By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
The concept of putting all your star eggs in one basket was not new when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby took a bunch of the new super-characters of the burgeoning Marvel Universe and combined them as a force for justice and high sales, but seldom has it ever been done with such style and sheer exuberance. Cover dated September 1963 the Avengers #1 launched as an expansion package with two other titles, Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos and the X-Men, but with the advantage of a familiar if not totally successful cast.
‘The Coming of the Avengers’ is one of the cannier origin tales in comics. Instead of starting at a zero point and acting as if the reader knew nothing, creators Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers assumed that they had a least a passing familiarity with Marvel’s other titles, and wasted very little time or energy on introductions.
In Asgard Loki, god of evil, is imprisoned on a dank islet but still craves vengeance on his half brother the Mighty Thor. Observing Earth he finds the monstrous Hulk and engineers a situation wherein the man-brute goes on a rampage, the better to trick the Thunder God into battling the monster. When the Hulk’s sidekick Rick Jones radios the Fantastic Four for assistance Loki diverts the transmission so they cannot hear it and expects his mischief to quickly blossom. However other heroes do pick up the SOS – namely Iron Man, Ant Man and the Wasp.
As the heroes converge to search for the Hulk they realize that something’s amiss…
This terse and compelling yarn is Lee and Kirby at their bombastic best, and one of the greatest stories of the Silver Age (it’s certainly high in my own top ten Marvel Tales of all time!) and is followed by ‘the Space Phantom’ by Lee, Kirby and Paul Reinman, another classic, in which an alien shape-stealer almost destroys the team from within. Ever-changing, the tale ends with the volatile Hulk quitting the team only to return in #3 as the villain in partnership with ‘Sub-Mariner!’ This globe-trotting romp delivered high energy thrills and one of the best battle scenes in comics history.
Avengers #4 was a true landmark as Marvel’s biggest sensation of the Golden Age was revived. ‘Captain America joins the Avengers!’ has everything that made the company’s early tales so fresh and vital. The majesty of a legendary warrior returned in our time of greatest need, stark tragedy in the loss of his boon companion Bucky, aliens, gangsters, Sub-Mariner and even wry social commentary – this one’s on the list too.
‘The Invasion of the Lava Men’ was another brilliant tale as the team battled superhuman subterraneans and an incredible mutating mountain with the unwilling assistance of the Hulk, but it paled before the supreme shift in quality that was #6.
Chic Stone – possibly Kirby’s best Marvel inker – joined the team just as a classic arch–foe debuted. ‘The Masters of Evil!’ called Nazi super-scientist Baron Zemo out of the South American jungles he’d been skulking in to strike at his hated foe Captain America. To this end the villain recruited a gang of super-foes to attack New York and destroy the Avengers. The unforgettable clash between our heroes and Radioactive Man, Black Knight and the Melter is unsurpassed magic to this day!
Issue #7 followed up with two more malevolent recruits as the Enchantress and the Executioner joined Zemo just as Iron Man was suspended from the team due to misconduct occurring in his own series (this was the dawn of the close continuity era where events in one series were referenced and even built upon in others). That may have been ‘Their Darkest Hour!’ but Avengers #8 held the greatest triumph and tragedy as Jack Kirby relinquished his drawing role with the superb invasion-from-time thriller that introduced ‘Kang the Conqueror’ (inked with fitting circularity by Dick Ayers).
The Avengers was an entirely different package when the subtle humanity of Don Heck’s work replaced the larger-than-life bravura of Kirby. The series had rapidly advanced to monthly circulation and even The King could not draw the huge number of pages his workload demanded. Heck was a gifted and trusted artist with a formidable record for meeting deadlines and, under his pencil, sub-plots and character interplay finally got as much space as action and spectacle.
His first outing was the memorable tragedy ‘The Coming of the Wonder Man!’ (inked by Ayers) wherein the Masters of Evil planted a superhuman Trojan Horse within the ranks of the heroes and next issue the master of time Immortus was responsible when ‘The Avengers Break Up!’
After a glorious Kirby Captain America pin-up the wonderment herein contained continues with #11 with ‘The Mighty Avengers Meet Spider-Man!’, a tale inked by Chic Stone and featuring the return of Kang the Conqueror. Kang’s pin-up is by Heck and precedes a cracking end-of-the-world thriller with guest Fantastic Four villains Mole Man and the Red Ghost. ‘This Hostage Earth!’ is followed by a rare gangster drama that introduced another major bad-guy in #13’s ‘The Castle of Count Nefaria!’– ending on a tragic cliffhanger as the Wasp was left gunshot and dying…
Issue #14 told how ‘Even an Avenger Can Die!’ – although of course she didn’t – in a classy alien invader tale laid out by Kirby and drawn by Heck and Stone which whetted the appetite for a classic climactic confrontation as the team finally dealt with the Masters of Evil and Cap finally laid to rest the ghost of his dead partner.
‘Now by My Hand, Shall Die a Villain!’ and the concluding episode ‘The Old Order Changeth!’ (issues #15 and 16) by Lee, Kirby, Heck, Mike Esposito and Ayers changed the set-up completely as all the big names were replaced by three erstwhile villains: Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Led by the old war-horse Captain America, this relatively powerless group with no outside titles to divide the attention could become another squabbling family of neuroses and sub-plots; a formula that readers of the time could not get enough of.
Acting on advice from the departing Iron Man the neophytes seek to recruit the Hulk to add some raw power to the team, only to encounter the Mole Man in #17’s ‘Four Against the Minotaur!’ by Lee, Heck and Ayers, and fall foul of a dastardly “commie” plot ‘When the Commissar Commands!’ These less than stellar tales are followed by an ever-improving run of mini-masterpieces that begins with a two part gem that provides an origin for Hawkeye and introduces a favourite hero/villain.
‘The Coming of the Swordsman!’ by the regular team of Lee, Heck and Ayers is followed by the superb ‘Vengeance is Ours!’ inked by the one-and-only Wally Wood and featuring the Avengers debut of another unforgettable mastermind.
Without pausing for creative breath, #21 launched another big-name villain in the form of Power Man in ‘The Bitter Dregs of Defeat!’ whose diabolical plan with the evil Enchantress was only narrowly foiled in the concluding ‘The Road Back.’
A two part Kang tale follows as the team is shanghaied into the far-future to battle against and with the Master of Time. Avengers #23 (incidentally, my vote for the best cover Jack Kirby ever drew) ‘Once an Avenger…’ is inked by the wonderful John Romita (senior) and the yarn and this volume concludes with the epic ‘From the Ashes of Defeat!’ by Lee, Heck and Ayers.
Page for page this is one of the best comicbook compilations ever produced. Riveting tales of action and adventure, a charismatic blend of established and new characters and some of the best illustrated narrative in Marvel’s history makes this economical black and white tome one of the best comics collections you could ever buy. So why don’t you?
© 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.