Re-Reading Avengers #1-10 from a Contemporary Perspective

In the early 1960s, thanks to Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, Marvel Comics created characters with realistic problems. The Fantastic Four’s Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm argued and fist-fought like brothers. While Batman was rich, high school student Peter Parker struggled to financially support himself and his aunt after his uncle’s death. The Hulk was, in some respects, Bruce Banner’s repressed self-loathing and rage given really big green muscles. Shunned by humans because of their genetic mutations, the X-Men’s adventures are generally considered an exploration of American bigotry. Even super-rich genius Tony Stark battled a life-threatening heart condition and, later, alcoholism. Thor, a literal god, existed for years with a physically challenged human alter ego.

Lee, who co-created these characters and wrote their early storylines, also paid much more careful attention to  narrative continuity than his competitors, thus updating serialized storytelling for a new generation.

But how well have these comics aged? Marvel Masterworks: Avengers #1-10 collects the titular issues in a relatively affordable package, so I recently re-read them for the first time in years.

As adventure stories for an audience of mostly young boys, they hold up pretty well. As artifacts of our culture, they sometimes fail to transcend the problems of their time.

For those who don’t know, the original Avengers—Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man (Hank Pym), the Wasp (Janet Van Dyne), and the Hulk—are accidentally brought together by Loki, when a plan to trap Thor goes awry. In the first ten issues, the Avengers also battle the Space Phantom, Baron Zemo and his Master of Evil, the Sub-Mariner, Kang the Conqueror, Immortus, and the Lava Men. Ant-Man becomes Giant-Man; Captain America joins the team when the Sub-Mariner unknowingly releases Cap from suspended animation; the Hulk leaves; and Iron Man’s armor evolves.

Through it all, the action seldom lapses, and the Avengers’ occasional bickering reminds us that even colorful adventurers can be impatient, even petty.

However, from a storytelling perspective, these issues, which many of us (myself included) often regard as sacred, suffer from problems more mature readers might notice.

For instance, the near-constant action leaves little space for character development. The bulk of these heroes’ growth happens in their individual series. Sometimes, one storyline concludes only for the next one to begin immediately. During lulls, the team separates, leaving no time for the dynamic to deepen or evolve. Though this begins to change in issue #16, when the team’s lineup shuffles, The Avengers initially feels more like a series of set-pieces than an ongoing story.

Lee also eschewed realism in many cases. To call pre-70s comic books “soft-science fiction” would, in most cases, be generous. Wild, sometimes goofy “rays” are responsible for much of the villains’ weaponry, perhaps giving rise to the joke about rays in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Iron Man’s armor is powered by transistors, and if you don’t remember that, the dialogue will remind you, a lot. Thor’s hammer can do pretty much whatever the plot calls for, whether it makes sense or not. We might also wonder how Attila the Hun speaks perfect English and where in history Immortus found Paul Bunyan.

It’s all fun, but much like that action movie you loved when you were ten, you might revisit these issues and notice a lot more cracks than you did before.

Still, they’re adventure stories for kids, right?

Sure, but the Wasp is characterized as flighty (no pun intended) and man-hungry. Avengers #1 waits all the way until page 5, panel seven—the first time we see Ant-Man and the Wasp—for things to get sexist. When Janet insists on accompanying Hank, he says, “I thought you weren’t coming, Jan. I can’t see why you have to stop and powder your nose every time we have a mission.” Because of course she does, right?

In the next panel, Janet accuses Hank of “sound[ing] like a stuffy old bachelor again,” to which he replies, “And I intend to remain that way. Now see if you can’t be quiet long enough for me to activate the double catapult.” So Janet talks too much and wants to trap Hank in marriage. Yet she also drools over “that dreamy Thor” and pretty much any muscular, traditionally handsome man who wanders into view.

You also get the feeling that the Wasp isn’t really considered a full member. If Rick Jones is Captain America’s sidekick, it seems like the Wasp is Giant-Man’s, tolerated at the big table because she can shrink, fly, and fill out a costume. When she speaks, it’s usually to flirt or talk about her makeup or hint that she’d really, really, really like to marry Hank.

In 2019, we know a lot more about how these sorts of images can negatively affect people. But given the advent of second-wave feminism, it’s hard to imagine that Marvel didn’t have some idea that they could do better.

Lee’s early Marvel Comics were often politically progressive—see Spider-Man’s representations of empathy and other-directed action, or environmentalist undertones in stories involving the Sub-Mariner. The Avengers would eventually delve into social problems—Hank Pym’s verbal and physical abuse of the Wasp, federal oversight of private organizations, and so forth. But we don’t see much of that in the first year of the series.

In these issues of The Avengers, some of the best, most human moments involve Captain America. The part about his having been in suspended animation is pure comic-book plotting, but the stories interrogate what such a person would really face—the loss of family and friends, the trauma of feeling out of place, the difficulty in restarting one’s life when you have nothing.

In Cap’s case, he must also face his deep-seeded guilt in having failed to protect Bucky Barnes. Throughout issues #4-10, he wrestles with his conscience in quieter moments and spends much of his time trying to bring Baron Zemo, Bucky’s killer, to justice. Cap cannot help but draw parallels between Bucky and Rick, which leaves him both desperate for connection and petrified of losing another friend.

These sorts of moments are, for a Marvel book, surprisingly sparse in the series’ first ten issues. But when they appear, they are welcome and, for the era and medium, poignant. 1964’s Issue #9, for instance, introduces Wonder Man, a disgraced industrialist blackmailed by Zemo into infiltrating and betraying the Avengers. His eventual change of heart and self-sacrifice mark him as a hero, but it also seems connected to John F. Kennedy’s contemporaneous call for Americans to think less selfishly. As much as I love Avengers #1-10, they aren’t the best representation of the series or of Marvel’s crucial and critical examinations of the kinds of real-world problems readers encounter, in some form, every day. Spider-Man’s Peter Parker, with his romantic entanglements, his inability to make ends meet, his self-made costume and equipment, and his futile attempts to balance his work as a hero with his private life, is much more relatable than the Batman of the Sixties. Working class blind man Matt Murdock seemed much more human than Superman, who was just too godlike and perfect. In these early issues, The Avengers often sacrifices relatability for sheer kineticism. Nevertheless, they remain fun to read and, for the longtime comics nerd, essential.

Brett Riley

Brett Riley is the author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press) and Comanche (Imbrifex Books, September 2020). His short fiction has appeared in journals such as The Baltimore Review, Solstice, f(r)iction, Folio, The Evansville Review, and many others. His nonfiction has appeared in Role Reboot, Wild Violet, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Literary Orphans, Rougarou, and Foliate Oak Magazine. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @brettwrites. He lives in Las Vegas.