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Earth’s Mightiest Heroes – Avengers Assembled

For those who came in late: Last week, we took a look at the beginnings of the Avengers, Marvel Comics’ preeminent superhero team, and indulged in what some might call an exhaustive look at the Avengers’ roster in the four decades since its inception. As we continue, we change our focus from who the Avengers are to just what it is they do…

As any child of the ‘70s can tell you, Marvel used to place a caption at the top of the first page of every Marvel comic, giving the new reader a quick explanation of the series’ premise. It was quick, elegant and unobtrusive, and far better than the full-page recaps that Marvel seems to feel necessary these days. So rather than try to explain to you the Avengers’ “mission statement,” as it were, I’ll let you learn it the same way I did:

“And there came a day, a day unlike any other, when
Earth’s mightiest heroes and heroines found themselves united
against a common threat. On that day, the Avengers were born – to fight
the foes no single super-hero could withstand! Through the years, their
roster has prospered, changing many times, but their
glory has never been denied! Heed the call, then – for now
the Avengers Assemble!”

There you go. Everything you need, right there at the top of the page. Over the years, different writers have taken the “foes no single super-hero could withstand” part of the equation in a few different directions. Let’s take a look at a few of the more influential AVENGERS writers and some of the more important villains and concepts they brought to the table.

First and foremost, of course, were AVENGERS creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Kirby’s influence past the origin, however, was minimal, only fully drawing the first 8 issues of the series. However, those eight issues had some important stuff, leading off with AVENGERS #3, in which the Hulk quits the team and teams up with the Sub-Mariner for a sustained brawl with the Avengers.

Along with what was some of Kirby’s best action storytelling of the era, the issue set a surprising precedent, especially for team books of the time: membership wasn’t fixed. Anybody could leave the team at any time, as evidenced by the Hulk turning on the Avengers after only three issues. The Avengers’ unpredictable nature was reinforced in the very next issue, when the long-absent Captain America joined the team, reuniting Kirby with his most famous Golden Age creation.

AVENGERS #6 introduced another extremely long-running Avengers opponent, the Masters of Evil.

Made up of enemies of the individual members from their solo series, (in this case Iron Man’s foe the Melter, Thor’s opponent Radioactive Man, and Giant Man and the Wasp’s sparring partner the Black Knight, as organized by the newly introduced Captain America antagonist Baron Zemo) the Masters of Evil would return again and again in various iterations and often under new management. Baron Zemo would remain a recurring villain in the series, with his undying hatred of Captain America (based on the accident in World War II that permanently bonded his mask to his face) spurring him into attack after attack on the Avengers, finally ending with Zemo’s accidental death by his own hand in battle with Cap in the jungles of South America.

In Jack Kirby’s final issue, the Avengers have their first encounter with what would be one of their most popular and frequently faced opponents: Kang the Conqueror. Kang is a time traveler from the year 3000, who accidentally jumps ahead to the year 4000, where he mastered the then-forgotten high-tech weaponry and arms, conquers the planet, and then heads back to the 20th century to capture a much greener, more lush planet Earth.

To be honest, the Kang stories in AVENGERS are quite often unsatisfying, as Kang never seems to take advantage of the upper hand time travel gives him. (Seems to me that every time the Avengers beat him, he should go back and prepare for about six months, then reappear 2 or 3 seconds after his last retreat, while the Avengers are exhausted and bloody. If they beat him again, repeat the plan again. Don’t let them recover, for God’s sake…)

After Kirby left, the AVENGERS art duties were taken over by Don Heck, a much maligned penciller who, in my opinion, never gets the respect he’s due. Granted, it’s hard to follow in the King’s footsteps, and his action sequences were a little stiffer than Kirby’s, but Heck brought a leaner, less musclebound look to the characters, as well as rendering some of the most consistently gorgeous women in comics. In addition, Heck introduced some innovative panel breakdowns, in contrast to Kirby’s simpler, large-panel layouts:

Kirby returned to the series for layouts for one issue only, but what an issue: “The Old Order Changeth!” in AVENGERS #16.

Here was where Stan really set the tone for the Avengers for decades to come, with a story in which all the members but Captain America quit the team, leaving Cap with a trio of reformed supervillains as Avengers, as well as some heavy expectations to live up to. The issue also set a trend with its cover, the first of many “Guess-the-new-Avengers” covers to follow over the years:

Stan’s complete overhaul of the team set up a new dynamic for the series: not only could anyone leave the Avengers, but absolutely anybody could wind up a member. This fluidity of concept has allowed the series to adapt to the changes in the industry and the culture far more easily, and no doubt guaranteed its longevity. With the new team of Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, Don Heck’s art really flourished, as the team’s new “regular-guy” persona (neither Cap, Hawkeye or Quicksilver were ever particularly musclebound) was a perfect mesh with Heck’s leaner, slimmer figures and linework.

When Stan left the book, it was taken over by Roy Thomas, who began bringing in new members almost immediately. As mentioned last week, the most significant of Thomas’ additions was the Vision. The red-skinned synthezoid (Thomas’ term for synthetic human) was inspired by a Golden Age Timely character in name, but added a Mr. Spock-like dose of pathos to the team, as the cold, emotionless android who secretly yearned for humanity.

The Vision’s powers were innovative as well, with his ability to control his body’s density, allowing him to float in the air like a wraith and pass through solid objects, or reach maximum density and become as hard as a diamond. Introduced along with the Vision was his creator, the murderous robot Ultron, who was in turn created by founding Avenger Hank Pym.

The best thing about Thomas’s introduction of Ultron and the Vision is the way it would eventually tie up the Avengers into a sick little dysfunctional family. Follow along, if you will:

• Pym creates Ultron, who, upon achieving sentience, immediately attacks his creator and subjects him to treatments that remove all memory of the incident.
• Ultron uses the defunct android body of the original 1940s–era Human Torch to create the Vision, and uses the brain patterns of the fallen Avengers ally Wonder Man (which were for some reason recorded by Hank Pym upon Wonder Man’s death, in another example of Pym’s somewhat cavalier approach to science) to create the Vision’s personality and consciousness
• Vision eventually falls in love with and marries his fellow Avenger the Scarlet Witch
• When Ultron desires a mate, he kidnaps Hank Pym’s wife Janet, in a plan to transplant her persona into an android body (No Oedipal issues here or anything…). Although the plan was foiled, the resulting female android, Jocasta, also briefly joined the Avengers.
• When Wonder Man returns from the dead, he and the Vision eventually declare themselves “twin brothers,” due to the whole “shared brain patterns” deal. However, things get more complicated when he finds himself attracted to the Scarlet Witch (which would only make sense, since the Vision’s brain is based on Wonder Man’s).
• Ultron would often ally himself with another Avengers foe, the Grim Reaper, who was the brother of Simon Williams, a.k.a. Wonder Man. The Reaper hated the Vision for bearing his brother’s brain patterns, and never accepted the resurrected Wonder Man as his real brother

The high point of the Roy Thomas AVENGERS run was probably “The Kree-Skrull War,” a nine-issue classic by Thomas and legendary artist Neal Adams, in which the two alien powerhouses of the Marvel Universe, the warlike Kree and the shapechanging Skrulls go to war, with the unwitting Earth finding itself on the front lines.

The story feels a bit dated when read today, and suffers from Thomas’ overly wordy style, but the epic scale suits the Avengers perfectly, and Adams’ gorgeous art doesn’t disappoint. The most-remembered sequence from the storyline is probably the bit from AVENGERS #93, in which Hank Pym, back in his Ant-Man gear, takes a microscopic journey inside the body of the fallen Vision, in an attempt to revive him:

The next substantial run after Roy Thomas’ departure was by writer Steve Englehart. Where Thomas’ adventures tended toward the superhero action with a hint of science fiction, Englehart took a decidedly more “cosmic” approach.

In fact, the Avengers almost seemed to take a back seat in Englehart’s most famous AVENGERS storyline, the “Celestial Madonna” saga, which focused on Englehart’s creation Mantis, a Vietnamese martial arts expert who turns out to be the Celestial Madonna, the woman destined to mate with a member of the Cotati, an alien race of sentient plants, and give birth to the Celestial Messiah, who was fated to bring a golden age of peace to the universe. Ooooookay. I like “cosmic” as much as the next guy, but the overreliance on Mantis and the “Madonna” storyline, combined with Englehart’s often stilted dialogue, makes this period in AVENGERS history less than a favorite for me. By the end of things, Mantis had married a tree in a touching double wedding with the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, and Mantis and her new wooden husband had left the Earth to go be “celestial” somewhere else. Fine by me.

A variety of writers helmed the Avengers throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Gerry Conway, David Michelinie, Bill Mantlo, and Marvel’s then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. Consistent (if appearing sporadically) through all of these writers was the work of artist George Perez, who was making a name for himself as the Avengers artist, with his insane attention to detail and ability to deftly handle the rendering of a large cast.

Some of the high points of Perez’s run as artist include several excellent Ultron stories and the beginnings of another of the Avengers’ notable “cosmic” adventures, the Korvac saga.

In “The Korvac Saga,” (appearing in AVENGERS #167-168 and # 170-177) the Avengers find themselves facing an almost unbeatable foe in Korvac the Machine Man, a near-omnipotent being from the 31st century who has retreated to the 20th century home of his ancestors, determined to use his new power (swiped from the abandoned home of Galactus) to begin his reign of universal rule. When the Avengers finally locate him, let’s be charitable and say it doesn’t go well:

As opposed to Englehart’s “Celestial Madonna” storyline, the “Korvac Saga” is more successful because it keeps the cosmic trappings grounded in a very mundane reality. When Korvac is living on Earth planning his universal conquest, he takes up residence in a modest suburban American home, and takes on a very unassuming appearance. Even the Avengers are made to appear more humble: in a throwaway gag, the Avengers, whose federal privileges have been revoked, are forced to commandeer a city bus to transport their sizable attack force (18 Avengers and allies, all told) out to the ‘burbs to confront Korvac.

The mid-to-late ‘80s saw the AVENGERS series primarily in the hands of writer Roger Stern, and it was Stern who oversaw the period of greatest expansion for the series, as the WEST COAST AVENGERS made their debut, first in a 4-issue miniseries, then in their own monthly series. Although the book was eventually cancelled after a respectable 102-issue run, the WEST COAST AVENGERS series made sure that many of the more popular Avengers who weren’t appearing in the original book stayed active, with a strong focus on Hawkeye, Wonder Man and Iron Man. 1970s AVENGERS writer Steve Englehart returned to take over the writing on the WCA monthly, and produced some of the best work of his career in a 7-part time travel epic (which unfortunately also featured Wonder Man’s worst costume to date, and this from a character who’s had almost nothing but bad costumes.)

At the same time, Roger Stern was putting out some of the best AVENGERS stories in years on the original book, starting with the wrap-up to the long-running “Hank Pym in jail” storyline I mentioned in the Ant-Man column a few weeks back. Following that, Stern shifted the focus to the Wasp, giving her the chairmanship of the team for a lengthy tenure, and along with the strong female emphasis from members like the new Captain Marvel, She-Hulk and the Scarlet Witch, took the team in some excellent new directions. Probably the high point of Stern’s run was the “Avengers Under Siege” storyline, in which the son of the original Baron Zemo puts together a massive team of supervillains (including such powerhouses as the Wrecking Crew, Mr. Hyde, Goliath and the Absorbing Man, each of whom formidable enough to take on the Avengers individually), 16 or so strong, for the most powerful and dangerous version of the Masters of Evil ever assembled.

In a well-planned and coordinated attack, Zemo’s new Masters seize Avengers Mansion, beat an inebriated Hercules so badly as to put the immortal demigod into a coma, and torture the Avengers’ major domo Edwin Jarvis, before the eyes of a helpless and enraged Captain America.

Only through a daring rescue attempt by the Wasp, the second Ant-Man, Thor and the assistance of mentalist Dr. Druid is the Mansion regained and the Masters of Evil captured. And not without a cost.

A word about Jarvis: part of the reason the notion of a rotating lineup of Avengers works so well is the presence of certain constants in the Avengers’ life, whoever they may be: namely, Avengers Mansion and its master, Edwin Jarvis. Rather than merely being a nameless stereotype of a butler, Avengers writers through the years (particularly Roger Stern and Kurt Busiek) have invested Jarvis with a genuine sense of loyalty and duty to the team, as expressed here:

Jarvis’ presence provides a very human element. Not only is his unflagging loyalty a credit to the Avengers, his willingness to chastise them or encourage them when they’ve fallen short of the mark provides a much-needed human element in a roomful of androids, legends, gods and monarchs.

As for the Mansion, it serves a similar purpose. There’s a reason the Avengers live in the Mansion and not a shiny chrome HQ; the homey atmosphere serves to ground the team, allowing the reader to more readily identify with them. Over the years, various writers have tried setting up the Avengers in different compounds, headquarters, embassies and hydrobases, but they always wind up home at the Mansion.

One of my favorite Avengers stories is from this period: EMPEROR DOOM, by David Michelinie and Bob Hall

In the deluxe graphic novel, longtime Fantastic Four and Avengers foe Doctor Doom discovers a way to harness the mutant power of the normally second-rate villain Zebediah Killgrave, a.k.a. the Purple Man. Normally the Purple Man’s body puts out an element that, when inhaled or absorbed through the skin, allows Killgrave to totally control the whims of others. Doom, however, figures out a way to use Kilgrave’s body as a battery for a device that blankets the whole planet, convincing everyone on Earth that Victor Von Doom is their rightful leader. It’s an excellent plan, and it actually works.

Soon the U.N. cedes all political power to Doctor Doom, who goes about setting up his Utopia: all nations are disarmed, famine is ended, discrimination is abolished. Meanwhile the Avenger Wonder Man, who’d been undergoing a 30-day sensory deprivation experiment, emerges from his tank to find the world entirely changed, and much for the better, with Doom in command.

Immune to Killgrave’s power thanks to his own ionic powers, Wonder Man struggles with whether or not to put an end to Doom’s wrongly achieved paradise.

EMPEROR DOOM makes excellent use of an innovative premise, and provides some strong characterization of both the Avengers and Doom.

Wonder Man must go about trying to free those Avengers from Doom’s grasp that he thinks are most likely able to resist, while Doom finds that his dreams of conquest are much more appealing than the drudgery of rule.

EMPEROR DOOM is pretty hard to find these days, but well worth picking up.

In 1996, the AVENGERS were handed over to Rob Liefeld in the disastrous HEROES REBORN promotion, in which Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld “re-created” the core Marvel heroes.  The books were, to be blunt, awful, and the experiment ended after only a year. However, from this fertilizer bloomed the rose that was the Kurt Busiek/ George Perez AVENGERS series, which we’ll be discussing next week, as well as Geoff Johns’ recent efforts and a look at the Avengers in mass media. See you then.


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One Response to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes – Avengers Assembled

  1. Jeff Nettleton April 11, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

    The panel from issue 161 takes me back to one of my single favorite Avengers stories (though it’s just the opening salvo), where a brainwashed Hank Pym basically whups the tar out of the combined Avengers team (as Ant-Man, no less) only to be stopped by the (perceived) even weaker Jan (in a Perez costume that looked like something I used to see modelled by professional ladies, outside the gates of the naval base, where I was stationed). It turned your expectations on their heads and demonstrated why Hank and Jan are with the big guns.

Welcoming the Future, Treasuring the Past.