“And there came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth’s mightiest heroes and heroines found themselves united against a common threat. On that day, the Avengers were born—to fight the foes no single super hero could withstand! Through the years, their roster has prospered, changing many times, their glory has never been denied! Heed the call, then—for now, the Avengers Assemble!”– Monthly prologue inserted in every issue of The Avengers
Most fans know the story behind Marvel Comics’ famous group of superheroes, the Avengers. In the early ’60s Marvel’s rival DC Comics had a huge hit with their own superhero team the Justice League of America (JLA). In a desire to compete with JLA’s strong sales, Marvel publisher Martin Goodman directed editor Stan Lee to put out their own brand of superhero comics like The Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and The X-Men. Thus, the creation of what general readers know as The Marvel Comic Book Universe was in progress. The popular storylines readers love about Marvel hadn’t been written yet, but the Marvel characters were just created and began their journey of adventures while inhabiting a shared Marvel universe. As successful as these comic books were, the company didn’t have an equivalent to the JLA. In other words, a comic book that featured their most popular heroes teaming up against a huge threat.
To remedy this, Stan worked with his long-time collaborator, co-plotter and penciller Jack Kirby to create the Avengers. When Marvel published the first issue of The Avengers Marvel found its equivalent to JLA. Right before the Avengers were created, Marvel had popular heroes like the Hulk, Thor and Iron Man and so it was feasible to do a team-up book since these core members would make a good fit as a team. The comic book was a huge hit with readers because of a formula it followed. The main characters, like the Fantastic Four, didn’t see eye-to-eye with each other. In fact, they fought each other, starting with the very first issue when the Hulk was attacked by the other founding members (it was all part of a ruse engineered by Thor’s wicked step brother Loki). But in the end, the heroes would put aside their differences to battle a force that each of them couldn’t handle alone. What’s more is that these heroes had character flaws, as all heroes from the original Silver Age roster of the Marvel Universe. This contrasted dramatically from the members of the JLA- who were viewed by readers as perfect personalities with no character flaws. Plus, it didn’t hurt that fans loved the famous battle cry “Avengers Assemble!” made by the team.
Enter Captain America
Still, as successful as the book was, Lee and Goodman knew something was missing. There wasn’t anyone who had the ability of keeping the team together; there was no strong leader. They needed someone who had a long-established history to be part of the team. Enter Captain America; co-created in the 1940’s by writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby. Cap’s greatest run at that point, was in the 40’s, when he was popular as a patriotic superhero. But after WWII, sales dwindled for his comic books and he only appeared in comic books occasionally during the 1950s. His return to the Marvel Universe in issue 4 of The Avengers is not just a pivotal moment in Avengers history but in comic book history as well. This was because he is a pop icon who symbolized what was best about America and his heroics dated back to World War II.
His induction into the team changed the tone of The Avengers, too. The stories had more depth and introduced a fish-out-of-water element. What also became apparent is that Captain America was a natural leader and he helped usher in the next important change to the title.
Somewhat of a hallmark today for The Avengers is the title’s ever-changing lineup. Lee realized that it was difficult to have so many popular characters in The Avengers while they had their own adventures in their own titles. It was hard to keep up with the continuity and in the end might dilute their popularity. So it was decided to remove the popular characters except for Captain America. The question was who would replace the superstars? In The Avengers #16, Captain America needed to bring in new recruits after the core members left the team. They ended up being Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye. These choices were out of the ordinary because at that time, they were more known for being villains. Adding to that dilemma was that Hawkeye’s abrasive attitude served as a perfect foil to true-blue, all-American Captain America. Previously, he would give out orders and no one would question him, but now Hawkeye would do so, which added conflict. This element was a big hit with readers and made the book even more successful and reinforced the winning formula: likeable heroes who bicker, but in the end use teamwork to defeat a common foe.
In fact, TEAMWORK, regardless of who is in current lineup, is the main theme of The Avengers. And this is a team that may as well be an army. If we place all the Marvel characters who served as an Avenger into one room, it would look like a small army. Fans love the Avengers, and at a certain point, most of the original Marvel characters by now have served as an Avenger.
Changing the lineup on The Avengers #16, so early in the comic book’s run, started this trend with the title that helped make it a success. It gave a dynamic and diverse air to the title, because it allowed for the team to grow and shrink as new characters came and went. With them came new personalities and combinations that kept the title fresh. The other notable first appearances during Marvel’s Silver Age is the first appearance of Wonder Man (appearing as a villain in issue #9), the Vision (issue #57), Yellowjacket (a disguised, schizophrenic Hank Pym, issue #59), and one of the greatest fan-favorite Avengers supervillian: Ultron (issue #54).
Artists & Writers Enable The Avengers To Evolve
Credit for the title’s success has to go to editor and writer Stan Lee and initial artist/ co-plotter Jack Kirby. But other artists like Don Heck and John Buscema should also be applauded for their contributions to the early Avengers issues. Kirby was the first artist and his pencils were powerful and bold. His co-plotted ideas laid the groundwork for the team dynamic. Poor Heck had a tough act to follow, while he is a respectable artist who turned in solid work, he just wasn’t Kirby, who cast a long shadow. Later with Buscema, however, the title reached new levels artistic greatness thanks to his dramatic layouts. Buscema often drew beautiful women and powerful super heroics. Starting off as someone who would pencil work based on Kirby’s layouts, Buscema’s art followed Kirby’s dynamic style and were full of impact, but added a more realistic touch in terms of anatomy.
Through the years, important writers and artists like Roger Stern, George Perez, John Byrne, David Michelinie and inker Tom Palmer made their own Bronze Age impact on the title. The scope of story lines that were important to the Marvel Universe include the Kree/Skrull War and the more recent Civil War, whose effect is still being felt in the Marvel Universe today. Another personal favorite story arc is “Nights Of Wundagore” in The Avengers #181-187 by Michelinie and Byrne. The brother and sister duo of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch go on a quest to Eastern Europe to discover who their father was-and ultimately, discover their origin. The other Avengers sense something is wrong and go after them. They wind up finding the ruins of the mythical city of Wundagore. In the epic adventure, a possessed Scarlet Witch battles the Avengers and later it’s revealed that Magneto is Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch’s father! This arc is also a prime example of a Bronze Age plot development that formed the current status of the Avengers being overseen and sanctioned by the government (this was explicitly shown in the movie), which added more stress to the team.
Over time, the Avengers have successfully transitioned to other media like animated series (Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes being the best of its kind), toys, a popular online RPG (Avengers Alliance), and of course, the big hit movie The Avengers. Many of these incarnations have been hits because they followed the same basic formula that was outlined earlier of the bickering heroes teaming up to defeat a powerful enemy. They also reinforce the other reason for the title’s success of being flexible with its evolving line up. This formula is also being seen in today’s modern comic books. In fact, the dynamic nature of the group has spawned many different titles, which demonstrates the popularity of Marvel’s greatest super team.
*Note: The above art was done by George Perez, Jack Kirby, John Buscema, and John Byrne