Tuesday, January 24, 2017

When the Avengers Reassembled

I remember being disappointed at the big shake-up in the Avengers line-up in issue 16 (May 1965). How ironic it was, as the comic books used to say, to learn from Stan Lee, decades later, that it was only what readers like me had asked for.
 “(U)sually when those things happen it’s because you want to give the book a shot in the arm as far as sales go,” Stan told David Anthony Kraft’s Comics Interview in 1990. “I may have figured, “Maybe it’s getting a little dull. It’s the same thing all the time. Maybe I’ll see if I can try to stimulate more interest by getting new characters.
“And it may also have been … because I was finding it too difficult to seem to be realistic. For example, in his own book, Thor might have been trapped in Asgard somewhere, and yet in the Avengers book, he’s here attending a meeting.
“I seem to remember, I did get mail from a lot of readers about that point, and I felt, ‘Maybe it’s destroying the pseudo-realism of the stories, where a character is dying in one story and in the other story, he’s chairman of the Avengers meeting.’ I think that had a lot to do with it, as a matter of fact.”
Stan paid serious attention to readers’ wishes, as best he could discern them — one of the secrets of Marvel’s early success. But it was clear to me from the first issue that the Avengers, rather than the Fantastic Four, had been intended as Marvel’s direct answer to the Justice League — a team composed of preexisting superheroes who had their own features. So I was disappointed to see that conception change with the 16th issue. Disney Marvel wisely replicated that pattern with the movies, establishing all the separate franchises before combining them into the spectacularly successful Avengers movie series.
But had I paid more attention, I would have seen the advantages to the new line-up of Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver and his sister, the Scarlet Witch. The team was now well balanced in terms of both powers and drama, with dramatic conflicts built right into the mix.
First, the three new members were former criminals, inherently hard to trust (Hawkeye had fought Iron Man, and the siblings had been Magneto’s pawns against the X-Men).
Quicksilver’s temper was as fast as his speed. And Hawkeye both resented and admired Captain America, and was as eager to replace him as a jealous younger brother might be. Over the years, Clint Barton would evolve, naturally and realistically, into a great friend and admirer of Cap. Cap himself, noble as he was, was on the verge of chucking the whole business and going to work fighting Hydra for Nick Fury.
The lack of the raw power of a Thor, a Hulk or an Iron Man made for potentially more suspenseful fights that necessarily relied on Cap’s experience in strategy. Hawkeye brought his supreme skill and versatile trick arrows to the table, and Quicksilver brought his genuinely impressive super speed.
Odd that the lineup change made the Avengers more closely resemble the JLA, in a way, now with their own “Green Arrow” and “Flash.”
The Scarlet Witch was the weak sister of the bunch, literally, with powers that were irritatingly unpredictable and minor. Early Marvel had a regrettable tendency to saddle women with relatively ineffectual abilities — invisibility, shrinking, mild telekinesis and “sort of maybe making something happen” (the Scarlet Witch’s power). They were super-second-class citizens. All that smashing-through-walls stuff was to be left to the men.
A review of those early issues also shows how, with the spotlight off the more powerful members, the title came to function as a Captain America comic in many ways. Some older fans particularly wanted to see at that time (Stan Lee included, presumably).
And — now without a feature of their and therefore without a continuity conflict — Giant-Man and the Wasp would soon return, revamped and streamlined, to provide fresh interest in the ever-shifting and expanding line-up.
That, too, became an angle that gave the Avengers their own distinct identity, as the super-hero team without a fixed membership. They weren’t a family like the FF or a besieged minority like the X-Men. They were a team of crime-fighting champions united solely by their interest in protecting the planet.
All that, and the glorious art of Wally Wood for a time. Wood was as good at portraying pure stalwart power as Jack Kirby. His superheroes always looked as if they were made of some sort of fluid granite.
I didn’t know what I was missing.

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