Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Avengers Assemble!: A Pseudo-Critical History of The Avengers - Part I

Work As A Team? Why Not? I’m For It!

To find out what it is that makes a superhero series tick, the answer is simple: start at the origin. Peter Parker became the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man because he learnt that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ (Amazing Fantasy #15). Marvel’s first family, the Fantastic Four, banded together to use their extraordinary powers to help mankind. And those mutant outlaws, the X-Men, were gathered together by Professor Charles Xavier to protect mankind from the mutants that would destroy it, all the while preparing for the day that the human race is ready to ‘accept those with extra powers’ (X-Men #1). So let us go back, all the way back, to the very first issue of The Avengers – written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby - and find out how and why the Avengers came to be.

The existence of the Avengers is, in some part, an accident. The five heroes that would found the Avengers – Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and the Wasp – only come together as a result of an attempt by Loki, Norse god of evil, to lure his half brother Thor, god of thunder, into battle. To do so, Loki tricks the Hulk into destroying a railway line, thus leading the world to believe that the green behemoth is once again on a rampage. When the Hulk’s friend, Rick Jones, quickly sends out a distress call to the Fantastic Four, Loki uses his powers to re-direct the message to the radio of Thor’s alter-ego, Donald Blake. But Loki’s plan backfires on him, as the signal is also heard by Iron Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp, each of whom end up helping Thor put a stop to Loki’s scheme. Having dispatched their foe, the five heroes are about to go their separate ways, when Ant Man and the Wasp suggest that they should all combine forces on a more permanent basis. Iron Man readily agrees, and then the mighty thunder god, a pensive smile upon his face, voices his assent with a phrase that will define the team from that day forward:

‘There is much good we might do.’ (Avengers #1)

On one level, the meaning of Thor’s words is obvious – as Earth’s mightiest heroes, the Avengers have the power to do a lot of good for mankind. But consider this: Thor’s words also imply that there is much good that the Avengers might do. The Avengers might save the world, but they might also destroy it. They might all die in battle against an all-powerful foe, or they all might live to fight another day. And just as ‘a strange quirk of fate’ (#1) brought the Avengers together so too might it tear them apart.

Unlike the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, the Avengers have no familial ties or common vision to bind them together; the goals of the team may be as diverse as its membership, and often are. But what the team’s members do share is the potential to make some sort of difference to the world. Whether this will lead them to glory or disaster remains to be seen. Let’s see how well they do.

I Will Never Rest Until The Avengers Are Destroyed!

The threat that the Avengers will fall apart first rears its head in the very next issue, when a shape-shifting alien known as the Space Phantom attempts to create dissension within the Avengers’ ranks by mimicing their forms. In particular, the Phantom’s scheme uncovers the team’s prejudice against the Hulk (who, to be fair, isn’t the most congenial of teammates). ‘I always thought we had made a mistake by letting you join the Avengers…’ says Iron Man as he races in to clean the Hulk’s clock, unaware that it’s really the Phantom he’s fighting, ‘now I’m sure of it!’ (#2) Although the Avengers finally learn the truth, the damage has been done, with the Hulk deciding to quit the team. ‘I never suspected how much each of you hates me, deep down!’ he says, immediately before he leaps off into the distance, ‘I could tell by the way you fought me… by the remarks you made!’ (How he heard these remarks while the Space Phantom kept his body in another dimension is never explained.) With the Hulk’s departure, Lee and Kirby quickly prove that the Avengers are not as invulnerable to change as some readers might have thought they would be.

It seems that Lee and Kirby think that they are on a good thing here, as the possible destruction and/or dissolution of the Avengers provides the basis for most of the plots throughout the early issues. A vengeful Hulk takes on the Avengers in #3 alongside Namor the Sub-Mariner, and then the Sub-Mariner has another go at the Avengers in #4. Whereas the Phantom attempted to divide and conquer, the Hulk and Namor are simply looking to pound the Avengers into dust, like two overgrown kids out for a tussle. There’s certainly a primal thrill attached to watching them duke it out with Thor, Iron Man and the newly christened Giant-Man (formerly Ant-Man), as the sea roars and the rocks crumble around them. Yet even with the boulders flying in all directions, the prospect of real danger still seems somewhat remote, as the destruction is taking place far away from the ordinary people that the Avengers are supposed to protect.

Matters change in issue #6, when the Masters of Evil invade the streets of New York. Unlike the Hulk and Namor, the Masters of Evil generally attack from a distance, with their main weapon being an adhesive spray that, in effect, paralyses anyone it touches. The adhesive is the invention of one Baron Zemo, a Nazi scientist who is out for revenge against the Avengers’ newest recruit, Captain America. Like Loki and the Phantom, Zemo is a schemer, who devises plan after plan in his efforts to break the Avengers up for good. In issue #7 Zemo’s new ally the Enchantress tricks Thor into believing that the Avengers are the enemies of mankind, thus leading to a fight between Thor and the other Avengers. Then, in issue #9 (the first issue drawn by Don Heck), Zemo creates his own ‘super hero’, the tragic-comic Wonder Man, and sends him off to infiltrate the Avengers, only to have his creation turn against him and sacrifice his life for his new teammates.[1] By issues #10 and #11, this plot-line is starting to get a bit tired, as time-travelling villains Immortus and Kang the Conqueror go to unnecessarily complex lengths to try and destroy the Avengers from within. It seems that we are being told that, if by some cruel twist of fate the Avengers are no more, then the world is inevitably doomed.

A refreshing exception to this trend is issue #8, which introduces recurring Avengers foe Kang the Conqueror. It’s an entertaining riff on the classic invasion story, in which a futuristic warlord – i.e. Kang himself - attempts to take over the 20th century. What makes this story so compelling is not that Kang threatens to divide the Avengers, but that, even when united against him, they are hopelessly outmatched. Kang’s superiority is evident from the first moment they see him, relaxing confidently atop a transparent anti gravity chair, futuristic weapon in hand. Nevertheless, the Avengers are somehow able to bring the Conqueror to his knees and are all set to dog-pile on top of him, when Kang coolly presses a button on his belt and imprisons them within his ship. It seems that nothing can stop him now, but fortunately, an error of judgment on Kang’s behalf sets the Avengers free and throws his plans into chaos. A second desperate battle ensues, in which Kang, his battle-suit broken and battered beyond repair, is besieged by a team of Avengers that are hell-bent on making the most of their final chance of defeating the warlord. Eventually, the Avengers send Kang scurrying back to his own time, leaving behind only the fear of his return. However, as Captain America notes, Kang ‘knows now that he isn’t unbeatable… he knows if he returns, the Avengers will be waiting!’ (#8) Maybe, just maybe, amongst all the bickering and in-fighting, there may be a point to the Avengers after all.

Just When the World Has Need of Such a Man

Returning home from their battle with the Hulk and Sub-Mariner, their tails between their legs, the Avengers come across a frozen figure drifting through the ocean. After bringing the figure aboard they are startled to see that, underneath its tattered clothes, is ‘the famous red, white and blue garb of – Captain America!’ (#4) As every comic book fan knows, Captain America was first created as part of a government project to build an army of ‘super-solders’ during the Second World War.[2] It turns out that the last thing he remembers is chasing down an explosive filled drone plane alongside his teenage sidekick, Bucky Barnes. Eventually, the plane exploded, killing Bucky instantly, while the Captain was sent plummeting into the icy waters below. There, ‘by some fantastic stroke of fate’ (#4), an ice flow kept him frozen in a state of suspended animation, until the Sub-Mariner (inadvertently) freed him twenty years later.

Needless to say, the Captain is none too happy about the man who caused the death of his young friend – Baron Zemo. ‘On my oath as an Avenger, I shall devote my life, if need be, to finding the one who caused Bucky’s death!’ he says to Rick Jones, ‘Only then will I be able to find peace!’ (#6) Captain America’s feud with Zemo provides the thrust for a lot of the Avengers’ early adventures. While, on one level, these battles are driven by the combatants’ need for revenge, they also represent a battle of values between the U.S. of A and its totalitarian enemies. ‘I still remember how you sneered at democracy…’ says the Captain to Zemo in their first battle after his re-awakening, ‘How you called Americans soft… timid… too spoiled to fight for freedom! … Feel my grip, Zemo! It’s the grip of a free man! Look into my eyes tyrant! They’re the eyes of a man who would die for liberty!’ (#6) As we shall see, while there are many interpretations of ‘good’, the Avengers generally come down on the side of freedom. And Captain America, with the American flag emblazoned upon his costume, is seemingly the perfect figure to uphold these ideals. Other heroes, who are sooped up on gamma rays and the like, may have more power, but they are also more dangerous, more unpredictable, like a nuclear bomb waiting to explode. In contrast, Captain America’s good right fist and mighty shield is something that people can trust in unconditionally. After all, it’s wise not to leave too much to fate.

The Captain’s commitment, however, comes at a cost. For one thing, he is obsessed with gaining revenge on Zemo, to the point where he is having hallucinations of the Nazi scientist (see #9). And while, after their meetings, the other Avengers go back to their civilian lives, Captain America simply returns to brooding around the team’s mansion.[3] Captain America is the first of the ‘outsider’ figures in The Avengers – a mantle that would later be taken be up by Goliath (formerly Giant-Man) and the Vision. Like Captain America, they too would have a characteristic that separated them from others – Goliath because of his abnormal size, the Vision because he is an android – and, as a consequence, they too would have no life outside of their costume identities.[4] While it is OK to be a superhero; being nothing but a super-hero is perceived as somewhat unnatural. That the Captain sees himself as nothing but a crime-fighter is suggested soon after he is revived, when he tells the Avengers that he is ‘not lucky enough’ to forget himself forever (he then pulls on his mask) ‘to forget that I was once the man called Captain America!’ (#4) It seems that, as long as Zemo lives, Steve Rogers is gone, and only the man named Captain America remains. Happily for him, however, he finally avenges Bucky’s death in issue #15, when Zemo’s disintegrator gun causes a fatal rockslide. Zemo’s final defeat not only brings an end to The Avengers as we have known it, but is also gives the good Captain a chance to re-discover his humanity.

The Old Must Ever Give Way To The New!

Issue #16 marks a crucial turning point in the history of The Avengers. Having defeated the Masters of Evil for the fifth time in less than a year a weary Avengers team returns to the Mansion to wrap things up. Once there the Wasp, echoing Ant Man speech when the two of them first suggested forming the Avengers, tells the others she has something to say. ‘Why don’t all of us take a leave of absence?’ she asks, her head in her hands, ‘I’m tired of all this fighting.‘ (#16) And as he did in issue #1, Iron Man readily agrees - whereas then he said ‘Why not?’ to the idea of working together, now his response is ‘Why don’t we disband while we have the chance?’ (All we need now is for Thor to chime in with, ‘There is much loafing we might do’, but unfortunately he’s elsewhere.) But just when it looks like this may be the end for Earth’s mightiest heroes fate intervenes once again as, right on cue, a ready-made replacement turns up on the doorstep in the form of Hawkeye the archer. Hawkeye claims that he’s looking to make up for his past misdeeds by joining the Avengers, and he’s not the only one. Soon after, former X-Men foes Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch arrive on American shores, hoping to redeem themselves for being forced to fight alongside the evil mutant Magneto. When Cap returns home from his fight with Zemo, the original Avengers say their goodbyes and the new line-up is complete.

With issue #16, the old order has changed forever. The Avengers have gone from being a collection of Marvel’s premiere heroes to a ragtag bunch of former crooks (and in the case of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch mutants to boot).[5] From this point onwards, creators would mix and match characters depending on their particular vision for the title. Furthermore, each cast would bring with it its own internal dynamics and plot threads. In the case of ‘Cap’s Kooky Quartet’, the interest stems from Cap’s efforts to lead his ‘young, hot-headed, [and] ambitious…’ (#17) charges. Quicksilver and especially Hawkeye are both keen to replace Cap as leader, and each setback brings with it a barrage of taunts and questions about Cap’s ability to lead the team. Captain America, for his part, appears more interested in honing his new teammates’ fighting skills than in trying to manage any interpersonal conflicts. For example, in #19, he is pleased to find out that he has been accepted to join a secret counter-intelligence unit because it means he will be ‘in action all the time’. When Quicksilver wonders how this will affect his ability to lead the Avengers, he tells him that ‘when you can point to a record like mine, then I’ll discuss it further with you!’ (#19) For Cap, a hero’s worth is defined by the training they’ve done and the battles they’ve won, and to hell with the rest.

Cap finally wins Hawkeye’s everlasting respect in issue #29, when he forgives the archer for not taking a clear shot at his former crush, the Black Widow, thus allowing her to escape. ‘We’re all Avengers, yes…’ he says, consoling his teammate, ‘But we’re also human beings, with feelings, and emotions! You did what you could…’ (#29) With these comments, Captain America shows that he is engaging with his teammates as people, rather than as components of a unit that he has pledged to keep together. And Hawkeye, for his part, realizes that this old warhorse may actually have some things to teach him after all.

The other notable feature of the new team is that they are considerably less powerful than their predecessors, and primarily rely upon speed and skill to win the day. The contrast is made even starker by the fact that Don Heck’s figures tend to be smaller and leaner than the muscle-bound figures of Jack Kirby. Consequently, while the new team fight their fair share of gargantuan foes, the most memorable issues are those in which they face off against an opponent of similar skill, such as the Swordsman (issues #19-20), or are thrown into the middle of a giant army, e.g. the legions of Kang (issues #23-24). This can be fun to watch, but it’s a little unsatisfying (and dare we say it, a little dorky), because the characters are too weak to fight huge ‘super-hero battles’, but are too esoteric to be doing anything else. Fortunately, the next creative team would be somewhat more successful in dealing with this problem.

Covers copyright Marvel Comics

[1] Although his character would be expanded upon years later, in his first appearance Wonder Man is basically Zemo’s twisted parody of a super-hero: corny name, generic costume, and designed to last for no longer than a week.
[2] He was also co-created by Avengers artist Jack Kirby, back in the days when Marvel was Timely Publications.
[3] A quick roll call: Iron Man is billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, Thor’s alter-ego is surgeon Donald Blake, Ant-Man/Giant-Man is biochemist Henry Pym, and the winsome Wasp is heiress Janet Van Dyne.
[4] Goliath was unable to revert to his normal size during issues #28-35.
[5] Having said that, no-one seems particularly bothered by this. The Avengers essentially overlook their new members’ criminal pasts, and the media treat them as if they were royalty. Of course, it may help that Captain America is standing alongside them, but it may also be that, by this point, the Avengers have involved into a ‘supra-concept’ that has meaning beyond its individual members. Interestingly, in issue #16, the Avengers also invite the Sub-Mariner to join, which he would do so many years later. The public response to his induction is less than effusive.

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