“Read a Damn Book – 151: The Avengers – Marvel Masterworks Volume 2”
More Avengers fun! Let’s skip the personal junk, this time, and jump right into the review…
[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 & Don Heck – The Avengers – Marvel Masterworks Volume 2 (2017)
Howdy True Believers! This week we’re looking at volume two of the collected Avengers comic series. This book (I read it as a digital comic, but it’s also available in hardback and paperback editions) reprints issues 11 through 20 of the original 1960’s series. The book was primarily written by Stan Lee, with pencils by Don Heck, although Jack Kirby did contribute “layouts” on couple of issues, as did Dick Ayers on one issue. (Ayers usually provided the inks.) One issue, #20, was inked by the legendary Wally Wood (who was a power player in underground comics, as well as a big shot at E.C. and Mad!)
One of the interesting things about the way that Marvel Comics worked in the 1960s (according to a number of sources, including a very cool documentary I recently watched on the making of the Fantastic Four comics) was the “production line” approach that they used. Stan Lee, who was editor AND scripter for many of the early books, would come up with a rough idea for a story, a villain and some plot points and a few other ideas, then he would pass on his rough ideas to an artist (Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Gene Colan…whoever), and the artist would DRAW the story, incorporating as many of Lee’s ideas as he thought necessary, then return the pages to Stan Lee, who would add the captions and dialog. In actuality, the pencilers were responsible for a REMARKABLE percentage of each individual book---which is why a Stan Lee / Jack Kirby comic is so different from a Stan Lee / Steve Ditko book or a Stan Lee / Don Heck book---even though Lee would be credited as the “writer” for all of these.
The reason I bring this up is to point out a serious shift in the TONE and FEEL of this Avengers collection compared to the first volume. (You can read my review of the first volume HERE.) Many of the villains are repeated from earlier issues, and the LANGUAGE is still the same, how the characters talk and the tone of the captions---but some of the whimsical elements, the IMAGINATIVE TOUCHES, that make a Jack Kirby comic so exciting and appealing, (and often GOOFY), are gone in these stories. A lot of weird things still HAPPEN, but the tone is more serious and straightforward than in the earlier stories. This isn’t to say that Don Heck, who is responsible for penciling the majority of these tales, isn’t a great artist. His proportions are good, more realistic than Kirby’s for sure, but the individual panels are more streamlined, kind of traditional “camera” angles, and focused on moving the story along. The weird facial expressions, the dynamic angles and weird framing, and the oddly powerful KICK that Kirby infused his panels with is missing---and for me it did make these issues a bit less interesting and fun than the first batch.
Another odd thing that happens in this collection is, at the end of the sixth issue, Thor, Iron Man, Giant-Man, and The Wasp all quit! (The Hulk, though he is a huge presence---sorry---in the Avengers movies, actually quit the team in issue two or three of the comics, so he’s LONG GONE before this collection starts, although he does make a cameo appearance in one issue.) This leaves Captain America, who joined the book in issue #4, as the most senior member of the team. To fill the empty seats at the Avengers’ table, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver are recruited for the team---even though they have all appeared as VILLAINS in previous comics! As the team is adjusting to these personnel changes, the primary conflict switches away from whichever villainous threat the Avengers are fighting at the moment and becomes a battle WITHIN the team for the position of LEADER OF THE GROUP. The weird thing about this is that, before the other members of the group quit, the team had always rotated leadership, allowing each hero to have a turn as head of the team. Why the Avengers, AS A GROUP, threw that organizational method out the window all of a sudden confused me a bit. (Did Don Heck and Stan Lee FORGET that they had established this foundational element of the Avengers, or did they just like the idea of introducing conflict this way? Hawkeye calls Captain America a dictator and a fascist on a couple of different occasions in these stories---which is problematic and, possibly, warranted. He was never ELECTED as leader of the new group after all---he just assumed command!)
Still, the book is pretty fun to read (fun enough that I read it twice through before writing my review---if it hadn’t been entertaining, I wouldn’t have bothered reading it a second time), and I was interested and entertained enough that I’m certain that I’ll be purchasing volume three in the series...eventually.
I don’t know if I’ve said enough about how great the Marvel Masterworks series is. Many of the individual comic book issues that go into any individual volume can go for hundreds or even THOUSANDS of dollars each, in some cases. It would take a collector a small fortune to try and find and read these stories as single issues, and I don’t know about you, but I will NEVER be able to afford to collect and own the first twenty issues of The Avengers comics or Fantastic Four or The Amazing Spider-Man, and if I DID somehow find myself in possession of these books, I would be too afraid of damaging them to actually READ them! However, for the price of a trip to a fast-food restaurant, anyone who wants to CAN buy and read these early stories, which helped define what comics COULD BE and which continue to have a MASSIVE influence on popular culture today! (The timeline isn’t EXACTLY the same, but the brother-sister team of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch show up in the 2nd Avengers film AND in the 2nd Avengers collection… Coincidence? I’m not sure. COOL?!? Absolutely---even if the Scarlet Witch’s ridiculous headpiece in these early stories (she looks a little bit like a cat that has been “breaded,” if you remember that awful meme from a few years ago) makes me wonder what the artists were smoking when they drew her… It WAS the ‘60s, after all…)
So, my final thoughts on The Avengers – Marvel Masterworks Vol. 2: It’s a fun, quirky book, full of odd adventures that fans of classic comic stories will almost certainly enjoy. This book is maybe not as endearing or as imaginative as the first collection is, but it's a solid superhero book with a respectable amount of gravitas and more than adequate draftsmanship throughout. Stan Lee’s scripting always focuses on the HUMAN DRAMA of a given situation, and Don Heck’s lines are clean, clear, and arguably more polished than Kirby’s, (though it’s possible that it’s the ROUGHNESS of Kirby’s work that I find so appealing.) I appreciate that the book doesn’t stagnate, either, even in the first twenty issues, as Lee shakes things up by shuffling new characters in and out of the action. It’s a “pretty good” book. Not as good as the first volume, but certainly not bad by any stretch, and for people who are wondering how today’s Avengers mega-franchise came into being, this is essential history worthy of exploration…
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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