Continuing the read-through of as many Avengers and Fantastic Four–related Marvel comics as possible!
Fantastic Four #52-55; Thor #131-140; Tales to Astonish (starring the Hulk) #80-91; Strange Tales (starring Nick Fury & SHIELD) #146-149; Tales of Suspense (starring Iron Man and Captain America) #79-88; The Avengers #30-35; years: 1966-67.
Captain America’s arch-foe the Red Skull arrives in the modern era (relative to World War II, anyway) in Tales of Suspense #79, and the story also introduces the Cosmic Cube—known to Marvel Cinematic Universe viewers as the Tesseract.
Marvel gets its first black superhero, the Black Panther, ruler of the African nation Wakanda, in Fantastic Four #52, and the next issue introduces his foe, Ulysses Klaw, who was seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The super-metal vibranium also debuts.
Sif is reintroduced as a skilled warrior, more along the lines of her movie counterpart (though comics Sif is Heimdall’s little sister), in Thor #136.
Future superhero (and future Goliath) Bill Foster first appears as Hank Pym’s lab assistant in Avengers #32.
The Abomination, the monstrous villain of The Incredible Hulk movie, gets his first exposure of gamma radiation in Tales to Astonish #90.
And several other recurring villains debut in this group of issues: the Super-Adaptoid, the Serpent Society, Ego the Living Planet, and the Living Laser, as well as neither-villain-nor-hero the High Evolutionary.
We also experience the first crossover between titles, as Iron Man’s battle against the Sub-Mariner directly continues from Tales of Suspense #80 into Tales to Astonish #82. And thus a trend began, one that has never ended to this very day.
The Revolving Door of Avengers Mansion
Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch abruptly take a break to fix their inexplicably diminishing powers—the effects of which we never see in action, but I suppose someone had to prevent the Avengers from having a stable lineup for more than a few issues. This also allows Goliath to be repeatedly referred to as the most powerful Avenger—even though he has no power aside from being ten feet tall. The team must really miss Thor and Iron Man.
–Jane Foster is finally out of the picture, for a short while at least. Odin, ever crafty, pretends to approve of Thor’s relationship with Jane, but he insists she must become an immortal in order to wed one. Jane is brought to Asgard and given the power of flight—and she quickly reveals herself to be a cowardly wimp who can’t handle Asgardian life.
“…I never dreamed [flying] could be so terrifying—such an alien, unnatural sensation!” Jane! You’re flying! Just enjoy it! Agh!
“I must get out! I must leave—get away—escape this world of fear and madness!” I know they say opposites attract, but this is a little over the top.
The only similarity between comics Jane and Natalie Portman’s character at this point is the attraction to Thor. And neither version of the couple shows a ton of chemistry or any reason for a special bond to form between them—just two pretty people being drawn to each other because the story calls for it.
Odin sends Jane back to Earth and sets her up with a new nursing job. Thor is heartbroken for about two seconds, until he meets Sif for the first time in many years. He’s instantly attracted to her and forgets all about Jane for the next few issues. Typical dude.
“Thou art Sif! The raven-tressed child whom once I dangled upon my knee! But, by my mallet—thou art child no longer!” Okay, that’s not typical. That’s just creepy.
Sif, however, has been in love with Thor since childhood, and her motivation for developing her warrior skills was to impress him.
–Hulk reverts to Bruce Banner in full view of a bunch of people. Seems he’s Hulked himself right out of the secret identity closet.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe gets criticized for having under-developed villains—and for good reason. The Red Skull in the first Captain America movie is a prime example, and looking at his comic book roots, it’s easy to see how that happened (aside from wanting to devote more valuable screen time to characters like Cap and Peggy Carter).
The Red Skull is a stand-in for every wicked Nazi there ever was, and there’s less nuance with Nazis than any other political movement of the past century. We all agree they represented evil. The Red Skull, then, represents pure evil. That can create a powerful obstacle for Captain America to fight, but more a force of nature than a fully-formed character.
Many great villains view themselves as the hero. Not so with the Red Skull. He spells it out himself in Tales of Suspense #80: “So long as evil lives—to muster the forces of bigotry, hatred, and oppression—the fight goes on! So long as men take liberty for granted—so long as they laugh at brotherhood—sneer at honesty—and turn away from faith—so long will the forces of the Red Skull creep ever closer to the final victory!” Yeah, he’s evil and he knows it.
–So we finally have a non-white superhero. This was a huge step for comic books at the time. The Black Panther isn’t merely Marvel’s first black superhero—he’s the first, period. Not the first African-American—he’s the king of a fictitious African nation of Wakanda, which appears primitive on the surface but actually possesses incredibly advanced technology and wealth.
In his first appearance, he invites the Fantastic Four to Wakanda…and promptly proceeds to hunt them. Using a combination of skill and technology, he nearly defeats the FF (and would have, if not for help from the Human Torch’s resourceful college friend Wyatt Wingfoot). And he does so to test his own prowess as he prepares for an impending threat.
His introductory story isn’t all that strong, especially as it comes right after a string of top-notch 1960s FF, but it succeeds in showing the potential of the character—and in showing that a black superhero can be powerful, highly intelligent, and dignified.
To put things in perspective, at the time these issues came out, not all American schools were fully desegregated yet.
The racial diversity also develops with the introduction of Bill Foster, a black scientist, in The Avengers. He’s not a superhero yet, but his day will come. Technically, then, he could qualify as Marvel’s earliest African-American superhero character (the first who would eventually go on to become a superhero, anyway).
–The sexism is rampant as ever, though:
The Wasp in Avengers #34: “If only I understood these things…like a man!” Ugh.
–Hero fights! The Black Panther fights the FF. Iron Man battles the Sub-Mariner. The Thing lashes out against the Silver Surfer.
Maybe that’s why Marvel has underdeveloped villains. The good guys can just fight each other.
This wasn’t an especially strong batch of issues, but the best of the bunch is Thor #136-139, in which a race of trolls wage war against Asgard. It’s not great, but it has some excitement within. And it earns bonus points for giving us Sif and getting the whimpering Jane Foster out of the picture in #136.
Avengers #34-35: Stan Lee’s last issue and Roy Thomas’s first as writer are the two weakest issues of the series thus far in this read-through. In this two-parter, new villain the Living Laser falls in love with the Wasp at first sight. Hijinks ensue. “The ways of women are a mystery to me! But, not so my newly developed laser cannon!” It does have its comedic value, though. Like this brilliant exchange from #34:
“Hank! If I didn’t know better, I’d think he’s using a laser ray!” –Bill Foster
“No! There can’t be any doubt! It is a deadly laser!” –Hank Pym
Pym thought bubble: “If that is a laser beam he’s using—we’re up against the deadliest menace imaginable!”
Yes, Pym, the guy who shoots lasers is so much deadlier than that Galactus fellow who was trying to eat the whole planet last month…or any of the evil Asgardian gods like Loki…or time-travelers with advanced weaponry like Kang…or….
The Quotable Marvel
“You’re not wearing a moustache…and you’ve got wavy hair…so you must be a good guy!” –Goliath (Hank Pym), judging people by their looks in Avengers #30.
“That’s the courage of a free country—any man has a chance to sway us—any man may be heard! And, it’s also our strength—it’s the creed by which we live!” –wise, if preachy, words from Captain America in Avengers #33.
“He almost fought the Tumbler to a standstill before…so he’s gotta be someone to reckon with!” –Hawkeye, in Tales of Suspense #84, because we all know the Tumbler is…wait, who?
“Oh, dear! Can this be one of those avant-garde New York happenings I sometimes read about?” –an old lady asks in Thor #131 as an alien carts an unconscious Thor along in a floating clear case.
“The Mole Man! I’ve fought him once before—with the original Avengers! But, I never thought he would dare attack mankind again!” –Tony Stark, genius, in Tales of Suspense #88.
To Be Continued…
We’ll take a little break to complete the very important task of ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and then we’ll pick up right where we left off.