By Stan Lee, Don Heck, Dick Ayers & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-595-7 second edition: 978-0-7851-1178-8
Whenever Jack Kirby left a title he’d co-created it took a little while to settle into a new rhythm, and none more so than the collectivised champions called the Avengers. Although writer Stan Lee and the marvellously utilitarian Don Heck were perfectly capable of producing cracking comics entertainments, they never had The King’s unceasing sense of panoramic scope and vast scale which constantly searched for bigger, bolder blasts of excitement. After Kirby, the tales concentrated on human beings in costume, not wild new gods bestriding the Earth…
The wonderment herein contained (covering issues #11-20, December 1964 – September 1965) begins with ‘The Mighty Avengers Meet Spider-Man!’, a clever cross-over tale inked by Chic Stone and featuring the return of time-bending tyrant Kang the Conqueror who attempted to destroy the team by insinuating a robotic duplicate within their serried ranks, which precedes a cracking end-of-the-world thriller with guest Fantastic Four villains Mole Man and the Red Ghost.
‘This Hostage Earth!’ (inked by Dick Ayers) was a welcome return to grand adventure with lesser lights Giant-Man and the Wasp taking rare lead roles, followed by a rousing gangster thriller of a sort seldom seen outside the pages of Spider-Man or Daredevil, which introduced Marvel universe Mafia analogue The Maggia and another major bad-guy in #13’s ‘The Castle of Count Nefaria!’
That caper ended on a tragic cliffhanger as the Wasp was left gunshot and dying, leading to a high-point in melodramatic tension in #14 (scripted by Paul Laiken & Larry Lieber over Stan’s plot) as the shattered team of heroes scoured the globe for the only surgeon who could save her.
‘Even Avengers Can Die!’ – although of course she didn’t – resolved into a classy alien invader tale with overtones of This Island Earth as Kirby returned to lay out the epic for Heck & Stone to illustrate, which only whetted the appetite for a classic climactic confrontation as the costumed champions finally dealt with the Masters of Evil and Captain America finally avenged the death of his dead partner Bucky.
‘Now, by My Hand, Shall Die a Villain!’ in #15 (laid-out by Kirby, pencilled by Heck with inks by Mike Esposito) featured Captain America and Baron Zemo in one final, fatal confrontation in the heart of the Amazon jungle, whilst the other Avengers and Zemo’s army of masked menaces clashed once more on the streets of New York…
The battle ended in the concluding episode ‘The Old Order Changeth!’ (again visually broken down by Kirby before being finished by Ayers) which presaged a dramatic change in concept for the series; presumably because as Lee increasingly wrote to the company’s unique strengths – tight continuity and strongly individualistic characterisation – he discovered that juggling individual stars in their own titles as well as a combined team episode every month was just incompatible if not impossible.
As Cap and teen sidekick Rick Jones fought their way back to civilisation, the Avengers set-up changed completely with big name stars replaced by three erstwhile villains: Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.
Eventually, led by perennial old soldier Captain America, this relatively powerless group with no outside titles to divide the attention (the Sentinel of Liberty did have a regular feature in Tales of Suspense but it was at that time recounting adventures set during the hero’s WWII career), evolved into another squabbling family of neuroses, extended sub-plots and constant action as valiant underdogs; a formula readers of the time could not get enough of.
Acting on advice from the departing Iron Man the neophytes sought to recruit the Hulk to add raw power to the team, only to be sidetracked by the malevolent Mole Man in #17’s ‘Four Against the Minotaur!’ (Lee, Heck & Ayers), after which they then fell foul of a dastardly “commie” plot ‘When the Commissar Commands!’
This brace of rather run-of-the-mill tales was followed by an ever-improving run of mini-masterpieces which began with a two part gem that provides an origin for Hawkeye and introduces a favourite hero/villain to close this sturdy, full-colour hardback compendium.
‘The Coming of the Swordsman!’ featured a dissolute and disreputable swashbuckler – with just a hint of deeply-buried nobility – who attempted to force his way into the highly respectable team, before becoming an unwilling pawn of a far greater menace – the Mandarin – and was closely followed by the superb ‘Vengeance is Ours!’ inked by the one-and-only Wally Wood wherein the constantly-bickering Avengers finally pulled together as a supernaturally efficient, all-conquering super-team.
These immortal epics are available in numerous formats (including softcover editions of the luxurious and enticing item under review here), but for a selection that will survive the continual re-readings of the delirious, incurable fan nothing beats these substantially lavish and colourful Marvellous Masterwork hardbacks.
After all, if you’re going to enjoy the exploits of Earth’s Mightiest Super-Heroes surely you want to do it in appropriate style?
© 1964, 1965, 1989, 2004 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.