over the years (including one near Champions reunion in Avengers #211 in September 1981 missing only Ghost Rider from the original team, though he and Angel popped up in issue #214, with Ghost Rider being more of a menace than a friend), both guested frequently in the titles of friends (Black Widow in Daredevil and Captain America, Hercules in Thor and the Hulk), and both had their own titles recently.
Ghost Rider kept going in his own book, which survived to issue #81 before Johnny Blaze was separated from his demon, Zarathos, for a time…and, sadly reunited with it as well as the current target of the demon (Danny Ketch) gave up the ghost after 93 issues of a revival (and facing off against the Champions’ first foe, Pluto, in a special 94th issue, as 93 ended on a cliffhanger, and 94 was published years later), and revivals for the Spirit of Vengeance continue to happen as the character has now two movies with Nicolas Cage to its credit!
Angel and Iceman went back to the X-Men before reuniting with the Beast to work in the Defenders, (where they met with a non-possessed Johnny Blaze before disbanding due to the actions of Moondragon) then in X-Factor for a time (which reunited all five original X-Men!), before both resettled in current X-titles, both characters having undergone some pretty major changes…Angel has become Archangel for a time and turned a little blue (literally!) to work for Apocalypse after having his wings amputated (which led him to have metallic wings for a time, but the originals grew back) and Iceman had his powers ramped up for a time, and then hid them as well, learning to use them in different ways.
Darkstar went home to mother Russia and joined up with the Soviet Super-Soldiers (and got a new mostly black costume, which they incorrectly dressed her in for a Champions flashback tale, facing the Hulk, in Giant-Size Hulk #1, in August 2006, by Peter David and Juan Santacruz), and left them for a time, then came back when they became the Winter Guard, and Black Goliath changed his name to Giant-Man (with a spiffy new costume as well), and went to work for Project: Pegasus for a time, before joining up with the Avengers for a time. Sadly, both characters ran out of time with tragic ends.
Even “Champions only” villains the Swarm and Rampage have made return appearances in other titles like Secret Defenders and Punisher War Journal. The full five original team members have only come back together once as the Champions, in 1998, in the X-Force/Champions Annual by Tom & Mary Bierbaum and Terry Shoemaker with the characters in their current looks facing an all too familiar foe!
As for the creative teams behind the team…they’ve had a few successes as well. Co-creator Tony Isabella worked on quite a few projects, including Ghost Rider, Power Man, went on to co-create Black Lightning, was an editor at Marvel for a time, and currently writes the Grim Ghost for Atlas Comics. Sadly, both Don Heck (1995) and George Tuska (2009) have passed away (though a file story with a flashback to earlier Champions days was found drawn by George Tuska, and writer Scott Lobdell filled in the words – and this was published under the Marvel Vault: Gambit and the Champions in 2011), Bob Hall continues to work, staying on the west coast when Roger Stern had Hawkeye form the West Coast Avengers (and doing the art for the mini-series – maybe Hawkeye realized the West Coast needed heroes during his brief meeting with the Champions) as well as a lengthy run on Valiant’s Shadowman, John Byrne worked on a few teams like X-Men and Fantastic Four, as well as a Superman revamp in the 1980s, took over the West Coast Avengers and continues to work on Star Trek projects for IDW and his own series, John Byrne’s Next Men. Bill Mantlo continued to work for Marvel, on lengthy runs on the Incredible Hulk, Micronauts and Rom, as well as co-creating Cloak & Dagger, and later got into law school and scripted the the Invasion! mini-series for DC, then began working as a public defender in the Bronx taking to heart the ideals of working for the common man that were a part of the Champions series. Sadly, he was struck by a car while rollerblading, resulting in permanent brain damage resulting in his needing full time care, and has been supported by his fans, who are Champions for doing this.
And, this proves, that the world still needs Champions.