The Zodiac is or rather was a crime cartel which first surfaced in the pages of Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD and later in full force in Avengers #72. They don't show up again until we hear of them in Avengers #80. But that doesn't mean they haven't been busy.
Avengers#77 is one of my all-time favorite comics. Produced during the brief time when Marvel was eschewing continued tales, it's a one-off classic which has the Avengers working for hire to help raise rent money for a beleaguered Tony Stark who is staving off a takeover bid by a heretofore unknown rich and dangerous fellow named Cornelius Van Lunt. Van Lunt is a vulgar and rude multi-millionaire who doesn't hesitate to throw his considerable weight around and who seems to take delight in demeaning those who work for him.
The Avengers agree to do some demolition work for Van Lunt. At the same time they are being harassed by a small-time gang of thieves led by a singularly familar-looking chap named Kronus who dubs them the Split-Second Squad. With colorful names like Joe the Gorilla, Captain Scragg, Sweet William and Onionhead this is a motley group of hoods who the Avengers have little problem mopping up when the time comes. But the twist is that Van Lunt is not their leader, who is in fact Van Lunt's assistant.
Van Lunt's name comes up again in Avengers #80 when Red Wolf and his loyal sidekick Lobo hit New York City with vengeance in mind.
It seems that Van Lunt is using his unsavory tactics to try and acquire land from a Native American tribe in the American West. Red Wolf is a warrior from Indian myth but in this instance is a Vietnam vet named Will Talltrees who seeks to stop Van Lunt's efforts to force his people to sell their lands. The Vision, Goliath and the Scarlet Witch agree to help him. Meanwhile the Black Panther leaves the team to attend to important problems he's having with gangs in his role as a teacher. That leaves Quicksilver, Thor, Iron Man and Captain America to investigate the rumored threat of the returned Zodiac.
In Avengers #81 the Avengers (Vision, Goliath, and Scarlet Witch) go with Red Wolf and confront Van Lunt's forces leaving behind Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Quicksilver and the Black Panther to deal with threats in NYC.
The battle is a pretty desperate one at times Van Lunt seems to have access to some pretty high-tech arms and even some robot-controlled attack vessels. But in the end the Avengers are successful in helping the tribes and Red Wolf to hold back the attacks of Van Lunt's men. In the process a dam is destroyed which pretty much makes Van Lunt's schemes untenable.
At that same time in Daredevil #69 the Black Panther is concerned with one of his students who has fallen in with a gang called the Thunderbolts. The young man's brother, a returned Vietnam vet seems to have come under their spell as well. But there's much more going on as Daredevil shows up and he and the Panther fight the gang together to stop their plans which seem to be part of a larger and darker plot.
That darker scheme is revealed in Avengers #82 when the Zodiac reveal themselves, or at least their leader Aries does.
A story like this one today would occupy dozens of comics and run perhaps a half year at least. That such a magnificent plot was compressed into a mere four comics is amazing to think of today. And the craftsmanship on these issues is just stellar, as John Buscema and Tom Palmer were at the very top of their respective games. The two seemed to find a synthetic whole which was just stunning to see. Even the Daredevil chapter has great artwork by Gene Colan and Syd Shores. Roy Thomas outdoes himself with the mini-epic which is full of action, drama and even establishes a brand new hero. Furthermore it sets the stage for the next Zodiac installment.
But that one will be written by a fledgling Gerry Conway. More next time.