Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: An Avengers Retrospective Part 3: In Battle Joined (Issues #36-56)
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 #36 to #56!
In this third installment of my deep dive, reading every single issue of The Avengers from the beginning, what we know as staples of Avengers lore are introduced in these issues. Some of these staples greatly enhance the reading experience, while others detracted more than I remembered them to. Legendary writer and artist team of Roy Thomas and John Buscema begin their iconic run on the title. Many new heroes, that would go on to become perennial mainstays of the roster, make their first appearance in the book during these issues. Past relationships and connections come back to haunt a few of the protagonists. Story elements that played out in classic Avengers stories decades later are seeded in these issues. Continuity becomes a double-edged sword during this run, potentially splitting the audience into “love it” or “hate it” camps.
Roy Thomas took over as writer with issue #36. With the constant in-fighting (now between Goliath and Hawkeye over Clint’s insistence that Black Widow be granted membership status) and the hyperbole used in the narration (ex: “Thus it is that, less than sixty seconds later, twin engines of a highly complex design burst into ear-shattering life and zoom with blinding, supersonic speed into the sub-stratosphere, as all passengers fervently hope they will not be too late!”) meant that the transition in scripting from Stan Lee to Roy Thomas was as smooth as possible. Issue #41 heralded the debut of the legendary John Buscema as penciler. His layouts were a bit splashier than what we’ve previously seen. Nevertheless, with George Bell remaining as the inker, making the characters look roughly the same, the transition from Don Heck to John Buscema was not too jarring. Fill in issues by Don Heck were still welcome, as was a one-off by George Tuska, whose level of intricate detail was only rivaled years later by George Perez.
I waited with bated breath to see new members, one by one, added to the ranks of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes:
- Black Widow accompanies the team, in issues #36-37, to rescue Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver from an alien threat, the Ultroids, near their village in the Balkans. Natasha turns out to be the ace up the heroes’ sleeve that they desperately needed. The Avengers, sticking to their moral code, prevented them from doing what was necessary to defeat Ixar. On the contrary, Black Widow had no such compunctions. Days after this adventure, as Widow rushes to Avengers mansion for a meeting to discuss her membership, she is abducted. However, it is not by enemies. Nick Fury, Director of SHIELD recruits her for a secret mission overseas, a mission that must remain secret from even Hawkeye and the other Avengers. When Widow recovers in the hospital after this mission and explains how the government lied about her husband’s death and duped her into training (even though they did the same thing to him), there was no mention of the infamous “Red Room” training that we know in the modern age.
- Hercules makes his Avengers debut in issue #38. The Prince of Power is locked in combat against the God of War, Ares, due to events from Thor issue #129. The Enchantress shows up to convince them to squash their beef and offers alcoholic beverages to both. In reality, she’s working with Ares. Hercules’ drink is spiked with a love potion, making him do Amora’s bidding. Ares gets to tell Zeus of this forbidden passion, making Hercules a pariah in Olympus, while Enchantress gets to use her unwitting slave against the Avengers. During their fight, the potion wears off and Hercules helps the team fend off the Asgardian and Olympian. Due to the perceived forbidden affair, Hercules is then banished from his home in Olympus. The Avengers take him in as less of a member and more of a house guest who helps them whenever he deems fit.
- Edwin Jarvis, the butler of the Stark family and for the Avengers, makes his first Avengers appearance in issue #38. He’s not given much of a personality until further down the road in issue #54, where he hides a deadly secret from the Avengers; he’s sold the new mansion security specs to the Crimson Cowl in exchange for a large sum of money he desperately needed. Cowl, of course, reneges on the deal.
- The Sub-Mariner returns in issue #40. A nuclear sub tests weapons near his kingdom, which Namor doesn’t take too kindly to. He attacks the island base from where it came from, only to encounter the Avengers. Page 15…Hercules vs. Namor…HOLY $#I^! These two beat the stuffing out of each other. I am surprised that there wasn’t a giant crater left in their wake.
- Dane Whitman, nephew of Nathan Garrett, the villainous Black Knight, debuts in issue #47. Garrett met his end against Iron Man in Tales of Suspense #73. Dane seeks to atone for his uncle’s evil actions and decides to use the science and nom de guerre of his uncle, to do good with it as the new Black Knight. He seeks out the Avengers for an alliance. Conversely, they mistake him for his uncle and get into a brawl.
- Black Panther makes a cameo, alongside Captain America (who quit the team several issues earlier) in issue #51, where Steve requests they consider T’Challa for membership. Issue #52 features the Black Panther entering Avengers mansion for the first time, in a story where he finds what appear to be the bodies of Hank, Jan, and Clint. He’s arrested by SHIELD agent Jasper Sitwell and is hauled off into police custody. I don’t know if Roy Thomas understood how tone-deaf it was to see the imagery of the first Black superhero to be featured in the Avengers comic being shackled in the back of a squad car. Of course, T’Challa escapes so he can investigate what occurred.
Several extended relationships are given more space to develop in these issues.
- Issue #43 is the first appearance of the Soviet super-soldier known as Red Guardian, who happens to be the Black Widow’s ex-husband. When Clint finds out, he grows cold and emotionless for the first time in this series. This is the second time a villain is brought into the book that Hawkeye has an obvious grudge with, but their sole motive is to prove they can best Captain America, making the rest of the Avengers look “lesser than”.
- Concurrent with this story is the arc of Tales of Suspense where Steve meets and falls for SHIELD Agent 13, aka Sharon Carter. It’s also where he’s contemplating giving up being Captain America, which didn’t quite sit well with me. I know Marvel was all about heroes with feet of clay, especially back then, but this was akin to Clark Kent no longer wanting to be Superman. I had no clue that Steve was a fan of Tolkien or fantasy novels in general, so it was cool to see that side of him.
- Hercules travels to Olympus to beseech his father, Zeus, to reconsider his exile. However, the Prince of Power finds the fabled land completely deserted. In issue #49, Hercules discovers that it is the dreaded ancient Titan known as Typhon who was responsible for what happened to the Olympians. By destroying the sacred Temple of the Promethean Flame, the immortals of Olympus just vanished. After confronting the Titan, Hercules finds himself banished to the same limbo that his people were banished to. Issue #50 sees Hank, Jan, and Clint search for Hercules, who has reunited with the Olympians. Zeus is able to send him back to Earth due to the magic holding them there not having as strong of a hold on the Prince of Power because he’s half-mortal. The team does their best to slow down Typhon, but the dude is a ten-foot-tall demigod with a battle axe that shoots lightning. Once Hercules arrives, he and Typhon have the grudge match of the ages. Whatever unidentified landmass in the Mediterranean where they brawled had to have been reduced by half. In the end, Hercules defeated him using not just brawn, but tactics taught by Captain America. He returns with Typhon to Olympus, bidding farewell to the Avengers for the time being. This leaves the roster to just Hank, Jan, and Clint…not the most powerhouse line up they’ve had.
- Issues #47-49 feature Magneto, who was exiled to a planetoid far from the Earth in X-Men #18. This is indubitably pre-Chris Claremont Magneto. He’s not a sympathetic Holocaust survivor trying to prevent the same thing from happening to mutant kind. He is cranky, megalomaniacal, and vengeful. And he is quite abusive to his lackey, Toad. I completely forgot that neither Magneto nor Quicksilver & Scarlet Witch knew they were related in those early years. Magneto demands the UN for his own nation for mutants. When they refuse and he lashes out at one of the representatives with a microphone as a weapon, Hawkeye saves him, and the most fun, yet clunky, dialogue followed; “A diamond-tipped arrow…from out of nowhere…smashing the microphone. But who?” I love superhero comics. Hawkeye landing a kick right to Magneto’s face made me think that this is likely the only time that has ever happened. The crux of Magneto’s plan was to cause one of the guard’s aim to go off wildly and accidentally shoot Wanda in the head (grazing her temple) just so it would send Pietro into a rage against the guards and the Avengers. Yeah, the “Magneto was right” crowd may want to tone it down a bit after this.
I found myself enthralled by the number of story elements that were just the nugget of an idea that played out on a larger scale some years, even decades later:
- Long before the Kree-Skrull War, you could tell that both Stan Lee and Roy Thomas had the idea percolating, of a war between two alien empires with Earth caught in the middle. The Ultroids made the second time that something like this was hinted at.
- Magneto blackmailing the United Nations into giving him his own nation was something done three decades later in an X-men storyline titled “The Magneto War”.
- Issues 54-55 bring us a new Masters of Evil, comprised of the Klaw, the Melter, Radioactive Man, Whirlwind and the new Black Knight. They’re all working for the mysterious Crimson Cowl. However, they don’t know that this Black Knight is not Nathan Garrett, but his nephew, Dane Whitman. Dane goes undercover with the group to gather intel that he can bring to the Avengers. The mission of this new incarnation of the villain group, to storm Avengers mansion and capture the team. I never knew the Masters of Evil attacked the Avengers in their home, long before the classic Siege of Avengers Mansion during Roger Stern’s run.
I am a person that loves continuity, when used the right way. When Thor or Iron Man have to leave the team due to events in their own book that month, I loved it. Realistically, the characters cannot be everywhere all the time. That era was much better with not having characters guest starring in six different books the same month “just because”. However, when a character pops into a book, carrying over from a story in another book, it gets a bit frustrating keeping up with. While the Hercules story carrying over from The Mighty Thor was explained thoroughly, Nick Fury’s subplot from Strange Tales, where he’s essentially on house arrest, Cap leaving the team due to being duped in Tales of Suspense by Swordsman and Power Man into believing Bucky was still alive, and the most egregious one, the X-men versus Magneto fight that carried over into an Avengers comic, were not given the necessary flashbacks to really flesh out these elements. In the case of the X-men one, it would’ve helped tremendously if they just made it an actual crossover with the parts 1 and 2 posted on the covers of those respective issues.
My apologies for the gargantuan length of this post, in the future, I will do my best to make sure the articles aren’t covering twenty issues worth of content. Speaking of content, when we reconvene again, we discuss several debuts (Vision, Yellowjacket, and a guest appearance by Doctor Strange) along with trips into the sci-fi, the cosmic, and even the occult. Until next time, AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!