|Stan set quite a challenge for himself. How to take Marvel's best-selling team book, and replace the A-list heroes Thor, Iron Man and Giant-Man with three B-list villains. It worked out much better than anyone expected ...|
|Just as the core members of the team are discussing the idea of some time off, former Iron Man villain Hawkeye shows up looking to join. Without the slightest whiff of suspicion, they accept his application.|
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|Though the Avengers had fought The Sub-Mariner in the past - Avengers 3 (Jan 1964) - Iron Man realises that the new team will need some heavy-lifters, and Namor seems to fit the bill.|
|From Strange Tales 128 (Dec 1964) - Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch desperately look for someone to help free them form the clutches of master mutant Magneto, a despot who will stop at nothing until he has enslaved or destroyed human-kind.|
|Stan offers a quick potted history of Pietro and Wanda for any Marvelites who may not have read any X-Men comics. I was certainly aware of the two and the Evil Mutants' loss was the Avengers' gain, as far as I was concerned.|
The other challenge here was that all these decisions were being taken without the involvement of Captain America. How was he going to react to find out that his team-mates had decided to take a break, and recruit a bunch of novices as replacements, in his absence?
Even though Captain America was, at that point, the newest member of the Avengers, with the departure of Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man and The Wasp, he naturally jumped to the head of the queue in seniority. And though he never sought the role of leader, it was thrust upon him, nevertheless. And this made for a great situation as far as the drama was concerned.
The last page of Avengers 16 had Iron Man, Giant-Man and The Wasp in a back room of the Avengers Mansion, sombrely preparing to take their leave. Stan highlights in the dialogue that Thor is elsewhere - in a place beyond the comprehension of we mere mortals - undergoing the Trial of the Gods.
So Giant-Man and the Wasp head off into an uncertain future, the cancellation of their own strip in Tales to Astonish just four months way. And Iron Man switches to Tony Stark and drives away in his limo, his thoughts suggesting that he'll never see his old Avengers companions again. Was Stan already planning the demise of Giant Man, and looking to take Thor in a more mythical, less-Earthbound direction? In the end it didn't turn out that way, but it does appear to have crossed Stan's mind at this point.
|Just Captain America and three second-rate villains stand between mankind and the menaces that lay ahead. The team's only hope ... to find The Hulk and somehow convince him to re-join their ranks.|
THEN THERE WERE FOURThe first adventure for the new team was "Four Against the Minotaur", in Avengers 17 (Jun 1965). Right from the first page, it was obvious that Stan was going to be taking this book in a completely new direction. As Cap addresses his new charges for the first time, Stan telegraphs the dissension in the ranks with Hawkeye's and Quicksilver's thought balloons.
Only The Scarlet Witch seems prepared to give the battle-hardened Captain America the benefit of the doubt. But all that's quickly forgotten when a large robot crashes through the wall of the mansion, bringing a message from its master: "You'll find the Hulk in the desert". Hawkeye suspects they'll be heading into a trap but Cap, playing a hunch, leads the team to the spot where The Hulk helped them battle the Lava Men a year earlier (Avengers 5, May 1964). Of course, it is a trap, and the waiting Mole Man unleashes a giant Minotaur on the quartet. As the battle rages, Quicksilver is separated from the others and is captured by the Mole Man's subterranean minions.
It doesn't take long for the team to despatch the monster and find Quicksilver. Realising he's severely outmatched, the Mole Man decides to cut his losses and sends the superheroes back to the surface. So the Avengers (sort-of) triumph, but leave the desert without ever catching a glimpse of The Hulk.
Overall, it's not a bad first outing for "Cap's Kooky Quartet". For me, the dramatic tension between Captain America and the other would-be alpha-males in the team was more interesting than the rather lame and un-menacing Mole Man. This scenario would continue to play out over the next few stories, with Stan getting more of a grip on where he wanted to go with the book with each passing issue.
And I, for one, preferred Don Heck's take on the artwork. Compared to Kirby's solid, dependable style, Heck's seemed a bit more modern and a bit more dynamic. His version of Scarlet Witch was much prettier than Kirby's - we all know that even at the age of eleven, I was very keen on raven-haired bad girls - and he conveyed the speed of Quicksilver (and that of Hawkeye) better than Kirby did. I wasn't mad on Dick Ayers inks on Heck's pencils. I always thought Heck's art needed a lighter touch, and that didn't describe Ayers. But that minor niggle aside, I was one happy Avengers fan.
Avengers 18 (Jul 1965) was another one-off tale with a new - though never to be repeated - villain. Stan trotted out his favourite bad-guys of that era, The Communists, and crafted a story about a small asian nation dominated by communist tyranny in the form of the formidable Commissar.
|Stan Lee uses the quiet opening scene of this issue to give readers more of an insight into Captain America's fears and dreams. Later in the series Cap's character would be more fully explored by Roy Thomas.|
But all this is forgotten when a call comes in from Radio Free Sin-Cong in South-East Asia, and Cap assembles the other Avengers in a mission to help the oppressed people escape from Communist rule. Not unreasonably, Quicksilver wants to know why a crime-fighting outfit like The Avengers would get embroiled in foreign regime change, and though I never thought of it at the time, Pietro does make a compelling point. Surprisingly, it's Hawkeye who fights Cap's corner, saying that if The Avengers oppose injustice, "Well, when liberty's threatened, justice goes down the drain."
So, The Avengers fly straight to Sin-Cong and straight into a trap. Sticking strongly to his theme for this incarnation of his super-team, Stan has his heroes separated and The Scarlet Witch captured. This allows the villainous communist ruler of Sin-Cong, The Commissar, to force Cap, Hawkeye and Quicksilver to fight him one by one. Of course, singlely, each in turn is defeated. But Cap turns the tables when he tells The Commissar that he hasn't truly beaten The Avengers until he can defeat The Scarlet Witch.
Of course, Cap has a plan, and instructs Wanda to concentrate on the Commissar's assistant, Major Hoy. And strangely, the words in the caption box on the last panel of page 19 have always stuck in my head over the decades since I read this book: "Gracefully backing away from the onrushing giant, Wanda softly murmurs ..." Maybe it was because the idea that feminine gentleness can prevail in the face of male brute force was pretty new at the time, especially in comics, that it struck me as such an unusual turn of phrase. Whatever the reason, this firmly established Scarlet Witch as a vital and powerful member of the team.
Of all the seven stories that make up this period of The Avengers, the tale of the Swordsman in Avengers 19 and 20 (Aug & Sep 1965) is probably my favourite. It crystalised the teamsmanship of the group and revealed the untold origin of Hawkeye, going some way to explaining why he wasn't fond of taking orders.
The Swordsman tries to join The Avengers pretty much the same way that Hawkeye did ... he just breaks into the Avengers Mansion and waits till someone challenges him. In this case, it's Pietro and Wanda. After a brief battle, it's Wanda that wins the day and knocks the intruder unconscious. Cap runs a check on Swordsman and discovers he's a wanted criminal in several jurisdictions around the world. Moments later the Swordsman escapes, and when Cap tells Hawkeye about their unexpected visitor, it seems that Hawkeye knows the intruder ... very well, as it turns out.
Also progressed this issue is the sub-plot about Cap trying to join Nick Fury's counter-intelligence organisation, named by Stan in one of the footnotes as "S.H.I.E.L.D.", though it's apparent that Cap still doesn't know too much about it. And it's this that allows The Swordsman to lay a trap for Captain America, via the coincidental interference of HYDRA agents.
The memorable cliffhanger for this issue has a bound and helpless Captain America made to "walk the plank" by the swashbuckling Swordsman ... then launching himself into space to prevent the remaining Avengers surrendering. It's a pretty awesome example of self-sacrifice and confidence in one's team-mates that had me literally open-mouthed with astonishment back in that autumn of 1965 ... but that was nothing to how I felt when I saw how Cap got out of the death-trap just a month later.
Within a split-second of Cap's jump, the remaining Avengers take action ... in a fast-paced sequence, Quicksilver uses his super-speed to slow Cap's fall, Hawkeye cuts Cap's bonds with a well-placed arrow and Scarlet Witch causes a girder to fall beneath Cap so he can land on it, still dozens of storeys above street level. It's a tour-de-force action sequence, worthy of Kirby at his best, but pulled off spectacularly by Stan Lee and Don Heck. Of course, within a few pages, Hawkeye and Quicksilver would be back to bickering again ... it's too good a dramatic device to end with just one rescue.
Then Stan adds a strange twist. Just as The Avengers are about to capture The Swordsman, he shimmers and disappears, snatched away by The Mandarin. The arch-villain adds some technology to The Swordsman's sword and using a holographic projection of Iron Man, fools The Avengers into accepting Swordsman as a member, his mission - to plant a bomb that will destroy The Avengers.
|The Swordsman demonstrates he's not all bad, when he double-crosses The Mandarin - probably not the smartest idea - and tries to disable the explosive device he's already set in the Mansion.|
Though there would be other great adventures in this run - as well as a few surprises - this story arc was, for me, the period's finest hour. Even so, the next chapter was pretty good, too, featuring the return of an old foe and the introduction of another longtime Marvel villain.
|Cover art on these two issues was by Jack Kirby and Wally Wood. On Avengers 22, the floating heads - a longstanding Jack Kirby trademark - were actually paste-ups: Hawkeye from Suspense 57 and Wanda and Pietro from Strange Tales 128.|
Issue 21 opens with Hawkeye once again losing his temper after being told what to do by Captain America. Just as the whole thing is about to dissolve into a pitch-battle between the two, Quicksilver intervenes and gives Cap a dressing down for not acting more like a leader. We then cut-away to Baron Zemo's South American hideaway. One of his henchmen, Erik Josten, Injured and down to his last ammunition, is digging his way into Zemo's underground lab. There he finds the equipment Zemo used to create Wonder Man, back in Avengers 9 (Oct 1964), a year earlier. Watching from afar is The Enchantress and, seeing an opportunity, offers Josten the chance of Wonder Man powers if he'll help her defeat The Avengers. Thus Power Man and The Enchantress embark on a plan to defeat The Avengers without engaging them in direct battle.
|In Avengers 21, the team find themselves on the wrong end of a conspiracy to make them appear as if they've gone rogue. Of course, it's all down to the machinations of the evil Enchantress and her new strong-arm henchman, Power Man.|
Issue 22 picks up the action straightaway, with Hawkeye and Quicksilver both blaming Captain America for their current plight. So bad is the situation that the three newcomers decide to leave and make their own way in the world ... without Cap. And the scene ends with Captain America seemingly giving up the fight and himself leaving the Mansion.
Unable to find any work, the three Avengers take jobs with The Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime, without realising who their new employers really are. But when The Ringmaster reveals his criminal plans, the Avengers give the renegade circus performers a good pasting. Incredibly, when the police arrive, the Ringmaster accuses The Avengers of attacking him and once again, The Avengers are fugitives.
By way of recap, Stan gives us a page that paints a dark picture. The Avengers are hunted fugitives and The Enchantress has won. Iron Man, Thor and Giant Man are too busy to help. The situation really does seem beyond saving ... but in a clever plot twist, Captain America manages to record a confession from Power Man. Then all Heck breaks loose as the three other Avengers show up and turn the tide of the battle. Realising that her revenge on The Avengers has come to nothing, The Enchantress takes her leave ... and Erik Josten has nothing left to fight for.
All through these adventures, Stan has cleverly walked the line between the rivalry of the three alpha male personalities in the team and their almost contradictory underlying loyalty to The Avengers and each other. It's a sort of a return to the themes he was exploring in the earliest issues of Fantastic Four, where he had Reed Richards and Ben Grimm vying for the role of leadership and for the affections of Sue Storm. As the FF evolved, those early ideas faded away. But with no Jack Kirby on The Avengers to influence the direction of the book, Stan had a freer hand to explore some of those inter-team conflicts he'd tried to pursue earlier.
So, the final surprise in Avengers 22 is that after months of carping a criticism - largely coming from Hawkeye, Captain America decides he's had enough. Though the Avengers are now in the clear and are reinstated as heroes in the eyes of the public, Cap tells the rest of the group that he's done with being the team's "straight man" and leaves. Does he really mean it? Probably not, but it was a heckuva cliff-hanger for my 11-year-old self ...
There's still another three adventures to explore in this run of the title, but I'll leave that until next time ... when The Avengers meet Kang (again), Dr Doom and Attuma - three A-list villains that will test the mettle of our heroes even further.
Next: Big things ahead for The Avengers