Friday, February 19, 2010

The Evolution of the Avengers

I've been taking advantage of Marvel's digital comics to reread the early issues of the Avengers. I hadn't read most of these comics since the 1960s so it I have a different perspective.

For now I'm covering issues 1-9. The first eight of these were Lee/Kirby with Don Heck taking over as artist with issue nine.

First, general impressions - Marvel had three team comics during this period - the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and the X-Men. Even though Lee and Kirby did the early issues of all three, each had a very different feel. They were all pretty early in the overall evolution of Marvel. Pages were broken up into regular panels - four or six to a page. Stories were self-contained but there was some continuity between issues.

The FF and the X-Men were almost families. The Avengers was different because it was a collection of heroes who already had their own books. They barely knew each other and none of them shared his secret identity with the others.

In some ways, the Avengers was a marketing ploy. Each issue introduced all of the characters enough that you could pick up their own books and know what was going on. There was always a couple of panels of Thor as Don Blake, often with his nurse, Jane Foster. You always knew that Iron Man was really Tony Stark and that his armor had to be recharged regularly or he would die. Issues with the Hulk usually included Bruce Banner and often included General "Thunderbolt" Ross and his daughter.

The Avengers spent a lot of time fighting each other and the Sub-Mariner. They joined to fight the Hulk. In issue #2, an alien impersonated different members making them fight some more. In issue #3, the Hulk quit and fought the Avengers, escaped, fought then joined the Sub-Mariner, and finally the two of them fought the Avengers. In issue #4, the Sub-Mariner tossed the piece of ice containing Captain America into the ocean. Later he and some of his Atlanteans fought the Avengers. In issue #5, the Lave Men pushed a "living rock" into the surface world in the South-West. The Hulk appeared and fought the Avengers (again) in the middle of this. Finally, in issue #7, Thor was magically hypnotized into attacking the other Avengers.

Not many memorable characters were invented during this period. Baron Zemo was introduced when Captain America was revived. We first saw him in issue #7 and he died in issue #15 although his son is still around.

Issue #8 finally created a memorable new (sort of) character - Kang the Conqueror. Kang had actually appeared twice before as the FF villain, Rama Tut, but here he was given a new name, costume, and technology. Between his advanced armor and his space/time ship, he was able to take on the Avengers single-handed.

Issue #9 introduced Wonder Man. He died at the end of the issue but came back from the dead several times, even having his own comic book for a while.

Issue #9 also marked the end of Jack Kirby's run and the beginning of Don Heck's. I always thought of Kirby as the superior artist but this issue surprised me. I realized that I have been judging Kirby by his later work. In 1964, Kirby was still a conservative artist. Heck's work was much more dynamic. He did not limit himself to regular panels or angles. It would be another couple of years before Kirby's work changed.

One last thing that struck me was how difficult it was to balance a team with Thor. Often either Thor or Captain America would end up separated from the others. In fact, Thor was much more powerful than the other Avengers put together so most plots had to work around this somehow. I suspect that this was one reason that Stan changed the line-up after a couple of years.

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