No one would be more surprised than Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that people were still reading their superhero stories 50 years after they were published. The public is not only reading them, but enjoying slick reprint packages, seeing blockbuster movies based on them, and new Avengers comics are still being published. The Avengers was one the most outright fun Lee/Kirby collaborations, and this Epic Collection reprints issues 1-20, covering years 1963 to 1965 of the title. I’ll tell you right now, it’s a 5-star book.
|Kirby art from Avengers|
Issue #1 is one of the most famous, and expensive, Marvel Comics ever published. It relates how the Avengers; Thor, Iron Man, Giant-Man and the Wasp, come together through the machinations of Thor’s evil half-brother, Loki. Loki tricks the Hulk into a violent rampage and the heroes are all pursuing him separately. They band together to capture him and find out he’s not such a bad guy. Next they decide to form a team, including the Hulk. The lovely and winsome Wasp gives the team their avenging appellation. The Hulk turns out to be a prickly pear and leaves the team to commit more destruction by issue #2. Joined by the Sub-Mariner, another on again/off again hero/villain, they fight the Avengers to somewhat of a standstill for the next two issues. Issue #4 is the game-changer and probably my second-favorite comic book of all time; the reintroduction of Captain America to the Marvel Universe.
|The Avengers thaw Captain America|
When a figure frozen in a block of ice washes up in the Arctic, the Avengers take a submarine to investigate. They defrost Steve Rogers, still in his Cap outfit under his military fatigues. Rogers has been missing since World War II, and instantly joins and becomes the heart of the team. This was the missing piece that made Avengers the jewel in Marvel’s crown. In the next few issues, the Avengers go on to fight Baron Zemo and his henchmen the Masters of Evil; Black Knight and the Radioactive Man. Zemo was responsible for Cap’s “death” in WWII and the real death of his kid partner Bucky. Cap is determined to make him pay and drags the rest of the team out to find him.
With the reintroduction of Cap, Kirby and Lee start a forest fire of concepts, ideas and characters. In issue #7 they introduce Asgardians the Enchantress and her pet killer the Executioner, then in issue #8 the time-travelling villain Kang. Issue #9 is the famous Wonder Man tale, as Zemo grants a dying man super powers, only to force him to kill the Avengers to stay alive. As a moral man, Simon Williams struggles with the decision, only to sacrifice himself for the lives of the team (not to worry, 10 years later he gets better). This is also the issue where Dashin’ Don Heck takes over the art from Kirby. I’ve read that Stan didn’t like Heck’s layouts, so he later had Kirby do them with Heck’s finishes. I can’t say I agree; Heck was different than Kirby but has a dynamic style well-suited to superhero battles.
|Cap vs. Zemo: To the Death!|
In issue #10, Lee and Kirby pit the team against Immortus, a future version of Kang (got it?) and Heck’s art is powerful and effective. Spider-Man stops by in issue #11, or at least a robot doppelganger sent by Kang until the real Spider-Man ... oh, just go read it. These are endlessly fun stories. Avengers #13 introduces Count Nefaria, later part of one of the best Avengers storylines of all time. At the end of the story the Wasp is severely injured and the team tracks down a specialist who saves her in issue #14. Issue #15 brings many storylines to a close as Zemo is finally (and permanently) defeated. Cap didn’t directly cause his violent death, but let’s say he doesn’t lose any sleep over it.
Issue #16 is another game-changer as the exhausted original charter members of the team take a leave of absence and the book is infused with new blood. Captain America leads new members Hawkeye, Quicksilver and his sister the Scarlet Witch, all formerly thought of as villains, in Avengers 2.0. Lee and Kirby were never afraid to change up the membership of the team when they wanted to shake things up. This led to constant new ideas and new relationships to play off each other. They fight together for a few issues (the Mole Man, the Commissar) with Cap and Hawkeye invariably at each other’s throats. The collection ends with the appearance of the Swordsman, a villain who infiltrates the team pretending to be a hero.
|New blood on the team from Avengers #16|
Lee’s characterization of this version of the team is perfect, and pits the sarcasm and mistrust of authority of Hawkeye against the arrogance of Quicksilver and the lack of self-esteem of the Scarlet Witch. It was risky to remove all of the popular A-list heroes from the book, but the risk pays off beautifully as the new, disparate personalities learn to work together. Especially enjoyable is Hawkeye’s endless verbal and physical sparring with Cap over every decision; but as soon as the Swordsman says something negative about Cap, a spitting furious Hawkeye wants to duel to the death. Hawkeye’s love and respect for Cap is overwhelming, he’d just never admit it.
It’s incredibly fun and rewarding to read the origin of comics’ premier superteam. These goofy and disposable superhero stories from a bygone era of Russkie spies and underground despots still manage to resonate with readers today. They may not be as sophisticated as some modern stories, but with their mix of both pure hearted and feet-of-clay heroes, they tend to be much more enjoyable.
Rating: ***** out of 5 stars