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Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: The Avengers

DC Comics may have invented the concept of the “superhero team” with the Justice Society, and later the Justice League, but they were never much on refining it. In the DC Universe, superheroes formed super-teams because, well, that’s just what superheroes did. (Sure, there were rare exceptions like the Doom Patrol, but they were short-lived.) You had the JLA and their junior version, the Teen Titans, and that was pretty much it.

Marvel, on the other hand, developed distinct identities for each of their superhero teams, providing them with much more of a uniqueness of purpose, and an individuality that lent itself to a successful series. The Fantastic Four was a family, first and foremost. The X-Men were outcasts, banded together by human society’s hatred and mistrust. The Defenders, a successful ‘70s team book, was billed as a “non-team,” consisting of loosely affiliated misfits who found themselves hanging out together out of desperation and a need to belong, to anything. And the Avengers? The Avengers were the varsity team, the first line of defense, the “Big Guns” of the Marvel Universe. Anybody could be a Defender, and no one wanted to be an X-Man, but if you were a superhero and you were invited to join the Avengers, you’d made it: you were in the big leagues now. I think it’s this air of prestige and responsibility that helps make the Avengers so consistently popular. While the Fantastic Four are exploring the cosmos and the X-Men are looking after their own, the Avengers are in the trenches, saving the world, year in and year out. Combine that with one of the best core memberships in comics and a frequently changing roster, and you get what is, for my money, the best superhero team series ever published.

Unlike most of Marvel’s other Silver Age launches, the Avengers came about as a direct result of fan requests: by 1962, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee was being besieged by requests for more Marvel team-ups; particularly, bringing together some of Marvel’s solo stars into a new team. Never one to let a good idea pass him by, Stan put his head together with Marvel’s master storyteller Jack Kirby, and the two put together their new team. Here’s how Stan tells it in SON OF ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS:

After kicking it around for awhile, we came up with what seemed like a perfect combo. We’d start with The Hulk, just to make it difficult. Then, we’d include Thor, ‘cause there’s always room for a God of Thunder. Iron Man would be able to supply them all with weapons and bread whenever they needed it, and we’d toss in Ant-Man and the Wasp just for the sheer lunacy of it.

Now that a team had been chosen, all that was needed was an origin. After all, said Lee, “it wouldn’t make a terribly interesting story merely to have someone send the others a note inviting them to join a group of superheroes.” (Ironically, this was for all intents and purposes the origin of the 1940s Justice Society of America, until a more satisfying origin adventure was retroactively created for the team in the 1970s.) Since a suitably big menace was necessary to bring this powerful a group together, Lee and Kirby opted to use one of their biggest: Loki, the God of Evil (or Mischief, depending on what day it was) from the Thor series. This all took place in THE AVENGERS #1, in September 1963.

In the story, “The Coming of the Avengers,” Loki frames the Hulk in an attack on a passenger train, in the hopes of provoking his hated half-brother Thor to pursue him. When the Hulk’s young sidekick Rick Jones contacts the Fantastic Four via ham radio for assistance in locating the Hulk, Loki jams the signal, diverting it to a frequency he knows Thor’s alter ego Don Blake to be listening to. However, Loki didn’t realize that others would be listening to the frequency and would answer Rick Jones’ call for help, namely Iron Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Soon, Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp would all be in the Southwestern clubhouse of the Teen Brigade, Rick Jones’ club of ham radio enthusiasts (don’t ask), ready to help track down the Hulk. When Thor is lured away by an illusionary image of the Hulk, he deduces that Loki is involved, and heads to Asgard to track down his half-brother.

Meanwhile, the Hulk has taken refuge in a traveling circus, in the guise of a mechanical man, and minds his own business entertaining the crowds until Iron Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp track him down and launch a misguided attack, in the hopes of convincing him to surrender. Naturally, that doesn’t work out so well, and a massive brawl ensues.

Thor tracks Loki to the Asgardian Isle of Silence, where a trap has been set. Thor easily bests the trolls whom Loki has enlisted, and apprehends Loki, taking him back to Earth to explain his actions. Thor tracks the Hulk and company to Detroit, where the battle has spread to an auto assembly line. Just as Thor explains that Loki was behind it all, Loki turns himself radioactive, forcing Thor, Hulk and Iron Man to keep their distance. Before Loki can strike, Ant-Man triggers a switch that opens a trap door, depositing Loki in a lead-lined tank, from which the now-radioactive Loki cannot escape. How convenient. Precisely why a Detroit auto manufacturer has a facility for the dumping of radioactive waste is never explained.

Before the heroes can go their separate ways, Ant-Man suggests that they continue to work together in the future. Iron Man and Thor agree, as does the Hulk, who remarks, “I’m sick of bein’ hunted and hounded! I’d rather be with you than against you!” At the suggestion of the Wasp, the newly formed team dubs itself “the Avengers,” and there you have it.

But the Hulk’s naturally suspicious and belligerent nature would eventually win out, and by issue #3, Hulk was gone from the Avengers for good. With the next issue came the arrival of the final “founding member”; even though he was not around when the team was founded, Captain America has become nearly synonymous with the Avengers over time.

In fact, in recognition of that importance, later Avengers writer Kurt Busiek noted that the Avengers had given Cap “founding member” status in recent years, granting him a permanent say in all team decisions and policy.

Captain America joined the Avengers in THE AVENGERS #4 (as discussed here), and with his arrival the Avengers really coalesced as a team, and the book found a renewed focus it had lacked before, both in Captain America’s relationship with honorary member Rick Jones, eliciting Cap’s memories of his wartime partner Bucky Barnes, and in his (and the Avengers’) struggle with his WWII adversary Baron Zemo, who emerges from hiding in South America to seek out revenge on Captain America for the damage to his face, which was accidentally and permanently bonded to the hood he wore to protect his identity as Hitler’s greatest scientist.

In what would be the first of many membership shakeups, the Avengers would completely reshuffle their roster in THE AVENGERS #16, with Iron Man, Giant-Man and the Wasp taking leaves of absence (joining the A.W.O.L. Thor, who was busy with a “Trial of the Gods” in his own series), leaving Captain America as leader of a team composed of reformed supervillains: former members of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, and Iron Man’s ex-sparring partner Hawkeye the Marksman.

The new team, later nicknamed “Cap’s Kooky Quartet,” was a bold departure from the original team – no longer comprised of Marvel’s biggest solo stars, instead readers were getting a team of second-stringers with mighty big shoes to fill, frequently squabbling among themselves, with the speedster Quicksilver and the archer Hawkeye often scheming to wrest the reins of leadership from the beleaguered Captain America.

It would be another thirty issues or so before any new members started to arrive, but by the end of the ‘60s, new Avengers were steadily joining up. First was the Greek demigod Hercules in AVENGERS #45, followed by the African monarch the Black Panther in #52, and the scientist/swordsman the Black Knight in #71. However, the most significant Avengers recruit of the late ‘60s was the Vision (a member as of AVENGERS #58), a red-skinned android (or “synthezoid,” as writer Roy Thomas termed him, as a “synthetic human”) originally created by the Avengers’ hated foe Ultron to destroy the Avengers from within.

The Vision overcomes his programming and is accepted by the Avengers, and his slow struggle to consider himself human is exemplified over the next few years by his tortured romance with the Scarlet Witch, which culminates in their marriage in GIANT-SIZE AVENGERS #4 in 1975.  Also joining up around this time were Greek god Hercules and Wakandan monarch Black Panther, deepening the team’s bench considerably.

The 1970s saw another surge in membership, with the induction of former Iron Man foe the Black Widow in AVENGERS #111, and the martial artist and “Celestial Madonna” Mantis two years after that.

AVENGERS #137 saw the introduction of two new members: the haughty psychic Moondragon, who would wind up causing more trouble over the years than many of the Avengers’ foes, and former X-Man Henry McCoy, a.k.a. the Beast.

The acrobatic Hellcat signed up in #148, followed by Wonder Man, who had been presumed dead since way back in AVENGERS #9, when he seemingly sacrificed his life when he turned on Baron Zemo, who had given him his ionic powers so he could, in what appears to be something of a motif, infiltrate the Avengers from within. Wonder Man returned from the grave in AVENGERS #151, and soon after joined up full-time.

Although there were two more Avengers recruits in the late 1970s (Ms. Marvel and the Falcon, who were forcibly inducted in AVENGERS #183-184 at the government’s orders, to more properly represent women and minorities on the team), the core team as it appeared in the mid-‘70s is to my mind the quintessential Avengers lineup, and is the one that has been utilized most over the succeeding years.

In fact, the core Avengers lineup is so perfect an archetype for the superhero team that parts of it have been lifted over the years and applied to DC’s Justice League formula, including the revising of Green Arrow as a loudmouth reactionary (much like Hawkeye’s hotheaded nature), the addition of an emotionless android in the Red Tornado, and the incorporation of Steel in the Iron Man role, a decision that then-JLA-writer Grant Morrison admitted was due to his frustration at the lack of an “Iron Man” type in the JLA.

At the center of the core team is Captain America, the human, all-too-mortal touchstone for the team, and the group’s natural leader, even when he’s not officially serving as chairman (a rotating position that’s decided by election). In the “heavy hitter” role are Thor and Iron Man, who both add significant muscle to the team.

In addition, Iron Man provides the team’s solid technological base, while Thor’s status as an Asgardian god lends the team a cachet of mythology and godhood. Hank Pym, whether he’s Ant-Man, Giant-Man or Yellowjacket, provides the team’s hard science and analysis, while at the same time his fragile mental state, troubled past and diminutive stature gives the Avengers a touch of all-too-human vulnerability.

The Wasp adds a lighthearted femininity to the team, and yet has grown over the years into one of the most capable and dependable members. The Vision’s striving toward humanity acts as a reminder of just what The Avengers are fighting for, and his courtship and eventual marriage to the Scarlet Witch (who balanced out the team’s scientific emphasis with her sorcerous nature) gave the series some much-needed romance and a sense of family. The inclusion of Hawkeye reinforced the fact that the Avengers weren’t just a collection of gods and near-gods, that a mere mortal with unerring skill and undeniable willpower could contribute to and eventually even lead the team. Finally, the addition of the wisecracking Beast provided a steady dose of humor to a book that was sometimes too serious for its own good.

As members came and went through the years, the 1980s saw a jump in the number of female members, starting with the induction of the were-tiger Tigra in AVENGERS #211.

Next were the emerald-skinned powerhouse She-Hulk in AVENGERS #221, and the new Captain Marvel (this time a black woman, in counterpoint to her blonde, blue-eyed male predecessor), who joined up in AVENGERS #227.

Also joining was the alien adventurer Starfox in AVENGERS #232.

Membership really speeded up in 1984, when the Avengers opened up a West Coast branch based in Los Angeles. Hawkeye was chosen to head up the team, and new recruits included Hawkeye’s wife Mockingbird, a former secret agent, and James Rhodes, who had taken over the Iron Man role while Tony Stark struggled with alcoholism. Along with Tigra and Wonder Man. The West Coast Avengers made their debut in WEST COAST AVENGERS #1.

More recruits would arrive for the West Coast Avengers, including Fantastic Four mainstay the Thing in issue #9, the vigilante Moon Knight in #21, the devout pyrokinetic Firebird and the federally mandated Captain America replacement USAgent, who was forced on the team in issue #44. The West Coast Avengers closed out the decade with the induction of the resurrected original Human Torch from the 1940s in issue #40.

Not that things weren’t happening back on the East Coast with the original team. Longtime Avengers antagonist Sub-Mariner accepted Captain America’s invitation to join in AVENGERS #262.

The Sub-Mariner was followed by chrome-domed illusionist Dr. Druid in #278 (not one of the Avengers’ most exciting recruits…).

Marrina, a former Alpha Flight member and intended bride to Sub-Mariner, joined up in issue #282 just before the team disbanded, only to be reformed by Captain America and Thor in AVENGERS #300, along with the centuries-old warrior Gilgamesh and the then-currently team-less Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman from the Fantastic Four.

Finally, the official Protector of the Universe (just ask him) Quasar joined the team in 1989’s AVENGERS ANNUAL #18.

Both Avengers teams continued to attract new members throughout the 1990s. The West Coast squad accepted the Latino hero the Living Lightning into their ranks in AVENGERS WEST COAST #74, as well as the second Spider-Woman. The sentient android Machine Man joined in issue #83, and the teen hero Darkhawk was the West Coasters’ last new recruit in issue #94. Not long after that, the Avengers’ West Coast squad was officially disbanded, with its members forming a new team in the spinoff series FORCE WORKS, which may possibly be the single dumbest name for a superhero team ever, and I’m including the Seven Soldiers of Victory here. FORCE WORKS, mercifully, didn’t last long, and its members slowly began returning to the Avengers fold.

Over on the East Coast, the Eternal Sersi replaced her kinsman Gilgamesh in AVENGERS #314, with the oceanographer/scientist Stingray joining up not long after in #319.

A reorganization of the team in issue #329 yielded some surprising recruits: the angry young muscleman Rage, the reformed Spidey villain Sandman, and Spider-Man himself, who, despite many previous attempts by the Avengers to sign him up, finally joined officially, if only for a very limited tenure.

The last members to join before the Avengers vanished and were presumed dead in 1997 were the Inhuman Crystal and the Thor clone Thunderstrike, who both became members in issue #343. When the Avengers returned in 1998, two new members were accepted almost immediately: the telekinetic Justice and the pyrotic Firestar, both from Marvel’s teen super-team series THE NEW WARRIORS.

Since the team’s rebirth in the late 1990s, there have been several more new recruits: the acrobat/martial artist Triathlon, the South American shapeshifter Silverclaw, longtime Avengers ally Scott Lang (Hank Pym’s successor as Ant-Man) and perennial Marvel third-stringer Jack of Hearts (who, I suspect, had never been made an Avenger before this because no one wanted to have to draw his insanely intricate costume that often.) And in the last couple of decades, another couple dozen super-types have made the cut, big names like Doctor Strange and Daredevil, and new faces like Red Hulk, Miles Morales and new Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan.

So, now you know who the Avengers are. But what exactly do they do? Come back next week and we’ll talk about some of the things they’ve done, including a rough breakdown of some of the series’ high (and low) points, and a look at how the different creative teams have put their own stamp on the Avengers over the years. See you then.

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One Response to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: The Avengers

  1. Jeff Nettleton April 4, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    My first was the second part of the team’s battle with an assassin, while Tony Stark undergoes open heart surgery. I remember a plot point about everyone being poisoned, but turning up when the villain nears his target, none the worse for wear. hawkeye makes some comment about a cast-iron stomach that I found ridiculous, even in those days.

Welcoming the Future, Treasuring the Past.