Guest contributor Gene Selassie is back with his latest retrospective of Marvel‘s The Avengers. He started at the beginning and he’s back discussing issues #57 to #71!
‘Tis that time once again. I continue to expound on my re-reading of every issue of The Avengers from the beginning. In these issues, we see drastic character shifts, bringing out deeper turmoil within several members of the team, new and old. Additionally, we step into the world of hard sci-fi, the occult, and the cosmic. Moreover, the presence of the big three and the other Avengers, weave in and out of the book depending on what’s going on elsewhere in the Marvel universe. Finally, several hands guided the look of the visuals in noteworthy ways during these issues. Let’s explore this leg of the journey.
Throughout these issues, we see that the Avengers are incredibly flawed individuals, who have to fight inner demons almost regularly.
- Issue 57 marks the first appearance of the synthezoid Vision, who startles Jan in her apartment. Hank arrives back at the scene with Vision unconscious. He’s brought to Avengers mansion where he then attacks the team and states that he has to kill them. I’ve always loved Vision’s power set. His solar energy blasts and ability to change his density, from ghost-like intangibility to diamond hardness, is one of the more unique power sets within Marvel. Vision randomly stops attacking and states that he can’t remember why he went after them in the first place. It was all a ruse for Ultron to lure the team to his base for him to kill them all. Vision’s poignant line of “I have human thoughts…human memories! Why, Ultron-5? Who…or what…am I?” leads me to believe that the Wonder Man brain engrams concept was intended from inception and not an idea that came along much later. Hank Pym seems to have no memory of the robotic menace. He starts putting together the pieces of why he can’t remember his own android project that he was working on a few short months earlier. Hank uses a device to jog his memory. The flashbacks show his hair being red instead of blonde, possibly a coloring error. He remembers that he created a crude robotic life form. Its first words take this from sci-fi nearly into horror territory; “No need to plug me in, Daddy. I’m alive…just like you.” It then attacked Hank and, using a post-hypnotic suggestion, made Hank forget the entire thing.
- Issue 59 heralds the debut of Yellowjacket; a very arrogant costumed hero, who can fly and fire electric stingers. He busts up a group of thieves and rubs the police the wrong way when they round up the thieves. Later in the story, to prove to the Avengers how badass he is, he sneaks into the mansion undetected and ties up Jarvis, right under their noses. He overhears them talk about Hank being late. He then says “I know he won’t show because I polished him off”. This makes Jan faint. The sooner that Jan is written by Roger Stern, the better. Yellowjacket tells the story of how he snuck into Hank’s lab and they fought (even though today, we know that Yellowjacket was another costumed identity of Hank’s). This happening so soon after Ultron tinkering with Hank’s memories, it’s hard to say the incidents are not related. Jan is…wait for it…abducted by Yellowjacket and they flee. At his hideout, Yellowjacket pretty much forces himself on Jan until something in him flips and he stops. Once the Avengers find them, Jan stops the team from attacking him. She lets them know that she intends to marry him. Jan really is an awful human being for keeping the Avengers in the dark about who Yellowjacket truly was until after the wedding. She lied about Hank AND took advantage of someone who was clearly having a mental breakdown. It served them right that the Circus of Crime attacked during the wedding.
- Issue 62 is the official transitioning of the title to “The Mighty Avengers”. It also sees the team brought to the innermost sanctum of Wakanda for the first time by the Black Panther. Nonetheless, they stumble into an attempted coup by temporary chieftain and apparent friend of T’Challa’s, turned rival, M’Baku: the Man-Ape. I’ve never been fond of a Black character dressed up in a literal monkey suit. Thank goodness the Black Panther movie redeemed that character in my eyes. M’Baku used a weird elixir to render the team unconscious. I don’t know how that would even have worked on Vision. Panther is challenged by M’Baku for the throne and by ancient tribal law, T’Challa must answer the challenge. The fight was intense. Every time T’Challa gained the upper hand, M’Baku would combine his raw inhuman strength with dirty heel tactics that would make Ric Flair blush. The Avengers awaken from their slumber (Hawkeye sans pants thanks to a coloring error. Or was it?) and intercept them. In the end, M’Baku was crushed by his own death trap that he laid out for the Panther.
- In issue 63, Nick Fury asks the Avengers to assist Black Widow, who was on an undercover assignment in the Caribbean but has gone dark. Hawkeye is becoming quite grating with the constant picking fights for no reason and non-stop “I wonder where Natasha is” pondering. Panther, who is the chairperson this month, feels with the incident earlier where Hawkeye’s bowstring snapped at the worst possible time, plus him being so distracted by Natasha’s welfare, that he may be a liability in the field so he’s asked to stay behind. Widow sends a message to Hawkeye that she’s really trapped somewhere in New York. Clint decides to abscond with Hank’s new and improved Pym Particle formula and an experimental new costume. He becomes the new Goliath. I had to chuckle at Hawkeye testing experimental drugs while he delivers the line “And this serum of his will never replace the Coke break.” On a more serious note, Clint never showed any self-esteem issues prior to Roy Thomas’ run. On the contrary, going back through Thomas’ issues, it was seeded ever so subtly throughout. Widow was abducted by one of Hank’s more annoying foes, the mad scientist known as Egghead (working in concert with the Puppet Master and the Mad Thinker). Egghead is the one who sent the false message from Fury, sending the Avengers off on a wild goose chase. When Hawkeye arrives, they are greeted by the newest creation of the three geniuses, a gargantuan android monster. Of course, in the creature’s hand is a captive Black Widow, screaming for help. It’s 1969 and this is still occurring. #FacePalm. The frustration of Natasha vacillating between dark character with a past that will cross lines that the Avengers won’t to get the job done and helpless damsel in distress is wearing thin. Hawkeye’s brawn kept the creature at bay long enough for his skill (and tactics learned from Captain America and from Hank) to prove enough to outwit and defeat the creature.
While these dramatic elements played out on the small stage, the larger canvas used as backdrop shifted in fascinating ways.
- Issue 61 features a guest appearance by the Master of the Mystic Arts, Doctor Strange. This was 1969 and during this period Stephen wore a mask, which I found peculiar. He and Black Knight were on an adventure in Dr. Strange issue 178, battling the Sons of Satannish. One of the villains attempted to blast Strange, but Dane jumped in front of the blast, putting him into a coma. Strange was forced to perform surgery on Dane, shaky hands at all. Luckily, it was a success. The team split up to stop the menace of the curse of fire and ice. T’Challa and Vision took off in an early model Quinjet, the first one to appear in the book. The curse actually turned out to be the frost Giant, Ymir, rampaging through the outskirts of Wakanda and the fire demon, Surtur, destroying Antarctica. While the Avengers kept their epic foes from causing too much collateral damage, Strange was finally able to concoct a spell, displacing them and forcing the two entities to strike each other, then they simply vanished.
- Issue 66 is the first time we see adamantium in a Marvel comic book. The Avengers, including the returned Thor and Iron Man, are brought in by SHIELD to help test its durability. Iron Man’s secret identity is still unbeknownst to the team. Vision fell victim to a subroutine that was planted in his brain, a subroutine with orders to recreate Ultron. He steals the adamantium, then attacks his teammates. He creates Ultron-6, who is damn near invincible. Thor was quite the tactician and leader. He was great at this in solo or team settings back then. This runs contradictory to modern times, where Thor is nearly unmatched as a tactician and warrior in solo settings, but in team books he seems to get slammed around by the newest villain du jour, just to show how dangerous they are. Hank devises a plan, requiring some borrowed vibranium from the Black Panther, who was on leave to help repel an invasion in Wakanda. It also required going to the U.N., disguised as MacClain to bait their enemy. Ultron used a device tried to read “MacClain’s” mind, to learn the secrets of adamantium. However, Hank also had himself hypnotized to only have one phrase repeated in his mind, “Thou shalt not kill”. A convoluted plan, but one that worked and short-circuited Ultron. Nevertheless, a failsafe kicked in, activating a nuclear device within Ultron. The vibranium Hank asked for was formed into a dome to contain Ultron and the blast.
- Issue 69 shows the team going to visit Tony Stark, who’s in a coma at the hospital due to the events of Iron Man issue 19. Thor and Captain America also return to check on him. Underneath Tony’s bed, Jan finds what she believes to be a doll. She tosses it in the trash, but the impact causes it to grow. This is Kang’s automaton known as the Growing Man, who grows larger and more powerful with each impact delivered to it. Once they figure out who it is, Thor stops the team from further attacking it. He knows what it is due to their confrontation back in Thor issue 140. Once again, Thor shows that he’s nearly Captain America’s equal from a strategic standpoint. Growing Man abducts the comatose Stark and flees with him. Tony and the other Avengers (even Black Panther who was in distant Wakanda) were whisked away to the future. Kang brought them there because his love, Princess Ravonna, was also comatose and on the brink of death. He bargained for a way to save her life with the newly debuting Grandmaster, one of the powerful cosmic Elders of the Universe. He offered Kang a deal, a game of sorts, where if the conqueror were victorious, Ravonna’s life would be spared. If he lost, Earth would be erased from existence. Kang brought the Avengers to help him against the Grandmaster. The Avengers agree to help, so Kang returns Stark back to his time and to the hospital. The number of times that Kang has fought with the Avengers, as much as against them, I don’t see how anyone could give any other opponent the top Avengers villain slot but Kang. Issues 70-71 show that Kang used the Avengers as his “chess pieces” in this game. The Grandmaster created duplicates of a super hero team from an alternate Earth and dubbed them the Squadron Sinister. They would predate the heroes they were based on by about a year or two. Iron Man returns to aid his fellow Avengers, somehow fully healed. During the battle, I kept hearing the character voices in my head, Phil Lamarr as Doctor Spectrum, Tim Daly as Hyperion, Kevin Conroy as Nighthawk, and Michael Rosenbaum as the Whizzer. It was my hope that, had there ever been a season three of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, that the Squadron Supreme would’ve been voiced by the animated Justice League cast. Cap’s battle with the cunning Nighthawk was interesting, as was Iron Man’s outsmarting of Doctor Spectrum. I eagerly awaited the smackdown that Thor versus Hyperion would provide, until the weird ending. Once again, Mjolnir has a new power every issue. This time, Thor had his hammer spin around Hyperion at lightning speed and Mjolnir reversed the atomic process that birthed Hyperion and gave him his powers. Goliath and Whizzer’s fight was in London, where the Black Knight took notice and interfered, causing both combatants to be whisked away to the future, leaving Black Knight befuddled and without his Ebony Sword that Goliath swiped from him to stop him from interfering.
- In issue 71, Black Knight uses a mystic cauldron to speak to his ancestor, the first Black Knight, who relays the info about Kang and the Grandmaster. Somehow when he concentrates, Dane is pulled across time and space to reunite with his missing blade. WTF? While the first Avengers squad fought the analogues for the top heroes of the Distinguished Competition, Yellowjacket, Black Panther and Vision were taken back in time to World War II where they faced the Allied heroes of WWII, The Invaders (The android Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and a younger Captain America). I wasn’t aware that the concept of The Invaders was a retcon until now. The only importance of Jan in all of this was to be rescued by Black Knight…Ugggh. The team outsmarted the Invaders. Yet Grandmaster said the first battle was a stalemate, even though the Avengers won 3 of the 4 battles? I didn’t get that. Dane freed the rest of the team and they all converged on Kang, willing to call a truce if Kang just sends them back to their time. Kang double crosses them and asks for the power over life and death to kill the Avengers AND resurrect Ravonna. Grandmaster tells him that wasn’t the deal. It’s either power of life to revive Ravonna, or the power of death to eliminate the Avengers. From Kang’s own mouth, “Then Ravonna must wait…wait until my own genius can resurrect her. For I choose the power of DEATH TO THE AVENGERS!” What. A. Dick. When Kang attacks them with awesome cosmic power, Black Knight remains unaffected because he’s not an Avenger. He strikes Kang, as he does all opponents, with the flat of his blade…which gets very tiresome. I understand these are kids books, but for Pete’s sake. I now see why he was given his energy sword in the 90s. Grandmaster returns the Avengers to their own time. The team all agrees unanimously that the Black Knight should be added to their ranks. He agrees to join, but on a reserve basis, as he’s needed in London.
This is not a team of soulless automatons, not even the Vision. Many of them have lives and responsibilities outside of the Avengers. I appreciate the big three of Captain America, Iron Man and Thor not being in the book all the time, as it seemed there was more care put into making sure events in the books lined up back then. Nowadays, it doesn’t seem like that’s done and post-2012 Avengers film, some permutation of the big three must be in the book at all times. It is very refreshing to take a look back at this era.
There were only a few instances of artistic adjustments this go round. Issues 66-67 feature pencils from the iconic Barry Windsor-Smith. While he was obviously channeling Kirby here, his layouts and unique design choices made him stand out like very few artists of the time did. Page 13 of issue 66 had the most inventive splash page and interspersed panels I’ve seen since starting this re-read. Conversely, issue 68 featured the great Sal Buscema on art duties. The acting and facial expressions were as detailed and emotive as his older brother, John’s, if not, more so.
When next we meet, we shall discuss old rivals that return, new relationships that develop and dramatic seeds planted earlier that bloom in the final stretch before the first major event story for Earth’s mightiest heroes, the Kree-Skrull War. Until next time, AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!