Much later, when I'd back-filled my small collection of Marvel Comics a little, I was able to figure out what was going on.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had begun the Marvel Age of Superheroes by revamping one of Publisher Martin Goodman's 1940s properties, The Human Torch, and co-starring him with the rest of the Fantastic Four in the first issue of their self-titled magazine in November 1961. A few months later, in Fantastic Four 4 (May 1962), Lee and Kirby revived Prince Namor, The Sub-Mariner, as a villain for the FF to fight. It only remained for Stan to find a way to bring back Captain America and he'd put an end to Goodman's requests to revive all of the major 1940s Timely characters.
Stan was right to be wary. Captain America was very much a character for the time, born on the eve of America's involvement in the Second World War, Cap was depicted on the cover of his debut comic socking Hitler on the jaw. After the war drew to a close in 1945, the nation seemed to lose interest in patriotic superheroes - well, actually in all superheroes - and Captain America's sales declined quite rapidly. So finding a way to bring back a character that the comics-buying public had given up on in the late 1940s and who no longer had a purpose now that Nazi Germany was two decades in the past wasn't going to be easy.
Casting around for somewhere to park Captain America, Stan figured that Strange Tales was the most appropriate place, but hedging his bets, had Jack Kirby draw up a tale for ST114 (Nov 1963) where one of Johnny Storm's old enemies, The Acrobat, disguises himself as Captain America and carries out robberies. Even the Torch is fooled right up till the last moment, when he yanks "Cap's" mask off.
The final caption box owns up to the fact that Stan was trying out the character to see what readers thought. Fan reaction must've been positive because, a few months later, Captain America turned up in The Avengers 4 (Mar 1964), as a replacement for the increasingly unstable Hulk. It's actually a pretty good tale, and interestingly, uses the Sub-Mariner as the catalyst for Cap's return.
|Behind the iconic cover is an epic 23-page tale that describes how Captain America came to be revived by The Sub-Mariner and inducted into The Avengers, who'd become his family for the next ten years.|
You can tell that Stan hasn't really got the measure of the character yet, as most of his dialogue sounds stilted and unnatural. "I am not lucky enough to forget forever ... to forget that I was once the man the world called ... Captain America!" he says moments after waking up from a coma. Of course, if he'd just woken up from a coma, and had no reason at this point to know that twenty years had passed, then his claim is slightly odd. And then, "I've no need of tricks!" intones Cap. "Test me! Try to conquer me!" He sounds more like a robot than a man of the 1940s.
Cap then reveals that, back in the final days of the war, he and Bucky were trying to stop a saboteur's explosives-laden drone plane taking off. The pair make a daring leap to the plane, but Cap loses his grip and the plane explodes, killing his young sidekick. That must've been some leap, because the heroes start somewhere in the European Theatre of Operations and Cap hits the water off the coast of Newfoundland. But why quibble? Cap sinks into the icy sea and the lowered temperature maintains him in a state of suspended animation until The Avengers fish him out in 1964.
|Jack Kirby's action scenes in Avengers 4 are as dynamic as always, but you kind of get the impression that Stan's heart wasn't really in the scripting, or that he hadn't got a handle on the character at this point.|
The idea of an alien who turns folks to stone and who has been mistaken for the legendary gorgon, Medusa, is a plot device right out of Lee's earlier fantasy stories - "Call Her ... Medusa" from Journey into Mystery 96 (Sep 1963) is just one example.
Interestingly, Namor doesn't seem to recognise Captain America, though you'd have thought that, given they were 1940s contemporaries, they'd have at least known about each other, even if they'd never met - but weren't they in the All-Winners Squad together (All-Winners Comics 19, Fall 1946)?
Captain America is the undoubted star of Avengers 4 and, as you might expect, he has the lion's share of the action. He's instrumental in figuring out what happened to the "missing" Avengers and in tracking down the sunglasses-wearing character who fired a strange weapon at his team-mates. Once the other Avengers are restored, the team goes after Namor and though each has a moment of combat with the Sub-Mariner, it is Cap who frees hostage Rick Jones moments before an earthquake forces Namor to return to the depths.
The inker's not credited on Avengers 4 ... I'd always assumed it was Paul Reinman, as that's who'd inked the issues on either side which didn't look much different, but the Grand Comicbook Database gives the inker as George Roussos. Either way, I wasn't that keen on the inks, thinking they looked rushed and messy. I'm sure George Roussos had his fans but I wasn't one of them.
Captain America's very next appearance was briefly in Fantastic Four 25 and more fully in FF26, where he and the Avengers found themselves in a scrap with the FF over who had first dibs on The Hulk.
|These two comics were heavily advertised in the other Marvels of the day and were both on my "must-get" list. When I did manage to track down copies, I wasn't in the least disappointed.|
It really is a great Marvel event, featuring 80% of the company's main characters in one adventure. Giving the tale two issues meant that the storytelling felt uncramped and satisfying and it remains to this day one of my all time favourite Marvel tales. There are a couple of minor niggles. Stan still hadn't really found The Hulk's voice yet, and in many panels he talks a bit like The Thing. And the resolution, where Rick Jones drops an "emergency gamma-ray treated capsule which Banner gave me months ago" into the Hulk's mouth and the Hulk, transforming back to Banner, falls into the Hudson River does seem a bit unimaginative - or perhaps too imaginative - and seems like a Jack Kirby plot-point. Inking is once again by George Roussos (as "George Bell") and is, if nothing else, consistent with the previous Avengers issue.
Jack Kirby adds a montage of The Avengers with both The Hulk and Captain America present, even though up to this point they haven't appeared together in the team and it's even debatable whether Bruce Banner would be aware of Cap as an Avenger. But Kirby partially redeems himself with this fabulous two-thirds page panel of the living rock being forced up to the surface world by the Lava people.
Iron Man enters the earth below the Living Rock and encounters the Lava People. He tries to reason with them, but they attack him. Thor intervenes and demands to speak to their ruler. But an impasse is reached when the Lava Men explain that Thor striking the Living Rock will only cause more damage. In the meantime another group of Lava Men attack Captain America triggering a further skirmish, with Iron Man and Giant Man getting involved.
Meanwhile, not far away Banner transforms into the Hulk, then comes across the Avengers and attacks them. Thor attempts to halt the Hulk with his hammer, but a sneak attack by the Lava Men's leader with a radioactive weapon causes Thor to transform back into Don Blake ... and now the Avengers no longer have the raw power to destroy the Living Rock. But the team find a way to taunt the Hulk, so that his massive fists strike the Rock in the exact spot to trigger an explosion that destroys it.
The issue also included a new letters column in which future comics artist and inker Alan Weiss writes to say how he prefers "George Bell's" inking over Paul Reinman's. So that shows how much I know.
Avengers 6 (Jul 1964) is a bit of a landmark, for two reasons. It's the first monthly issue, which means sales must have been very good right from the get-go, and it's the first time the Avengers face a team of super-foes. We open with Captain America demonstrating the transistor-powered magnets that Iron Man installed in his shield. This was probably an attempt to bring the character more "up-to-date", but the idea was quickly jettisoned, as revealed last time when I covered Tales of Suspense 62 (Feb 65, just seven months after Avengers 6).
This issue also introduces Baron Zemo and retrospectively adds him to Marvel history as a main foe for Captain America, and in Sgt Fury 8 (Jul 1964) as a wartime adversary for Fury and his Commandos. It's revealed that Zemo is the saboteur responsible for the exploding plane that killed Bucky and now, surviving in exile in the Amazonian jungles, the ex-Nazi is ready to bring the fight to Captain America once more.
So the villain recruits a bunch of second-banana villains to help him battle his way through the Avengers to get to Cap, saying to his henchman, "You must find three people for me, if you value your life!!" though Stan doesn't explain how Zemo's henchman will be able to get them to work together.
First to show his face is old Giant Man foe The Black Knight, who's flying around the city on his winged steed spraying Zemo's mysterious Adhesive X everywhere, bringing traffic to a halt and causing chaos. Next, defeated Iron Man villain The Melter does pretty much the same, but first melting the guns of any police nearby. Then Thor's old enemy Radioactive Man arrives, also squirting the nasty superglue all around. After a bit of pushing and shoving, The Avengers hit on the idea of asking Paste-Pot Pete for help, reasoning that his expertise in glues and adhesives might also extend to solvents. Pete strikes a deal for an early release and the Teen Brigade are dispatched to switch Zemo's Adhesive X for Pete's super-solvent.
But it's Captain America that comes up with the plan to defeat Zemo's super-powered allies. They'll simply switch foes. So Thor battles The Black Knight, Giant Man and the Wasp tackle Radioactive Man and Iron Man takes on The Melter ... oh, wait a minute ... that wasn't part of Cap's plan. It only remains for Captain America to give Zemo a pounding and the tale can draw to a close.
The inking here was by Chic Stone, one of my own personal Silver Age favourites. Though not quite as inspired as the work he was already doing on the Fantastic Four comic, notably issue 30, which came out the following month - probably because Stone was getting Marvel out of a deadline disaster here - the work is still crisp and fresh and in my opinion far better than the inking work we'd seen so far on this title.
However, Stan seems a lot more confident with Cap's voice in this story, and we already see the guilt-laden side of his personality, blaming himself for the death of Bucky and unable to move on from the trauma, yet motivated by a sense of duty to continue the fight regardless of his own feelings. It's a take on Cap that would continue for the next decade and a half and would be further explored by Roy Thomas in much later Avengers issues.
Of course, Zemo was back in Avengers 7 (Aug 1964), along with new allies The Executioner and The Enchantress who'd previously battled Thor in Journey into Mystery 103 four months earlier. Even though Zemo was supposed to have been tear-gassed in his escape craft and picked up by the police at the end of last issue (albeit, off-camera), here he is, back in his South American hideaway, abusing the natives like nothing ever happened.
The driving incident for the plot of this issue is when Thor is hypnotised into drinking a magic mind-control potion by the wiley Enchantress. You'd think Thor would be a little more cautious around that woman after The Last Time. But, no, in he blunders and gulps down the brain-altering brew like it was Vimto or something. With his head suitably re-arranged, Thor now sees his follow Avengers as demons and picks a fight.
|After knocking back The Enchantress' Love Potion Number 9, Thor gets all discombobulated and thinks his Avengers pals are scary monsters and super-freaks ...|
And is it just me, or is the splash page of this issue inked by someone other than Chic Stone? Looks more like Paul Reinman's inking. Of course we know that very often back in the day, Stan would want art re-drawn as it came in, so it's possible that the figure of Cap was redrawn, or even added in by another artist before press-day.
|Looking back on this today, this doesn't look like Chic Stone work, particularly Giant Man's face and the inking on Cap's figure. Or maybe someone did a last-minute touch-up.|
The character first appeared in the guise of Rama-Tut, the time-travelling antagonist from the story in Fantastic Four 19 (Oct 1963), and then turned up in the Fantastic Four Annual 2 (1964) where he rescues Dr Doom, floating in space after his last defeat by the FF. Trying to return to his own time, Kang overshoots by a few centuries and crashlands in a barbaric and desolate future. Quickly tiring of ruling a dying world, he decides to time travel to the 20th Century and conquer Earth ... which is when he runs in to The Avengers.
The team seems a bit chaotic in its battle against Kang. Their powers have little effect against him, then they're all captured, leaving only The Wasp and Rick Jones and his pals to free the others and defeat Kang.
It all seems a bit rushed and I wasn't wild about the Dick Ayers inking here, either. I get that Marvel was running to tight deadlines - goodness knows I've had my own share of producing strips to a deadline on the weekly comic 2000AD - but even so this issue does seem a bit ramshackle. That same month, Kirby had also drawn Fantastic Four 30 (a gorgeous art job with Chic Stone, covered in an earlier blog entry), Journey into Mystery 108, X-Men 7 and 37 pages of story plus five pinups in Fantastic Four Annual 2 (all also Stone, so no wonder he didn't have time for Avengers 8). And Dick Ayers also pencilled the 18-page epic Giant Man/Hulk battle in Tales to Astonish 59, so they were all probably stretched a little thin.
Avengers 9 (Oct 1964) was the first issue to be pencilled by Don Heck, who would go on to have a long association with the title, supplying most of the art up to issue 40. Here we again had Ayers on inks, unfortunately not the best fit for Heck's art. I always enjoyed Don Heck most when he inked his own pencils.
I wouldn't see this issue until quite some time after it was published as it was another of the books caught up in the big Marvel/Thorpe and Porter distribution snafu of late 1964. Zemo returns (again!) as the main villain, only this time, instead of finding allies to join him, he creates one. He offers convicted white collar criminal Simon Williams the opportunity to acquire super-powers and join him to get revenge on Tony Stark's "bodyguard" Iron Man and his Avengers team-mates. The catch is, the process that gives Williams "Powerman" powers will also kill him in days unless an antidote is administered. So, Zemo, Executioner and Enchantress stand by as Wonder Man infiltrates The Avengers and sets them up for betrayal. Of course, Williams has a change of heart at the last moment and sacrifices himself so The Avengers may live.
|The Marvel house ad in Avengers 9 showed some of the other Marvel mags we weren't able to get in the UK because of the importers not distributing the October and November titles in the newsagents here.|
Avengers 10 (Nov 1964) was also a difficult issue to find in the UK, and when I did finally track down a copy, it turned out to be not one of my favourites. The plot has Zemo (sigh) ally himself with another time-travelling tyrant, Immortus. This new fellow kidnaps Rick Jones and holds that over Captain America to force Cap to bring the other Avengers to him. He then pits them against warriors from different eras of history.
|Between Thor's disappearing tights and the hokey ending where The Enchantress cancels the entire shameful episode out of existence, this was one of the weakest instalments of The Avengers of the early era.|
Avengers 11 (Dec 1964) brought back Kang as the main villain. Fashioning a robot duplicate of Spider-Man using his ancestor Dr Doom's technology, Kang sent it back in time to lure the Avengers into a trap. The cover art is misleading on way too many levels. For a start, Iron Man isn't in the story at all - he's busy trying to convince his supporting cast over in the same month's Tales of Suspense 60 that he didn't murder Tony Stark and has requested a leave of absence from The Avengers. And the "Co-starring Spider-Man" line isn't exactly true. The real Spider-Man appears for only a couple of pages at the tail end of the tale.
|Even with the addition of Chic Stone on inks, I didn't think Don Heck had really gotten a grip on the Marvel style of action. He wouldn't really come into his own as the definitive Avengers artist until after Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man left.|
The other small niggle is with Stan's scripting. Five month's earlier, in Tales to Astonish 57 Jul 1964), the villain Egghead had engineered a fight between Giant-Man and Spider-Man. In that story, there was quite a bit of dialogue around the idea of wasps and spiders being natural enemies, so Janet Van Dyne was quite hostile towards Spidey. In Avengers 11, there is much the same kind of conversation when "Spidey" shows up, yet no one mentions that Giant-Man and Spider-Man had battled months before, not something you'd think Hank Pym would easily forget. Perhaps this contributed to Stan's decision to remove the "heavy-hitters" from The Avengers ...
But in the end, because the plot basically "cheats" and doesn't really give us "Spider-Man meets The Avengers", what should have been a terrific issue ends up feeling a little bit "meh!". The whole concept of Spider-Man trying to join The Avengers - with this same line-up, even though Iron Man and Thor had been replaced by Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver by that point - would be done a lot better two years later in Amazing Spider-Man Annual 3 (1966).
Avengers 12 (Jan 1965) gave us a break from the machinations of Kang. The story opens with Giant-Man getting an alert from his ants that there is great danger underground. Giant-Man summons the rest of the Avengers ... but his colleagues seem annoyed to be called in on the say-so of some ants. This is pretty unlikely, as these heroes have been through a lot together and you'd think by now they'd have learned to trust each other. So having Thor flouncing off in a huff because he has "more pressing matters to attend to" doesn't really ring true. I can't think what could be more important as Thor was between adventures, and in his own title that month was battling The Hulk in a flashback to the events of Avengers 3.
A few pages later, The Avengers have a change of heart, but before they can set off to find Hank Pym to see if he needs any help, they're attacked by a squad of The Mole Man's subterraneans. Just as The Avengers prevail, the subterraneans vanish in a wisp of smoke, and the Avengers set off to find Giant-Man. They invade the Mole Man's kingdom, free Giant Man and defeat the underground hordes.
Captain America again had a couple of good scenes. It is he that tries to get Iron Man and Thor to listen to Giant-Man's warning, and it's Cap who prevents a robbery and retrieves vital components for Iron Man's burrowing device. But I'm still not sure what The Red Ghost was doing in there.
Dick Ayers was back inking Don Heck for this issue, though I have to say, this was a much better job than he did on Avengers 9.
|Jack Kirby (with the help of Chic Stone) shows everyone how it should be done, when The Avengers guest-star in X-Men 9 (Jan 1965).|
|The evil Count Nefaria (that's him on the cover, looking like a demented keyboard player) makes America believe The Avengers have turned traitor and soon they're hunted by the US military ...|
I reckon Stan couldn't have been any more pleased with the last few issues of The Avengers than I was. Don Heck is a great artist, but on these early issues, he struggled to deliver his best work. So Stan got Jack Kirby to provide layouts for The Avengers 14 (Mar 1965). And in a bit of a departure, Lee credits himself with the plot, Kirby with layouts (underlining that this isn't a Jack Kirby story) and handed the scripting job off to brother Larry Leiber and the previously unknown "Paul Laiken", obviously a pen-name. There were probably reasons for the alias, but then Stan goes and gives it all away on the letters page by revealing that 14 pages of script were by Larry Leiber and Larry Ivie ... Ivie was perhaps better known as a writer for Jim Warren's Creepy and Eerie, though he contributed scripts to Tower Comics during the latter half of the 1960s as well.
The plot has Thor in a race against time to secure the services of Dr Svenson of Norway who is the only one who can save The Wasp's life. It's the least he can do after how mean he was to Giant-Man just two issues previously. But when Thor grabs the reluctant doctor and flies him back to America, it turns out that Svenson is an alien impersonator. The Avengers' only chance to save The Wasp is to find the rest of the aliens and, hopefully, the real Dr Svenson. Our heroes manage to track the Kallusians to their hidden base in the Arctic. It turns out the aliens are hiding from their enemies on Earth and Dr Svenson is helping them willingly. But The Avengers force the Kallusians to leave Earth and face their hunters in outer space so our planet is not destroyed in the inevitable war when the enemies of Kallu catch up with them. The Wasp is saved ... but we never find out what happened to the Kallusians.
The next few issues of The Avengers I covered in an earlier post. And I'll leave my favourite period of The Avengers - when the lineup changed to Hawkeye, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, lead by Captain America - for another time.
Next month I want to take a look at some of the earliest appearances of Marvel characters on television, starting with ... Captain America.
Next: Marvel Superheroes on TV!