Saturday, 29 July 2017

Marvel Comics' 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.


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