Monday, July 3, 2023

The Coming Of... The Avengers!


I was just shy of six years old and still a few years off from buying and reading comics on a regular basis when the first issue of The Avengers hit the stands alongside that of The X-Men in the fall of 1963. Eventually I would backtrack and read both stories in reprinted form--but for The Avengers in particular, I've often been curious as to how those comics readers who were becoming more familiar by the month with Marvel's characters reacted to the premiere of this new series. After all, in terms of its burgeoning super-hero line, the company was still in its infancy, with Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man as its only full-fledged title series; Thor, Iron Man, and Ant-Man and the Wasp, on the other hand, were still being handled in the company's "feature" books (respectively, Journey Into Mystery, Tales Of Suspense, and Tales To Astonish), with Thor and Iron Man still being nascent characters fresh out of the gate. With the Sub-Mariner relegated to being an FF foe, that left the Hulk (whose own series bit the dust a few months earlier) as the only remaining recognizable Marvel character of note (thanks to his high-profile appearance in Fantastic Four) available for inclusion in a new team book, which in hindsight seems an absurd choice in light of the character's questionable past and unresolved state of affairs.

A situation glossed over in a deftly worded caption appearing on the issue's splash page:

Which practically begs us to scribble out some of Earth's Greatest Super-Heroes! and replace with new wording: "...The Only Super-Heroes We Have Left To Offer At This Time!" (Which helps to explain why I've never been approached by Marvel to write copy.)

Regardless, the characters who have been selected are the characters we've got--and the result remains nevertheless an intriguing first issue crafted by writer Stan Lee with artists Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers, a story which expertly did its job of making us curious to see more of...

At first glance, the pretext of the Avengers' formation seems as hastily cobbled together as the prospective members themselves. Loki, Thor's evil half-brother, has been exiled to the Isle of Silence--a formality in terms of punishment, given that he retains the power to work his will in secret and regardless of the distance involved. Seething with thoughts of revenge toward Thor, Loki seeks to lure him back to Asgard and bring about his defeat; but first, he must find the means by which he can provoke Thor's human form, Dr. Donald Blake, into changing to Thor. That provocation turns out to be the Hulk, whom he believes can be easily tricked into becoming a dangerous menace.

News travels fast--and soon enough, Rick Jones, who has been sympathetic to the Hulk and remains a trustworthy friend to Bruce Banner, comes across the news and rallies his new Teen Brigade to radio the Fantastic Four (and on the FF's special wavelength, at that--looks like he made a good impression with the team in FF #12) to enlist their aid. But the cunning (and apparently technically adept) Loki is two steps ahead of him, and re-routes the signal to a wavelength that Blake is listening to--and thus Loki's ruse succeeds in bringing forth Thor to meet the threat. But look who else had been tuning in and heeded the call to assist.

In Asgard, Loki devises a deception to separate Thor from the others--and just as he'd hoped, Thor does the math and realizes that his step-brother bears responsibility in this matter and, consequently, departs for Asgard to confront him.

Meanwhile, now being sought by the authorities, the Hulk has decided to lay low as part of an act underneath a circus Big Top, convincing his fellow performers that he's a robot in order to perform his feats of strength. (Wouldn't you have liked to have been present at those introductions, if only to hear this "robot" disclose just where he (it?) came from, and why it wants a job.)

We know that Ant-Man won't remain Ant-Man for long once the team is formed--but for now, this issue needs to make a show of just what he brings to the table for this group that's coming together, and Kirby and Lee do a fair job of making his case. Not only does he informally spearhead the pursuit of the Hulk, but he also effectively coordinates the opening attack against their foe, while he and the Wasp contribute in their own way to keeping the Hulk occupied until Iron Man makes his move.

I don't know if Ant-Man is giving his little friends steroid treatments or something comparable, but these are the most industrious and strongest ants I've ever seen, so much so that maybe they should be considered for Avengers membership. We've seen and will see them:

- Burrow like moles underneath the Hulk to cause the ground to cave in;
- Carry a Hulk-sized steel cylinder up to a height where it can be dropped on him;
- Spread and attach nylon netting over the top of the circus tent to impede the Hulk's leaping departure; and, later,
- Trigger the lead container that traps Loki, and seal its hatch ("tightly!")

(We should bear in mind that, unlike Spider-Man, who has the proportional strength of a spider and can thus perform amazing feats of strength, ants don't have the proportional strength of anything, and even a swarm of them can only accomplish so much in a given amount of time.)

The Hulk, as well, requires his own suspension of disbelief in certain scenes. For instance, once he's netted at the top of the circus tent, he's in mid-air at that point--and so whatever "surge of brute force" he brings to bear to hurl himself any further (along with the entire tent) would require another leap on his part, which isn't possible where he's positioned. His trick during Iron Man's pursuit is another such scene:

With apologies to "Top Gun," the Hulk's Maverick maneuver would likely work if he were in actual flight--but a leaping Hulk has no power to control his descent to the sudden degree we're seeing here. Had his leap actually run its natural course, it would have been obvious to Iron Man rather than coming as a sudden surprise, and giving him the advantage. (The Hulk pulled a similar move when Thor joined Iron Man in pursuing the Hulk shortly after he'd abandoned the Avengers.)

Meanwhile, speaking of Thor, he and Loki have at it on the Isle of Silence, an encounter which Loki has anticipated and presumably prepared well for. But unlike other times where Loki has had reason to believe he could triumph against his half-brother, even the wily tactics of the God of Mischief can only go so far against the God of Thunder.

Given Thor's admission to his fellow Avengers years later, that's quite a statement for him to make at this early date regarding the power of his new mortal comrades in comparison to his own--and even more surprising in light of Lee's treatment of Thor in his own title, in that he was essentially in a class of his own and not exactly reticent about letting his foes know it.

At any rate, his return comes at a time when the Hulk decides to stand his ground against Iron Man, this time in an auto factory where things are more liable to come apart rather than being assembled during this fight. But once the one responsible for the hostilities is made to face the music, an assembly of a different kind will be forged, once Ant-Man and the Wasp make a proposal to the others that would go down in comics history.

All eyes (ours, that is) are likely on the Hulk in the next to last panel, where it appears that the efforts that Lee and Kirby made to establish his origin and (thus far) limited cast of characters, his isolation, and, last but not least, Bruce Banner, are being jettisoned in favor of this new direction for the character. Thinking back, there could be two developments from his cancelled first series which might have served to pave the way for him:  Banner's success in making his own mind dominant when in the Hulk's form (though his influence had steadily decreased by the final issue), and the pardon he receives from the government for defeating the conquering Metal Master. Again, however, we know that the Hulk will be cut loose almost immediately, his future in comics once more thrown into uncertainty until he's shoe-horned into Tales To Astonish as a co-feature at a later date.

I'm not aware of any source that has revealed Lee's thinking on the matter in terms of what his intentions were here and why the about-face with the Hulk, something I halfway expected to find in Lee's Son Of Origins Of Marvel Comics from 1975 but discovered only a throw-away reference to the character's inclusion in the Avengers and nothing more. Perhaps his equally brief reference in Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers Nos. 1-10 is the only inkling we're ever likely to have on the subject:

"...[W]e tossed ol' Greenskin in just for contrast. I felt it would be more interesting to have one member who was somewhat unpredictable, who might serve as a catalyst for future problems and interesting hassles. ... [A]ny group of do-gooders that included a not-so-jolly green giant would never have a dull moment."


Courtesy of Roger Stern, the Hulk receives an encore as part of the original Avengers.


Colin Jones said...

I agree that the inclusion of a dangerous loose cannon like the Hulk in a team was totally absurd (the Defenders was a "non-team" so doesn't count) but when the Avengers movie came along they did it again!

Big Murr said...

A good mental exercise, CF! It's hard to visualize that these characters were all newbies and unknown at one time. It was pretty bold to try a team comic featuring "your favourite and greatest heroes" when most comic book geeks would go "who?"

Sitting here, I'm puzzling why Spider-Man wasn't in the line-up? As you say, he was one of the actual nascent superstars for Marvel. I must have read the why of that in some interview somewhere, but memory fails to dig it up. It would also make a lot more sense for Spidey to seek to join a team like the Avengers over the Fantastic Four.

I agree the Hulk was included, as you suggest, because there wasn't anyone else in the Marvel stable to choose. I wager, though, that Avengers #1 had barely hit the newsstands when the idea of bringing back Captain America came out of a thunderous brainstorm session. "Get that green gorilla out of there! This will work!"

In the Avengers (2012) movie, I never got the impression Nick Fury was looking to recruit the Hulk for his Avengers Initiative. SHIELD stopped keeping a silent watch on Bruce Banner when the Tesseract was stolen. They needed Banner's smarts to find the mystical superweapon. "And when I've found the thing? What then?" "You're in the wind, Doctor."

Comicsfan said...

That they did, Colin, but I think that Banner's presence made the difference there since he made a valid contribution to the team, whereas the Hulk wasn't hanging around to antagonize the others or pick fights with them and could be dealt in when it was time to handle the crisis.

Murray, I think you've probably hit the nail on the head with your theory that the Hulk's exit was likely a result of a light bulb suddenly flickering on in a meeting where Cap was brought up vis-a-vis the Avengers. As for Spider-Man, the fact that he wasn't "approached" (by Lee himself, in this instance) certainly ties in with the times he attempted to join, but came to the conclusion that it wasn't really a good fit for him. (That is, until the New Avengers came along--but as he said at the time, who can say no to Captain America?)

Colin Jones said...

Happy Fourth of July, Comicsfan!

Colin Jones said...

(Here in the UK it's past midnight so it's now July 4th).

Comicsfan said...

Thanks, mate!

RickH said...

Ahhh, the good old days when The Hulk was at his shortest stature. In that last panel he's shorter than Thor. Nowadays he's at least twice the height of him.

Comicsfan said...

Jack Kirby also showed the Hulk to be larger than the Thing (and hunched over, at that), Rick, which comparatively speaking would make the Thing a runt next to Thor and Iron Man. I don't know how to explain that away.