Avenging The Fantastic, Part 13: The Black Widow Goes Solo (Briefly)!

Continuing the read-through of as many Avengers and Fantastic Four–related Marvel comics as possible!

Books Read

Fantastic Four #94-104; Avengers #73-83; Captain America #121-133, Captain America and the Falcon #134; Iron Man #21-32; Incredible Hulk #125-134; Thor #172-181; Amazing Adventures (starring Black Widow) #1-4; years: 1970-71

The Revolving Door of Avengers Mansion

Yellowjacket and Wasp are out so Hank Pym can do science for the government, but Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are back, thus filling the Avengers’ quota of unhealthy relationships. And then the Vision abruptly leaves shortly later…and returns almost immediately.

Iron_Man_Vol_1_21The Best of This Bunch – Iron Man #21-22

Archie Goodwin’s solid run on Iron Man continues with a tale of Tony Stark trying to quit his superhero life…and realizing he can’t. The story features tropes that have become too commonplace these days—a replacement for the hero, a replacement for an old villain, and the death of a romantic interest. But these tropes were fresher in 1970 and, in this particular instance, well-handled.

Iron-willed boxer and all-around decent guy Eddie March makes for a likeable potential Iron Man, though he has a medical condition of his own that cuts his super-heroic career short. Surprisingly, he survives the tale, but Janice Cord’s death comes out of nowhere.

Janice had been portrayed as a potential girlfriend for Tony Stark for the past twenty issues or so. Now, after an experimental medical procedure leaves Tony Stark’s heart healthy enough for daily life but not necessarily superhero life, he decides to pursue a normal relationship and pass the Iron Man armor onto a worthy successor.

However, Janice hasn’t sprung to life as a particularly memorable or compelling character…so she must die, naturally. In the story’s defense, back in these days, any character who lasted beyond his or her first or second appearance wasn’t likely to die ever. So at the time, this was a somewhat bold story decision on Goodwin’s part, even though to modern sensibilities, the automatic reaction tends to be, “Ugh, another woman killed to provide motivation for the male hero?”

Goodwin’s run ends several issues later, and the drop in quality is steep.

Cap motorcycleCap saves Woodstock! – Captain America #128

He saves it from a misguided gang of bikers. A sanitized version of Woodstock, anyway.

But first, Cap buys a motorcycle! And a cop pulls Steve Rogers over for riding it without a helmet, leading to this scintillating exchange: “Where’s your helmet, Mac?” “Helmet? I—I didn’t even think of it!” “That’s your hard luck! We’ve got no use for you souped-up hotshots here anyway! So get off that cycle! I’m running you in!” And Cap goes to jail—because the cop believes him to be associated with a gang of law-breaking bikers, not just for the helmet. Not really a ton of just cause in any case.

Also, the issue depicts…yet again…the flashback scene where Bucky dies. But in earlier versions, Cap and Bucky are shown wearing Army fatigues, and this time, they’re dressed in costume. A couple of captions address this inconsistency. The first explains that Cap’s memory is embellishing the details, and the second admits that the Marvel crew really just goofed so they came up with this B.S. explanation because they thought it sounded better. When working on a character like Captain America, you can only be honest.

Iron_Man_Vol_1_25Iron Man vs. Pollution! – Iron Man #25

Tony Stark is an environmentally conscientious business owner. Alas, not all his employees hold such lofty concerns. One of his project managers goes a little too gung-ho and creates this super-solar-power converter, but he cuts corners (and lots of trees!) in doing so, leading to environmental devastation on the island his crew was working on.

Naturally, in the classic Marvel tradition, this results in Namor the Sub-Mariner fighting Iron Man—and then, after the misunderstanding is resolved, Namor and Iron Man teaming up to save the day by creating a tidal wave that washes over the island (because that’s how you fight air pollution?).

The issue ends with the preachification of Tony Stark, as he warns his businessmen peers about the environmental risks of their work. The calamity that befell Stark’s island “could happen on a global scale within the next ten to thirty years!” he says. “We’re starting late, but if we all work together—”

Then he’s cut off by greedy businessmen who are more interested in their bottom lines and “can’t waste … time on theories!”

“Besides…who knows what will really happen in ten or thirty years?” one guy says. “You shouldn’t let the island business upset you…things’ll work out! We’ve got plenty of time!”

The ending is meant to be ominous, and the message that we have to take care of the environment will always be a valid one. However, like all other doomsday predictions, Stark’s falls short of reality. But give credit to Stark for trying to appeal to entrepreneurs rather than legislators.

Fantastic_Four_Vol_1_100The Fantastic Four vs. Everyone! – Fantastic Four #100

The Fantastic Four make it to their 100th anniversary issue, and to mark the special occasion, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby trot out facsimiles of the team’s major enemies for twenty pages of nonstop, nonsensical action!

It would be nice to say this milestone issue is something special, especially given that it comes so close to the conclusion of Lee and Kirby’s unprecedented 102 consecutive issues of collaborating on the same title, which set a record that wouldn’t be broken until the current century.

Unfortunately, this issue merely demonstrates that it was time for new talent to take over the title. Most of the previous several issues had been rather lacking, and they pale before the bustling imagination demonstrated in the middle part of the Lee/Kirby run. In this issue, the Puppet Master and Mad Thinker create a seemingly endless parade of androids modeled after the FF’s old enemies, and these androids somehow have all the powers and memories of the individuals they’re modeled after. The laws of science tend to be flexible in the FF’s universe, but this defies even old-school comic book logic. And it’s not even in service of any particularly fun action. It’s all kind of meaningless and forgettable. Worst of all, it’s missing the character-driven focus that set this series apart as something special when it debuted.

Nevertheless, ending with a whimper shouldn’t overshadow the wonderful work Lee and Kirby created together in the earlier years. There was a reason Fantastic Four was labeled “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine,” even if the series’ creators didn’t go out on a high note.

Amazing_Adventures_Vol_2_1The Black Widow Strikes—On Her Own! – Amazing Adventures #1-4

First, she was Iron Man’s enemy. Then she was Hawkeye’s girlfriend. Now she’s the star of her own series as a solo superhero. Well, the Black Widow shares Amazing Adventures with an Inhumans feature (which, in the interest of time, I’m not reading). But as she’s got the second half of the book to herself, this marks the first time a Marvel superheroine gets her own ongoing series. It lasts all of eight issues, all of which are only ten pages, but it does offer something different.

The Black Widow faces off against no super-villains in these first four issues. We’re reintroduced to her as a wealthy, bored woman who has turned her back on communism and adopted America as her new home. Craving excitement, she springs into action to help out her housekeeper’s son and winds up befriending a group of Harlem youths who are trying to start a charitable program. The youths illegally occupy a building owned by a corrupt politician—a building they were promised. So, after showing off her impressive fighting abilities against some henchmen, the Widow helps the teens proceed with their program in a legal fashion.

So yeah, it’s different. By the early 1970s, comics were becoming more socially conscious, with some titles pulling their focus away from the larger-than-life melodramatic villains and looking at the plight of the little guy in heavy-handed fashion. DC Comics provided the quintessential example at roughly this same time, Green Lantern/Green Arrow, but the Black Widow’s short-lived series appears to be another vehicle for such stories. She’s well-suited for this street-level role, especially in her pre-Avenger days, post–Communist spy days.

The series deserves credit for diversifying Marvel’s offerings in 1970-71, but it’s nothing extraordinary. However, the art by Gene Colan, beginning in #3, is exceptional.

Meanwhile…

–Reed and Sue Richards’ son finally gets a name: Franklin Benjamin Richards, after Sue’s father and the Thing. That’s what took them multiple weeks of the child’s life to figure out. But they prove far more sensible when it comes to choosing Franklin’s caregiver. They entrust a nice old lady named Agatha Harkness…who happens to be a powerful witch. If you’re the Fantastic Four, that’s just how you roll.

Thor_Vol_1_172–Jane Foster returns in Thor #172. During her time away, she has neither gained a personality nor lost her predilection toward falling for her employer. And her guest appearance occurs in the weakest issue of Thor since she left. Coincidence?

–Captain America, in his #122: “Lucky for me the Scorpion didn’t grab my case! It’s about as close as I’ve ever come to having my secret identity exposed!” Except for that time you revealed your secret identity to the whole world, but that was, what, twenty or thirty issues ago? Plenty of time to forget such a trivial life event.

–In #124, Cap gives Nick Fury an ultimatum—take Sharon Carter off of field duty (for her own good!), or SHIELD no longer gets the help of Captain America. He does this without asking Sharon what she wants, but of course she goes along with it…for about three seconds until she has to dive back into the field to save Cap’s life. And what does she get as thanks? Cap accuses her of breaking her word! Says he’s not sure he can ever trust her again! Cap was a jerk in 1970.

–“What? You’re still talking? Well, Hulk will fix that!” –the Hulk says as he proceeds to smash a robot in classic Hulk fashion, in Incredible Hulk #127

–The Black Panther becomes a teacher…because that’s what all kings need—a second job.

–“It looks like I can no more shed my shield-slinging other self—than Nixon can shed ol’ Spiro!” –naïve Captain America, in #129

–“Who cares about that clown [Captain America]? He’s just not relevant in today’s world!” –random youth in Captain America #130

–“The more we can divide this country, and the more we can stifle dissent…the better it will be for—the Hood!” –an old Nazi foe in CA #130. Some of this stuff could have been written today.

–We witness the first inkling of the future Scarlet Witch/Vision relationship in Avengers #81, when Wanda is touched by the lengths the ostensibly cold android is willing to take to protect her.

–The Falcon officially becomes Captain America’s partner in Cap #133.

–Jack Kirby ends his run on Thor with an Odin Ex Machina, as per usual.

–The cover of Iron Man #27 promises, “Introducing…The Firebrand! The most controversial villain in the history of comic-mags!” How can something be controversial before the public is introduced to it?

–“Meantime, Richards—I ask you to remember one thing—we’ve never lost a war before—and I don’t intend to lose one now!” –Richard Nixon (comic book Nixon anyway), Fantastic Four #104

–“They call him—the Monster of Death! I just hope I live long enough to find out why!!” –Tony Stark, genius, on the cover of Iron Man #30

To Be Continued?

Perhaps. But for now, it’s time for this series to go on hiatus for a while. But I will continue reviewing one good comic book a day here until I’ve completed a full year’s worth of positive reviews.