Wednesday, April 10, 2019

A Clash Of Patriots! Captain America vs. the Red Guardian

If I were to pick a block of Avengers stories that stand out in my mind as helping the title turn the corner and cement its status as a must-buy (for me at least) while establishing its momentum for the future, it would have to be the nine issues that began in the spring of 1968 and lasted through January of '69, as the team (or what was left of it) began building themselves back into a fighting force after the sudden exits of Hercules, the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and, of all people, Captain America. Yet the Avengers ball originally started rolling for me in the fall of '67*, with a two-part story that was one of my earliest as an Avengers reader and served as an indication to me that the book and its characters might be worth following on a more regular basis.

*The Avengers was one of several Marvel titles I'd been working my way backward through, having only caught the comics bug sometime around 1971.

Aside from the fact that, with Hercules added to their ranks, the Avengers were virtually an unbeatable strike force that could be inserted into any number of situations, both at home and worldwide, writer Roy Thomas is keeping them busy in these issues with a number of developments. There's the continuing mystery of Madame Natasha, the Black Widow, whose formal status as an Avenger is still undecided--now even more so, since she's reported having returned to behind the Bamboo Curtain to once more be in the service of Colonel Ling, her old employer when she was a spy. But Ling has also recruited a Russian agent to be trained as a counterpart to Captain America--Alexi Shostakov, the Red Guardian, though there's an asterisk tucked away in his file that will come as a surprise to Hawkeye.

Yet before we wade into this story's central conflict, we begin with one of Thomas's more questionable developments, one that perhaps no one saw coming.

I'm not sure of the reasoning of taking a running speedster and putting him in the air, no matter how fast and furiously his legs are vibrating to keep him there. And if Quicksilver has never stood out in your mind as having the ability to fly--well, that probably says it all, doesn't it.

At any rate, if memory serves, Pietro's new trick disappeared once he departed the team. As for what else is new with the Avengers, we learn in this story not only the point in time when Janet Van Dyne became so flush with money, but the approximate amount of her total inheritance.

By today's standards, $3 million perhaps isn't much to write home about when one hobnobs in Manhattan. But consider: circa 1966-67, monthly electricity, water, and sewer charges in New York totalled a whopping $11--and so wherever Hank and Jan called home, their bills had to be within that ball park. (The Avengers lucked out, with the Maria Stark Foundation handling their bills and expenses at the mansion.) Also, though Jan was getting an annual $25K stipend from her trust fund, a lot of purchases were already well within her reach. For instance, many items for women's clothing fell under $10, with coats ranging from $26-$65 and street shoes at around $13; a visit to the doctor in N.Y. would set you back $7.50 ($11.50 if it was a house call--yes, a house call!); dental visits were $7.50, eye care $8.50 (glasses around $15); a woman's visit to the salon went for $2.50; a color TV, $22 (with TV repair double that amount--what a racket!); and you paid $1.60 to get in to see a movie. So now, with $3 million in the bank, Jan could live on Easy Street for quite awhile, unless she went overboard with her spending (which sounds like that was going to be the case).

This issue also saw a good deal of space devoted to Hawkeye, who was trying to get a lead on the Black Widow's location. We know that Clint Barton can handle himself well enough in a brawl--but this man enjoys his trade, and there are times he needs to pull out the bow to even the odds.

Meanwhile, in Asia, Col. Ling is attempting to impress a Russian general with the unveiling of one of their own, now trained and outfitted to battle his American counterpart.

And the Red Guardian indeed proves to be impressive when he's unleashed against Hawkeye and Hercules upon their arrival. The Guardian's chances against the likes of Hercules are arguable--and, in the end, moot, as he maneuvers the Olympian into the chamber where tests are being conducted to gauge the effectiveness of the Psychotron, a device which can make its target believe they face any threat that Ling and his scientists plant within their mind.

While in facing the Guardian, Hawkeye is confronted with a revelation that renders his reunion with Madame Natasha almost bittersweet.

Yet help is on the way whether our marksman wants it or not, as the remaining Avengers prepare to jet to their rescue--with their rallying cry** leading the way to part 2 of this story.

**We have to assume that the Avengers' battle cry is shouted by a single individual with the others following, rather than what it looks like here--otherwise we'd have the impression that five people breaking into the cry all at once is a ritual that's encouraged somewhere in their by-laws (probably under "Team Spirit").

But how is it that the Psychotron has the potential to allow the forces of Ling and Gen. Brushov to defeat the countries of the entire world? Ling appears to have it all figured out, if he can count on Brushov's cooperation.

Unlike the powers of Mastermind, Mirage, Mysterio, or other such image-inducing techniques that can be "seen through," the Psychotron is apparently designed to project such episodes directly into the mind (something Mastermind was only able to achieve with technology borrowed from the Hellfire Club's White Queen)--which makes resistance unlikely since, to the victim, they're virtually as helpless as anyone who is locked in a dream scenario or a nightmare. As world-conquest schemes go, it's not a bad one; only Hydra and a handful of others have exercised the kind of patience and planning that we've seen demonstrated with this project.

Of course, its success might hinge on whether any Avengers show up on their doorstep.

Though the Avengers are doing reasonably well with what they have, if you were to add Hercules and Hawkeye to their strike you'd have yourself a party. Yet while Hercules has been effectively neutralized in the complex below, Hawkeye has managed to escape and races to track the Widow, currently in the company of Ling, Brushov, and the Guardian. Above ground, however, Captain America has been targeted while initiating a search of his own--and you can guess in whose company he ends up in.

While Cap appears to be on the ropes, we rejoin the rest of the Avengers, where a large target like Goliath has understandably drawn the bulk of the attacks launched by Ling's forces. Fortunately, the Avengers are adept at applying teamwork (at least when they're allowed to)--and it seems Quicksilver is pulling all sorts of new abilities out of his pockets today.

As for Cap, the Guardian receives ample proof that his opponent is ready and willing to go hand-to-hand with him any time, any place. But the Guardian's sponsor isn't confident that the Guardian can carry the day, and acts accordingly. Unknown to Ling, it's a decision that will lead to the end of this conflict--in part because he has midjudged the loyalties of his high-profile agent.

All too quickly, the tide turns in the Avengers' favor. The Widow's strike has effectively damaged the Psychotron, thus allowing Hercules to burst free of the test chamber--while Ling's misdirected shot has turned the complex into a near-inferno. Yet it will be the Guardian's final act which leads to Ling sealing the doom of this entire project.

Following their departure, the Avengers rush the Widow to hospital care in Hawaii, where she recovers and reveals the nature of her assignment as well as the deception that led to Alexi's conscription and her own training as the Black Widow. All things considered, it was a tidy ending to a story that took the reader on quite a roller coaster ride, in addition to presenting us with an intriguing character who was designed and trained to be a match for Captain America.

The Avengers #s 43-44

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: George Bell and Vince Colletta
Letterer: Jerry Mann and Sam Rosen


dbutler16 said...

It’s been years since I’ve read this (and that in the Essential Avengers collection) but this does seem a very good, solid two parter.

According to a government website, $3,000,000 in January 1966 = $23,846,792.45 in February 2019. That’s a pretty good chunk of change, though for some reason I’d figured Jan’s net worth even more than that. Of course, Mr. Wallaby never finished his sentence. I would assume he was just going to say 3 million dollars, not something like 3 million dollars per year.

Red Guardian’s belt disc damaged Cap’s shield? Was Cap’s shield not yet indestructible at this point? I love the way Cap refers to himself in the third person in a thought balloon.

Comicsfan said...

dbutler, I'm so glad you included the "conversion" figure that puts Jan's full inheritance into perspective--that's quite an eye-opener in regard to her fortune, isn't it? (And it can now be called that, no doubt.) As for Cap's shield, you raise a good point--perhaps all the Guardian really meant was that his weapon blunted Cap's shield sufficiently so that it lost the momentum needed to bring it full circle, as it were; or maybe the Guardian read this prior post and figured he had a decent shot of doing real damage to it.

Donald G said...

A color TV in 1967 cost significantly more than $22.00. In 1967, a 20 inch color TV could, and often did, cost upward of $400.

Comicsfan said...

Quite right, Donald, thanks for the correction. (Gee, my eyes must have skirted the wrong line!)

Anonymous said...

I've got this reprint but haven't seen it in years.
I forgot about that purple death-machine with the treads and the claws!
"Destroy the Avengers!"
Pretty cool, but not up to par with the Murder Module or the Quintronic Man.
The Soviets were years behind us in human-piloted killer robots.


Comicsfan said...

Probably because they didn't have "Thunderbolt" Ross or Nick Fury telling their R&D people to shape up, M.P. ;)