If, like me, you’re in the midst of a craving for Silver Age Marvel comics drawn by Jack Kirby and you’re perfectly happy with the modern repackaging of that material (which, however you look at it, is far cheaper to buy than the originals) then you’ll know that for the last few years we’ve been going through a golden age of sorts. Marvel’s Masterworks and Omnibus editions have been a god send. High quality repackaging that is still a bit pricey but affordable if the desire is strong in you and you’re prepared to do a bit of saving. In the case of the early Avengers comics, the inevitable Omnibus edition (thanks to the upcoming movie) will only feature a tiny minority of stories drawn by The King, as he only seems to have a drawn the first few issues, before being replaced by the less popular Don Heck. Thank the Lord then for Avengers Classic, a monthly comic published by Marvel a couple of years ago, that enables the reader, me, to accumulate these brilliantly drawn stories at a very affordable price. (In my case, £3.35 for the set from eBay; that’s less than 30p each!)
Like most Marvel comics published during the sixties, Avengers is great fun. But rather than feel like a team book featuring all of the publisher’s most popular characters, it feels a little like the place where the leftovers go. The main team are pretty cool, but I did find myself wondering why Stan Lee and Kirby didn’t stick Spider-Man in there too. There’s a bit of a disproportionate focus on Thor villains too, especially the Enchantress and Executioner. It doesn’t quite feel like a book in its own right at this stage.
I found myself fascinated by the gender dynamics. Early on, as I mentioned in a previous post, Wasp makes lusty remarks about Thor in front of Ant Man, so is it any wonder that in the next issue, Ant Man has changed his identity to the bigger, stronger and broader Giant Man. One time, during a team meeting, Iron Man refers to the Avengers having four members, presumably excluding the Wasp who is sitting right there. Another time, someone talks about inviting powerless and annoying Rick Jones to join the team, in the same way that The Wasp is a member. The Avengers often seem like a boy’s club who go off and have brawls with other gangs where nobody really gets hurt (most stories end with the villains escaping) and The Wasp, quite rightly, has difficulty taking it seriously. She’s like the girlfriend Ant/Giant Man takes along to every monthly meeting and everyone else is uncomfortable about confronting him about her.
I also got slightly irritated by Captain America. As a kid, I thought his regrets over Bucky’s death seemed really cool, but now I find his whining a bit tedious. In fact, his obsession with his late sidekick and all that time he spends with The Teen Brigade, particularly his favourite Rick Jones, comes across as more than a little creepy. I’m surprised nobody’s contacted social services.
My favourite member of the Avengers is the Hulk who, as all Marvel readers should know, never sticks around for long. (In fact, every Avengers comic published since is a disappointment to me). Is it any wonder when, during a team meeting in issue two, Thor turns to him and says, “Is it necessary for you to attend our meetings clothed in that repulsive manner?” He’s lucky that Hulk doesn’t grab a nearby cactus and spray him with its needles, like he does with iron Man later, or just punch him square in the face, like he does with everyone else.
Each issue of Avengers Classic is backed up by a new strip that elaborates on a moment in the original stories. All of the modern artists have the sense not to try and compete with Kirby at his own game. For example, Michael Avon Oeming provides fully painted art while Juan Doe uses a cartoony/photoshop style. All of them are written in the modern, spacious style which highlights how weighted with dialogue and exposition Stan Lee’s writing is in contrast; so weighted, in fact, that I often found the stories as wearying as I did fun. (I was surprised at how often Lee gets the names of his own characters wrong in the Avengers. In one issue, Bruce Banner is referred to as Bob Banner. In another, Rick Jones is Rick Brown. I love the idea that Lee is so non-precious about his creations, unlike his fans). Art Adams provides the artwork for all of the covers. I like the way he draws classic marvel characters but that’s not going to stop me filing these comics away backwards because the original Kirby covers are reprinted on the rear.
The revelation of Avengers Classic is how wrong I was about Don Heck’s art. Thanks perhaps to modern reproduction it now looks fresh, inky and energetic. In fact, I was so wrong that I’m saddened that the comic ended with issue twelve and didn’t continue to reprint more of his work. There’s a part of me now that thinks Marvel would be better off reprinting old comics on a continuous cycle than commissioning new work featuring their old characters. Just imagine if Avengers Classic had continued into the John Buscema, Neal Adams and early Geroge Perez eras and how great it all would have looked on modern paper.