Avengers Epic Collection: Once an Avenger…

By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9582-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Matchless Marvel Mayhem and Melodrama… 8/10

One of the most momentous events in Marvel Comics history came in the middle of 1963 when a disparate array of individual heroes banded together to combat an apparently out of control Incredible Hulk.

The Avengers combined most of the company’s fledgling superhero line in one bright, shiny and highly commercial package. Over the decades the roster has unceasingly changed, and now almost every character in their universe has at some time numbered amongst their colourful ranks…

The Avengers always proved that putting all one’s star eggs in on single basket can pay off big-time. Even when all Marvel all-stars such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man are absent, it merely allows always the lesser lights of the team to shine more brightly.

Of course, the founding stars regularly featured due to the rotating, open door policy which meant that most issues included somebody’s fave-rave. The increasingly bold and impressive stories and artwork were no hindrance either.

After Lee moved on, the team was left in the capable hands of Roy Thomas who grew into one of the industry’s most impressive writers, guiding the World’s Mightiest Heroes through a range of adventures ranging from sublimely poetic to staggeringly epic…

This compilation – available in hardcover, paperback and eBook iterations – collects Avengers #21-40 from October 1965 to May 1967.

With this second collection the team – consisting of Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver and his sister the Scarlet Witch – was already a firm fan-favourite with close attention to melodrama sub-plots, leavening the action through compelling soap-opera elements that kept readers riveted.

After debuting insidious infiltrator Swordsman in the previous volume, writer Stan Lee and illustrators Don Heck & Wally Wood – without pausing for creative breath – launched another soon -to-be big name villain in the form of Power Man. ‘The Bitter Dregs of Defeat!’ (Avengers #21) depicted his creation and the diabolical plan hatched with the evil Asgardian witch the Enchantress to discredit and replace the quarrelsome quartet. The scheme was only narrowly foiled in the concluding ‘The Road Back.’

An epic 2-part tale follows as the team is shanghaied into the far-future to battle against and eventually with Kang the Conqueror. ‘Once an Avenger…’ (Avengers #23, December 1965 and, incidentally, my vote for the best cover Jack Kirby ever drew) is inked by the wonderful John Romita (senior), pitting the heroes against an army of fearsome future men, with the yarn explosively and tragically ending in From the Ashes of Defeat!’ by Lee, Heck & inker Dick Ayers.

The still-learning team then face their greatest test yet after they are captured by the deadliest man alive in #25’s ‘Enter… Dr. Doom!’ and forced to fight their way out of the tyrant’s kingdom of Latveria.

Since change is ever the watchword for this series, the next two issues combined a threat to drown the world from subsea barbarian Attuma with the return of some old comrades. ‘The Voice of the Wasp!’ and ‘Four Against the Floodtide!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia as the pseudonymous Frank Ray) is a superlative action-romp but is merely a prelude to the main event – issue #28’s return of founding Avenger Giant-Man in a new guise as ‘Among us Walks a Goliath!’ This instant classic introduced the villainous and ultimately immortally alien Collector whilst extending the company’s pet theme of alienation by tragically trapping the size-changing hero at a freakish ten-foot height, seemingly forever…

As Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch bow out and return to Europe to reinvigorate their fading powers Avengers #29 features ‘This Power Unleashed!’ and brings back Hawkeye’s lost love Black Widow as a brainwashed Soviet agent attempting to destroy the team.

She recruits old foes Power Man and Swordsman as cannon-fodder but is foiled by her own incompletely submerged feeling for Hawkeye, after which ‘Frenzy in a Far-Off Land!’ sees dispirited colossus Henry Pym embroiled in a futuristic civil war amongst a lost south American civilisation. The conclusion threatened to end in global incineration in the ludicrously titled yet satisfyingly thrilling ‘Never Bug a Giant!’

The company’s crusading credentials are enhanced next as ‘The Sign of the Serpent!’ and concluding chapter ‘To Smash a Serpent!’ (Avengers#32-33, with Heck providing raw, gritty inks over his own pencils) craft a brave, socially-aware epic.

Here the heroes tackle a sinister band of organised racists in a thinly veiled allegory of the Civil Rights turmoil then gripping America. Marvel’s bold liberal stand even went so far as to introduce a new African-American character, Bill Foster, who would eventually become a superhero in his own right.

It was then back to crime-busting basics as Roy Thomas officially began his long association with the team in #34’s ‘The Living Laser!’, but second part ‘The Light that Failed!’ again assumes political overtones as the light bending super-villain allies himself with South American (and by implication, Marxist) rebels for a rollercoaster ride of thrills and spills.

The team’s international credentials are further exploited when long-missing Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver return, heralding an alien invasion of the Balkans in ‘The Ultroids Attack!’ and ‘To Conquer a Colossus!’ (Avengers #36-37). Along for the ride and a crucial factor in repelling an extraterrestrial invasion is newly cured and reformed Natasha Romanoff – the sinister, merciless Black Widow…

Thomas clearly had no problem juggling a larger roster of characters as he promptly added Olympian godling Hercules to the mix, first as a duped and drugged pawn of the Enchantress in #38’s ‘In our Midst… An Immortal’ (inked by George Roussos, nee Bell) and then as a member from the following issue onwards, when the Mad Thinker attacks during ‘The Torment… and the Triumph!’.

No prizes for guessing who was throwing the punches in #40’s ‘Suddenly… the Sub-Mariner!’ as the team battle the Lord of Atlantis for possession of a reality-warping Cosmic Cube; a riotous all-action romp to end a superb classic chronicle of furious Fights ‘n’ Tights fables.

Augmenting the narrative joys is an abundance of behind-the-scenes treasures such as original art reproductions, production-stage pencilled page photostats and a fascinating sequence of “tweaked” cover-corrections. Still more extras include Tee-shirt art-designs by Jack Kirby, Frank Giacoia & Wally Wood plus earlier Kirby and Gil Kane Avengers collection covers modified by painters Dean White & Richard Isanove.

Unceasingly enticing and always evergreen, these immortal epics are tales that defined the Marvel experience and a joy no fan should deny themselves or their kids.
© 1965, 1966, 1967, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.