As you all well know, I’ve been reading some old avengers comics lately. Not the ones based on the upcoming movie (although those are quite rad), but the era right after Stan Lee got too bored and ran out of ideas to do with the earth’s mightiest heroes all together, so he let their number one fan script the comic.
It cackles with a stupendous energy from issue to issue. From heroes fawning over the amazing feats of each other to quippy editor’s notes sarcastically explaining heroe’s absence from the tails, it really feels like the clubhouse of the marvel universe, where everyone goes when they’re not bogged down by their own bullshit. It is not rare for a comic to open with multiple characters on monitor duty, studying chess moves at one point, or sipping lattes while looking into each other’s eyes in another.
It became something different, though, as the months dragged on. Captain America basically developed post traumatic stress syndrome, and asked, in a bold move, for the Black Panther to become the leader of the avengers.
Henry Pym started taking too much giant serum and went a little crazy, becoming the arrogant hero Yellowjacket who claimed to (very viciously) murder his other identity. He also seduced his victim’s lover and married her. The team introduced an android into their mix, programmed by none other than a terrifying robotic villain Ultron, heedless of the consequence. Hawkeye was forced to reveal his past as a shady lawyer protecting gangsters. Magneto spoke a few choice words to Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch to make them distrust the Avengers.
Basically, the book became not a club house, but a refuge for the characters strutting across the Marvel Universe without their own book. Roy Thomas would use this run to save many Kirby creations from limbo, giving them their second appearance. Crucial caretaking work was happening here, when villains who could just as easily have faded away as “the invisible man” or “3-D man”, were given bad-ass stories that recapped their prior stories (no doubt referring to long sold out comics that only the cool collectors would own).
More than taking care of the past, which Roy Thomas does admirably, he was also taking some new characters into the future. Really, each subplot above deserves its own fawning, appreciative post. I even wrote one about the Black Panther, which was summarily deleted when my mac crashed the first time i turned it on after finishing the haha, Radical album. But, that’s neither here nor there.
The comics crackle with this energy of the moment, bouncing as this alternate version of the universe which publishes it. The Black Panther wishes to assume leadership of the Avengers with little hush, so he conceals his African skin. However, in a two issue arc (an indulgence not often seen at the time) T’Challa uncovers a conspiracy that uses racism to keep the conservative in power. He must even defeat talk show hosts defending the black race in this moment, who offer weak arguments for white men to handsomely and logically defeat. They are seen as part of the conspiracy against the Black Panther.
He ends the issue’s realizing that violence and saving the world against dire, cosmic threats are not how he can best serve his brotherhood. He becomes a teacher at the school instead, and more rarely sits in on meetings. He would go on to star in his excellent solo series in “Jungle Action” (which I may one day write about), but in these avengers comics, he mostly just fades from the scene. At first a vociferous leader of the gang who could save the world by catching the right scent and finding the right alien imposter, Black Panther proved himself as a legitimate hero in his own right, he was publicly unmasked and thrown the vicious arrows of racism, and he decided that he should maybe not spend most of his time as a public figure, instead settling into another secret identity that can teach kids to not become violent later.
It’s the kind of “hey guys, I need to talk” moment that you might get from someone in real life, after they just haven’t been as punctual about hanging out and emotionally distant over a little while. And Roy Thomas’ clubhouse atmosphere of the book makes this an endearing moment of a friend’s honesty.
It’s a gradual and subtle transformation that only the monthly comic book can do. Handling time in a way that resembles reality much more, threads are left dangling over issues at a time, and come to resolutions much later when other characters feel the need to confront the unsaid.
In a particularly brilliant move, one issue even sees the avengers cast out after befriending an ally accused of masterminding an alien invasion. So they leave for a little bit and aren’t seen from again. Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man walk the now lofty halls of Avengers Mansion to find a note of resignation from Jarvis. And a battered vision stumbles in, and collapses. We find out later what had destroyed the Vision, and the oncoming cliffhanger builds from the inactivity we’ve heard the avengers doing right now. An alien invasion has already begun, and our heroes have been hanging around, doing nothing.
It’s all much more lord of the rings than Bazooka Joe, and Roy Thomas proves himself as able to reference Romantic poetry as well as old issues of Fantastic Four. The epilogue of Ultron’s saga sees Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias poem decorating his demise.
Other issues see greek mythology seamlessly woven into Hercules’ story, imself referring to his trip to Hades and how Mephistos has changed the realm since he began to take over as well. Sadly, the comic of Mephisto’s bargain with Hades remains unwritten.
Still another sees feminism given its due, when “The Liberators” take over Avengers Mansion, and proclaim the patriarchy done with.
Later, we find out that the main propagandist behind the feminist march was an evil villain wanting to war with the other sexes, but the issue is more than mockery. In later issues, Wanda remarks to Hank to stop acting like a chauvinist, and Hawkeye/Goliath similarly receives that reprimand.
The most joyful moment of this serial fiction, besides its close relationship to the time it was published, and the implied time its issues have, though, is the cliffhanger and the time readers must wait for the next issue to come out.
And that, dear readers, is a lesson you shall learn now. Until next time, when I scan some amazing Neal Adams artwork!