Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: An Avengers Retrospective Part 1: The Coming of The Avengers (Issues #1-16)

Avengers #8

After an introduction, guest columnist Gene Selassie dives into classic Avengers comics starting from the beginning!

This article kicks off what will be a biweekly recap of my deep dive, reading every single issue of The Avengers from the beginning. These earliest issues of the series highlight the unique personalities, which would differ greatly to how they were written in the modern age. They also lay the groundwork for the types of stories and level of threats the Avengers will become known to face. Additionally, while continuity gaffes and quirky story elements aren’t what I would call ‘plentiful’, there are enough of them that they become noticeable at a certain point. Finally, even though Jack Kirby and Don Heck were both exceptional artists, each brought a unique skill set to the book. Let’s take look at the opening stretch of this journey.

One of the first things that I noticed is that the character development was kept to a minimum in these early issues. I can only surmise that, not unlike the formula that modern writers would use (ex: Grant Morrison on his critically acclaimed JLA run), the fact that all of the characters were featured in solo adventures elsewhere meant that other books were where we got the character development. This team book is for the larger than life threats that no single hero could withstand.

During this run of the “founders”, the characters kept their secret identities to themselves, which made sense since there wasn’t sufficient time for them to forge bonds and trust to that degree.

  • Iron Man functions like technical support since he’s known as just an “employee” of Tony Stark at this point. At times, we get the impression that he is the team leader. In reality, each member gets the spotlight as ‘chairperson’ and is essentially in command that given month. The most we get out of him, from a personality standpoint, is the constant mention of his transistor/repulsor tech issues and that if he runs out of power, the shrapnel lodged near his heart will kill him.
  • Thor is the magic-based muscle of the team. Since his alter ego of physician Doctor Don Blake is still in play at this time, there’s not that much of a “stranger in a strange land” vibe to him. His speech patterns haven’t ventured into the Shakespearean as of yet. Much like Iron Man, Thor was primarily defined by the fact that, if he was separated from his hammer for more than sixty seconds, he’d revert back to Don Blake.
  • The Hulk was more of a surly and cranky giant, ready to fight at the drop of a hat than a monster with the mind of a child that he later became most known for. Whatever triggered Bruce Banner’s transformation into the emerald behemoth at this time was not explained. He also didn’t disappear after issue 3 as many would believe. Hulk was more of a presence throughout that first year of the book than I remembered.
  • Ant-Man/Giant Man was the resident super-scientist. He also felt like a two-fisted pulp action hero back in these early years. This dichotomy may have been just happenstance. Or, it could have been an early seed of Hank Pym’s mental illness.
  • Wasp was “the woman” of any early Marvel comic, as we also see with the Enchantress and the Scarlet Witch later on. Janet Van Dyne never gets much deeper than “attraction to male compatriot” and “likes to have fun”. She wasn’t given much to do and had to be rescued often. That being said, there were times of ingenuity on the fly that would be the core of her much stronger characterization later on (during Roger Stern’s run).
  • Rick Jones is every teen sidekick of the era. He doesn’t show much personality, but he has unwavering loyalty to the Hulk (to whom he’s indebted for saving his life) and later Captain America. While his Teen Brigade can come off as hokey, because they avoided many of the modern clichés of teen angst/ineptitude/etc, they came across as competent and welcome allies of the Avengers.
  • Captain America is the one man without crazy superpowers. In spite of this, Steve Rogers never hesitated to leap into battle to protect his fellow teammates or the world. He was a bit happier to jump into a fight than I recollected. Fans who started reading in the 80s-90s or who met Steve through the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be a tad befuddled. His depression over Bucky’s death (still fresh in his mind due to it happening right before he went on ice), without a doubt, was the catalyst. I don’t use the word “trauma” lightly. This guy goes into murder rage whenever Zemo (the one responsible for Bucky’s death) is involved. A perplexing trait of Steve’s is his vacillating from overprotective to complete jerk when it comes to Rick Jones.

Strategy and team tactics were sprinkled in every now and then. The teamwork really began to shine in the latter Masters of Evil issues (9, 15-16) and Cap’s dialogue felt truer than ever in one poignant scene; Captain America: “Feel my grip, Zemo. It’s the grip of a FREE MAN! Look into my eyes, tyrant. They’re the eyes of a man who would die for liberty! The world must never again make the fatal error of mistaking compassion for weakness and while I live, it won’t!”. “Avengers Assemble” being shouted for the first time in issue 10 by the God of Thunder was awesome. Issue 12 was where we started truly seeing the dramatic tension between team members as Hank’s warnings about something being amiss underground were dismissed (the threat turned out to be the Mole Man). The seeds of potential mistrust of the power the team has were planted in issue 13. Count Nefaria, while holding the real Avengers captive, sent hard light projected duplicate Avengers to a meeting at the Pentagon, where they ordered a full surrender of the government. Of course, the real Avengers had to deal with the fallout from this. I had no idea that the team took on the United States military that early in their run. The culmination of the battle saw an Avenger get mortally wounded by a stray bullet. I was left flabbergasted at the end of that story.

Albeit, the innate charisma of each of these characters hadn’t come into play as of yet, they provided plenty of thrills as they took on some of the toughest villains from around the Marvel Universe. I’ve heard it be stated that the Avengers never faced larger than life “widescreen” threats until the era of The Ultimates/New Avengers. That couldn’t be further from the truth as the first year and a half saw the team do battle against an Asgardian god, an alien that could take the form of whatever Avenger he wished, and pitted the team against each other in brawls that swept across New York, a Hulk/Namor team up, an Atlantean incursion, a unified front featuring the arch-nemesis of each of the Avengers, a warlord from the future, and so on and so forth. This book doesn’t get the credit it deserves for really placing them against “foes that no single superhero could withstand” from the very beginning. A few things of note as far as the villains were concerned:

  • Seeing the Hulk and Namor’s alliance (issue 3) and waiting for one to betray the other was hysterical.
  • Even in his first appearance in 1964, Kang the Conqueror, one of my favorite villains, went beast mode on the Avengers (issue 8).
  • Zemo and the Masters of Evil’s presence loomed heavily over the first year’s worth of stories.
  • As ridiculous as some of the early adventures were, there was also some sound logic. Count Nefaria (issue 13) never physically assaulted someone himself and always pulled strings from behind the scenes, trying his damndest to make sure that it was much more difficult to directly connect his crimes to him.
  • Issues 15-16 unquestionably felt like a “season finale”, with a final showdown against the Masters of Evil and Heinrich Zemo’s fate at the hands of Captain America.

On the one hand, the quirks of the writing made for an exciting read. On the other hand, said surprises led to some funny and sometimes head-scratching moments. While testing the newfound super strength and invulnerability of the reluctant villain, Wonder Man (issue 9), the Executioner, an Asgardian god, took out a revolver to shoot him.  Hank Pym often had a sixth sense referred to as his “cybernetic sense” and I’m still waiting for an explanation of what that is. I’ve never seen the word “whirling” used in a comic as often as it is in these early issues (Thor’s whirling hammer, Cap’s whirling shield, Iron Man using his repulsors to place opponents in a perpetual “whirling” state). The most baffling aspect during that first year and a half was the handling of the Asgardians and their abilities. Thor’s powers and power levels would change at the drop of a hat. He’d walk away from being submerged in lava by the Lava Men (issue 5) without so much as a scratch, only for him to nearly get taken down by a stun beam from the Black Knight in the very next issue. His hammer, Mjolnir, can manipulate magnetic fields and at one point was even used as an alien detector (issue 14). The Enchantress showed a power that I didn’t even know she had…TIME TRAVEL. Furthermore, the plethora of “a product of its time” elements in these issues can be a bit much for younger readers not used to them. Women in these stories only cared about makeup and going out on the town. Natives of foreign non-white countries were subservient and unintelligent. Even random bits of dialogue could be cringe at times. Cap, along with Rick Jones, were trapped in the Amazon and Steve randomly shouts “A White Man—being attacked by a leopard! Too far for me to reach him in time!”

The visuals went through quite a metamorphosis midway through this era of the founders. The book started with “The King”, Jack Kirby, whose detailed layouts were made to not just be read, but absorbed. Then, along came Don Heck, who was less renowned for his detailed backgrounds and more known for his far above average character acting. The art change made for a hell of a transition between issues 8 and 9. Both had their strengths and weaknesses. Be that as it may, both crafted insanely entertaining visuals.

Overall, I feel like Steve Rogers did at the end of issue 16; a bit later to the party than those who were around from the very beginning, nevertheless, experienced enough to tackle the challenges that a new team brings. That new team (Cap, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver) will be the focus of part two of this Avengers retrospective. Until next time, AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!