Friday, 29 March 2013

Essential Avengers volume 1

Essential Avengers volume 1 contains issues #1-24 of the original Avengers series. The issues are all credited as written by Stan Lee, bar issue #14 where he has just a plot credit and the script is by Paul Laiken and Larry Lieber. The art is by Jack Kirby #1-8), Don Heck (#9-15 & #17-24) and Dick Ayers (#16). The contents page on at least the first edition gives Kirby a co-plot credit for issue #14 but this doesn't appear on the issue itself where instead he did layouts. Is this a case of a contemporary acknowledgement of contribution being recorded in the files but not making it to the final printed issue, a latter day decision to give previously omitted credit or just an error by whoever compiled that page?

So why are the Avengers a team and what does the name signify? To be honest the latter signifies "first good sounding name plucked at random" for a title whose primary reason for existing at first was to counter DC's Justice League of America. Both teams were formed by bringing together existing characters from solo strips. There isn't much "avenging" carried out in these strips with even Baron Zemo coming after Captain America much of the time rather than the other way round. The team are brought together in bizarre circumstances - Loki is trying to lure Thor up to an island in Asgard so frames the Hulk to get Donald Blake to transform to Thor and join the action then get lured away. It doesn't seem the most well thought through of plans. In the process other heroes show up and work together to find and clear the Hulk then decide they could work together. It doesn't seem the most natural of origins.

Having banded together, the Avengers don't initially set out to tackle menaces as a united front. Instead all too often the menace comes after them. In the earliest issues their one clear aim is to find the Hulk but it's not really clear what they will do once they locate him. Otherwise they are frequently portrayed as a club of disparate members who get targeted for reasons of revenge or just to demonstrate a new foe's power. It gets even sillier after issue #16 sees a major change of line-up with only Captain America remaining, and yet the Moleman, the Enchantress and Kang all seek revenge on the team as though victory over the organisation means something that victory over the individuals doesn't. What is this, a football rivalry?

The institutionalisation is also demonstrated by the team's over rigid attachment to membership and meeting protocols, with issue #7 seeing Iron Man suspended for failing to turn up to a regular meeting and not giving a reason why because he can't divulge his secret identity - so if a crisis comes along are the team to put the world at jeopardy by cutting their strength to uphold the attendance rules?! Issue #11 opens with Iron Man absent once more and the remaining four members plus Rick conclude it's due to the apparent death of Tony Stark over in Iron Man's own strip (in Tales of Suspense) and go through the rigmarole of proposing, seconding, amending and then withdrawing a motion in favour of adopting the proposed amendment as an alternative motion. Considering there are only three voting members other than the chair this is overkill. Yes some real-life organisations do get hung up on rules and procedures (I've seen it happen quite a bit myself) but almost never when the membership is on such a small scale.

The team's initial line-up is largely dictated by which heroes happened to exist at the time and with solo series. It would have been foolish at the time to have any joint memberships with the Fantastic Four and so instead it's just the solo series that provide the numbers. However there are a few exceptions. Doctor Strange had only appeared in two issues of Strange Tales when Avengers launched, with his ongoing feature not starting until the following month so it's understandable why he was overlooked. Adding any of the Western heroes (Rawhide Kid, Kid Colt and Two-Gun Kid) would have been crossing both genres and time. Nobody had yet thought to give Patsy Walker a costumed identity so it would have been silly to include her or Millie the Model or Kathy. That just leaves one hero who was overlooked - Spider-Man. Was this decision made for scripting or artistic reasons? All the heroes in the initial line-up had had Jack Kirby involved in the creation of the finished product (although the extent to which he was involved with Iron Man remains a little unclear) but with Spider-Man his involvement had been abortive. But equally from a narrative point of point Spider-Man would not have been the easiest character to add to the team, given his ultra loner approach, ease of losing his temper, awkward relationship with the law and the difficulty a high school teenager would have in participating in many of the Avengers' adventures. Now obviously in later years there have been Avengers who have fulfilled at least one of those problem criteria, but in 1963 things were more restrained. It's notable that when Kang's robot Spider-Man tries to join the team in issue #11 he is told he must face tests and a trial period despite none of the other recruits in this volume going through anything so substantial.

What of the members we do get? The volume almost completely covers two key line-ups. The first are the founder members, with Captain America replacing the Hulk early on but otherwise the combination remains the same for the first sixteen issues and the five have often combined since in the key role of founding members. Then we get the bulk of the line-up sometimes known as "Cap's Kooky Quartet". Taking the line-ups in turn...

The team starts with a mixture of myth and science, weapons and brute force. Whilst the pool of potential members didn't leave much choice, Thor and Iron Man stand out well, each bringing their own elements and showing a strong willingness to co-operate. It's easy to dismiss Ant-Man as just making up the numbers, but in their first adventure he and his ants are the ones who take down Loki for the final count. Later on issue #12 seems almost to have been written to address head-on the criticisms of a hero who works with ants, even if he has now got another size as well, with all the other members at first dismissing the ants' warning but then realising that the menace is real and the others feel great remorse at their earlier treatment. The second issue onwards sees Ant-Man adopt the additional identity of Giant-Man and adds a lot of physical strength to the team and he's no pushover. This helps compensate for the loss of the Hulk, who frankly was almost as awkward a potential member as Spider-Man, having great difficulty working with others, often being a fugitive and frequently confined to one part of the country. It's therefore no surprise when he quits at the end of the second issue.

Unfortunately there is one member who doesn't contribute much at all. The Wasp is frankly fairly useless in the first nine issues, rarely doing anything more than buzzing about and admiring the various men. Occasionally she puts her buzzing to use in distracting opponents or fetching help, but otherwise she's not much more than a sidekick tagging along - indeed in issue #10 Iron Man says as much when suggesting that Rick Jones should be given membership on the same basis. Yes she didn't get her sting power until Tales to Astonish #57, but that came out before Avengers #6. Even when she does get it she doesn't go on the offensive very much and is all too often used as a bit part. Issue #14 is focused on the rush to save her after she's shot at the end of the previous issue, but from the way the other four members of the team operate, her absence does not in itself make much of a difference. Rick hangs around with the Avengers even after the Hulk has quit, but never makes it as a fully-fledged member. He does, however, bring his amateur radio skills and "Teen Brigade" to provide information and occasionally free the Avengers.

Issue #4 sees the revival of Captain America in probably the best known of all these issues. Coming on sale just six weeks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy (as ever I'm reliant on the entry in Mike's Amazing World of Comics for such dates), the story sees the existing heroes shot before a crowd, bringing darkness to America and the only hope of salvation is the revived symbol of the country. This was probably coincidental but it's a sign of the series managing to reflect the times. That's not to say that the story isn't without its faults. An alien has spent at least three thousand years wandering the Earth in search of help to free his spaceship. In just a few minutes Rick Jones is able to obtain all the photographs taken when the Avengers were turned to stone, even the bad shots of the crowd of photographers. And far too many people just rapidly accept anyone who happens to be wearing Captain America's costume as the man himself, despite him having been impersonated once already in the Human Torch's strip. There's also some very interesting geography - I'm particularly amused by the way Captain America leaps off a European pier and falls into the water off the coast of Newfoundland. Or how Namor the Sub-Mariner finds Eskimos on an ice-flow in the North Sea. Namor has lost his people again following the events in Fantastic Four Annual #1, a point explicitly recapped early in the issue, but suddenly rediscovers enough of them in time to lead an assault on the Avengers at the end of the issue. But the story does well in allowing Cap an extended sequence of solo action to introduce him to a new generation of readers and shows him easily slotting into the Avengers.

The portrayal of Captain America in his earliest days post revival is interesting and mixed. Issue #4 makes a real effort to show a man out of his time, with little details such as his amazement at his first encounter with a television set, a far from commonplace object in 1945. (A modern comparison is probably the world wide web - in many parts of the developed world even in 1993/4 the average person had no experience of it and would find its heavy almost obligatory use today a total shock.) Cap's past continuity isn't really explored either - he vaguely recognises the name "Sub-Mariner" but Namor doesn't recognise him in return. No attempt is made to explain away Cap's post-1945 adventures at this stage, or for that matter to reference Marvel's first ever attempt at teaming up its existing heroes, the All-Winners Squad on which both Cap and Namor served. Later issues do not forget Cap's roots and we see him brooding on his lack of a life outside the Avengers and being haunted by the memory of Bucky's death, hence his determination to avoid putting Rick into action. His age is a point brought up later on by Hawkeye, and his lack of powers surprises others but time and again Captain America proves his worth through his fighting skills, his tactical mind, his sheer courage in the face of immense odds and his charisma in rallying both the other Avengers and others around him. Even at this stage it's easy to see why he's considered the definitive Avenger.

Issue #16 sees the series take a very bold change of direction as Iron Man, Giant-Man and the Wasp step down to rest, and Thor has disappeared off to events in his own series (and doesn't return within these pages). In their place step forward Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, all former villains, under the leadership of Captain America. Nowadays there are many heroes who started out as villains and reformed, and it's easy to forget Hawkeye's criminal career (although it's available once more thanks to Essential Iron Man - one of the beauties of the whole Essential programme is the way vast chunks of the Silver Age are all available at affordable prices, allowing modern readers to see how it all fits together). But at the time the idea of replacing some of the mightiest Marvel heroes with a collection of ex-crooks must have shocked readers. It was a bold move that took the Avengers away from being just a knock-off of the Justice League of America, even though the three characters' redemption is largely taken for granted, rather than being made an open question as would happen with later cases such as the Thunderbolts.

The three characters each have different powers and personalities. Hawkeye and Quicksilver may both think themselves better qualified to lead the time but they go about it in different ways. Hawkeye is brash and openly disrespectful whilst Quicksilver is more reserved, and it makes for a tense situation as Cap often has to assert his authority over them. Over time he slowly wins them over. The Scarlet Witch is more accepting of Cap and her main disagreements come when he pleads for special mercy for the female in the team but she wishes to face the same fate as any other Avenger. Although her power isn't used as spectacularly as her brother's, she does often hold her own and is notably more active than the Wasp. But there's still the hint that she's the token female on the team, though at times she wins the day, particularly against the Commissar.

One sign of repetitiveness in the plotting is that on no less than three occasions one villain or another sends an agent to seek to join the Avengers as part of a plot to destroy them in some way. Both Wonder Man and the Swordsman are actually accepted onto the team, though in the latter case not without prompting from an illusion of Iron Man. Both are gone by the end of their storylines, with both demonstrating greater nobility than had been expected by betraying their masters. It's a sign of repetitiveness in the plotting, even if the execution is somewhat different. The Spider-Man robot story is more original, but suffers from big plot holes, most notably the way Spider-Man is somehow able to follow his robot double when it's teleported from New York to Mexico.

There aren't a great many original foes introduced in these issues. Of the ones with potential we get the Space Phantom, Immortus, Count Nefaria, the Commissar and his puppet master Major Hoy, and Baron Zemo. Kang the Conqueror may debut, but he is presented upfront as being a new identity for an existing character, in this case Rama-Tut from Fantastic Four #19. Kang appears three times and is the main contender to be the Avengers' long-term arch-enemy. Whilst the basic concept of the team may be derived from the Justice League of America, the originality is further weakened by an arch-enemy who is quite open about being a descendent of Dr. Doom (at this stage the only point of uncertainty was whether Rama-Tut/Kang was a descendent or in some unclear way Doom himself). The other contender is Baron Zemo, but he's killed off within ten issues of his debut. It may seem cliched to have a Nazi war criminal who fled to Latin America, though it allows for a quick way to bring an "old" foe of Captain America's (in actuality he's a Silver Age creation rather than a revival of a Second World War era character) onto the scene. I'm also not certain just how often teams of villains had been assembled by this stage, but the Masters of Evil bring together a number of foes from the individual strips, with the membership variously including the Radioactive Man, the Enchantress, the Executioner (all Thor foes), the Black Knight (a Giant-Man foe) and the Melter (an Iron Man foe). In addition the Avengers face a number of other foes either from their individual series or from the pages of Fantastic Four include Loki, Namor, the Lava-Men, the Moleman and the Mandarin.

Of the other original foes there aren't any who really stand out at this stage - Nefaria is a crime lord and the Commissar is a stereotypical Communist, whose story serves to show readers that the inhabitants of a country in east Asia have suffered since the coming of Communism and are kept as ignorant as possible by propaganda, but never fear, American heroes can bring enlightenment. The anti-Communism in many Silver Age Marvel stories is rarely hidden, but this is a rare case of actually showing a country under Communism. American involvement in Vietnam was at a very early stage in mid-1965 and nowhere near as controversial domestically as it would later become, so it was possible to tell such tales without risking a backlash. The other new foes of note are both from the realm of Limbo, though it isn't itself shown. The Space Phantom is the advance scout of yet another alien race seeking to invade the Earth and is defeated when his powers fail to work on Thor and instead he sends himself to Limbo. Immortus's introduction is hampered by his interaction with Baron Zemo, with the result that the ruler of Limbo doesn't get much space to be explored. His power to move individuals back and forth through time is presented as almost magical, in a way that's very different from Kang's technological approach, and the issue even contains the much forgotten first appearance (at least until a retcon decades later) of Hercules in issue #10 when Immortus brings forth a variety of mythical and historical foes, others including Attila the Hun, Paul Bunyan, Goliath and Merlin. However don't expect historical accuracy - the issue also features the Tower of London as a tall thin tower which in 1760 was guarded by men in medieval armour.

The early issues of Avengers show a curious series. On the face of it, it just shouldn't work and at times almost descends to self-parody in the presentation of the team as a club for costumed heroes. And yet many of the individual stories offer a real tension, with ongoing themes such as the struggle between Zemo and Captain America and their respective teams, or the development of the Kooky Quartet. Perhaps the key distinction is that all four members of the Quartet were either revived or brought over the herodom to specifically serve as members of the Avengers, rather than just being whichever heroes from solo series were available. This also allows for a greater degree of character development and works to make the Avengers really credible as an ongoing team rather than just a club of disparate individuals. It's curious because the line-up of Giant-Man/Thor/Iron Man/Wasp/Captain America has gone on to become the definitive group of Avengers, albeit normally with some additional members, but in their original adventures they just aren't convincing as an overall team. There's a lot of early Silver Age silliness in their issues, especially with all the faffing about with formal meeting rules, but there are some ideas. However it's definitely the new line-up introduced in issue #16 that brings the series to life.

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