Collects The Avengers #25-46 and Annual #1
Comments: Well, here we are in years 3 and 4 of the Avengers title, and things have changed in a variety of ways. A helpful splash page in the included first Annual (curiously scanned from a later reprint rather than the original publication, which does make for clearer pictures) compares the initial team to the current one, and it’s an interesting fit. Gone are the assembled might of Marvel’s incongruous solo properties; in their stead is a more flexible, unified team that makes full use of a flexible supporting cast: Cap is the core member, but Hercules has replaced Thor, Ant Man has grown Giant, and Vision and Scarlet Witch remain full-fledged members, as definitive and integral to the concept as Hank and Jan.
We also see a few significant creator shake-ups, as Roy Thomas begins his role as Stan the Man’s heir in issues #35, and Don Heck is replaced shortly thereafter by John Buscema on art chores, a role he’ll dominate with this team for the next 50 or so issues.
For me the important characteristic of this epoch is the increased role of the female players. Though often captive, Wasp shows her ingenuity and bravery on several occasions. Wanda and Pietro share a bout of faded powers (they assume it has to do with being estranged from their Balkan homeland, though much later this dependence will be revealed as a connection with the mystical and scientific oddities of their birthplace Wundagore mountain), and Goliath also has struggles with his abilities. Most of all, however, the enigmatic Black Widow wavers between mind-controlled attacks on the team, a sense of inherent loyalty to true heroes, the taint of her Soviet past, and a secret double-agent role against her former nation at the urging of Nick Fury that conflicts with her desire to become a full-fledged Avenger. Not to mention to stay Hawkeye’s girlfriend.
Sound familiar? Seems Spider-Woman isn’t the first arachnid character to face divided loyalties when the Avengers call.
Also significant is Goliath’s dilemma: his body overwhelmed by his frequent size-changing, he gets stuck at 10 feet tall! This is really the origin of his later instability and struggles with his miraculous inventions, and is one more means by which Lee and Thomas explore their team’s vulnerabilities in the face of a slew of mostly lesser villains. This batch of foes isn’t quite as iconic as their signature ones shown in vol. 1; instead they each tie into the character dilemmas of the main characters. Alien Ixar and his Ultroids, the Mole Man, the Living Laser, the Mandarin, the Beetle, the Red Guardian, Diablo and Dragon Man. But if the rogues’ gallery isn’t top notch, the interaction and the art are. Heck shines best when inking himself, capturing the angular rhythms that some inkers butcher, but both anatomy and spatial composition really tighten up when Buscema arrives. His Hercules resembles from cinema star Steve Reeves, and all of his male characters have a barrel chest and arms of steel. He also does a great variety of character faces, and his Wasp takes on the wholesomely sexy aspect of Mary Tyler Moore.
The signature image for me in this collection is the splash of #44, “The Valiant Also Die!” Hawkeye and the Widow are trapped in giant tubes as the Red Guardian berates the hotheaded archer. Hawkeye has his back to Natasha, his arm pressing against his tight confines. She’s thrown her hands up in her tube, helplessly watching the verbal sparring between her ex-husband and her current lover. There you have it, Soviet block politics, territorial squabbles and worries about tortured love affairs. The sixties was fun!
The signature line is also the Black Widow’s: [while resisting psychological torture of a very Manchurian Candidate kind] “If I fall—if I fail—the free world may well fall with me!” We've all been there, sister!