This post marks the beginning of a new project – that is, an effort on my part to read through, recap, analyze, and summarize the entirety of the Avengers comics, starting from 1968 and, ideally, all the way up through 2016. Am I insane? Possibly.
Inspired in part by the excellent podcast X-Plain the X-Men, and by the realization that a) nothing similar, as far as I know, exists for the Avengers (my personal pet superhero team), I intend to try to do something on the order of five issues per week, including images from the issues in question and commentary on notable moments. At the moment, my plan is to cover only comics with “Avengers” in the name – so this will include West Coast Avengers and the various New/Uncanny/All-New, All-Different in the modern age, but for the most part not the solo series of team members.
So! Moving forward.
Avengers #1 was released on September 10, 1963, inspired by the success of the Justice League comic published by DC. The line up of the first team included five previously existing characters, each of whom had previously appeared in their own comics: the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man in Tales of Suspense, Thor in Journey Into Mystery (which became Thor in 1966), and Ant Man and the Wasp in Tales to Astonish. All were relatively new, however; the Wasp (Janet van Dyne) was only introduced in June of 1963.
The first issue largely serves to bring the team together through the machinations of Loki (who had made his first appearance in Journey Into Mystery #85 (1962) as Thor’s archnemesis. From his imprisonment on the Silent Isle, Loki attempts to attract Thor’s attention by provoking the Hulk, making it seem as though he is on the rampage. This marks the first time Loki is the catalyst for the Avengers forming, but not the last: he has since been instrumental in the establishment of the Mighty Avengers team (disguised as Scarlet Witch) and the second incarnation of the Young Avengers, as well as the Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Loki, bringing people together since 1963.
Rick Jones, a teenage character who is friends with the Hulk, hears about the Hulk’s apparent attack and goes to his ham radio club, the Teen Brigade. I’m not sure why this detail sticks out to me – maybe it’s because the name “Teen Brigade” is inexplicably funny. Regardless, he radios the Fantastic Four for help (at that time, the only established superhero team). Loki diverts the signal, however, leading to the convergence of four of the future team members: Iron Man, Thor, Ant Man and the Wasp.
The rest of the issue involves the attempts of Iron Man, Ant Man and the Wasp to capture the Hulk (without success), as Thor hares off to the Silent Isle to confront Loki, where despite attacks by some very ugly trolls he manages to…magnetize Mjolnir so Loki sticks to it, and bring him back to Earth, where the Avengers imprison him in a lead lined chamber. (It’s lead lined because he made himself radioactive, for some reason.)
A few things stuck out to me, reading this first issue – one major thing was the way the Hulk was written. Modern readers have gotten used to the idea of the Hulk as a brutish, semi-intelligent beast who speaks in monosyllables and the third person (“Hulk smash!”). In this, the Hulk is both articulate (speaking in complete sentences and attempting to defend himself) and intelligent (when he accidentally destroys train tracks, he prevents a derailment by lifting up the tracks and supporting them with his body, and hides himself in a circus by pretending to be a robot). It’ll be interesting to track when and where the way the Hulk is written changes.
Another interesting note was the use of exposition: namely that there was a lot of it. This is a quality of early comics in general, and it was particularly noticeable here (and in the first few issues in general). Characters explain exactly what they’re doing at all times. It reminds me of the way comics have grown and changed as a medium, particularly having just read another issue of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Black Widow, which frequently has entire pages without any text, relying solely on the art to tell the story.
The other thing I want to talk about (and will probably be talking about a lot) is gender, but I’ll leave that to the end of this post, after summing up the next few issues. Avengers #2 features an interesting villain that I don’t think has been used in a while – Space Phantom, who has the ability to take on the body of anyone, and transfers that person into Limbo for as long as he possesses their form. He’s defeated in a rather disappointing literal deus ex machina, however, when he attempts to take on Thor’s form only to be sucked into Limbo himself, because apparently gods can’t go to Limbo. All right.
The fact that the Space Phantom uses Hulk to attempt to divide and conquer the Avengers, however, reveals their suspicion of him, causing the Hulk to angrily abandon the Avengers after one issue and cause a great deal of the conflict for the next three. It’s interesting that Hulk gets counted as a major Avengers founder when he really only joins the team for one issue, and spends most of the next one in Limbo while someone else takes his place.
The Avengers, disheartened by Hulk’s disappearance and concerned about what he might get up to, approach other superhero teams for help – namely, the Fantastic Four, the newly formed X-Men, and Spider Man. This sequence of panels was incredibly interesting to me, because it really shows how new the Avengers are as a team – far from the cornerstone of the line that they are today. While the Avengers look for help, Hulk finds an ally of his own in none other than Namor the Sub-Mariner, who is one of my weird favorites primarily because he is a glorious misanthrope who hates elevators. Namor, who hates the human race for reasons that are relatively unimportant, chooses to ally himself with the Hulk (while planning to stab him in the back later. The Hulk really gets a raw deal in these issues.).
The pair are, of course, defeated – Wasp makes a bid for independence and is almost immediately crushed by the falling rocks of Silver Age gender politics. Also, literal falling rocks. Thor also uses the phrase “to me, my enchanted club!” which, while hilarious, is not a very elegant catch phrase.
The enraged, fleeing Namor goes north and finds a group of “Eskimos” apparently worshiping a figure frozen in a block of ice, and I would like to take a moment to look at that sentence and recognize how awful it is. I fully expect that to not be the worst racism I’ll encounter in this read through, but wow. Namor flings the block of ice into the sea, where it floats until the Avengers fish it out of the water on account of the human figure inside it, and find none other than the final member of what will become the stable Avengers team for the next twelve issues: Captain America.
The rest of this issue is fairly irrelevant – the team fights Namor and his Atlanteans, Captain America is made an official Avenger, and Thor uses Mjolnir’s magnet powers (?) to pull an alien spaceship out of the ocean. Right now, each issue is mostly a one shot with a few plot threads carrying over from issue to issue, the team battling a different villain every time. Avengers #5 introduces the Lava Men, who become a lot more complicated and continue to come back as recurring villains (but never particularly major ones). Betty Ross appears, and Thor walks into some lava, but there are no particularly significant developments.
Interesting notes: Iron Man’s (very ugly) golden suit only lasts for one issue, becoming the more familiar red and gold in issue #2. At this point, the Wasp and Ant Man use “shrinking capsules” to change size – it’ll be interesting to watch how that develops. Wasp’s stings have also yet to make an appearance, but that may be because Wasp doesn’t get to do very much.
Which leads me nicely into what’s going to be real fun: Silver Age gender politics. Like Jean Grey in X-Men and Sue Storm in Fantastic Four, Janet’s role is to be the girl of the team. She gets a little more character than I expected right off the bat – she’s vivacious, talkative, and outgoing – but a lot of that character is based around men. Namely, the fact that she comments on the attractiveness or lack thereof of literally every male character. She also doesn’t get to participate much in fights, since at this point her power set is basically just “shrinks and flies” – much like Sue Storm, it’s a primarily passive or defensive power. She uses it in Avengers #4 to distract Namor and throw him off balance, and while the Space Phantom is impersonating Iron Man she is able to partially disable his suit, but she is not a particularly equal participant, and Ant Man (Hank Pym) is frequently downright dismissive of her.
That being said, however, I do kind of love her thing for Thor, mostly because her appreciation for him is so over the top it’s almost objectification, making her the one who initiates and allowing her to assert interest (rather than being the object of that interest). It’s a small thing, and doesn’t mitigate that her main characteristic at this point is “boy-crazy”, but it does make her more interesting. Being the only girl on the team, of course, doesn’t do her any favors.
Next up: Zemo and the Masters of Evil! Rick Jones fights Atilla the Hun! and Enchantress gets to wear some great pants.