Avengers Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Chic Stone & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-0883-2 (HC)                    978-0 7851 3706 1 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Timeless Classics to Enjoy Forever … 10/10

After a period of meteoric expansion, in 1963 the burgeoning Marvel Universe was finally ready to emulate the successful DC concept that cemented the legitimacy of the Silver Age of American comics.

The concept of putting a bunch of all-star eggs in one basket which had made the Justice League of America such a winner had inspired the moribund Atlas outfit – primarily Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko – into inventing “super-characters” of their own. The result in 1961 was the Fantastic Four.

Nearly 18 months later the fledgling House of Ideas had a viable stable of leading men (but only sidekick women) so Lee & Kirby assembled a handful of them and moulded them into a force for justice and soaring sales…

Seldom has it ever been done with such style and sheer exuberance. Cover dated September 1963, The Avengers #1 launched as part of an expansion package which also included Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos and The X-Men

Marvel’s Masterwork’s collections – available in hardcover, paperback and digital formats – are only one of many series faithfully compiling those groundbreaking tales and this premier volume gathers #1-10 of The Avengers spanning March 1963 to November 1964: a sequence no lover of superhero stories can do without…

Following an introduction from Stan the Man himself, the suspenseful action kicks off with ‘The Coming of the Avengers’: one of the cannier origin tales in comics. Instead of starting at a zero point and acting as if the reader knew nothing, Stan & Jack (plus inker Dick Ayers) assumed readers had at least a passing familiarity with Marvel’s other titles and wasted very little time or energy on introductions.

In Asgard, Loki is imprisoned on a dank isle, hungry for vengeance on his half-brother Thor. Observing Earth, the god of evil espies the monstrous, misunderstood Hulk and mystically engineers a situation wherein the man-brute seemingly goes on a rampage, simply to trick the Thunder God into battling the monster.

When the Hulk’s sidekick Rick Jones radios the Fantastic Four for assistance, devious Loki diverts the transmission and smugly awaits the blossoming of his mischief. Sadly, Iron Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp also pick up the redirected SOS….

As the heroes converge in the American Southwest to search for the Jade Giant, they soon realize that something is oddly amiss…

This terse, epic, compelling and wide-ranging yarn (New York, New Mexico, Detroit and Asgard in 22 pages) is Lee & 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) and is followed by ‘The Space Phantom’ (Lee, Kirby & Paul Reinman), wherein an alien shape-stealer almost destroys the team from within.

With latent animosities exposed by the malignant masquerader, the tale ends with the volatile Hulk quitting the team in disgust, only to return in #3 as an outright villain in partnership with ‘Sub-Mariner!’

This globe-trotting romp delivers high-energy thrills and one of the best battle scenes in comics history as the assorted titans clashed in abandoned World War II tunnels beneath the Rock of Gibraltar.

Inked by George Roussos Avengers #4 was an epic landmark as Marvel’s greatest Golden Age sensation was revived for another increasingly war-torn era. ‘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 subtle social commentary and – naturally – vast amounts of staggering Kirby Action.

Reinman returned to ink ‘The Invasion of the Lava Men!’: another staggering adventure romp as the team battle superhuman subterraneans and a world-threatening mutating mountain with the unwilling assistance of the Hulk…

However, even that pales before the supreme shift in quality that was Avengers #6.

Chic Stone – arguably Kirby’s best Marvel inker of the period – joined the creative team just as a classic arch-foe debuts. ‘The Masters of Evil!’ reveals how Nazi super-scientist Baron Zemo is forced by his own arrogance and paranoia out of the South American jungles he’s been skulking in since the Third Reich fell, after learning his hated nemesis Captain America has returned from the dead.

To this end, the ruthless war-criminal recruits a gang of super-villains to attack New York City and destroy the Avengers. The unforgettable clash between valiant heroes and the vile murdering mercenaries Radioactive Man, Black Knight and the Melter is an unsurpassed example of prime Marvel magic to this day.

Issue #7 followed up with two more malevolent recruits for the Masters of Evil as Asgardian outcasts Enchantress and the Executioner ally with Zemo just as Iron Man is suspended from the team due to misconduct occurring in his own series (this was the dawning of the close-continuity era where events in one series were referenced and even built upon in others)…

It may have been ‘Their Darkest Hour!’ but Avengers #8 held the greatest triumph and tragedy as Jack Kirby (inked with fitting circularity by Dick Ayers) relinquished his drawing role with the superb and entrancing invasion-from-time thriller which introduced ‘Kang the Conqueror!’

The Avengers evolved into an entirely different series when the subtle humanity of Don Heck’s work replaced the larger-than-life bombastic bravura of Kirby. The series had rapidly advanced to monthly circulation and even The King could not draw the massive number of pages his expanding workload demanded.

Heck was a gifted and trusted artist with a formidable record for meeting deadlines and, progressing 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 plant superhuman Trojan Horse Simon Williams within the ranks of the Avengers, only to have the conflicted infiltrator find deathbed redemption amongst the heroes…

This glorious collection concludes with the introduction of malignant master of time Immortus who briefly combines with Zemo’s devilish cohort to engineer a fatal division in the ranks when ‘The Avengers Break Up!’

Accompanied by a Marvel Masterwork Pin-Up of ‘The One and Only Cap’ the bonus features in this titanic tome include September 1963 house ads for the imminently debuting Avengers, a previous Kirby Masterworks cover colourised by painter Dean White, original cover art for Avenger #4 and Alex Ross’s recreation of it for the 1999 Overstreet Guide to Comics plus the usual round of Creator Biographies.

These immortal epics are tales that defined the Marvel experience and a joy no fan should deny themselves or their kids.
© 1963, 1964, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.