Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: Now With More Silver Age Racism

After a long delay (how long has it been? nobody tell me) I’m finally getting back into the swing of writing these recaps. I’ve missed it! Though these five issues presented kind of a cornucopia of the Silver Age at some of its…not finest. On the bright hand, it also introduces some personal favorites.

Starting off with Avengers #16 – this issue is kind of a big deal. It represents the first major shift for the team line up (of many to come). I don’t count the departure of the Hulk and addition of Captain America as a true line-up change, considering the Hulk barely stuck around for the issues he was in and most of the team stayed the same. In Avengers #16, however, which promises to be “possibly the most memorable illustrated story you will read this year!”, almost all of the former Avengers leave and a new team – one frequently cited as one of the best iterations – takes their place. We’ll see what I make of them, but I’m looking forward to it.

This issue jumps right into the action with the Avengers (minus Captain America) facing off against the Masters of Evil (minus Baron Zemo). The Masters of Evil threaten to destroy the city if the Avengers don’t surrender, in proper villainous fashion. Thor does the natural thing and uses Mjolnir to transport them to an alternate dimension where the Black Knight and the Melter’s weapons don’t work. You know, naturally. At this point I’m starting to wonder what exactly Mjolnir’s powers are, since it appears to have magnetic abilities and dimensional transportation abilities along with its storm-summoning abilities.

It really is a multi-purpose tool. There is a dirty joke there if you look for it.

With the Masters handily defeated, we cut to South America, where Captain America recently defeated Zemo when he was totally, definitely killed in a rock slide. Cap buries Zemo like a decent dude, and the racist caricatures of natives genuflect at Cap’s feet. At least he tells them to stop. Rick Jones and Cap don’t have a plane, but it’s all right because they escape after saving “a white man” from a leopard. Why did they specify the race of this guy? Who knows.

When I said “a cornucopia of the Silver Age’s most questionable” I kind of meant “a cornucopia of racism”.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Thor heads off in Asgard for the Trial of the Gods in Journey Into Mystery #116, which I looked up out of curiosity and is significantly less of a big deal than it sounds. Apparently, Odin sends Thor and Loki to Skornheim (this is not a real mythological place) to find out which one of them has lied to him. I wonder who it could be. I’m sure the answer isn’t “the God of Lies one.”

Back on Earth and in this title, though, the Avengers decide it’s time for a vacation! What a nice idea! They’re all tired and Jan wants to go on dates. That leaves the question open, though, of just who’s going to do the Avenging while they take a break.

Fortunately, one Clint Barton aka Hawkeye introduces himself to the Avengers by firing a smoke arrow into their door, because that seems likely to convince them that he isn’t actually a villain after all, and really he just wants to be a team player. Oh yeah, he also tied up the butler. Bang up job, Clint Barton.

This isn’t Hawkeye’s first appearance. Earlier, he showed up in Iron Man’s title (Tales of Suspense) as a would-be hero mistaken for a criminal. While on the run from the police, he ran into the bewitching Black Widow, who promptly gave him a ride back to her house, whereupon Clint decided he was her best friend/boyfriend. They attempted to kill Iron Man together, only to fail when Black Widow was injured and, instead of finishing the mission, Clint decided to save her.  In Avengers #16 the reader gets a brief, handy recap of these events, meaning that Black Widow’s first appearance in the Avengers comic is as the (semi-)fridged motivation for Hawkeye to mend his ways: her injury and subsequent recapture by those Russian communists convinced him that superheroing is where it’s at.

In order to prove his eligibility as an Avenger, Hawkeye demonstrates his marksmanship – the Avengers are duly impressed with his accuracy in not shooting their butler Jarvis, and Jan notes that he’s hot. This means that she’s mentioned with some enthusiasm the sexiness of every Avenger except, I think, the one she’s supposedly romantically involved with. Never change, Jan.

But even with Clint on the team, that still leaves more spots to fill. The Avengers decide that one likely target for recruiting is Namor, which seems like a weird decision to me considering how many issues they’ve spent fighting Namor. Predictably, Namor is not having it, because teams are for losers, as are human beings.

Fortunately, however, two mutants X-Men readers would recognize are definitely having it: Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, or Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. Having left Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants as of X-Men #11, they are attempting to turn their lives around. After seeing an Avengers Wanted ad in the newspaper, they write to the Avengers requesting to join.

In my notes at this point, I have written “Wanda and Silver Age gender politics, redux”, and the short commentary is “are still unfortunate.” Wanda is written as shy and unwilling to speak out, dominated by her brother, almost all of her characterization tied to him. On the bright side, it makes them a believable pair of close siblings – but on the other hand, it means that Wanda, like Jan, doesn’t get to do much, her self-effacing character causing her to fade somewhat into the background – though actually in upcoming issues she gets to do more than Jan did early on.

The Avengers accept the mutants without, apparently, too many questions asked – and just in time, Captain America returns from South America. There is a traffic jam outside Avengers Mansion, but it’s okay – Cap clears the crowd in a single bound. This is…weird, and for some reason really entertaining to me. Almost immediately, Iron Man announces that Cap is the new team leader before he and the others totally peace out. Cap, thankfully, seems to take this in stride.

Hawkeye’s thought bubble expresses some doubt about the superpowerless Cap leading the team, which is going to be a thing later – Clint has authority problems. Or possibly Cap problems. Or maybe both. At any rate, the issue ends with the introduction of the new team to cheering crowds.

The theme of Avengers #17 is that literally everyone thinks they should be leading the team, except for Wanda, who is a girl, and Rick Jones, who is still bitter he can’t be a real Avenger. The plot concerns, ostensibly, the search for the Hulk, who is off in space, much as he apparently currently is in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Steve decides it’s time to do some assessment of his new team, and takes them down to the training room. Clint continues to be unimpressed by everything, especially Steve, and Quicksilver demonstrates his powers by becoming a crosshatched silhouette, because apparently Don Heck has not figured out how to make “motion blur” work in comics format. This is not the most effective visual representation of Pietro’s powers, but fortunately it will get better.

While they are demonstrating their various skills and abilities (except for Wanda) a robot mysteriously appears, claiming that it has information regarding the Hulk’s whereabouts. Everyone works together to take it down (except Wanda) – when she comments on feeling left out, Clint tells her that it’s fine, she can just stand there and look pretty. I have flashbacks to the outrage on the internet when Kate Bishop told Noh’varr the same thing in Young Avengers, in 2015. It was funnier there.

The robot comes from Mole Man, who is trying to get revenge for his earlier defeat at the hands of the Avengers. When Cap and friends find where the robot came from, they end up trapped in a subterranean cavern and attacked by the Minotaur. Refreshingly enough, it isn’t Wanda who is separated from the group and captured, but Quicksilver – who then proceeds to make fun of Mole Man’s speech patterns by also making fun of Magneto’s speech patterns. Somewhere, Magneto is cutting Quicksilver out of all of the Maximoff family photos and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants group shots.

The rest of the issue is a pretty standard team-up-and-rescue, mostly notable for being the first real adventure for the new team, and their relatively quick ability to pull together and work as a team, despite their bickering. Wanda gets to use her hex magic to defeat the Minotaur, but the Mole Man remains at large – summarily ejecting the Avengers back to the surface when it becomes clear he’s going to be defeated. I wonder if we’ll see him again. (We will.)

And this issue is where things start to get interesting, starting with the title – “When the Commissar Commands”. As promised, this issue is politically themed around fears of Soviet expansion, and also…really fucking racist in ways that are almost even more uncomfortable than the genuflecting South American natives (but really, why choose one when you can have both?).

The issue starts off with some background, including Captain America emoting about how he is Forever Alone (TM) on account of all his friends being dead. It’s actually legit pretty sad. The other Avengers are introduced as well – Wanda and Pietro are restless, but Wanda decides to go enjoy herself at the theater and Pietro goes to the circus, where he saves the Flying Graysons from falling off a high wire and reveals that he has apparently always wanted to join a circus. (Huh?)

And then we switch gears from a recap of the team to a place called “Sin-Cong” where “the Commissar” is making the terrified caricatures of Asian people bow before him while proclaiming the virtues of communism. They protest that they were much happier under the rule of their capitalist American friends.

You thought I was kidding about the racism? I wasn’t kidding about the racism.

Enraged by the peoples’ praise of those darn capitalists, the Commissar proclaims his plans to prove that he is stronger than Every American, by which, naturally, he means “stronger than the Avengers”.

Back in the United States, where the Avengers receive a letter from Sin-Cong asking for some American assistance! Cap is psyched to fight some of them Reds. This continues to be really, really uncomfortable. Both Wanda and Pietro raise some doubts about interfering in international affairs, only to be totally shot down, because why wouldn’t you, as a team of superheroes, interfere in international affairs?

The answer is “because it’s totally a trap”, and while they beat up a bunch of communists Wanda ends up trapped in a dungeon because she apparently can’t use her hex magic when blindfolded (for…some reason). With the Scarlet Witch as his hostage, the Commissar demands that the Avengers all engage with him in single combat, so he can demonstrate his superiority. He handily defeats all of them, but Captain America points out that he’s avoided facing the Scarlet Witch – who reveals hidden machinery that she promptly blows up, revealing that the Commissar was nothing but a robot all along and saving all of their asses. I really hope Wanda trades on this in the future.

It also raises an intriguing question: why is it that the fact that apparently the communists have the ability to build an incredibly lifelike robot that is very strong not very impressive rather than somehow a sign of their inadequacy? I suppose the robot does get destroyed in the end.

Naturally, the natives are all properly grateful to be freed by those awesome American capitalists, and carry Wanda around on their shoulders in celebration. Still racist. Hawkeye inarguably has the best line in this whole mess: “Cap, did you take lessons on how to be a cornball, or does it just come natural?”

It’s natural. Obviously.

Thankfully, the next issue is considerably less uncomfortable, and opens a peculiar semi-arc – a two issue storyline that sets up events in the future. The issue opens with the Swordsman plotting to join the Avengers. The Swordsman, real name “Jacques Duquesne”, makes his first appearance in this issue, more or less out of nowhere, though he is quickly identified as “one of the most dangerous adventurers of all” – a fact which we are presumably to take for granted.

Seeking membership in the Avengers, the Swordsman decides that the best way to join a team of superheroes is to sneak into their house. He is quickly spotted by Wanda and Pietro, who attack him and almost defeat him before he claims to be a friend who was just testing their skills.

Of course, immediately after saying so he smacks Pietro with his sword, which kind of undercuts that claim. Wanda is not happy about this, understandably, and hits him with some bits of machinery. She’s only been here for a few issues and already Wanda has gotten to do more than Jan did in her first ten. Not that I’m upset about Jan getting shafted.

Steve joins Wanda, seemingly recognizing the Swordsman as the aforementioned dangerous adventurer – and Swordsman promptly cuts the power. Apparently, this is the cue for Steve to decide that Wanda and Pietro can probably deal with that problem, as he has some very important brooding to do about the fact that Nick Fury hasn’t responded to the letter Cap sent asking to be a member of Fury’s counterintelligence club. This will be important later.

However, it turns out that one of the team members is actually familiar with the Swordsman from a prior personal encounter: that being Hawkeye, who knows him from his childhood in a traveling circus. This is the first version of Clint Barton’s origin story that we see. He tells Cap that while he was in the circus, he was taken under the wing of two performers there, Trick Shot and the Swordsman. The Swordsman was Clint’s mentor until Clint caught him stealing money from the circus and they fought, ending in the Swordsman leaving Clint for dead.

So basically, Clint says, this guy is bad news bears.

Elsewhere the Swordsman has decided that if you can’t join the Avengers, the next best thing is to beat them. Somewhat randomly, the comic cuts to a HYDRA agent finding Steve’s letter on Fury’s desk and throwing it out a window, where a petty thief passes it on to the Swordsman. The Swordsman, posing as Fury, promptly reaches out to Cap to tell him that he’s totally invited to the secret counterintelligence club, and Steve can’t get out of the Avengers fast enough.

Nice, Steve.

So while Cap is ditching his teammates, Clint out on his own catches a thief who tells him about the trap being set up for Steve, and Clint decides that Glamor Pants probably deserves to be rescued and sets off to rally the troops while Steve follows his instructions to a derelict warehouse and begins to realize that this does not seem totally on the up and up.

He is ambushed by Swordsman, and they fight for a while until Swordsman wins. The Avengers arrive to rescue him, but too late: he is holding Captain America hostage for their surrender. Seeing his team about to give in to save his life, Steve throws himself off the roof.

Captain America dies. That’s it. Totally dead.

Yeah, no, not so much: the power of teamwork totally saves him, and it turns out that Steve expected that because he does believe in his team, aww! Even though he literally ran off to leave them on their own twice this issue.

It seems the others have forgiven (or forgotten) that, though, as they battle the Swordsman together, only for him to suddenly vanish to parts unknown. With the one thing keeping them from bickering gone, Hawkeye and Quicksilver immediately go back to arguing with Cap about how they should each lead the team. Clint makes a crack about how he doesn’t want to fight elderly men, and Quicksilver accuses them both of being too hot tempered to lead, which is kind of hilarious considering the time Quicksilver crossed an ocean to punch Magneto in the face.

Naturally, no one seems to consider that Wanda could lead, because she is a girl and girls don’t lead teams.

While the Avengers bicker, Swordsman has been kidnapped/rescued by another racist caricature, also known as the Mandarin. (Side note: he has a big “M” on the front of his costume, presumably so no one forgets his name.)

The Mandarin wants to destroy the Avengers, because honestly who doesn’t want that, but mostly because of Iron Man (who isn’t even on the team right now). The Swordsman is his in, so he upgrades his sword with some fancy buttons and sends a hologram of Iron Man to tell the Avengers to accept the Swordsman as an Avenger. Everyone is a little bit suspicious of this development, but they go along with it while Mr. Duquesne attaches an evil device to a control panel and broods about how Wanda is too pretty to die.

The Mandarin then apparates into the Swordsman’s bedroom to tell him that the plan is happening now, he’s not going to wait for Iron Man to show up. Swordsman suddenly discovers his conscience and decides that it would not be honorable to blow up his opponents. This plot seems familiar. At any rate, Swordsman goes to remove the bomb. Cap and Hawkeye, with typically great timing, discover him doing so and assume (correctly) that he is a traitor and (incorrectly) that he is planting the bomb. This being a superhero comic, fisticuffs ensue and no one manages to explain themselves.

Swordsman keeps talking lovingly about how good a fighter Cap is. Maybe he and Batroc should hang out and compare Captain America Crush notes.

The Swordsman doesn’t die, though (unlike Wonder Man) and isn’t definitely defeated, either – he manages to slip away, leaving the Mandarin angrily swearing never to work with a partner again. Who can find a decent henchman these days?

So, a lot happened in these issues, though it’s hard to say how much of it is going to come back later. If I had to guess (and not all of this is guesswork) – the Swordsman will be back, and the Commissar will not.

For the most part, right now we’re just getting to know the new team – introducing the players and figuring out the team dynamic (Hawkeye: resident asshole, Cap: tired leader, Wanda: the girl, Pietro: the other resident asshole) during some one-off adventures. Right now, the main team dynamic seems to be a tendency to bicker – we’ll see if they’ll start to become a more cohesive unit later on.

If Wanda fares a little better in these issues than Jan did in her early appearances, it’s only slightly. She is allowed a certain amount of power, and gets to defend her brother – but the vast majority of her characterization is built around her relationship with Pietro. It was fun to see that one panel (one panel) of her going to the theater on her own – it gives us an interest that is particularly Wanda’s. Also in these issues we see the start of a nascent crush Wanda seems to have on Captain America – but that’s not going to go anywhere.

Just like Silver Age racism.

Next Up: Power Man! But not that Power Man. Also, Enchantress is back.


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