Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Avengers: The Impolite Justice League

You know, it’s a funny thing, as Stan Lee would say. Even as a 9-year-old, I was aware that the Avengers, and not the Fantastic Four, were Marvel’s closest approximation of DC’s Justice League of America.
Like the JLA, the Avengers were a team composed of superheroes who all had their own preexisting features. And Disney-Marvel’s repetition of that pattern in the movies — introducing the team only after their individual film franchises were established — was immensely successful.
Beyond that, however, the Avengers didn’t much resemble the JLA, whose members were polite and so civilized they’d all apparently memorized the periodic table of elements. The Avengers were a rambunctious, uneasy lot, brought together only because the Norse god of evil had managed to easily frame the Hulk for a train wreck.
By the Avengers’ second issue (Nov. 1963), the Hulk was the odd monster out, leaping angrily away after being hurt by the revelation of how much his teammates disliked and distrusted him.
Look at the first two pages of that second issue. There’s no visual tension there — Kirby just shows the superheroes having an ordinary meeting. But Lee supplies the suspense through his hectoring dialogue, and builds toward the theme that a breakup is logical and inevitable.
Having a surly monster on a superhero team was a successful plot device Lee and Kirby had introduced with the Thing. An FF teammate had also angrily quit and flown away. The Human Torch — who might have been mistaken for a monster himself, when you think about it — bolted at the end of the third issue in March 1962. But unlike the Hulk, the Torch returned shortly.
The Hulk — his own comic book title having ended with the 6th issue in March 1963 — was now available to play either protagonist or antagonist as needed in the growing Marvel universe. The Hulk would immediately ally himself with the FF’s own hero-villain, the Submariner. Could the fan-demanded slugfest with the Thing be far off?
The shape-shifting Space Phantom was the issue’s villain. Thor, a late arrival to the confused combat, easily disposed of the Phantom, first by rusting his Iron Man armor with a sudden storm, then by bouncing him into limbo when the Phantom had the temerity to try to imitate not a mere human, but a god!
This, too, was satisfying to me as a 9-year-old. Like Superman, a Norse god should be able to handle most matters by himself.  And let’s not forget that this is the issue in which the Hulk suggests that he “…ain’t in the mood to play Spin the Bottle,” which leaves us with the unsettling thought that the monster sometimes IS in the mood to play Spin the Bottle.

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