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.

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Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: Even an Avenger Can(‘t) Die

Avengers #11-15 are an odd set of issues. The last five to feature the first iteration of the team (before a shuffle happens in #16), they mostly feature few one offs with various villains, most of whom will come back but none of whom are particularly memorable at this point. On the other hand, Wasp gets to do things! Sort of. Sometimes.

One note/correction to earlier recap posts – Kang the Conquerer and Immortus are the same person, sort of. Or, Immortus is Kang’s alternate future self. Both are the same character as Rama-Tut from Fantastic Four #19 and also the same character as Iron Lad of the first team of Young Avengers. Comics are fun and trying to make sense of continuity is an exercise in futility. I will continue to try to do it anyway!

Kicking things off in Avengers #11, which introduces the first of what are to become many, many guest appearances of Spider-Man. He has to start appearing in every book at some point, right? As far as I can tell, this is one of the first series where Peter Parker guest stars in a book other than his own.

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Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: Zemo and the Masters of Evil

Here we are, for the second edition of Elise Reads the Avengers, and the continuing coverage of the wild and (sometimes) wonderful Silver Age. In these five issues, the series starts to find its footing, with the appearance of some recurring villains and a more credible threat – although abrupt end of issue solutions continue, and Wasp still doesn’t get to do much.

The cover of Avengers #6 promises “more super heroes, super villains, and more super bonehead mistakes”, and it certainly delivers on…some of that. After opening with a brief reminder of how Cap Wants Revenge on Zemo for his role in killing Bucky back in the 1940s, we travel to the wilds of South America to meet the man himself, wearing one of the best supervillain outfits there is, and what basically looks like a bucket made out of fabric over his head, though he calls it a “hood.”

After literally using the backs of some South American natives as a boardwalk, Zemo proceeds to discuss how he is desperately searching for a solution, because apparently his reason for wearing a very stupid hood is that it is literally stuck to his face. While working as a scientist for Der Fuehrer [sic], Zemo wore a purple hood with his Nazi uniform to disguise himself from his enemies, despite the fact that really, a purple hood makes you stick out more. But when Captain America spilled a bunch of experimental “Adhesive X” on him, the hood ended up stuck, where it has apparently been for the last twenty years.

The main question that comes to mind is: what kind of nefarious plans did the Nazis have for super strong glue? 

Regardless, this is Baron Helmut von Zemo’s backstory. A major Captain America villain and recurring Avengers villain, and while he’s got the whole “Nazi” thing going for him, his major claim to fame is that he was making very strong glue and got a hood stuck to his face.

Joining him, without much introduction, is the first iteration of another name that’ll keep coming back: the Masters of Evil. They don’t actually call themselves that in the comic (probably a good PR move) but Black Knight, the Melter, and Radioactive Man, all former opponents of solo Avengers, attack them under the leadership of Zemo (who seeks to kill Captain America). They are…not a very impressive team, as might be guessed by the fact that one of them is just named “the Melter”. This Black Knight is a different one from the one who later becomes a superhero who will be on the Avengers himself (that one is Dane Whitman, this one is Professor Nathan Garrett).

Impressive or not, however, they do succeed in miring all of the Avengers in the aforementioned Adhesive X, which would be a problem except that Paste Pot Pete has a special dissolving agent. Paste Pot Pete, a minor supervillain here offered parole for unsticking the heroes, later changed his awful code name to the slightly less awful “Trapster”, which is less hilarious but also less memorable.

All in all, this was a weird issue.

Avengers #7 opens with Tony being suspended because he didn’t answer an Avengers call over in his own comic, probably because his heart is malfunctioning (as the exposition helpfully informs us) and no one must know that Iron Man & Tony Stark are the same person! Oh yes – that’s currently the state of Iron Man’s secret identity, which will be true for the next long, long while. Given that Iron Man comes back later in this issue to help save the day, and his suspension never comes up again, I’m not entirely certain what the point of suspending him is, unless perhaps it’s just for continuity purposes.

That done, the team splits up in a move that everyone knows is going to end poorly, Rick Jones cosplays Bucky (to Steve’s displeasure) and everyone else goes off to do their own thing somewhere else.

Meanwhile, on Asgard, Enchantress and Executioner are being exiled from Asgard for attacking Thor. Enchantress (also known as Amora, like amor, for love, get it) is primarily a Thor villain, characterized mainly by her overwhelming lust for Thor and determination to make him hers. Executioner (also known as Skurge, like scourge, because he’s mean, get it) is her beefy muscle, primarily characterized by his overwhelming lust for Amora. We also get a great family resemblance shot of both Odin and Thor pointing dramatically and declaiming in this issue, which is apparently a genetic trait.

(Side note: Loki pops up in the background to cackle in a sinister fashion about how Enchantress and the Executioner only attacked Thor because he made them do it. Oh, Loki, you cad.)

Of course, Enchantress and Executioner find their way to meeting up with Zemo, who is looking for some new henchmen-slash-co-workers, and they quickly team up. Seeing her chance, Amora tracks down Thor while he is on his own, and hypnotizes/brainwashes him into seeing the Avengers as enemies, which leads to a…mildly anticlimatic flight because the light of the sun apparently dispels evil hypnotic influences, which seems like good information to remember. Successfully un-brainwashed, Thor uses Mjolnir to make a space warp, which it can apparently do? The ship carrying Zemo, Enchantress, and the Executioner is warped to an unknown location.

One common trait of these early issues seems to be the introduction of a new villain, an extensive fight, and a rather abrupt solution. This is probably a side effect of another trait of Silver Age comics, which is their sheer density – each issue contains a complete story that might in a modern comic be spread over a complete arc. This story, for instance, concerning Iron Man’s suspension, Zemo’s recruitment of Enchantress/Executioner, Thor’s brainwashing and the inter-hero battle, would probably take several issues to write in today’s pacing, but at this point it’s all finished in one issue. There are benefits and drawbacks to this compact style of writing, but personally I find that it ends up feeling a little rushed most of the time.

Another note about the current form of the Avengers team is the state of leadership, which rotates from member to member. We see Wasp advocating for a permanent leader, but as of yet no one’s taking her up on that. So far, notably, Wasp has not been a team leader. You may also note that I have not mentioned Wasp much so far, and that is because she still isn’t getting to do much other than make periodic stereotypically “female” comments about clothing and boys. Her and Hank Pym’s relationship is also not yet defined – there have been some hints toward romance but nothing definite.

The next issue, though, Avengers #8, introduces yet another Avengers villain who will bedevil them through the modern era: Kang the Conquerer. Kang, a time traveler from the year 3000, previously appeared in Fantastic Four working with Doctor Doom and as the time-traveling Pharoah Rama-Tut (in an issue that has been rewritten several different times). He also, according to his narration, traveled to the far future and took over a dying Earth, and is now back to take over present Earth! Kang is kind of a continuity snarl that no one needs right now, so we’ll leave that alone and just focus on this specific story, which is fairly basic.

Kang the Conqueror announces his intent to take over the Earth using his superior future technology, with which he manages to handily best everything that comes at him – including our heroes. Wasp gets to again attempt heroics, but has to be rescued, because Silver Age comics. Eventually she’ll get to do stuff! I assume. However, she does remain uncaptured, unlike the other Avengers, and she and Rick Jones escape to attempt retaliation of their own.

This is a perfect opportunity to give Janet a chance to shine on her own, but of course that isn’t what happens – Rick fetches the Teenage Brigade and Wasp’s contribution is to bring Ant Man a weapon. By pretending to join Kang, the Teenage Brigade enters the ship and frees the other Avengers, who manage to defeat Kang the second time around.

I feel like I am expected to care about Rick Jones, but I really don’t. It seems as though he’s meant to be the point-of-entry character for the presumed reader of the comic – the young boy – similar to the role Kitty Pryde played in the second team of X-Men. In this, though, he just feels out of place and uninteresting, since his character is basically “plucky teenage sidekick” who doesn’t even have the bonus of making bad puns a la Dick Grayson as Robin.

Having handily defeated Kang, the Masters of Evil return in Avengers #9, which introduces yet another character in his first incarnation (who will be back again). This is Wonder Man, otherwise known as Simon Williams. Simon Williams was an inventor who embezzled funds from his company after Tony Stark’s work rendered his own worthless.

On trial for embezzlement, his bail is paid by none other than Enchantress, who offers him revenge in the form of being bombarded by experimental energy by a Nazi scientist, making him an invulnerable being of ionic energy known as Wonder Man. However, it seems Simon didn’t read the fine print, because the ionic energy will also kill him without an antidote that only Zemo possesses. There is no way this could possibly go wrong. Also, I am sure this is all legitimate science.

By attacking the Avengers, Zemo creates an opportunity for Wonder Man to “miraculously” save them, allowing him to infiltrate the group. However, it really seems pretty unnecessary since the only thing Wonder Man really does is lure the Avengers to South America, which can basically be done by telling Captain America “hey, Zemo’s in South America” as far as I can tell. Also, Wasp is literally damseled for this (as in, kidnapped and tied up by Zemo), oh boy. This was the first reference I’ve spotted to the Wasp’s Sting that becomes Jan’s primary offensive power, though, if only to note that she can’t use it.

The Avengers are handily beaten, Iron Man mostly by the use of…a giant magnet. There seems to be kind of a weird fascination with magnets at this point in continuity – Mjolnir is a magnet, a giant horseshoe magnet is basically sufficient to defeat Iron Man, and over in X-Men Magneto’s powers are basically magic, because you can do anything with magnets. This might also be a time to note another interesting character detail that’s been disgarded since – at this point, when Thor is separated from Mjolnir for 40 seconds he reverts into his Donald Blake persona. I wonder if that changes only when he and Donald Blake are “officially” separated after Thor: Disassembled or if it gets dropped before then.

Anyway, once the Avengers are all beaten Wonder Man realizes that he’s been working for a Nazi and turns on Zemo – or actually mostly because the Avengers were honorable foes, which is something multiple opponents have counted on, in case we weren’t sure. Tragically, however, Simon Williams perishes due to not receiving Zemo’s antidote in time. He’s dead forever. Really.

(He isn’t.)

The Masters of Evil retreat to fight another day, though, ending this set of issues with probably the weirdest one I’ve read so far. Opening with a classic “oh no! The Avengers fight amongst themselves!” sequence that turns out to just be them training against each other (Steve continues to establish himself as the team badass, complaining that he could only defeat the other four for 47 seconds rather than a minute). Mostly it just serves to remind the reader of the team order and set up the next story, which is mostly about a new recurring villain.

This one is Immortus (the Master of Time! the one who rules Limbo, where things never change! as the narration helpfully informs us) and he’ll be back. At this point he doesn’t get a lot of backstory – he’s mostly just an evil dude who makes a petition to join the Masters of Evil, who demand he prove himself by defeating the Avengers.

Oh, but first the Executioner fights Paul Bunyan.

I love this issue, you guys.

Basically, Immortus’s schtick in this issue is summoning various figures from across time to fight on his behalf. In order to lure the Avengers into his trap, however, he places an ad that basically amounts to “free superpowers at this address!” Rick Jones decides this sounds like a great deal, mostly because he wants to join the Avengers, and runs into Immortus, where he fights Atilla the Hun.

Rick Jones fights Atilla the Hun. Yep. Honestly I don’t even know what I like best about this.

With Rick Jones having been captured and sent to the Tower of London (explaining this issue feels kind of like explaining comics, in a nutshell), Captain America goes looking for him only to find Immortus – and apparently just believes a random, weirdly dressed dude when he says that the Avengers sent Rick Jones to be imprisoned as a means to control him? This is not a high point for Steve Rogers’ critical thinking skills.

At any rate, he obediently brings the Avengers to Immortus, who then declares that the Avengers will have to each fight a “specially selected foe from the past” before he returns Rick.

In a very civilized manner, the Avengers proceed to do single combat with Immortus’s chosen champions. Ant-Man and Wasp fight Goliath, Iron Man fights Merlin, and Thor fights Hercules – all of them, of course, manage to defeat their chosen foe. Also, Ant Man uses himself as a stone against Goliath, which is kind of a highlight. Meanwhile, Captain America gets transported back to the Tower of London, where he fights his way through the guards and returns with a rescued Rick Jones.

With Immortus defeated, disappointingly, this fantastic plot concludes with Enchantress transporting everyone back in time to before Immortus contacted the Masters of Evil, this time ignoring his transmission. This is an anticlimactic end to this issue, but I am now thinking what other historico-mythological figures I want to see superheroes fight. You know, because.

Overall, this second set of issues sticks out mostly for the introduction of longer term opponents of the Avengers – the Masters of Evil, Zemo, Immortus, Kang the Conquerer. Not much else changes here – the issues are a little more connected, sequentially, and it feels more like the characters are better defined – with the exception of Wasp, who even more than in the first few issues stays underwritten and is given little to do. The fact that she doesn’t get her own individual fight with Immortus is emblematic of her status on the team as primarily adjunct to Hank. At this point, Rick Jones is more of a character than Jan is, which bugs me.

Pun not intended.

Next Up: Spider Man guest stars! Count Nefaria is, surprisingly, a bad guy! The Watcher makes an appearance, and even an Avenger can die (no they can’t).

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: Something Colorful and Dramatic

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.

 

Comics Recaps #1: Captain America #179, “Slings and Arrows”

Every so often you run into an issue of a comic that is so beautiful it boggles the mind. This issue of Captain America, published in 1968, is one of those issues. (This recap was previously posted on my inactive comics tumblr, lisereadscomics.

Previously in volume 1 of Captain America (#176, to be precise), Steve Rogers, disillusioned with corruption in the government, quits being Captain America.

In this issue, walking with Sharon Carter, Steve discusses the virtues of being a private citizen, now that crime-busting isn’t cramping his style when an arrow flies out of nowhere. Cap quickly finds himself pinned to a wall, but this is quickly solved by literally flexing himself out of his clothes.

Steve Rogers: can't keep his shirt on.

How often do you think he needs to get new shirts? Every time you flex too much, whoops, there goes another one.

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