Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: An Avengers Retrospective Part 2: Four Against…(Issues #17-35)
Guest contributor Eugene Selassie is back with the second part of his retrospective of Marvel‘s The Avengers. He started at the beginning covering the first sixteen issues. He’s back discussing issues #17 to #35!
We continue my biweekly recap of my deep dive, reading every single issue of The Avengers from the beginning. In the second half of the Stan Lee era of the book, we see more of a focus on the personalities and the private concerns of each Avenger. We also notice a shift in the power levels of the villains they face to complement the more grounded roster. The political thriller vibe of some of the arcs, predating The Ultimates by about 35 years, was welcome…but the racial caricatures were not. Several allies and Avengers mainstays debuted around this time. Finally, these issues really hit home how much a different inker can completely change an art style.
The first few issues of the “kooky quartet” era established the dynamics of the team rather quickly:
- Captain America was now unquestionably the one in charge. Steve Rogers exuded even more confidence in action than in previous Avengers stories, if that’s even possible. Complex team strategy and tactics are now on full display with this roster, which was a treat. On the contrary, Cap’s constant brooding while alone at the mansion sometimes felt a bit off-putting. So did the fact that he took on a mission that could’ve caused an international incident, just to look good for SHIELD recruitment (issue 18). When Steve quit the team at the end of issue 22, it could have led to the end of the Avengers, if not for Kang’s subsequent attack, which brought the team back together. Cap was a bit of a dick at times. It felt justified when he was dishing it back out to Hawkeye. Conversely, demanding that Hank Pym prove he’s the real Giant-Man, even though Hank explained that there have been health concerns and the strain of changing size could kill him, went a bit overboard. Equally perplexing was insulting Hank to snap him out of his funk, but from what I’m discovering, that was a common storytelling device at Marvel during the Silver age.
- Hawkeye was the wild card of the bunch. The action man archer trying to repent from Tales of Suspense #57 up through Avengers #16 is gone and the cocky Clint Barton that we all know and love is present. I laughed heartily because Clint’s luggage wasn’t even unpacked yet before he started mouthing off to Cap. Around issue 25 is where we start to see Clint at least being self-aware that he’s a jerk and gives Cap too much crap…yet he does nothing to actually correct this. He and Cap bickered like an old married couple.
- While the Scarlet Witch was written not as ineffectively as Jan was in these early issues, Wanda Maximoff is still treated the way all women were written in that era. She pined for Steve 50% of the time. Also, her being a brunette back then really threw me for a loop. Her powers were not as dangerously unpredictable as they would later be written as.
- Quicksilver’s personality is the furthest from modern renditions. Pietro Maximoff is not quite a pompous ass yet. The one trait that does carry over to modern times is him being overprotective of his sister, Wanda. His personality, for the most part, is just him shouting “don’t talk to my sister that way!”. One minor facet that I never knew existed was both Maximoffs having a fondness for show business. Pietro, especially, took a liking to daredevils and high wire acts in the circus. In battle, he was quite effective, although he used the “tie people up in cloaks/curtains/blankets shtick as his offense…a lot.
While the team still took on “foes that no single hero could withstand” in several of these stories, there was a noticeable pulling back of the power levels of foes to coincide with the lesser powered roster.
- The Swordsman appears in issues 19-20. This is where we get our first glimpses into Hawkeye’s past as Swordsman’s protégé and Clint getting pulled into a life of crime due to his mentor’s actions
- Power Man (Erik Josten) in issues 21-22 makes three times (along with Wonder Man and Swordsman) in less than two years that the “villain pretending to be a hero” shtick was used against the Avengers.
- The Keeper of the Flame (issue #31) was a change of pace in that we hadn’t seen any sort of cult leader in the book as of yet. Their eternal flame was powered by cobalt. Cobalt is treated like plutonium in this issue in that they treated it like it could destroy the entire planet. The Avengers figured both sides of this ancient conflict over ownership of the flame pose equal danger to the globe, so they snuffed out the flame. This felt like the “ending of Rocky IV” level of tone-deaf in the slightest and “violating the Prime Directive” at the worst.
- In issue 32, the hate group, known as the Sons of the Serpent, shows up and viciously attacks a random Latinx bystander. One would think that the concept would feel dated…the last few years have proven that, sadly, they’re still relevant.
This period also is the starting point for several familiar faces in the annals of Avengers history, to make their appearance. It was good to see Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne again (issues 26-28). Hank now refers to himself as Goliath. A fun fact I never knew is that Wanda designed and created his blue and yellow Goliath costume. Jan seemed much less flighty, but within the span of six issues she was captured and imprisoned three times, then is knocked out cold after falling out of a tree, ugggh. Hank’s size-changing has caused health concerns and at one point, he gets stuck at ten feet tall, with no way to shrink or grow without fatal results. To assist him in research towards a cure, Tony Stark refers him to one of the most brilliant bio-chemists on the planet, Bill Foster, who would one day become Goliath. Foster was attacked just down the block from Pym’s house by the Serpents in issue 32. Pym went into a full-on rage and canceled all experiments so he could make sure the Avengers made the Serpents a top priority. Not saying there’s anything wrong with Pym, more so than any of the other Avengers, taking umbrage with racially motivated hate crimes and wanting to plant his foot up the asses of those responsible, but I was surprised how “woke” he was. To get more intel on the Serpents, Steve reached out to Nick Fury. Having not read anything with the O.G. Fury in almost a decade I realized how much I missed him. This also marked his first appearance in an Avengers comic. Of course a barber shop is a front for a SHIELD base. This felt oddly on point for a 60s spy organization. Unbeknownst to the Serpents, one of their recruitment meetings has been infiltrated by the Black Widow. It would seem that her road to redemption began here. What also began here was an unsavory pattern.
Issue 18 saw the team go toe-to-toe with the mammoth cyborg dictator known as the Commissar…a bad East Asian stereotype. Issues 32 and 33 revealed that the mastermind behind the Sons of the Serpent was actually a Communist General…who was a bad East Asian stereotype. Issues 34 and 35 revealed that Living Laser had hired himself out to those looking to stage a coup in the fake Latin American country of Costa Verde. Guess what, they were bad Mexican stereotypes. I had to facepalm at a lot of this. I’m hoping that there’s not too much more casual racism masked as patriotism in these early years because that will severely hamper my reading experience.
One thing that stood out more than anything was the different inkers that worked with artist Don Heck. In all of my years of reading comics, I’ve never seen an art style change so drastically with the changing of an inker on a book, until now. The legendary Wally Wood brought a level of intricate detail to the layouts yet unseen during Heck’s run. Shifting to John Romita inks was fun as he was a master of highlighting the character’s acting and emotion. Frankie Ray’s inks were not as detailed as Wally Wood’s but still got the point of Heck’s pencils across, which were probably in their purest form here. The style then drastically shifted when Frank Giacoia did the inks, giving the book an almost “romance comic” vibe. All of these craftsmen were highly talented. I just never knew an inker alone could change the look of a comic to this degree.
I’m very excited to get to the next leg of this journey, the Roy Thomas era of the book. It’s here where new members of the team begin coming in fast and furiously. Hope you’ll return for the coming of Hercules, Black Panther and several others. Until next time, AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!