Wednesday, 23 August 2017

A big change for Cap's Kooky Quartet

BACK IN 1965, as I was beginning my life-long association with Marvel Comics, my favourite title was The Avengers. Not the "classic" Avengers line-up of Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Wasp and The Hulk, but the smaller, less-showy group, affectionately dubbed "Cap's Kooky Quartet" by the fans.

When Iron Man, Giant-Man and The Wasp decided they needed a break - after the epic war against Zemo and his "Masters of Evil" in Avengers 15 & 16 (Apr - May 1965) - the founding Avengers recruited ex-villains Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch as replacements then departed, leaving Captain America in charge, a role that was never sought but rather thrust upon him. 

It's all smiles in the final panel of Avengers 16, but challenging times would lie ahead for Captain America and the small band of former super-villains that now made up The Avengers.
This lineup lasted for just seven adventures over 12 issues, but the drama of Captain America trying to lead the small group of strong-minded newbies was often more compelling than their battles against a diverse assortment of super-menaces. From Avengers 17 to 22  (Jun - Nov 1965), covered last time, the inexperienced team faced an increasingly powerful array of foes. With Avengers 23, the Quartet's mettle would face its sternest test ...

Kang the Conqueror had first battled the Fantastic Four, back in FF19 (Oct 1963), in the guise of the bogus Pharaoh, Rama-Tut. Though at this point "Rama-Tut" admitted he was from the 25th Century, he didn't reveal his true identity. Even in his second substantial appearance in Fantastic Four Annual 2 (on sale, 2 Jul 1964), when he rescued Dr Doom from an eternity of floating helplessly in space, the pair speculated that they were related, or possibly the same individual.

Stan has always had trouble spelling "Pharaoh" - first on the cover of Tales of Suspense 44 (Jun 1963), then on the cover of FF19 (Oct 1963). That aside, "Rama-Tut", initially claiming to be from the year 3000, may or may not be a descendant of Dr Doom - which assumes that Doom will have offspring. I just can't picture the despotic ruler of Latveria changing nappies at any point. Click image to enlarge.
It wasn't until his appearance as Kang the Conquerer in Avengers 8 (Sep 1964 - on sale, 7 Jul 1964), that the true picture began to form. After his encounter with Doom in the 20th century, "Rama-Tut" tried to return to the year 3000, but overshot and crash-landed in the year 4000. He quickly took control of this savage, desolate future and became overlord of the warring tribes. Quickly tiring of ruling these war-ravaged lands, he resolved to travel back to the 20th century and conquer a cleaner, greener world.

Despite claiming to be from the year 3000 in Fantastic Four 19 and Avengers 8, in FF Annual 2 and in his later appearances, Kang would say he was from the 25th Century. The above scans are from a later collected Avengers trade, and the original mis-spelling of "Pharoah" has been corrected.
There's a couple of small problems with this scenario. The first and most glaring error is that it's highly unlikely that Kang's ancestor/alter-ego Dr Doom would sit idly by while Kang tried to subdue a contemporary Earth. After all, ruling the world is top of Doom's bucket list. The second is it's quite extraordinary that Kang would travel back to invade our era without at least an honour guard of his future barbarians. You'd have thought his ego would have demanded it.

It proved to be his undoing as, alone, he turned out to be no match for The Avengers and, his weapons ineffective and his battlesuit in tatters, he was forced to flee back to the future. A few months later he would concoct a cockamamy plan to defeat the team in Avengers 11 (Dec 1964) with a robot of Spider-Man. Stan missed a trick here by not emphasising that robots were also a specialty of Dr Doom, thus reinforcing the link between the two, but it's just a minor niggle. What Kang needed was a far more epic vengeance plan, worthy of the character's potential.

Avengers 23 & 24 marked the third appearance of future warlord Kang the Conquerer in the title. This one features battling barbarian hordes, an imperilled princess and the three remaining Avengers fighting for their lives in the future without their leader Captain America.
All of this brings us to the return of Kang in Avengers 23 & 24 (Dec 1965 & Jan 1966). Issue 23 opens with the three remaining Avengers bickering among themselves, but mostly blaming Hawkeye for driving Captain America away. We get a quick glimpse of Cap, in his Steve Rogers identity, getting himself a job as a training partner for a boxing champion in upstate New York. But while that's going on, Kang is laying his plans to strike once again at The Avengers. Believing the team are at their most vulnerable without the leadership of Captain America, Kang decides now is the time to strike and lays a trap to abduct Hawkeye, Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch. The plan does sound a slightly odd note in that Kang doesn't remark that these Avengers have done him no personal injury. It was Thor, Iron Man and Giant-Man - along with Cap - who thwarted his plans twice before.

From the opening scene of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch blaming Hawkeye for the sudden departure of Captain America, through the fragmented battles in Kang's future stronghold to the closing scenes of Kang's barbarian hordes gathering to invade the tiny kingdom ruled over by the Princess Ravonna, Avengers 23 gives us the most "widescreen" adventure in this run of issues.
Nonetheless, the three newest Avengers are trapped and dragged unconscious into Kang's future, where they're placed in giant specimen jars as bait to lure Captain America into a snare. Next we meet Princess Ravonna, whose kingdom is targeted for conquest by Kang. The despot has offered to reprieve her land if the Princess will only agree to marry him. Meanwhile, back in the 20th century, Cap hears that The Avengers are missing and races to help. Unaware that aid is on the way, the three captured Avengers escape their glass prisoners through Wanda's hex power and give battle to Kang's soldiers. Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch are quickly recaptured. Only Quicksilver escapes to continue the fight. And it's then that Captain America reaches the Avengers Mansion and issues a challenge to Kang.

With Ravonna overhearing Cap's challenge, Kang has no choice but to accept and brings Cap into the future. Though he initially beats Cap and Pietro, Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch arrive and the Avengers Assemble to sort out Kang once and for all. But Kang outsmarts them and signals his armies to begin the invasion of Ravonna's kingdom, leaving the readers once again teetering on the precipice of a cliffhanger.

For me, what was most interesting part of this issue was the way Kang was depicted as desiring something other than all-out conquest. It would be hard to imagine Dr Doom showing mercy to a region he wanted to invade simply because he was sweet on the ruler. And though this part of the story would show Kang simply trying to conquer the Princess Ravonna in the same way he had conquered countless planets before, this softer side to his character would play out more fully in the second and concluding part of the tale.

Adventure turns to tragedy as Kang finds mercy for the first time through his genuine love for the Princess Ravonna. Yet even the combined powers of Kang and The Avengers cannot prevent Ravonna from becoming collateral damage.
Avengers 24 opens with a slightly odd situation. Inside Ravonna's kingdom: the Princess, her father and their loyal but heavily outnumbered troops; The Avengers; and Kang. Outside the kingdom, Kang's hordes, mounting an overwhelming attack against the stronghold's meagre defences. Yet, even though it looks like the Avengers might prevail by capturing Kang, he escapes them by unleashing a cloud of poison gas and fleeing in the confusion.

Now with no leverage against Kang's invading hordes, Ravonna's generals want to surrender. But Cap gives a stirring speech, shaming the generals into fighting to the last man. Though Ravonna's troops put up a valiant fight, the invaders are soon in control of the citadel anyway and even The Avengers cannot hope to stand for long before such hopeless odds. And so Cap, Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch are dragged, bound, before Kang. Only Quicksilver remains free. Still Kang is interested only in the Princess. Again he demands that Ravonna agree to be his wife, but is interrupted by one of his commanders, Baltag, who says that according to his own rules Kang must execute all defeated leaders. The other generals all agree, and suddenly Kang is facing dissension in the ranks. His only choice now, if he is to save Ravonna, is to ally himself with The Avengers against his own troops.

With such forces arraigned against them, Kang's former followers have little chance and the battle is soon won, with Kang pledging to release Ravonna and her kingdom. But the final twist is that Baltag, still at large, tries to shoot Kang but hits Ravonna, who has thrown herself forwards to shield Kang, just as The Avengers are returned to their own time.

I'd not read this story for a few years and was a little surprised at how complex the tale is. I had forgotten how Stan had humanised Kang by giving him a genuine love interest, which I thought was pretty unusual for the time. Also, Avengers 23 marked John Romita's first work for Marvel Comics since the 1950s. The exact circumstances of how Romita returned to Marvel are related in another blog entry. Working over Don Heck's pencils, Romita turns in workmanlike, if a little blocky, delineation on the first 20 pages of the story. Many faces in the story have little Heck left in them, compared to those inked by Dick Ayers in the following issue. It was the only Avengers Romita inked in this period as he was immediately taken off the assignment and put to work on Daredevil, covering the sudden, though not altogether unexpected, departure of Wally Wood.

The next issue would line up Dr Doom as an adversary for the Quartet, which seems an odd choice, seeing as we've just had two issues of a Doom-related villain.


UNDER DOOM'S DOME

I've never really liked Dr Doom as an antagonist for anyone other than the Fantastic Four. Amazing Spider-Man 5 (Oct 1963) had the first appearance of Doom outside of an FF title, and that was my least favourite of those early Spider-Man stories. 

The thing is, with Doom and the FF it's personal. His sole driving ambition is to prove he's better than Reed Richards - in fact, Stan tells us that on page 2 of Avengers 25. Beyond that, he's really not a bad fella. He rules Latveria as a benign dictator ... the citizens may not have much freedom but they are, for the most part, well taken care of. So pitting him against The Avengers isn't really an ideal fit.

Though Stan spends a page having Doom rehash his links with Kang in a slightly forced soliloquy, he doesn't suggest at any point that Doom is aware of The Avengers' recent battle with Kang, which is odd, as in the last panel of the previous issue, we see Doom overhearing Cap wondering whether they'll ever know the fate of Kang and Ravonna.
"Before I battle the Fantastic Four again, I must fill their hearts with fear," says Doctor Doom, as the tale opens. "And what better way to do so than by defeating another super-powered team, such as The Avengers, with the greatest of ease." That's all the rationale we get. When we cut to Avengers HQ, we're treated to another scene of Hawkeye giving Cap a hard time, which in turn makes Cap question what his purpose is beyond just being Captain America. A few days later, Wanda receives a letter from Latveria telling of a long-lost aunt. Of course, the readers are yelling, "No, don't go to Latveria!" But The Avengers seem blissfully unaware of just who runs that comic-opera european state.

Political incorrectness aside, Doom's kindness here will later be tested when he has the choice of saving the child's leg or keeping The Avengers prisoners.
Even as they arrive, The Avengers are arrested by Latverian police, accused of being spies. However, no jail can hold The Avengers and, even as they escape, their every move is being watched by Doom, who raises a dome over Latveria, trapping all inside.

On the streets, Doom's subjects quickly turn on The Avengers, so they're forced to track Doom to his castle. The confrontation is a bit by-the-numbers and all they manage to do is damage Doom's armour and escape into the countryside. Even as they do, a delegation of villagers shows up, with the child Doom was kind to earlier, asking that the dome be opened long enough for the child to leave for America where he is to receive specialist treatment that will allow him to walk again.

Hearing of the child's plight, The Avengers return to Doom's castle to force him to raise the dome. There's another couple of pages of battle and The Avengers destroy Doom's controls opening the dome so they can escape.

"Enter ... Dr Doom!" is probably the weakest of the Quartet tales, but luckily, Stan had some significant changes in mind, starting the very next issue ... with the return of The Wasp.

But before that I want to look at an aspect of Marvel's history that I don't think anyone else has mentioned ... 


THE MYSTERY OF THE PASTEL SPEECH BALLOONS

In many of the pre-hero Marvel comics, it was quite common for the colourist - mostly Stan Goldberg, I believe - to add a yellow tint to the caption boxes in the stories. This kind of made sense, because it created a visual separation between the narrative captions and the dialogue balloons, which remained untinted.

The yellow tint on the caption box was very common in pre-hero Marvels. This scan is from the Jack Kirby-drawn "Menace from Mars" story in Journey into Mystery 52 (May 1959).
Now and again, we'd see a speech balloon that had a colour tint on it, though this was used to indicate a different tone to the dialogue, for example a voice coming through a radio, or someone shouting. And very occasionally colour would be added to a speech balloon if it was sitting on a white background, so that it wouldn't get lost, floating in a sea of white. At least, that's my guess.

In these closing panels from the Kirby tale "The Day Before Doomsday" in Strange Tales 99 (Aug 1962), colourist  Stan Goldberg has added a yellow tint to the speech balloons in the first panel, presumably so they'll be more visible against the white background.
But sometime during the rise of the superhero stories at Marvel, the tints on the balloons got to be pretty much random. Try as I might, I cannot see a pattern to the layout of the balloons on some pages.

Two panels from "In the Clutches of the Puppet Master" from Strange Tales 116 (Jan 1964). The first panel has a pink tint on The Things's speech balloon, the second panel has yellow tints on both balloons - so it can't be to separate The Thing's dialogue from The Torch's.
It seemed that Stan Goldberg was just dropping tints on speech bubbles randomly. If it had been consistent, even within the same story, it might have been easier to fathom. But where radio balloons might be tinted pink in one story and not at all in another, sometimes the colouring on the balloons would vary even within the same page.

In this short sequence from Avengers 16 (May 1965), The Sub-Mariner's first speech bubble is untinted, but his second has been coloured yellow. The radio bubble coming from The Avengers' sub has a pink tint, but the radio balloon of Namor's reply has no tint. I do not know what the colourist was thinking of.
It's not in the least important in the grand scheme of things. In fact it's probably the most trivial of all the trivia I've covered in this blog. Mostly, I'm just curious to know if anyone else have ever noticed this and whether they've ever managed to see a pattern or a purpose to this most Marvel of practices, which died away during 1966 as mysteriously as it had arrived.

Was this a directive from Stan Lee, or was Stan Goldberg just trying to keep things interesting on the page? We'll probably never know ...


AND BACK TO THE AVENGERS

Avengers 26 & 27 (Mar - Apr 1966) would be the last of the Quartet story arcs. It featured Attuma - another old Fantastic Four foe - who was making another attempt to attack the surface world, this time with a tidal device that would submerge the continents above.

With the Attuma story-arc, Stan siezes the opportunity to re-introduce an old character - The Wasp - and have her act as the catalyst to bring The Avengers into the fight.
The tale begins with the now-familiar scene of Cap gathering the other Avengers in the Mansion, this time to demonstrate an important messaging device given to them by Tony Stark. As usual, Hawkeye is behaving like a six-year-old and this time it's Quicksilver who gets annoyed. A moment later, the pair are at each other's throats and Captain America intervenes as the peacemaker. Hawkeye still flounces out in a huff, though.

Elsewhere, aboard a damaged scientific research vessel, Henry (Giant-Man) Pym and Janet (The Wasp) van Dyne are trying to put out a fire caused by the sudden invasion of Prince Namor, The Sub-Mariner (Tales to Astonish 78, Apr 1966). Thinking Namor is on his way to attack New York, The Wasp has to fly there to warn The Avengers. But on the way, she's captured by Attuma. The big blue despot has no idea who Janet is, but decides to hold her anyway, in case she's a spy for the surface people.

Captured and presumed helpless by Attuma, the Wasp is treated to a complete run-down of exactly how the villain plans to conquer the surface world - which is probably more for the reader's benefit than Janet's.
Janet manages to free herself by shrinking to wasp-size and radios The Avengers for assistance. With Hawkeye still absent, Cap, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch race to Janet's aid. But as they approach Attuma's vessel, The Avengers' jet is grabbed from the air and brought on board the giant sub. The Avengers battle valiantly, but are eventually subdued by Attuma's forces. Then, in time-honoured super-villain tradition, Attuma insists on fighting the Avengers himself, to show his followers just how alpha mer-male he is.

This wasn't be the first time these Avengers had to face an opponent who's stronger than they are. Attuma wasn't quite an A-list villain, as he lacked the personality of, say, Doctor Doom, but he was pretty popular with Stan at this time.
Just as the battle is going against the Avengers, Wanda directs her hex at the very structure of the sub and the hull begins to break apart. The three Avengers are trapped behind a sealed bulkhead as it begins to fill with seawater. Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, Hawkeye arrives at the Mansion to find it deserted. Unable to remember how to operate the message machine, he tries to jog his memory with Tony Stark's "Subliminal Recall-Inducer". And as his sinks into unconsciousness, a sinister figure gains entry to The Avengers' HQ.

The way the Avengers storyline dovetails into the guest appearance of Hank and Jan in Tales to Astonish is pretty neat, and that kind of synchronisation would only be possible as long as Stan was writing all the titles. Tying it all together was the Sub-Mariner's nemesis, Attuma. Never quite gaining the stature of Namor himself, Attuma made many appearances in mid-1960s Marvel comics. Debuting in Fantastic Four 33 (Dec 1964), the Big Blue Meanie tried many times to take over Atlantis from the Sub-Mariner (whom he didn't consider aggressive enough) and to threaten the surface world with all-out war. Attuma would menace Giant Man in Tales to Astonish 64 (Feb 1965) and battle Iron Man in Tales of Suspense 66 (Jun 1965).

What is slightly more interesting abut this issue of The Avengers is that Stan would weave in a parallel story featuring Hawkeye and the Mysterious Villain we see in the last panel of Avengers 26.

In the space of a few pages, Hawkeye defeats "mystery villain" The Beetle, borrows an aircraft from the Fantastic Four and discovers Quicksilver floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. When the four are reunited, it's pretty much the end of the road for Attuma. The Beetle, though, proves to be a different level of threat altogether.
The Mysterious Villain turns out to be former Human Torch and Spider-Man B-list baddie, The Beetle. Probably one of Marvel strangest super-foes of the period, The Beetle was designed by Golden Age Human Torch creator Carl Burgos, which might account for the slightly clunky but oddly appealing appearance of the character. In Strange Tales 123 (Aug 1964) Abner Jenkins invented a battlesuit consisting of plate steel wings which enabled him to fly. Even as a 10 year old, I was pretty cynical about the aerodynamics involved in that concept. The Beetle would go on to fight Spider-Man in Amazing Spider-Man 21 (Feb 1965)) and, later, Daredevil in Daredevil 32 & 33 (Oct - Nov 1967).

After a three-page battle, Hawkeye subdues the Beetle and learns from the message left by the other Avengers last issue that they need his help against Attuma. And at Attuma's attack sub, things aren't going tremendously well for The Avengers. Things take a turn for the worse when Quicksilver is ejected from the sub by one of Attuma's foot soldiers. Rising to the surface, the unconscious Quicksilvers awakens to find Hawkeye standing over him. The two set out to find Attuma's sub and their fellow Avengers. Meanwhile, Captain America plays the old "Your doomsday machine is a fake, Attuma" card. Dopey Attuma falls for it and explains how his tide machine works, giving Hawkeye and Quicksilver enough time to crash their craft through the side of Attuma's sub ... and all heck breaks loose.

The story closes with Attuma's sub exploding after Cap sabotages the tidal machine and The Avengers return to their HQ to find The Beetle has apparently revived and escaped. All of which leads us into the story that will signal the end of an era for Cap's Kooky Quartet.

The opening of Avengers 28 unfolds at breakneck pace, as Stan gets the story under way with minimum of fuss. Though we still have Cap and Hawkeye bickering, it seems that the archer's attitude to the team leader is mellowing. Then on page 3 we're introduced to the true villain of the piece, The Collector.
Avengers 28 (May 1966) was a landmark issue on many levels, but the biggest surprise was the return of a superhero who'd been in limbo for almost a year. The first three pages of the issue establish that The Wasp is missing and that scientist Henry Pym needs The Avengers' help to finding her, revealing that he is actually Giant-Man. Captain America and Hawkeye have another run-in, but this time Hawkeye is markedly less aggressive and accedes to Cap's authority, setting off to fetch Henry Pym with the most muted of grumblings. Then we cut to The Wasp, who it trapped at insect-size in a tiny glass bottle.

Stan's footnote on page 2 explains that we witnessed The Wasp's escape in Avengers 26, but we actually didn't. We witnessed her radioing The Avengers from Attuma's super-sub and that was the last we saw of her. Stan covers that minor mistake with a thought balloon from The Wasp, recalling that she made it to Avengers HQ before losing consciousness. Her captor is The Collector (who would play a part in the much later 2014 Guardians of the Galaxy movie).

Something that puzzled me was The Avengers not knowing that Giant Man was scientist Henry Pym. From all those Tales to Astonish stories I read, it seemed to be no great secret that Hank was also a superhero. When the Giant-Man fan club visited Pym's lab and Janet Van Dyne was present, human-size and unmasked, it never occurred to me that Hank's identity was supposed to be hidden from the public. 

Even as Hank arrives at Avengers HQ, the voice of The Collector is heard coming over the radio, ordering the team to go to a certain location if they want to see The Wasp again. At first the team are reluctant to accept Hank as Giant Man until he can give a demonstration of his powers. The catch is that after years of excessive stress on his body, Hank can only grow to 25 feet, where he must remain for 15 minutes before it's safe to return to normal height.

In the back half of the story, there's a bit of scientific gobbledygook about Henry Pym not being able to stay at his single giant size - 25 feet - for more than 15 minutes. We don't learn the significance of that until the last page, when Hank gets stuck at 10 feet while shrinking and lapses into a coma.
Of course The Avengers, plus the newly renamed Goliath, blunder straight into a trap and are easily over-powered with anaesthetic gas, and awaken trussed up like Christmas turkeys. It's not hard for Goliath to free himself, using his growing powers, then in turn break the shackles holding his team-mates. The Collector scuttles away and The Avengers give chase, but run into The Beetle, instead. Hank is left behind and has his own (huge) hands full when he encounters The Collector. Using "magic beans" from his collection, The Collector summons two giants, who are giving Hank a hard time until Wanda intervenes. The giants despatched, Hank grabs The Collector and forces him to reveal The Wasp's whereabouts. The Collector threatens to shatter her glass prison unless the Avengers surrender. Though Quicksilver manages to snatch the glass phial from The Collector, the wily villain still manages to escape using a handy "temporal assimilator" to transport himself and The Beetle away and out of danger.

The closing scene has Hank try to shrink to normal size, but after staying too long at 25 feet, he collapses unconscious, stuck at 10 feet. And that cliffhanger is where Stan leaves the readers ...

I remember seeing this on the spinner rack when I had just turned 12. I had enjoyed Giant-Man was sorry to see him leave the team back in Avengers 16. So you can imagine how happy I was to see this cover. And if that's a Don Heck costume design for Goliath, it's one of his best. Great cover, great issue.
For my part, I was very excited to see Giant-Man return to The Avengers, despite the change in name and costume. Hank Pym was one of the first Marvel characters I had encountered a couple of years earlier and I always had a soft spot for Giant-Man. I think Stan must've liked the character too, certainly enough to bring him back into the Marvel mainstream after a relatively short absence.

For the preceding 11 issues of The Avengers, Stan had produced an interesting, quirky arc of stories that showed you didn't need the ability to knock down buildings with one hand to be an Avenger. It was a bold and clever move, because as much as kids enjoyed stories of super-powered heroes doing impossible things, it was also refreshing and engaging to see (almost) normal people taking on super-powerful baddies and winning, despite seemingly impossible odds. After all, isn't that what every hero - real or imaginary - is supposed to do?

It hadn't occurred to me at the time, I can now see that Stan was hoping to turn Hank Pym into the Ben Grimm of The Avengers. Where the dynamic had worked so well in the earliest Fantastic Four stories, Stan figured that he could use this book as a vehicle to explore some of those ideas further. But by issue 35, Stan was turning the title over to Roy Thomas and Goliath was given back his power to shrink to ant-size in a low-key scene on page 17 of that issue.

Luckily, by Avengers 35 (Dec 1966) Hank had been experimenting with a "Molecular Space Transformer", which has given him the ability to once again shrink to ant size. Incoming scripter Roy Thomas certainly understood the value of a deus ex machina.
Over the next year and a half of The Avengers, the line-up of Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Goliath and The Wasp would remain pretty stable - for 17 issues - with just Black Widow as a frequent guest star, until Hercules officially joined in issue 45.

I will take a look at that period of the team, but I'll leave that till another post and another time.

Next: We've got you covered


Saturday, 29 July 2017

Marvel's other Fab Four

MY ABSOLUTE FAVOURITE MARVEL CHARACTER back in the mid-1960s was Captain America. I've already written several posts about Cap, so I probably don't need to go into that any further here ... but when he took over as leader of the team at the end of Avengers 16 (May 1965), you could say it was one of my best moments in comics.

Stan set quite a challenge for himself. How to take Marvel's best-selling team book, and replace the A-list heroes Thor, Iron Man and Giant-Man with three B-list villains. It worked out much better than anyone expected ...
It all kicks off while Cap is polishing off Baron Zemo in South America, his fellow Avengers are reflecting on what they'll do now that Zemo's minions are in custody. The Wasp suggests that now's as good a time as any to take a vacation ... right at that very moment, Iron Man's old foe, Hawkeye, invades the Avengers Mansion looking to apply for membership to the super-team. The timing is opportune (and not a little convenient) and within a minute or two The Avengers are accepting Hawkeye into their ranks without the barest hint of a security check.

Just as the core members of the team are discussing the idea of some time off, former Iron Man villain Hawkeye shows up looking to join. Without the slightest whiff of suspicion, they accept his application.
Click image to enlarge.
"The next day", Iron Man goes in search of Prince Namor, The Sub-Mariner, and offers him membership in The Avengers. The ruler of Atlantis turns him down, saying that until his differences with the surface world have been resolved, he cannot ally himself with any humans.

Though the Avengers had fought The Sub-Mariner in the past - Avengers 3 (Jan 1964) - Iron Man realises that the new team will need some heavy-lifters, and Namor seems to fit the bill.
Despite this set-back, half a world away, another pair of villains are weighing their options and wondering if the time hasn't come for them to redeem themselves. Quicksilver and his sister Scarlet Witch had last appeared in Strange Tales 128 (Dec 1964). That had been one of the Marvels caught up in the grand distribution snafu of 1964, so at the time, I didn't get an opportunity to read that story. If I had, I'd have known that these two unwilling henchmen of the mutant Magneto had been looking for a way to free themselves from Magneto's dominion and had approached the Fantastic Four for help.

From Strange Tales 128 (Dec 1964) - Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch desperately look for someone to help free them form the clutches of master mutant Magneto, a despot who will stop at nothing until he has enslaved or destroyed human-kind.
In typical madcap Marvel style, The Torch and the Thing misunderstand the two young mutant's motives and a big battle ensues. The 12-page story doesn't really amount to much dramatically, with Pietro and Wanda resolving to return to Magneto, as he's less bad than the humans. So it's a little surprising that, just a few months later, they're living a peaceful life of retirement in what looks like the Swiss Alps.

Stan offers a quick potted history of Pietro and Wanda for any Marvelites who may not have read any X-Men comics. I was certainly aware of the two and the Evil Mutants' loss was the Avengers' gain, as far as I was concerned.
Still looking for some way to make amends for their former lives, the pair decide to write to The Avengers to see whether they may be considered for membership. And again, without the slightest suspicion, The Avengers accept the two youngsters into their ranks without the slightest hint of prejudice. I guess I didn't question it in 1965 because I knew that Pietro and Wanda were more victims of Magneto than true villains. In retrospect, this all seems like series of all-too-handy coincidences, but to my eleven-year-old self, it was just the scariest transition I could have thought of. Even then I could see that Iron Man, Giant-Man and Thor were the power-core of the team. Without them, how could these newcomers stand up to the likes of The Executioner and the other Masters of Evil?

The other challenge here was that all these decisions were being taken without the involvement of Captain America. How was he going to react to find out that his team-mates had decided to take a break, and recruit a bunch of novices as replacements, in his absence?

Even though Captain America was, at that point, the newest member of the Avengers, with the departure of Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man and The Wasp, he naturally jumped to the head of the queue in seniority. And though he never sought the role of leader, it was thrust upon him, nevertheless. And this made for a great situation as far as the drama was concerned.

The last page of Avengers 16 had Iron Man, Giant-Man and The Wasp in a back room of the Avengers Mansion, sombrely preparing to take their leave. Stan highlights in the dialogue that Thor is elsewhere - in a place beyond the comprehension of we mere mortals - undergoing the Trial of the Gods.

With Thor already departed to face his ordeal at the Trial of the Gods (see the house ad from Avengers 16 above for the issue of Journey into Mystery that tells that tale), Iron Man, Giant-Man and The Wasp, prepare to leave the Avengers Mansion for the final time. Click image to enlarge.
So Giant-Man and the Wasp head off into an uncertain future, the cancellation of their own strip in Tales to Astonish just four months way. And Iron Man switches to Tony Stark and drives away in his limo, his thoughts suggesting that he'll never see his old Avengers companions again. Was Stan already planning the demise of Giant Man, and looking to take Thor in a more mythical, less-Earthbound direction? In the end it didn't turn out that way, but it does appear to have crossed Stan's mind at this point.

Just Captain America and three second-rate villains stand between mankind and the menaces that lay ahead. The team's only hope ... to find The Hulk and somehow convince him to re-join their ranks.
But it wasn't all doom and gloom. As sad as I was, in the summer of 1965, to see Marvel's big guns leaving the team they had made great, there was the anticipation of my favourite hero taking Marvel's most powerful super-group into a new and challenging future. The anticipation and trepidation for both the team and the audience was tangible. Even as a kid I was wondering how these new Avengers would be able to cope with the threats that lay ahead. The one hope that seemed to glimmer in that uncertain future was ... the Hulk.


THEN THERE WERE FOUR

The first adventure for the new team was "Four Against the Minotaur", in Avengers 17 (Jun 1965). Right from the first page, it was obvious that Stan was going to be taking this book in a completely new direction. As Cap addresses his new charges for the first time, Stan telegraphs the dissension in the ranks with Hawkeye's and Quicksilver's thought balloons.

The first order of business for the new team is to find a way to replace the raw strength of Iron Man and Thor. Captain America lays out his strategy in the face of open hostility from both Hawkeye and Quicksilver. The actual plot of the issue, with Mole Man luring The Avengers into a trap, is mostly unmemorable.
Only The Scarlet Witch seems prepared to give the battle-hardened Captain America the benefit of the doubt. But all that's quickly forgotten when a large robot crashes through the wall of the mansion, bringing a message from its master: "You'll find the Hulk in the desert". Hawkeye suspects they'll be heading into a trap but Cap, playing a hunch, leads the team to the spot where The Hulk helped them battle the Lava Men a year earlier (Avengers 5, May 1964). Of course, it is a trap, and the waiting Mole Man unleashes a giant Minotaur on the quartet. As the battle rages, Quicksilver is separated from the others and is captured by the Mole Man's subterranean minions.

Interspersed throughout the story are vignettes of The Hulk battling The leader. Stan's captions explain that these scenes are happening in Tales to Astonish 69, on sale the same month as Avengers 17, and less than a mile away ... Stan helpfully includes a house ad for Astonish 69, so we all know what to look for at the newsstands.
It doesn't take long for the team to despatch the monster and find Quicksilver. Realising he's severely outmatched, the Mole Man decides to cut his losses and sends the superheroes back to the surface. So the Avengers (sort-of) triumph, but leave the desert without ever catching a glimpse of The Hulk.

Overall, it's not a bad first outing for "Cap's Kooky Quartet". For me, the dramatic tension between Captain America and the other would-be alpha-males in the team was more interesting than the rather lame and un-menacing Mole Man. This scenario would continue to play out over the next few stories, with Stan getting more of a grip on where he wanted to go with the book with each passing issue.

And I, for one, preferred Don Heck's take on the artwork. Compared to Kirby's solid, dependable style, Heck's seemed a bit more modern and a bit more dynamic. His version of Scarlet Witch was much prettier than Kirby's - we all know that even at the age of eleven, I was very keen on raven-haired bad girls - and he conveyed the speed of Quicksilver (and that of Hawkeye) better than Kirby did. I wasn't mad on Dick Ayers inks on Heck's pencils. I always thought Heck's art needed a lighter touch, and that didn't describe Ayers. But that minor niggle aside, I was one happy Avengers fan.

Avengers 18 (Jul 1965) was another one-off tale with a new - though never to be repeated - villain. Stan trotted out his favourite bad-guys of that era, The Communists, and crafted a story about a small asian nation dominated by communist tyranny in the form of the formidable Commissar.

Stan Lee uses the quiet opening scene of this issue to give readers more of an insight into Captain America's fears and dreams. Later in the series Cap's character would be more fully explored by Roy Thomas.
The opening page of the story has Captain America, sitting alone in the Avengers Mansion, pondering his place in this new 1960s world he's been dumped in. Stan had alluded to this in the earlier Captain America solo story in Tales of Suspense 59 (Nov 1964), where had Cap sitting alone in the Mansion looking over old scrap books. Here, he takes the opportunity to expand on this and further define Cap's character, as a man trying to find his place in a world he doesn't fully understand. Cap's thought balloons reveal that he's applied to Nick Fury's counter-intelligence unit - perhaps it's so secret that even Cap doesn't know it's called S.H.I.E.L.D. - though it's not made clear whether this would be in addition to, or instead of, his role as leader of The Avengers.

But all this is forgotten when a call comes in from Radio Free Sin-Cong in South-East Asia, and Cap assembles the other Avengers in a mission to help the oppressed people escape from Communist rule. Not unreasonably, Quicksilver wants to know why a crime-fighting outfit like The Avengers would get embroiled in foreign regime change, and though I never thought of it at the time, Pietro does make a compelling point. Surprisingly, it's Hawkeye who fights Cap's corner, saying that if The Avengers oppose injustice, "Well, when liberty's threatened, justice goes down the drain."

Stan's oft-repeated theme for this period of The Avengers is that the team is always stronger than the individuals. Here it's demonstrated when each of the Avengers is defeated by The Commissar one-by-one, but when they act together, they come out on top.
So, The Avengers fly straight to Sin-Cong and straight into a trap. Sticking strongly to his theme for this incarnation of his super-team, Stan has his heroes separated and The Scarlet Witch captured. This allows the villainous communist ruler of Sin-Cong, The Commissar, to force Cap, Hawkeye and Quicksilver to fight him one by one. Of course, singlely, each in turn is defeated. But Cap turns the tables when he tells The Commissar that he hasn't truly beaten The Avengers until he can defeat The Scarlet Witch.

Of course, Cap has a plan, and instructs Wanda to concentrate on the Commissar's assistant, Major Hoy. And strangely, the words in the caption box on the last panel of page 19 have always stuck in my head over the decades since I read this book: "Gracefully backing away from the onrushing giant, Wanda softly murmurs ..." Maybe it was because the idea that feminine gentleness can prevail in the face of male brute force was pretty new at the time, especially in comics, that it struck me as such an unusual turn of phrase. Whatever the reason, this firmly established Scarlet Witch as a vital and powerful member of the team.

The start of a run of two-issue adventures, I'd argue that this diptych is the best tale of the "Cap's Kriminal Krew" period - iconic teamwork, self-sacrifice and another bad guy trying to muscle entry into The Avengers. And how about that great "floating heads" cover?
Of all the seven stories that make up this period of The Avengers, the tale of the Swordsman in Avengers 19 and 20 (Aug & Sep 1965) is probably my favourite. It crystalised the teamsmanship of the group and revealed the untold origin of Hawkeye, going some way to explaining why he wasn't fond of taking orders.

The Swordsman tries to join The Avengers pretty much the same way that Hawkeye did ... he just breaks into the Avengers Mansion and waits till someone challenges him. In this case, it's Pietro and Wanda. After a brief battle, it's Wanda that wins the day and knocks the intruder unconscious. Cap runs a check on Swordsman and discovers he's a wanted criminal in several jurisdictions around the world. Moments later the Swordsman escapes, and when Cap tells Hawkeye about their unexpected visitor, it seems that Hawkeye knows the intruder ... very well, as it turns out.

Avengers 19 reveals the origin of Hawkeye for the first time - and it's a good one. The Swordsman makes the perfect mentor for Hawkeye, and Stan is able to expand on the idea that Hawkeye never intended to be on the wrong side of the law, as first described in Tales of Suspense 57.
Also progressed this issue is the sub-plot about Cap trying to join Nick Fury's counter-intelligence organisation, named by Stan in one of the footnotes as "S.H.I.E.L.D.", though it's apparent that Cap still doesn't know too much about it. And it's this that allows The Swordsman to lay a trap for Captain America, via the coincidental interference of HYDRA agents.

The memorable cliffhanger for this issue has a bound and helpless Captain America made to "walk the plank" by the swashbuckling Swordsman ... then launching himself into space to prevent the remaining Avengers surrendering. It's a pretty awesome example of self-sacrifice and confidence in one's team-mates that had me literally open-mouthed with astonishment back in that autumn of 1965 ... but that was nothing to how I felt when I saw how Cap got out of the death-trap just a month later.

Avengers 20 had one of my all-time favourite action scenes - the rescue of Cap by his often-disgruntled team-mates. It's not just a clever action choreography, it's the emotional context Stan had put it in during the months leading up to this, with both Hawkeye and Quicksilver thinking that Captain America is a has-been and that they would be more worthy leaders.
Within a split-second of Cap's jump, the remaining Avengers  take action ... in a fast-paced sequence, Quicksilver uses his super-speed to slow Cap's fall, Hawkeye cuts Cap's bonds with a well-placed arrow and Scarlet Witch causes a girder to fall beneath Cap so he can land on it, still dozens of storeys above street level. It's a tour-de-force action sequence, worthy of Kirby at his best, but pulled off spectacularly by Stan Lee and Don Heck. Of course, within a few pages, Hawkeye and Quicksilver would be back to bickering again ... it's too good a dramatic device to end with just one rescue.

Then Stan adds a strange twist. Just as The Avengers are about to capture The Swordsman, he shimmers and disappears, snatched away by The Mandarin. The arch-villain adds some technology to The Swordsman's sword and using a holographic projection of Iron Man, fools The Avengers into accepting Swordsman as a member, his mission - to plant a bomb that will destroy The Avengers.

The Swordsman demonstrates he's not all bad, when he double-crosses The Mandarin - probably not the smartest idea - and tries to disable the explosive device he's already set in the Mansion.
But villain though he may be, The Swordsman has more honour than to resort to this kind of sneak attack to defeat an enemy, and tries to disarm the bomb that he's hidden in the Avengers Mansion. Discovered by Captain America in the act, a fight ensues and the Swordsman escapes. It is an inconclusive kind of ending, but it does establish The Swordsman as an Avenger, an idea Marvel would return to much later in the series.

Though there would be other great adventures in this run - as well as a few surprises - this story arc was, for me, the period's finest hour. Even so, the next chapter was pretty good, too, featuring the return of an old foe and the introduction of another longtime Marvel villain.

Cover art on these two issues was by Jack Kirby and Wally Wood. On Avengers 22, the floating heads - a longstanding Jack Kirby trademark - were actually paste-ups: Hawkeye from Suspense 57 and Wanda and Pietro from Strange Tales 128.
Avengers 21 & 22 (Oct & Nov 1965) gave us a new inker, in the shape of Wally Wood. Wood's fine-line inking style was far better suited to Don Heck's feathery pencils and the result was much easier on the eye.

As pointed out by The Kid (see Comments, below), Jack more than once made errors drawing even his own character's costumes. Here, on the cover of Avengers 21, Cap sports an "A" on his chest. Someone spotted it later when the art was reprinted on Marvel Triple Action 15 (Nov 1973) and the mistake was corrected.
Issue 21 opens with Hawkeye once again losing his temper after being told what to do by Captain America. Just as the whole thing is about to dissolve into a pitch-battle between the two, Quicksilver intervenes and gives Cap a dressing down for not acting more like a leader. We then cut-away to Baron Zemo's South American hideaway. One of his henchmen, Erik Josten, Injured and down to his last ammunition, is digging his way into Zemo's underground lab. There he finds the equipment Zemo used to create Wonder Man, back in Avengers 9 (Oct 1964), a year earlier. Watching from afar is The Enchantress and, seeing an opportunity, offers Josten the chance of Wonder Man powers if he'll help her defeat The Avengers. Thus Power Man and The Enchantress embark on a plan to defeat The Avengers without engaging them in direct battle.

In Avengers 21, the team find themselves on the wrong end of a conspiracy to make them appear as if they've gone rogue. Of course, it's all down to the machinations of the evil Enchantress and her new strong-arm henchman, Power Man.
By fooling The Avengers into fighting non-existent, illusory foes, The Enchantress makes it appear that The Avengers have gone on a destructive spree. At the same time, Power Man publicly foils a robbery, making it seem to Captain America that Power Man's the robber. So when the police show up, Power Man is hailed as a hero and Captain America looks like the bad guy. The issue ends with The Avengers being ordered to disband, giving the readers another great cliffhanger.

More than the previous issue, the hand of Wally Wood is evident here. The figures, especially Wanda's, are very typically Wood in style. The page that introduces the Circus of Crime looks like the work of neither Heck nor Wood ... perhaps heavily re-drawn by Marvel staffers?
Issue 22 picks up the action straightaway, with Hawkeye and Quicksilver both blaming Captain America for their current plight. So bad is the situation that the three newcomers decide to leave and make their own way in the world ... without Cap. And the scene ends with Captain America seemingly giving up the fight and himself leaving the Mansion.

Unable to find any work, the three Avengers take jobs with The Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime, without realising who their new employers really are. But when The Ringmaster reveals his criminal plans, the Avengers give the renegade circus performers a good pasting. Incredibly, when the police arrive, the Ringmaster accuses The Avengers of attacking him and once again, The Avengers are fugitives.

Just when it seems that there's no way out, Stan manages a genuinely surprising twist. Then, as the final battle has victory slipping away from The Enchantress, she deserts her ally Power Man, leaving him to face the consequences of their failed plot alone.
By way of recap, Stan gives us a page that paints a dark picture. The Avengers are hunted fugitives and The Enchantress has won. Iron Man, Thor and Giant Man are too busy to help. The situation really does seem beyond saving ... but in a clever plot twist, Captain America manages to record a confession from Power Man. Then all Heck breaks loose as the three other Avengers show up and turn the tide of the battle. Realising that her revenge on The Avengers has come to nothing, The Enchantress takes her leave ... and Erik Josten has nothing left to fight for.

All through these adventures, Stan has cleverly walked the line between the rivalry of the three alpha male personalities in the team and their almost contradictory underlying loyalty to The Avengers and each other. It's a sort of a return to the themes he was exploring in the earliest issues of Fantastic Four, where he had Reed Richards and Ben Grimm vying for the role of leadership and for the affections of Sue Storm. As the FF evolved, those early ideas faded away. But with no Jack Kirby on The Avengers to influence the direction of the book, Stan had a freer hand to explore some of those inter-team conflicts he'd tried to pursue earlier.

It does come a little bit out of left field, and seems at odds with Cap's stated position that he is duty-bound to hang in there as leader until Thor, Iron Man or Giant-Man return to relieve him, but it certainly guaranteed that I wasn't going to miss the next issue of The Avengers ...
So, the final surprise in Avengers 22 is that after months of carping a criticism - largely coming from Hawkeye, Captain America decides he's had enough. Though the Avengers are now in the clear and are reinstated as heroes in the eyes of the public, Cap tells the rest of the group that he's done with being the team's "straight man" and leaves. Does he really mean it? Probably not, but it was a heckuva cliff-hanger for my 11-year-old self ...

There's still another three adventures to explore in this run of the title, but I'll leave that until next time ... when The Avengers meet Kang (again), Dr Doom and Attuma - three A-list villains that will test the mettle of our heroes even further.

Next: Big things ahead for The Avengers