Considering Avengers – End Game has recently become one of the biggest grossing films of all time, it seemed appropriate to go back and look at where the mega-franchise all began. It probably won’t come as much of a surprise, but these two names (which we’ve perhaps mentioned once or twice) are once again the driving force behind the hype: Jack Kirby and Stan Lee…
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual digital comic that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, and various others – The Avengers – Marvel Masterworks Volume 1 (2017)
Yep… Like the Fantastic Four and the X-Men and about 1,000 other well-known comic characters, The Avengers were created by the legendary team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. According to the short introduction to this collection, written by Stan Lee, the inspiration for this group was fan letters from rabid Marvel readers who seemed to really enjoy the cross-over issues of the various books that they were publishing in the early 1960s, so in 1963, Lee and Kirby took several of their most exciting characters and smashed them together in one book---and the rest is history (and, apparently, BOX OFFICE GOLD!)
Interestingly, the original Avengers line-up wasn’t quite what we saw in the first Avengers film, but it wasn’t a million miles off, either. That first film collected Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Thor, Hulk, and Hawkeye (although he isn’t ever called by that name in the movie, just “The Hawk,” once…), and Sgt. Fury (with no Howling Commandos), who for some reason isn’t really considered part of the “team,” even though he’s right there calling shots and pushing folks forward.
The first issue of the COMIC, however, in a story centered around Loki attempting to get revenge on Thor for having him exiled in Asgard to the “Isle of Silence,” the following characters come together to form The Avengers team: Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Ant Man (although he’s usually called Giant Man, from issue two and onward), and The Wasp (although her meek role, driven primarily by her romantic interest in most of the male characters she encounters, is a pale shadow of the ass-kicking Wasp character, played by Evangeline Lilly, in the Ant-Man and The Wasp film!) These may seem like familiar names, but some of the characters were portrayed VERY differently in the early days…
Thor, for instance, is actually just the alter-ego of the frail and “lame” (meaning he walks with a crutch) Dr. Don Blake, who has to tap his walking stick on the ground to become the mighty Thor! (It’s weird… Is it like a willing possession thing, where Dr. Blake is channeling the spirit of an ancient Norse deity? Or is it some freaky, multi-dimensional thing where one body replaces the other in that particular space-time continuum, but both are actual people in their respective dimensions??? It’s never explained very clearly…) Thor’s hammer is also very freaky in this collection, doing all kinds of magic things, like creating vortexes and changing the molecular structure of lava and channeling magnetic waves to lift an alien spaceship off the floor of the ocean!!! AND, if Thor’s hammer is removed from his hand for more than 60 seconds, he turns back into frail and useless Dr. Blake… (How a doctor can be useless is anyone’s guess, but that’s what we’re led to believe in this book.)
Another weird thing about these stories, and perhaps this isn’t so different from the films, almost every female character that The Avengers encounter (even The Wasp!) is obsessed with Thor, and they all want little more than for Thor to desire them in return! It’s pretty blatantly sexist, but all the female characters in these Lee / Kirby stories are CONSTANTLY OBSESSED with romance, and for the most part play either the femme fatale (like The Enchantress) or the damsel in distress (like The Wasp, who has to be saved at least every other issue). It’s awkward and uncomfortable---and one of the reasons that a character like The Valkyrie, from The Defenders books, was a huge step forward in the development of female characters in the Marvel Universe. She would sock any dude in the jaw who made a sexist comment or any cat-calls in her direction, often screaming, “Chauvinist pig!” or something similar as she knocked them on their ass! Great stuff.) So---female characters: not that well represented in this collection, by today’s standards.
Although Tony Stark is still a millionaire / playboy / weapons manufacturer, in the comics nobody knows he’s also Iron Man, not even Happy or Pepper Pots. Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne are still scientists---or scientist and love-interest, anyway---but they don’t seem to be married. Captain America, who is still frozen in ice when the comic series begins (we assume) is thawed out and joins the team in issue #4---although this Cap is primarily a neurotic who is obsessed with teenage boys and has violent outbursts because he is so haunted by the memory of his murdered sidekick, Bucky. (It’s kind of creepy, in my opinion, just how obsessed with Bucky he seems to be---and by the new side-kick he inherits from The Hulk, Rick Jones---but I don’t think this stuff was meant to be weird back in the 1960s…)
The most dramatically different character in these early stories is The Hulk. Not only does he look more like Frankenstein’s Monster than the character we know today, but he’s also clever and articulate. In the first issue, Loki decides that the best way to draw out his nemesis, Thor, is to frame the Hulk for some act of destruction, so that meek Dr. Don Blake will have to become Thor and stop the rampaging beast, and then Loki can trick Thor into coming to Asgard where Loki will beat him up---or something. (It seems like a weird plan to me, but it somehow works almost exactly the way Loki planned it to…) However, the Hulk, who supposedly has a gentle heart and is actually just misunderstood by the world, goes into hiding early in the book…by disguising himself as a “mechanical man” and joining a circus, where his feats of strength can be written off as just showbiz trickery.
Eventually, one of Ant Man’s ant spies, which he sends all across the U.S. looking for news that will help him find the Hulk (seriously), spots the “mechanical man” act at a circus, realizes that it’s probably the Hulk in disguise, and reports back to Pym. The not-yet-named Avengers, knowing how dangerous the Hulk can be, head off to the circus to capture him or try to talk to him or in some way subdue the Hulk and bring him back to New York with them, but the Hulk isn’t having any of it. In fact, when he realizes they aren’t going to leave him alone, he says this: (and, no, it’s not “Hulk smash!!!”):
“So! You refuse to stop?? / You intend to keep hounding me, do you? / All right, the masquerade’s over! I don’t care who knows who I am! Soon as I wipe this stupid make-up off, I’m gonna rip this place apart with my bare hands!” (page 12).
This is not fury unleashed---this is a man who was trying to live his life in peace but was constantly being tormented by annoying “do-gooders” who think they know what’s best for him, going so far as to ruin the career he’s started where he isn’t considered a freak or an outcast, but just part of the show. The Hulk has reached the breaking point, not out of blind fury but because he’s tired of being harassed! Towards the end of the first issue, after the whole plot is revealed to be Loki’s doing, Hulk says, “I’m sick of bein’ hunted and hounded! I’d rather be with you than against you! So, whether you like it or not, I’m joinin the… the… Hey! What are you callin’ yourselves?” Again, this is not rage and fury, it’s clearly reasoned decision making, and although I wouldn’t say this is exquisite linguistic gymnastics, it’s not “Hulk smash!” either… I wonder what happened? Over the years he’s become much less articulate and more simple-minded, BUT TECHNICALLY, Captain America has more angry outbursts and moments of uncontrolled fury in this collection of stories than the Hulk does!
Overall, beyond just being fascinating for the differences between the modern and historical Avengers, this collection is also a lot of fun. The stories are weird, in a GOOD way---in the sense that Lee and Kirby would come up with these over-the-top situations---plots with holes big enough to drive a semi through--and then play them through to the end, regardless of how bizarre or nonsensical the ideas may seem. For instance, the evil Dr. Zemo (not coincidentally, the man who murdered Bucky!!!) tries to take over the world by spraying adhesive foam on everything so that nobody can move. Or there’s one storyline where Zemo invents a new hero, Wonder Man, who is powerful enough to destroy the Avengers, and then has him JOIN the Avengers for a while---I guess so he can gain their trust, for some reason---instead of just having him kill them… Or that one story where an ancient wizard kidnaps Cap’s newest teenage sidekick, Rick Jones, and hides him in the Tower of London several centuries in the past… Or when the shape-changing evil-doer called the Space Phantom shows up and knows everything about the Avengers, even their secret identities, because he’s been watching them FROM SPACE! I guess that makes sense---the guy watching from space knows everything, but the people who work together and see each other every day DON’T know each other’s secrets… Sure! Why not?
Kirby’s artwork, as I’ve mentioned in numerous reviews, is always great fun, exaggerated and stylistically fantastic---and Stan Lee’s nonsensical writing is brilliantly entertaining, in that campy, kitschy sort of way. It’s all extremely overly dramatic, insane, and ridiculous---but enjoyable, if you’re into that kind of thing. After reading these first ten issues of The Avengers, could I imagine that this would some day become one of the biggest, most elaborate, most celebrated film franchises of all time? No. Not a chance. This is goofy, overblown melodrama---with rough edges, unlikely plot developments, and weird and strangely incompetent antagonists, who are nonetheless extremely colorful and interesting characters---but BLOCKBUSTER MATERIAL??? Not likely…
Of course, The Avengers had something like 50 years to develop (technically 49---as the first issue came out in 1963 and the first Avengers film was released in 2012), with a number of great writers taking a crack at the characters in the meantime (like Steve Englehart, Jim Shooter, Roger Stern, Roy Thomas, and John Byrne, and even a couple issues each by folks like Jim Starlin, Chris Claremont, and Harlan Ellison!) I read a lot of Avengers comics in the 1980s, along with books like New Mutants, The Defenders, X-Men, and blah blah blah…pretty much whatever I could find in drug-stores and supermarkets when I had an extra 60 or 75 cents to spend, but I was never consistent enough buying ANY series that I could tell you how the whole story developed over time. This was especially true with a book, like The Avengers, which started publication a decade or more before I was born and whose back-issues went for hundreds or even thousands of dollars each---that’s when something like the Marvel Masterworks collections really come in handy! Now you can start this series from the beginning and, without selling your house to buy the individual issues, see how the story started, watch the characters grow, and follow the plot as it develops over a nice string of issues! And, in my opinion, that’s pretty cool. Plus, this stuff really is a lot of fun to read! (Did I mention that yet? Several times? Sorry---I’m old and forgetful!)
So, if you’re curious about the early years of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, the Marvel Masterworks collections (available in hardcover, paperback, and digital versions---although I’m not sure how “in print” any of these versions are right now... If you hit a comic shop or convention, I’m sure you’ll be able to find them) are a relatively affordable way to see how it all started! Okay, that’s enough of my blathering! Now go read a damn book!!!
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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