Avenger fans, assemble! It’s the best year ever for “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”!
Marvel’s premier super-team stars in more than a dozen titles in April, including the massive “Avengers vs. X-Men” crossover. TV cartoons based on The Avengers appear on both the Disney XD and Hub cable channels. Avengers toys and paraphernalia, from Thor hammers to Captain America bottle openers, fill store shelves.
Not to mention the hotly anticipated, star-studded, big-budget Avengers movie, opening May 4. It stars Black Widow, Captain America, Nick Fury, Hawkeye, Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor, brought together by the machinations of Loki, the Norse god of evil.
How much is identical to the comics? That’s a tale in itself.
“There Came a Day, Unlike Any Other …”
The Avengers began on a golf course.
Actually, all of Marvel Comics could be said to arise from a 1961 contest on the links between Jack Liebowitz, co-publisher of National Periodical Publications (the forerunner of today’s DC Entertainment), and Martin Goodman, the publisher of Atlas Comics (which eventually became Marvel Entertainment LLC). This legendary tale quickly involves Stan Lee, who was then the Atlas editor and chief writer (and Goodman’s relative by marriage).
“While playing a game of golf with Martin Goodman, [Liebowitz] let slip he had a hot seller in the Justice League of America,” Joe Simon wrote in his book The Comic Book Makers. “Goodman, always ready to follow a trend, hastily tipped his caddy and rushed back to the office. He ordered Lee to fetch up a superhero group book.”
Goodman suggested reviving Captain America, The Human Torch, and The Sub-Mariner, the company’s three biggest sellers from the Golden Age, who had enjoyed a brief but unsuccessful resurrection in the mid-1950s. But Lee told Roy Thomas in an interview in Comic Book Artist #2 (Sum 98) that he never seriously considered that suggestion. Instead, he teamed with artist and writer Jack Kirby to come up with an entirely new team, The Fantastic Four. And, when The Cosmic Quartet began soaring like a stolen rocketship, Lee and Kirby quickly created a new roster of heroes, all living in a shared reality that came to be known as the Marvel Universe.
By 1963, Goodman’s two-year-old request for a title of super-stars resembling Justice League of America finally became a possibility — and then a reality. Three of the characters on the team in the Avengers movie were also founders in The Avengers #1 (Sep 63): Bruce “Hulk” Banner (who first appeared in Incredible Hulk #1, May 62), Thor (Journey into Mystery #83, Aug 62) and Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Tales of Suspense #39, Mar 63). Their comic-book origins have been streamlined for the silver screen but are similar enough to need no further explanation here.
The Super-Soldier and the Super-Spy
“Wait a minute!” you say. “Where’s Captain America? He’s a founder!”
Well, yes and no.
As all True Believers know, Steve “Captain America” Rogers joined The Avengers in the team’s fourth issue (Mar 64), after being thawed out of an iceberg where he’d been hanging since 1945, following a battle with Baron Zemo. (Actually, Captain America’s Golden Age adventures continued until 1949, and there was that brief revival in 1953-54 mentioned above. Marvel initially ignored all that and eventually explained it away.)
But let’s face it: The Avengers and Captain America are now virtually synonymous. So, despite the Living Legend of World War II not being present for the first three issues, the team has awarded Captain America founder status.
No, that really doesn’t make any sense. You just have to roll with it.
Meanwhile, the movies have streamlined this story, too — with Cap getting frozen in battle with The Red Skull (eschewing Baron Zemo) and with Steve Rogers at ground zero as the team is formed by a one-eyed black espionage agent named Nick Fury. Which, incidentally, is pretty much how The Ultimates, the Avengers of Marvel’s alternate “Ultimate” universe, were formed (in The Ultimates #1-5, Mar-Jul 02).
“Ah,” you say. “Nick Fury. He was around in 1963, as well, wasn’t he? Surely, he helped found The Avengers.”
Nope. Nick Fury was introduced in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1 (Mar 63), which did, indeed, have a cover date that preceded The Avengers #1 — but his series was set in World War II, before Fury lost his left eye. Fury didn’t make it to the Avengers era until a cameo as a still-binocular CIA agent in Fantastic Four #21 (Dec 63). A couple of years later, he returned with the familiar eyepatch in place in Strange Tales #136 (Sep 65), in his best-known role: as director of the counter-espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (which originally stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law Enforcement Division). And, yes, the original Nick Fury was white. (The U.S. military wasn’t integrated during World War II, so African-Americans were a rarity in combat.)
So, unlike the movie’s character, the comic-book Nick Fury has virtually nothing to do with The Avengers. Well, in the “normal” Marvel Universe, that is. As mentioned, the movie takes a page from the Ultimate Universe, where the black Nick Fury forms the team. On the other hand, the Ultimate Nick Fury is a product of the Super-Soldier program, just like Captain America, an element that seems absent in the movies. So Movie-Fury is a sort of combo of the two comic-book Furys.
As is the movie origin of the team. In the Marvel Universe, the team forms to combat Loki. In the Ultimate Universe, they fight off an invasion. In the movie version, as seen in the trailers, the team fights both Loki and an invasion. It’s a cinematic mash-up!
Meanwhile, we still have a few other movie characters to discuss, including Black Widow, Hawkeye, and agents Phil Coulson and Maria Hill of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which, in the movies, stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division).
We can actually dispense with Coulson right away; though popular among movie aficionados (especially for two direct-to-DVD movie shorts), Coulson has never appeared in print comics. The unflappable, efficient, and dry-witted agent has, however, appeared in two Marvel digital comics.
And Agent Hill doesn’t have much of a print history, either. She was introduced in New Avengers #4 (Mar 05), replacing a disgraced Fury as the new director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which in the comic books now stands for Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate). But her career hit a few snags after that: She was demoted to deputy director when Tony “Iron Man” Stark was made director at the conclusion of “Civil War” and was kicked out altogether when Norman Osborn became director after “Secret Invasion” and reformed the organization as H.A.M.M.E.R. (which doesn’t stand for anything). She currently works with various Avengers teams under the command of Steve Rogers.
Hill wasn’t initially much of a fan favorite, since she was as hard-bitten and decisive as Fury but had no connections to the heroes or their respective teams. Her strong personality was interpreted as hostility — a negative, not a plus. But her subsequent actions in life-threatening missions on behalf of Stark and The Avengers has earned her a modicum of respect. What her role in the movie will be is unknown, but her presence in the trailers has earned an unexpected amount of applause.
Meanwhile, back in the 1965 Avengers, changes were afoot.
“Stan Lee has admitted that by this period the intertwined tales of the Marvel Universe were beginning to confuse even him,” wrote Les Daniels in Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics. “Keeping top heroes like Thor active in The Avengers without contradicting information in Thor’s own series was becoming a chore. A changing of the guard was the result for The Avengers and Captain America was leading a motley crew of reformed villains like Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and The Scarlet Witch.”
Which segues us to Hawkeye, initially a wannabe hero who ended up on the wrong side of the law (and Iron Man) in his first appearance (Tales of Suspense #57, Sep 64). What kept him wearing a black hat for a while was that he fell in with bad company: a beautiful Soviet spy named Natasha Romanoff, code-named “Black Widow,” seduced the quiver off him.
There’s not much more to say about Hawkeye, who didn’t even get a civilian name (“Clint Barton”) until The Avengers #64 (May 69). The former carnival trick-arrow marksman was egged into combat with Iron Man a few more times by the Black Widow in Tales of Suspense before chucking it all, reforming, and joining The Avengers (in #16, May 65). In the Ultimate Universe, he is a crack sniper for Fury’s secret, black-ops team of Ultimates, which Fury calls — wait for it — “Avengers.” In the movies, he has a cameo in Thor and will apparently be an Avengers founder.
Deadlier than the male
But Black Widow, as you’d expect about a spy, has a much more complicated history. (Mr. Silver Age details her Silver Age appearances in his column.) Following her departure from The Assemblers in The Avengers #113 (Jul 73), she went bouncing around the Marvel Universe, working for S.H.I.E.L.D., founding the short-lived Champions in Los Angeles, enjoying an even shorter solo series in Amazing Adventures, hanging out briefly with The Defenders, and so forth. She even returned to The Avengers now and again, at least once as leader.
But here’s where the fun begins.
In a series of significant guest spots and mini-series, The Widow’s past has been extended back to a 1928 birth, with her age retarded due to “government treatments” while being trained for espionage in “The Red Room.” So, as it turns out, she has a realllllly long history, making it possible for her to have fought with Captain America in World War II, met Wolverine during various times in his long life, and worked with (and dated) Cap’s World War II partner James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, when he was a hypnotized Soviet agent called The Winter Soldier in the 1950s. In addition, the “Red Room” training has resulted in the idea that Black Widow isn’t simply Natasha’s code name: It’s a title, and there are other Black Widows now and in the past. Also, she is no longer Natasha Romanoff (or Romanov, as it was occasionally spelled) — her name has now been established as Natalia Alianovna Romanova, with “Natasha” as a nickname.
Currently, “Natasha” is back with Bucky (who is again called The Winter Soldier), and the two are black-ops agents once again, this time for the U.S. In the Ultimate Universe, The Widow was an early member of The Ultimates who betrayed the team (and is very dead). In the movie, she’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent — who, from the trailers, looks as if she might mirror her comics counterpart in having a romantic interest in a certain archer.
When titans clash
As noted in the intro, comics shops are currently awash in Avengers titles, including five monthlies: Avengers, Avengers Academy, Avengers Assemble, New Avengers, and Secret Avengers. There are seven more, if you count Avenging Spider-Man (wherein The Web-Spinner teams with a fellow Avenger each issue), Captain America’s two titles, Thor’s two titles, Invincible Iron Man, and Winter Soldier (starring Bucky and Black Widow). The Ultimates is an ongoing Avengers title in that universe, plus various one-shots and mini-series in both the regular and movie continuities at your comics shop now.
But the big news is “Avengers vs. X-Men,” which started in March. The premise is that The Phoenix Force is returning to Earth. The X-Men think The Phoenix Force will save the mutant race, and The Avengers think it will destroy the world. This pits Marvel’s two biggest team franchises in a knock-down, drag-out that will last 13 issues in its own title (including a #0 issue), and six issues of AvX Vs., which Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort said at the “Avengers vs. X-Men” panel at WonderCon (in March 2012) would be virtually 99% fighting, with very little plot.
Given that The X-Men are half of the story, “Avengers vs. X-Men” will slop over into some X-titles, as well, beginning with Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine & The X-Men, and X-Men Legacy. Nova will star in a related story in Marvel’s new Infinite line, as well.
Avengers vs. X-Men will ship twice monthly, so it will end at the same time as AvX Vs. in September. The story is structured in three parts, with John Romita Jr. drawing the first third, Olivier Coipel doing the second, and Adam Kubert wrapping it up.
Marvel Senior Vice President David Gabriel told ICv2.com that the company will mount a huge marketing campaign for “AvX.” “This is the biggest marketing investment that we’ve ever put into a series or an event,” he said. “You’ll see that online, through social media, and there’s going to be a radio and television component, as well.”
Brevoort has said, both at WonderCon and on Twitter, that the story has been in the works since at least “House of M” (which ended in 2005). Avengers über-writer Brian Michael Bendis has said that this is the climax of his tenure on the franchise and that virtually everything he has done since “Avengers: Disassembled” (which ended earlier in 2005) has led to it. When “AvX” is finished, Bendis will leave the Avengers titles to write (unspecified) other things.
And after that? One result revealed at WonderCon is that Carol “Ms. Marvel” Danvers will take on a new role — and receive a new ongoing title — with Captain Marvel #1. Other than that, all Brevoort would say at the WonderCon panel is that there won’t be a reboot resembling DC’s “The New 52” and that things will be “upside down” afterward. And Marvel TV honcho Jeph Loeb added that the story that comes after is even “more amazing.”
Whatever it is, you can imagine that The Avengers will be at the heart of it. From a single title in 1963, it has become Marvel’s largest franchise, eclipsing even the X-Men line. It’s good to be an Avenger — and better still to be an Avengers fan.