Collects Avengers #1-24
Here are the first two fist-pounding years of Marvel’s premiere super-team, collecting a variety of properties from the House of Ideas when pretty much all the ideas were from Stan the Man. They’re fun potboilers, pulpy yarns that freely mix aliens, gods, robots and monsters and pseudoscience with Cold War spy plots. The backdrop is a legacy of World Wars and timely allusions to established territorial rivalries.
It’s fun stuff, if not too deep. In fact, it’s pretty hackneyed and formulaic by today’s standards. The lesser enemies are seen through a sometimes all-too racist lens. The creators’ experience with war comics and romance tales are also evident, in the sixties version of chivalry that finds the dames along for the fun, but needing constant direction to stop them swooning over whichever dreamboat they encounter next.
So, is it any good? Well, not initially, but it gets better. Hulk is a little smarter than “Hulk Smash!” at this point, and his poignant role as a misunderstood man powerless against his own hidden nature is the best bit of characterization amongst the team at first, somewhat overwhelmed by the mystical goings-on in Asgard between Loki, Thor and Odin. Things don’t really take off until they encounter a Sub-Mariner mad for Atlantis, recently awoken from a decades-long daze by the Human Torch in the early days of the Fantastic Four.
But it’s in issue #4, when the Sub-Mariner accidentally leads the team to a frozen Captain America, that the team’s purpose becomes clear. While they’re definitely about protecting innocents from exceptional threats, they have another role within their own ranks: they take in and rehabilitate the alien, the rejected, the forgotten, the mentally ill, the alcoholic and the formerly corrupt. Avengers Mansion ultimately becomes a hostel and safe haven in which the forlorn and the wayward may live up to the best on the team, usually represented by Thor, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark.
In short order their iconic array of foes lines up: Baron Zemo (harboring Axis resentments against Cap still) and his Masters of Evil; the Enchantress and the Executioner, with their human ally Wonder Man; the mad tyrant Kang the Conqueror, with his unlikely mix of feudal imperialsim and futuristic technology. Guest appearances by Spider-man, the X-men and the Fantastic Four welcome this new supergroup to town, in crossovers that must have been a no-brainer when all the hits were coming from one author.
Artistically Kirby was a seasoned pro, but hadn’t yet reached the sci-fi psychedelic heights he would achieve with the FF. Iron Man’s bulky first costume is quickly updated, and Wasp begins her series of endless variations on the letter “W.” Don Heck takes over with #9, but Kirby continues to provide memorable covers, especially #16’s announcement of an all-knew line up (another regular tradition that begins here), and the stunning #20 (where a bound Cap plummets towards his new teammates from an unfinished skyscraper, the Swordsman having just pushed him off). Heck’s work is best in these early days, with some truly lovely female figures especially (and some very human expressions generally), but he’s greatly augmented by the guest inks of Wally Wood and John Romita Sr. in the final four issues. These able pros create solid compositions of light and black shadows, counteracting the sketchy tendencies that are revealed in his work by lesser inkers.
Those latter four issues are probably the most sophisticated of this lot, with the soap opera brought in by the moody Maximoff twins adding a new, timely element of angst to the proceedings. Wanda and Pietro, both haughty and homeless, have a hard time adapting to being team players, as does the anti-authoritarian Hawkeye. But Cap’s faith in his “kooky krew” is the heart and soul of the Avengers, and his choices prove wise ones over the years to come. This book, due to the regular shifts in roster, did establish a built-in way to evolve with the times. The first re-invention recorded in this Essential is a taste of the wealth of stories to come.