With the Avengers: End Game movie coming out and the focus on the Avengers here at Ghosts of the Stratosphere all week, I thought I’d take an opportunity to provide my take on the History of the Avengers. I’ll put a disclaimer on this now that it’s only my interpretation of the history of the Avengers so I’d be interested in any comments from any other fellow comic book fans out there!
The Avengers have had a long, storied run as one of Marvel’s top books that was never QUITE the top book, until very, very recently. See, back in the 1960s, The Avengers were basically a rip-off of the Justice League of America- a collection of all Marvel’s top-selling solo heroes (Thor, Iron Man, The Hulk, Ant-Man & The Wasp)- but the Fantastic Four was by then dedicated as Marvel’s #1 book, and it was soon followed with Spider-Man. So The Avengers was really just #3 for most of the ’60s, despite having some pretty big villains (the early Masters of Evil, Kang, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the Hulk after he turned on them).
It’s an odd book to look at nowadays, as the team fits together even more oddly than the FF does (The Hulk quit almost immediately- which you’d NEVER see in JLA). It never really “felt” like the Avengers until they thawed Captain America out of the ice to serve as their new leader, which set off a major era in the books. Of course, that was only issue #4, and we were on our way.
It’s a testament to the book’s standing that at one point, ALL the originals left, with Cap sticking in an unproven group of ex-cons in the role. Can you imagine them trying that today? Every new line-up change has tons of fans whining about their favorites missing, and complaining about writer-faves showing up, and here The Avengers pulled one of the biggest roster-switches of all time in the mid-1960s with Cap, Iron Man foe Hawkeye, & background X-Men villains the Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver suddenly showing up as a new, deliberately-weaker team of guys.
But that risky move (while making the Avengers even more of a B-level book) ended up revolutionizing all of those characters, who have since moved on to iconic Avenger status. And this gave the Avengers a status not enjoyed by many other teams- it was the book that CONTAINED some A-list characters, but often made its name using lesser-known C & D-List characters and then MAKING something out of them.
Since Cap, Thor & Iron Man were always busy with their own stories in their own books, this freed up story space for the personal interactions of Hawkeye, Hank Pym (since his own snippet of a book was cancelled) and more. This gave us the best of BOTH worlds, and allowed Marvel to solve the old problem of “nothing in the Main Book ever matters” for the “unchangeable” guys like Thor, who after a point would have his own creative team, doing their own thing- if you give The Avengers at least SOME heroes unique to that book, then you CAN have stories that change things.
The early brawls the team got into would be CLASSIC Silver Age: books in the ’60s would actually re-use villains for months at a time, despite the comics themselves being mostly one-shots. So they’d fight Baron Zemo and his Masters of Evil (taken from the enemies of the respective heroes) one issue, then have to fight them AGAIN an issue later. THEN he’d create a super-powered guy named Wonder Man and fight them AGAIN. They’d also fight The Hulk & The Sub-Mariner, Kang the Conquerer, Thor’s half-brother Loki, and more.
Stan Lee & Jack Kirby left the book pretty early on, but it was the newer creative teams that really set the standard on the book. It was there, with Roy Thomas & John Buscema, that we got new concepts like Ultron, The Vision, The Black Panther (created for the FF book) and more. Several iconic storylines followed- the Kree/Skrull War (with the legendary Neal Adams-drawn “Ant-Man goes into Vision’s comatose body and fights his antibodies” story), etc.
The Avengers met up with The Squadron Supreme (a winking jab at DC’s Justice League), Arkon the Thunderer, and more. The Black Knight & Black Widow joined the team, and they frequently allied with Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell).
Eventually, Steve Englehart soon took over the book, and turned it into The Mantis Story.
By bringing in the villainous Swordsman and his new, mysterious Vietnamese Bug-Hooker, Englehart set off The Celestial Madonna storyline, a multi-part epic that is still talked about today. His obvious Fanwankery over Mantis aside, it was pretty big. Hawkeye saves the Universe (one of the first among many times where ONLY HE can do it), Mantis runs off to have plant-babies, The Swordsman redeems himself, and The Vision & The Scarlet Witch FINALLY hook up after years of tortured relations.
Soon, former X-Man The Beast joins the team with an all-new, fun-loving personality (“he discovered pot”, sez Englehart), acting as a humorous wacky man. George Perez got recognized as the new Avengers artist, and Moondragon also joined the team. In true Marvel standards, she was a giant bitch, thus shaking up the roster and allowing more conflict. Wonder Man would finally be resurrected after constant teases and added to the group, giving it someone who could lose the fight to make Thor look better.
Englehart’s run begat Jim Shooter’s, who set off The Korvac Saga, his own opus about a Cosmically-Powerful Thor villain named Michael Korvac, gaining supreme power and having to be put down. He slays The Avengers & Guardians of the Galaxy, but realizes what he’s done and resurrects them, committing suicide because all of the universe’s Cosmic Powers have awakened to his threat.
Finally reading it decades later, I was a bit confused, and Korvac seems a lot more menacing than Shooter’s sad “oh, he could have been a heroic force if everyone had handled this differently” eulogy, but whatever…
H.P. Gyrich was added to the book, acting as the perfect Obstructive Bureaucrat, pissing everyone off like a good government liaison should. In 1979, Marvel finally admitted to the “open secret” that Magneto was the father of two Avengers, Wanda & Pietro Maximoff. The Vision & Wanda are also married, and Carol Danvers aka Ms. Marvel, officially joins the team.
In the ’80s, Hank Pym would go crazy and slap his wife, and would never live it down, sadly dropping his coolest costume ever. He would largely retire from super-heroics for the decade, despite redeeming himself IN THE SAME STORYLINE (which people forget happened).
Roger Stern would begin his run here, taking over the team for most of the decade, even while Englehart formed The West Coast Avengers, a gathering of some of the “cool” members as Hawkeye split off his own squad. This decade being the start of “Franchising” Marvel’s heroes (we had West Coast Avengers, a Spectacular Spider-Man, X-Factor and New Mutants, and more), it was perhaps inevitable.
This squad would feature Hawkeye, Iron Man (in the rad Silver Centurion armor), Wonder Man, Tigra (formerly The Cat) and Mockingbird, Hawkeye’s wife. It’d soon gather OTHER East Coasters like The Wasp & Scarlet Witch.
Stern’s run was EXCELLENT. He would add Monica Rambeau to the team as Captain Marvel II, and make her his Pet Character, throw NAMOR of all people on the squad (with only a bit of his rambunctious personality intact), and add She-Hulk while putting The Black Knight back on the squad as a generic guy. Hercules would also join, but be beaten up during the classic Under Siege story, which featured Stern gathering a HUGE army of villains together into a new Masters of Evil, while a new Baron Zemo tortured Captain America by burning all of his precious mementos (the only picture of his mother) and torture poor butler Jarvis before his eyes.
THEN the Avengers would have to deal with a bunch of pissed-off Olympians, deal with the paunchy jerk Doctor Druid becoming the new Team Asshole, Namor’s leaving after mercy-killing his poor wife Marrina, and more. Starfox would also join, the team would fight Nebula, and they’d all move to Hydrobase once the Mansion was destroyed by the Masters in Under Siege.
Mark Gruenwald, then Avengers Editor, was happy, but realized a mistake in that they’d unwittingly split up The Trinity of Avengers by removing Iron Man from Cap & Thor, and plunking him on the West Coast. His editorial choices also resulted in Stern’s run coming to an end when Gru as Editor interjected himself and forced Cap back on as team leader instead of Captain Marvel (Stern had recently upgraded her after The Wasp stepped down), resulting in some REALLY dark years for the book.
Walt Simonson and others would take over, but the team would lose traction quickly, with multiple writers taking over. This is a curious time, as since Gru’s unfortunate death NOBODY speaks ill of the man, but clearly the editorial stuff was getting involved here.I will say Gru WOULD, at least, define much of the Avengers’ charter (he’s a HUGE nerd for details and specifics, as anyone who’s read his Official Handbooks would know; I’m much the same).
From there John Byrne, in taking over both books, would uncharacteristically ruin The Vision for years by reverting him to a soulless robot, splitting up his marriage and sending Wanda into the arms of Wonder Man…plus she making her go crazy, which had some repercussions for later.
Finally, as the 80s came to a close, the Acts of Vengeance crossover would come and go, and not have much success. Gilgamesh, Quasar and Sersi would join the team, followed by Rage (who quickly joins The New Warriors). At the same time, The West Coast Avengers would add War Machine, Living Lightning, U.S. Agent, Moon Knight, Firebird, the original Human Torch and a new Spider-Woman in Julia Carpenter. However, it seemed like the Avengers as a group had lost direction.
And with the 90s on the horizon…the worst was yet to come.