The Avengers and Positional Advertising

Al Ries and Jack Trout came up with a theory about advertising. They called it positioning. Basically, you can’t own the whole market for long so you have to associate your product with a position in the mind of the prospect and own part of the market for a long time. So Coke is the ‘real thing’ and Pepsi has been for younger buyers, the ‘Pepsi generation,’ for over forty years.

The point is that when there are several competitors in a market, every one of them to be really successful has to have a position which is both positive and unique, and they have to burn this position into the mind of the buyer. Two companies can’t have the same position, so the second company must choose a new position. If you have a new company you have to find a new position in the market.

So in toothpaste, different companies fight cavities, taste good, whiten teeth, or freshen breath. These are marketing positions rather than descriptions of the product since it’s very possible to invent a toothpaste that does all of them. In fact, it’s been done. With that in mind, let’s look at the Avengers.

Stan Lee was given marching orders to create a competitor to the Justice League of America. His first reply was the Fantastic Four, which was what he wrote when he thought he was getting out of the business anyway. Then he decided to stay and created the Avengers.

When they started the Avengers were a direct head-to-head with the JLA. Both groups used the major players and a couple of minor players to form their ranks. The JLA had Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter. The last two were the minor characters who existed only in back-up features. Green Arrow, Hawkman, and Atom were not included in the JLA when it started.

Original Avengers

The Avengers were Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, and Ant-Man and the Wasp. The last two were the minor characters. These were the biggest players Marvel had available. No member of the Fantastic Four crossed over and Spider-Man did not join, which indicates Stan Lee was thinking of the big game.

So like the JLA, the Avengers began with the big guns against the biggest guns the bad guys had to offer. It was like trying to sell a new toothpaste by how well it stops cavities. This was the second time Stan Lee was told by his publisher and uncle, Martin Goodman, to come up with a JLA substitute. This time he seemed to be obeying: then the second issue came out.

After Loki drew the Avengers together in the first issue, the second issue opened with Thor asking Hulk if he had to come to Avengers meetings dressed in such a repulsive manner. Hulk might have just said ‘look who’s talking’ but instead he told Iron Man to tell Thor to shut up or he would boot him back to Asgard for good. No one spoke to the Hulk that way, not even Thor.

At the time the Hulk was not the super strong child in improbable purple jeans torn only from the knees down that he would later become. Bruce Banner used a machine that turned him into the Hulk and back again at will. And as the Hulk his personality was closer to the Mr Fixit persona of the Gray Hulk some years later.

The villain in this piece was an old Kirby creation of the fifties who appeared for comic effect in Fighting American. There the space alien, Space Face, tried taking the guise of various humans, but Fighting American caught him out because he’s a guy who skips the TV programs to watch the commercials, a woman who doesn’t like Liberace, a kid who doesn’t like comic books, and a movie cowboy who kisses the girl instead of the horse. In the Avengers the idea was played straighter.

The Space Phantom could take someone’s form, becoming a duplicate of them while banishing his target to limbo. When he took a new form or went back to his original shape, that person would come back. He could also imitate other living things, like insects. Today you’d get several issues out of which limbo people were sent to and what happened to them while they were there. Back then it wasn’t that important.

The Space Phantom starts by imitating the Hulk and turning the full roster of the Avengers against him. Except Thor, who already had that opinion. As Iron Man puts it, ‘Quiet, you brainless gargoyle. The Wasp senses danger. Don’t you know she’s hypersensitive to certain stimuli?’

Janet van Dyne has wasp-sense? Not really, it is never mentioned again and even vacuum cleaner sites like Wikipedia don’t mention it (it probably will now, though). The Space Phantom also attacks the Wasp in the form of a wasp, which Janet works out means it cannot be a real wasp because it’s attacking her. Another little power that got overlooked ever after.

Space Face made mistakes because he was an alien, Space Phantom made mistakes out of ego. He actually told his plan – which depended on stealth to succeed – to Rick Jones, the Snapper Carr of the Avengers. Why? Surely his own planet would be impressed with him if he won. Surely he would be famous enough to get laid by anything that took his fancy if he succeeded. (Possibly Rick, I can’t see any other reason why he let the kid live).

So in the end the Space Phantom was exposed and, to make up for that, decided to take the form of Thor. This sent the Space Phantom into limbo because the others were humans but Thor was the god of thunder. So much for Marvel movie monologues about those Norse things in Asgard not being gods.

When he’s gone, so is the Hulk. Hulk realized how much the other Avengers hated him by the way they fought him and the things they said. In issue 2, one of the major players was gone. It would be easy to put this down to Lee’s sense of drama or his soap opera style of writing. But I think that would sell Stan Lee short.

He wasn’t selling toothpaste to fight cavities. DC had that market all sewn up. So Stan Lee started putting in the groundwork for creating a new position.

After the Hulk left, the Avengers went after him. He was too unpredictable or something. Think about that for a second. They chased after the Hulk to bring him back after he left because they were bigoted against him. What did they plan to do when they caught him? If he won’t come back they’ll fight him. When ex-husbands do this they get arrested (not consistently enough but that’s a whole different set of issues).

The Hulk teams up with the Sub-Mariner; that duo and the Avengers fight. It’s basically a draw.

In issue two Ant-Man had taken on the second, Giant-Man power. The Hulk left. In three, Iron Man changes to his Art Deco-inspired red-and-gold Ditko-invented armor.

In issue four, Captain America is reintroduced to comic books.

In those days a lot of things happened and, let’s face it, comics sold better for it.

Then came the next year. In that year the Avengers faced Kang, Baron Zemo, Wonder Man, Immortus, the Masters of Evil, Count Nefaria, the Black Knight, the Radioactive Man, the Melter, the Enchantress, the Executioner, etc. Kang and Immortus were so much alike they were eventually declared to actually be the same person. Baron Zemo was invented to be the Red Skull’s doppelganger. Wonder Man was your typical undercover supervillain designed to look like a hero. They fit a pattern, doing the same things the JLA were doing but not as well.

Remember there was a time when DC was the powerhouse of new ideas. Issues had consequences for both companies. In the JLA issue 4 (the seventh story because the first three were in the Brave and the Bold) Green Arrow joined the team. In issue 14, the Atom joined. The annual new member became a regular feature.

In this same period, the JLA added villains like Starro, Kanjar Ro, Despero, Felix Faust, and Dr Light among others to the ‘eternal lexicon’ (guys who will come back). Not only that, but in issues 21 and 22 (August and September 1963) came the first ever crossover between the Justice League and the Justice Society. This was a very different event from what it would become in later decades because the JSA members had only been out of circulation for twelve years after careers of about eight years. In other words, if the current Batman was 20, his Earth-2 counterpart was only 40. DC was to be feared: most comics companies did, Stan Lee charged.

This JLA-JSA team-ups and the new member inductions were massively popular and the Avengers would spend a couple more years trying to fight cavities before definitively changing to another brand position.

Stan Lee had already taken a few steps to a new position in the market. He went further with a much-overlooked event. In issue 13 the Wasp was injured in a battle with Count Nefaria and it took them through issue 14 (and some fights with aliens – who were more common back then) to find the one and only doctor who could sew her up.

Stan Lee’s more balanced, more logical, but physically weaker team started a distinction between the Avengers and the JLA. The Justice League had overwhelming power: Superman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern – you’re dead. On the Avengers side, Thor – that could be it, and Thor wasn’t nearly as strong as he would later become. Add Iron Man, I guess, even though, physically, this was his armor’s weakest period. The power was with the JLA.

Marvel couldn’t have been all that certain of the Avengers. The first six issues were bimonthly while the JLA spent the whole time up to July 1964 on a monthly schedule. It was only when the Avengers became monthly that the bulk of the better villains showed up. It quickly settled into a pattern of big bad and henchmen – Zemo, Kang, , Immortus, and even the Mole Man are interchangeable in this.

I want to make clear by henchman I mean an underling who has an individual name, appearance, and identity even if that identity is not well defined. A minion may have physical variations (e.g. one or two eyes) but essentially has no separate identity. Add it to your comic book vocabulary so you can ask annoying questions at conventions.

There was also a string of villains who were tied to a particular Avenger even if they had never showed up in solo titles before.

So there was Zemo for Captain America (it is hard to get people to remember, Zemo never appeared in Cap’s stories in the forties or fifties), there were the Enchantress and the Executioner for Thor (though neither concept comes in the Norse lingual toolkit), and Radioactive Man and the Melter for Iron Man. Giant-Man (and once he goes big his small version is largely forgotten) and the Wasp have no villains cross over, and that is a clue to their later careers. The Porcupine and the Magician might have come across but they didn’t.

The JLA fought teamed up villains of solo stars quite a bit (and nobody ever explained why villains thought there was an advantage to this). Once, they even fought the teamed-up empty costumes of their enemies. Despite a lack of gods and monsters as members, the JLA had a lot more of the bizarre-that-had-to-be-explained in its stories. That was one of the first significant distinctions in the styles of the two titles.

The JLA also had another type of story that has since dropped from comic books. In issue 36, the members of the Justice League go to a hospital. When a problem comes up they are each afflicted with a disability. They learn to overcome these disabilities and they catch the bad guy who’s causing the problems (Brain Storm) and sign a pact with the boys from the hospital to respect the disabled. It was a PSA announcement type of story. DC did that kind of thing, Marvel wouldn’t for several more years.

The big difference between the stories was (and no one’s noticed this before) the JLA basically caught the bad guys and put them in jail. The Avengers often failed to catch their opponents, not only when they were the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner, but also Zemo, Immortus, and Kang.

Then Stan Lee made his big move and stopped trying to sell ‘prevent cavities.’ In May 1965, the JLA was battling those empty costumes of their opponents. In that same month the Avengers were basically changing their roster.

Captain America went from fish out of water and man out of time to the leader of the group. Thor, Iron Man, Giant-Man, and the Wasp decided to take a break all at once, as you do. In their places came three supervillains for reform school: Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver.

New Order Avengers

This leads to two changes that make the Avengers truly distinct from the JLA. For one thing, the Avengers changed from the consortium style opponent like the Masters of Evil. Instead their enemies became single foes or two person teams like the Minotaur, the Swordsman, the Beetle and the Collector, and Power Man and the Enchantress. They would not go back to the group-versus-group or the thousands of minions kind of opponent until the Wasp and Giant-Man (now Goliath) rejoined.

The other thing Stan Lee did differently was to build on internal dissension. The team did not get along, particularly since Hawkeye and Quicksilver each thought they should lead, not Cap. The mood was very different from the JLA where there were no injuries until, as best I can tell, the 1970s when Green Arrow got hit in the leg with an arrow. He was fine with it. He was also the sole member to yell at fellow members, particularly Hawkman, who was the other interstellar cop he argued with.

But at the time the Avengers went in this direction, the JLA teammates always got along with each other, and that was the big issue. I said before positioning explained the difference between the Avengers and the JLA. Where was Stan Less trying to position himself?

Stan Lee said when describing the creation of the Fantastic Four that he wanted heroes with feet of clay. He wanted to write the kind of stories that he would want to read. The implication is he had been writing stories someone else had wanted to read – probably Martin Goodman. But everyone has taken it that once the FF were created this urge was completely fulfilled. I argue it wasn’t and it took a few years for Lee to have a range of the stories he wanted to and was allowed to write.

One of those was in the Avengers. The original team was the establishment, who were well known and very powerful but who looked down on each other. Look how the Hulk was treated by his nominal teammates.

The original Avengers also failed to catch the bad guys very well. They didn’t match the JLA’s record by any stretch of the imagination.

The new team was brought on, but though they argued that was not the key to understanding their stories.

The FF argued. Reed Richards once told the rest of the FF that they would have to learn to follow him, blindly if need be. But there was no question who was the leader. The idea of struggling over who was leader was an entirely new plot device in the superhero genre.

Basically, the JLA was the Public Service Announcement team. They were stories for kids whose families got along, who had a steady center of society, and who thought what the right thing was was pretty well established.

The Avengers was for kids whose families didn’t get along so well, where authority was questioned or even challenged. It was also for kids who felt the question of rising to the top was more important that whether one waited politely for their turn.

In other words, DC had the utilitarian fighting cavities position. Marvel tried to taste good.

These were the advertising positions the companies adopted, and it reflected the two sides of society at the time. Marvel took the Pepsi generation side of people who questioned and wanted to change things. DC stayed with the old ways, stable but also staid. In an era when the upstart was the hero, Marvel was the underdog. But where the Pepsi generation merely gave the real thing a run for its money for some decades (and is still doing so), Marvel is now number one because it took the position that would eventually become the major part of the market.


Comments are closed.

Welcoming the Future, Treasuring the Past.